Friday, June 15, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 13, The North and West sides of Dzibilchaltún's Great Plaza

The Main Pyramid, also known as Structure 36. This pyramid is located at the northeast corner of the Great Plaza complex, where Sacbe 1 enters. Sacbe 1 is the 400 m (1312 ft) long limestone road that connects the Great Plaza with the Temple of the Seven Dolls that you saw in the previous posting. The Great Plaza is of an heroic size and contains many fascinating and unique structures around its borders. There are so many that it will take this posting plus two more to show them all. As I always do before beginning a posting, I searched the internet for information about Dzibilchaltún. I was quite disappointed with the result of my efforts. The few websites I found focused on a mere handful of this ancient city's many amazing features. The rest of the site was usually mentioned vaguely in a brief sentence or ignored completely. As a result, most of the information about the structures you will see comes from photos I took of the signs in front of each. When I complete my four postings on Dzibilchaltún, I believe that my presentation will be unique on the internet in showing all the major features, with at least some information on each. Why go to all this trouble? My reasons are that Dzibilchaltún is not only a beautiful site, but also may be the longest continuously occupied city (500 BC-1542 AD) not only in the Maya area but also in all of Mesoamerica.

The Great Plaza

The triple stelae platforms. As you approach the Great Plaza entrance along Sacbe 1, this series of three ceremonial platforms appears on your left. They lie along a north-south axis just outside the plaza behind the row of temples and palaces that make up its east side. The platforms are roughly square and each stands about 1 m (3 ft) high, with  a two-sided stela (upright stone monolith) in the center. The stelae rise to about 1.2 m (4 ft) above their platforms. The flat faces of the stelae are now blank, but they once contained carved stucco designs. These three are among 20 such stelae found at Dzibilchaltún. Had the stucco survived, we might know a great deal more about the ancient city than we do, because similar stelae in other Maya cities usually contain pictures of priest-rulers and Maya hieroglyphs outlining dynastic histories replete with victories and conquests.

Site map of the Great Plaza and its associated structures. The map is oriented so that north is at the top. The Main Pyramid (Structure 36) is located in the upper right corner, facing slightly southwest. Attached to the lower left corner of the pyramid is the long, roughly rectangular Structure 39, which contains a fascinating underground room. To the west of Structure 39 is a rectangular stepped temple. Just to the north of the temple is a residential complex called Structure 38, home of an elite family of considerable importance. On the west side of the plaza is a temple in the shape of a reversed "L". Just south of that temple is an open curve marking the eastern boundary of a large, water-filled, limestone pit called a cenote. Occupying the whole south side of the Great Plaza is Edifice 44, a very long, stepped structure with a row of pillars along the top. The east side of the plaza is made up of a residential palace with a central stairway and three long sets of rooms on top. North of the palace are two more temples which form the southern part of the Sacbe 1 entry point. In the center of the plaza (see arrow) are the remains of some colonial-era structures including a very early 16th Century open-air church and a small stone house. In this posting, we will look at the north and west sides of the plaza. In the next, the south and east sides will be shown. The final posting will cover the cenote and some structures outside the plaza such as the Ball Court, and also the colonial-era structures. For the next couple of postings, you may want to refer back to this map to get your bearings.

Structure 36 & 39: The Main Pyramid and its undergound chamber

The Main Pyramid was built during a crucial historical transition. The Main Pyramid seen above is only partly uncovered. That which can be seen is made up of four square stepped platforms. The top platform stands 9.4 m (30.8 ft) above the ground. There is one grand staircase on the south side facing the plaza. At one time there must have been a temple on top built of perishable materials since no vault stones were found. Archaeologists date this building to between 900 AD and 1000 AD, the transition point between the Terminal Classic and Post-Classic eras. During this period of great turmoil, Classical Maya society was disintegrating. People were abandoning many of the famous cities in Guatemala and the southern Yucatan and moving into the northern area. "Mexicanized" Maya from the Gulf Coast, who had been heavily influenced by the Toltec civilization of Central Mexico, began an invasion of northern Yucatan, eventually conquering many cities in the area, including the city they renamed Chichen Itza.

Schematic of the Main Pyramid and Structure 39. Above you can see a top-down view of the pyramid, as well as the long, low, rectangular building projecting out from its southwest (lower left) side. Structure 39 was built onto the Main Pyramid during the Early Post Classic era (1000 AD-1200 AD), one of the few structures added to Dzibilchaltún during this period. The long rectangular building was originally topped by a double room with a two-columned portico in front and had entrance stairs with balustrades. Because it is so closely associated with the Main Pyramid, the structure may have had a religious function. In later times, Structure 39 appears to have been modified, and it was inhabited through the Late Post Classic era. The most interesting feature of Structure 39, and one of the most intriguing of all Dzibilchaltún, is the small underground room whose entrance is identified by the arrow.

The underground room is reached by a staircase and short hall. Almost immediately, there is a sharp-angled turn to left, forming an inverted "L" shape. After you make the turn, the room in front of you (seen above) is about the size of a small, walk-in closet. At the far end, to the left, is a small alcove. The room is lit by sunlight from an opening made by archaeologists.

Head of a fallen ruler? The carving seen above is one of two broken stelae (designated #18 and #19) embedded into the wall to your right as you enter the chamber. The bas-relief carvings are of richly-dressed men (possibly the same man) of the elite class. The figure above, shown from the neck up, holds a scepter in his right hand, indicating that he may have been a ruler of Dzibilchaltún. The style is pure Classic-era, showing no influence from Mexicanized Maya. Who was this person, and why was his stela broken and used as a wall-support in an underground room?

Lower half of one of the two broken stelae. In his left hand, the figure holds what may be a shield. He wears a sarong-like garment on his lower body and on his calves are leather thongs laced up from sandals (his feet are missing). From a belt around his waist hangs a kind of pouch which extends to his knees. The timing of the construction of Structure 39, along with the breaking of the stelae and their placement, may tell a significant tale in Dzibilchaltún's history. It was common practice among the ancient Maya for a conqueror to smash or otherwise deface the stelae of the ruler he displaced, thus making a very graphic political statement. Both stelae may portray the same ruler, and both have been decapitated, a common form of human sacrifice. The placement of these stelae indicates contempt. They are in an obscure location, and were used as lowly foundation supports. Rather than being placed in its normal upright position, the figure above is prone, a position of submission. The fact that the stelae are in Classic Maya style, and that they were apparently placed here during the period of the Mexicanized Maya conquest of northern Yucatan, indicates that the carvings may have been of the ruler who was on the throne when the outsiders took over. Assuming he wasn't killed in battle, his fate was probably to be sacrificed, possibly by decapitation, in the Great Plaza before the assembled multitudes,

But the story doesn't end there. Upon further examination of the little chamber, I made another intriguing discovery. There is a small alcove at the end of the room, directly opposite the decapitated stelae. The walls of the alcove are blackened by smoke from countless fires. Why would anyone build a fire here, in this obscure and unlikely spot? Clearly it was not the sort of place one would pick for a campsite. There are hundreds of better places around Dzibilchaltún for ordinary cooking fires. This has the hallmarks of a ritual site. The fact that it is directly across from the fallen stelae--there is no other point of interest in the room--indicates a possible relationship. Could priests from the new regime have come here to celebrate the defeat of the fallen ruler? This seems unlikely to me. Such celebrations would have been political statements of triumph, and thus public in nature. They would not have been hidden as these ritual fires clearly were. Perhaps some memory of the glorious Classic past flickered on through the dark ages of the Post Classic period, whose rulers' obsession with death is so evident at Chichen Itza. Could some secret cult have sought to perpetuate these old memories by coming here to light ritual fires to mourn the fall of the leader shown in the stelae, and all he represented? Much of the above is based upon a few facts and some educated speculation on my part. Anyone with factual information that would disprove my conjectures, or with an opposing theory, is welcome to comment.

Structure 38: An Ancient Palace

A site map of Structure 38 reveals a small temple overlooking a residential area. The Structure 38 complex is located just to the north of the long rectangular stepped temple seen in the dotted lines at the bottom of the drawing above. This places it just outside the rim of the Great Plaza, indicating that this was the compound of an elite family of great importance. A small, square, stepped temple occupies the east end of the complex (see arrow), with a broad stairway leading up to its door. On the other three sides of the complex are rectangular structures each containing multiple rooms. The middle area forms a mini-plaza where family activities could be conducted.

The Structure 38 complex, as it looks today. The forest in the background contains many rubble piles from ancient homes and other structures. Dzibilchaltún contains more than 8400 such structures and only a handful, like the one above, have been excavated. The area immediately around the Great Plaza was reserved for the homes of the elite. Moving out in concentric circles, you encounter traces of the more modest dwellings of the common people.

Structure 38's temple. Parts of this temple are still unexcavated. This is one of the oldest vaulted buildings in the ancient city. At one time it was covered with painted and carved stucco. The style of this and the other buildings of Structure 38 show the influence of the Central Mexico civilizations. This was the result of trade rather than conquest, since the complex was built sometime between 600 AD and 800 AD. That period was the height of the Classic era, and centuries before the Mexicanized Maya invasion.

The temple, viewed from the south side. In the foreground are the rooms of one of the residential structures. As you can see, the temple is taller than it appears from the front, due to a greater amount of excavation on this side.

Metates found within Structure 38. These limestone troughs were among several that were found in or around the residential buildings. Metates (may-ta-tays) were used to grind maiz (corn). The roundish object in the larger trough is a mano, the rock used to do the grinding. Metates and manos can still be found in Mexican hardware stores. They are not tourist nicknacks, but functional kitchen implements. This is one of the oldest continuously used technologies on earth, dating back to 7000 BC. In addition to the metates, archaeologists also found various pieces of pottery at Structure 38. However, those pieces were in the Dzibilchaltún museum which was closed for renovation when we visited.

Room directly behind the temple. A low doorway can be glimpsed at the upper left. The rather small and cramped rooms of the ancient Maya cities puzzled me at first. Why go to all the trouble to build these massive structures just to end up with such limited space? One answer has to do with the engineering problems encountered while building with un-reinforced stone, particularly when the concept of the true arch is unknown. Walls must be thick and not too high, leading to small rooms. However, there may be another answer: the climate. Rooms walled with thick stone provide insulation from Yucatan's oppressive heat and, conversely, can hold heat within the room on the few cool days. Finally, the rooms did not need to be big because the climate allows nearly year-round outdoor living. People would use the plazas, patios, and stepped areas of the structures to conduct business, engage in crafts or food processing, or just to lounge around.

A rectangular, four-stepped temple lies a short space to the south of Structure 38. This is the temple outlined with dots seen at the bottom (south) side of the Structure 38 site map. The photo was taken looking south from the Structure 38 temple platform. Just on the other side of the temple shown above is the Great Plaza. The west end of this temple forms the northwest corner of the plaza. There are large staircases on the north and south sides. At one time there may have been a structure built on top made of perishable materials.

The west side of the Great Plaza is formed by this temple structure. My information on this temple comes from my friend Erik, who shares my interest in archaeology and sent me some details from his home in Denmark. Structure 57, seen above, is also known as the Standing Temple and was probably built somewhere between 800-850 AD, the end of the Classic era. The construction shows influence from the Puuc style and is of rough stone blocks covered by a fine limestone plaster. Overall, the work seems superior to that of earlier buildings. The view here is from the top of the temple shown in the previous photo, looking slightly southwest at the northern end of the structure. The Standing Temple is "L" shaped, with the short arm of the L (out of sight above) at the southern end of the temple, extending off to the right. The staircase above has nine steps, a symbolic number in Maya cosmology. They believed that after death a person's soul entered an underworld with nine levels, the lowest of which was Mitnal, ruled by Ah Puch, the God of Death. Visible above, on top of the long arm of the L, are two rooms, each with a doorway facing the Great Plaza. The short arm, which extends west, is topped by another two rooms. These are back to back, divided lengthwise by a wall, and with a doorway facing north and another to the south. As with Structure 38, the forest behind this temple is filled with additional temples, homes, and other structures.

This completes Part 13 of my NW Yucatan series. In the next part we will continue our examination of the Great Plaza structures, including a palace built on a platform that is the longest in all of Mesoamerica. I always welcome feedback, corrections, and--especially in this case--additional information. If you would like to do this, please use the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can reply.

Hasta luego, Jim

1 comment:

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If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim