Friday, June 22, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 14: The Dzibilchaltún Great Plaza's South and East sides.

Looking west down the stadium-like steps of the Palace. In parts 12 and 13 of my NW Yucatan series, I showed Dzibilchaltún's Temple of the Seven Dolls, and the North and West sides of the Great Plaza containing the Main Pyramid, the temple/residential complex known as Structure 38, and the Standing Temple. In this posting, we'll complete the circuit with a look at the south and east sides of the plaza. To help orient yourself, you might want to refer briefly back to Part 13 for a schematic showing the whole Great Plaza area.  Dzibilchaltún contains a number of features unique among Maya cities. To begin with, it sets the record for the longest continuous occupation: over 2000 years. In this posting we'll see a couple more of those record-setting features.

Edifice 44: The Palace

Edifice 44 (the "Palace") takes up the whole south side of  the plaza. In the site map above, you see a top-down view. The arrow points to the immensely long set of fifteen stairs leading to the top of three stepped platforms. On the top platform is a long series of pillars, which are actually doorways into the now-roofless structure. According to the sign at its base, the whole building is 130 m (420 ft) long, and the steps are the longest to be found in all of Mesoamerica. The 35 doorways at the top level exceed in number any other set of doors to be found in the Maya region. The rectangular structure at the back of the long platform (upper right) contains several rooms of unknown purpose.

The east end of the Palace was built with rounded corners. Such corners are fairly unusual in Maya construction. The only others I have seen are on the Sorcerer's Pyramid at Uxmal. The Palace was built during four different periods of Dzibilchaltún's history, with some sections covered over by successive constructions.

View of the grand staircase looking east. The Palace was in use from the peak of the Classic era well into the Post-Classic (600 AD - 1000 AD). Although archaeologists nicknamed it the Palace, the building appears to have functioned more like a set of stadium seats. From them, hundreds of spectators could view the various religious and political rituals conducted in the Great Plaza. In the foreground is a stone wall from a Colonial-era corral.

The top platform of the Palace has 35 doorways.  All the doorways opened into a single long room, the roof of which is missing and may have been made of perishable materials. In the photo, you are looking directly east. Ancient people sitting on the steps of the Palace (to the left, below the pillars) would have had a spectacular view of processions emerging through the northeast entrance of the Great Plaza, after having traveled along the 400 m length of Sacbe 1 from the Temple of the Seven Dolls (see Part 12).

At the center of the long staircase, near the top, is a small entrance. Had this structure been an actual palace, with residential and/or administrative functions, it would have been full of rooms and hallways. Instead, the huge building contains this single doorway into its interior. This reinforces the impression that its purpose was to provide seating for extravaganzas in the Great Plaza.

The Palace entrance door leads to this hallway. Off the hallway to the right are three doorways opening into small rooms. These may have been for storage of materials related to the rituals in the plaza. Notice the corbel or "false" arch at the end of the hall on the left of the photo. The Maya never mastered the technique of the true arch, which meant that their buildings had to have thick walls and small rooms. Also notice the small objects hanging from the doorways at the upper left of the photo.

Above the doorways at the end of the hall were several hives. The bees (or possibly wasps) were not aggressive, thank goodness, and remained calm while I photographed them. The dark wooden lintel beams on the right do not appear to be original. They were probably placed there by the people who did the restoration work.

The East Side Complex

View of the East Side Complex from the top of the Palace. Because this set of structures is unnamed in any of the literature I have examined, I have dubbed it the "East Side Complex". Partially obscured by a tree is a long low platform with rooms along the top.  The platform is reached by a long staircase with five steps. In the center of the platform is a higher, but narrower, staircase. There are three sets of rooms on top of this platform, with a central cluster containing most of them. Two sets of rooms, identical to each other but smaller than the central group, are sited to the north and south of the center.

Site map of the East Side Complex. At the lower left is the eastern corner of Edifice 44 (the "Palace"). In the center is the complex seen in the previous photo, which--given the number of rooms-- was probably a true palace with residential and/or administrative functions. Above that are the two small temples which will be seen at the end of this posting. Above the small temples, out of sight, is the Main Pyramid, separated from the temples by Sacbe 1, which enters the Great Plaza at the northeast corner. Sacbe 1 is the ancient road that leads to the Temple of the Seven Dolls. These three structures make up the entire east side of the Great Plaza area. Oddly, they are ignored by all literature, either printed or on-line, that I can find relating to Dzibilchaltún's Great Plaza. Even a schematic of the plaza distributed by the Dzibilchaltún museum itself shows only a blank space in this area. The site map above is a detail from the overall Great Plaza site map (see Part 13) located near the Main Pyramid. The East Side Complex itself has no informational sign or site map devoted to its structures.

View of the southern end of the East Side Complex from atop the Palace. At the back of the platform, a set of four doorways leads into a narrow room. Between the doorways and the stairs leading up to the platform is a broad porch area. The year-round warm climate would have allowed various domestic activities to occur in this area, so large interior rooms would not have been necessary.

Closeup of the rooms at the rear of the East Side Complex. Above, you get a better view of the four doorways and the rooms into which they lead. The walls are thick and the rooms are small, indicating that they were probably used mostly for privacy, sleeping, or protection from the occasional rains. An identical set of rooms sits on the northern end of this platform. The eastern end of the Palace, from which I took the previous photo, can be seen in the upper right of the photo above.

View of the central cluster of rooms and its approach staircase. Most of the rooms in the East Side complex were grouped in this area, and it was clearly the most important part of this complex. Given that it faces directly onto the plaza, the East Side Complex was probably the residence of very important members of the elite class, perhaps the family of the ruler himself.

A line of identical doorways opens into of the central cluster of rooms. The rooms were not much bigger than a modern prison cell. The wooden lintels over the doors are part of the reconstruction. In the Yucatan climate, materials such as wood are very perishable.

Another view of two of the central cluster of rooms. These two rooms are divided down the middle by a wall. They were about 4 m (12 ft) long and 1.5-2 m wide (4-6 ft) wide.

Someone blocked a doorway in the East Side Complex. It was not clear to me whether the door had been blocked by the ancient people for some unknown reason, or whether it was filled up by the restoration crew to support the wall.

The East Side Temples

View from the Main Pyramid of the two small temples on the Great Plaza's east side. These temples form the northern section of the East Side Complex. The path you can see crossing diagonally just below the Main Pyramid is part of Sacbe 1 as it enters the northeast corner of the Great Plaza. Not much is left of the nearer temple, just a stone platform about .5 m (1.5 ft) high and probably 7 m X 10 m (20 ft X30 ft) in size. It may have been a sort of dance platform, or there may have once been a structure on top, made of perishable materials.

The larger temple is a rectangle with a nine-step front staircase. Nine was a sacred number to the ancient Maya and temples are often found with that number of stairs leading up to the top platform. For example, the famous Castillo (also known as the Pirámide de Kukulkan) at Chichen Itza is a structure made up of nine stepped platforms. The number nine is closely associated with both the Maya calendar and their nine-step underworld. The top of the temple contains the remains of an ancient altar.

Another view of the altar atop the second temple. The view is to the southwest, with the Palace stairs visible at the upper left of the photo. The people in the background can provide a sense of scale. There was no indication, when we visited, of what god or gods were worshiped on this platform. Like so much of the ancient Maya world, this remains a mystery.

This completes Part 14 of my NW Yucatan series. In the next part, we will conclude our visit to  Dzibilchaltún with a look at the sacred Xlacah Cenote, the Ball Court, and the Colonial-era ruins. I hope you have enjoyed seeing the longest-occupied city in the ancient Mesoamerican world. I appreciate feedback, so if you would like to provide some, either leave your thoughts in 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 respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


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  2. We have always just used Merida for medical care and never really got out to see nearly as much as you did nor delve as deeply as you did. Thank you for the fascinating posts! Now that school is out (as of today) I feel the need for a road trip! :)

  3. I'm not familiar w/ the place and it seems really interesting. But is the only remains left in this place. I'm actually trying ti imagine how it really looks like before.


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