Monday, May 24, 2021

Calakmul Part 6 of 6: The murals of the Ch'iik Naahb Acropolis show daily life in ancient times

Detail of a mural from Structure 1. One of the better-known of Ch'iik Naanb's murals includes a woman in a diaphanous blue dress helping another woman with a large pot. The murals were found during archeological work on a small pyramid called Structure 1. While murals at other Maya sites depict gods, kings, or nobility, the ones at Ch'iik Naahb are unique in showing commoners pursuing daily activities. 

This posting focuses on Structure 1, of Acropolis Ch'iik Naahb. Most of my information is drawn from two archeological reports. One focuses on the images and the other on the hieroglyphic captions that accompany them. Except for one, all photos and diagrams in this posting come from those two reports. The one exception is the photo of the exterior of Structure 1 as it appears today. The murals are inside the pyramid and were not open to the public when we visited.


Site map of Calakmul showing Acropolis Ch'iik Naahb. The Acropolis is located directly to the north of the Gran Plaza, which I covered earlier in this series. Ch'iik Naahb ("Place of the Water Lily") is one of the ancient names used to describe Calakmul. Archeologists decided to give this label to the acropolis containing Structure 1.

The name Calakmul ("Two Adjacent Mounds") was created by Cyrus Lundell to describe the ruins he found in 1931. On the map above, an arrow points to the location of Structure 1. (Map from Daily Life of the Ancient Maya recorded on murals at Calakmul, by Ramon Carrasco Vargas, et al.)

Another detail from the mural containing the Woman in Blue . The man shown is seated behind the woman with the pot on her head. He is drinking atole, a hot drink based on corn hominy flour. It is still popular all over Mexico. The modern version is flavored with cane sugar, cinnamon vanilla and sometimes includes chocolate or fruit. Atole has the consistency of thick Cream of Wheat cereal.

The drinker wears ear rings and has a scarf on his head. Like all the men depicted in the murals, he is bare-chested. The caption in the upper left translates as "Atole Person". However, this doesn't refer to the drinker but to the women with the pot. Usually, captions accompanying Maya murals provide individual names. However, these only describe roles. Like the focus on common people, this is very unusual in Maya murals.

Layout of Acropolis Ch'iik Naahb. The Acropolis is roughly square and measures about 150m (492ft) per side. In total, it covers approximately 2.5 hectares (6.2 acres). Within its boundaries are 68 structures grouped in 11 clusters, alphabetically labeled as Groups A through I. Cluster I contains the tallest building in the Acropolis, the three-level pyramid called Structure 1. So far, the only detailed information I have been able to find on Acropolis Ch'iik Naahb focuses solely on Structure 1 and its murals. 

There are two sets of murals within the acropolis. The first is in Group A, which forms the southern boundary of Ch'iik Naahb. I did not see or photograph these, but the reports describe aquatic scenes painted along the boundary wall. The second set was found when archeologists tunneled inside Structure 1. The pyramid has a total of six substructures. The murals decorate the corners of the pyramid and sides of the stairs on the fourth substructure, called Sub 1-4. 

Structure 1

Structure 1, as it stands today. This the only photo taken by me in this posting. The pyramid has three-levels, with a broad area on the third level that once contained a temple made from perishable materials. The main staircase (on left) has a disk-shaped altar at its base. What you see above is the reconstruction of the latest version of the structure. It covers the earlier versions, and each of those covers the one previous to it. 

Of the six substructures, the earliest (Sub 1-6) was built approximately 420 AD in the Early Classic period. The five succeeding substructures were all built during the Late Classic (600-900 AD). Ceramic fragments buried in the construction fill allowed a fairly accurate chronology. Structure 1, along with the rest of Group I, seems to have functioned as the religious and administrative center of Acropolis Ch'iik Naahb. The Acropolis may have functioned as a large market or possibly as a site to distribute tribute. 

Schematic of Sub 1-4. This substructure has a square plan measuring 11m (36ft) on a side and 4.7m (15.4ft) tall. The stairways are 5m (16.4ft) wide and are oriented to the four sacred directions. The three-tiered corners between the stairs contain a total of 48 separate scenes, with 39 uncovered as of 2012. The scenes in the southeastern corner are in the best condition, while those in some of the other corners are badly deteriorated. 

Murals of the southeast corner of Sub 1-4. Seen above are four panels from the first and second tiers of the pyramid. In subsequent photos, I will show each of the murals above, which are among the best preserved of the pyramid's images. By analyzing the style of the hieroglyphics, the ceramic fragments, and the scenes themselves, archeologists were able to date Sub 1-4 to between 620-700 AD. This time period was at the height of Calakmul's power.

Layout of the murals. The images were painted on the corner panels of each of the pyramid's three tiers, as well as on the sides of the stairs. Archeologists numbered each image using the system shown. There are spaces for a total of 48 pictures, with 16 on each level and 12 in each of the four corners. By 2012, when the Ramon Carrasco Vargas' report was written, 30 images had been exposed on the first two tiers of the pyramid, with another nine on the third.

The murals of Sub 1-4 were covered over by the subsequent enlargements of the pyramid. Usually, this would have resulted in their destruction. However, the ancient architects seem to have considered the images to be especially important because they took great care to protect them with a layer of mud. They would not be seen again for nearly fourteen hundred years. 

A closer look at the murals

Mural SE-S1 at the lower left of the southeast corner. This is the best-known of all the murals. You may recognize the Woman in Blue and the male drinker from the first two photos. The caption just above the man says "Atole Person", referring to the two women. The four hieroglyphs just behind the Woman in Blue reads "taking off the load". This apparently refers to her removal of the heavy pot from the head of the kneeling woman.

In the murals, the men are bare-chested and wear sarong-type garments around their waists. Usually they wear patterned scarves around their heads. The women are dressed in garments that cover their breasts and extend to mid-calf. Most of the women wear their hair in a kind of ponytail and use red makeup to partially cover their faces. The face of the kneeling woman is entirely red and this may be an attempt to illustrate her exertion. 

Mural SE-S2 shows the "Tamale Person". In this scene, two people are seated cross-legged, facing each other. The woman wears a broad brimmed hat and offers a plate of food to the man, who appears to be eating. In front of the woman is a large basket containing two round glyphs which say "Tamale". The two glyphs above say "Tamale Person", referring to the woman. The pair sit on a platform, under which are three large untranslated glyphs. 

Mural NE-N1 shows another eating scene. This time the man is on the left and faces a woman who offers him a small pot of food. The man wears a plaid head scarf and holds an oval-shaped object in his right hand. His open mouth suggests that he is eating and that the object he holds is food. 

In front of him is a platter containing a large round object with an opening in its top. The object in his hand is the same color as the opening, suggesting that it may have come from there. The glyphs are difficult to translate but may read as either calabaza (pumpkin) or nixtamal (maiz dough). My bet is calabaza, since the reddish color of the object is similar to the interior of a pumpkin.

Mural SE-E2 is captioned "Tobacco Person".  When I first saw this mural, I thought it showed two scribes or artists working on a project. However the archeological analysis (as well as the caption) suggests a very different scene. Tobacco was sometimes used medicinally. When mixed with secretions of the bufo marinus toad, it could also produce hallucinogenic effects. 

The shaman on the right has used a spatula to dip the tobacco- hallucinogen out of the pot he holds in his left hand. He offers it to the man on the left, who is bending over while supporting himself with his hands. He appears to be spitting, or possibly vomiting, since his mouth is open and something is dripping from it. This would suggest the beginning of an hallucinogenic experience.

Detail of Mural SE-E1 shows another scene with atole. There are two figures, but the full mural also contains a woman, out of sight on the right. The person on the left is bare-chested like a man but wears the face paint of a woman and a woman's hat. S/he holds a dipper in the left hand. Liquid pours from the dipper into a wide platter, which is balanced on a large basket. Cradled under the figure's right arm is a large pot, presumably the source of the liquid. 

The man on the right drinks deeply from a blue pot, probably containing the same fluid. He is stylishly attired, with a ring in his left ear and a fancy sarong around his lower body. The caption between the two figures says "Atole Person". An inscription on the rim of the blue pot reads "his atole" indicating that the container belongs to the man on the right. 

Mural EsS-LtE2 shows a porter lugging a large potHis only attire is a loincloth and high-backed sandals. He carries a stout walking staff in his right hand. A tumpline passes across his forehead and extends back to support his burden. With his left hand, he holds the tumpline in place. This ancient method of carrying large objects can still be found in cultures world-wide, including parts of Mexico. 

The large pot on the porter's back is supported by a woven base. It's not clear what is in the pot. However, many of the murals involve food made from maiz, so the pot may contain dried kernels of the grain or possibly even freshly-made atole. Some sort of creature--possibly a possum--sits on the rim of the pot. Whether the creature is pet or a mythical image is unknown.

So, what are the Ch'iik Naahb murals all about? Several aspects make them unique. 1) Many of the key figures are female, an unusual feature in a Maya mural. 2) The captions describe roles rather than individual names, i.e. Atole Person, Tobacco Person, etc. 3) The interactions seem to be transactional, as in a market, rather than social gatherings of family or friends. 

All of this implies a market, with women as the primary sellers and men the buyers. However,  archeologists are still mulling this over. The exact social mechanisms by which goods and services were exchanged in the ancient Maya world are still unclear. It has also been suggested that these scenes illustrate the distribution of tribute collected from Calakmul's many client states.

This completes Part 6 of my Calakmul series and concludes the series itself. I hope you have enjoyed this posting as well as the other five. If so, please leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below or email me directly.

Hasta luego, Jim


Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Calakmul Part 5 of 6: The Gran Plaza's astronomical observatory and the stelae of Structure V

Statue of a Maya shaman. This Late Classical figure was found in a burial at Jaina Island on Yucatan's Caribbean coast. Shamans were priests who had a very high status and performed a variety of functions. One of these was to act as astronomers. In that capacity, they used carefully designed observatories to track the movement of celestial bodies. Over time, the priests became aware of astronomical cycles including equinoxes and the solstices.  

This resulted in their invention of two calendars. A 365-day secular calendar interlocked with their 260-day religious calendar to form a 52 year cycle called the Calendar Round. The purpose was to predict planting and harvesting times, as well as to set the festival dates for their multitude of gods. In the process, shamans invented a mathematical system that included the concept of zero. This  development pre-dated the Persian invention of zero by many centuries. 

In this posting, we'll look at Structures IV, V, and VI. Structures IV and VI occupy the east and west sides of the Gran Plaza. Together, they form a complex astronomical observatory. Structure V divides the north and south part of the Gran Plaza and is adorned with ten different stelae. Their texts include fascinating hints about historical events and personalities. 

Structures IV and VI were used by star-gazing shamans. Standing at the entrance of the temple atop Structure VI (above, left), solstices and equinoxes could be viewed. On those days, ancient astronomers would sight through the fork of a stick to observe the sun as it topped one of the three temples (a, b, or c) on the Structure IV platform across the plaza. All three were carefully aligned to allow these crucial celestial events to be tracked.

It was maiz that made these events so important. Because maiz was economically fundamental to Maya society, it had attained a mystical status. The Maya creation myths and their views on the cosmos were closely intertwined with crop cycles. The ability to correctly predict planting or harvesting times gave the rulers for whom the shamans worked immense power. In the end, crop failures were among the fundamental causes of the Classic Maya civilization's collapse.

Structure VI

Structure VI was constructed in the Pre-Classic period. It stands on the west side of the Gran Plaza. It has three levels with a broad staircase on its eastern side. Stela 22 stands at the bottom of the staircase. At the top is an esplanade containing the remains of a one-story temple. From its central doorway, celestial observations could be made. Together, Structures VI and IV form an "E Group", named after a similar observatory at Uaxactun, another Pre-Classic site. 

Stelae 23 and 24, the white monuments on the esplanade level, once framed the temple's door. The two stelae were added in 702 AD and carry the images of a royal couple. The date coincides with the beginning of the reign of Yuknoom Took K'awiil, so the stelae may very well be dedicated to him and his queen. However, except for the date, the text is too weathered to decipher. (Photo from Latin American Studies

Structure IV

Structure IVb is the central temple on the Structure IV platform. It stands directly across the Gran Plaza from Structure VI and is flanked on the left by IVa and on the right by IVc. Structure IVb went through five construction phases. The earliest was during the Late Pre-Classic while the rest were constructed during the Classic era between 250-900 AD.

The tomb Tuun K'ab' Hix (520-546 AD), looted in ancient times, was discovered within IVb. Eight female skeletons were also found. Two of these had been decapitated, apparently to endow the building with a soul. A total of fourteen stelae have been discovered around Structure IVb. Some of these contain references to events that occurred between late 809 and mid-810 AD. In 809 Calakmul began a century of decline, leading to its abandonment in the tenth century. 

The ruins of Structure IVa, with Stela 8 in front. This temple is the least restored building around the Gran Plaza. When the temple was intact, astronomers standing on Structure VI could sight over IVa's top to determine if the the summer solstice had dawned. That date is important agriculturally because it marks the peak of the rainy season in Yucatan. 

In 721 AD, Yuknoom Took K'awiil erected Stela 8, the largest of the temple's three stelae. Its text refers to an event in 593 AD, involving a ruler named Uneh Chan (Scroll Serpent), who ruled the city of Dzibanche until his death in 611. Uneh Chan was the father of Yuknoom Ch'een II ("Yuknoom the Great") who, in 635, moved the seat of the Kaan Dynasty from Dzibanche to Calakmul. He then ascended the throne as kaloomte' (overlord) in 636. By erecting Stela 8, Yuknoom Took K'awiil appears to have been honoring his great grandfather, Uneh Chan. 

Structure IVc is on the south end of Structure IV's platform. The top of Structure IVc's two-room temple marks the position of the sun as it rises on the winter solstice. That is the shortest day of the year and traditionally ends the Maya secular calendar year. The temple rooms are parallel and aligned north-to-south. They are connected by central doorways that face west.

The temple has three stelae. One of them is mounted in the center of the second step of the broad, west-facing staircase. The other two stand to its left and right at the plaza level and are accompanied by altars in the form of stone disks. IVa and IVc are structurally quite similar, except that IVc is somewhat larger.

Structure V and its stelae

South-facing side of Structure V, showing Stela 28At the end of the Early Classic period, Structure V was converted from a simple temple to the most important stela shrine at Calakmul. In total, ten of these monuments were erected around the building. In the photo,      Stela 29 stands out of sight to the right of Stela 28. The north side of Structure V has a staircase that leads up to a broad esplanade containing Stelae 30 and 31, as well as a two-room temple. 

Stelae 32-37 are located at the Plaza level along the north side. The texts are largely illegible, but carry dates ranging from 657 to 672. This range is significant because Calakmul fought two wars with Tikal during this period. The first was fought in 657, when Calakmul was still ruled by the aging Yuknoom Ch'een II. It was probably his son and heir, Yuknoom Yichak K'ahk' (Claw of Fire), who won that war, as well as a second conflict that began in 672. 

The image on Stela 28 is the wife of the ruler on Stela 29. The female figure's body stands erect, with her head looking to the left toward her mate. She wears an elaborate costume, including a large head dress. Significantly, she stands upon a captive, a sign of domination and military power. Calakmul is unique for its male and female "paired stelae". Female members of the ruling elite seem to have possessed a political status absent in most other Classic Maya cities.

The image of the ruler appears on Stela 29. This monument stands several yards to the right of Stela 28. The image on Stela 29 is more weathered than 28, but the left-profile of a man can still be seen. He looks toward his female partner and, like her, stands upon a captive. They are the ancient Maya world's equivalent to a modern "power couple."

Both stelae carry the date 623 AD. This places them at the beginning of the reign of Tajo'm Uk'ab 'K'ak', of the Kaan Dynasty, who ruled Dzibanche from 622 to 630. Given this coincidence of dates, it likely that the figures are Tajo'm Uk'ab 'K'ak' and his wife. Like Stela 8, these stelae may have been built after the dynastic migration from Dzibanche to Calakmul, in order to show reverence for ancestral figures from the Kaan's place of origin.

The inscriptions on the side of Stela 29 are largely unreadable. Tajo'm Uk'ab 'K'ak' died in 630 AD, and the very next year the name of Kaan ajaw (lord) from Dzibanche is first mentioned in connection with Calakmul. The inscription was found in a distant city and the man's name was Yuknoom Head, another son of Uneh Chan. This would make him the brother, or perhaps half-brother, of Tajo'm Uk'ab 'K'ak'. 

The inscription mentioning Yuknoom Head speaks of his victory in a fratricidal conflict within Dzibanche's dynasty, following the death of Tajo'm Uk'ab 'K'ak'. In the same year, members of Kaan Dynasty began to move from Dzibanche to Calakmul. By 635, the Kaan political takeover was complete and Calakmul was proclaimed as the dynasty's new seat. Then, in 636, a ruler named Yuknoom Ch'een II ascended the throne of Calakmul. 

He became the overlord not only of Calakmul, but of the broadest constellation of city-states ever assembled in the ancient Maya world. Yuknoom Head and Yuknoom Ch'een II may well have been the same person. A new ruler sometimes adopted the name of an illustrious ancestor and Yuknoom Ch'een I had been a famous 5th century ruler of Dzibanche. It is likely that Yuknoom Head re-named himself Yuknoom Ch'een II at his coronation.

This completes Part 5 of my Calakmul series. I hope you have enjoyed it and, if so, you will please leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below or email me directly. 

Hasta luego, Jim






Saturday, May 1, 2021

Calakmul Part 4 of 6: Structures VII and VIII and the north end of the Gran Plaza.

Structure VII stands at the north end of the Gran Plaza. This south-facing pyramid looks down the length of the Plaza toward Structure II, the much larger pyramid at the other end. At the bottom of Structure VII's staircase are five plain stelae. A single staircase leads up to three structures on the top level. This arrangement is called triadic and is an architectural feature dating back to Pre-Classical times. The triad may be symbolic of the three stones in the traditional Maya hearth. 

In previous postings of this series, we looked at the great pyramid called Structure II that forms the south end of the Gran Plaza. This time, we'll focus on the structures on the north end, and take a look at an important tomb and one of their monuments called Stela 1. Like Structure II, the ways in which these buildings were used changed over time to include political and residential functions, in addition to the original religious purposes. (Photo by Oleg Chernyshov, Flikr)

The Gran Plaza is central to the rest of Calakmul. Structure VII is at the top (north) end of the Plaza. Moving clock-wise, Structure VIII is the small temple to its right. The east side of the Plaza is defined by a long rectangular platform topped by three temples called Structure IV. 

Separating Structure II (at the bottom) from the rest of the Plaza is Structure V, which is surrounded by ten stelae. On the west side of the Plaza stands Structure VI which, together with the three temples of Structure IV, formed an astronomical observatory. Structures IV, V, and VI will be the subject of the next part of this series.

This Plaza's structures are Calakmul's oldest section. Most of them date back as early as the Pre-Classic era (400 BC - 250 AD). All were in continuous use until the city was abandoned after 909 AD during the Terminal Classic. Several structures contain tombs and all are accompanied by one or more stelae. Part 1 of this series contains a map to locate Calakmul in Yucatan and a map of the whole site.

The top of Structure VII peeks through the jungle canopy. From the Plaza level to the top is 24m (79ft). The pyramid used to be even taller, because in ancient times the temple on top was capped with a tall roof comb. This was a rectangular lattice framework with stucco decorations, a very popular Classic Maya architectural feature. However, even with its roof comb, this pyramid would have been dwarfed by Structure II, which tops out a 55m (180ft).

Structure VII underwent several construction phases from the Pre-Classic through the Terminal Classic eras. In the first period, its function was purely religious and ceremonial. Later, in the Classic era, a political function was added when rulers and other elites chose the temple as the site for tombs. Finally, toward the end of the Terminal Classic, the temple was remodeled to become an elite residence. This pattern of use is similar to that of Structure II.

Schematic of Structure VII, including the layout of the temple.
The top drawing shows the nine levels of the pyramid, which may be a reference to the nine levels of Xibalba (the underworld). The triadic layout on top is formed by the temple and two smaller structures, which flank the top of the stairs.  

In the bottom drawing, three parallel east-to-west rooms are connected by a north-south hallway. In the left wing of the first room, a patolli board was etched into the floor by Terminal Classic era residents. (See the small window-like symbol). In patolli, pieces moved around the board according to the throw of five beans, marked on one side and plain on the other. Players gambled for food, clothing, jewelry, and even their freedom.

During a 1989-90 archeological dig, Tomb 1 was discovered under the floor of the north-south hallway. The burial has been variously dated to 730, 750, and 780 AD. This disparity makes it difficult to identify the tomb's occupant, because those dates span the reigns of four different rulers of two different dynasties. However, the individual (whoever he was) must have been important because the grave goods are extremely rich.

The aptly-named "Mask of Calakmul"was found in Tomb 1. This is the most elaborate, beautifully-crafted mask so far discovered at Calakmul. It is a mosaic of jade, with large jade ear spools framing the face. The pupils of the eyes are made from obsidian and the whites from conch shell. The curving objects in the corners of the lips are canine fangs. Every part of the mask carries deep meaning. 

The curving canine fangs represent serpents, which can transition among the celestial, terrestrial and underworlds. The ear spools are in the shape of four-petal flowers, a symbol of the four sacred directions (east, west, north, south). The flower also represents the breath of life and fertility. Under the chin, the extended wings of a butterfly symbolize Venus. Because that star is both the Evening and Morning Star, it represents death and rebirth. The butterfly's transformations also symbolize the cycle of life and the enduring soul of a dead ruler.

The arch at the top of the head dress represents the Witz, or Sacred Mountain. The opening under the arch represents the cave within the Witz which acts as a portal to the underworld. Crossed maiz ears can be seen in the opening of the mask's cave. In Maya mythology, primordial grains of maiz (corn) were deposited in the Witz' cave and humans were created from them. 

Jade jewelry found in Tomb 1. The individual in the crypt wore a heavy, multi-strand necklace around his neck, as well as a large pendant called a scapula. He also wore bracelets on both wrists, a large ring on his right hand, and jewelry on his knees, all of jade. More jade, in the form of beads, was woven into his clothing. 

Since jade had to be imported from as far away as the Motagua Valley in southern Guatemala, it was quite valuable and was usually worn only by high status individuals. The quantity and quality of the jade in this burial, including the mask, indicates a top-level figure, most likely a ruler.

Ceramics were placed around the body during the burial ritual.  They include plates, bowls, vases and cups of various sizes. Some of the ceramics found under the body had been ritually "killed" by breaking them.  Traces of burned soil, scattered seeds, and a reddish iron ore called hematite were found in the intact potttery. When crushed into a powder, hematite was used to decorate a body for burial. In addition, stingray spines were found, indicating auto-sacrifice, i.e. drawing blood by piercing one's own lips or genitals. 

Yuknoom Took K'awiil, as he appears on Stela 51. As noted earlier, the identity of Tomb 1's occupant and his burial date are both uncertain. However, based on a number of clues, I will make an educated guess. I believe that the body may be that of Yuknoom Took K'awiil, who died approximately 736 AD. He was the last of Calakmul's great Kaan Dynasty rulers. The man in the tomb is 25-35 years old, which fits Yuknoom Took K'awiil's lifespan.

Several dates for the tomb have been suggested, but the most likely is 750 AD, approximately fourteen years after Yuknoom Took K'awiil's death at the hands of Calakmul's great rival, Tikal. Why the lengthy delay in burial? Perhaps it took that long for his successors to negotiate the recovery of his remains from a still-hostile Tikal. In 750, Calakmul's ruler was Great Serpent, of the newly re-established Bat Dynasty. It would have been in his interest to link his dynasty with the glory of the Kaan rulers by celebrating the recovery of an illustrious predecessor's body and staging a great burial ceremony. 

This was definitely a secondary burial, meaning the original burial was elsewhere. The bones had cut marks, indicating de-fleshing, after which they were wrapped in cloth, rolled up in a mat, exposed to fire, and then interred as a bundle. The tomb's location in the Gran Plaza, and the extraordinary richness of the grave goods both point to a royal burial. The secondary burial, the age of the individual, and the overall timing, further suggest that the occupant of Tomb 1 was Yuknoom Took K'awiil. (Photo of Stela 51 from Wikipedia)

Structure VIII and Stela 1

Stela 1 stands in front of Structure VIII. The round disk in front of the stela is an altar. Most of the text on the stela is illegible due to weathering. However, three pieces of information remain: Ux te' tuum (Calakmul's ancient name), the title kaloomte' (overlord), and 721 AD, the stela's erection date. This actually tells us quite a lot. 

The kaloomte' of Calakmul in 721 was Yuknoom Took K'awiil. The stela was erected in the middle of his reign. This was at the height of his power as overlord of Calakmul's great empire and he would rule for another fifteen years before his death at the hands of Tikal. Although the reason for the stela's erection cannot be deciphered, 721 was the year his daughter married the ruler of La Corona, sealing an important political alliance.

Schematic showing the floor plan of Structure VIII. The black rectangle and circle at the bottom represent Stela 1 and its altar which were built sometime after Structure VIII. The small, two-level temple is accessed by one short staircase. The structure's overall alignment is on a north-south axis, while its three parallel interior passageways are set on an east-west axis. The doorways of the temple open toward the east, the direction of sunrise.

Structure VIII is oriented eight degrees east of magnetic north. This fact, along with its east-facing doors, suggests that Structure VIII functioned as an astronomical observation point related to sunrise and other celestial events of the morning sky. The building was later modified to more closely align it with the movement of the stars.

This completes Part 4 of my Calakmul series. I hope you liked it and, if so, you will please leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

Hasta luego, Jim

Friday, April 16, 2021

Calakmul Part 3 of 6: The Royal Tombs within the great pyramid called Structure II

The tomb of Yuknoom Yich'aak K'aak' (Claw of Fire). He was one of the three great kings of the Kaan (Snake) Dynasty, who ruled Calakmul during the 7th and first half of the 8th centuries AD. The display above is located in the Museum at Fuerte San Miguel in the city of Campeche. This is how the tomb would have appeared a few years after his burial. 

The display is a reproduction because much of the original material, including the shroud and the wooden platform under the body, had largely disintegrated during the 1,300 years that elapsed before the tomb was discovered in the mid-1990s by the Archeological Project of the Calakmul Biosphere

In this posting, I'll talk about the contents of the tomb, how it was discovered, and a bit of the history of the person who was buried in it. In addition, I'll show some of the contents of other tombs found within Structure II, as well as discussing some of the ancient funerary beliefs and practices of the Maya. 

Structure II, viewed from its northeastern corner. A system of staircases leads up to the pyramid's seventh level. On that level, the doorways of Structure IIb (the ruler's palace) can be seen above. It was built during the 8th century AD, during the last phase of Calakmul's occupation. On the lower part of the main staircase, you can see a white stela. The image carved on it may be the mother of Claw of Fire. 

During the Early Classic (250-600 AD), a building now called Substructure IIb was constructed on level seven. Tombs for rulers and other top-level elites were constructed under the floor of Substructure IIb. This added a political function to a pyramid that had previously been devoted to religious purposes. Several decades after Claw of Fire's burial, the building within which he was buried was covered over by Structure IIb, the ruins of which we see today.
Structure II, viewed as a cross-section, looking west. North is to the right. At the bottom of the stairs you can see two of the five stelae that were erected in 702 AD by Yuknoom Took' K'awiil, Claw of Fire's Kaan Dynasty successor. Part way up the stairs is the white stela containing the image of Claw of Fire's wife (or mother?).  

Substructure IIb stands on level seven of the pyramid and has two tombs buried beneath its floor. Tomb 4 contained Claw of Fire, while the body in Tomb 3 was that of a young boy. Ancient graffiti found within the substructure show that in approximately 725 AD, it was covered over by the Structure IIb palace. The burials were discovered when archeologists tunneled down through the floor of Structure IIb. (Photo from A Dynastic Tomb From Campeche, Mexico

Tomb 4: Burial Site of Yuknoom Yich'aak K'ahk'

Detail of the reproduced tomb of Claw of Fire. The tomb has an east-west orientation. The head was toward sunrise, an important celestial event for the Maya. The walls of the tomb had been painted with glyphs, but they are unreadable due to deterioration. The body was interred on its back in an extended position with the right arm crossed over the chest and the left alongside the torso. It was richly surrounded by grave goods.

Claw of Fire was a robust man between 45 and 60 years old when he died. At 164 cm (5'4 in), he was slightly taller than the average Maya of his time. Three of his upper front teeth were inlayed with jade, a beautification method common among the Maya elite. Although his bones show signs of osteophytosis (ossification of the tendon insertions), the cause of his death is still undetermined. It may have been from battle wounds during his defeat by Tikal in 695 AD.

Cinnabar pigment was applied to the body. Its red color symbolizes sunrise and blood, both of deep importance to the Maya. The cloth shroud was sealed with  resin and then covered with latex, both in a liquid state when applied. This careful treatment was responsible for the level of the body's preservation. Finally, the cloth shroud was covered with an animal skin. 

Plate with glyphs declaring it was owned by Claw of Fire. It was common practice for Maya elites to possess ceramics containing declarations of their ownership. In the center of  the plate is the image of a god named for his jester-like hat. The Jester god was closely associated with Maya rulers, who often wore his image on their headgear. This plate in the tomb, along with other ceramics that establish a date range, strongly indicate the tomb is that of Claw of Fire. (Photo from Distribution Analysis of the Central Maya Lowlands)

In addition to the ceramics, the grave goods included Spondylus shell jewelry and eight sets of feline paws, possibly from jaguars. A wide variety of jade necklaces and bracelets were found on or near the body. Some perforated jade pieces had been sewn into cloth. Also present was the ruler's head dress, made of palm material which was polychromed and decorated with a jade mosaic. Finally, the tomb contained a spectacular jade mask

Claw of Fire's jade mask was found on the right side of his chest. The mask was made from a mosaic of jade pieces, along with gray obsidian and Spondylus shells for the eyes. The round devices below the ears represent the ear plugs worn by elite figures. Such masks were called k'oh by the Maya and were thought to be animated. It was quite common for k'oh to be buried with rulers. One of the most famous masks was found in Pakal the Great's tomb at Palenque.

Claw of Fire's mask was associated with the god of maiz (corn) and symbolizes the rebirth of life during the agricultural cycles. The Maya creation myth includes the story of Hero Twins who went into Xibalba (the underworld) to play the Ball Game against the Lords of Death. The Twins won, but the Lords killed them after the game. However, by a trick, they come back to life. After escaping Xibalba they became the sun and moon. Their father became the god of maiz.

Tomb I: Burial Site of a Great Ruler's Wife

Mask and ear plugs from the tomb of the wife of Yuknoom Ch'een II. His name means "He who makes the cities tremble." Yuknoom the Great was the father of Yuknoom Yich'aak K'ahk', so she may have been his mother. However, Maya rulers were known to have more than one wife. If she was Claw of Fire's mother, she might also be the figure portrayed on Stela 116, the white monument in the middle of Structure II's main steps. 

Drinking vessel painted with the image of the young maiz god. The glyphs on the tumbler indicate that it was to be used for drinking "fruity cacao". Cacao beans were (and still are) used to make chocolate, a drink reserved for the elite. The drink was sometimes enhanced by adding the dried blood of warriors. The beans were considered so valuable that they were sometimes used as currency. 

The image on the vessel shows the birth of the maiz god as he emerges from a split skull. Once again, a funerary connection is made to the death and re-birth cycles of agriculture. The Codex Style of this ceramic piece was given that name because the colors are similar to a Maya hieroglyphic codex. Ceramics like this were made for royal family members, particularly during the Kaan Dynasty of the 7th and 8th centuries. (Photo from National Museum of Anthropology)

Other Elite Tombs and Their Contents

Tomb reproduction from the Museum of Fuerte San Miguel. The contents of this tomb, called grave goods, are probably quite similar to those found in Tomb 3, a burial found next to that of Claw of Fire. The occupant of Tomb 3 was buried during the Early Classic era (250-600 AD), making the tomb at least 100 years older than Claw of Fire's burial and possibly much older than that. Tomb 3 was desecrated in Pre-hispanic times, but some items were recovered.

These included the bones of a boy aged between six and eight years. In addition, the tomb contained four ceramic pieces. These included two dishes and a vase in the Aguila (Eagle) style and a black tripod cylinder in the Teotihuacan style. The Early Classic styles of these ceramics established the time frame of the burial. The identity of the boy is unknown, although he must have been a member of the top-level elite to be buried in this site.

Jade pendent in the form of an articulated serpent. This jade serpent was found in one of Calakmul's tombs and has been dated to the Early Classic era. The pieces are all perforated lengthwise and were once connected by a fibre cord so that, when moved, it would writhe back and forth like a serpent. Jade was considered to be extremely valuable at this time, so beautifully-made piece was probably not a toy.

Jade has often been found in burial sites, sometimes in the form of round beads left in the mouth of the deceased. These symbolized planting and the re-birth of the maiz god. Serpents were considered to be the vehicles by which the sun and stars crossed the heavens. The periodic shedding of a serpent's skins was looked upon as a symbol of rebirth and renewal.

Early Classic pot and lid decorated with fish and fantastic faces. Pots like this have often been found in the tombs of elite figures who died in the Early Classic era. Possession of objects like this was a marker of status and wealth

The ceramic artists who made and decorated these kinds of ceramics were often sponsored by Calakmul's royal courts and those of other Classic Maya cities. Beautifully made ceramics were often used as diplomatic gifts by rulers desiring to cement relationships with subordinate officials, as well as being used as grave goods in high-status burials. 

Terminal Classic era remains of a child interred in an urn. Such burials often included flutes, whistles, small jade objects, and shells. It appears, in this case, that the child's body was disarticulated before it was placed in the urn. Although it is not shown here, mouths of funeral urns were often covered by an upturned plate.

The Maya deeply mourned the dead and feared Xibalba. They believed that there were nine levels and each was full of awful dangers through which the dead must pass. These included roaring waters, high mountains, rivers of blood, and spinning blades of razor-sharp obsidian. Grave goods placed in tombs were intended to assist the dead on their journey.

This completes Part 3 of my Calakmul series. Next time, we'll look at several other buildings around the Central Plaza that form an astronomical observatory. I hope you enjoyed this posting and, if so, you will please leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

Hasta luego, Jim


Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Calakmul Part 2 of 6: Structure II's palace, elite residences, and temple

View of the lower part of the north facade of Structure II. At what appears to be the very top, you can see the remains of three doorways that were the entrances of a palace. What are not visible from the ground level are the several additional levels that make up the Structure II pyramid. These unseen levels contain the ruler's palace, elite residential areas, and a large temple. They will be the subjects of this posting.  

In addition to the pyramid's architecture, I will talk about Calakmul's great dynasties and some of the major changes in our understanding of them. Much of this knowledge has been developed only recently through new discoveries or re-examination of existing sources.

The great pyramid called Structure II. This is how it would have appeared in 800 AD, during the Terminal Classic Era (600-900 AD). By this time the functions of Structure II had changed considerably from those of Pre-Classic times (500 BC - 250 AD). In that earlier time, the pyramid was used exclusively for religious and ceremonial purposes. However, in the Early Classic era (250-600 AD), a political function was added, when rulers began building their tombs within the structure. 

Then, in the Terminal Classic period (600-900 AD), the structures on the pyramid's seventh level (Structures IIb, IIc, IId) were rebuilt into a palace for rulers and housing for elite families. The lower levels of the north facade were used for workshops and housing for the artisans' families. In total, the pyramid has thirteen levels. This number  probably refers to the thirteen levels of heaven in the Maya cosmos. (Drawing from Extending the Calakmul Dynasty Back in Time)

Structure IIb

View of the west side of Structure IIb, located on level seven. At the top of the main staircase are the three north-facing doors of the palace. Previous to the Terminal Classic era, another structure (called Substructure IIb) stood here. Under it are several royal tombs. This earlier structure was covered by Structure IIb, which became the palace.

Archeologists who study ancient Maya sites like Calakmul have a difficult job. Imagine working on an immense, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle with only a vague idea of the final picture. Most of the pieces have been lost and many that remain are damaged, some severely. Further, the puzzle has a fourth dimension: time. What you are trying to understand has changed several times over the centuries. This is the complex task archeologists face. 

Early Europeans who encountered Maya ruins refused to believe they were built by the ancestors of the Maya farmers they saw about them. The Europeans preferred to believe that the ancient cities were built by Egyptians, or perhaps a Lost Tribe of Israel. Then, in the mid-19th century, John Stephens and Frederick Catherwood explored Yucatan and Central America. What they found convinced them that the highly sophisticated builders were indigenous Maya. 

Drawing of Structure II, viewed from above. The stairways lead up to the seventh level on which the Structure IIb palace stands. Structures IIc and IId, on either side, provided housing for top-level elites. These probably including the ruler's extended family. Not shown in the drawing is the temple which also stands on the seventh level, directly behind Structure IIb. (Drawing from A Dynastic Tomb from Campeche, Mexico)

Archeologists who followed Stephens and Catherwood to the Maya areas over the next 125 years couldn't decipher the hieroglyphic inscriptions they found. As a result, they speculated that the Maya had been peaceful astronomers, mathematicians and artists, with little conflict among their various cities. Then, in the 1970s, the Maya code was finally deciphered. The results were startling. 

View of Structure IIb's interior from the center door. Originally, the structure had only three parallel east-to-west rooms. Later, walls were put up to break the three long rooms into nine smaller ones. The front rooms were used for food preparation and cooking. One of the rear rooms was used as a temescal (sweatbath).

When the ancient hieroglyphic codes were deciphered, they revealed that Maya warfare was both incessant and bloody. The prevailing belief was that all these conflicts were just local squabbles between individual city-states. That view began to change as archeologists studied the "emblem glyphs" found within the inscriptions. These are dynastic symbols that are usually associated with the name of a city or ruler.

Snake head emblem glyph of the Kaan'ul, or Snake Dynasty. The carving shows a left profile of a  snake head with a toothy and rather sinister smile and a large frowning eye. Emblems such as this were usually found on stone monuments such as stelae and hieroglyphic stairs, as well as wooden door lintels. In addition to Calakmul, Kaan'ul emblems have been found in city-states all over the Petén region, indicating a broad network of power and influence. 

Most of the emblem glyphs found at Calakmul have been those of the Kaan'ul, leading archeologists to believe that the Snake Dynasty originated at Calakmul. However, all of the Kaan'ul emblems found here carry dates from the 7th and early 8th centuries. Only two of Calakmul's monuments contain earlier dates. One of these carries the the emblem of the Chatahn Winik (Lords of Chatahn) and the other carries the Bat Dynasty emblem. Neither has a Kaan'ul glyph.

A tourist stands on the roof of one of the east-west rooms. Because Maya architects never mastered the true arch, they used the corbel arch, which allows only narrow rooms. While the rooms may seem cramped, particularly for a palace, we should remember that the climate allowed outside living most of the time. Elite Maya residences usually had comfortable patios and terraces where most of daily living occurred. 

Stela 43 contains the earliest Chatahn Winik emblem at Calakmul. It is dated 514 AD, placing it within the Early Classic era. "Chatahn" is the archaic name for the basin surrounding the great Pre-Classic civilization called El Mirador (600 BC-100 AD). Calakmul was founded in 500 BC and is located only 38 km (24 mi) north of El Mirador's ruins. The two cities were linked by a raised limestone road called a sacbe, portions of which still exist.

It is possible that the Lords of Chatahn may have ruled Calakmul at the time El Mirador was abandoned around 100 AD. Adopting such a dynastic name might have been an attempt to establish themselves as the successors of the lost civilization. It is also possible that members of El Mirador's elite fled the collapse, took power at Calakmul, and adopted a dynastic name which emphasized their link to a glorious past.

View of Structure IIb from the rear, looking north. I took this shot from the terrace of Structure IIa, the temple-pyramid behind it. Poking through the foliage at the top of the photo you can see the temple called Structure VII, which faced south from the north end of the central plaza. Structure VII will be shown in a subsequent post.

The Bat Dynasty's emblem appears on Stela 114 (see Part 1 of this series). Its date, 431 AD, is earlier than the one on Stela 43. However, since only two Early Classic Stelae have been found at Calakmul so far, it is difficult to say that the order of the dates indicates which dynasty came first. 

There was a peaceful, power-sharing arrangement between these two early dynasties, possibly based on intermarriage. This relationship lasted throughout Calakmul's history, although the Bat Dynasty seems to have become the predominate partner at times. Bat emblems are sometimes linked with the title kaloom'te (overlord), which implies an authority that extends beyond one city-state. By contrast, the Chatahn Winik never get a title higher than Ajaw (lord), which signifies authority in a specific location. 

The Elite Residential Area of Structure II

Structure IId stands on the west side of the IIb palace. This was constructed during the Terminal Classic period when a residential function was added to the pyramid's religious and political functions. This building provided living space for elites, probably including members of the extended royal family.

Archeologists once believed that the Kaan'ul had originated at Calakmul, but they were puzzled that the earliest date associated with the Kaan'ul at Calakmul is 631 AD. Then, in 1994, a Snake Head emblem dated to 495 AD was found in the city of Dzibanche, 201km (125mi) to the northeast. The date and emblem were linked to a ruler thought to have been from Calakmul. Evidence began to accumulated that the Kaan'ul had ruled Dzibanche for at least 400 years prior to their appearance at Calakmul. 

Needless to say, this thunderbolt overturned many long-accepted views of the Classic Maya period. One of the seminal events in that history was the defeat of Tikal in 562 AD by a coalition of city-states. They were led by Sky Witness, a Kaan ruler previously believed to have been from Calakmul. Instead, he was part of a whole list of supposed Calakmul rulers who were actually based in Dzibanche!

Narrow hall in Structure IId. The changes to Structure II during the Terminal Classic era were not unique. At about the same time, something similar was happening to the north, at the Pyramid of the Five Levels at Edzna as well as at the Great Palace at Sayil. Not coincidentally, during this period, Calakmul was re-focusing to the north, away from the collapsing civilization of the Petén to the south and toward the still vibrant cities of the Yucatan Peninsula.

At La Corona, a Snake Dynasty ally, an inscription states that the seat of the Kaan'ul dynasty officially moved to Calakmul in 635 AD. Apparently, a fratricidal struggle had broken out at Dzibanche, possibly involving the very question of  the dynastic move. In the end, the faction that favored the move won. However, even after establishing itself at Calakmul, members of the winning faction continued to rule at Dzibanche for least 250 years. 

But why move to Calakmul? A practical reason may have involved the broader political interests of the Kaan'ul. They were allied with cities throughout the Petén region and Calakmul was simply more geographically central than Dzibanche. Another reason might have involved Calakmul's historical connection to El Mirador. Ruling from there would have allowed the Kaan'ul to position themselves as the political and cultural successors of El Mirador's glorious past.

View from above of Structure IIc, on the east side of the palace. This is another area of elite housing. 

The Chatahn Winik and Bat dynasties were sharing power at the time of the Kaan'ul arrival. Why did they peacefully submit to the takeover of their city? Perhaps the Kaan'nul were not seen as usurpers but as powerful partners. As well as existing linguistic and cultural connections, there were possible links through marriage. In addition, although the Kaan'ul began their move in 631 AD, they apparently did not become dominant for another four years.

Further, the Kaan dynasty had formed and led the great coalition which defeated Tikal and consolidated control over most of the Petén. Perhaps Calakmul's two resident dynasties viewed the arrival of the victors as an honor. The Kaan'ul apparently eased the transition by agreeing to leave the day-to-day control of the city in the hands of the two subordinate dynasties. The Kaan'ul simply used Calakmul as the headquarters for their growing empire.

Structure IIa: The Temple

Structure IIa sits just behind IIb on the pyramid's seventh level. It is the one part of the Structure II pyramid which never changed functions. It remained a religious site for more than a millennia. Since it sits behind Structure IIb at the back of the seventh level of the main pyramid, it is invisible from the level of the plaza.

In 636 AD, a year after the official establishment of Calakmul as the seat of the Kaan'ul, Yuknoom Ch'een II (He Who Makes the Cities Tremble) was seated as kaloom'te (overlord) of the new empire. Born in 600 AD, he was the son of Scroll Serpent, a Kaan ruler of Dzibanche who famously raided distant Palenque twice and died in 611 AD. Several of Scroll Serpent's sons ruled briefly between 611 and 636 AD. 

An inscription dated 631 names the third son, Yuknoom Head, as the first Kaan ajaw (lord) connected with Calakmul. This may be the name of the person who, after he acceded to the throne in 636 AD, re-named himself Yuknoom Ch'een II. Archeologists sometimes call him Yuknoom the Great, because he extended Calakmul's area of control over 13,000 sq km (8,078 sq mi), inhabited by more than 1.5 million people. He ruled for an extraordinary 50 years and died in 686 AD.

Ceramics belonging to Yuknoom Ch'een II and his successor. A statement of their ownership is written on the each piece in hieroglypic script. This was a normal practice by the Classic era Maya elite. (Photo from Distribution Analysis of the Central Maya Lowlands)

Yuknoom Ch'een II was the first of three Kaan rulers who dominated the Maya world during the 7th and early 8th centuries. His son Yuknoom Yich'aak K'ahk' was born in 849 AD. This was previously translated as Jaguar Paw, but the correct name is Claw of Fire. In his father's later years, Claw of Fire may have been responsible for the victories over Tikal in 677 and 679 AD. 

Claw of Fire took the throne after his father's death in 686 AD. Inscriptions at various Petén cities record his installation of local rulers, in his role as overload. However, in 695 AD, Calakmul was disastrously defeated by Tikal, which was trying to reestablish its preeminence after 130 years in the shadow of the Kaan'ul. It was once believed that Claw of Fire was captured and sacrificed after the battle, but he apparently escaped back to Calakmul.

Front view of the temple. Three staircases rise up the first level of the pyramidal structure to a broad terrace. From there, a single staircase reaches to the top, where rituals were once performed. This point of the temple is the highest in Calakmul. From here, there is an expansive view of the central plaza and the countryside around. 

The 695 AD defeat by Tikal was a turning point in Calakmul's history. Although Claw of Fire apparently made it back home alive, he appears to have died that same year, possibly from wounds received in the battle. His successor, Split Earth, appears to have been a puppet installed by Tikal. However, in 702 AD, Yuknoom Took' K'awiil acceded to the throne and restored the Kaan'ul to power. 

In spite of the restoration, the fortunes of Calakmul and its Kaan rulers continued to decline. About 20 years after becoming ruler, Yuknoom Took' K'awiil lost a battle with Tikal, was taken captive, and apparently sacrificed. His successor, Wamaw K'awiil, was the last of the Kaan'ul to rule Calakmul. In 726 AD, he visited the ruler of Quirgua and recklessly encouraged him to overthrow his kaloom'te, the ruler of Copán, an ally of Tikal. 

Ritual area at the top of Structure IIa. At the left-center of the photo you can see a niche which may have once contained a statue. Rituals conducted in this area would have been completely out of view of people standing at the base of the Structure II pyramid. It was not unusual for the Maya priests to consider certain religious acts to be too sacred to be conducted in public.

Wamaw K'awiil's interference apparently reignited hostilities with Tikal. Finally, in 736 AD, Tikal decisively defeated Calakmul.  The defeat succeeded in snuffing out the Kaan dynasty. After 736, the Kaan'ul emblem no longer appears in connection with Calakmul. B'olon K'awiil I took the throne in 741 AD. He and the rulers who followed are associated with the emblems of the Bat and the Chatahn Winik dynasties, who appear to have moved into a power vacuum. 

Fresco of Maya nobles at the Maya Museum of Chetumal. These men would have closely resembled those of the elite class at Calakmul, including those who lived in Structures IId and IIc.

Beginning with Claw of Fire's defeat in 695 AD, fewer and fewer of Calakmul's satellite city-states acknowledged its overlordship. By the beginning of the 9th century AD, climate change, environmental degradation and incessant warfare was causing a general collapse of Classic era Maya civilization. The rulers of Calakmul tried to cope by re-oriented their focus to the north, where cities like Edzna were still economically and culturally vibrant. 

The presence of royalty continued at Calakmul until the beginning of the 10th century. The last date recorded there was on a crudely inscribed stela showing the Maya equivalent of 909 AD. After that, the population drifted away. The jungle began to creep in and cover the great city, concealing it from the world for more than a thousand years. 

This completes Part 2 of my Calakmul series. In Part 3, I'll focus on the royal tomb of Claw of Fire found inside Structure II, as well as some of the grave goods from other Calakmul tombs. I hope you have enjoyed this posting. If so, please leave any thoughts or comments in the Comments section below or email me directly. 

Hasta luego, Jim