Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Southern Yucatan Peninsula: Bacalar's pre-hispanic heritage


Maya village as it might have appeared when the Spanish arrived in 1543. The individual homes stood on raised platforms, with walls made of upright sticks and roofs of thatched palm fronds. Household work was largely an outside activity, performed on the small terraces surrounding the houses or in other public areas. This included some of the tasks seen above, such as grinding corn or using a back-strap loom to weave cotton or other fibers. 

The original name of Bacalar was B'ak Halal, meaning "Surrounded by Reeds". It was founded in 435 AD by the Itzaes, one of several Maya groups within the Putun culture. The Putun tribes migrated from the Gulf Coast of the modern state of Tabasco into the Yucatan Peninsula and northern Guatemala. They brought the cultural influences of Central Mexican civilizations like Teotihuacán and passed these influences on to the people they encountered along the way. Around 900 AD, when the Classic-Era Maya civilization collapsed, some of the Itzaes moved further north and founded a great city called Chichén Itzá ("Well of the Itzaes"). The Putunes were seafarers who established trading posts all along the Gulf and Caribbean coasts of the Peninsula. B'ak Halal prospered as a center of trade within this network until the Spanish arrival.


The "daily grind" of pre-hispanic Maya life. A woman grinds maiz (corn) on a flat, stone tray called a metate, using a stone roller called a mano. She kneels on a woven reed mat called a petate. Surrounding her metate are various clay pots and woven baskets used for storing and preparing food. 

Behind the woman, a hammock can be seen through the doorway of her house. The first known hammocks were made by the people of Central and South America more than 1000 years ago. However, they didn't arrive in the Yucatan Peninsula until about 1300 AD. The earliest of these sleeping nets were woven from the bark of the Hammack tree, hence the name. When slung between poles or trees, hammocks were ideal for hot weather and enabled the sleeper to avoid dangerous snakes and insects on the ground. Hammocks were first encountered by Europeans when Columbus visited the Caribbean islands in 1492. In 1590, European navies began to use them as sailors' beds because they could easily be stored when not in use, clearing the sleeping area for other purposes.

Village economy

Canoe typical of those used in Lago de Bacalar for trading. Notice the turtle shells arranged in the stern of the trader's boat. These were used as drums or were sometimes carved into jewelry. Other items of trade included jade, shells, feathers, gold, cotton, wax, honey, and salt. Such goods were favored over agricultural products because small, relatively light luxury products were easier to transport and yielded higher profits. 

B'ak Halal's lakeshore site was ideal for trade. Moving goods north or south by canoe was much easier and cheaper than hauling them through the jungle on the backs of porters. Since the southern tip of the lake was only a few kilometers from the Rio Hondo, goods could easily be portaged and then paddled up the river into the interior or downstream into Bahia de Chetumal and the Caribbean. To guide themselves, the traders used maps painted on cotton cloth. The most important medium of exchange was the cacao bean, although other items were sometimes used. In addition to its importance as a trading center, B'ak Halal also produced many of the canoes used by traders and fishermen. 



Everyday life required a variety of tools. On the top row are (from the left) three axes, two manos and a metate. Among those on the bottom are a variety of cutting tools of various sizes. Also present are two round stones. One of these may be for pounding and the other (on the far right with a hole through its center) may be for straightening the shafts of arrows. All the tools show excellent craftsmanship and the stones for several seem to have been chosen for their intrinsic beauty. 



Maya woman using a back-strap loom. Weaving materials included cotton and other local fibers. Wool, however, did not arrive until the Spanish brought European sheep. The weavers produced their cloth for trade as well as for local use. The backstrap loom is a very ancient technology and the Maya were not the only ones who developed it. I recently saw a statue from an ancient Egyptian tomb showing a woman using an almost identical rig. However, there is no evidence of cultural interaction between the New and Old Worlds after the hunter-gatherers passed across the Bering Strait to populate the Americas. Many millennia after those early migrations, looms like this came into use. Like metates and various other ancient technologies, back-strap looms are still used in Mexico. Just last week, in the Mexican village where I live, I photographed an indigenous woman using a back-strap loom to create beautiful textiles for the tourist trade.

Maya homes

A Maya nah. I have seen relief sculptures on temples at the ancient Maya city of Uxmal that look just like this. Similar to back-strap looms, the ancient nah design has persisted into modern times. A visitor to any pueblo in the Yucatan Peninsula will almost certainly encounter currently occupied homes of the same type. The typical nah is built by the owner him/herself from locally obtained materials. While it looks rustic, even primitive, the structure is a model of rationality, economy, and functional design. If the walls are constructed from upright sticks, the style is called chuychée. If the sticks are woven horizontally, it is called kolkolchée. The thatched roof is made from palm fronds and both the sticks and the fronds are readily available in the local forest. The space between the sticks in the walls allows for a free flow of air in the warm, humid climate. The high ceiling allows warm air to rise and escape through the thatched roof.


Detail of a thatched roof. The thatch, called guanoo or xaann, allows warm air and smoke from hearth fires to escape. Rain runs off rapidly, due to the waterproofing properties of the smoke from the wood cooking fires. If properly constructed and maintained, a roof like this will last for up to 30 years. One problem is insect infestations. A group of archeologists who stayed in a traditional village were consternated by the periodic appearance of army ant swarms and sought some way to deter them. However, they soon noticed that the local people welcomed the ants. Swarming over everything as it passed, the ant invasion caused the insects in the houses to flee to avoid being consumed. Once the army ants had marched on, the villagers could move back into their now insect-free homes. And, unlike exterminators in the First World, the ants charged nothing for their services.


Two doors face each other, on the front and back of the house. There are no windows. The typical nah is oval-shaped and measures 8m (26 ft) long and 4m (13 ft) wide. In ancient times, the house was built on a raised, limestone platform so as to avoid flooding during the rainy season. The platform was surfaced with a layer of lime plaster, creating a relatively smooth floor. 


Ceiling of the nah, at one end of the oval. A nah ceiling typically rises 5m (16 ft) from the floor to its peak. This height allows the warm air to rise so that the thatch can pass it through, helping to keep the lower part of the nah cooler during the hot season. The oval shape of the nah is ideal for resisting the hurricane winds that lash the coasts of Yucatan every year.


The structure is secured by four main posts, two on each side of the nah. Notice how the fork of a tree has been used to make the joint when the vertical post meets a horizontal cross-support and a rafter. All parts of the nah are held together by jungle vines and twine made of sisal.


Food and its preparation

Foods consumed by both the ancient and modern Maya. Calabasa (squash) and maiz (corn) are in two of the baskets. I have not been able to identify what appears to be fruit in the third basket. Many Maya still practice traditional slash-and-burn agriculture. This method rids the area of insects while fertilizing the soil with the ash. Next, using a pole with a pointed end, the farmer makes a row of holes in the ground. Into these, he drops kernels of maiz and frijol (bean) seeds. As they grow, the beans gather nitrogen from the air and fix it in the soil, nourishing the roots of the maiz plant. The maiz stalk, in turn, provides a stable surface on which the frijol plant can climb. Calabasa is planted in between the rows. Growing low to the ground and having broad leaves, the squash inhibits weeds. Thus, three crops can be harvested from one field every season. Each supports the growth of the others and the overall process requires much less effort than if they were grown separately. This method of farming has been used since ancient times and continues in use today. 


Wood bench displaying a variety of gourd containers. Gourds are possibly the oldest form of containers used by humans, pre-dating pottery and even baskets. Unlike the latter two, they grow in the wild and don't have to be woven or shaped from clay. Gourds, once dried and cleaned out, are light and sturdy. Their shapes naturally suggest a variety of uses, such as canteens, dippers, bowls, cooking pots, and storage containers for both liquid and dry foods. 


Slinging a basket from a tripod is a simple way to store things up off the ground. This helps keep insects and other critters out of the contents. The use of tripods was widespread in Mesoamerica. Pottery or furniture supported by tripods is much more stable and balanced than similar objects which have four legs. Anyone who has tried to even-up the legs on a four-legged table will know what I mean.


A comal, or cooking griddle, is supported by three chunks of limestone. When in use, the three stones form the boundary of the fire and a good tripod for the comal. This Mesoamerican cooking device dates back to 700 BC. Although the traditional clay comal has largely been supplanted by the metal version seen above, the function is identical. Maiz was central to the diet of the pre-hispanic Maya, as well as the rest of the settled peoples of Mesoamerica. It was first domesticated in southern Mexico around 6700 BC. The ancient method of preparation is still in use in many Mexican households. The kernels are first dried and then soaked in a limewater solution called nixtamal to break down the cellulose. The softened kernels are then ground into a powder on the metate and mixed with water to make a dough called masa. The dough is shaped into thin, circular cakes by slapping it between the palms of the hands. When cooked on a comal, these become tortillas, central to the diet of Mexicans since early pre-hispanic times. 

This completes my posting on Maya life in ancient times. I hope you have enjoyed it and, if so, please leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below. If you leave a question, please leave your email address so that I can respond. 

Hasta luego, Jim










Monday, October 29, 2018

Southern Yucatan Peninsula: Lago de Bacalar and the town that bears its name

A long pier extends into Lake Bacalar with palm-roofed palapas at its end. One of our priorities during our adventure to the Southern Yucatan Peninsula was to visit Lago de Bacalar, famous for its crystal-clear water. The lake has been important to people living in the area since pre-hispanic times. Today, it is a popular attraction for young, back-packer types, as well as older folks like us. In this posting, I'll give you a peek at the lake and the small town on its western shore that bears the same name. In later postings, I'll provide some history about the area, including pirate raids and bloody Maya revolts.


Lago de Bacalar winds snake-like through the low, coastal jungle. At several points, it bulges like a python that has swallowed a pig. Mostly, however, the lake is quite narrow along its 42 km (26 mi) length. At its widest, it is only about 2 km (1.24 mi) across. The lake extends from the southwest to the northeast, roughly parallel to the shore of Bahia de Chetumal. The lake's southernmost point is only a few kilometers from Rio Hondo, a river that flows eastward from the interior of the Peninsula to the Bay. This geography meant that Lake Bacalar was an ideal route for ancient traders, since it was always easier to paddle a canoe full of trade goods than carry them on your back. Traders traveling from north to south could portage their goods to Rio Hondo and then paddle into the interior or out to Chetumal Bay and the Caribbean coast.


Another pier, with two palapas, extends out from a lakeside hotel. Lago de Bacalar is famous for the clarity of its deep blue water, enhanced by the white limestone bottom. The freshwater lake is fed by underground rivers that emerge into open pools called cenotes (limestone sinkholes). Because of the porosity of the Peninsula's limestone base, it has almost no lakes or rivers. Lake Bacalar is by far the biggest body of surface water. Its source is the world's largest subterranean cave system, with 450 km (280 mi) of natural tunnels


Map of the town of Bacalar. Route 307 curves through the center from south (left) to north (right). While the town extends west of the highway, most of it lies to the east, between the highway and the lakeshore. As of the 2010 census, Bacalar had 11,084 residents, making it the second largest city in the southern part of the state of Quintana Roo. Only Chetumal is larger. When the Spanish arrived in 1543, Bacalar was already a city. The Maya called it B'ak Halal, which means "surrounded by reeds". It was the first place the Spanish conquered in the area and, when they did, the Maya name was transformed into "Bacalar".


A kiosco stands in the middle of a well-maintained plaza. Surrounding the plaza are various restaurants and tourist facilities. While most of the town is made up of modern 20th and 21st century buildings, a few colonial structures have survived. The most impressive of these is an 18th century Spanish fort called Fuerte de San Felipe.


A cannon points out toward the lake from a bastion at Fuerte San Felipe. The fort was constructed in 1729 to guard against the pirate attacks that, for centuries, plagued Spain's colonial possessions in the New World. The old colonial city of Campeche, on the Yucatan Peninsula's Gulf Coast, is still surrounded by fortifications similar to the ones at Fuerte San Felipe. Along the shoreline below the fort, you can see some of the town's many hotels and restaurants.


The fort's thick exterior walls are surrounded by a deep moat. Part of the moat can be seen above, just beyond the wall in the foreground. The walls were built with limestone, which is readily available in the area. The crenellations (slotted sections) along the top of the wall would have been used by soldiers to shelter themselves while they pointed their muskets through the openings. After Bacalar was sacked by pirates in the 17th century, the Spanish Crown finally provided the resources to built the fort. In a future posting, I will show more of Fuerte San Felipe's fortifications, as well as relics of the piracy that plagued the area.


The palapas at the end of the piers are relatively simple structures. Set on rough pilings driven into the lakebed and roofed by thatched palm fronds, the structures offer shade from the intense sun of the warmer months. Since the structure is completely surrounded by water, it remains fairly cool, even on a hot day. If an occupant gets over-warm, s/he has only to hop into the water for a refreshing dip. In the cooler months of winter, when we visited, it can get pretty windy in the Peninsula's coastal areas. In that case, the palapa's walls offer some protection.


Lily pads along the lakeshore. Lake Bacalar is home to a wide variety of plant and animal life. It also contains a large quantity of stromatolites, which are sheet-like sedimentary rocks that have the appearance of cauliflower. They were formed by single-cell photosynthesizing microbes called cyanobacteria, the oldest life form on earth. Such fossilized formations are very rare in the world.


Tourists frolic in the lake's sparkling water while a sailboat cruises in the distance. The folks in sailboats were probably thrilled by the wind, even if it did kick up the water a bit. Despite the water's choppiness that day, it didn't seem to deter tourists from enjoying a swim.

View of Fuerte San Felipe from the end of one of the piers. The Spanish built the fort so it would dominate approaches to the town from the water. Quite a number of boats were available for tours of the lake and we thought about hiring a launch. However, with the water so rough, we decided to spend our limited time exploring the fort's excellent museum and strolling the shoreline.


There are quite a number of lakefront restaurants. There are many places to dine and they kind of blend into one another. We decided to just wander around until someplace caught our fancy.


Entrance to the restaurant we picked for lunch. Unfortunately, I didn't note the name of the place, but it is on the southern end of the town's lakefront and easy to find. You have a choice of the covered patio, the garden, or a table right on the water. As you can see, there is enough seating that you really don't need a reservation. The menu choices are primarily Mexican dishes, with a good selection of seafood.


Tables by the water offer grand views of the lake. However, the wind was pretty strong at this point, so we picked a more sheltered spot in the restaurant's garden. Because we wanted to visit the Maya ruins of Chacchoben, a few miles north of the lake, we didn't spend more than a few hours at Bacalar. The town would be worth a return visit, perhaps even for an overnight stay. Bacalar is an easy drive from Chetumal and you pass through some lovely country along the way.

This completes my first posting on Bacalar and its beautiful lake. In the next one, I'll tell you a bit about the area's dramatic history. If you'd like to ask a question or leave a comment, please use the Comments section below or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, please provide your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Southern Yucatan Peninsula: Oxtankah's Plaza de Tortugas, the Astronomer's Pyramid, and the Early Colonial Open Chapel

The North Platform of Structure I in Plaza de Tortugas (Turtle Plaza). This platform should not be confused with Structure I of the Plaza de Abejas. The one above was part of a palace laid out on a north-to-south axis. In the photo, you are looking southth along its top toward the Central Edifice, beyond which is another long narrow platform. Together, these structures form the eastern side of the Plaza de Tortugas. The Turtle Plaza is situated between the Plaza de Abejas and Plaza de Columnas (shown in the last two postings). The Structure I palace faces west toward the un-excavated structures of Plaza Tortugas.


The Central Edifice of Structure I rises slightly above the platforms on either side. The two platforms extend to the north and south like wings. All of these may have once had structures on their tops made of perishable materials. Oddly, the broad staircase has a narrow set of stairs built into it on the right. The narrow stairs may have had some special, ceremonial function or this may simply be a product of different construction phases. Other than their names, I have been unable to find any information about Structure 1 or the Plaza de Tortugas. There were no on-site informational markers and Structure 1 doesn't even appear on most site maps, even those in the detailed archeological reports I Googled up.


The South Platform of Structure I forms its right wing. The Central Edifice can be seen in the upper right corner of the photo. Why there is so little mention of Structure I is a mystery to me. It has been well-excavated and can't be missed on the trail between the two main ceremonial plazas. I have described it as a palace, because it somewhat resembles the palaces in the two main plazas. However, it could have had religious or administrative purposes as well. It also occurred to me that the long, low staircases would have provided excellent audience seating for religious processions between the Plazas of Abejas and Columnas.


One of the local residents is also a mystery. I scoured hundreds iguana photos on Google Images and could find none that resembled this handsome guy. He was sunning himself in front of Structure I when I encountered him. I would greatly appreciate an i.d. from any lizard experts out there. Notice the bright orange end of its tail. Iguanas and some other lizards are able to detach part of their tails when they are threatened. The detached part writhes and wriggles to distract the predator while the iguana escapes.


Structure XI: The Astronomer's Pyramid


Structure XI, the Astronomer's Pyramid, is a mix of architectural phases. The earliest phase is the broad, circular base, seen in the foreground. This may have had an astronomical function, hence the name. The top section, built at a later time, is a square, five-stepped pyramid. The narrow staircase in the center of the photo is the main entrance to the square pyramid.


View of Structure XI from the right. The Astronomer's Pyramid is part of small group of buildings called the Plaza de Kanjobal. The other structures of the plaza are un-excavated mounds of rubble.


Side view of the stepped levels of the circular base. Virtually all of the pyramids in Mesoamerica are "stepped" meaning that their base is the broadest part, with each level above being somewhat smaller, kind of like a wedding cake. The ramón trees in the foreground are ubiquitous at Oxtankah. Their roots have broken up many of the walls and steps of the various structures here.


Limestone chultun located near the Astronomer's Pyramid. There are very few above-ground sources of fresh water in Yucatan. In the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula, cenotes (limestone sink holes) provide the primary source. However, in the Southern Peninsula, they are scarce. The ancient Maya solved this problems by cutting bottle-shaped chambers, called chultunes, down into the limestone. Drainage channels were then cut to the chultunes so that rainwater runoff from buildings and plazas could be collected and stored.

The Early Franciscan Open Chapel

The enclosed areas of Open Chapels are relatively small. Capillas Abiertas (Open Chapels) became distinctive features of Mexican Catholic architecture during the early 16th century Spiritual Conquest of Nueva España (Mexico). They were used by Franciscan friars as they evangelized indigenous populations. The mass conversions conducted during this period meant that there were often thousands of people who attended services. Building churches that would fit them all was beyond the resources of the friars. Most of Mexico's great cathedrals and basilicas were still a century into the future. In addition, the indigenous people were accustomed to attending pagan rituals conducted in the open air in front of their temples.

The friars' solution was to gather the indigenous people they were evangelizing into a large, un-roofed area, called an atrium. Facing the atrium would be a simple, open-faced chapel. The area behind the arch, called the presbytery, was roofed, but the archway itself was kept open so people could see the rituals that were being conducted. To the left of the presbytery is a sacristy where priestly vestments and other religious articles were kept. The room on the right, accessed from the front of the chapel, may have been used for administrative purposes or as temporary quarters for the itinerant friars.



 The presbytery and altar. At the back of the presbytery is a raised area containing the altar. Oxtankah's Capilla Abierta was built in 1544, shortly after the conquest of the region around Chetumal Bay. It is quite similar to the one we saw at Dzibilchaltún, a pre-hispanic Maya ruin near Mérida in northern Yucatan. The Spanish often constructed their churches and chapels in areas that indigenous people had been venerating for centuries. Oxtankah had long been a sacred precinct to the local Maya, even during the period of its abandonment between 600-900 AD. Thus, it is not surprising that this Capilla Abierta was built only a stone's throw from the Plaza Abejas.

This concludes my series on the ancient Maya city of Oxtankah. I hope you have enjoyed it and, if so, please leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below or email me directly.

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

Hasta luego, Jim

Friday, October 12, 2018

Southern Yucatan Pensinsula: Oxtankah's Plaza of Columns

Structure X is a palace with four columns along its front at the top of a broad staircase. The columns prompted archeologists to give the Plaza de Columnas its name. The palace is one of five structures surrounding the plaza, which is one of Oxtankah's two main ceremonial areas. The other is the Plaza de Abejas, seen previously. In this posting, we will take a close look at the pyramids, palaces, and temples that surround the Plaza de Columnas. As you may remember from the previous posting, the names of both plazas, and of Oxtankah itself, were given by the archeologist who excavated them back in the 1930s. Their original, pre-hispanic names remain a mystery.


Overview of the Plaza de Columnas

Plaza de Columnas is surrounded by a large pyramid, two palaces, and two un-named structures.  The plaza's orientation is south-to-north and west-to-east.  The north side, at the bottom of the schematic, contains Structure X (in Roman numerals, X=10). This is an edifice that I will call the North Palace. Above it, on the left (east) side, is Structure VI (=6), a large pyramid from which multiple human remains and many grave goods were recovered. On the top (south) side of the plaza are two un-named pyramids about which I have no information. Structure IX (=9), which I will call the West Palace, is located on the right (east) side. It has a broad staircase on the side facing the plaza and multiple rooms along its top. When excavated, one of of these rooms was found to be a kitchen. We will begin our tour of the plaza with the Structure X palace and proceed clock-wise around the plaza. Since I could find no information or names for the two structures on the south side, they will not be included in this posting.


I had to allow this handsome guy his 15 minutes of fame. Everyone deserves at least that. A visitor to Oxtankah will encounter iguanas of various sizes and hues throughout the ancient city's ruins. This one is known to scientists as Ctenosaurus similis and is the largest iguana within the genus Ctenosaurus. It can be found throughout Central America and parts of the Yucatan peninsula. Although this species is able to run faster than any other lizard, this one remained motionless for the entire time I was taking its picture. While the focus of my Oxtankah series is on the two main ceremonial plazas, there are numerous others, mostly unexcavated. One of the smaller plazas was dubbed Plaza de Iguanas.


Structure X: The North Palace


The North Palace, viewed from atop Structure VI. This palace contains three rooms on its top and two more at the rear. These were apparently the dwellings of rulers and their families. This is one of the few major structures at Oxtankah that contained no human remains when it was excavated.



Stucco mask of an elite male, possibly one of Oxtankah's actual rulers. He wears an elaborate, feathered head-dress, long jade earrings, and a jade necklace. All this indicates a person of very high status. His lower jaw and cheeks are painted, or possibly tattooed. color. There was no explanatory sign, but the mask may have had a funerary function. It might also have decorated a wall in the North Palace or elsewhere. The mask can be seen in the small museum at the entrance of the site.


Rear view of the North Palace. The two rooms at the rear of the palace can be entered from the doorway seen above. The rear rooms were added sometime after the palace was originally built. This might have occurred at the end of the Early Classic Era (200-600 AD), just before the interval of abandonment, or during the Post-Classic Era (1000-1520 AD) when the site was re-occupied.


Tripod vessel found at Oxtankah. This is definitely high-status pottery and could well have been used by the city-state's ruler. The pot bears a striking resemblance to Teotihuacán's tripod vessels. Teotihuacan was the capital of a huge trading empire of central Mexico from 100 to 650 AD. This was the same time frame as Classic Era Oxtankah. This pot may have arrived a Oxtankah from Teotihuacan through the trade networks, or Maya potters could have simply copied the style from other imported ceramics. Teotihuacan had a close connection with the Maya World, particularly the Petén region stretching across northern Guatemala and the southern Yucatan Peninsula. In fact, the  Petén city-state of Tikal appears to have been ruled by Teotihuacan for a period of time. Teotihuacan itself had a whole district set aside for Maya immigrants and traders. Under these circumstances, it would not be surprising to find a Teotihuacan pot in an important Maya trading seaport like Oxtankah, even though the two cities were 1145 km (711 mi) apart.


Structure VI: The Pyramid with Multiple Tombs

Cutaway view showing the tombs of Structure VI. The pyramid has four stepped-levels, with a single-story temple on top. Facing west, toward the plaza, is a single broad staircase, with the upper and lower sets of stairs divided by a landing. Inside the pyramid, five tombs containing the remains of twelve individuals were found. Two of the tombs are located under the staircase and the others are located in the center of the pyramid, under the temple. Most of the human remains were too deteriorated to determine age or sex, but one has been identified as a female. Examination of the teeth indicates that all were adults except for one and all had been buried during the Early Classic Era. Because they were buried within the pyramid, and because of the quality the grave goods interred with them, this was certainly a group of high-status individuals, possibly members of a royal family.


View of Structure VI and its main staircase. The pyramid appears to have two sets of stairs separated by a gap in the middle. Originally this was one broad staircase, but archeologists created the gap when they tunneled into the stairs looking for the burials. In 2014. a team of scientists published the results of their analysis of the remains of 73 individuals buried at Oxtankah, including those of Structure VI. All 73 were interred within the various structures surrounding the two main ceremonial plazas. A total of 55 individuals were found in Structures I, III, and IV at the Plaza de Abejas. Another 18 were buried at the Plaza de Columnas, including the 12 in Structure VI and another 6 in Structure IX. None were found in Structure X. Of the 73 individual remains, only four--two male and two female--were complete enough to determine sex or age at death.

The reason that so many of the remains are so fragmentary and deteriorated may be that the overwhelming majority were secondary, rather than primary burials. With secondary burials, the body was buried elsewhere for some period of time and then the remains, or parts of them, were moved to the site where they were ultimately discovered. A primary burial is one where the remains were left in place and are therefore more likely to be relatively intact. The practice of secondary burial was widespread among the pre-hispanic people of the southern Yucatan Peninsula and northern Belize and Guatemala.


For the benefit of tourists, a facsimile of a skeleton was placed in Tomb 2.  The original remains were so deteriorated that there was no way to determine sex or age. As yet, there is no evidence that any of the 73 individuals were victims of human sacrifice. In most of the other pre-hispanic sites I have visited in Mexico and Central America, there has been clear evidence of ritual killings. Sometimes, this occurred as part of the dedication of new (or re-built) temples and pyramids. At other times it was to propitiate the gods, or to celebrate an accession to the throne, or as part of the rituals associated with the pre-hispanic ball game. It would  have been unusual for this particular city-state to forego these practices. At the moment, there is no evidence either way.


Arrangement of bodies and grave goods in Tomb 1, in Structure VI. In this tomb, and another area below it, a total of 11 individuals were interred. All were adults except for one child. Only one female has been identified as such among the group, although there may have been more. The grave goods found among the remains were sumptuous. Notice, in particular, the necklace worn by the individual at the lower left.


A sampling of the objects found in Tomb 1. The necklace at the top was worn by the person seen in the previous illustration. It consists of 1,620 small, pearly beads carved from mollusk shells. Tiny holes were drilled in each so they could be linked together, somewhat like chain mail. The bottom edge of the necklace is bordered by oval earrings and "L" shaped attachments, both of which were made from snail shells. To see the whole, extraordinary garment, click here. This  assemblage demonstrates astonishing quality and craftsmanship. It also illustrates the range of uses the people of Oxtankah found for their oceanic resources. Also shown are a small mask made of red coral, a jade necklace, a greenstone ax, and a fine piece of pottery. Grave goods are important to archeologists because objects deliberately and carefully buried in a tomb are more likely than others to survive intact through the centuries. Also, objects left in tombs, particularly those of elite persons, are likely to have a special significance. Analysis of such objects provides a window into the minds of ancient people.


The temple atop the pyramid has a single, rectangular room. The temple's roof was made of perishable materials which did not survive the centuries. The entrance of the temple room, at the center left, faces a niche containing a small altar. The scientists who studied the teeth found with the remains wanted to understand which populations were most in contact with the people of Oxtankah. Their analysis indicated a close relationship with the city-states of Dzibanché and  Calakmul. Both are located in the south-central area of the Yucatan Peninsula, some distance from the coast. There were more tenuous links with the Maya of the Petén area of northern Guatemala. Oxtankah's connections with these areas were the result of its status as a key trading port on the coast of Chetumal Bay.


The altar of the temple is set in a small cubicle about the size of a modern closet. Even after Oxtankah was depopulated and largely abandoned during the Epi-Classic Era (600-900 AD), offerings were left at its temples and pyramids. Apparently people still living in the surrounding regions continued to revere Oxtankah's religious sites. In addition to the offerings, several of the 73 burials occurred during the Epi-Classic Era.


Structure IX: The West Palace

Schematic view looking down on Structure IX, the West Palace. This palace was built in several stages. The earliest was during the Early Classic Era and the last occurred in the Post Classic. In the first phase, two small, low platforms were constructed with rooms along the top. A passageway separated them. The remains of these rooms can be seen on the left of the schematic. The walls were once decorated with vividly-painted images of important elite figures, similar to the mask seen previously. Other areas were covered with religious symbols. When the long-abandoned city was repopulated at the beginning of the Post-Classic Era, the newcomers rebuilt this palace. The Early Classic platforms were covered by a long rectangular platform containing four rooms. Three of the rooms appear to have functioned as royal living quarters. In the schematic, they can be seen just above the staircase in the center.  The fourth room, on the far right, served as the palace's kitchen.


Structure IX's Post-Classic Era platform. A broad set of steps leads up to three royal living areas. Other rooms stretch off to the left and right on either side. The scientists doing the tooth study found six individuals buried in five tombs within the West Palace. One tomb contained two individuals but the other four tombs only contained one apiece. Five individuals were adults of indeterminate age or sex. However, the sixth set of remains was determined to be an adult female. All the burials were from the Early Classic Era.


View along the top of the West Palace, looking south. The room in the foreground was the kitchen. Given its close proximity to Chetumal Bay and the Caribbean, the diet of the city's inhabitants was rich in seafood. Thousands of shells from a variety of mollusks were recovered throughout Oxtankah. The thatched-roof palapa in the distance protects some of the Early Classic rooms from the elements.


Early Classic Era room, on the extreme south end of the West Palace. At the upper right of the photo is a door which leads to other Early Classic rooms. Notice the high quality construction of the walls on either side of the room. In contrast, the wall at the end is rough and appears to have been thrown together. This may indicate that the construction standards of the Post Classic Era were not up to those of the Early Classic.

This concludes the third part of my Oxtankah series. I hope you have enjoyed it. If so, please leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below. Alternatively, you can email me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim