Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Calakmul Part 2: 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. Three 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 ruler connected with Calakmul. In 636 AD, the fourth son acceded to the throne. Yuknoom Ch'een II has been called Yuknoom the Great by some archeologists. He died in 686 AD after an extraordinary 50 year reign. During his reign, he extended Calakmul's area of control over 13,000 sq km (8,078 sq mi), inhabited by more than 1.5 million people. 

Ceramics belonging to Yuknoom Ch'een II and Yuknoom Yich'aak K'ahk', his son and 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. 

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 kaloo'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 


Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Calakmul Part 1: A spectacular ancient city, deep in the Petén jungle.

Structure II is Calakmul's largest pyramid. It stands at the south end of the city's Gran Plaza. In the upper left of the photo, Structure I can be seen peeping out of the jungle. These two pyramids are the city's largest structures. In the Maya language, Calakmul means "Two Adjacent Mounds". The name was the invention of Cyrus Lundell, who discovered the city from the air in 1931. It refers to these two great pyramids, the tops of which Lundell saw protruding from the jungle as he flew over. However, according to ancient Maya hieroglyphs, the city's real name was Ox Te' Tuun, meaning "Three Stones". This may refer to the three stones which traditionally supported a kitchen hearth. In order to avoid confusion, I will use Calakmul in this series, because it is the more widely-known name.

Structure II is a huge, complex, multilevel pyramid. What we see today is the product of the last phase of multiple modifications. These occurred at various times during the city's 1,400 year history. The last phase was completed in the Terminal Classic era (600-900 AD). This period preceded Calakmul's collapse and abandonment. The base of Structure II measures 140m (459ft) on each of its four sides. From the ground to the very top there are at least eight levels, rising 55m (180.4ft) up from the plaza. This makes it the largest structure in Calakmul and one of the largest in the whole Maya area. A broad central staircase connects levels three to six. There are also several smaller stairways connecting the various levels. The remains of workshops and housing for the ancient craftsmen can be found on the first few levels of the north facade. 

The central staircase ends at level six, which contains Structure IIb. At one time, this was the ruler's palace. The now-roofless building has three north-facing doors and contains nine rooms. On the east and west sides of Structure IIb are smaller structures called IIc and IId. They once housed high status individuals and their families. On the south end of level six, behind Structure IIb, is a temple pyramid with three staircases on its first level. A single, central staircase leads up to the top of the second level, which is the highest point on Structure II.  (Photo from the Maya Ruins Website)


Calakmul is located in the approximate center of the ancient Maya world. The site is in the Mexican state of Campeche, approximately 35km (22mi) north of the Guatemalan border. This puts Calakmul about half way between the Caribbean and Gulf Coasts. From the northern tip of Yucatan to the Guatemala highlands in the south, Calakmul is again at about the half way point. The Petén lowlands cover the central part of this large area, which stretches from northern Guatemala well into the southern part of the Yucatan Peninsula. During the Classic Era (250-900 AD), the Petén was heavily populated. At its peak, Calakmul controlled about 13,000 sq. km (8078 sq.mi) of the Petén, which contained about 1.5 million inhabitants. Approximately 50,000 of these lived in the city itself, with another 200,000 in the rural areas immediately surrounding it. In addition to Calakmul's domain, the Petén region contained dozens of other substantial cities and many hundreds of towns and villages. Today, the heavily jungled region is almost devoid of human presence. Although timber companies and ranchers have made some inroads,  much of the Petén on both sides of the border is now within protected biosferas (biospheres). 

Calakmul was one of the two most important cities of the Classic Maya era. The other was its bitter enemy Tikal, lying 97km (60mi) to the south in today's Guatemala. Tikal draws many thousands of tourists each year, but Calakmul receives relatively few. Reaching these remote ruins requires a good deal of time and determination. The main highway passing through the Biosphera Calakmul is Mexico 186. This paved and well-maintained road spans the neck of the Yucatan Peninsula, connecting the Caribbean Coast with the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, there are hotels, restaurants, and gas stations. However, conditions change once you turn south on the road leading to the ruins. 

From the Highway 186 turnoff to Calakmul is 61km (38mi). That may sound like a short drive but it can take from 1.5 to 2 hours. Although paved, the road is narrow and heavily potholed for much of the way, requiring low-speed driving. Except for a small museum about half way to the ruins, there is nothing along this road but jungle. If you decide to visit Calakmul, make sure to gas up in advance and bring lunch and plenty of water. When we arrived at Calakmul's parking lot, it contained less than ten cars, including those of the caretakers. The ruins themselves cover quite a large area and we rarely saw another person. However, monkeys, birds, and other wildlife were plentiful. To tell the truth, that's just how we like it when we visit an ancient site like this. Click this Google map to see the route. 

Calakmul's craftsmen produced beautiful ceramics during the Classic era. This four-legged vessel with a vulture-head handle stands 26cm (10.2in) high. Because the vessel is intact, it was almost certainly recovered from an elite tomb. Unfortunately, its sign doesn't list the precise location at Calakmul from which it was recovered. This was among several that I photographed at the little museum along the road to the site.

 The Maya considered vultures to be extraordinary beings. They were associated with war and the sun and their remains have been found in the tombs of rulers. Sculptures and paintings of Maya kings often portray them standing upon the bodies of live war captives or dead enemies. The association of vultures with rulers may have occurred because carrion-eating vultures often stand on the corpses of animals upon which they are feeding. 


Site map of the main ruins. The Gran Acrópolis is the large group of structures on the left. The Pequeña (small) Acrópolis is on the right. Sandwiched between them is the Gran Plaza. Structure II is at the south end of the Gran Plaza and Structure I is below it to the right. To the north of the Gran Plaza, but not shown on this map, is the Acrópolis Chii'k Naab, a residential area that I will show in a subsequent part of this series. 

Since the round-trip travel time between our hotel in Xpujil and Calakmul was about five hours, our time at the ruins was limited. We only explored the structures of the Gran Plaza and the Acrópolis Chii'k Naab . Together, those two areas make up about 1/4 of the total excavated site. In turn, the excavated site itself represents only a portion of the 6,250 structures that have been surveyed. In fact, the surveys conducted to date may not have captured all, or even most, of the structures that once made up this metropolis. The newly developed jungle-penetrating radar called LiDAR has not yet been used at Calakmul. However, in other parts of the Petén, it has revealed tens of thousands of structures where it was once believed none existed. 

In addition to limited time, we were also hampered by the lack of a hand-size map to guide us around the ruins. Unlike ancient sites in the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula, those in the south often do not provide you with maps when you check in at the gate. While there were large display maps at Calakmul's gatehouse, there was nothing I could hold in my hand as we wandered blindly down the jungle trails. Before you visit, make sure to download and print out site maps of Calakmul to help you navigate this complex ruin.

Structure II over the centuries

Cutaway image showing Structure II's original and final forms. The blue image represents the original structure, built during the Late Pre-Classic era (100 BC-250 AD). Superimposed over it is the Terminal Classic version. Unlike modern practice, where older structures are simply torn down and then replaced, Maya architects typically covered an older building with a newer, larger one. By tunneling down into pyramids and temples, archeologists can discover the            structures of previous eras. Structure II underwent at least three major modifications over the centuries, along with numerous lesser changes. (Photo from Architecture of Petén at Calakmul: A Regional Comparison)

Remains of rooms once occupied by craftsmen and their families. These were among the Terminal Classic modifications made to the north facade during Calakmul's period of decline. Archeologists can tell the social class of those who occupied these rooms from the domestic debris and evidence of workshops found when this part of the structure was unearthed. Prior to the Terminal Classic period, access to Structure II had been restricted to members of the elite. 

Calakmul got its start during the Pre-Classic era (600 BC-250 AD). At that time, a civilization called El Mirador (The Lookout) dominated the Petén region. El Mirador Valley is located in northern Guatemala, about 38km (24mi) south of Calakmul. At one time, archeologists had thought that Calakmul had been founded by refugees from El Mirador, who were fleeing its collapse around 100 AD. However, it now appears that Calakmul developed during El Mirador's heyday and became important in its own right as El Mirador declined. It is certainly possible that some of the former residents of El Mirador migrated to Calakmul and thus helped transform it into a great city at the beginning of the Classic era.

More rooms along the north facade. During the Terminal Classic, warfare among Maya city states became intense. At the same time, natural and human-induced climate change led to long-term droughts and depopulation of the countryside. Many migrated away toward the northern areas of the Yucatan Peninsula where the economies were still vibrant because of better access to water. As the city's population shrank, common people began to live in elite areas previously forbidden to them. Structure II had formerly been dedicated to elite religious and political activities, but it now took on a residential function that included all classes.

The original settlers at Calakmul arrived around 500 BC. They built their community on a raised limestone area about 25 square kilometers in size that was surrounded by large bajos (low areas or swamps). The two largest were called El Labertino and El Ramonal. These bajos provided the new community with easy access to water. However, over the following centuries, increases in population required more water. Calakmul's inhabitants solved this problem by constructing a number of reservoirs to store water collected during the rainy season. Ultimately, the total reservoir capacity grew to the point where it could meet the needs of 50,000 people. 

The soil on the limestone ridge was thin, so the inhabitants brought fertile mud up from the swamps to create raised gardens. There, they could cultivate maiz, beans, squash, and other crops. The area also contained a large supply of chert, a stone from which tools could be fashioned. So, with plentiful water, access to good soil and chert for tools, and an unlimited supply of limestone for building materials, most of the elements were in place for Calakmul's success. The final great advantage was location. As outlined earlier, the growing city occupied the geographic center of the Maya world. This position held great strategic importance in terms of politics, trade, and military conquest.

Remains of a great mask. This structure is one of the two large masks located on either side of the main staircase. The flat gray protruding stone is the nose, with the mouth immediately below it. The two widely-spaced eyes are the whitish pits above and on either side of the nose. The masks are part of the decorations created during the Early-Classic period. They portrayed the faces of Maya gods and were once colorfully painted. At the beginning of the Eighth Century AD, the masks were covered over during one of the modifications of the north facade. Large masks were typical features of Maya temples and pyramids. A better preserved example can be seen at Edzna's Temple of the Masks

Structure II's modifications over the centuries began after the construction of the earliest version (see previous cutaway image). It was built sometime during the Middle Pre-Classic (390 BC-250 BC). The pyramid was intended to replicate the Witz (sacred mountain), which was believed to contain a portal that led to Xibalba (the underworld). In the Maya's cyclical cosmos, Xibalba was the place of death and rebirth. On top of Structure II's original main platform, there once stood a single-story building. This structure contained an altar and, reputedly, Xibalba's portal. On top of the building was a narrow, flat, upright panel called a roof comb. Its purpose was to support stucco decorations possibly including a large mask. 

During the Classic era, several new staircases were added to the north facade. One of these was the great stairway leading up to the triple doorways of Structure IIb. Two narrower stairways were built up on either side of the larger central one. The reasons for these multiple methods of access are not clear, but all these modifications must have required immense effort by a large workforce.

During the Late Pre-Classic (100 BC-250 AD) the building containing Xibalba's portal was covered over by a larger building. The new structure was used as a burial site for rulers and other high-status individuals. This modification not only changed the physical appearance of Structure II but added a political function to its on-going religious function. Eventually the great pyramid would contain the tombs of at least nine different kings. 

Some rulers were buried under the new building's floor and an effort was made to conceal the tombs from robbers, who seem to have been a problem even in those early times. Later, during the Early Classic (250 AD-600AD), the tomb building was, in turn, covered over by another new construction. The remains of that new building, which archeologists call Structure IIb, are what we see today at the top of the great staircase.

The supports of the three doorways of Structure IIb can be seen at the top of the great staircase. In the Terminal Classic, Structure II again underwent physical and functional changes. As previously noted, Structure IIb was transformed into a palace for the rulers, while IIc and IId became residential areas for top elites. On the lower levels of the north facade, workshops and housing for the artisans were added. The only part of the pyramid complex that maintained a purely religious function was the temple pyramid located immediately behind Structure IIb. 

These final changes are a reflection of Calakmul's decline. Prolonged drought depopulated much of the Petén. Some of the people left the area entirely and moved into the still economically vibrant northern areas of Yucatan. Those inhabitants of Calakmul's domain who remained withdrew into the city's center. As the Classic Maya world of the Petén lowlands collapsed, Calakmul's economic and cultural focus began to shift toward the north. 

The northern areas were not as much affected by the droughts. Some, like Edzna, had water systems of much greater capacity than Calakmul. Others, such as Dzibilchaltún had year-round sources in nearby cenotes. This shift in Calakmul's economic and cultural focus was also reflected in architectural design. Multifunctional pyramids like Structure II can also be found in Maya cities to the north, including Edzna's Pyramid of the Five Levels and Sayil's Great Palace. It is not clear whether Calakmul followed their example, or the northerners copied what they observed at Calakmul.

The stelae of Structure II

The north facade of Structure II as it appears today. The north facade is decorated with numerous stelae. These are upright, two-sided, stone monuments that look a bit like a tombstones. They are sometimes smooth but often covered with carved images and hieroglyphic text. Over the centuries, rulers commissioned them to commemorate special occasions. These might include an accession to power, a victory in battle, or the celebration of an important date in the Maya calendar. The five stelae in the foreground above were erected at the beginning of the Eighth Century. They stand at the base of the stairs, while others are located at various levels of the north facade. The white monument in the center of the stairway contains the image of the wife of an important ruler. The stelae shown in this section of my posting are among the most important at Structure II. 

The five stelae at the pyramid's base were erected in 702 AD. Since the limestone available to Calakmul's sculptors was of relatively poor quality, the glyphs and other images on many stone monuments have eroded over the centuries. What remains on the surface of the stelae above is only enough to establish the dates. For five stelae--all with the same date--to have been erected in such close proximity at the center of the very base of Calakmul's largest pyramid seems significant. Was the ruler's story simply too long to fit on fewer stelae? Did each stela contain the image of a different conquered opponent? Was the ruler attempting to establish a connection to the glorious history of several of his dynastic ancestors? Like so much of what we encounter in the Maya world, all this remains a mystery.

Until fairly recently, Stela 43 contained the earliest date found at Calakmul. Stela 43 was originally erected at a different location in Calakmul, but at some point in ancient times it was moved to its present site. The reason for the relocation is not known. The stela, still showing tinges of red pigment, stands in a small enclosure on the left side of the pyramid's first level. Carved in the stone is the Maya version of the date 514 AD. Up until 1994, this was the earliest confirmed date found on any monument at Calakmul. Archeologists knew, of course, that the city was much older than that. 

The discovery of this Early Classic stela was important because all other stelae found up until then were from the later in the Classic period. Specific dates are important, because they can be connected to specific rulers, dynasties, and events. From that, a chronology can be developed and compared to chronologies of other cities. Gradually, the complex history of a whole region starts to emerge. 

Sometimes there are references on one ancient city's monuments to other contemporaneous cities. For example, the earliest reference to Calakmul was found on a stela at the city of Balakbal. It contains the date 406 AD and its text indicates that Balakbal had a subordinate relationship with Calakmul at the time. This shows that Calakmul was already becoming an important regional power during the Early Classic era. 

The front side of the stela contains the image of an elite figure. The person is shown in left profile, standing on a captive. This stance is strongly associated with rulership and military power. As befits a king, the figure is richly dressed and wears a headdress incorporating ancestors and the masks of deities. Under his left arm he holds a scepter containing the figure of K'awiil, the Maya god of lightning, serpents, fertility, and maiz. The scepter is tipped with the two heads of the celestial monster. (Drawing from Latin American Studies website)

Left side view of Stela 43. The two narrow sides contain text, much of which is incomplete or undecipherable because of weathering. A partial name for the royal figure has been deciphered as Ah-K'uhul-?-bi-a, but archeologists don't yet know what the name means. The title K'uhul chatan winik is also included in the text. However this probably refers to the subordinates of the figure shown, because the title is associated with secondary leaders. While 514 AD is the earliest date on the monument, it also contains three later dates. It may be that the stela commemorates several battle victories, perhaps won by the secondary leaders.  The presence of the captive under the king's feet supports this possibility.

Stela 114 contains the Maya date corresponding to September 16, 431 AD. This discovery pushed Calakmul's earliest historical date back by 83 years before the date on Stela 43. These are the only two stelae at Calakmul from the Early Classic period. Stela 114 had previously be located somewhere else. During the Terminal Classic period, it was moved to a covered niche at Structure II near the bottom of the north facade. Its new location would have placed it out of the view of casual passersby, but still accessible to priests and other elites. 

An altar found in front of Stela 114 contains evidence of burnt offerings, including human bones. Sometime in the Late Terminal Classic, the niche was covered over by modifications to the pyramid. These very likely included the the homes and workshops of craftsmen. Stela 114 was not seen again by human eyes until 1994, when it was discovered by archeologists working under William Folan. (Photo from Architecture of Petén at Calakmul: A Regional Comparison)

The stela is carved on its front and back, as well as along the two narrow sides. On the front side is another richly dressed ruler with an extremely elaborate headdress. The figure holds a scepter vertically in his right hand. The two ends of the scepter each are tipped with a celestial monster head. Slanting from his lower left side to the upper right is a large object which appears to be an over-sized scepter. Archeologists believe this figure was the ruler who commissioned the great masks standing on either side of the main staircase.

The back of the stela and its narrow sides are covered with more than 90 glyphs containing a considerable amount of information. Unfortunately, the limestone surface is so eroded that only fragments of names remain. The order in which they appear, however, indicates that the names include not only the ruler, but those of his mother and father. (Drawing from Latin American Studies website)

Stela 116 was carved from white limestone and stands in the middle of the great staircase. The stela was erected in 692 AD, near the height of Calakmul's power. The figure on the front of the monument is a female who was probably the mother or wife of Yich' ak K'ak (Jaguar Paw). Her name is represented by the symbol for a god's head, paired with the glyph for female. Another glyph on the stela is the emblem for the city of Dos Pilas, one of Calakmul's subordinate allies. 

Jaguar Paw, whose tomb was found within Structure IIb, was one of Calakmul's great rulers. It is possible that the woman on Stela 116 was his wife, through a political marriage that cemented the alliance with Dos Pilas. Another possibility is that she was Jaguar Paw's mother, who may have married his father for similar political reasons. 

This completes Part 1 of my Calakmul series. In the next posting, I will show the tomb of Jaguar Paw and artifacts from other elite burials at Structure II. I'll also walk you through the palace and elite residential areas that once occupied level 6 of Structure II. I hope you have enjoyed this posting and, if so, that you will please leave any thoughts and questions in the Comments section below or email me directly. If you leave a question PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Sunday, January 31, 2021

La Cañada Slot Canyons Part 2 of 2: the Middle Canyon, the 2nd Slot, and the Hidden Valley

Hikers pick their way through jumbled boulders along the base of the Second Slot. This is the most dramatic slot canyon on the route, with soaring walls on either side. Part 1 of this two-part series covered the approach to La Cañada Canyon, the First Slot, and part of the Middle Canyon. In Part 2, we'll continue through the Middle Canyon to the Second Slot and the Hidden Valley.

La Cañada Canyon is a fairly easy route to hike, although it does involve occasional boulder-scrambling. The grade is almost level and most of the trail is clear and easily walkable. Some stretches do get washed out by flash floods each year, but alternate paths are easily found. Getting lost is unlikely, because the whole route remains within the same canyon and side trails are few. When you have gone as far as you want, you just retrace your steps.

Our hiking group included two of the furry, four-footed variety. From the left are Gary, with Maddy the dog just behind him. Maddy's owner Chuck stands in the back row to the rear of Gary. To the right of Chuck are Jerry, Phil, and John. Luna the dog is in front. To the right of Luna are Jim and Carl. I, of course, am behind the camera lens. The group stands at the entrance of the Second Slot.

This party is fairly typical of the expat hikers in the Lake Chapala area. We were a mixture of Canadians and Americans, ranging in age from the late 60s to late 70s. When this hike occurred in 2015, all of these guys were in good shape and capable of some rugged hikes. Since then, unfortunately, some of them have suffered injuries or illnesses that have forced them to drop out. However, the pool is constantly refreshed by new arrivals from north of the border, as well as local Mexican hikers. 

The Middle Canyon

The sheer wall of a cliff rises from the bottom of the Middle Canyon's arroyo. In other parts of the Middle Canyon, the walls are further back from the arroyo (stream bed). In those places, the scree slope climbs gradually up 50 or 100 feet to the base of a wall, which then rises vertically to the top of the cliff.

John takes a break on a natural swing. This vine was quite stout and capable of taking the weight of a full grown man. It was always a popular spot for photographs. When I came through this area some years later, someone had cut the vine. This was disappointing since it had become quite a landmark. 

The tangled roots of an amate tree reach down the cliff face in search of water. You can clearly see the different layers of rock that make up this part of the cliff. The wall's lower rock face appears to be basalt. It is probably volcanic in origin since the whole area around Lake Chapala is filled with extinct volcanos. The upper section is sandstone, probably from an ancient seabed. 

Gary and Jim follow a faint trail through the rock-strewn arroyo. Parts of the stream bed are full of boulders and fallen trees that have been washed down in storms. It often requires a sharp eye to follow the trail as it twists and turns among all this debris.

The wider part of the Middle Canyon has brush-covered scree slopes topped by high cliffs. The Middle Canyon is heavily wooded, with lots of underbrush. We didn't see any animals, but this is the area where they are most likely to be found.

Salvia, also called sage. This plant is a member of the mint family, which contains at least 1000 species of shrubs, herbaceous perennials, and annual. Salvia likes hot, dry climates. My friend and plant expert Ron Parsons made this identification for me. He has a website called Wildflowers and Plnats of Central Mexico.

Chuck, with Maddy just behind. I have hiked with this pair many times over the last decade or so. Chuck is one of those whose health has gotten in the way of his love of hiking. He bravely soldiered on, even when it became obviously difficult. In recent years, he has had to forgo these adventures. Maddy still loves to hike and is overjoyed when Chuck lets one of his friends bring her along. She is a great pooch and her friendliness earned her the nickname "the Gangster of Love".

Yet another rocky, lichen-covered cliff glows in the morning sun. At this point we were deep in the canyon and the base of the arroyo was still in deep shade. The dramatic cliffs captured our attention and we had to be careful lest we trip while gazing upwards.

The 2nd Slot Canyon

Hikers head into the mouth of the Second Slot. The passage quickly becomes quite narrow. The arroyo's base is filled with large rocks, which are often concealed by heaps of leaves. A good hiking stick to probe the leaves is useful when you are looking for pitfalls that could result in a twisted ankle, or worse.

In the middle of la angostura. Chuck and Maddy bring up the rear as the group passes between the soaring walls of the Second Slot. The Mexicans call slot canyons la angostura (the narrows).

The west wall of the Second Slot is composed of conglomerate. There are various types of conglomerates, formed in a number of different ways. This one may have been formed from debris laid down by a glacier. Other types form on the seabed or as alluvial fans extending out from the mouth of arroyos. Conglomerate is made up of small irregular rocks called clasts. These are held together by a natural mortar made up of clay and minerals.

Jerry and Chuck break out snacks during a mid-hike pause. After emerging from the Second Slot, we soon arrived at a flat area often used as a rest stop or a camping area. Stumps and downed trees formed natural seats. Once settled, we dug into the goodies we had brought. These included sandwiches, fruit, and mixes of nuts and dried berries, according to each person's taste. 

The Hidden Valley

Jim and Gary follow the leaf-strewn trail into the Hidden Valley. Often the trail disappears under a layer of large oak leaves. Only with a bit of experience can you follow the slight indentation in the leaves that indicates a trail lies underneath.

Vegetation of the Hidden Valley. The trees are scattered in the valley, with very little underbrush. A couple of spiky maguey plants can be seen in the middle distance. Just beyond the farther maguey, the cliff face rises up from the flat ground.

Phil and Jerry on the Hidden Valley's trail. Phil is a part-timer from Canada who spends about half the year in a house he owns in Ajijic. Jerry is a full-timer from the US who is one of the friendliest human beings on the planet. About two weeks after he had first arrived in Ajijic, he knew more people by name that I did.   

Hikers navigate fallen trees and boulders. In the left foreground, Carl ducks under a low branch. A few years ago on this trail, another hiker knocked himself cold by running head first into a large log which had fallen across the arroyo. When he came to, someone asked how he could possibly have missed seeing the enormous log. As it turned out, he had been watching his feet to avoid tripping over the many rocks underfoot. Sometimes, you are damned if you do and damned if you don't.

The openness of the Hidden Valley gives it a park-like feel. The change is welcome after traveling through the long narrow canyon. A group of hikers tends to spread out in the Hidden Valley, because the openness doesn't require close attention to the trail. The valley continues for some distance, with occasional trail branches heading up the ridges on either side. After an enjoyable stroll through the area, we decided it was time to head back.

The Return

Our hiking party passes a corn field as it emerges from the mouth of the canyon. The corn was ripe and ready to harvest. Next to the field, barbed wire is strung along a row of rough-cut tree branches. The fence is typical of the rough and ready Mexican back country. 

This wispy vine is Clematis. Although it was hanging down from a branch, it clearly was not part of the tree. There are about 300 species within the genus Clematis, and Ron could not be more specific. While this Clematis is clearly wild, these vines have become very popular as decorative plants. The name comes from the ancient Greek and means "climbing plant".

Traffic jam at the trailhead. When we returned to the trailhead, we discovered that our way out was temporarily blocked by a huge piece of farm machinery. Actually, it would be fair to say that we were blocking it. The farm workers had been trying to move the machinery into the adjacent corn field but our poorly parked cars had stopped them. Being rural Mexicans, they were very laid back and sociable. They probably welcomed the work break while they awaited the return of the cars' owners. We learned our lesson and now always park well off the road when we hike the canyon.

Like the proverbial 800 lb gorilla, we gave this vehicle all the room it needed. I nicknamed it "The Beast" because of the enormous "teeth" projecting from the front end. As it turned out, the teeth are removable, which is what the worker in the photo was doing. We headed home soon after he was finished, with another great hike to remember.

This completes Part 2 of La Cañada Slot Canyons. I hope you have enjoyed this jaunt into the mountains. 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, please remember to also leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim