Sunday, June 10, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 12: Dzibilchaltún and its Temple of the Seven Dolls

Templo de las Siete Muñecas is part of an ancient Maya city north of Mérida. Dzbilichaltún (Zee-beelee-chal-tun) is not as well-known among foreign tourists as it ought to be. Only about 16 km (10 mi) north of Mérida, the site is just off the main highway to the port of Progreso and is easily reached. For a map of the area, click here. Carole and I and our friends Denis and Julika hired a taxi to the site, then hired a guide to show us around. The total cost per person was modest. Another reason to visit Dzibilichaltún is that its occupation lasted from approximately 500 BC to the Yucatan Conquest in 1542 AD, over 2000 years! This spans the period between the Olmecs and the Spanish arrival, and may make the city the oldest continuously occupied site in Mesoamerica. The reasons for Dzbilichaltún's longevity include its proximity to the fishing and salt resources of the Gulf Coast, and the fertile land all around the ancient city. The city's name means "Place where there is writing on flat stones."

Overview of the Temple of the Seven Dolls

Site map of the Temple and its surroundings. The top of the map is north. The arrow on the west (left) side points to Structure 12, a small altar with a stela (upright stone monument) on top, one of many in the area. In the center is a vertical row of four stuctures, north to south. The bottom three are almost identical in construction. To the east (right) is the Templo de los Siete Muñecas (Temple of the Seven Dolls), with ruined outbuildings to its east and south. The complex shown above is at the extreme east end of Dzbilichaltún ceremonial complex. To the west of Structure 12 is an ancient raised road leading to the Great Plaza and its surrounding pyramids, palaces, and temples.

Artist's conception of the Seven Dolls. Dzbilichaltún's museum was closed for renovations when we visited so I have no photos of the artifacts recovered in the area. However, the site map for the Temple provided this sketch of the dolls. Found inside the Temple when it was excavated in the 1950s, they were crudely made from clay. The dolls are almost certainly offerings left during ceremonies held at the temple in conjunction with the Vernal (Spring) Equinox.

Approach to the Temple of the Seven Dolls

The sacbe leading to the Temple was an architectural achievement in itself. The term sacbe means "white road" and refers to the ancient Maya practice of building raised roads to connect important sites. The road, known as Sacbe 1 seen above is 400 m (1312 ft) long. The width is 20 m (65.6 ft) and runs from tree line to tree line in the photo above. The sacbe is raised approximately 1 meter (3 ft) above the surrounding area. The road was constructed using limestone rubble surfaced by stucco made from crushed rock. Stone blocks were set as curbs along each side. Above, visible at the far east end, is the Temple of the Seven Dolls. In the opposite direction, the western terminus is the Great Plaza complex which I will show in my next two postings. This sacbe was mainly in use from  600 AD to 1000 AD. There are a total of eleven sacbeob (plural of sacbe) in the Dzbilichaltún area and some of them seem to connect the residential complexes of important families. The Maya were astounding road builders. Their highways were far superior to the roads of contemporary Mesoamerican civilizations. The longest known sacbe connects the ancient city of T'ho (modern Mérida) with the Caribbean Sea near modern Puerto Morelos, a distance of approximately 300 km (186.4 mi), much of it through thick jungle! This feat was accomplished by a civilization possessing no metal tools, no access to draft animals, and that did not use the wheel.

A stela and altar stand in front of a dance platform at the edge of the sacbe. The front of the platform is parallel with the sacbe curb running along the north side. The rest of the platform area extends back toward the trees. The upright stone in front of the platform is a stela, once covered by stucco designs and writing. Immediately in front of the stela is a small, cylindrical altar with a flat top, about the size and shape of a large bucket. Processions along the sacbe to the Temple of the Seven Dolls may have stopped here to make offerings and to watch feathered dancers twirl in ancient rituals. 

A residential ruin lies in the trees to the north of the sacbe. While the large ceremonial structures have been largely excavated, the overwhelming majority of the 8,400 identified ruins at Dzbilichaltún have not. The size of the total site is 16 square km (9.9 sq. mi) and it once contained an ancient population of 20,000 or more. The areas surrounding the ceremonial structures are heaped with piles of overgrown rubble extending far back into the jungle.

Structure 12 straddles the sacbe approach to the Temple. The quadrangular platform has staircases leading up all four sides and is topped by yet another stela. Like the other 20 stelae found at Dzbiblchaltún this one was was once covered by stucco decorations. Structure 12 was probably another ceremonial stop on the way to the main event at the Temple, seen in the background.

One of 3 identical structures lined up in a row across the front of the Temple. Approximately 20 m (65.6 ft) to the west of the Temple is a north-south row of structures, nearly identical in construction. They are rectangular and have 3-step staircases leading up their sides to a row of doorways. The interiors of the structures are each divided lengh-wise by a wall, with several rooms along the east and west sides. Over time, some of the original doorways were sealed off, for unknown reasons. The exact  purpose of these structures also unknown, except that they were closely associated with the activities at the Temple. Offerings found inside the structures include shells, fish bones, stingray tails, small objects made from green stones, obsidian, and various marine materials used in making ornaments. Maya worshippers sometimes used stingray tails to pierce their tongues or genitals, in order to obtain blood for rituals. 

The Temple Exterior

The west side of the Temple of the Seven Dolls. This appears to have been the main entrance. The base is a four-sided pyramidal pedestal with stairs leading up from each side. On the pedestal sits a one-story temple with four doorways, one at the top of each set of stairs. Each door faces one of the four cardinal directions. Flanking the west doorway are two windows. The north-south-east-west orientation of the Temple indicates that the structure served as an astronomical observatory, particularly with respect to the Vernal Equinox. On that date, March 20, the rising sun shines in a blinding display directly through the east doorway and out the west doorway seen above. It must have been an impressive display to the thousands gathered to participate in the rituals surrounding the beginning of Spring. The main purpose of the rituals was to govern the all-important maize crop planting cycle, and to ensure adequate rain. Of course, the accuracy of the priest-rulers' Equinox and other astronomical predictions also reinforced their claims to rightful rulership. Politics, religion, and economics worked together seamlessly in ancient Maya society.

Altar near the top of the stairs to the main Temple entrance. This altar, located just below the west door, would no doubt have been a key focus of activity as the morning sun blazed through the doorway above it. The Temple we see today was covered over by a newer pyramid when archaeologists began their digging. The older structure they discovered was so remarkable that the scientists decided to remove most of the later pyramid covering it.

A mask of the rain-god Chaac adorns one of the top corners of the Temple. You can see the protruding nose, and below that a pair of lips and the chin below those. On either side of the nose is a niche representing Chaac's eyes. There is a similar Chaac mask on the other three corners and above each doorway. The  Chaac masks at Uxmal and Chichen Itza are much more elaborate, indicating to me that this temple must be very much older than those sites. As the chief rain-god, Chaac was an extremely important figure in ancient Mesoamerica (he was called Tlaloc in many non-Maya cultures). This was especially so in northwest Yucatan where rain was the only source of fresh water, other than the scattered cenotes (limestone sinkholes). The Maya believed that Chaac lived in the cenotes and that he dispatched water from them to the heavens so that it could fall to earth as rain. That is, he would do so if the proper respect and rituals were accorded to him.

The main doorway of the Temple, topped by a Chaac mask. The placement of a Chaac mask above each of the four doorways was significant. The rain-god had four manifestations, one for each of the four directions, and each of these was represented by a different color. For example, the east was represented by Chac Xib Chaac, (Red Man Chaac). Each Spring Equinox, thousands of modern visitors arrive at Dzbilichaltún's Temple of the Seven Dolls to observe the spectacular celestial event. Most are tourists, some are New Age mystics, and others are traditional Maya, come to pay their respects to Chaac. Along with the writhing snake shadow that moves down the steps of El Castillo pyramid at Chichen Itza, the Seven Dolls temple once again demonstrates the Maya's remarkable ability to use acute astronomical observations, along with their engineering and architectural prowess, to create structures that still manage to entrance multitudes.

The Temple Interior

Support poles brace the interior walls of the Temple. The space inside the Temple was filled with stones and sealed off when the newer pyramid was built over it. Covering an older structure with a newer one was common practice among Mesoamerica's builders. I am always struck by how small and claustrophobic the interiors of these ancient structures often are. It is almost as if the creative energy was exhausted on the grand approaches and exterior features. 

Archaeologist graffiti? In order to keep track of the stones they used to restore a structure, as opposed to the original stones already in place, archaeologists mark them with numbers.

Inside of the tower that sits atop the Temple. The Maya never mastered the true arch, so they used what is called the corbel, or "false arch."  The interior is lit up by the bright sunlight pouring in through the one window of the tower.

Other views

Carole strolls the small plaza separating the Temple from the triple structures in front. This photo, taken from the top step of the Temple staircase,  provides a sense of scale. In the background you can see two of the three identical structures that parallel the west side of the Temple. In this view, you are looking at the backs of the structures seen in a previous photo.

View through the window next to the Temple's west doorway. In the foreground is the middle of the three identical structures. Here, you can see the long stairway along its base rising to the three doorways. Stretching out into the distance to the west is Sacbe 1. At the far end, out of view, is the Great Plaza complex.

Carole, on her way to the Great Plaza. In this photo you can clearly see how the sacbe is raised above ground level. Visible inn the foreground are the limestone blocks that the ancient Maya used as curbs. Ahead of Carole, in the distance, you can see our friend Denis. A bit further on, slightly to the left of center, are the stepped platforms of the main pyramid. When we visited Dbilichaltún, we saw almost no other tourists. The serenity of an ancient site like this is best savored when the only sounds are the wind and the birds.

This completes Part 12 of my NW Yucatan series. In the next posting, I will show the magnificent palaces, pyramids, and temples that border the huge plaza of Dzbilichatún. I hope you have enjoyed this photographic visit as much as I did when I was there in person. If you would like to comment, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Jim, thanks for sharing all beautiful pictures.



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