Friday, July 27, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 19: Labná, Maya jewel in the jungle

At Labná's El Palacio, a human face peers from the wide-open jaws of a serpent. The sculpture above is on a prominent corner of El Palacio, a large multi-story structure on the north end of Labná. This ancient Maya city may be small, but those who built it crafted a true jewel of architecture. Labná whose name means "Old House," is located in the heart of the Puuc region of NW Yucatan, about 122 km (75.8 mi) south of Merida. The area is full of Maya ruins and the Puuc style of architecture is among the most elegant and sophisticated of ancient Mesoamerica.  Our visit to Labná was one of the four stops on our Ruta Puuc tour, which also included the caves at Loltún (see in Part 18 of this series), a cacao plantation at Tikul, and the ruins at Sayil. In this posting, we'll look at the many beautiful architectural details of El Palacio, and at the ancient sacbé (raised roadway) that connects it to the rest of the ruins to the south. In the next posting, we will walk down that long sacbé to visit the famous Labná Arch, see a temple pyramid called El Mirador, and examine a residential area with exquisitely detailed stone carvings. View a map that shows El Palacio in the context of the whole Labná site, click here.

Approaching El Palacio

Jungle canopy provided welcome shade on a hot Yucatan afternoon. Puuc means "hill" in Maya, and the rolling country is covered with a thick green jungle. The forest contains many bird species, as well as more dangerous creatures like jaguars and poisonous snakes. Our guide urged us to stay on the marked trails and to step carefully, remarking that even the Maya people who live nearby seldom move around much at night. Other than the Belgian girls, whom we had met earlier at Loltún, and the site caretaker, our small party of 5 had Labná all to ourselves. This is definitely the way to visit ancient ruins, where the only sounds are wind in the trees, bird songs, and the occasional buzz of an insect. The solitude of the centuries settled over us and I felt an urge to speak in whispers.

Nearing El Palacio, we passed stone sculptures, including a large fálico. The two small chubby-cheeked heads on pedestals were once part of a wall decoration. The fálico (phallus) in the middle is similar to one we saw near the entrance to Loltún cave. The phallic cult appears to have started in the Vera Cruz area, and moved down into the Puuc region around the end of the Classic period (800 AD -1000 AD). Fálicos have been found not only at Loltún and Labná, but also at Sayil, Uxmal, and several other sites in the area. The phallic cult was associated with the creator-god Itzamna, maiz (corn), and fertility in general.

El Palacio stands on three levels at the end of the sacbé. A sacbé is a raised road made out of crushed limestone, with blocks of limestone set as curbs on either side. This one is about 200 m (600 ft) long and about 3 m (9 ft) wide. The Maya were amazing road engineers and one of their sacbeob extended 300 km (186.4 mi) to connect ancient T'ho (today's Mérida) with the Caribbean Sea. These roads were built by people who had no draft animals or metal tools and did not use the wheel. Early settlement in the area occurred around 300 AD, but the real heyday of Labná was between 750 AD and 1000 AD, also known as the Terminal Classic and Early Post-Classic period. The population was never very large, about 1,500 to 2,500 people. The total area of Labná during this period was a bit less than 2 sq. km (1.24 sq. mi). In the Puuc area there are few cenotes, and rainfall is uncertain. To compensate, ancient communities invented the chultun for water collection and storage. These were underground cisterns, carved out of the limestone in the shape of a squat, fat vase with a narrow neck reaching to the surface. Seventy chultunob have been found at Labná, capable of storing thousands of liters of water, yet another example of Maya engineering prowesss.

El Palacio is an unusually large and complex site. The structure underwent at least 12 construction periods before reaching the appearance it has today. There are three levels, including the huge platform on which the 2-story structure stands. The complex contains about 70 rooms and 8 patios. These are connected by several stairways and passages for easy circulation throughout the building. The length of the structure is 120 m (393 ft), making it one of the largest in the Puuc region. By contrast, the famous Governor's Palace at the great city of Uxmal is 97 m (320 ft) long, and has only a single story.

The Palace's left wing and center

View of the left wing of the palace. El Palacio was used for both residential and administrative purposes. The area in front of the left wing is known as the West Patio where ceramic objects and metates (grinding stones) have been found, indicating that it was a food preparation area.

The South Wing is a long rectangular block of 5 rooms. It extends perpendicularly out toward the south from the front of the complex. This block effectively divides the West Patio from the Central Area. The rooms of the South Wing all face onto the broad, raised patio in front of the Central Area. Since the Central Area appears to have been used for administrative purposes, it seems likely that these rooms were also administrative, rather than residential.

The Central Area is reached by this broad stairway. The 5 steps lead up from the open patio in front. A room extends out from the building into the small terrace at the top of the steps, its front walls still showing white plaster or paint. A natural question is: "why so big a complex for so small a city?" The answer may be that Labná was a satellite administrative center for either Uxmal or Sayil. Perhaps the rulers of the dominant city felt they needed an auxiliary center to handle this outlying territory? The satellite city theory is still unproven, however.

How the Central Area may have originally appeared. This drawing is from approximately the same view as the previous photo. The tall structure in the back is now only piled rubble. In this artist's conception, you can clearly see El Palacio's elegant lines. The decorative feature at the upper right is a profile view of the serpent's mouth seen in the first photo of this posting.

View of the corner of the Central Area's projecting room. Here you can see a typical Puuc feature: groups of columns separated by sections of limestone blocks. The columns themselves are not the long, single pillar found in a Greek or Roman structure. Instead, they are sectioned, with the upper and lower pieces separated by joints. However, the three columns grouped together to form the front corner are a very unusual feature for Puuc construction.

A Chaac face with a dark drooping nose peers out of the upper facade. Chaac was the god of rain and cenotes. In an area of scarce water, this made him an extremely important deity. Consequently, Puuc architecture is richly decorated with Chaac masks on its stone facades. The drooping nose of this one is a bit unusual, since Chaac masks usually have noses that writhe upwards, like a snake preparing to strike. Above the nose you can see the two square eyeholes, and below them, a protruding mouth.

Abstract design on a Central Area wall. Puuc architects also tended to use either plain facades or abstract designs on the lower part of a wall, reserving the upper facade for Chaac faces or designs from the natural world. This wall reminded me of the designs we saw at the ruins of Mitla in Oaxaca. Mitla, a city of palaces built by the Mixtec people, was built later and was a considerable distance away. However, there were trade links between Oaxaca and the Maya areas, so there could have been some cultural exchange, including architectural influences.

A graceful arch separates the Central Area from the East Wing. The stairway under the arch leads up to the second story of the complex. Unforunately, I didn't have time to visit the three buildings on the upper story. Notice the Chaac mask on the upper side of the building to the right. The Chaac's nose curls snakily upward in the way it is most usually represented.

The East Wing

A classic Puuc Chaac mask. This is the same mask seen in profile in the last photo. The nose curls upward, and above it on either side are openings representing eye sockets. Often sockets like these are filled with large, round stones representing Chaac's eyes. Directly below the nose is a magnificent mouth with fearsome-looking fangs. There is a glyph carved into the nose with a date that is the Maya equivalent of 862 AD. Chaac was believed to create thunder and lightning by beating the clouds with stone clubs or snakes. The Maya sacrificed young men and women in order to persuade him to provide rain. Chaac was believed to live in cenotes (collapsed limestone sinkholes filled with water), and human bones have been found in a number of them. However, there is some dispute about whether these were the result of sacrifices or simply accidental drownings over the centuries.

A florette with a pendant, backed by a feather. The stone carvings above, located near the Chaac mask just seen, are fine examples of Puuc architectural decorations. Keep in mind that the Maya were doing all this fine stone carving without metal tools.

Lower torso of a human figure. The upper body is missing above the belted waist. Hanging from the belt, the torso wears a finely decorated loincloth and some sort of leggings up to the knee.

Upper left corner of the East wing. For me, this was one of the most interesting parts of the whole palace complex. On the corner itself, the human face peers out of the snake jaws. On either side are a cornucopia of shapes and abstract designs.

Profile of the snake jaws. Looking out from the toothy upper jaw is the clear profile of the human face. Notice how the individual stone blocks on the left of the photo each have designs carved into them. An immense amount of work went into this corner of the structure.

Abstract or natural designs adjacent to the snake jaws. The rosette feature is repeated, this time without the pendant, but still with the feather extending above. A tall curled carving may represent an opening bud. One of the most interesting objects is the one at the lower left. This appears, for all the world, like a cog wheel from a modern machine, complete with gear teeth. The Maya clearly understood the concept of the wheel, they just never found a use for it.

The East Wing is actually much larger than it appears here. This south-facing side has six doors entering a like number of rooms. However, if you refer back to the site map of El Palacio, you will see that the far right (east) end is actually a corner, with a long block containing 10 more rooms stretching out to the north. The stairway on the left of the photo leads to a long narrow terrace above the rooms whose 4 doors you can see. The wall on the second level is mostly rubble, but contains some abstract designs.

View of the sacbé looking south from El Palacio's Central Area patio. Just visible at the end of the roadway is the residential complex containing the Labná Arch. We will view this area next week, along with a pyramid temple called El Mirador, and a sunken plaza.

This completes Part 19 of my NW Yucatan series. Next week we will complete Labná, and the following week we'll visit the cacao plantation of Tikul. I hope you have enjoyed this posting and that I haven't bored you with my obsession with piles of old rocks. If you have any thoughts you'd like to share, including corrections or additions to the information I have provided, please do so either in the Comments section below or by return email.

If you'd like to leave a question in the Comments section PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jim,
    I just wanted to say how much I'm enjoying meandering through your blog. I found it while doing some reading on Mexican masks, and it's been so interesting! I have an obsession with Mexico, and I dream of one day travelling there with my husband. We're from Australia, so it would be a reasonably big undertaking, but I'm hoping it will happen for us one day. We hear so much about violence and danger in Mexico, and your blog shows a different side.
    By the way, I thought your comment on the local stray dogs being better socialised than dogs in the US (and I extend that to Australia, too) was really interesting. Well-known animal behavioural expert, Dr Temple Grandin, posited a similar theory to yours in her book 'Making Animals Happy'. I think you both might be onto something with these observations!
    Best wishes, and thank you for sharing your blog,


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