Monday, August 27, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 22: The Great Palace of Sayil

The Great Palace of Sayil, bathed in the golden winter sunlight of a late afternoon. Sayil was our last stop on the Puuc Route (see Parts 18-21). You may notice a curious absence of people in many of the following photos. As I have mentioned in previous postings, the Puuc Route is much less popular than sites like Chichen Itza, or Tulum, both of which offer easy access to floods of tourists from the nearby resort of Cancun. As a consequence, both of those sites--although still worth seeing--lose much of the mystery and serenity I value when visiting ancient ruins. When we finally reached Sayil on this late January afternoon, our small tour party was the only one within the whole site. The other couple in our party were tired and stayed near the entrance to the site, so Carole and I, accompanied by our guide, had the whole place to ourselves.

Approaching the Great Palace

The Puuc are unique in the Yucatan Peninsula. The Maya word Puuc means "hills." The rolling country seen above on the eastern horizon is part of a range of low hills that cut diagonally across the Peninsula from southwest to northeast. They form the only area of significant elevation gain in all of the otherwise dead-flat limestone shelf that makes up Yucatan. The forest that begins at the edge of the clearing above stretches virtually unbroken across much of the central and southern areas of the Peninsula. Sayil is set in a shallow valley surrounded by steep hills. It is one of a number of ancient cities in this area of Yucatan known for the distinctive Puuc style of architecture. Other sites include Uxmal, Labná, Kabah, and Xlapak. UNESCO designated Sayil, together with Uxmal, as a World Heritage Site in 1996.

Carole walks along an unpaved trail through the thick jungle that closely surrounds Sayil.  Yucatan's forests contain an extraordinary quantity of birds and other animals, including jaguars and poisonous snakes. The ancient Maya cleared much of the jungle around their cities for agriculture. This deforestation caused droughts and other environmental consequences that, along with incessant warfare, brought about the end of their Classic-era civilization. Over the centuries the forest returned, leaving once-proud cities lost in the green canopy that now covers much of the Yucatan. It is important, when visiting a site like this, to remain on the trails. After a few steps into the thick jungle, all sense of direction can easily be lost. As I walked along behind Carole, I recalled the visitor to Tikal who stepped into to similar jungle to take some photos. Nine days later he finally stumbled out. He was emaciated and dehydrated, but lucky to be alive.

Our guide points out an unrestored ruin along the trail. As at most ancient ruins, the vast majority of the original buildings still remain as simple mounds of stones. This was how explorers John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood would have first seen the place they called Zayi when they explored it in 1841. Covered thickly by vegetation, the mounds could easily be mistaken for natural features. Fortunately, by the time Stephens and Catherwood found the ruins, they had learned to interpret the landscape of ancient sites. In the Maya language Sayil means "Place of the Leafcutter Insects".

A cut stone provides a vital clue. Nature rarely produces straight lines or corners. This rectangular limestone block was clearly produced by the hand of man, a tip-off that the rubble pile on which it rests was once the home of a noble or priest.

Site map of the Great Palace. This magnificent, three-story structure is 85 meters (279 ft.) long, and contains more than 90 bedrooms. The earliest occupation at Sayil was around 500 AD, but Puuc-style buildings didn't begin to appear until about 800 AD. The construction of the Great Palace occurred in several stages between 800 AD (late Classic) and 1000 AD (early Post-Classic). Sayil is spread over an area of 3.5 square kilometers (2.175 sq. mi.). In this posting, we will focus on the Great Palace, beginning with the West Wing. We'll then make our way up the grand staircase in the center and take a look at the somewhat less preserved East Wing. The site map above is courtesy of Wikipedia.

The West Wing of the Great Palace

Our first view of the Great Palace. As we emerged from the green, leafy tunnel that was our trail from the parking area, we came upon a large clearing in the forest dominated by the Palace. The effect, heightened by the golden afternoon light, was stunning. The view above is of the West Wing, the most intact part of the Palace. In the right center of the photo, you can see the main staircase. Monuments found at Sayil indicate that the city was ruled by a royal dynasty which, along with an elite of nobles and priests, based its power on the control of the best agricultural lands in the area. About 900 AD, the population peaked at 10,000 people in the city itself and another 5000-7000 in surrounding areas. By about 950 AD, the city began to decline and it was abandoned by 1000 AD. Such a rapid rise and decline was typical of Puuc area cities, which flourished just before the general collapse of Classic-era Maya civilization.

A closer view of the first and second stories of the West Wing. On the ground floor, the roof has collapsed into the center room. You can see half of the corbel arch that formed the ceiling of the room, as well as a doorway in the back of this room, leading into another shallow room. The rooms on either side have doorways bisected by single pillars that support the lintels. This area is the oldest part of the Great Palace. The first story opens out onto a large plaza to its south. Eight chultunes (underground cisterns) have been discovered immediately around the Great Palace. These provided the water supply for the large elite population living in the Palace. Above the ground floor is the much more highly decorated 2nd story, reached by the central staircase.

The West Wing's 2nd story, viewed from the central staircase. Several features shown here are similar to those at Labná, shown in Parts 19 and 20 of this series. The groups of segmented columns, separated by doorways, along with some of the decorations found above the doorways, are almost identical to those at Labná's Palace. Many archaeologists think that Labná was a political subsidiary to either Sayil or Uxmal, although this is not yet proven. I have visited all three sites, and it seems to me that the architectural features of Labná much more closely resemble Sayil than Uxmal.

Decorative designs above the 2nd story doors. The circular, cog-like object in the center is very similar to some I saw at Labná. In addition, the writhing, snake-like designs on either side of the cog resemble those at Labná. Unfortunately, much of the lower-left part of the design has fallen away. There are several small, circular humps in the design that resemble turtle shells with cross-hatched designs. Turtles were prevalent in the Maya's natural world and are associated in their mythology with the earth, as well as water and thunder. The thunder connection probably has something to do with the use of turtle shells as drums. The Maya god Pauahtun was believed to support the earth somewhat like Atlas. He is often shown wearing a turtle shell as a hat. Turtles were also related to Hu Nal Yeh, the god of maiz (corn), who is sometimes shown emerging from a turtle shell.

One of the 90 bedrooms of the Great Palace. Although the rooms are supported by massive walls, they are quite shallow. The Maya failure to achieve the "true" arch in their architecture restricted their ability to enclose large spaces. It is likely that the rooms were used for storage, shelter during the rainy season, or privacy. The climate of Yucatan would have allowed most activities to occur outdoors on one of the many terraces. Archaeologists estimate that as many as 350 people lived in the Great Palace. Most of its many rooms would have been family apartments, but it is also likely that some were used for administrative purposes.

A large Chaac mask adorns the center of the 2nd story. The protruding nose has lost its typical upward curl, but the rest of the mask appears intact. A set of 6 teeth curl downward from the mouth, while the eyes are represented by round stone balls set in sockets on either side of the nose. The Chaac appears to be wearing a decorative headband, as well as earrings. Although this Chaac possesses a rather ferocious appearance, as a god he is associated with life-giving water, important to all agricultural societies, and especially so in Yucatan where there are no above-ground rivers.

Another Chaac, on the corner of the West Wing. This one still has the curled nose found on most Chaacs throughout the Puuc area. The corner Chaac wears earrings similar to those on the center mask. Notice the large, curved earlobe to the right of the square earring. Similar earrings worn by the Maya elite were often made from carved jade. Ceramic, jade, and obsidian artifacts found at Sayil indicate trade connections with the Petén region of northern Guatemala, and even with areas as far away as Guatemala's Pacific Coast.

The West Wing's 3rd story is much plainer than the one below. This part of the West Wing is decorated much more simply than the 2nd story. The walls are of smooth limestone blocks. The area above the doorways is undecorated, although there may have once been carved stone decorations that have since fallen away. At the base of the wall are the only remaining decorative features, composed of a line of very short pillars that extends the length of the building.

The Grand Staircase and the East Wing

The Grand Staircase is one of the Great Palace's most prominent features. Extending out from the south side of the Palace into the plaza, it rises up to the 3rd story in two stages. The lower stage has been completely restored, while the upper stage is still in fairly rough shape. On the north (rear) side of the Palace is a smaller staircase that extends up to the 2nd story.

A faint echo of Teotihuacan? As I reached the landing between the first and second level staircases, I spotted the inclined slabs, called taludes, seen in the upper left quadrant of the photo. Such features were a signature architectural element of Teotihuacan the seat of the great empire located north of Mexico City. Architectural aspects of Teotihuacan were widely copied throughout in Mesoamerica. As the old saying goes "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." Teotihuacan fell 200 years before Sayil's Great Palace was built, but the inclusion of taludes in the Grand Staircase could well have been a tip of the hat to a civilization which, by that time, had receded into the misty past and had achieved an almost mythical status.

The East Wing is less intact than its mate to the left of the staircase. This is probably closer to what Stephens and Catherwood saw on that day in 1841 when they emerged from the jungle to first view the Great Palace. However, the East Wing's first story is in much better shape than its counterpart on the West Wing.

A closeup look at the 2nd story of the East Wing. It appears that this wing copied the style of the same story of the West Wing, using rows of columns to decorate the area above the doorways. The door lintels are supported by double pillars, just like the other wing.

Across a narrow valley, a noble's house peeps through the foliage. When I reached the top of the Great Palace, I looked across the valley to the north and spotted a structure near the top of the steep ridge on the other side. Going for maximum telephoto zoom, I picked out this stone house with its double doors and rows of pillars decorating the space above. Apparently the Maya nobility appreciated a good view from the front of their homes as much as modern people do. Next week, we'll look at some temples with unusual features in the southern area of the Sayil site.

I hope you have enjoyed this posting. Sayil is a gorgeous site. I am not surprised it won its
World Heritage designation. I always appreciate comments and feedback. If you would like to leave a comment, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

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

Hasta luego, Jim

Friday, August 10, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 21: A bonanza for chocolaholics at the Cacao Eco-Museum in Tikul

Sliced cacao pod reveals fresh beans, the first step to a tasty chocolate treat. Our next stop on the Ruta Puuc tour was the Cacao Eco-Museum at Tikul (sometimes spelled Ticul). This was not actually part of our original schedule, but our guide persuaded us to skip a lesser Maya ruin and substitute a stop at this fascinating combination of cacao plantation, chocolate museum, and Maya archaeological site. Given the high-quality experience we had at Tikul, and what I later read about the stop we skipped, we felt we made the right decision. However, we were amused to find that our guide may have been partly motivated by the presence of a girlfriend at the Eco-Museum. Ah, well, that's Mexico!

The Eco-Museum

A pretty Maya woman in a traditional huipil met us at the reception booth. All the staff wore traditional clothing and the women's huipils were beautifully hand-embroidered. The Cacao Eco-Museum is located near Tikul (sometimes spelled Ticul), 80 km (49.7 mi) south of Mérida. The site is open 365 days a year from 8 AM to 5 PM. Adult admission is 90 pesos ($6.80 USD). Admission for children and those 65+ is 60 pesos ($4.56 USD).

Heliconia, a distant relative of the Bird of Paradise, grows in Tikul's gardens. Much more than cacao grows on the grounds of the Eco-Museum. The extensive flower gardens include this heliconia, as well as a large number of native plants grown as living displays of the Maya world's flora. The Cacao Eco-Museum is the brainchild of three Belgians: Eddy Van Belle, Dominque Personne and Mathieu Brees. Belgian chocolate has become world-famous and it seems appropriate that these chocolatiers should complete the circle by bringing their craft back to its place of origin. The museum was inaugurated on July 5, 2011.

A lovely Ginger plant bloomed in another garden. Sometimes called the Torch Ginger, the plant does, in fact, resemble a flaming torch. This museum has an unusual design, in that it is not contained in one building. Instead, the displays are housed in a series of small Maya-style thatched huts, reached by an asphalt path that wanders through groves of trees, small fields of cacao plants, and gardens displaying the wide variety of plants used by ancient and modern Maya for food, clothing, medicine, and other purposes.

Cordyline, sometimes known as Ti Plant*. The brilliant red leaves of this Cordyline stood out against the mostly green and brown background. The gardens are beautifully designed and ecologically balanced. The displays in the thatched huts dispersed along the path tell the cultural, religious, and economic story of cacao, and demonstrate the role it played in day-to-day Maya life. In the last hut, museum staff showed us the ancient, multi-step process through which dried cacao beans are transformed into a delicious cup of hot chocolate. All the displays are accompanied by signs in both Spanish and English.

*My thanks to Ron Parsons for these plant identifications. Ron is an expert on the plants of Mexico, and has a website called Wildflowers and Plants of Central Mexico.

How it all started

Maya hieroglyph for kakaw, or cacao. Paleo-botanists believe that the cacao plant originated in Brazil and that the beans gradually migrated up into Mesoamerica through ancient trade networks. The Olmecs (1500 BC - 400 BC) operated a great trading empire and had large settlements in Chiapas, Yucatan, and Guatemala, all areas where cacao could be grown. In fact, the Maya word "kakaw" is of Olmec origin and the first recorded use of the term was in 400 BC, at the end of the Olmec period. Maya writing was the best developed of any in Mesoamerica. It used a combination of symbols to express both concepts and phonetic syllables, allowing the expression of abstract ideas. The modern word "chocolate" comes from the Maya words "chokoh", meaning hot, and "ha", meaning water. Prior to the Spanish arrival, the Maya consumed chocolate exclusively in the hot liquid form. After many attempts spanning several centuries, the Maya hieroglyphic code was finally broken in the 1970s by a team of archaeologists, linguists, and artists. What the deciphered script revealed was an ancient world far richer and more complex, as well as far more violent, than what scientists had previously believed. It also revealed that cacao, and the drink made from it, played a central role in Maya life.

Chocolate was considered a sacred drink, intimately involved with religious practices. Cacao had its own god, Ek Chuah, who carried a fan and wore black paint on his skin. Cacao beans and cups of chocolate were sometimes left as offerings in ancient graves. To the Maya, the cacao pod and the dark, liquid chokoh ha resembled the human heart and its dark blood. As a result, cacao and chocolate appear to have been part of the rituals surrounding human sacrifice. In the illustration above, the cacao tree bears a distinct resemblance to the Maya "Tree of Life", with its roots in the underworld, its trunk in day-to day-reality, and its canopy forming the heavens.

Ancient tools used for grinding cacao beans. Interestingly, Ek Chuah was also the god of merchants. Extensive and complex trade networks existed both within the Maya world and between it and the rest of Mesoamerica. Travel was dangerous and the merchants went armed. At night, they burned copal incense as an offering to Ek Chuah in hopes of securing his protection. Since Mesoamerica had no pack animals, everything had to be carried on the merchant's back, or that of his servants or slaves. Weight and bulk were important factors and traveling merchants therefore favored low-weight, high-value goods. Cacao beans fit the bill, and even came to be used as currency in an economy that lacked metal money. The Aztecs took this a step further and set specific prices based on the beans: a tomato was worth one bean, an avocado cost three, and "a good turkey hen" could be bought for 100 "full" or 120 "shrunken" beans.

Cover of an incense burner found on the south coast of Guatemala. This fine sculpture shows a young woman emerging from a conical mound of cacao beans. In her hands she cradles a pot containing several cacao pods.

Funeral vase showing the glyph for Kakaw. The symbol is the left of the two shown just below the curved handle. The vase once contained chocolate and was placed as an offering in the tomb of a person of elite status. In another tomb, scientists found DNA from human skin in vessels containing chocolate. Apparently, after the body was ritually washed the water was used to make the chocolate. Whether the ritual involved actually drinking the chocolate is unknown.

Wealthy aristocrats of the 17th Century enjoy cups of chocolate. In 1502, Christopher Columbus became the first European to encounter cacao beans. He stopped a Maya trading canoe on his fourth voyage and noted that they possessed a supply of "almonds" which they used as money. Chocolate may have first been brought back to Spain by Hernán Cortéz, who sampled the drink in the court of Mexica (Aztec) Emperor Moctezuma. The emperor certainly did enjoy his chocolate, reportedly drinking 50 cups a day. Chocolate's popularity gradually spread throughout Europe in the 16th and 17th Centuries. However, it was a considerable time before any but the wealthy could afford the drink. Mexico produced nearly all the world's chocolate until the beginning of the 20th Century. Then, cultivation began in many other countries in a bid to increase supply and lower costs. Today West Africa produces 70% of the world's cacao, with nearly half of that coming from only one country, Ivory Coast. Currently Mexico only produces 1% of the world's total, and most of this is an unfermented variety used for hot chocolate. The Eco-Museum founders hope to encourage "boutique" manufacturers in Mexico who will produce high quality chocolate products.

Growing and harvesting cacao

Our path led down through a grove of cacao trees, set in a jungle clearing. Today, cacao production is relatively uncommon in Yucatan because of the harsh climate and poor soil. Although the Yucatan Peninsula is covered with thick jungle, the soil covering the underlying limestone platform is thin. Large scale production is thus impractical. However, the ancient Maya did not attempt mass production. This was, after all, a drink for the elites, and even then only for special occasions. The early Maya discovered that the Yucatan area is dotted with rejolladas, (dry cenotes). Because these are depressed areas, they collect a thicker soil base through erosion. In addition, rejolladas tend to be tree-shaded and humid, creating micro-climates that are ideal for cacao growing. Even when not used for cacao cultivation, the rejolladas remain mystic places to the Maya, and are treated with reverence.

Theobroma Cacao is the formal name for the cacao tree. It is native to tropical climates and grows between the latitudes of 20 degrees North to 20 degrees South of the Equator at an altitude of between sea level to 900 m (2953 ft). Cacao trees need humidity and heat, but also must be shaded from direct sunlight. Accordingly, they are often raised near banana trees as well as under wood trees like mahogany and cedar. The cacao is remarkably long-lived, with a lifespan of as much as 50 years. Generally the tree begins to produce at around 4-5 years. Ninety percent of cacao is raised by small farmers, and they often use techniques that hark back to the most ancient times. However, in the last 10 years grafting has gained some favor. In this way, farmers can ensure quality by selecting grafts from the trees that are the most resistant to disease and insects. When they fall to the ground, the cacao leaves provide mulch, and also shelter the small flies that will pollinate the plant later.

The cacao fruit is called a mazorca. The usual size of a mazorca is around 30 cm (11.8 in) long and 10 cm (3.9 in) wide. The average weight is 450 g (1 lb). The color usually ranges from reddish to green, but this will change to yellow or orange as the fruit matures. Each mazorca contains 20 to 40 beans enveloped in a sticky, white pulp. The mazorca shown in the first photo of this posting is an example of a mature fruit. The cocoa tree is described by botanists as "cauliforus", meaning that the flowers and fruits grow directly from the trunk, as you can see above. Although an individual tree can produce 10,000 blossoms each year, only about 40 mazorcas will result.  Those 40 fruits will ultimately produce 2 kg (4.4 lbs) of chocolate.

Mazorcas are harvested twice a year, in May and December.  While other fruits are picked by hand, the cacao mazorca is harvested by machete or by a blade fixed on a long handle (see above). Before cutting, workers tap each fruit lightly, determining ripeness by sound. The size of the cacao bean is determined by the variety of the mazorca. Different bean sizes require adjustments in fermentation and drying times. Immediately after harvesting, the mazorca is cut lengthwise, and the beans and pulp are removed and taken to the fermentation area.

Mazorcas rest on dried cacao beans. The fermentation of the pulp is very important because it determines the flavor and aroma of the resulting chocolate. The process begins as the sugar in the pulp is transformed into alcohol and CO2 through the action of yeasts. The beans are left in wooden boxes covered by banana leaves. The fermentation process can take a number of days, with the fermenting mass regularly turned to allow oxidation. After fermentation, the moisture in the cacao must be reduced from 60% to 6%. The traditional method used by small producers for drying the beans is heat from the sun. In harvest season, it is common to see farmers' patios covered by wooden racks filled with drying cacao beans. The process can take 6-7 days, and the beans are turned regularly to ensure uniform drying.

A zarabanda is used to clean the dried beans. After drying, the beans must be cleaned of stones, mould, or broken pods. This can be done manually or by using a machine called a zarabanda (Spanish for "whirl"). The device above was not identified, but I believe it is an early version of the zarabanda. After they are cleaned, the dried beans are randomly sampled for quality by cutting a few lengthwise in half. Once graded, the beans are packaged in bags and sent off to be manufactured into that Hershey Bar you have come to love. However, before we left the Eco-Museum, our last stop was a hut where we sampled some scrumptious hot chocolate made "the old fashioned way."

Making chocolate the old-fashioned way

A comely señorita awaited us, dressed in her embroidered terno de gala. We weren't quite sure, but we suspected that this was our guide's girlfriend, who may have been his real object in proposing our unscheduled stop at Tikul. The process that she and her male assistant demonstrate here is one that probably goes back to the Olmecs, 3,500 years ago, with a couple of modifications introduced by the colonial Spanish. First, however, chocoholics will be delighted to hear a few facts about health and chocolate. I found this information on the displays at the Eco-Museum, but I was skeptical until I could find some independent researchers, including the Mayo Clinic, who confirmed the claims. I should note that the beneficial aspects are confined to dark chocolate, with a cocoa content of 65% or higher, and limited to less than 85 gr (3 oz) a day. Eaten in this way, chocolate is not fattening, actually reduces cholesterol, helps prevent cavities, does not cause fatty liver disease, does not cause or worsen acne, reduces risk factors for heart disease, and may indeed be an aphrodisiac. Now, have I brightened your day?

The process begins with cooking the beans until they are softened. The ancients would have used a wood fire, rather than propane, and a clay griddle instead of a metal pan, but otherwise the cooking is just the same. The young man is checking the softness of the beans by mixing them in his hand.

Next, the cooked beans are ground on a metate. This part of the process is the "real deal." Metates and the hand-held stone rollers called manos are among the most ancient of kitchen implements, very possibly pre-dating the development of agriculture. This ancient technology can still be found among the day-to-day cooking tools in many Mexican households.

Foaming the chocolate: enter the Spanish. When the correct texture of chocolate paste is achieved, it is added to hot water and the foaming process begins. Before the Spanish arrived, the indigenous people of Mesoamerica achieved a foamy result by repeatedly pouring the mixture back and forth between long-spouted clay pots. Foaming pots have been found in Maya graves of the Pre-Classic period (900 BC to 250 AD). The 16th Century Spanish found the old foaming process cumbersome, so they introduced a device called a molinillo, which still sold in stores throughout Mexico. In the photo above, the man is creating a thick foam by twirling a molinillo between his palms.The ancient people considered this foam to be the "spirit" of the cacao. When we each received a small cup with a delicious sample, it certainly put us in good spirits!

The ancients added a variety of spices, including a "special" ingredient. Our hosts invited us to liven up our chocolate foam with some of the spices seen above. They did note that achote (far left) was not originally used, but is a modern substitute for the human blood from slain warriors that was sometimes added in the old days. I suppose it gave the old-style chocolate that extra little "zing".

This completes Part 21 of my NW Yucatan series. There was a great deal more to the Eco-Museum than I had space to show here, so I will include some of those photos in a later posting on Maya households. Next week, we will visit the ancient ruined city of Sayil, site of a magnificent palace. I always welcome comments and corrections and if you would like to make any, please either use the Comments section below or email me directly.

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

Hasta luego, Jim

Friday, August 3, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 20: Labná's Plaza and famed Arch

Labná Arch, viewed from the inside. After touring El Palacio (see Part 19) at the ancient Maya city of Labná, we strolled southward along the raised limestone sacbé toward a complex of ruins surrounding a sunken plaza. The Labná Arch is one of the most beautiful examples of the Puuc style of Maya architecture, so-named for the range of hills that cuts across the Yucatan south of Mérida. For an overview map of the whole Labná site, click here.

The Pyramid Temple called El Mirador

El Mirador means "The Watchtower".  Although it may have been the highest structure in the ancient city, its purpose was religious, not defensive. El Mirador is the first large structure that comes into view on your left as you move down the ceremonial sacbé (seen in the immediate foreground). Although the lower part of the structure looks conical, originally it was a four-sided pyramid, with a large staircase ascending one side. The view here is toward the southeast.

El Mirador, looking northeast from the sunken plaza. Golden afternoon sunlight bathes the pyramid temple, which was built in early Puuc style. The total height, from the base to the top of the roof comb, is 20 m (65 ft). In the foreground, you can see some of the remains of the structures which once surrounded the sunken plaza. Except for the birds hidden in the jungle trees, all was quiet at Labná. I felt like tiptoeing.

A small temple with a roof comb tops El Mirador. The temple contains four rooms, and would have been entered by ascending a broad staircase ending at the doorway you can see above. Rising above the door is a tall "roof comb", a typical feature of Puuc architecture. It reminded me of the Old West false-front buildings in the 19th Century US.  Typically, roof combs were thin walls, perforated with holes, and studded with stone spikes on which stucco decorations were mounted. On this roof comb, statues of various sizes were mounted, with some in high or low relief while others were in 3 dimensions. Nineteenth Century visitors to the site reported that many of the decorative elements were intact. Unfortunately, they have since been looted or destroyed. These included "two ballplayers and a large figure with a topknot, seated directly above the entrance," according to a sign at the site.

The Sunken Plaza

Carole inspects the Sunken Plaza. The plaza is fairly small and is surrounded by the stubs of stone pillars, old palace foundations, and heaps of unidentified rubble. It seemed cozier, in a way, than the grand and triumphant Mesoamerican plazas I have visited elsewhere. Here, Labná's nobility and their families would have congregated, conducted business, and socialized.

A ruin overlooking the plaza shows the remains of a corbel, or "false" arch. The Maya, for all their architectural prowess, never discovered the secret of the true arch. This meant that their structures had to be built with thick walls and generally small rooms.

A stone ramp leads down into the Sunken Plaza. This is a very unusual feature in Maya ruins, or anywhere else in Mesoamerica, for that matter. The usual use of a ramp is to allow wheeled vehicles to move between two surfaces set at different levels. The Maya, however, never developed wheeled vehicles for practical use, although they did make some wheeled toys and used wheels as architectural decorations (see Part 19). The exact purpose of this ramp remains a mystery.

Exterior face of the Labná Arch

The Labná Arch has been famous since the mid-19th Century. Between 1839 and 1842, two young adventurers teamed up to lead expeditions into the jungles of Yucatan and Central America. John Loyd Stephens, an American, and Fredrick Catherwood, an Englishman, brought back extraordinary tales of their adventures, along with Catherwood's exquisite drawings of ancient Maya ruins. Through their book, "Incidents of Travel in Central America and the Yucatan",  the world suddenly became aware of the treasures hidden under the green canopy of these remote forests. One of the sites they visited and documented was Labná, where Catherwood's beautifully detailed sketches revealed a nearly forgotten civilization of amazing sophistication.

The Arch is a classic corbeled vault. Generally, such arches in the Puuc area are found either as ceilings of rooms or free standing, as at Uxmal and Kabah. This one functions as a passageway between the Sunken Plaza and the interior patio of a residential complex that was once occupied by a family of great wealth and importance. The decorations on this side of the arch are all geometric and abstract, although there is are suggestions of curled snakes, or a highly stylized mask.

Getting in touch. Our guide (left) told us that, according to local legend, if we stood quietly and pressed our foreheads against the wall of the Arch, we might be able to connect with the spirits of the ancient Maya. Carole, ever game, decided to give it a try.

The Arch's interior face

The inside face of the Arch is much more elaborate than the outside. The two Belgian girls seen above had just arrived from Loltún Cave, where we had last seen them. The Labná Arch was constructed in a style called Puuc Mosaic, popular in the Late Classic era. There are two small rooms that flank the Arch. Other structures, less well preserved, surround the interior patio and once functioned as living units. To see Labná Arch as Catherwood sketched it more than 170 years ago, click here.

The Arch, as it may have looked 1000 years before Catherwood arrived. The sketch above is by a modern archaeological artist. Notable features include the triple roof combs which apparently supported anthropomorphic stucco sculptures. Only the bottom sections of the roof combs survive. Above each of the two doors that flank the Arch are stylized Maya huts called nah. The stone has been artfully carved to represent thatched roofs. Small human figures once sat in the little niches that represent nah doorways, but these have disappeared since Catherwood's time, victims of the archaeological looting that has long plagued Mexico. All that remains of the figures are the feathers of their topknots and the stone spikes that once supported them.

A large Chaac mask decorates the north corner of the Arch's interior face. Set in the square eye socket is a round stone representing the eyeball. A snarling mouth with twisted fangs sits below the truncated remains of the once-curved nose. The stone latticework on the right of the photo is also typical of Puuc architecture. Elements of this style were sometimes copied by other Mesoamerican cultures. I saw a stone lattice almost identical to this at the Olmeca-Xicalanca site of Cacaxtla, north of Puebla.

Courtyard of the Arch complex

View from the steps of the Arch, looking into the courtyard. The mound of rubble under the trees in the background was part of the residential structure that surrounded the courtyard. An interesting feature is the faint circle with a nub of stone in its center, seen in the lower left quadrant of the photo. At first I thought this might be some sort of shrine. Later, I read about chultunes, which were underground chambers carved out of the limestone bedrock and used for the collection and storage of water. The descriptions I have read seem to fit what you see above. The round area would have been slightly sunken to collect the rainfall and direct it to the center hole. The plug of rock may be the cap of the chultun's hole. It certainly would have made sense to place a chultun in the interior courtyard of the residence. I have been unable to find any other explanation for this feature, at Labná itself or on the internet. If anyone has another explanation, I would welcome it.

Surviving interior wall of the Arch complex. This beautiful example of Puuc Mosaic is found on the wall extending north from the left side of the Arch. As you can see from the right side of the photo, the interior of the wall is composed of limestone rubble, while the face is covered with mosaics.

Puuc Mosaic. Almost every stone is carved with abstract designs, glyphs, or anthropomorphic representations. It is mind-boggling to think about the amount of detail work that went into this one wall. Very likely, the other walls around the complex were once similarly decorated. Keep in mind that every stone had to be individually carved by hand using only stone tools. Since this was a private residence, rather than a more public building like El Palacio (see Part 19), the individual who commissioned the work must have been extraordinarily wealthy and powerful.

View, looking east, of the mosaic wall with El Mirador in the distance. The Belgians were once again on our heels as we left the interior patio of the Arch's residential complex. I often find that I am more impressed by smaller remains, like the ornate Arch complex, than by massive pyramids. I suppose the artfulness and humanity of the ancient people shines through in a way I can better appreciate.

Other remains

Carved stone blocks littered the ground around us. Our guide pointed out some of the intricate engravings on the stones. This one shows a noble figure dressed in feathers and robes. It appeared to be part of some long-lost repetitive design, because numerous similar figures were scattered under our feet. This part of the ruin has never been restored and is probably in a condition not unlike what Stephenson and Catherwood found in the early 1840s.

A broken stone ring under a nearby tree may be from a ball court. Although I have seen similar rings in several Mesoamerican ball courts, we did not see a court at Labná. In addition, the site map linked under the first photo of this posting does not show one. Accordingly, I am not entirely sure of my judgement, but the similarity is striking, and site maps do not always show all the features. In addition, there is the 19th Century report of ball player statues attached to the roof comb of El Mirador.  The ring, from one side of the outside rim to the other, is approximately 1 m   (3 ft) wide. The center opening is about .3 m (1 ft). One of the ways of scoring in the ancient game was to pass a hard rubber ball through a ring set high on a wall.

A chubby-faced bust gazes out across the millenia. The pouty cheeks and mouth reminded me of some of the Olmec statues I have seen. The Olmec have often been called the "Mother of Cultures" because of their early and powerful influence throughout Mesoamerica, including among the Maya. The statue was one of a large number lying about in the area.

This completes Part 20 of my NW Yucatan series. Next we will visit the Eco-Museum of Tikul and sample the delights of chocolate made the ancient Maya way.  I aways appreciate comments, feedback, and corrections. If you would like to do so, you can use the Comments section below, or email me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim