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.

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

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. I love the larger photos, much appreciated! Also, I appreciate the links to external sites you sprinkle through the narrative. I was wondering what the 1840 sketches looked like and voila, I can see they were gorgeous. Thanks for doing such a nice job on all your posts.

  2. I Love the Changes in Your Blog, I always wait for Your post to Travel to Mexico with You and Your wife, and I will be sure to fallow Your steps in a Year or Two, and I know it will be so much easy with all your information, links and Great pictures, Nice Job! Your Post always make my day! Thank You! Blanca.


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