Saturday, September 1, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 23: Sayil's Mirador, Hieroglyphic Doorway, and Phallic Stela

The pyramid temple called El Mirador loomed up out of the jungle as we approached. This rather dramatic view of El Mirador turned out to be the back side of the ruin. In the previous posting, we visited the Great Palace of Sayil. The overall site of this ancient city is fairly large and, since we visited in the late afternoon, we had little time to extensively explore it. The South Palace was one area that we did not visit. It lies about a mile south of El Mirador at the end of an ancient raised limestone road called a sacbe. The South Palace complex includes a ball court and other outlying structures. For a site map of Sayil that will help you relate the various ruined structures to one another, click here.

El Mirador is composed of a temple which sits on top of a pyramid with three stepped platforms. This cutaway design shows a side view of the ruin, looking east. A large roof comb rises high above the temple on which it rests. The comb is perforated by rows of vertical slots. The three rectangular pyramid platforms below the temple form a base with a height of 4 meters (13 ft.). However, most of the pyramid is still buried under sloping piles of rubble. The architectural style is Early Puuc and the structure shows some similarities to Labnás El Mirador. However, at Labná, the roof comb rises flush with the front wall of the temple, whereas at Sayil, the comb bisects the building.

The front of El Mirador faces south. Projecting from the roof comb on this side you can see a number of stone studs. Upon these once hung stucco decorations, including human figures at each corner and another at the center of the comb. Still remaining on the comb face are carved stone feather and rosette designs, similar to those found at Labná, as well as traces of red, green, and blue paint. The temple contains five vaulted rooms, with doorways at the center of the north and south sides of the temple to provide access.

House of the Hieroglyphic Doorway

The House of the Hieroglyphic Doorway is still mostly buried. This building may have been an elite home or possibly an administrative office connected to a nearby marketplace. It once contained six vaulted rooms. It was constructed in Classic Puuc style sometime between 800 and 1000 AD. The doorway on the right, partly screened by a small tree, provides the ruin with its name.

How the Hieroglyphic Door may have once appeared. Hieroglyphs extend across the top of the door and down to its base on both sides. It must have been quite impressive when the limestone was freshly carved and vividly painted.

The Hieroglyphic Door as it looks today.  Only the top .5 meter (18 in.) of the doorway is now above ground. The limestone has been stained black by water-borne minerals deposited over the centuries. The other doorway to the left has no hieroglyphs or other decorations. I would normally expect such writing to appear around the main entrance of a building, but perhaps the room into which this opens had some special purpose.

Detail of the hieroglyphs. Archaeologists have managed only a partial translation of the glyphs, due to the multiple meanings some of them can have. For example, a key glyph over the doorway can be translated as "sky," "captor," "four," or "snake". You can see the problem. In fairness, English words can also have multiple unrelated meanings. For example, the English word "see" can refer to vision or to a holy office in the Catholic Church.

Inside the room with the decorated doorway. Caretakers have propped up the crumbling corbel arch with a couple of poles. Even when not full of rubble, the doorway would have been relatively low, reflecting the short statue of the people who built the house. The ceilings would have been generous, however. Rooms like this, lacking windows, would have been dark. They may also have been smoky from fires, but perhaps that accounts for the high ceilings.

A small ruined temple with an altar lies adjacent to the house with the hieroglyphs. The hump of rocky soil in the background, now grown over with trees, is what remains of the old temple. Directly in front is a heap of stones that once formed an altar. Although now little more than piles of stones, they were part of a group of structures surrounding a marketplace. Scientists have tested the soil in the area and found high concentrations of phosphorous, indicating the decomposition of organic matter, probably foodstuffs displayed for sale. In addition, they found evidence of ceramic manufacturing.

The Phallic Stela

A large stela is protected by a tattered palapa shelter. This stela is part of the Phallic Cult prevalent in northern Yucatan during the Terminal Classic era (800-900 AD). We saw large stone phalli at Loltún Cave and Labná. The cult may have originated in the Gulf Coast area around present-day Vera Cruz and later spread to the Maya country. It became prominent during a time of great turmoil and change. The Classic-era Maya world was collapsing. Great cities in southern Yucatan and northern Guatemala were being abandoned, and populations were migrating into northern Yucatan. "Mexicanized Maya" from the Gulf area, who had adopted the military tactics and warrior cults of the Toltec, were beginning to invade Yucatan.

Relief sculpture on the Phallic Stela. This fellow is rather generously endowed, to say the least. Archaeologists who have studied the phallic cult believe that, as disorder and chaos threatened, "phallic imagery served to sanctify sacred ritual space, order the community, and legitimize the authority of the ruling elite." The phallic cult has also been linked to Itzamna, the most powerful of the Maya gods. He ruled over lesser gods much like Zeus in Greek mythology.

Residential ruins

An elite home. Notice the columnettes lining the upper part of the right side of the house. The pile of stone in the immediate foreground appears to have been part of this decoration at one time. In size, the home is not impressive. However, every one of the stones had to be individually cut and shaped by hand using stone tools. It is clear that only a person of wealth and authority could build such a house. Ordinary Maya lived in homes with thatched roofs and walls made of upright sticks plastered with mud. The foundations of more than 300 such ordinary homes have been excavated at Sayil. The perishable materials that originally sat on the foundations have long since disappeared, of course.

An echo of Labná. The use of side-by-side columnettes is common in the Puuc style. However, they are seldom used to form the corners of buildings. The three columnettes you see above are almost exactly like those we saw in the central part of the Great Palace at Labná (see Part ). This provided me with one more bit evidence that Labná was an administrative outpost for Sayil, from which it copied many architectural details. However, there is continuing debate among archaeologists about this connection.

Our guide hustled by the opening of this small cave, possibly fearing aluxob. As we walked along the deserted jungle paths, he told us about these mischievous little forest beings, in whom some Maya still believe. They are something like the leprechauns or trolls of European legends. An alux (pronounced "aloosh") will entice an unwary visitor deep into the forest and the person is never seen again. Our guide laughed as he told us this story, but I thought I noticed a certain nervousness in his tone. As the dusk began to gather, he hurried us along, and seemed to skirt this little cave with a wary eye for a lurking alux.

This completes Part 23 of my NW Yucatan series. Next week we will complete this series by taking a look at how ordinary Maya lived in ancient times, and many still do today. I hope you liked this posting. I always enjoy and encourage feedback. If you would like to leave a comment, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim

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