Saturday, October 20, 2018

Southern Yucatan Peninsula: Oxtankah's Plaza de Tortugas, the Astronomer's Pyramid, and the Early Colonial Open Chapel

The North Platform of Structure I in Plaza de Tortugas (Turtle Plaza). This platform should not be confused with Structure I of the Plaza de Abejas. The one above was part of a palace laid out on a north-to-south axis. In the photo, you are looking southth along its top toward the Central Edifice, beyond which is another long narrow platform. Together, these structures form the eastern side of the Plaza de Tortugas. The Turtle Plaza is situated between the Plaza de Abejas and Plaza de Columnas (shown in the last two postings). The Structure I palace faces west toward the un-excavated structures of Plaza Tortugas.


The Central Edifice of Structure I rises slightly above the platforms on either side. The two platforms extend to the north and south like wings. All of these may have once had structures on their tops made of perishable materials. Oddly, the broad staircase has a narrow set of stairs built into it on the right. The narrow stairs may have had some special, ceremonial function or this may simply be a product of different construction phases. Other than their names, I have been unable to find any information about Structure 1 or the Plaza de Tortugas. There were no on-site informational markers and Structure 1 doesn't even appear on most site maps, even those in the detailed archeological reports I Googled up.


The South Platform of Structure I forms its right wing. The Central Edifice can be seen in the upper right corner of the photo. Why there is so little mention of Structure I is a mystery to me. It has been well-excavated and can't be missed on the trail between the two main ceremonial plazas. I have described it as a palace, because it somewhat resembles the palaces in the two main plazas. However, it could have had religious or administrative purposes as well. It also occurred to me that the long, low staircases would have provided excellent audience seating for religious processions between the Plazas of Abejas and Columnas.


One of the local residents is also a mystery. I scoured hundreds iguana photos on Google Images and could find none that resembled this handsome guy. He was sunning himself in front of Structure I when I encountered him. I would greatly appreciate an i.d. from any lizard experts out there. Notice the bright orange end of its tail. Iguanas and some other lizards are able to detach part of their tails when they are threatened. The detached part writhes and wriggles to distract the predator while the iguana escapes.


Structure XI: The Astronomer's Pyramid


Structure XI, the Astronomer's Pyramid, is a mix of architectural phases. The earliest phase is the broad, circular base, seen in the foreground. This may have had an astronomical function, hence the name. The top section, built at a later time, is a square, five-stepped pyramid. The narrow staircase in the center of the photo is the main entrance to the square pyramid.


View of Structure XI from the right. The Astronomer's Pyramid is part of small group of buildings called the Plaza de Kanjobal. The other structures of the plaza are un-excavated mounds of rubble.


Side view of the stepped levels of the circular base. Virtually all of the pyramids in Mesoamerica are "stepped" meaning that their base is the broadest part, with each level above being somewhat smaller, kind of like a wedding cake. The ramón trees in the foreground are ubiquitous at Oxtankah. Their roots have broken up many of the walls and steps of the various structures here.


Limestone chultun located near the Astronomer's Pyramid. There are very few above-ground sources of fresh water in Yucatan. In the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula, cenotes (limestone sink holes) provide the primary source. However, in the Southern Peninsula, they are scarce. The ancient Maya solved this problems by cutting bottle-shaped chambers, called chultunes, down into the limestone. Drainage channels were then cut to the chultunes so that rainwater runoff from buildings and plazas could be collected and stored.

The Early Franciscan Open Chapel

The enclosed areas of Open Chapels are relatively small. Capillas Abiertas (Open Chapels) became distinctive features of Mexican Catholic architecture during the early 16th century Spiritual Conquest of Nueva España (Mexico). They were used by Franciscan friars as they evangelized indigenous populations. The mass conversions conducted during this period meant that there were often thousands of people who attended services. Building churches that would fit them all was beyond the resources of the friars. Most of Mexico's great cathedrals and basilicas were still a century into the future. In addition, the indigenous people were accustomed to attending pagan rituals conducted in the open air in front of their temples.

The friars' solution was to gather the indigenous people they were evangelizing into a large, un-roofed area, called an atrium. Facing the atrium would be a simple, open-faced chapel. The area behind the arch, called the presbytery, was roofed, but the archway itself was kept open so people could see the rituals that were being conducted. To the left of the presbytery is a sacristy where priestly vestments and other religious articles were kept. The room on the right, accessed from the front of the chapel, may have been used for administrative purposes or as temporary quarters for the itinerant friars.



 The presbytery and altar. At the back of the presbytery is a raised area containing the altar. Oxtankah's Capilla Abierta was built in 1544, shortly after the conquest of the region around Chetumal Bay. It is quite similar to the one we saw at Dzibilchaltún, a pre-hispanic Maya ruin near Mérida in northern Yucatan. The Spanish often constructed their churches and chapels in areas that indigenous people had been venerating for centuries. Oxtankah had long been a sacred precinct to the local Maya, even during the period of its abandonment between 600-900 AD. Thus, it is not surprising that this Capilla Abierta was built only a stone's throw from the Plaza Abejas.

This concludes my series on the ancient Maya city of Oxtankah. I hope you have enjoyed it and, if so, please leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below or email me directly.

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

Hasta luego, Jim

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