Friday, November 15, 2019

New blog posting: Campeche's Hacienda Uayamón

Arched portales of the hacienda's henequen mill, seen through jungle foliage. Hacienda Uayamón is one of Campeche's oldest and most important plantations. As anyone who follows my blog well knows, I am very interested in Mexico's old haciendas. So, I made it a point to stop here while we were looking for ancient Maya ruins near Campeche. In 1997, the ruins of Hacienda Uayamón were transformed into a boutique hotel. It has a nice restaurant, so we decided to have lunch there. There were no other restaurant customers or hotel guests, so we the entire place to ourselves. After our meal, I was able to wander around and take photographs to my heart's content without any pesky tourists walking through my shots.


Hacienda Uayamón is located not far outside of the city of Campeche. The drive takes you 21km (13mi) southeast of the city through an area that is a mixture of lush farmland and deep jungle. During our visit to the state of Campeche, all the roads we traveled in the state were well-paved and maintained except those in the most remote areas. Unlike some other areas of Mexico we have visited, directional signs in Campeche are generally plentiful and accurate.

The Maya word Uayamón means "where the spirit descends" or "place where sorcerers go down." Jungles have always seemed mysterious to me, so I'll go with the definition about the sorcerers. An access road leads from the #60 highway through the forest to the hacienda. The map above is a screenshot from this Google map, which you can use for a more detailed look at the area.

View of the casa grande from the beautifully landscaped parking area. In the photo above, the casa grande appears to be painted a bright yellow. This is an illusion, however, created to by the bright mid-day sunshine. In subsequent photos, you will see that it is actually more of a rust-orange. We had no reservations and no one knew we were coming, so I was uncertain of the welcome we might receive. I should have known better than to worry. In Mexico, the expression "mi casa is  su casa" (my home is your home) is taken seriously. We were greeted graciously and given free run of the place.

View of the casa grande from the right. It sits at the end of a long grassy courtyard, with an old mill and an administrative building bordering either side. Both were in ruins. Above, a staircase leads up between two guest rooms to a dining area on a terrace-arcade with arched portales. The flat roofs of the two guest rooms are miradors (viewpoints) from which the whole front courtyard can be viewed.

Hacienda Uayamón was founded in the mid-1500s, not long after the conquest of the Yucatan Peninsula. During the 1600s, Spain's settlements along the Gulf and Caribbean Coasts were plagued by pirate attacks. The old colonial city of Campeche is still surrounded by walls and fortifications built to resist these depredations. Hacienda Uayamón did not escape these attacks unscathed.

Along the right side of the front courtyard are the ruins of the old mill. People unacquainted with old haciendas often assume the term refers to a grand old home. However, the word hacienda comes from the Spanish verb hacer, which means to make or do something. Therefore the term refers to a whole economic operation, usually a ranch or farm, but sometimes a mine.

A hacienda's economic focus often changed over the centuries, as new markets opened up. This was true of Hacienda Uayamón. During the latter part of the 16th century, large-scale cattle ranching was the focus. However, over the next 400 years, corn, sugarcane, henequen and .Palo Campeche, or "dye stick" were added to its mix of products.

Dye stick was one of the most lucrative. It comes from the logwood tree (Haematoxylum campechianum) and produces a brilliant red-orange dye. The Spanish first encountered Palo Campeche in 1540, when they conquered the Maya city of Kin Pech (Campeche). When the new dye was imported into Europe, it revolutionized the 16th century textile trade.

Along the left side of the courtyard stands an elegant building. Its position and structure suggest that it may have contained the hacienda administrator's offices and possibly his residence. Hacendados (hacienda owners) often did not reside permanently on their properties, which were usually quite rustic in the early centuries. Usually they lived in plush mansions in the nearest large town or city. An administrator was employed to live on-site and run the day-to-day operations.

The building seen above was constructed in the late 19th century, when Hacienda Uayamón was at the height of its wealth and power. Only a couple of decades later, the hacienda system in Mexico was overthrown by the Revolution. The brutal economic and social exploitation on which the system depended was destroyed and most of these old estates fell into ruins. Some of them, like this one, have gained a new lease on life from enterprising new owners who restore the old structures and refashion them into hotel/resorts.

La Casa Grande

The casa grande, seen from the roof-top mirador of one of the guest rooms in front. While many of its architectural details seem accurate, it is unclear to me how much of the structure above is original and how much is the product of the 1997 restoration by Mexican architect Luis Bosoms Creixell. In any case, haciendas often underwent changes, restorations, and enhancements over the centuries. The early structures were simple adobe, later upgraded to rough-cut stone, and then elegant brick.

casa grande was more than just the hacendado's residence. It was the nerve center of the operation and often included offices, meeting rooms, and a tienda de raya (company store). Sometimes, there was even a jail for workers who were insubordinate or who were recaptured after running away from debts owed to the hacendado. The owner and his family would have elegant apartments in the casa grande, for use during their periodic visits to the property.

The mirador, viewed from the terrace of the casa grande. In the background you can see the ruins of the old mill. The small, horse-shoe shaped structure on the front wall of the mirador is a campanario, where a bell once hung. Few workers had clocks or watches, so bells were used to alert them at the beginning and end of their workday. The bells could also warn of dangers such as fire or the approach of potentially hostile strangers.

From the late 16th century through the beginning of the 18th, the city of Campeche and its hinterlands were repeatedly raided by pirates. One of the greatest of these buccaneers was Laurens de Graff, known to the Spanish as Lorencillo. He was a Dutch privateer, working for the French in their war against the Spanish.

Privateers were essentially businessmen who contracted with governments to attack an enemy power's shipping in return for a share of the captured loot. Pirates, on the other hand, had no government association and shared their profits with no one but their fellow crew members. As his career progressed, de Graff decided to freelance as a straightforward pirate. In 1685, he seized the city of Campeche and held it for two months. During this time he sacked Hacienda Uayamón. Although he secured provisions for his forces, he found little in the way of treasure.

The terrace restaurant overlooks the front courtyard. Carole and I were the only lunch customers at the time. The white columns and rough vigas (ceiling beams) indicate that this is probably part of the original pre-restoration hacienda. The food was as elegant as the setting. After our lunch, I left Carole to enjoy the terrace view and went inside to photograph the interior.

This large dining room faces the rear patio. The structure of this room suggests that it may once have been a rear terrace. Its transformation into a large dining room was probably part of the 1997 restoration. Hacendados usually had large families, so big dining rooms are common features of casas grandes. Others dining with the family might include key employees, such as the hacienda's administrator, a priest assigned to the chapel, or a teacher employed to educate the hacendado's children. In addition there were occasional guests.

Haciendas also functioned as way-stations along roads leading to the interior. Travelers might stop for the night, enlivening dinner conversations with news  of the outside world. In the mid-19th century, early archeologists John Stephens and Frederick Catherwood were welcomed at haciendas all over the Yucatan Peninsula during their expeditions to find ancient Maya ruins.

A library with a checkerboard tile floor is just off the front terrace. Notice the small writing desk built into the middle of the bookshelves. Usually, the only literate people on a hacienda were the hacendado, his family, key employees, and the occasional visitor. The Maya field workers had a deep understanding of the natural world around them, but few were literate and most had little sense of the outside world.

Most hacendados were just fine with this situation, viewing an illiterate workforce as easier to control. Fernando Carvajal Estrada was one of the more enlightened of Uayamón's hacendados. In the late-19th and early 20th centuries, he sponsored a school for his workers and their families and even provided them with on-site medical services.

A smaller, more intimate dining room might be used for family-only meals. In the early centuries, hacienda furniture was made on-site from local materials by resident carpenters. The result would have been far more rustic than the elegant set seen above. As haciendas became more established and connected to the outside world, stylish furniture was often imported from abroad. 

When railroads were introduced in the last half of the 19th century, luxury goods became much cheaper and more easily obtained. In fact, the benefits of railroad transportation moved in both directions. Fernando Carvajal Estrada was one of the key promoters of the Campechano Railroad, which revolutionized the economics of haciendas like Uayamón. Suddenly, getting products to market took hours, rather than days or even weeks. As a result, hacienda profits skyrocketed, allowing the importation of even more luxury goods.

A circular seating area is located in the rear patio of the casa grande. This structure puzzled me at first. Then I remembered a horse-powered grinding process that I have observed in Oaxaca. In that case, the horse was grinding up maguey piñas to make mescal liquor. I believe that the structure above is the remnant of a similar process for grinding the hacienda's maiz. The animal would have been harnessed to the post. As it trudged around the circle, it would have ground the maiz by propelling a large millstone inside the circular space that is now filled with water. 

Seashells are thickly embedded in the ring surrounding the pond. At first, I assumed that the seashells were some sort of decorative element added in modern times. Upon further research, I discovered that seashells have long been used as aggregate to help bind concrete. Since the Gulf Coast is less than 20 miles away, a plentiful supply would have been available to those who built the horse-powered mill. After the hacienda was restored as a hotel, the old mill became the seating area we see today.

Raised-bed gardens produce food for the guests. While produce can easily be purchased elsewhere and brought to Uayamón, vegetables and herbs freshly picked from its own gardens make the hotel's meals especially tasty. In earlier times, growing your own food was not just desirable, but essential.

Haciendas were often located in areas some distance from external supplies. What takes a mere 30 minutes drive on today's asphalt highways would have required a whole day by horse or wagon along jungle trails in the 19th century. Haciendas attempted to be as self-sufficient as possible. In addition to a vegetable garden, there was usually an orchard to produce fresh fruit for the owner's table. 

El Molino

Ruins of el molino (the mill) where henequen was processed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. However, in the 16th and 17th centuries, cattle ranching was the main economic focus at Hacienda Uayamón. This was largely due to the population crash caused by Spanish diseases, from which the native people had little resistance. Cattle ranching was much less labor-intensive than farming. 

During the 17th century, Don Francisco de Cisero built the hacienda's cattle operation into one of the largest in Campeche. In addition to being a rich hacendado, Don Francisco was Colonel of the White Militia and a politician. By the beginning of the 18th century, the labor supply had rebounded somewhat and Uayamón began to raise maiz (corn) on a large scale. 

Chimney of the henequen mill. It may also have served during the time when sugar was one of Uayamón's main cash crops. Tall chimneys like this are typical features of hacienda mills. Sugar was one of the earliest cash crops in Spain's New World possessions. Cultivation was initiated first in the Caribbean islands and then on the mainland after the Conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1521. Hernán Cortez himself owned a very large sugar hacienda near Cuernavaca in the early 16th century. 

However, the conquest of Yucatan took much longer than that of central Mexico. Consequently, Spanish settlement of the Peninsula's interior was much more gradual. Along with the indigenous population crash, this probably accounts for the delay in adopting sugar as a cash crop at Uayamón. In fact, it was not until the second half of the 18th century that sugar became important to the hacienda.

The base of the chimney contains a plaque with the owner's name and the date of construction. Rafael Carvajal Iturralde bought the hacienda in the mid-19th century and was the owner when the mill was built in 1895. He came from a wealthy and illustrious family. His father, José Segundo Carvajal, had been the Governor of Yucatan in 1831. Rafael followed his father's footsteps and served as Governor from 1850-1853. By 1877, Rafael had made Uayamón the second richest hacienda in Yucatan. Rafael's son, Fernando Carvajal Estrada, was the hacendado who promoted the railroad from Campeche, brought electricity to the hacienda, and provided a school and hospital for his workers.

Inside the mill, graceful arches support an internal wall. I never fail to be impressed by the artistry used in constructing old structures like this, even when they are to be used for purely utilitarian purposes. The production of sugar requires a large number of field hands for planting, cultivation, and harvesting. In addition, highly skilled factory workers and technicians are required to operate the mill's machinery. By the time Uayamón started into the sugar business, Mexico had won its independence. The technicians would have been educated Mexicans with a smattering of Europeans.

In colonial times, many sugar mill workers were African slaves. Interestingly, the colonial Spanish found that the Africans they imported to the New World were particularly good at sugar mill work and favored them over indigenous workers. In some cases, they even used their African slaves as foremen over non-slave indigenous work crews. The last of Mexico's slaves were freed in 1829 and, after that date, the mill workers at Uayamón would have been free men, whether of African descent or not.

View through an internal window and external door into the courtyard. The red building across the courtyard is the administrative building. Today, the interior of the mill is only a hollow shell of what was once an intensely busy area. Still, I found it very photogenic with its arched doors and windows and other interesting architectural touches. 

Henequen (Agave fourcroydes lemaire) was Uayamón's other major cash crop. The fibre from the leaves of this plant has been used since pre-hispanic times to make rope, sandals, hammocks, and various textiles. In 1831, an American named Cyrus McCormick invented a mechanical reaper to harvest wheat. The machine baled the wheat straw with wire in a process that was much quicker than could be done by hand. 

Trial and error proved that henequen twine was much superior to metal wire, since it was less likely to become entangled in the machine. Since the Yucatan Peninsula was the only source of henequen at the time, haciendas producing it became immensely wealthy. McCormick's company  (today's International Harvester Corporation) was the world's largest purchaser during the great henequen boom of 1860 to 1910. At the time, henequen was called oro verde ("green gold").

Rafael Carvajal Iturralde's name also appears over the arches of the administration building. The date 1891 displayed on the building indicates that, like the mill, it was constructed during the height of the henequen boom. In addition to external demand, other factors helped create the boom. In 1847, the Maya Caste War erupted. One of the causes was the sugar industry's displacement of maiz, which the Maya considered sacred. In the conflict, the sugar industry was nearly destroyed. Ironically, this freed up labor for the emerging henequen industry. Later in the 19th century, a Mexican named Manuel Cecilio Villamor y Armendáriz invented a mechanical henequen shredder, which further increased production. 

However, when the Mexican Revolution broke out in 1910, the hacendados' good times came to an end. Although Fernando Carvajal Estrada was an enlightened employer for his time, elsewhere the Maya workers had been brutally exploited by the hacendados producing henequen, who were known as henequeneros. During the bitter fighting that occurred around Campeche, Hacienda Uayamón was occupied and its henequen machinery destroyed. 

The turmoil in the Yucatan Peninsula led to the planting of henequen in other parts of the world, causing prices to fall. Then, during the years following the Revolution, the government broke up Mexico's great haciendas and redistributed their lands to the campesinos (farm workers). By the early 1920s, the great henequen haciendas were in serious decline and many, including Uayamón, fell into ruins. 

This completes my posting on Hacienda Uayamón. I hope you enjoyed it and, if so, you will 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

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Oxkintok Part 4 of 4: The Ah Dzib Group and Satunsat Labyrinth

Monumental arch at the northern entrance to the Ah Dzib Group. This arch is the first ancient architecture you see as you approach Oxkintok along the scrub-lined access road. This was our entry point to the city's ruins. In the foreground is a cobblestone ramp, dappled with shade from overhanging trees. The ramp leads down into Ah Dzib's Northeast Plaza, from which this shot was taken.

The arch is of the Early Puuc style of architecture (700-850 AD). This makes it one of the later additions to Ah Dzib. Other sections date back to the Late Formative period (300 BC-300 AD), a thousand years before. The arch above is one of two at Oxkintok. The other is on the eastern side of the Ah Canul Group's Southeastern Plaza, which I showed in Part 2. The arches form dramatic, ceremonial entry points to two of the most important groups of structures within the city.

The Ah Dzib Group

Site map showing Ah Dzib and the Satunsat Labyrinth. Note the sacbeob (stone roads built by the ancient Maya) which branch out from the east (right) side. The left fork of the sacbeob leads to the Ah May Group, while the right fork ends at the Ah Canul Group. These two groups were covered in Parts 1-3. 

The arch seen in the first photo is marked as #1 in the map above. It leads into the Northeast Plaza (#2). There are three other plazas: the Southeast (#8), Northwest (#10), and Southwest (#11). These four plazas are the oldest parts of Oxkintok, dating all the way back to the Late Formative era (300 BC-300 AD). However, many of the structures within the plazas were built in later eras. Each of the plazas was built at a different level, with the Northeast the lowest and the Southwest the highest. 

In the upper left corner of the Northeast Plaza you find the Ball Court (#3), an important ceremonial location. A long, high stone wall with a broad staircase (#4) separates the Northeast and Northwest Plazas. Where the four plazas connect in the center (#5) you find El Castillo (The Castle). From its commanding position, this temple appears to be the most important structure in Ah Dzib. Another broad staircase (#7) on the south side of the Northeast Plaza leads up to the Southeast Plaza, the focus of which is the Chaac Palace (#9). The Satunsat (#12), a man-made labyrinth, is the small rectangular structure to the south of Ah Dzib.

Due to the somewhat confusing layout of Ah Dzib, and the lack of a site map at the time, I passed through the Northeast and Southeast Plazas without ever realizing that there were two more plazas attached to the west. Consequently, I have no photos of them or their structures. I have also been unable to find any photos or discussions about them on the internet. This is probably because the Northeast and Southeast Plazas have been the major focus of archeological work within Ah Dzib

The Ball Court (DZ-10) appears to have had a very important function at Oxkintok. It was constructed in Early Puuc style sometime between 700-800 AD. The playing field measures 16.33m (54ft) long and 5.83m (19ft) wide. This is not particularly large, as pre-hispanic courts go.  However, the role the ball game played in the politics of the city was crucial. Oxkintok is bisected through its middle by a modern access road, running east-to-west. This roughly matches the ancient political division of the city. The court's location places it on this line in the approximate center of the city. While there are a large number of structures north of the road, the most important ones are to its south.

Archeologists surmise that political tensions may have arisen between the north and south sides of the city. Placing the Ball Court on the border between the two areas created a political, religious, social space where these tensions could be balanced. This would not be an unusual use of the ball game among pre-hispanic civilizations. Far more than a simple sports contest, the game was often used to settle disputes among different groups within a city, or between city-states. In addition, the game was deeply enmeshed in Maya religious symbolism and played a central role in their creation myth. (Photo from InfoMaya website) 

Carole stands beside the stone ring found at Oxkintok's Ball Court. The ring  has hieroglyphic writing around both sides and includes a date from the Maya calendar equivalent to 714 AD. This may be the date the Ball Court was constructed. The stone ring is located in the Archeological Museum in Mérida, Yucatan, where I photographed it in 2010. It was unearthed near the eastern side of the Ball Court's playing area. The tenon, which extends to the right of the ring, would have fitted into one of the side walls of the court, about half way down its length. There was almost certainly a matching ring on the other side of the court. 

While the precise rules of the game are unknown, it is generally thought that one way to score would have been to pass the ball through the ring. This would have been more difficult than it sounds, since the rules appear to have prohibited players from touching the ball with their hands or feet. The ball itself was made by wrapping a round stone with layers of hard rubber. Its weight was such that players who were struck in an unprotected area of the body could be injured, or even killed. That was not the only danger players faced. At times, some of them were sacrificed after the game. Whether those who went under the knife were the winners or losers is still unclear.

Staircase of the wall that forms the west side of the Northwest Plaza. After I walked down the cobblestone ramp from the entry arch, I saw this impressive staircase off to my right. The top of the staircase was choked with vegetation, so I didn't mount it. I assumed that this was just a boundary wall with nothing of interest beyond.  Not realizing that the Northwest Plaza was on the other side, I simply photographed the wall and its staircase as I passed. However, I remember thinking that it would have taken a lot of work to build this impressive structure just to form a plaza boundary. 

El Castillo sits atop the point in the center of Ah Dzib where the four plazas intersect. The Northeast Plaza's western boundary wall extends off to the right (north) while the boundary wall along the north side of the Southeast Plaza extends to the left (east). El Castillo (DZ-8) is a two-room structure that can be accessed on its west side by the staircases you can see above. 

Archeologists describe it as a temple, but it may have had a political as well as religious function. El Castillo sits at a point in the center of the Ah Dzib Group from which all four plazas can be observed and accessed. This strongly suggests that it may have been one of the most important structures in the group. However, because I knew nothing of all this, I did not explore further. I was also deterred by all the brush in the structure. In any case, since dramatic pyramids and palaces were visible in the distance, I moved on.

A circular stone altar stands in the middle of the Northeast Plaza. Another circular altar is located in the North Plaza of the Ah Canul Group (see Part 1). Circular altars are associated with the fire-making ritual and may symbolize the comal, a circular clay griddle on which Maya women prepare meals.

The north wall of the Southeast Plaza's platform, looking east. The platform is accessed from the Northeast Plaza by a broad staircase. Carved into the risers of the steps are a series of hieroglyphs. Archeologists also found six stelae at the Southeast Plaza. Four of them contained hieroglyphic texts and the other two were blank. In the distance you can see a low staircase that forms the eastern boundary of the Northeast Plaza.

The Chaac palace occupies the south side of the Southeast Plaza. The remains of the Chaac Palace (DZ-15) sit on a low platform, accessed by a four-step staircase across its front. Whether this structure served a residential, administrative, or religious function is not clear. Chaac, the God of Rain, was one of the most important deities in the Maya cosmos because water was essential to their civilization, which was overwhelmingly based on agriculture.

There are few rivers or lakes on the Yucatan Peninsula, outside of the southeastern region. In some places in northern Yucatan, cenotes (limestone sinkholes) are the main source of year-round water. However, there are almost none in the area around Oxkintok. Seasonal rain, channelled into underground reservoirs called chultunes, was the only way the city could survive and prosper. 

The eastern boundary of the Northeast Plaza is formed by a long esplanade. The esplanade has a four-step staircase all along its length. In the foreground, a stone ramp drops down from the Southeast Plaza's platform. From where it meets the ground, a sacbe (limestone road) extends to the southeast and then splits. One branch leads to the Ah Canul Group and the other to the Ah May group. 

The Satunsat or Labyrinth

The Satunsat, viewed from its northeastern corner. Satunsat (also spelled Tzat un Tzat) means "place where it is easy to get lost". The Spanish called it El Labertino or The Labyrinth. Although relatively small, and set apart from the other major structures of Oxkintok, it is arguably one of the most important and famous monuments in the city. 

In 1588, Franciscan Brother Antonio de Ciudad Real visited Oxkintok. He mistook the Satunsat for a dungeon where the ancient people "tossed those who had committed great offenses so that there they may die." There is no historical mention of the site again until 1843, when two early archeological explorers visited Satunsat. John Stephens and Frederick Catherwood had heard it described as an unusual cave. However, they soon established that it is not a natural cave but artificial. 

More than fifty years later, in 1895, H.E. Mercer from the University of Pennsylvania conducted the first excavations by a professional archeologist. There were more investigations in 1930s and 40s, but it was not until the 1980s that large scale excavations occurred again. These were part of a major, 5-year project by a team from Spain, lasting from 1986 to 1991. Miguel Rivera Dorado was the team leader and in 1994 he published El Labertino de Oxkintok. In it, Dorado established the deep symbolic significance of this unusual structure.

Plan of the three levels of the Satunsat. Overall, the structure is 20m (66ft) long, 10m (32ft) wide and stands 7m (23ft) tall. It is a rectangular pyramid with three stepped levels and a total of 19 rooms. The lowest contains 7 rooms, level two has 8, and there are 4 on the top level. The Satunsat's design is unlike any other structure at Oxkintok. In fact, although other ancient labyrinths exist around the world, this is one of only three in all of Yucatan. 

In the plans above, the lowest level is shown on the bottom. The structure appears at first glance to face east (toward the top of the page), into Oxkintok's Central Plaza. However, to enter the labyrinth, you must go around to the rear (west) face of the structure. This is on the bottom side of the lowest level shown above. The interior rooms on all levels are long and narrow, with passages between them that twist, turn, and sometimes lead to dead ends. 

After entering level one, you eventually come to stairways up to the second level--if you can find them. Keep in mind that most of the interior is in total darkness--intentionally so. When and if you find a stairway, you enter yet another labyrinth, which eventually leads to yet another stairway. Finally, you emerge from a turret onto the top level. Through a door on its easternmost room, you emerge into the sunlight. This is the only level that faces into the plaza. 

Unfortunately, I only know all this from archeological descriptions because there was a locked iron grill on the west side door when I arrived,. Some time ago, the authorities closed the interior of Satunsat and now use it for storage. Perhaps too many tourists got lost inside and had to be rescued. (Floor plan from Architectural Survey at Oxkintok, 1971-1993 by George F. Andrews)

Top level of the Satunsat, viewed from the Central Plaza. There are three parallel rooms on this level, plus the cubicle for the turret leading up from the second level. Viewed from the plaza, this is an interesting but not particularly impressive structure, particularly compared to the nearby MA-1 pyramid and the great platform of the Ah May Group. However, the structure you see above actually sits on the western lip of the Central Plaza. The lower levels are cut into the bedrock and thus mostly underground, once again intentionally so. There is literally more to this structure than meets the eye, at least from this perspective.

The easternmost room on the top level, looking north. Top level rooms appear to have been roofed with corbel (stepped) arches. Interior doorways lead to the middle and west rooms, which are parallel to this one. While the lower two levels were constructed in the Early Classic era (300-500 AD), the Satunsat's top level was built in the Proto-Puuc style during the Classic (500-750 AD). 

The west side of the Satunsat, viewed from its north end. From this rear view, you can clearly see the three stepped levels. The entrance to the labyrinth is in the lower right of the photo. The lower levels were built in Early Oxkintok style.

In his book, El Labertino de Oxkintok, Miguel Dorado asserts that the structure embodies many of the Maya concepts about the cosmos and their mythology. The Maya believed the cosmos had three levels: the underworld (Xibalba), the earth, and the heavens. According to them, Xibalba was a dark and fearsome labyrinth. For the newly dead, it was confusing and difficult to navigate, and full of obstacles and dangers.

Caves represented openings into underworld, so the Satunsat's ancient architects built an artificial cave, attempting to create the sort of labyrinth found in Xibalba. The experience of passing through the Satunsat's labyrinth was intended to be transformative, just as people transform when they pass from life into death. Dorado believes the labyrinth was used to initiate priests, thus transforming them into powerful figures in the community, with access to the secrets of the cosmos.

Several small square openings dot the western face of the Satunsat. Early visitors thought that their purpose might have been to provide natural light to the interior. However, there are only a few openings and they only appear on the west side of the structure. Eventually, someone had the bright idea that they could have been used to track the movement of celestial bodies. 

Sure enough, their placement coincides with the movement of the sun as it passes through each equinox. So, the Satunsat also functioned as an astronomical observatory and a sort of cosmic clock. It was used to predict the proper times for planting and harvesting and to set the dates for various festivals related to those crucial agricultural activities. 

The ability to make these predictions ensured the power and influence of the priestly rulers. No doubt, part of the initiation process was to learn how to use the observation holes effectively. All this connects the Satunsat's structure with the Sun God, K'inich Ahau, who was closely associated with rulers. The Maya believed that, after death, a king would "assimilate" to K'inich Ahau. In this process, he would rise from the underworld to the heavens, much as someone entering the lowest level of the Satunsat would rise through the labyrinth's levels and emerge into the sunlight on the top.

Interior of the Satunsat. Although I was unable to access the labyrinth myself, I did find this photo on the internet. Dorado tells us that there are still more meanings to the Satunsat. According to the creation myth associated with Oxkintok, the founders of the city came up from an underground labyrinth and emerged through a cave opening as the first humans. They built the Satunsat over the cave to preserve it as a holy site. Once again, the process was a journey through an underground labyrinth followed by the emergence into sunlight.

A further connection is through the widespread myth of the Hero Twins. They traveled deep into Xibalba, defeated the Lords of Darkness in a ball game, stole the secret of growing maiz (corn), overcame the dangers and pitfalls of Xibalba's labyrinth, and finally emerged victorious into the sunlight. The Hero Twins then presented the gift of maiz to the Maya so they could build their great civilization upon this powerful agricultural innovation. (Photo from puri2aprendiendovida website)

Sketch of a funerary urn found in Tomb 1. The importance that the ancient inhabitants of Oxkintok placed on the Satunsat is further emphasized by its use as the the burial site of a high status individual who may have been a king. Tomb 1 is a secondary burial, meaning that the original grave was elsewhere and the remains were later interred in the Satunsat. Secondary burials were typical of the Middle Classic era (500-750 AD).

The tomb was discovered in the bottom level of the labyrinth and contained the richest gave goods yet found in the city. One of the pieces was the funerary urn seen above. It is a tripod cylinder with feet in the form a bat heads. Camazotz, the Bat God, was associated with night, death, and sacrifice. And, of course, bats are often found in caves. Among the other items unearthed was an exquisite mask covered with jade mosaic, a mask fit for a king.

This completes both Part 4 of my Oxkintok series and the series itself. I hope you enjoyed it and, if so, you will leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below. If you leave a question, please include your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Monday, October 14, 2019

Oxkintok Part 3 of 4: Pyramids and palaces of the Ah May Group

Platform staircase of the Ah May Group, looking west. The stone-paved walkways shown in the lower right are parts of sacbeob (raised roads) that cross Oxkintok's Central Plaza, linking the Ah May Group to the Ah Canul, and Ah Dzib Groups. The staircase above faces north, into the Central Plaza. The three groups of structures, along with the Satunsat (Labyrinth), form the boundaries of the Central Plaza. Collectively, they are the most important part of the ancient Maya city of Oxkintok.

In the first two parts of this series, I showed you the Ah Canul Group, which has been described as the power center of the city. In this third part, we will take a look at the Ah May Group. It includes the oldest and highest of Oxkintok's pyramids, as well as several elite residential areas. Part 4 of the series will cover the Ah Dzib Group and the Satunsat or Labyrinth.


Site map of the Ah May Group (north at top). The Ah May Group stands on a massive platform covering 15,000 sq m (16,404 sq yds). The north side of the platform forms the southern border of Oxkintok's Central Plaza. To the northwest (upper left) is the Satunsat, a small, stand-alone structure also known as the Labyrinth. Off the map to the north is the Ah Dzib Group. To the east, also off the map, is the Ah Canul Group. The large pyramid known as MA-1 (#1 on the map) stands in the center of the platform.

Access to the platform is gained by mounting the ramp and staircase (# 4) from the north. The MA-1 pyramid faces the North Plaza (#5). Along this plaza's west side are two buildings (#2, #3) that may once have housed priests. The Southeast Plaza (#7) contains two elite palaces, including Palacio Junquillo (#6) and the MA-9 palace (#9). The Southwest Plaza (#8) contains the remains of structures that were probably residential, however I didn't photograph them.

Ah May's platform, pyramid, and palaces

The Ah May Group, viewed from the northwest. In the upper left of the photo you can see the ramp and staircase that gives access to the platform on which the pyramid and other structures stand. During the Late-to-Terminal Classic era, when the Ah Canul Group was the center of power in Oxkintok, Ah May held a lesser status as the civic and religious center.

However, Ah May's construction dates to the Early Classic period (300 - 500 AD) while Ah Canul's pyramids and temples were built between 750 AD and 1050 AD. Archeologists believe that Ah May might have been the power center in the earlier period, but yielded that status when Ah Canul rose to prominence. Modifications to Ah May's Early Classic structures continued through Oxkintok's history to the end of the Terminal Classic. (Photo from the Oxkintok website)

The platform's ramp and staircase has three levels. The long ramp leads up to the first level. Then a wide staircase leads to a second level which once had structures on either side of the staircase. From there the stairs lead to the broad North Plaza in front of the MA-1 pyramid.

For all the effort put into building this huge platform, as well as all the other structures at Oxkintok, there is no evidence of any of defensive works. There are none of the ramparts, ditches, or defensive walls so common among other pre-hispanic Maya sites. Further, there is no trace of the kind of destruction that occurs when a city is captured and sacked by an enemy force. This does not mean that armed conflict was totally absent during Oxkintok's 700 year history. However, any that occurred appears to have been rare and the city suffered few consequences from it.

Oxkintok is located about 48km (30mi) away from the great city Uxmal. They are considered to be the two most important pre-hispanic city-states in the Puuc Region. Over the centuries, Oxkintok's top-tier status should have led to many conflicts with neighboring powers. Yet the only evidence found to date are carvings on a couple of stelae. One contains the image of a warrior and the other shows a possible war captive (see Part 2 of this series). Most other Maya cities, including Uxmal, contain defensive works. Also commonly present are large numbers of relief carvings and statues with warlike themes, as well as hieroglyphic accounts of victories and conquests. The almost total absence of all these at Oxkintok is a real puzzle.

A line of columns stands at the top of the ramp to the left of the main staircase. These were once part of a portico called MA-15. Columned porticos are one of the features of the Puuc style, which developed around 700 AD. The presence of this portico indicates that it was added about 400 years after Ah May's construction began.

Housing for elite individuals stands on the top level of Ah May's great platform. Once you reach the top of the platform's stairs, you enter the North Plaza. Along the north and west sides of the North Plaza are two rectangular structures, perpendicular to each other. They once housed some of Oxkintok's elite, possibly including priests. In the foreground is MA-2, the smaller of the two. Its one doorway opens to the south, into the plaza. MA-2's Puuc style helps date it to between 600-800 AD).

In the distance, MA-3 borders the whole west side of the plaza. Its nine doorways suggest a religious connection and the possibility that it once housed priests. Numbers were always important to the Maya, and nine represented the number of levels in Xibalba, the Maya underworld.

MA-3 also appears to be older than MA-2. It was constructed with coarsely carved stone blocks and has the remains of a vaulted ceiling, both features of the Early Oxkintok style. This style, popular between 300-600 AD, pre-dated the Puuc style. Just behind MA-3, archeologists found manos and metates (stone tools for grinding corn), typical finds associated with a kitchen area, adding further proof that this was a residential structure.

Drawings of hieroglyphics found at the Ah May Group. On the left is a miscellaneous fragment, while the one on the right is from Dintel 11, a doorway lintel. Most of the history and chronology of Oxkintok must be indirectly inferred because only a few written records have been found in the city.

Those that exist are mostly in the form of hieroglyphic carvings on stelae, lintels, altars, ceramics, and the stone ring found in the Ball Court (to be shown in Part 4). However, many of these were too weatherworn to be deciphered. Among those hieroglyphs that are readable are a few that tell us the name of Oxkintok's only identified ruler. He was a man called Walas, who ruled the city during the Late Classic era. Among the hieroglyphs, only 13 specific dates have been found. These range from 475 AD to 859 AD.

However, archeologists have been able to supplement this fragmented chronology with additional methods. A careful analysis of 70,000 ceramic fragments and 38 complete vessels found at Oxkintok reveals a period of occupation totaling 2100 years, from the Pre-Classic era (600 BC) through the end of the Post-Classic (1500 AD).

The city's monumental architecture has a much shorter history than the pottery. Broadly speaking, the four main architectural styles are Early Oxkintok (300-500 AD), Proto-Puuc (500-700 AD), Early Puuc (700-850 AD) and Classic Puuc (850-1050 AD). However, these changes in styles over 750 years also provide a rough chronology of the city's social, political, and economic development.

Ah May's pyramid, known as MA-1. The pyramid stands on the third level of the platform and faces the North Plaza. The Southeast and Southwest Plazas are behind MA-1. At 15m (49ft), this pyramid is Oxkintok's tallest structure. What you see above is the latest version of the pyramid. Unlike modern builders, the Maya did not tear down an old pyramid when they wanted to put up a new one on the same spot. They simply built over what was already there. Such is the case with MA-1. When archeologists tunneled into the pyramid, they found the remains of a structure built centuries earlier.

The tunnels also revealed three tombs, each containing the remains of one individual. The three were aligned with one another on an east-west basis and all were perpendicular to the north-south axis of the pyramid. Based on the richness of the grave goods, the individual buried in the center was the most important,

The grave goods included blades and other objects of obsidian, a cylindrical vase with a tripod base, a lid with a handle in the form of a bird's head, cinnabar (bright-red mercury sulfide, used as a pigment), and various jade objects used for personal decoration. Also present were a large quantities of jewelry made from Spondylus Americanus shells from the northwest coast of Yucatan. The importance of the tombs' occupants is indicated not only in the quantity and quality of the the grave goods, but because of where they were buried. Tombs inside a major pyramid were reserved for those with the highest status, usually rulers and their families.

Schematics of MA-1. The drawing on top shows how the pyramid may have looked in the Terminal Classic period. At the top of the broad, north-facing staircase stands a two-room temple with an altar. The Puuc-style columned porticos to the left of the staircase were the last additions to the structure. Even with all the modifications over the centuries, some features from an earlier era were retained. The Early Classic talud y tablero (slope and panel) feature on the right side reflects the 5th century influence of Teotihuacán, the great trading empire of central Mexico.

The lower schematic shows a north-south cross section of MA-1, revealing the outline of the original structure underneath. It was built sometime between 300 and 500 AD. This palatial building had two levels with nine rooms. There were seven rooms on the bottom level, with five of them along a north-south gallery. Two more rooms were situated either side of the gallery to the east and west. On the second level are two more rooms. When the pyramid was constructed in the Mid-Classic era (500-750 AD), all these rooms were filled with rubble in order to create a solid foundation. (Schematics from Architectural Survey at Oxkintok, 1971-1993 by George F. Andrews)

Altar in the pyramid's temple. The altar was fitted into a cubicle between the temple's two rooms. There is a step at the base upon which offerings may have been laid. Above that is a niche in which a censer (incense burner) or a statue of a god may have stood. The cubicle is not much bigger than an old-fashioned telephone booth. For today's cell phone users who may be too young to know what that is, here is a photo of one from the National Historical Register.

View from the MA-1 temple, looking northwest. The MA-3 residential structure stretches diagonally across the photo. It faces east into the North Plaza. Eight large pilasters separate the nine doorways of the long, thin structure. Beyond MA-3 is another structure, called the Satunsat or Labyrinth, which I will show in my next posting.

The MA-9 Palace

The MA-9 Palace stands on Ah May's platform to the left of the pyramid. Like the pyramid, the palace faces into the North Plaza. It also forms the northern boundary of the Southeast Plaza. The palace has five rooms, four of which are laid out on an east-west line, with an adjoining room in back. The MA-9 palace was a late addition to the Ah May Group. It was built during the Terminal Classic period (750-1050 AD), during Oxkintok's highest era of cultural splendor.

The corners of the palace are formed with three columns called junquillos. The Spanish word junquillo means round stone molding. This feature places the structure within the Junquillo Phase of the Puuc architectural phase.To the right is one of MA-9's four doorways that open onto the North Plaza.

Interior of an MA-9 room. The door above is interior, leading into another room. The walls and the lintel are made from large stone blocks, probably limestone because it is plentiful in Yucatan. Notice how the rooms are choked with vegetation. We visited in December because the weather was comfortable at that time, but it also meant that vegetation was thick.

Palacio Junquillo (MA-6)

Palacio Junquillo is named for its prolific use of rounded stone moldings. Also known as MA-6, Palacio Junquillo is actually a collection of structures that form the southern and western boundaries of the Southeast Plaza. I took this shot from the temple atop the pyramid, but did not actually walk through the structures. There was no obvious path through the dense growth, time was short, and there were many other pyramids and palaces to see. I wish I had found a way through the brush, because my later research showed it to be an important site. Fortunately, I did turn up some schematics that will provide a better sense of Palacio Junquillo.

What Palacio Junquillo would have looked like in the Terminal Classic era. A large, two-room structure sits on a low platform accessed by a two step staircase. The platform structure is laid out on an east-west line and faces north, into the Southeast Plaza.

Behind the two-room structure is an L-shaped building with four rooms and three doorways. Across from this is a long, four-room structure with a door on the north end and two on its east side. The east side doors face into a patio formed by the three buildings. The doors of the L-shaped building also face into the patio.

This shared space suggests a close connection among all three structures. Archeologists speculate that the large structure on the platform may have been used for religious purposes and the other buildings as residences or for utilitarian purposes such as storage or food preparation. (Schematic from Mesoweb)

Floor Plan of Palacio Junquillo. This schematic gives a different view and clearly shows the way the rooms were structured. Oddly, room #2 in the L-shaped structure doesn't seem to have any doors, either exterior or interior.  (Floor plan from Architectural Survey at Oxkintok: 1971-1993 by George F. Andrews, University of Oregon)

This completes Part 3 of my 4-part series on Oxkintok. I hope you have enjoyed it and, if so, you will leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below or email me directly. If you leave a question, please include your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim