Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Ancient Chacchoben, "The Place of the Red Maiz"

Chacchoben's largest pyramid is Templo 1, which stands on the Gran Basamento. After our visit to Lago de Bacalar, we continued on to the ancient Maya city of Chacchoben (Chak-cho-ben), located approximately 50 km (31 mi) north of the town of Bacalar. The very scenic route takes you north along the east bank of the lake to the intersection with Highway 293 where you head west. After about 10 km (6 mi), you come to the Chacchoben Archeological Zone. Google maps will sometimes misdirect you to the pueblo of Chacchoben, which is on a different road about 10 km away. Ancient Chacchoben was an important Maya city-state that controlled a substantial region of the southeastern Yucatan Peninsula. Its domain included an important trading center called B'ak Halal. Spanish colonists corrupted the pronunciation into Bacalar. To locate the Chacchoben Archeological Zone on a Google map, click here.


Site map of the Archeological Zone. You should be able to stroll through all of the site in less than an hour. That is, unless you are a photographer, like me, who is intensely interested in all the architectural details. In that case, I suggest an extra hour or two. Essentials for the trip include good walking shoes, a couple of bottles of water, and some insect repellent. There are plenty of shady spots to stop for a rest and a snack while contemplating the ruined structures.

From the entrance, a trail winds through thick jungle to an impressive pyramid called Templo 24. This pyramid occupies the west side of Plaza B which is surrounded on its north, south and east sides by un-excavated temples and palaces. A low altar, picturesquely overgrown with trees, stands in the center of Plaza B. Further to the east is the Gran Plaza, which spreads out before a huge man-made platform called the Gran Basamento. Standing on the broad level top are Templo 1 and a second pyramid called Templo Las Vasijas. Located at the top of a ceremonial staircase are a pair of large altars called Los Gemelos. To the south of the Gran Plaza are the ruins of a residential area. This section is called Las Vias and was once occupied by the city's elite.

Thick jungle surrounds Chacchoben. Although it looks primordial, it has grown up since the city's abandonment about 1000 AD. Within this jungle, I could just make out mounds of overgrown limestone rubble. These are the remains of buildings which have been mapped by archeologists, but not yet excavated. Some of them may have served administrative or religious purposes, while others are the ancient foundations of the homes of artisans, traders, and other commoners. They lived within the urban area but outside the zone restricted to the elite. Beyond the urban area, farmers grew maiz (corn), frijol (beans) and other crops to feed the city. Archeologists estimate that the city once covered an area of six square kilometers, far larger than the relatively small area that has been excavated.

When we visited, the site was quiet and serene, and almost empty of people. However, cruise ships dock regularly at Mayahual, about an hour away, so there may be times when busloads of noisy tourists swarm the place. The Archeological Zone is open from 8 AM to 5 PM (last access at 4:30). If you get there early, you can probably avoid the crowds. General admission is $60 pesos ($3.14 USD) and parking is free. There are restrooms at the entrance, but no other services are available at the site or in the immediate area.

Broken stela, covered by glyphs too worn and faint to be deciphered. Stelae are upright stone monuments, usually flat and covered on one or both sides with relief carvings or stucco designs. Some ancient sites contain many stelae and, when deciphered, they often reveal details about rulers, dynasties, conquests, and even dates and timelines. However, Chacchoben has only two, and neither contains any intelligible information. This is unfortunate, because very little is known about the ancient history and rulers of this city.

The name of the city, which means "Place of the Red Maiz", comes from the small pueblo a few miles away. No one knows the original name. The first people may have arrived in the area as early as 1000 BC. However, the first settlements weren't constructed until the Late Pre-Classic Era (200 BC). These settlements were gradually incorporated into an urban area which peaked between 300 AD and 700 AD. The Maya abandoned Chacchoben about 1000 AD, except to use its temples and pyramids for ritual purposes. This continued for the following several centuries. Further excavation will, no doubt, result in more information. Unlike other sites I have visited, there are few informational signs at Chacchoben other than one at the entrance. As a result, I had to do a great deal of research to come up with the fairly limited information I present here.

Templo 24 & Plaza B

Templo 24 is the first large structure you encounter at the site. After walking along a jungle path, you enter a broad grassy area. This clearing contains a multi-level pyramid that is 16m (52ft) tall. Broad staircases on all four sides lead up to a temple at the top. Impressed as I was by my first sight of this pyramid, I was astonished to find that this is only the rear (west) side of it.

North side of Templo 24. We proceeded around the pyramid to Plaza B, passing the north side on the way. Above, you can see the north staircase and a bit of the temple at the top. Excavation has revealed that Templo 24 is the last of several phases of construction. Over the centuries, Maya rulers constructed new temples and pyramids over those built by their predecessors, with each new structure larger and more magnificent than the last. The final phase of Templo 24 used the Petén style, typical of cities in the lowlands of northern Guatemala.

The front of Templo 24 faces east. Plaza B can be seen in the foreground. A broad staircase leads up to a terrace below the temple. The stumps of large rectangular pillars line the front of the terrace. On the left side of the staircase you can see the arched entrance of a passageway under the staircase.

In the center of the staircase, part way up to the terrace, you can see an opening which appears to have been made by archeologists looking for a burial. In this part of the Maya world, it is not unusual to find human remains buried under the steps of a pyramid or temple. Usually these are elite individuals and their families. For example, at Oxtankah's Structure VI, the remains of 12 individuals were found in four separate tombs under the stairs. However, I have not been able to determine what, if anything, archeologists found when they dug into these steps.

A large rectangular altar occupies the center of Plaza B. Offerings left here, and sacrificial rituals performed, would have been viewed by the rulers, nobles, and priests standing on Templo 24's staircase and terrace. Other structures surrounding Plaza B would also have accommodated elite audiences. Today, the altar is covered by the spreading roots of large trees. The trained eyes of archeologists were needed to find it in the dense jungle which covered the site in 1972. They would have known to look because such altars are often found near the base of the main staircase of a pyramid or temple.

Un-excavated pyramid beside Plaza B. There are a number of large heaps of rubble around the perimeter of the Plaza B, as well as elsewhere in the site. Those with a conical shape, like this one, are almost certainly un-excavated pyramids. Others are long and rectangular and probably conceal the ruins of administrative or elite residential structures. Like most pre-hispanic sites in Mexico, only a fraction of Chacchoben's ruined structures have been dug. Many of the others have been mapped and some have even been named.

Gran Basamento & Plaza

A magnificent staircase leads up to the top of the Gran Basamento. In the foreground is a broad, flat expanse called the Gran Plaza. The Gran Basamento (Great Platform) forms the western edge of this plaza. The main staircase provides access, along with a smaller one to its left. These are the only ways to enter the platform. The small thatched structure at the bottom of the staircase protects the second of the only two stelae found at Chaccoben.

The rectangular platform rises at least 10m (32ft) above the plaza and measures 99m x 102m  (324ft x 336ft) on the sides. Atop the Gran Basamento are two pyramids and several temples. While these structures are impressive, they are dwarfed by the great platform on which they sit. The number of laborers and amount of man-hours it must have taken to construct the Gran Basamento are mind-boggling. This is particularly so, since the Maya had no metal tools, wheeled vehicles, or draft animals.

The second stairway, seen through the jungle trees. While it is smaller than the other staircase, this one was much more intricately designed and clearly had an important ceremonial function. At the top of the staircase are two large side-by-side altars called Los Gemelos (the twins). The staircase and its ceremonies appear to have been linked to astronomical observations. Part way up the stairs is a stela with a hole in it through which the sun shines at 3 PM on the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year).

The second stairway has multiple landings and platforms. Apparently, multiple ceremonies, or perhaps several parts of the same ceremony, were performed on the various landings and platforms, culminating at the two altars. Passing between the altars, you emerge on the top of the Gran Basamento.

View of the Gemelo on the left side. A stairway on the front leads to the top of each altar. The corner of the right-hand Gemelo can be seen in the lower right of the photo. Also visible is the passage between them, through which processions would proceed onto the Gran Basamento.

Templo de las Vasijas

Templo de las Vasijas sits on the northern edge of the Gran Basamento. This is the first pyramid you encounter when you emerge onto the great platform. Templo de las Vasijas (Temple of the Vessels) was named for the ceramic cups, pitchers, bowls, and plates found during its excavation. These vessels once contained offerings left during religious ceremonies. Rising to about 8m (26ft), Templo de las Vasijas is the smaller of the Gran Basamento's two pyramids. The pyramid's single staircase leads up to the remains of a temple on the top level.

View of Templo de las Vasijas from the southeast corner. Similar to Templo 24, the rounded corners show the influence of the Petén architectural style. Elements of the later Chenes and Rio Bec styles can be found in other parts of the ruins. This mix of styles demonstrates how ideas were transmitted along Yucatan's trade routes, along with goods. Archeologists have found evidence of a connection to Dzibanche, another Maya city located to the southwest of Chacchoben.

Carole explores the rear of the pyramid. Templo de las Vasijas sits right on the lip of the Gran Basamento. Note how the terrain drops sharply off to the right. By constructing their main ceremonial center atop a large man-made platform with limited access, Chacchoben's rulers ensured that this area would remain the exclusive domain of the city's elite.

Templo 1

Templo 1, viewed from the base of Templo de las Vasijas. From this point, Templo 1 appears rather small, but that is an illusion because the distance between the two is considerable. This serves to demonstrate the size of the Gran Basamento. The young couple in the middle of the photo were the only other visitors we saw during our visit to Chaccoben.

This view of Templo 1 reveals its true dimensions. Standing 18m (60ft) high, Templo 1 is the tallest of Chacchoben's pyramids. The pyramid's single staircase rises up nine levels from the base to a small temple at the top. The Maya believed that Xibalba (the Underworld) was ruled by nine Lords. At the base of the staircase is a small structure archeologists have dubbed the Adosado (Attached) Temple. It was added to the pyramid in the Post-Classic Era (1000 AD - 1500 AD), when the city had been abandoned as an urban center but its temples were still used for ceremonial purposes.

Front view of Templo 1. Like Los Gemelos, Templo 1 had an astronomical function. During the Summer Solstice, the sun shines through an opening on the top of Templo 1. In the photo above, you can see how the Adosado Temple acts as an antechamber to the great stairway. Directly in front of the Adosado Temple are four small altars.

Interior of the Adosado Temple. The narrow passage on the right leads to the grand staircase. The Adosado Temple creates a threshold between the earthly and the sacred realms and may also have played a role in astronomical observations.

Las Vias, the elite residential area

A long, four-step staircase leads up to the residential area called Las Vias. In Spanish, the name means "the route or road". This probably refers to the layout, which is a long narrow plaza surrounded by low platforms.  In the photo above, the area at the top of the stairs once contained dwellings that were made of perishable materials that have long-since disappeared. In front of the stairs is the narrow plaza. The elite inhabitants of La Vias would have been nobles, priests, and high status warriors. Commoners such as artisans, merchants, and farmers would have lived in humbler structures outside the elite zone.

A low, humped structure stands to the left of the long staircase. The lack of signs at Chaccoben's various structures left me puzzled as to their exact function. I know, in general, that these were residential, but a little more detail would have been helpful. In spite of that, this area was very photogenic because of how the forest has taken over the ruined structures.

Large trees grow atop a residential platform. The forest contains a wide variety of trees, including ramón, cedro, chicozapote, alamo, banyon, guanacaste, and various palms. Local animals include deer, peccary, armadillo, gray fox, spider and howler monkeys, jaguar, ocelot, puma, and tapir.

Chacchoben was initially discovered by a farmer not archeologists. In 1942, a Maya farmer named Servillano Cohuo was looking for farmland when he stumbled across these ancient ruins. He built a house for his family on the Gran Plaza beside the Gran Basamento and grew crops in the area. However, he recognized the value of the ruins and left them untouched and covered by jungle for the next 30 years.

In 1972, an archeologist named Dr. Peter Harrison traveled by helicopter over the usually flat jungle landscape. Looking down, he was surprised to see the tell-tale shapes of temples and pyramids protruding through the thick forest canopy. Harrison returned and, after mapping the ruins, reported his discovery to the Mexican government. Servillano Cohuo was allowed to remain as caretaker of the ruins until he died in 1991, after which the government expropriated the site. However, it wasn't until 1994 that Juan Rique, of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), began excavations. In 2002, INAH finally opened Chacchoben to the public. Today, the site is run entirely by workers from the local pueblos, rather than employees of the federal government.

This completes my posting on Chacchoben. I hope you have enjoyed it and, if so, you will leave any thought or questions in the Comments section below. If you leave a question, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Fort San Felipe, Bacalar's bulwark against pirate attacks

A rusty cannon points toward Lago de Bacalar from one of the fort's four bastions. In my previous posting, I wrote about the piracy that plagued the Caribbean Sea and the coasts of the Yucatan Peninsula for 400 years. Between Bacalar's founding in 1544 and the early 18th century, the town's only defense consisted of a primitive earth and wood structure manned by local militia. As a result, Bacalar was subjected to a long series of devastating pirate attacks.

Finally, in 1725, the Spanish Crown bestirred itself and authorized the construction Fuerte (Fort) San FelipeThe fort is located on a bluff along the shore of Lago de Bacalar. In this position, it commands not only the approaches by water but also the trade route that runs north to south along the lakeshore. In this posting, I'll tell you about the history of the fort, its construction, and how it functioned as a military strong point. But first, a bit more about the pirates and those who opposed them.

Pirates attack a merchant ship. New World piracy started in the early16th century, while Cortez was still mopping up resistance to his conquest of the Aztec Empire. It began because the English, French, and Dutch had been excluded from the Americas by a Papal Bull in 1493. This decree gave the New World to the Spanish and Portuguese. The other powers responded by  sponsoring privateers. These were government-licensed business ventures authorized to attack Spanish shipping. In effect, they were legal pirates from whom the sponsoring government got a share of the spoils. Some corrupt officials turned a blind eye to "freebooters" (unlicensed pirates) in return for a personal cut of the spoils. The privateers/pirates not only attacked Spain's merchant ships, but also its coastal towns in the New World. After Bacalar was founded in 1544, the new trading center began to attract pirate attention.

At the beginning of the 17th century, a Dutch pirate named Cornelio Jol--better known as "Peg-leg"--became notorious in the Caribbean. Several times, he dispatched a Cuban, known as Diego the Mulatto, to raid Bacalar. Some of Diego's attacks came overland from the coast, but others arrived by shallow-draft sloops. They traveled from Chetumal Bay on the Caribbean up the Rio Hondo to  the swampy channels that connected the river to Lago de Bacalar.

Other pirates, English this time, nearly destroyed the town in 1628. Later in the century, a pirate named Abraham sacked Bacalar and abducted all of its women, but the Spanish rallied and freed the captives. Abraham had a long memory, however, and in 1652 he returned and thoroughly devastated Bacalar.  This raid, along with later epidemics and Maya uprisings, almost caused the town's abandonment.

However, the Spanish Crown was determined to revive Bacalar as a trading center. In 1725, they decided to build a powerful stone fort and man it with regular Spanish troops. The new structure was intended to replace the wood and earth structure that had proved so ineffective in defending the town. In 1726, colonists from the Canary Islands arrived to resettle and rebuild Bacalar.

Spanish colonial troops, similar to those that manned Fuerte San Felipe. Garrison duty in remote places like Bacalar was not a popular assignment. Regular army units tended to be understaffed and replacements for those felled by disease or wounds were often slow to arrive. So, to supplement the regulars, a local militia was formed from Bacalar's male population. Both the regular troops and the militia were armed with smoothbore flintlock muskets, tipped with long bayonets. Officers carried swords and flintlock pistols. There were also some artillery units, trained to operate the fort's several dozen cannons.

In the 18th century, regular armies were fairly small but highly trained. Men had to learn to maneuver in close order while surrounded by smoke, noise, and horrendous carnage. All the while, they had to perform a complex series of actions to load, aim, and fire their single shot weapons. The accurate range of the smoothbore muskets was fairly short, so coordinated massed-fire was necessary to stop a determined attack. All this required continuous training and drills.

Like the rest of Europe, Spain was a class-stratified society. Military officers were nearly always drawn from the aristocracy. Often they were second or third sons who saw no hope of inheritance and looked to the army for personal advancement. The enlisted men were virtually always commoners. Discipline for them was harsh and included flogging for even fairly minor offenses. This was considered especially necessary in remote outposts that were in constant danger of attack. The motivation among commoners to volunteer for the army would not have been patriotism, a concept foreign to the times. Most men joined simply to make a living or to escape a dull life as a farmworker or laborer. Some, no doubt, joined to evade civilian legal authorities.

In fact, the motivations for entering a life of piracy were nearly identical to those driving the common soldiers. Sometimes, after they were captured at sea or on a shore raid, honest men would join the pirate crews. After all, piracy held the possibility of high adventure and even riches. Another attraction was the amazingly democratic organization of pirate crews. They elected and removed their own officers and shared in the spoils according to the position they occupied in the pirate organization. One man stated that he became a pirate to avoid boredom and that he looked forward to "a short but merry life."

Exterior of Fuerte San Felipe

Fuerte San Felipe viewed from the street below the bluff on which it was built. This side of the fort faces the lake. The fort was first proposed in 1725 by Yucatan's Governor Antonio de Figueroa y Silva. The Crown approved the plan and work continued for eight years, until 1733. Various additions and improvements were added over the next century or so. The builders used wood from local trees and the abundant limestone of the Yucatan Peninsula. In this they followed the example of the pre-hispanic Maya who used the same materials for their palaces, temples, and pyramids.

Plan of the fort from 1772. At the top, you can see a series of profile views of the structure. At the bottom is a bird's eye view. The basic design was a square, with arrow-head-shaped bastions at each corner. Each bastion was named for a different saint, including Santa Ana, San Arturo, Santa Maria, and San Joaquin. The dark rectangular structure in the interior contained the officer's quarters, a storehouse for supplies and ammunition, and a chapel. A deep moat surrounds the fort's whole exterior. The Spanish had long experience in building such defenses and the fort was never successfully assaulted until the Caste War of the mid-19th century.

Carole walks up stone steps leading to the fort's moat and walls. While pirates continued to be a problem until the 19th century, by the time the fort was completed their "Golden Age" had passed. The British in Honduras (now Belize) and local Maya uprisings were now the main threats, with the British viewed as the greatest problem. The British arrived in Belize by accident, through a shipwreck in 1638. The settlement that resulted gradually evolved into many more, although the British refrained from establishing a formal colony until the mid-nineteenth century. The area of the British settlements lies along the coast of the Caribbean immediately to the south of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. It was attractive to the British for several reasons: it was almost devoid of Spanish settlements; it provided good bases from which to prey upon Spanish shipping; and--best of all--Belize was the prime source for a type of wood used in the dyeing of textiles.

The high, crenellated, outer walls are surrounded by a deep moat. Sharp stakes were embedded in the bottom of the moat. These were intended to impale attackers attempting to reach the walls. Soldiers fired between the crenellations (open slots) along the top of the wall. The whole fort was constructed so that fire could be brought upon an enemy from multiple directions, leaving no place to hide.

Interior of Fort

View of the entrance of the fort, from the top of the blockhouse tower. Anyone approaching this entrance would first encounter a "V" shaped wall with firing slots on either side of the gate. They would then pass over the moat on a bridge. The one seen above is stone, but it was originally a wooden drawbridge. As you can see above, anyone attacking across the bridge could be brought under fire from multiple directions, including from the top of the blockhouse where I stood when I took this photo. The narrow bridge would force attackers to bunch up, making them easy targets.

View of the battlements from just inside the gate. One arm of the V-shaped wall can be seen on the right. The bridge leads off to the left, while the moat lies between the low wall in the center and the high crenellated wall in the back ground. Anyone standing in this spot could be fired upon from the front, both sides, and above.

The interior courtyard of the fort, including the all-important well. The courtyard is sizable, but troops assembled here could be quickly dispatched to any point that was threatened. The bridge from the gate reaches the courtyard between the two stone pillars in the upper right. In the upper left is one of the four bastions which contained most of the fort's cannons.

A well was an important feature in any fortification that might be brought under siege. Along with ammunition and food, an adequate supply of water was critical. Men could go without food for a considerable time and they could defend themselves with swords and bayonets if the ammunition ran low. However, men can last only about three days without water. A good well was much superior to water stored in casks, which could go stale or be used up.

The wheeled vehicles above are caissons. These were used to haul ammunition and to move cannons from one position to another. A few feet below the bastion's crenellations, you can see a ledge that extends along the walls. The stone ledge once supported a wood structure on which the soldiers could stand or move about while they fought off an attack.

Cannons faced in every direction from which an attack could be launched. In this position, they face inland, toward the town. By 1776, the fort had 24 cannons capable of firing projectiles measuring from one inch to six inches. Additional cannons were added later that had even greater firepower. By the mid-18th century, the threat of piracy had receded somewhat. However, an even greater threat loomed from British Honduras (now Belize). south of the Rio Hondo.

The Spanish had initially claimed that area, but had never settled it. Pirates began to use the bays and islands of northern Belize as supply depots and bases from which to attack Bacalar and other Spanish outposts. Some of these depots and bases eventually became English settlements. To the Spanish, these settlements posed an even greater threat, because they became focused on the exploitation of a valuable wood resource called Palo Tinte ("Dye Stick"). The wood was important in the process of dyeing textiles. There were no gold or silver mines or other high-profit resources in the area, so the wood was coveted by both the Spanish and the English.

View of the courtyard, including the well and the watchtower.  The flat root of this structure is the highest point in the fort. This meant if could function as lookout point, with a good view of a large stretch of the lake, as well as the whole interior of the fort. It would have been a good place from which the fort's commander could direct its defense. In addition, the watchtower could function as a "last ditch" stronghold if attackers managed to scale the outer defenses.

View from atop the lookout point down onto a gun position on the outer wall. This shot provides a sense of the depth of the moat and how difficult it would have been for an attacker to scale the walls. The construction of the original stone fort was not completed until 1733. During the succeeding decade, the attention of the Spanish Crown was focused elsewhere and maintenance was neglected. Finally in 1745, Governor Antonio Benavidez became concerned about the growing English settlements in Belize and the threat they posed to Bacalar. After inspecting Fuerte San Felipe, he persuaded the Crown to strengthen the defenses, including the moat and drawbridge, bastions at each corner, and more cannons.

The Barracks

The Barracks are a single-story, rectangular, stone building. Currently containing the fort's museum, this structure originally served multiple purposes, including that of a defensive position, should the walls be breached. Always deeply religious, the Spanish gave the Barracks the name Jesús Maria and included a small chapel in one of its rooms.

Floor plan showing the multiple functions of Jesús Maria. The chart shows areas for gunpowder storage, supplies, quarters for a small number of troops, the commander's room, the armory, and the chapel. Since the troop quarters are very small, most of the soldiers probably lived in town and only those on duty used this area. Likewise, the commander's room probably served as his office rather than living quarters.

Artifacts recovered in and around the fort. On the lower left are two large iron axes and a couple of iron nails. The long narrow object separating the axes from the cannon balls is a chain, which might have been part of the drawbridge mechanism. The various sizes of the cannon balls attest to the different calibers of the guns mounted on the parapets. At the upper right is an iron pot, possibly for cooking or carrying water.

This completes my posting on Bacalar's Fuerte San Felipe. I hope you have enjoyed it and, if so, you will leave any comments 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