Sunday, March 31, 2019

Dzibanché Part 3 of 4: Plaza Xibalba and the Pyramid of the Owl

Pirámide del Buho, occupies the east side of Plaza Xibalba. Its rounded corners show evidence of the Petén style of architecture popular in the Early Classic period (200-600 AD). While excavating a royal tomb inside the pyramid, archeologists found numerous grave goods, including a ceramic bowl with an image that gave the pyramid its name.

In Part 3 of my Dzibanché series, we will take a look at this pyramid and two of Plaza Xibalba's other structures.  Of the 22 plazas that archeologists have so far identified, Plaza Xibalba appears to have been the most important. It was the most important ceremonial area of the Kaan (Snake) Dynasty, which originated at Dzibanché around 200 AD and eventually extended its domination over most of the Late Classic Era (600-1000 AD) Maya world.

Overview: Plaza Xibalba

Site map of Plaza Xibalba. The plaza stands just to the east of Plaza Gann, the area we examined in Parts 1 and 2 of this series. The Plaza Xibalba's platform is about 4m (12ft) above Plaza Gann and is accessed via stairways on the north and south sides of Pirámide de los Cormoranes (Edificio 2). In fact, the rear of Edificio 2 forms the west side of Plaza Xibalba. Directly across from it is Pirámide del Buho (Pyramid of the Owl), also known as Edificio 1. It is the largest structure at Dzibanché. Occupying the the north and south sides of Plaza Xibalba are two nearly identical structures called Palacio Norte and  Palacio Sur. Archeologists named the plaza after the Maya underworld because of its many associations with death and the afterlife.

Xibalba mask from Chetumal Museum of Maya Culture. Xibalba (Shee-bal-ba) means "Place of Fear" in the K'iche' Maya language. Access to the underworld was through caves or cenotes (limestone sinkholes filled with water). Xibalba was ruled by twelve gods collectively known as the Lords of the Underworld. They had horrendous names like "Flying Scab", "Bone Staff", "Pus Demon" and "Bloody Claws". Chief among these Lords were the two gods: "One Death" and "Seven Death".

Xibalba had nine levels through which the newly dead had to pass. Each level contained traps and tests, including hazards such as crossing raging rivers of blood and passing through rooms filled with fire, ravenous jaguars, and razor-sharp obsidian blades. Maya tombs often contain items which were thought to aid the dead in accomplishing this fearsome journey. These include weapons, tools, food, and precious items such as jade. The requirement to pass through Xilbalba had nothing to do with personal conduct, or one's good or bad acts while living. The only way to avoid the journey was to die a violent death.

Edificio 1 - Pirámide del Buho 

Like many of Dzibanché's structures, the Pyramid of the Owl was constructed in multiple stages. The earliest phase was a much smaller pyramidal platform built sometime between 200-300 AD. The remains of this initial pyramid were later used as the core of the one seen above. The later structure was built in several phases between 300-600 AD. The Pyramid of the Owl has four stepped levels with a broad staircase facing to the west. The second, third, and fourth levels have large panels on either side of the stairs. The surfaces of these panels were once stuccoed and painted. During the Late Classic, large stone masks were mounted on the panels, an indication of the influence of the Rio Bec architectural style.

Staircase of the Pyramid of the Owl, viewed from the top of Palacio Sud. The staircase is impressively steep, with four landings. The man descending is stepping very carefully on his way down the narrow stairs. A slip could be dangerous, possibly even fatal. As a result, access to the upper levels of many of Mexico's ancient pyramids and monuments has been prohibited in recent years. I understand the reasoning, but it often closes off some wonderful photographic opportunities. Fortunately for me, climbing was permitted on this particular pyramid.

Schematic of the Pyramid of the Owl, viewed from above. Although the Pyramid of the Cormorants may be a bit taller, the Pyramid of the Owl is, overall, the larger of the two structures. In design, the Owl Pyramid shows some similarity to the much smaller Pyramid of the Lintels, seen in Part 1. The temple at the top contains a relatively small, narrow room which was once covered by a vaulted, corbel ceiling.

Entrance to the temple is restricted by a barrier. However, the room inside is easily photographed from behind the barrier. The terrace in front of the temple gives a good view of the Plaza Xibalba, the rear of Pirámide de los Cormoranes and other areas of Dzibanché.

South end of the narrow, vaulted temple room shows evidence of smoke. A small seat or altar occupies the southeast corner of the room. There is a similar structure at the north end of the room. I am inclined to believe that these are altars because of the evidence of blackened areas on the walls at both ends of the temple. This probably indicates smoke from ritual fires.

A third seat, or altar, stands against the back (east) wall inside the temple. This one has an interesting slot near its middle. I have found no information as to the purpose of the slot, but it might once have contained a statue or other ritual object. This structure faces the entrance of the temple, strongly suggesting an altar. In 1994, archeologists examined the floor in front of this altar and found the beginning of a stairway. When they were cleared, the stairs led down into the interior of the pyramid, all the way to the level of Plaza Xibalba. There, the excavators found a recessed tomb containing the remains of a woman, obviously of great status, possibly even a queen. Her grave goods are some of the finest found at Dzibanché.

The owl on the lid of this funerary bowl gave Pirámide del Buho its name. One of the finds was a lidded pot decorated with the image of an owl (buho) with its wings spread. Archeologists were so impressed that they named the pyramid after it. To the Maya, owls were the harbingers of death and closely associated with Xibalba. It is not, therefore, surprising to find an owl depicted on a funerary pot. Owls were also powerful symbols at Teotihuacán, the great empire which so strongly influenced the Classic Maya. Palacio Atelcothe military academy of Teotihuacán, is decorated with birds with extended wings that may be owls (although they might also be eagles). Further, the Teotihuacán military leader who took power in Tikal in 378 AD--either through conquest or a coup d'etat--was named Spear-thrower Owl. (Photo from Latin American Studies website)

This engraved Spondylus shell was also found in the tomb. The shell is set with jade and shows a ruler sitting cross-legged on a throne. The relief carving is inlaid with jade and black coral. The figure on the throne wears a nosepiece and ear spools of jade, as well as jade ornaments on other parts of his body. On his head, he wears the emblem of the "jester god", which signifies royalty. In his arms, he holds a rattlesnake. Another snake is also depicted and a deity emerges from its jaws. All this may refer to a previous ruler or possibly a mythical culture hero. The style corresponds to the period from 450-550 AD. (Photo from Arqueologia Mexicana website)

The Diving God decorates a censer found at Dzibanché. A censer is a ritual device used during religious ceremonies to burn incense, usually copal. Among the pantheon of Maya gods, the Diving God (Ah-Muzen-Cab) was especially important. Archeologists nicknamed him the Diving or Descending God because he is always depicted in an upside down posture, as if he were diving out of the sky.

Although he is portrayed here in human form, he sometimes appears as a bee because he is the god of beekeepers, bees, and honey. Maya beekeeping began thousands of years ago, but became particularly prevalent during the Post Classic Era (1000-1520 AD). The Maya used a species of stingless bee that they called Xunan Kab, but its scientific name is Melipona beecheii. They used honey to make balché, an alcoholic drink consumed in religious festivals. In addition to local consumption, honey was also an important trade item. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The rear of the Pirámide de los Cormoranes forms the west side of Plaza Xibalba. This shot was taken from atop Pirámide del Buho, looking west. The irregular stonework at the top of the Pyramid of the Cormorants is what remains of the large roof comb that once rose above its temple. Below the roof comb, in the lighter colored stone, you can see two large, rectangular surfaces. They are part of a series that cover the back and sides of the pyramid. They show the architectural influence of Teotihuacán.

Palacios Sud y Norte

Large rectangular pillars line the front of Palacio Sur on the south side of Plaza Xibalba. Just in front of the pillars is a long, narrow terrace from which the ceremonies in the plaza below could be viewed by elite spectators. The pillars are separated by nine entrances along the front of the building. There used to be a broad staircase rising up from the plaza to the level of this terrace. However, after the Spanish Conquest, the staircase was dismantled and the stones reused for Spanish buildings elsewhere. Only a grassy embankment remains.

Schematic view of Palacio Sur from above. The structure is in the form of a low, stretched-out pyramid. There are three lines of pillars and roof supports that create two long, narrow galleries. Ten pillars are on the front, with another ten on the rear, while the middle row contains six. There are nine doorways on the front and another nine on the rear. Numbers were always significant to the Maya, and nine is the number of levels in Xibalba. The only doorway through which you can pass directly through to the back of the building is the central door. All the other doorways are offset. Facing Palacio Sur on the north side of Plaza Xibalba is Palacio Norte, a virtually identical structure. Because of this close similarity, I will only show Palacio Sur in this posting.

Front corridor of Palacio Sur. When I first climbed to the top of Palacio Sur, I was puzzled by the structure of the building. It did not seem to be a sensible arrangement for a living space with the name "palace". The extremely long, narrow corridors would have created a difficult passage for two people approaching each other. Further, unlike Palacio Pop in Plaza Gann, there are no sleeping compartments, storage areas, or large rooms for social gatherings.

The answer, apparently, is that Palacios Sur and Norte are not really elite residential spaces at all. Instead, they form, along with Pirámide del Buho,  an elaborate funerary monument to the Kaan Dynasty female who is buried in the pyramid. Plaza Xibalba is therefore entirely ceremonial in function, and the elite residential and administrative structures are located elsewhere.

Bowl found in a Dzibanché tomb. This is yet another example of fine craftsmanship. While this bowl was used for funerary purposes, it could just as well have been used to serve dinner to an elite family. (Photo from Latin American Studies website)

How the nobles who lived a Dzibanché may have appeared. I took this photo at the Museum of Maya Culture in Chetumal. The mural is a reproduction of a mural found in a room at a different Maya city. There are no similar murals at Dzibanché to show us the appearance and adornment of the Kaan Dynasty elite, but they probably looked very much like this.

The male figures wear extravagant head dresses and rich jewelry of jade and other rare stones. Their shoulders are draped with long, white, cotton cloaks with embroidered hems. The only other forms of clothing they wear are embroidered loin cloths with long extensions draping down the front. In Yucatan's typically warm climate, other clothing would be superfluous.

This completes Part 3 of my Dzibanché series. I hope you have enjoyed it. If you would like to leave any thoughts or questions, please do so 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

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Dzibanché Part 2 of 4: Plaza Gann and the Pyramid of the Cormorants

Pirámide de los Cormoranes. The Pyramid of the Cormorants is the largest structure at Dzibanché. It has many fascinating features, including the burial crypt of a famous king and mysterious relief carvings beside one its staircases. The pyramid got its name when archeologists excavated the king's crypt. There, they found a vase with the image of a large, aquatic bird called a cormorant.

Dzibanché is believed to be the original capital of the Kaan (Snake) Dynasty, who founded the city approximately 200 AD. The city was once thought to have been abandoned in 1000 AD, at the end of the Classic Era. However, recent discoveries show that it was occupied until about 1300 AD, well into the Post-Classic. Although the Kaan Dynasty got its start at Dzibanché, the Kaan eventually came to rule--directly or indirectly--many Classic Era Maya cities. Eventually, this included Calakmul, the greatest and most powerful of them all.

Overview of Plaza Gann

Site map Plaza Gann. I devoted part of my last posting to Templo de los Cautivos (Edificio 13), which stands on the plaza's west side, along with its south and north wings (Edificios 12 and 14). In this posting, I will walk you around the other three sides of the plaza, which includes Pirámide de los Cormoranes (Edificio 2), which occupies the east side of the plaza, Palacio Pop (Edificio 11) on the south side, and Templo de los Tucanes (Edificio 16) on the north.

The archeological site that we visited is actually only a small part of what was once a sprawling urban complex. Dzibanché's maximum extent may have been as large as 40 square kilometers. Although twenty-two separate plazas have been identified, only a handful have been excavated. Quite literally, archeologists have barely scratched the surface. In future years, it is likely that the Snake Dynasty's ancestral home will reveal many more of its secrets.

Edificio 2: Pirámide de los Cormoranes

Pyramid of the Cormorants, viewed from its southwest corner. The staircase on the right of the photo leads up to the Plaza Xibalba which is bordered by the Pirámide del Buho (Pyramid of the Owl) and two more palaces. In this shot, you can see the pyramid's rounded corners. These are typical of the Petén architectural style popular during the early Classic Era.

Two of the three entrances into the interior of the pyramid. The third entrance is in the center of the stairs near the top. In my research, I have been unable to find any mention of these entrances and whether they are of ancient or modern origin. However, they may be the tunnels dug by archeologists which allowed them to discover burials in the pyramid. One of these graves contained the remains of Sky Witness, the 17th Kaan ruler of Dzibanché. His reign spanned the period between 561 to 572 AD.

Vase from Sky Witness' crypt in the Temple of the Cormorants. The crypt contained not only the bones of the ruler, but rich grave goods, suitable for a monarch. The image of a cormorant on this vase prompted archeologists to name the pyramid after it. Following ancient Maya funeral practices, the vase was ritually "killed" by punching a hole in it. But, there was much more than the vase in the tomb. (Photo from

Jade masks were also found in the grave. Jade masks, ornaments, and various ceramic pots were also found in the crypt. Only the most elite members of Maya society, usually the rulers, were buried with elaborate jade masks like these. The elaborate jade mask covering the face of Palenque's ruler, Pakal the Great, is another example. Jade was considered not only a a sacred substance, but was as valuable to the ancient Maya as diamonds are in today' society. (Photo from Quintana Roo website).

The physical remains of Sky Witness tell an extraordinary story. An osteological analysis of the bones shows that, when he died, Dzibanché's 17th Kaan ruler was a powerfully built young man in his 30s. His relative youth at death fits with his surprisingly short, 11-year reign. The skull bears the healed scars of many battles, which indicates that he personally led his warriors into the thick of the fray. It is unknown, at this time, whether Sky Witness' early demise resulted from battle injuries or natural causes.

View from the northwest corner. On the left, you can see another set of stairs leading up the side of the pyramid to Plaza Xibalba. Beside the stairs are thatched palapas, put there to protect polychrome stucco wall decorations that were revealed when a later wall was dug away. Several large pediments are visible between the palapas and the main staircase on the right. More pediments can be seen on the temple at the top of the pyramid, and others are on the back. Like those found on the Templo de los Linteles, the pediments are a further indication of the influence of Teotihuacán, the great trading metropolis lying more than 1300 km to the west. The temple at the top of the pyramid contains two long galleries with corbel-arched ceilings. Rising high above the back of the temple are the remains of a large crest, called a "roof comb". This was a support structure for three large masks or medallions that were once mounted there.

Sky Witness won fame as the conqueror of Tikal, the Snake Dynasty's great rival during the Classic Era. However, he does not deserve all the credit. His predecessor, the 16th Kaan ruler, was named  Stone Hand Jaguar (K'ahk' Ti' Ch'ich'). This very astute ruler laid the groundwork for Sky Witness' later triumph. Stone Hand Jaguar lived a thousand years before Machiavelli, but he would have perfectly understood the intrigues and conflicts among the city-states of the Italian Renaissance.

Archeologists believe that Tikal's somewhat mysterious relationship with Teotihuacan may have been a key factor bolstering its power. Established in the mid-5th century, this connection is believed to have provided one of the main channels for the spread of Teotihuacán's influence throughout the Classic Maya world. In the mid-6th century, as Teotihuacan began to decline, its connection with Tikal weakened and eventually ended. This loss, in turn, contributed to a decline in Tikal's power and influence. Moving into this power vacuum, Stone Hand Jaguar quietly and patiently built a web of alliances. Over a period of twenty years, he gradually surrounded Tikal with hostile city-states who had tired of its domination.

Stucco relief carvings decorate the left side of the Pyramid of the Cormorants. The carvings follow the stairs as they rise up to Plaza Xibalba. They show traces of the red paint with which they were once coated. Like the talud y tablera motif of the Temple of the Lintels, these designs show that the cultural influence of Teotihuacán extended even to the capital of the Kaan Dynasty.

Stone Hand Jaguar's political outreach included dynastic weddings with other ruling houses and arranging ball games between Dzibanché and other city-states. Other tactics included gifts to his counterparts during a long series of "social" visits to their cities. All this is known from glyphs and carvings on the walls and stelae of the cities he targeted for alliances. Individually, these carvings appeared to have no particular significance. However, when archeologists viewed them collectively, a distinct pattern of sophisticated political intrigue emerged. It was as if Machivelli's book, The Prince, had been written in ancient Maya glyphs.

Stucco wall design. I was puzzled by these designs, because I was unable to find human or animal figures or glyphs. The design above may be of a flower at the end of a sinuous stem or something entirely different. Many of the images are abstract, with some having repetitive elements.

Among the cities Stone Jaguar courted were Caracol to the southeast of Tikal, and Naranjo and Holmul on the east. Waka, to the west, had a particularly warlike reputation and was thus an object of special attention. Eventually, Tikal was isolated and surrounded. Stone Hand Jaguar died before he could see the fruits of his efforts. It was left to his successor, Sky Witness, to carry out the long-range plan.

When all was ready, Caracol, supported by Naranjo and Holmul, attacked from the southeast. Meanwhile, Sky Witness led the forces of Dzibanché and Waka in the west. According to an altar-carving at Caracol, Sky Witness attacked Tikal on April 29, 562 AD. He defeated its army, sacked the city, and sacrificed its king on his own altar. Tikal would not rise again for another 130 years.

Edificio 11: Palacio Pop

View of Palacio Pop from its west end. Palacio Pop occupies most of the south side of Plaza Gann. The name "Pop" refers to the first month of Haab, the Maya's 365-day secular calendar.  The Haab, in conjunction with the sacred 260-day Tzolk'in calendar, followed the 52-year cycle of the Calendar Round. The Maya are famous for the sophistication and accuracy of their calendars, which ruled every aspect of their society.

Pop was the first month of the year and it was preceded by fasting and abstinence. The first day of Pop was celebrated by feasting, drinking and gift-giving. To the Maya, Pop symbolized community and marriage. I have not been able to determine why the archeologists gave this structure its name. It could have been related to artifacts found here, or perhaps they excavated it during the month of Pop.

East end of Palacio Pop. This is the oldest part of the palace. Above, you can see the several stepped levels and to the right is one of the balustrades of the stairs. The palace was an elite residence constructed in phases during the late Classic era (600-1000 AD). Edificio 11 is long and rectangular and its top level is divided into three rooms. The smaller rooms on each end are separated by a large one in the middle. There are five doorways in the front wall of these rooms and two doorways in the rear.

The Palace from the rear. The south side of Palacio Pop has a large terrace. This area may have contained additional rooms at one time, possibly made from perishable material. Alternatively, it could have served as an area for outdoor living.

The central room contains two broad benches along its rear (south) wall. The benches may have served as seats during the day and beds at night. In the space between the benches is a door leading to the rear terrace. Three of the five doorways on the front (north) wall can be seen above.

The east end of Palacio Pop contains a smaller room with an L-shaped bench. The wall that partially separates this room from the larger one indicates that this was a private space, possibly a bedroom. The man repairing the wall in the background is one of the site's maintenance workers. The small room at the opposite end of the palace also contains a wide bench, but only across the end of the wall.

View from the top of the palace's stairs toward Plaza Gann. There are several different sets of stairs on the front (north) side of the palace, leading up to the rooms on top. There are several more small rooms on the lower levels on either side of the main staircase facing the plaza.

Limestone was the material used to build Dzibanché's stone structures. The whole Yucatan Peninsula is a large, flat, limestone shelf that used to be seabed. The stone lies at or just under the surface of the soil in many places, making it easy to quarry. Limestone is relatively soft and light-weight, making it ideal for building monumental structures, as well as for the sculptures and stelae found throughout Yucatan.

A fire ring stands in the entrance of a room. I thought this a very odd placement for a fire ring. When entering or leaving the room, you would have step very carefully to avoid the fire. None of the explanatory signs mentioned this fire ring, which left me speculating on its use. Perhaps it--and the room--had some ritual purpose? At other sites in Yucatan and elsewhere, I have nearly always found rings like this either in the center of a room or against one of the walls.

Lidded pot found at Dzibanché. The snarling jaguar and intricate painted designs demonstrate a high quality of workmanship. This shows the level of sophistication of Dzibanché's elite and a quality of life that would have been envied by their contemporaries in Europe. Intact ceramics like this are usually found among grave goods, particularly if the crypt has not been looted. Works like this would never have survived for a thousand years on the surface. (Photo from

Edificio 16: Templo de los Tucanes

Templo de los Tucanes occupies the north side of Plaza Gann. The temple is named after the toucan, a large bird with a colorful, curved beak that inhabits the jungle around Dzibanché. This structure, also known as Edificio 16, is a temple with three stepped levels and a broad staircase which extends across the front of the building. This staircase has three flights of stairs, built like "stadium seats". Seated here, elite audiences could watch ceremonies taking place in Plaza Gann.

The Temple of the Toucans was modified four times over the centuries. The first two constructional stages occurred in the Early Classic (300-600 AD), with another during the Late Classic (600-900 AD). The final modification occurred during the Terminal Classic (900-1000 AD). During the changes, annexes were added on both ends, the staircase was changed and enlarged, and the vaulted rooms once located on the top level were demolished to create more space.

Two large masks decorate the eastern end of the temple, one above the other. The one on the bottom is shown above. At one time, this mask was covered with stucco and painted. These materials have long-since worn away, leaving only the stone remnants.

At the center of the photo is a small emblem that looks like a petalled flower circled by a ring. The flower is in the middle of the mask's open mouth, with a prominent chin just below. Above the mouth is a large curved nose, looking like it belongs to a boxer who has been in too many fights. On either side of the nose are rounded cheeks and above these are slitted eyes. Framing the face is an elaborate hairstyle, or possibly a head dress.

View of Templo de los Tucanes from the east side. Just to the right of the stairs, you can see the stepped levels containing the masks. Archeologists believe that rooms made of perishable materials, probably wood and thatch, once occupied the top of the temple. The remains of the eastern annex, added after the initial construction phase, can be seen at the far right.

The second mask is above and set back from the first. Once again, the stucco and paint are gone but the mask can still be discerned. At the bottom of the face is a slightly receding chin. Above it is an open mouth, surrounded by fleshy lips. In the center of the face is a hooked nose and on either side, above the nose, are two square eyes. The meaning of these masks is lost in the mists of time. However, their prominent placement on the front of this temple signifies that the gods, or persons, that they represent were important to Dzibanché's people.

This concludes Part 2 of my Dzibanché series. 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 in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Dzibanché Part 1 of 4: Birthplace of an ancient Maya dynasty

Templo de los Dinteles is the first major structure that you will encounter at Dzibanché. As part of our exploration of the Southern Yucatan Peninsula, Carole and I visited the ancient Maya city of Dzibanché. The name means "writing on wood", which refers to wooden lintels containing eight carved glyphs. They were found in the temple atop this pyramid. Archeologists gave the city this name because, until recently, the ancient Maya name was still unknown.

This will be the first of four postings on Dzibanché and the nearby site of Kinichná. In Part 1, we will visit the Templo de los Linteles and Templo de los Cautivos, which is located a short distance away at the Plaza Gann.

Dzibanché is open to the public from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM, seven days a week. However, visitors need to arrive before the gate closes at 4:30 PM. The fee is $60 pesos/person ($3.13 USD). To find Dzibanché on a Google map, click here.


Site map of Dzibanché. The areas of the city that we explored are shown in white above. They comprise only about 1/3 of the major structures in the site.  The other areas, shown in green, have either not been excavated or were not available to the public because they were part of an archeological dig at the time.

Templo de los Dinteles, also known as Edificio 6, can be found at the top left of the map, near the entrance to the site. At the bottom left is Plaza Gann, named for Thomas Gann, a British military doctor and amateur archeologist who visited the site in 1927. The Plaza's left (west) side is bordered by Templo de los Cautivos (Temple of the Captives) also known as Edificio 13. Extending out from the south and north sides of the temple are Edificios 12 and 14. These appear to have been residential wings built at a later date than Edificio 13.

In Part 2, I will take you through the temple, pyramid, and palace that make up the other three sides of Plaza Gann. Part 3 will focus on pyramids and palaces of Plaza Xibalba, which is located just east of Plaza Gann. Part 4, my final posting, will focus on Kinichná, a huge acropolis about two kilometers away. It was an elite suburb of Dzibanché and is connected to the main city by a sacbe (an ancient raised road, paved with limestone stucco).

Edificio 6: The Temple of the Lintels

Templo de los Dinteles from its northwest corner. The Temple of the Lintels was built in several stages. The pyramid on which the temple stands has three levels, with one grand staircase rising up the west side. The pyramid portion of the structure is the earliest, dating to the Early Classic Era (200-600 AD). It contains elements of the Petén architectural style.

On either side of the staircase are pediments composed of four rectangular bodies stacked one on top of the other. The left-side pediment can be seen above. The face of each of the pediments has a vertical panel with a sloped panel just below it. Archeologists believe that there may have once been stucco decorations on the vertical panels. This architectural style is called talud y tablero (slope and tablet) and shows a cultural connection with the Teotihuacan Empire. The distance to Teotihuacán is 1341 km (698 mi), which shows how far the influence of that great trading empire extended. The temple atop the pyramid is the most recent addition and dates to the 6th century AD.

Schematic of Templo de los Dinteles showing the view from above. Here, you can clearly see the layout of the temple. It has two long, narrow, vaulted galleries, entered through three passageways. The four rectangular shapes in the center are stone pillars that once supported the arched ceilings that covered each of the galleries.

Tourists gingerly climb the steep staircase. The staircase had three phases of construction. What you see here is the earliest phase, revealed after the later phases had been stripped away. At more and more sites in Mexico, tourists are prohibited from climbing pyramids. This is to protect both the structures and the visitors. Many people have been injured or even killed from falls. However, this prohibition is not yet in force at Templo de los Dinteles.

The pyramid's top contains a broad terrace on which the temple sits. Here, you can see two of the rectangular stone pillars that once supported the vaulted ceiling of the outer gallery. After mounting four steps from the terrace, you pass through into the outer gallery.

Interior of the outer gallery, facing west. When I first visited Maya ruins, I often wondered why such massive pyramidal structures are topped with relatively small, cramped temples with long, narrow rooms. The space above is only wide enough for two modern men standing abreast, or perhaps three of the ancient Maya, who were much smaller. The answer lies in the physical principles of architecture. The remains of the vaulted ceiling show the typical corbel arch used by the Maya. A corbel uses successive courses of masonry which project further inward on each step as they rise to close the gap at the apex, which is often capped with flat stones. This type of arch can only support the roof over a narrow space. The Maya never mastered the true arch, which would have allowed more expansive rooms in their temples and palaces.

The inner gallery contains a stone structure which may be an altar. I have no information about it but, given that this is a temple, I would bet that this is an altar. Rays from the setting sun would have entered through the doorway way on the left and bathed the altar with light. Note that this corbeled vault is even narrower than the outer gallery. It would be difficult for two modern people to pass each other without turning sideways. It is probable that ritual objects and other materials were stored in this inner sanctum, to be used in ceremonies that were carefully shielded from the eyes of all but the elite priesthood.

One of the famous wooden lintels from Templo de los Dinteles. It amazes me that these wood panels survived tropical humidity and insects for 1,500 years. The wood came from the quebracho tree, which grows in the jungles of this area. To protect the lintels from vandals and thieves, as well as from natural decay, they were removed and are now kept in an off-site museum. Among the eight glyphs carved into the panels is one that contains the Maya date corresponding to 554 AD. (Photo from The Maya Ruins Website)

Edificio 13: Temple of the Captives

Stone relief carvings on the steps of Templo de los Cautivos connect Dzibanché to the Kaan Dynasty. This dynasty was one of the most important of the Classic Maya world. The carvings are protected by the thatched palapa seen above. The building consists of a low, pyramidal platform with a temple on top. The temple has three long galleries, similar in shape to those of the Templo de los Dinteles. The front wall of the first gallery has five openings. The middle gallery once had a vaulted corbel ceiling, but those of the front and rear galleries were thatched. The Templo de los Cautivos went through at least three stages of construction, beginning in the early Classic Era.

The stone stairs contain a series of carvings showing war captives, along with their names and the name of Yuknoom Ch'een I, the Kaan king who captured them. Also included is a glyph with a Maya calendar date that corresponds to 495 AD, probably the date of the captives' defeat. This date, and the one on the wooden lintel, are--so far--the only two found at Dzibanché.

Another glyph on the steps contains the symbol for Kaanul ("Snake Place" or "Place of the Snake Dynasty"). This was the ancient name for Dzibanché but, for the sake of clarity, I will continue to refer to the city by the name archeologists have given it. Since it is the earliest Kaanul emblem found in any Classic Maya site, it thus identifies Dzibanché as the original Kaan capital. This is important because the Kaan rulers became the most powerful dynasty of the Classic Maya world. Until the discovery of this glyph, their original capital was thought to be Calakmul.

Relief carving from the temple stairs showing one of the captives. Images like this were meant to display the power of a ruler. From the earliest times, the ruling dynasty of Kaanul (Dzibanché) was politically and militarily aggressive.

The dynasty, and possibly the city itself, was founded at Dzibanché early in the Classic Era, approximately 200 AD. After consolidating their power, the Kaan began a 400 year campaign to expand the influence of their dynasty throughout the southern Yucatan Peninsula, Belize, and northern Guatemala. In some cases, they arranged political marriages with the ruling families of other cities. At other times, the Kaan used warfare. These stairs celebrate their success on one of those occasions

As a result, the Snake Dynasty emblem began to appear on stelae, ceramic ware, and other inscriptions in many places. In 631 AD, the Kaan Dynasty seized power in Calakmul and moved their capital there. Their takeover of Calakmul, the greatest power in Classic times, occurred when the Kaan took advantage of a civil war. Thus, they moved from being an important--but still secondary--regional power, to the very pinnacle of the Classic world. However, a subsidiary branch of the Kaan Dynasty continued to rule Dzibanché for centuries. Other members of the dynasty directly or indirectly controlled many other city states.

Kaanul emblem, similar to the one found on the Templo de los Cautivos. You can see the profile of a snake's head with a large oval eye and, below it, a curved mouth jutting with teeth. The curved mouth has caused archeologists to dub it the "grinning snake". Variations of this emblem appear in many Classic Maya sites . The Kaanul symbol boldly proclaims that "here the Snake Dynasty rules!"

So far, only a small number of glyphs have been discovered at Dzibanché and only one of these is the Snake Dynasty emblem. However, this is the earliest Kaan Dynasty emblem found anywhere among the Classic Maya sites and that makes it very significant. Until its discovery at Dzibanché, everyone in the archeological community thought Calakmul was the home of the Kaan origin.

The glyph's discovery at Dzibanché's Temple of the Captives, along with a Maya calendar date corresponding to 495 AD, means the Kaan were ruling Dizbanché 136 years before they took power at Calakmul. This has led to a re-evaluation of Dzibanché's role in Maya history.

Archeologist's drawings of two of the captives, along with glyphs about their capture. On the left side of each carving are two columns of glyphs. The Kaanul (Snake Place) glyph can be found in the top drawing (a) at the bottom of the right hand column.

Both captives are shown in a kneeling posture, with their bound hands upraised in supplication. In addition to the two shown above, fifteen other blocks of stone were discovered, each containing the image of an individual in a similar position. Only one captive's name was still legible: Yax K'ahk' Jolo'm. The form of the name indicates he came from a city close to Dzibanché. In most cases, captives like this were executed with great ceremony. The methods used for such sacrifices included cutting the hearts out of the living victims, or beheadings.

Recently, a team of archeologists found four sacrificial victims at Dzibanché. The remains had been dismembered and buried with "ritually killed" (deliberately broken) artifacts. These included censers, knives of flint and obsidian, and a bone awl with the carved scene of a sacrificial heart removal.

Columns at the top of the temple's staircase, with Plaza Gann in the background. In 1981, archeological researchers published information about a series of twelve cylindrical pots that they called the "Dynastic Vases". These had been found at Calakmul and other locations, including some from burials that had been looted. The ceramic vessels are covered with lists containing the names and the dates of accession of the first 19 Kaan Dynasty rulers. At the time of the vases' discovery, the Kaan were still believed to have originated at Calakmul. No one knew that the men listed were all rulers of Dzibanché. In addition, no one could determine whether the list contained the names of historical rulers or whether they were legendary figures from a half-forgotten past.

In 1997, Simon Martin of the University of Pennsylvania Museum began a 20-year effort to link the names and dates on the vases with what as known about historical rulers. In 2017, Martin published a paper called "Secrets of the Painted King List: Recovering the Early History of the Snake Dynasty." Although he fills his paper with caveats about his methodology, he appears to have established a nearly-unbroken dynastic chronology covering more than 500 years. The chronology takes us from its founding at Dzibanché in the early Classic until the period just before the Kaan seized control of Calakmul. 

Middle gallery of the temple. This was the gallery which would have been covered by a corbel arch along its length.

The Snake Dynasty at Dzibanché was founded by a ruler named Skyraiser, who became ajaw (lord) of the city sometime between 187 AD and 212 AD. Over the next 500 years, Skyraiser and his successors established an aggressively expansionist regime. Significantly, the ruler who followed Skyraiser to the throne took the title of katoomté (overlord) instead of ajaw. This indicates that, under Skyraiser, Dzibanché had acquired vassal-states that owed allegiance in the form of tribute and military support.

A mask mounted to the right Templo de Cautivo's stairs. Most of the stucco mask has worn away and what remains is now protected by another palm-thatched palapa. Originally there were several masks, according to the explanatory sign, and they were installed during the second phase of the building's construction.

According to the Dynastic Vases, Skyraiser had 18 successors. The list ends with with the 19th ruler, Scroll Serpent, who became katoomté in 592 AD. Scroll Serpent's wife was named Lady Scroll-in-Hand. In 600 AD she gave birth to a son who would become one of the most powerful rulers in the ancient Maya world. The young prince carefully studied his trade of politics and war and laid plans for a tremendous boost in Kaan fortunes.

When a civil war broke out within the domain of the great city-state of Calakmul, Scroll Serpent's son intervened and seized power. As a result, the Kaan moved the center of their dynastic power from Dzibanché to Calakmul in 631 AD. Upon his accession as Calakmul's katoomté in 636 AD, the young man adopted the name Yuknoom Ch'eem. He apparently saw a great future for himself and wanted to establish a connection with his famous ancestor. Yuknoom Ch'eem II ruled Calakmul for 50 years, during which time he defeated all comers, including mighty Tikal in Guatemala. By the end of his life, he was the preeminent ruler in the Classic Maya world. Although he shifted the center of Snake Dynasty power to Calakmul, Yuknoom Ch'eem II ensured that Kaan rule continued at Dzibanché. He died at the ripe old age of 86, after five decades in power.

Remains of stucco decoration next to the mask by the stairs. Ancient stucco was made from powdered limestone, which deteriorates in water. For centuries, these decorations were protected by layers of soil and vegetation. Now exposed, they require palapa shelters. Some archeologists believe that the collapse of many ancient Mesoamerican civilizations was caused, in part, by deforestation.

This came about as thousands of trees were cut to provide fuel for burning the tons of limestone needed to make stucco for decorating temples and pyramids and surfacing plazas and roads.

The deforestation resulted in local climate change, droughts, and famines that the priest-rulers could not fend off by appeals to the gods. Thus, the proud arrogance of the Maya elites--what the ancient Greeks called "hubris"-- brought about the Classic Maya world's demise. The Greeks would have understood completely.

Edificios 14 and 12

Stairway leading up to Edificio 14. This structure forms the north wing of the Templo de los Cautivos (also called Edificio 13, seen in background). Edificio 14 had two stages of construction, with the latest dating to the Epi-Classic Era (800-1000 AD).

Edificio 14, looking north from atop the Templo de los Cautivos. The rooms, which stretch out along the top of Edificio 14, may have been an elite residence, possibly for the temple priests.

Decoration showing elements of the Rio Bec architectural style. There are three cylindrical stones, set vertically between two rectangular stones. These cylinders, are called "Rio Bec drums" because of their resemblance to small ceremonial drums. The Rio Bec style originated in the 7th century AD at the ancient city of Rio Bec, to the southeast of Dzibanché. The style spread out from there to many sites across the southern Yucatan Peninsula. It continued in popularity until the 12th century AD. The "drums" are part of the decoration of the front retaining wall supporting the line of rooms on top of Edificio 14.

Rounded corners like this are typical of the Petén architectural style. The Petén style dates to the Early Classic (200-600 AD) making it much older than the Rio Bec style. The style originated in the Petén region of northern Guatemala. Petén style is characterized by rounded corners, narrow rooms with arched ceilings, and stucco masks, all elements found in the Templo de los Cautivos, as well as other structures at Dzibanché. Just to the left of the rounded corners, you can see a small portion of Edificio 12. This was the south wing of the Temple of the Captives. Since very little of it has survived, I chose not to include a photo.

This completes Part 1 of my posting on Dzibanché. I hope you have enjoyed it and, if so, that 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 include your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim