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

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