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

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