Sunday, October 20, 2019

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

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

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

The Ah Dzib Group

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Satunsat or Labyrinth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hasta luego, Jim

Monday, October 14, 2019

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

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

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


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

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

Ah May's platform, pyramid, and palaces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The MA-9 Palace

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

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

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

Palacio Junquillo (MA-6)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hasta luego, Jim

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Oxkintok Part 2 of 4: The Ah Canul Group's plazas, palaces, & statues

Two large statues adorn the front of Palacio Ch'ich. Archeologists aren't sure whether they represent warriors, nobles, or gods.  Palacio Ch'ich is located in the Southwest Plaza of the Ah Canul Group at the Maya ruin of Oxkintok. In my last posting, I covered the north part of Ah Canul. This time we will look at the southern part, which consists of three elite residential areas: the Southwest, South, and Southeast plazas.

Site map of the Ah Canul Group. The structures we will examine are numbered above as 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 12, and 13. Although Ah Canul contains structures built during the Early Classic era (300 AD-500 AD), it wasn't until the Middle Classic period (500 AD-750 AD) that it became the center of power of Oxkintok. Ah Canul maintained that status until the end of the Terminal Classic (1050 AD).

The Southwest Plaza

A multi-room palace and adjoining temple form the north side of the Southwest Plaza. The temple is a small, two-stage pyramid which probably had a structure on top made of long-vanished perishable materials. You are looking northeast from the raised platform of the South Plaza. The palace faces south, into the Southwest Plaza.

View of the palace from atop the adjoining temple. Along the front there are three, evenly-spaced entrances into now-roofless rooms of equal size. Out of view behind the raised stone wall along the top of the palace are two more rows of rooms. Another row, also out of view, runs north to south on the east end of the palace. In total, there appear to be at least nine rooms in this structure. This suggests that is was the residence of an important person. Given the close proximity to the temple, and the apparent high status of the plaza itself, the palace may have been the home of an important priest and his extended family.

View of the Southwest Plaza. In the background is the raised platform of the South Plaza and its access stairs. Also visible are the Palaces of the Initial Series (CA-6) and the Lunar Series (CA-5) which form the south side of the South Plaza. In the foreground is a low stone crescent, which curves around the opening of a chultun (water reservoir). Surrounding the mouth of the chultun is a shallow depression that serves to channel water into the opening. The purpose of the stone crescent is not clear, but it may be a walkway for those wishing to access the reservoir's contents. 

Why chultunes were needed and how they worked. In this area of Yucatan, there are no rivers or lakes and very few cenotes (water-filled limestone sink-holes). Availability of year-round water was a critical issue. Consequently, the ancient Maya became excellent hydraulic engineers. They captured rain water during the wet season by channeling it into large, underground tanks called chultunes

In the drawing above, the water is channeled into a wide, shallow pan of ground, at the center of which is the opening of the chultun. Below ground, a chultun is shaped like a fat bottle with a narrow neck. In order to seal in the water, the reservoirs were cut into bedrock or lined with plaster. Some chultunes found in northern Yucatan are as much as 6m (19.6ft) deep. (Diagram from Wikipedia Commons)

The Palacio Ch'ich forms the east side of the Southwest Plaza. The palace also carries the unromantic archeological name CA-7. It faces west, in the direction of a large, square altar that marks the center of the plaza. The architecture of Palacio Ch'ich is Classic Puuc, a style popular from 750 AD-1050 AD. Across the front of the building are the remains of a portico with three openings supported by four pillars. On two of these are carved the statues of elite figures seen in the first photo of this posting.  

Floor plans of Palacio Ch'ich and Palacio Diablo. Palacio Ch'ich is the larger structure shown above, with the north end to the left and the south to the right. The smaller building on the right is Palacio Diablo. Ch'ich has eleven rooms in total. The broad portico across the front and two other galleries of rooms run on a north-south line. Four more rooms are set east-west, with two on either end of the palace. 

All but three of the rooms have doors that allow internal passage to other rooms in the Ch'ich palace. This suggests a single residence, rather than a block of separate apartments. The four pillars of the portico can be seen as dots in the doorways along the west side of the floor plan. Palacio Diablo has only three rooms and is notable primarily for the carved stone pillar in its north-facing doorway. The statue depicts a skeletal human figure with its arms raised. It was this sculpture that gave the palace its name. (Diagram from Architectural Survey at Oxkintok, 1971-1993 by George F. Andrews)

View of Palacio Ch'ich from the north end looking south. Here you  get a view down the length of the front portico. In the foreground is Room #1, which is one of the two rooms set on the north end of the structure. Notice the internal door connecting this room with the portico.

The complexity of the palace, along with its pair of statues guarding the front, indicate the residence of a very high status family. If Ah Canul is the power center of Oxkintok, the Southwest Plaza is the area where some of the most important people lived.

One of the two pillars showing human figures at the Ch'ich palace. The statue above has been designated Column 3. The other statue (Column 4) is of approximately the same size, but differs in stance, clothing and adornments. Archeologists are not sure whether the statues depict warriors, rulers, or gods. There is no question, however, that they both represent powerful figures. There is some speculation that they may be the precursors of the "warrior columns" found at Chichen Itza and Mayapan, powerful cities of a later era.

Archeologist's drawing of Column 3. The sculpture in the photograph shows considerable erosion from centuries of exposure to the elements. This sketch gives a better sense of the figure on the column. It shows a man standing erect with his hands clasped across his abdomen, possibly in prayer. He is topped by an elaborate feathered head dress and wears jade jewelry around his neck and ankles. His upper arms are decorated with bracelets, probably also of jade. The figure does not appear to wear an upper garment, probably a result of the warm climate. A kilt-like skirt covers his lower body down to the knees. Hanging from his belt is an elaborate sash, or loin-cloth, decorated with a monster's face. On his feet are sandals. This no doubt represents how elite men of Oxkintok dressed and adorned themselves during the period when the Palacio Ch'ich was built. (Sketch from Architectural Survey at Oxkintok, 1971-1993 by George F. Andrews)

A sculptured pillar stands in the doorway of Palacio Diablo. This building was called the Devil's Palace because of the figure on the pillar. The similarity in the construction to the Ch'ich Palace, as well as the use of a sculptured figure at the main entry, both strongly suggest that this structure was built during the same period. However, the figures in front of the Ch'ich Palace are very different in appearance from the one at the Devil's Palace. I will say more about that in a moment. 

Palacio Diablo stands at the southeast corner of the Southwest Plaza, facing north, and has three rooms. Two are parallel, with an east-west orientation. A third room, on the east end of the building, is perpendicular to these. There are doorways connecting the entrance room to the other two, but there is no door connecting them with each other. Whoever lived here was certainly part of the elite group, but the dwelling is of very modest size compared to the adjacent Palacio Ch'ich. (Photo by Steve Millard from Maya Ruins Website)

Corner of  the entryway. The building stones are well shaped and fit together snugly. On top, there is a Classic Puuc decoration of carved stone in the shape of a drum. This is probably not its original placement. Because of the thick brush inside the palace, I was unable to photograph the interior.  

The "Devil" is in the Palace's details. The sculpture and the upright block of stone on which it is carved (Column 5) are slender compared to those of the sculptures at the Ch'ich Palace. Another difference is that the figure is much more simply dressed. There are two mysterious holes on the top of the head. Early Spanish visitors who saw these thought they once contained horns, hence the name. 

Some archeologists have suggested that this unusual sculpture represents a supernatural being. However, they haven't cited any evidence to back their opinion. I am unconvinced, because every Maya supernatural being I have seen in paintings or sculptures has been elaborately dressed to an intense degree. This figure is naked except for a loin cloth. I have an alternative theory.

Sketch of Column 5 of the Devil's Palace. The weather-worn figure is that of a thin, almost skeletal man standing erect. His arms are held straight up as if he is reaching for something, or perhaps surrendering. He is naked from the waist up and wears no head dress or ornamentation of any kind. A loin cloth hangs low on his hips. A large and rather mysterious circle with a sunken center appears on his abdomen. Since his feet have been worn away, it is not clear whether he wears sandals or is barefoot. 

My theory is that this represents a captured warrior, proudly displayed at the entrance of the home of the man who took him in battle. In pre-hispanic times, capturing a warrior was often more honored than killing one. A modern equivalent would be a hunter who displays over his mantle the antlered head of a deer he has killed. 

The prisoner would first be stripped of all of his finery and then publicly displayed as evidence of his captor's skill and bravery. Usually this was followed by ritual sacrifice. All this would explain the complete lack of elite adornment, as well as a posture that suggests surrender. Maya paintings and sculptures often show war captives who have been similarly stripped and humbled. (Sketch from Architectural Survey at Oxkintok, 1971-1993 by George F. Andrews)

The South Plaza

Front of the Palace of the Initial Series (CA-6), looking east. The name of this palace refers to carved symbols covering a door lintel found here. The Initial Series is the hieroglyphic symbol designating a date as part of the Long Count system of the Maya calendar. The palace is located on the east end of the South Plaza. It faces north toward the back of the un-named, brush-covered pyramid mentioned in my last posting. 

Floor plan of the Palace of the Initial Series. In the plan above, north is to the left, with the east end at the top and the west on the bottom. The palace has seven rooms arranged in two long, east-west galleries. The front gallery has three rooms and the rear has four. On the west end of the building is an eighth room with a north-south orientation. This building, along with its neighbor, the Palace of the Lunar Series, are among the oldest at Oxkintok. They were both built during the Early Classic period (300 AD-500 AD) in what is called the Proto-Puuc style. (Diagram from Architectural Survey at Oxkintok, 1971-1993 by George F. Andrews)

Sketch of lintel from Initial Series Palace. A glyph on the lintel shows the Long Count calendar date equivalent to 475 AD, which is near the end of the Early Classic period. This makes it the earliest date from the Maya Long Count Calendar to be found in Yucatan. A total of 16 lintels and 26 stelae (upright stone markers) have been found at Oxkintok, but many are so weathered as to be indecipherable. Despite its long history, we only know the name of one king, referred to as Walas, who ruled in the 7th century. (Diagram from an article by Eric Boot on

Front of the Palace of the Lunar Series, looking west. The Lunar Series palace stands next to the Palace of the Initial Series on the same east-west line. Both face north. Archeologists named this structure for the glyphs found on lintels here, which are associated with the Maya's 18-month Lunar Calendar. This was used to track the phases of the moon and is a subset of their Long Count Calendar.

The people who lived in these two palaces in the Early Classic period were also part of Oxkintok's ruling elite. However, at that time, other parts of the city were more important than Ah Canul. It was not until the Middle Classic (500 AD-750 AD) that Ah Canul became the center of power in the city.

The Palace of the Lunar Series faces north (right). It is approximately the same size as its neighbor, but the floor plan differs. While both palaces have eight rooms, the Lunar Series structure has 3 east-west galleries. In addition, there are 2 north-south galleries, one on each end. Finally, the front of the Lunar Series has three doorways, while the Initial Series has five. (Diagram from Architectural Survey at Oxkintok, 1971-1993 by George F. Andrews)

The Southeast Plaza

The Southeast Plaza is the eastern-most extension of the Ah Canul Group. It is also one of the oldest sections. The plaza is very broad and open and does not appear to contain an altar. The size of the space would have made it suitable for large public gatherings, including religious ceremonies and public markets. The plaza is bordered on the north by a one-story building oriented along an east-west line. This structure faces south into the plaza and has five doors leading into an equal number of rooms. 

Forming a corner with it is another building which stretches along the eastern side of the plaza. In the middle of this building is a large arched opening through which ceremonial processions may once have marched. There are two rooms on either side of the arch, with doors facing west, into the plaza. The western side of the plaza is formed by the backs of the Ch'ich Palace and the temple in the corner of the Southwest Plaza. There may once have been structures along the Southeast Plaza's south side, but nothing remains now.

An impressive two-story arch creates a formal entrance into the Southeast Plaza. This may have been the most important entry-point to Ah Canul until the pyramids and temples were built in later centuries. A similar arch can be found along the north side of another section of Oxkintok called the Ah Dzib Group. Arches like this are a signature element of the Puuc architectural style that became popular around 700 AD. 

One of the two interior rooms in the right wing of the arched building. The room is long and narrow, with a corbel roof. There are no windows, so the only light would have come through the door or from a hearth fire. The thick walls would have insulated the structure and moderated the temperature on hot days or cool evenings. 

This concludes Part 2 of my Oxkintok series. We will next look at the Ah May and An Dzib Groups and the famous Satunsat (Labyrinth). I hope you have enjoyed this posting and, if so, you will leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below or email me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim