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
















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