Monday, January 13, 2020

Edzna Part 1: House of the Itza

The Pyramid of the Five Levels is the centerpiece at Edzná's Great Acropolis. Over nearly a thousand years, Maya architects used a succession of architectural styles as they enlarged and modified this structure. It follows the widely used format of a multi-level pyramid topped with a temple. However, the Pyramid of the Five Levels is unusual in having 22 rooms, many of which appear to have been elite residences.

During our visit to the state of Campeche, one of our top priorities was a visit to Edzná, one of the most important Maya city-states in the Yucatan Peninsula. The major monuments of the central area have been excavated and some of their ancient glory restored. In addition to the beauty of its pyramids, temples, and palaces, Edzná is significant for its unusually long history of occupation, its astronomical orientation, and its vast complex of waterworks.

The most probable meaning of the name Edzná is "House of the Itzaes". In this interpretation, "Edz" is equivalent to "Itzá" and "" is the Maya word for house. Itzá was the name of a ruling family of the Chontal-speaking Maya. During the 10th century AD, the Itzaes migrated into the Yucatan Peninsula from what is now the modern Gulf Coast state of Tabasco. Their migration was the result of the power vacuum created when the Classic-era Maya civilization collapsed. In addition to Edzná, they took control of other city-states in Yucatan. One of these was a city they re-named Chichen Itzá (Well of the Itzá). What the inhabitants called their city during the 1,500 years prior to the arrival of the Itzaes is still a mystery.


Edzná is located in the state of Campeche, not far from the capital which has the same name. The site is about 60km (37mi) southeast of the city of Campeche, in an area covered with deep jungle interspersed with patches of farmland. The location was very fortuitous in ancient times. Edzná is situated in a lowland that is about 1/2 way between the coast, with its rich maritime food sources, and the inland mountains with their resources of timber and wildlife. It also occupied a natural crossroads in the network of trade routes between the city-states of the Petén area to the south and east and those of the Puuc area to the north.

A strangler fig, encountered along the entrance trail. These strange trees are native to Yucatan and Central America. They surround and eventually strangle the host tree. Some of the Strangler fig's (Ficus cotinifolia) roots extend down from their branches rather than growing up from the ground. These trees form an important part of the jungle ecosystem by providing food and habitat for various animals. Uses by the pre-hispanic Maya included medicines for asthma and intestinal parasites and paper made from the bark. However, following Edzna's abandonment 500 years ago, stranglers have caused much destruction among the ancient structures. Their roots grow in the crevices between stone blocks and turn massive walls into rubble.

Based on analyses of ceramics found in the area, the earliest settlements at Edzna developed in the Middle Pre-Classic period (600-300 BC). At that time, the valley was heavily forested and swampy. In fact, the area surrounding Edzna forms the largest aguada (alluvial depression) in the whole Yucatan Peninsula. Aguadas naturally collect water and, in the process, develop layers of sediments. Since both are essential for crops, the area was ideal for early settlements. However, in order to create land for cultivation and living spaces, the settlers had to cut the forests and drain parts of the aguada.

The first structures were built with perishable materials. The walls were upright posts plastered with adobe (mud mixed with straw), while the roofs were thatched with palm fronds. Many of these structures were built upon low stone platforms to protect against flooding. Some platforms also served to emphasize the importance of the residents or the activities that took place there. The community grew steadily and as early as 150 BC, Edzna had as many as 20,000 residents. However, the great monuments we see today were still centuries in the future.

A Black Vulture spreads its wings while sitting on top of the Temple of the Moon. Bird specialists believe that wing spreading by Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus) causes parasites to concentrate in areas where they can be easily accessed by the bird. It may also be a way of warming up. The jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula were full of animals when Edzná was founded. Their feathers, skins, bones, and claws were used for clothing, personal decoration, and tools. Their meat supplemented a diet based on maiz (corn) and other cultivated and natural plants.

The community at Edzná grew steadily over the centuries. While the typical commoner continued to live in a traditional adobe-and-thatch , the dwellings of the wealthier members of the community increased in quality. In the better structures, walls of rubble, plastered with lime stucco, replaced adobe. Later, cut stone blocks replaced rubble. The more durable the structure, the more important the person who built it. However, two thousand years later, many in the Maya world still live in the traditional adobe-and-thatch ná.

Google satellite view of the key monuments of Edzná's ceremonial area. The photo above only captures the core of the city. The monumental area originally covered 6 square km (3.7 square mi), but much of that is still un-excavated and covered with forest. In total, the city covered as much as 25 square km (15.5 square mi). At the peak of its power and influence, Edzna was inhabited by about 25,000 people. While today the core area is closely hemmed in by jungle, in ancient times the area would have been clear and full of additional structures that extended out to a considerable distance.

In the photo above, north is toward the top. The large, open, rectangular area in the center is the Main Plaza. On the north end of the Main Plaza are the Platform of Knives and the Patio of the Ambassadors. Both of these contain elite residences. The long rectangular structure on the west is called Nohoch Ná (Large House), which was an administrative and civic center. Just west of its north end (see red pointer) is a small temple. This is called Structure 512 and it is unusual because of its circular design. The south end of the Main Plaza contains the South Pyramid and the Ball Court.

To the east is the Great Acropolis, a large platform which contains the Pyramid of the Five Levels, as well as several more pyramids, temples, altars, and a temescal (ceremonial sweat bath). Just south of the Great Acropolis is the Small Acropolis, a much older platform containing four temple/pyramids, each corresponding to one of the four cardinal directions and all facing the center of the Small Acropolis' plaza. To the south of the Ball Court and South Pyramid is a small plaza containing the Temple of the Masks and several other small temple/pyramids. The core area contains many more partially or completely un-excavated structures, but we had time to visit only a few of those. (Photo from Google satellite image)

Edzna's unusual features

Timeline showing Edzna's development. Along the left side of the chart is a column of dates during which the city was inhabited. 600 BC is at the bottom and 1500 AD is at the top. The next two columns show different eras of Maya development and artifacts from Edzna typical of each era. The next column to the right shows artifacts typical of other areas in Mesoamerica during those same periods. Finally, the far right column shows artifacts from other parts of the world matched with the timeline. (Chart from Edzna, A Pre-Columbian in Campeche by Antonio Benevides Castillo)

One of Edzna's most remarkable aspects is the breathtaking 2,100-year length of its occupation. It is true that, during its first and last centuries, the city was sparsely populated. Still, this is an unusually long lifespan for any city of the Maya world, or the rest of Mesoamerica for that matter. This span of time begins with the last stages of the Olmec civilization (the "Mother of Cultures"). It continues almost all the way to the end of the Aztec Empire. The only other Maya city with a comparable lifespan is Dzibilchaltún (500 BC-1542 AD). In the broader Mesoamerican area, Cantona (600 BC-1050 AD) had a very lengthy period of occupation but still falls well short of either Edzna or Dzibilchaltún.

The Solar Platform and its altar occupies the center of the Great Acropolis' plaza. In the background are the Northwest Temple (left) and North Temple (right). The Solar platform is a low, flat, two-level structure with an east-west orientation. Attached to the west side is a small, two-level altar. Archeologists believe the platform was used for solar observations because of its orientation.

The Maya became great astronomers and calendar makers in order to understand their world, and particularly its agricultural cycles. As it happens, Edzná is the only ancient Maya city located along the Latitude 19.5 degrees North. This line bisects the Yucatan Peninsula from east to west, passing directly through Edzná. The city's astronomers discovered that the sun reaches its zenith (directly overhead) on July 26, as it passes along this line. Thus, that date became the beginning of their year, from which all important events of the coming year were calculated. These included planting, harvesting, religious festivals, the dates for royal accessions and burials and much more.

All this meant that Edzná became the ancient equivalent of Greenwich, England, on which modern time is calculated. Archeologist Eric Thompson discovered that when Edzná's astronomer-priests made adjustments to their calendar in 671 AD, all the other Maya cities' calendars subsequently reflected the change. Given the vast importance that the Maya placed on the concepts of time and the calendar, this gave Edzná a unique place in its world.

Map of Edzná's water system. Just left from center is a small square. This represents the core area, seen previously in the satellite photo, which contains the pyramids, temples, and palaces. Surrounding the core area, like the spokes of a wheel, are an array of canals, moats, and reservoirs. The axis of the hydraulic plan is a 12km (7.5mi) long canal with a width of 50m (164ft) and a capacity of 900,000 cubic meters.The total system included 31 feeder canals, 84 reservoirs and an overall capacity of 1.5 million cubic meters. It was an extraordinary engineering achievement for its time.

There were several purposes for this huge system. These included draining excess water from cultivated land and living areas, storing water during the dry season, fish farming, serving as a transportation network, and functioning as part of the city's defensive system. Edzna's waterworks laid the groundwork for the city's development into an important regional power and contributed to its longevity. While other Maya city-states developed hydraulic systems, few were this extensive and almost none were begun as early as Edzna's. (Chart from Edzná, A Pre-Columbian in Campeche by Antonio Benevides Castillo)

Edzná's inhabitants during the Middle Pre-Classic era (600-300 BC) would have found it very difficult to get around during the rainy season, when the great aguada filled up with water. The flooding also inhibited their ability to grow sufficient food for an ever-increasing population. During this period, a small group of families gathered authority, probably by professing a special relationship with the ancestors and the gods. Supplementing this would have been their growing knowledge of celestial movements. Such knowledge would have enabled them to predict the proper dates for planting and harvesting. All this would have given these families the power to organize the community. The most important early result was the hydraulic system. These early social and political developments, and the resulting waterworks, pre-dated the construction of the great core monuments by centuries.

A Green iguana sunbathes on a rock wall in the Great Acropolis. Green iguanas (Iguana iguana) are found in the lush, moist areas of the eastern Yucatan Peninsula, such as the environment around Edzná. While there are no human residents at the ancient city, there are plenty of these guys.

In my subsequent postings about Edzná, I will walk you around among the various monuments of the core area. Along with my photos, I will outline the history of the city and show the various architectural styles that were popular over the centuries of its occupation.

This completes Part 1 of my Edzná 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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