Located 30 miles northeast of Mexico City in the Valley of Mexico, Teotihuacán is one of Mexico’s most popular archaeological sites and contains some of the largest pyramidal structures built in the pre-Columbian Americas.
Dating back to 100BC Teotihuacán was to become the cultural epicentre of ancient Mesoamerica. Yet very little is known about its origins, its people and where they came from or what language they spoke for although the civilization left many architectural ruins, no trace has yet been found of a writing system. The Totonacs have always maintained that they were the ones who built it, something that was accepted by the Aztecs, although this has not been corroborated by archaeological findings.
The original name of the city is also not known, Teotihuacán, which means ‘place of the gods’, was given to it by the Aztecs although they never lived in Teotihuacán but visited it as a place of pilgrimage as they believed it was the place where the world was created.
Although buildings have been found which date back to 200 BC the development of Teotihuacán began in the first century AD, which was when the Pyramid of the Sun was constructed. This development resulted from the exploitation of natural resources and an increase in agricultural production resulting in the development of trade. Between the 4th and 7th century Teotihuacán was to reach it height with influence throughout most parts of Mesoamerica reaching its peak around 450 AD when it was to become one of the largest cities of the world at that time covering an area of 30 Sq km (11 Sq miles) with a population of between 85,000-200,000 inhabitants.
Its decline is believed to have occurred between 650 and 750 AD and evidence has been found of wilful destruction and damage by fire of some of the main buildings. Some scholars put this down to it being sacked by unknown invaders although others suggest that it may have been an uprising of the people against the elite.
Teotihuacán was believed to have been a multi-ethnic city, occupied by Otomi, Zapotec, Mixtec, Maya and Nahua peoples each with their own distinct with the majority of people living in large apartment. Many of the buildings contained workshops where artisans produced pottery and other goods.
Running along the centre of the city is a broad central avenue, called "Avenue of the Dead" which contained a number of structures. The avenue was 131 feet wide and stretched for 3 miles, although now only 1.4 miles is discernible. At the side of the avenue is the immense Pyramid of the Sun which is 210 feet tall, this was 249 feet as it originally had a temple on top. Its base length is 738 feet, which is 10 feet less than the Great Pyramid of Cheops. Below the pyramid is a cave which it is believed gave it its special significance as this was symbolic of the womb. At the north end is the 138 feet tall Pyramid of the Moon, which was the first large structure built in Teotihuacán. Along the Avenue of the Dead are many smaller constructions which the Aztecs believed were tombs, hence the name of the avenue. These are now believed to have been ceremonial platforms that were topped with temples.
Besides the major ceremonial pyramids, which would have been plastered and painted bright red the colour of blood, there were also palaces and temples, especially near the north end of the city surrounding the plaza in front of the Pyramid of the Moon. These included the Palace of Quetzalcoatl, the Butterfly Palace, the Temple of the Feathered Conches, and the Palace of the Jaguars. Adorning the buildings are magnificent murals and stone carvings.
At the side of the Avenue of the Dead is the area known as the Citadel, which contains the ruined Temple of the Feathered Serpent. This area was a large plaza surrounded by temples that formed the religious and political centre of the city. The name "Citadel" was given to it by the Spanish, who believed it was a fort. A large enclosure with a capacity to hold about 100,000 people, it is believed that this may have been used for ritual performances although is also thought to have been the marketplace. The interior space is surrounded by four large platforms surmounted by pyramids. The Feathered Serpent Pyramid - which is adorned with large sculptural heads - was the central pyramid of the complex. Also to be seen are many brilliantly painted frescoes. On the site is the museum which contains many artefacts including numerous masks.
The first major excavations in the city were undertaken by Leopoldo Batres in 1905, since then there have been numerous excavations and the site was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
Located in southern Mexico, the ruins of the Mayan city of Palenque date back to 100 BC although its name is recently modern coming from the village located close by. The ancient name of the city was Lakam Ha, meaning "Big Water", as it has numerous springs and wide cascades. Palenque flourished in the 7th century with its decline and fall occurring around 800 AD. After its decline it was covered by the jungle but on going excavation and restoration work has made it one of the most famous archaeological sites in Mexico.
Palenque is much smaller than many of the Maya sites but it contains some of the finest architecture, sculpture, roof comb and carvings that the Maya produced. A great deal of the history of Palenque has been obtained from the hieroglyphic inscriptions found on many of the monuments.
The structures for which Palenque is most famous include the: Palace; Temple of Inscriptions; Temple of the Sun; the Temple of the Foliated Cross; the Temple of the Cross; and the Temple XIII.
Standing on a wide artificial terrace 9m high the Palace is 69m long by 61m wide. Covering an area of 6,500m2 it consists of a complex of several connected and adjacent buildings with a large number of rooms and galleries the wall of which were decorated with mural paintings and carved stone slabs. Running under the Palace are a series of passageways that lead to additional rooms. The palace is situated around four courtyards surrounded by double galleries. In the south-western courtyard there is a square tower which originally rose 22m in height. The tower has a solid basement and three stories with large windows looking toward the four cardinal points of the compass. It has been suggested that this could have been a watch tower or an observatory.
The Temple of Inscriptions was commissioned by Pacal (Pakal) (903 – 984 AD) the founder of the first dynasty at Palenque towards the end of his rein. The vaulted chamber which contained the sarcophagus was discovered in 1949. Originally the temple had eight platforms, which was later added to. As the sarcophagus is made from a 20 ton single piece of limestone and is larger than the passage ways, the temple would have been built around it. The lid of the sarcophagus - weighing 5 ton - was elaborately carved showing symbolic scene of death and resurrection and carved images of Pacal's ancestry are depicted around his coffin and provided a great deal of information about Pacal. On the walls of the tomb are figures of the nine lords of the dead carved in the stucco. There were also a number of skeletons found in the tomb; these were probably sacrificed as part of the funeral ceremony. The body of Pacal was covered in cinnabar and was adorned with pearls, conch shells, pyrite, and jade ornaments and his face was covered with a jade mask. A copy of the sarcophagus is held in the on-site museum while the mask is in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
The temples of the Sun, Foliated Cross, and the Cross are known as the Cross Group and were built between 642 AD to 692 AD by Pacal's eldest son and successor Chan Bahlum. The temples are arranged around three sides of the Plaza. Each of the buildings consists of an outer and inner chamber consisting of three rooms. The walls are decorated with carved stone panels. Visitors are currently able to climb to these temples but only enter the chamber of the Temple of the Sun.
Another structure in Palenque is the Temple XIII, which is adjacent to the Temple of Inscriptions. In 1994 a door was found that led to an underground temple, with three rooms. In the middle room was a sarcophagus which was painted with cinnabar to give it a red colour, inside the sarcophagus was the remains of a woman who became known as the Red Queen. There were no inscriptions to identify the woman. But it was believed that it could be the mother of Pacal.
The site also incorporates a museum containing some of the artefacts found on the site and a reconstruction of the tomb of Pacal as the tomb itself was closed to visitors.
Although there was a city in this location as far back as 600 AD Chichen Itza really developed in the 9th century when the cities of Palenque and Tikel were deserted by the Mayas who moved north into the eastern part of Yucatán. It was, however, in the 10th century that the city was to become one of the largest Mayan cities that was to dominate the area from central Yucatán to the north coast and down the east and west coasts of the peninsula. It was to retain its dominance for 200 years.
Its name means "at the mouth of the well of the Itza". The Itza being a group of people who built the second city at the location of a previous city called Chichen, with the site today consisting of two areas.
With relatively densely clustered architecture, the main area of the site covers over 5 square kilometres The residential buildings would have extended far beyond that which is seen today. The area containing the major architectural buildings was artificially leveled in order to build. The site contains many buildings in various states of preservation, and many have been restored. The main ones are explained below.
The Temple of Kukulkan, the Maya serpent god is usually referred to as El Castillo (the castle). Rising 30 metres (98ft) high on the North Platform the step pyramid consists of a series of nine square terraces, each approximately 2.5 metres (8ft) high, with a temple 6 metres (20ft) high at the summit, in the temple is a Jaguar throne. The four faces of the pyramid have protruding stairways that rise at an angle of 45° with 365 steps.At the base of the balustrades of the northeastern staircase are carved heads of a serpent. At late afternoon on the Spring and Autumn equinoxes, the north-west corner of the pyramid casts a series of triangular shadows on the north side that gives the impression of a serpent moving down the staircase.
Across from El Castillo is The Temple of the Warriors, this complex consists of a large stepped pyramid with rows of carved columns depicting warriors. At the top of the pyramids summit is a statue of Chac Mool, although a number of similar ones can be seen at closer quarters. The Chac-Mool depicts a human figure in a position of reclining with the head up and turned to one side, holding a tray over the stomach, it is suggested that the heart of the sacrificed was placed on the tray.
Along the south wall of the Temple of Warriors are a number of columns, which would have supported an extensive roof system. Some of these columns contains pillars with carvings of soldiers in bas-relief; carvings of people or gods, and animals and serpents.
The Tzompantli or Wall of Skulls is where the heads of sacrificial victims were placed. The platform walls are carved with reliefs of the skull rack itself; a scene with a human sacrifice; eagles eating human hearts; and skeletonized warriors with arrows and shields.
Located to the north-west of El Castillo is the Ball Court. The Ball Court was an important part of Mayan cities with all but the smallest having one, thirteen have been identified in Chichen Itza including the largest found in Mesoamerica. The Great Ball Court measures 168 by 70 metres. At each side of the playing area are platforms 95 metres long and with 8 metres high walls with a ring at the centrally positioned. The bases are slanted with panels depicting the game and players. At either end of the playing area are temples. Built into the east wall are two temples of the Jaguar, the upper temple overlooks the ball court while the lower temple has a Jaguar throne similar to the one at the top of the Castillo.
The Maya where proficient astronomers who had mapped many of the celestial objects, particularly Venus and the Moon and their calculations enabled them to produce precise calendars. Many of the buildings were aligned to the heavens and were used in their observation, although the round buildings tended to be labelled as observatories. Such a building is El Caracol mounted on a large square platform.
The Nunnery was so named by the Spanish and was in fact a palace complex. To the east is a small temple known as the Church which is decorated with elaborate masks and hieroglyphic texts.
Around the area are a number of natural sinkholes known as cenotes, Chichen Itza has two providing water to the city throughout the year. The large one is 60 metres in diameter and drops 27 metres to the water table. This canote is also known as the Well of Sacrifice as it was used by the Maya to sacrificed objects and people to Chaac, the rain god. Objects such as gold, carved jade, pottery, flint, obsidian, shell and human remains have been found at the bottom of the canote.
Much of Chichen Itza has still to be excavated and this is an ongoing process. As it is within travelling distance of the tourist resorts it is one of Mexico’s most visited sites and makes the most of this by catering for tourism with souvenirs and a sound and lights show.
Together with Tikal and Chichen Itza, Uxmal most represents Maya Architecture at its best. The name is thought to mean “thrice built” although it has also been suggested that it derives from the word Uchmal, which refers to the future.
Although a great deal of work has been carried out at Uxmal - and in fact is still being carried out – not a lot is known about the city. It is believed that it was founded around 500 AD and that most of its development occurred between 700 - 1000 AD when it became a thriving city and a religious centre with great ceremonial significance. The layout of the buildings suggests knowledge of astronomy by its planners. At its peak Uxmal had a population of around 25,000 inhabitants. Around 1000 AD the city was invaded by the Toltec’s and it started to decline, it was abandoned around 1200 AD.
Covering around 150 acres the central area of Uxmal is reasonably well preserved due to the high quality of the buildings which are constructed of well-cut stones set in concrete. The ruins today providing a good impression of what the city would have looked like at its height.
The first major building seen on a visit to the site is the Pyramid of the Magician, also called Pyramid of the Dwarf as legend states that it was built by a dwarf overnight using magic. A stepped pyramid with five levels it raises to a height of 27.6m. The design is unusual in that the profile of each layer is elliptical in shape and not the normal rectilinear plan found in Maya pyramids. It was a common practice in Mesoamerica to build new pyramids on top of older ones, but in Uxmal a new pyramid was built off centre slightly to the east of the older pyramid, so that on the west side the temple on top of the old pyramid is preserved, but has the newer temple above it.
The temple at the top of the main staircase on the West face has a large mask with the mouth acting as the entrance. It has a number of masks at each corner. The East face has a wider staircase with a hole near its top; this was the result of excavations into the pyramid to study a temple which had been covered by the subsequent construction work. The Maya would rebuild over existing buildings every 52 year cycle.
Located at the side of the Pyramid of the Magician is the Quadrangle of the Nuns, named by the Spanish as it reminded them of a European nunnery. This consists of four buildings placed at different levels that surrounding a courtyard. Constructed sometime after 900 AD the façades are richly decorated with motives and lattice work, masks, serpents, human figures and representations of the gods, it is thought to have been used as a school for training healers, astrologers, shamans, and priests.
Close by is the Quadrangle of the birds with the colonnade one of the buildings showing reconstructed columns.
Walking through the site visitors will reach the Ball Court 33.5m long and 9.8m wide. This is an excellent example and shows the court with its battered side and the location of the ring which was reconstructed in concrete from a remaining fragment.
The Building of the Governor’s Palace is elevated on an artificial platform constructed on a levelled hill and covers over 5 acres. It was the last major structure completed at Uxmal. Its front façade is the largest Maya façade and its frieze consists of 15,000 mosaic pieces of carved stone runs around the entire building. On the façades are vaulted passage ways with plain inner surfaces, which breaks the otherwise continuous frieze. On the same platform next to the Palace is the House of the Turtles so named for the frieze of turtles carved around its cornice.
In front of the Governor's Palace is a small shrine with a monolith in the form of an inverted cone which protrudes into the ground and a shrine with steps on 4 sides with a two-headed Jaguar Throne.
Looking down from the platform of the Governor’s Palace can be seen the Dovecote Roofcomb which has remained preserved over the centuries.
To the side of the Palace is the Great Pyramid with its east side in a collapsed state and the north side - restored in the early 1970’s - with its grand staircase leading to the Macaws Temple with its wide central doorway. The Great Pyramid was originally nine levels high and has only been partially restored.
Throughout the site are a number of stone stelae with hieroglyphic inscriptions containing details of the city’s rulers, many of these stelae appear to have been deliberately damaged. Another indication of conflict can be found in the remains of the wall that surrounded part of the site.
Declared UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996 the site also contains a small museum to display a few items found on the site.
Located 18 km south Uxmal and connected to it by a raised pedestrian causeway 5 meters wide with monumental arches at each end is the city of Kabah: The connection between the two sites indicating its importance. It is thought that in early times Kabah and Uxmal were adversaries, but that they eventually became allies with Kabah becoming the second city in importance next to Uxmal.
Kabah, which in Maya means “Lord of the strong and mighty hand” was inhabited from the middle of the 3rd century BC although most of the buildings that can be seen today date from between the 7th and 11th centuries AD reaching its’ height around the end of the 9th century.
The ruins extend either side of the main highway although only a few of the buildings are open to the public there are many more still overgrown and covered with the forest including a large pyramid, although excavation work is under-way to carry out archaeological excavations and to clear and restore more of the buildings.
The site consists of a number of palaces, low stone buildings, and step-pyramid temples and contains many sculpted panels, mostly depicting the site's rulers and scenes of warfare. The most famous structure at Kabah is the Kodz Poop which means “rolled-up matting” also known as the "Temple of the Masks". This stands on a low platform and has a façade decorated with 250 stone masks of Chaac, the long-nosed rain god. The temple is 46 metres long and contains 10 chambers arranged in two tiers of five built one behind the other. On the east façade are two well-preserved life size stone sculptured figures.
Located in the centre of the city is the Great Palace, one of the best preserved buildings on the site. Set on two levels it displays an elegant roof comb over part of the building. The decoration is simple with three columns with a capitol shaped like a pedestal.
Today the main temple looks like a mound of loose stones but it rested on a large elliptical base with a monumental staircase with two rooms located at the side. It was here that the sacrifices were carried out.
As was common in Mayan Puuc architecture, walls were constructed as a mosaic of molded concrete blocks. The Maya used concrete as a building material as limestone, its main ingredient, was found in abundant quantities throughout the Yucatan.
There are numerous masks of Chaac throughout the site due to his importance as there are no cenotes (natural sink holes containing water) in this area, which placed a greater importance on rain. Reservoirs were constructed to collect rain water and they also had a drainage system of canals to help irrigate the land. However, by the 11th century Kabah and its surrounding sites had been abandoned, with drought being considered the main reason for its decline.
Established in 500 BC in the Valley of Oaxaca by the Zapotecs, Monte Alban was one of the first cities in the Americas and was to become the main centre for government and to have a significant effect on the development of the arts and science. It reached its height in the years 350 – 550 AD during the classical period. Around 800 AD the city began to lose its power to the Mixtecs and cities such as Mitla and by 850 AD the soil around Monte Alban was exhausted and the city virtually deserted. In the years that followed it became a sacred site to the Mixtecs who would visit it but did not occupy it, although considering it a sacred site they would bury their dead there and a number of tombs have been found and exhibits of these can be seen in the on-site museum.
Located on the top of an artificially levelled hill, the site provides an excellent impression of the city as it would have been during its occupation with the Main Plaza providing an impressive site for visitors with the buildings placed around its sides. Measuring approximately 300 meters by 200 meters the Plaza is the site's main civic and ceremonial area. It also includes residential buildings used by the elite of the city, these are located around the plaza or in its vicinity.
To the north and south of the Main Plaza are large platforms which are accessed via monumental staircases. To the eastern and western sides are a number of smaller platform mounds on which temples and the residences for the elite were situated. Also to be seen is the ball-court, this differs from the ones found in Maya cities as it has no ring indication variations in the game. A north-south central mound is in the centre of the plaza and served as platforms for ceremonial structures.
To the north is the sunken patio surrounded by terraces, in the centre is an alter for human sacrifices. In the south west corner is the Gallery of the Dancers. This contains a number of reliefs of figures in grotesque postures. These were originally thought to be people dancing, hence its name, but it has also been suggested that they represent tortured prisoners, or that they are people with deformities, as the city may have been used as a teaching centre.
In the centre of the Main Plaza, is a building which has an unusual arrow-like shape. The building is orientated differently from most of the other structures at the site and contains over 40 large carved slabs and in many cases characterized by upside-down heads indicating conquest: Although it has been suggested that the differing alignment was due to it being an Observatory. Other buildings are also connected to the astronomical aspects of the site such as a shaft aligning with the sun when it is at its zenith.
Many of the objects found at the site have been taken to the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City although a selection of objects has been retained in the site museum.
The archaeological site of Mitla is located in the centre of the town which grew up around the ruins. Close by is the Church of San Paublo which was constructed by the Spanish in the 17th century using much of the material taken from site.
Mitla dates back to about 900 BC while the remains which are visible today date from about 200 AD to 900 AD when the Zapotecs controlled the area. In 1000 AD the Mixtecs took control of the site until 1200 AD when the Zapotecs regained it.
Mitla was the second most important ceremonial centre after Monte Alban. After the disappearance of Monte Alban it became the power centre for the entire valley. Originally known as Mictlan it was shortened by the Spanish to Mitla. Although in Zapotec language the site was called Lyoboa, which translated means “Resting Place”.
The site consists of five main groups of structures, the Southern Group and Clay Group, which have been classified as ceremonial centres. These are formed by the presence of mounds and central squares. The Creek Group, Columns Group and Church Group are classified as palaces, comprising of several chambers, set around square.
The Hall of Columns is 120 x 21 feet in size and has six monolithic columns of volcanic stone that originally supported a roof covering the entire hall. From this is a low, narrow passageway leading to the interior of another enclosure, which originally was covered by a roof. The walls of this chamber are covered with panels of inlaid cut-stone mosaic known as stepped-fret design, whose intricate geometric mosaics are believed to be a representation of the Sky Serpent and therefore a symbol of the Mesoamerican deity, Quetzalcoatl. The use of this chamber is not known although legend says the chamber was used for the final initiation of shamans who had been trained in magic and healing in the school of Mitla. In the Patio of Tombs, adjacent to the Hall of Columns, is a 2.8 meter tall column known as the "Pillar of Death" although this is also sometime referred to as the Pillar of Life.
The group of the columns contains two squares; the northern one, which contains the main building, is bordered by platforms on all four sides. The central patio contains the remains of an altar. It is here that the rectangular great Hall of Columns is found and a decorated patio, which provides access to four rooms. Each is decorated by three panels with ornate mosaics of carved stone of different geometric designs in each band. The panels contain thousands of polished stones, which are cut to fit without mortar.
The site contains a number of beautiful tombs which are located in the northern and eastern buildings; it was here that the Zapotec priests and kings were buried. The tombs are cruciform in plan and the rooms and antechambers are richly decorated with cut stone friezes. The walls are decorated with ornate mosaic panels.
Nearby to Mitla is the town of Santa Maria del Tule which contains the tree of Tule which is one of the oldest living things on earth. With a circumference of over 48 metres at its base, is between 2000 and 3000 years old.
Located in the State of Chiapas close to the Guatemala border below the Tacaná Volcano, the site is privately owned and is leased to the National Institute of History and Anthropology, thus enabling visitor free access to the ruins.
Although it covers an area of some 200 hectares and consists of 13 plazas, most of the site has still to be uncovered and renovated, which gives it a mistaken impression of its being of minor importance. However, the first human settlement in Izapa began somewhere around 1500 to 1250 BC with the inhabitants living by agriculture and the abundance of wild fruits and coca. Izapa was inhabited throughout the Pre-classic and into the Post-classic Period and is thought by some to have been a connective link between the Olmec and Maya cultures whilst some people suggest that it was the place of origin for the Maya calendar; all of which establish its importance within the history of the region.
It reached the height of its power between 300 and 50 BC, when contact with Olmec culture disappeared and Izapa rose as a site in its own right. At its height it is believed that Izapa had a population of some 10,000 people, but it seems that it was abandoned by the 13th century.
Although the site consists of a number of sectors, only three can be visited, which amounts to under 2% of the total area. The site contains up to 130 mounds, of which only half have been restored. The ruins that can be seen are pyramids, sculptured plazas and squares and a ball court, all of which visitors are free to wander over. An interesting point about Izapa is the number of monuments which include stele, which do not contain glyphs, thus indicating the absence of a writing system. Some of the stele found at the site remain on display, as does a throne and altar. Other artefacts including stele and a variety of pottery can be seen at a small museum in the nearby town of Tapachula.
Copalita is located on a cliff overlooking the ocean, ten miles from Huatulco. Its name comes from the large amount of copal found in the area. Copal is a tree resin used as incense during ceremonies, a common substance found across Mesoamerican cultures.
The earliest remains of the site date back 2,500 years from the time of the Zapotec. In fact, Copalita was the first Zapotec archaeological site found in the Huatulco area, and the only site ever built by the ocean on Mexico’s Pacific coast. Throughout its history, during its habitation (between about 500 BC up to the 16th century) the site has been occupied by a number of different groups including the Mixtec, Aztecs as well as the Zapotecs. It flourished between the 10th and 14th centuries and was probably the largest city on the Oaxaca coast.
The people of Copalita lived by hunting, gathering and fishing, but also by the manufacture of baskets, nets, weights and floats, both for their own use and to trade. Due to the high acidity of the soil, agriculture was limited, but it did provide a limited amount of products for local consumption, a factor which probably limited the size of the population, which amounted to 2,000 people. Evidence suggests that disease - believed to have been syphilis - struck the population of the coastal region in the 1520 – 30, which may have caused the population to flee the area. The engineering and architecture of the excavated structures show an advanced knowledge of construction techniques. The builders, engravers and painters adopted architectural styles and patterns from other regions, including Teotihuacan, but they also employed methods unique to Copalita, employing systems adapted to the site’s flat areas, as well as the surrounding hills and swampy marshes, creating structures that survived frequent flooding and severe storms.
As part of the area was wetlands and prone to flooding, a method of construction was needed to allow for this. This incorporated a foundation of round river stones which would then be covered with flat stones upon which the building would be constructed.
Covering an area of around 201 acres, the area of Copalita which is open to the public is only 86 acres, as much of the site has still to be excavated and restored; something that has been continuing since 1988.
The area which is open to the public includes a civic-ceremonial centre, consisting of plazas, temples and a ball court. Visitors today can see the ancient building complex where the ruling class would have lived in the first six centuries BC. These comprise the Ball Court with its large stones engraved in low relief, Pyramids, and some carved stones and two fairly modest temples including the Main Temple, which is located on top of a natural hill with access through the main plaza by the use of a wide staircase. It is believed that the central section formed the homes of the dignitaries and nobility of the village. This illustrates the construction of the structure and the restoration work that is being carried out.
Leading from the site is a path which takes visitors to the top of the cliff which overlooks the sea. This area contains a stone which has been known as the sacrificial stone, but which is also thought to have been used as a reference that would have had a reflective surface to guide the boats to the settlement. Consequently, it is also known as the lighthouse, although, in fact, its location provides a viewing point in all directions.
Copalita also has a museum which contains a collection of ceremonial objects such as obsidian knives, jade jewellery, and funeral masks. The items, found at the site, suggest the presence of an advanced commercial city.
Chacchoben is located just south of the Riviera Maya, and within an hour’s drive from Costa Maya. Its name means "The Place of Red Corn," which is derived from a nearby village, its original name is not known.
Evidence suggests that Chacchoben was a settlement as far back as 1000 BC although it is believed that the site was abandoned and reoccupied a number of times and it is known that most of the structure at the site were modified or restored a number of times most notably from 300 – 360 AD although the buildings in the main groups which can be seen today date from 700 AD.
Following the collapse of the Maya civilization, Chacchoben, like many other sites in the region, was still used as a ceremonial centre and Archaeological evidence suggests and that a number of rituals took place at the abandoned temples.
During the Caste War of Yucatán (1847–1901) the site was abandoned when many of the Maya moved away due to the conflict and the atrocities that were being committed, it was then that Chacchoben was claimed by the jungle.
It was to remain lost until 1942 when land around it became the home for a local farmer and the ruins were once again discovered. Exploration of the site started in 1972 when the site was mapped and registered with the Mexican government.
Restoration on Chacchoben was started in 1994 under the National Institute of Anthropology and History and the site was opened to the public in October 2002.
The first main structure on entry to the site is Temple 24 found in Plaza B, this structure is impressive with its multi levels and stairway on each side. From there it is a short walk past the Gran Plaza to the most impressive and tallest temple known as Temple 1 which is located in the Gran Basamento. This is accessed via a small plaza which contains a broken stele and a stair case leading up from it. At the top of the stairs is another pyramid temple across from which is Temple 1.
A short walk from there is the Plaza Las Vias with its residential and administrative low rise buildings.
Scattered across the site are the remains of buildings still to be excavated and are noticeable as tree covered mounds.
Although the surrounding area has been cleared for farming Chacchoben itself has retained many of its trees including large mahogany trees and cohune palms, strangler figs, and banyan trees which are scattered across the site providing it with a relaxing atmosphere.
Located along the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, Tulum was one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Maya. A contemporary to Chichen Itza, but when that city fell, Tulum consolidated its position, paving the way for its greatest period of expansion. It was probably known by the name of Zama, which means City of Dawn due to it facing east towards the rising sun.
The site was inhabited as early as the 6th century, and its success was due to its access to the sea and land routes. Tulum was able to establish itself as a great trading centre and was a distribution centre for local and foreign products, by sea, river and land, and flourished between the 13th and the 15th centuries. Despite its success and a population of 1000 to 1600 inhabitants, including those living outside the walls, sources from the time of the Spanish give its population as 600. It was only to survive for about 70 years after the arrival of the Spanish in Mexico; this was due to the devastation inflicted on the inhabitants by the diseases brought by the Spanish, resulting in a breakdown of society and the city eventually being abandoned. By the end of the 16th century, the site was abandoned completely.
Built in the late thirteenth century, in the Mayan post-classic period, it contains architecture typical of this period along the Yucatan Peninsula, which consists of the buildings being constructed on platforms with steps running around them.
Situated on the top of a 12-metre-high cliff, a protective stone wall 5 metres thick and as high as 5 metres in places runs the 784-metre along the length of the site. The wall is irregular in height as it follows the contours of the land and only on three sides, as the side facing the sea is naturally protected. The wall included watch towers and five narrow gateways, making Tulum one of the best fortified Maya sites and one of the few walled cities. The elite lived inside the walls; the common people outside.
One of the first buildings which can be seen on entering the site is the House of the Cenote. This had a room placed directly over the hole that forms the Cenote. It was usual for houses or temples to be constructed near water sources. The location of this building provides good views over the site of gently-rolling hills and gives an indication of its size.
Within the site, many of the buildings portray the splendour of the city as it would have been during its occupation. The most famous building is the El Castillo or Castle which consists of a temple at the top of a pyramid structure. it contains a wide staircase leading up from the plaza. Situated by the cliff edge, it stands 7.5 metres tall, with the small shrine appearing to have contained a beacon, which was used to guide trading canoes through a gap in the barrier reef to the beach of the cove below the cliff. The temple features columns which were decorated with plumed serpents indicating a Toltec influence on the Maya, and like most Maya buildings it was constructed in several phases over the years.
El Castillo was the most imposing and important building. The façade would have been covered by stucco and brightly painted. It would have contained sculptures and large stucco masks at its corners, traces of which still remain.
At the lower level on each side of the staircase there was a small temple, each of which contained an altar where offerings would have been left. Above them two additional temples where used for religious ceremonies.
To the left of El Castillo, as you face the sea, is the Temple of the Descending God, with a small staircase and a carving over the door of the swooping figure that is often referred to as the “diving God”, something that is seen throughout the site. Its’ resemblance to a bee is taken by some as an indication of the importance that the Maya placed on honey.
Tulum was dedicated to the planet Venus and the descending God is symbolized by the setting sun closely related to Venus. Consequently, the deity is found on the façade of some of the buildings with their accesses orientated to face where the planet sets.
In front of the Castillo is the Temple of the Frescoes, used as an observatory. It retains the greatest number of decorations remaining on the site. The building consists of two levels. The lower level consists of two temples, one within the other. The façade of the inner temple is decorated with murals painted in three sections. The first level represents the Mayan world of the dead, the middle is that of the living, and the final, highest, is of the creator and rain Gods.
Contained in the middle of the section is a God astride a four-legged animal believed to be a horse. If it is a horse, it confirms the Maya still occupied the site when the Spanish arrived in 1518, which would have been the first time they would have seen the animal.
On the outside, it has stucco figures in relief. It also has masks on the corners and sculptures in three niches of the façade with the descending God in the centre. The upper level is just simple decoration.
Most of the buildings in Tulum were grouped along streets. Although the leaders and priests lived in buildings of stone with the roofs being either vaulted or constructed of beams used to support rubble above. Most of the residential buildings were constructed of wood with palm roofs and placed on platforms: Only the platforms survived.
Although Tulum is smaller and may not be as impressive as Chichen Itza or Uxmal it is one of the most visited Maya sites in the Yucatan, due in part to its proximity to Cancun and ease of access. Its layout gives a good appreciation of the site and what life would have been like there when it played such an important part in the civilisation of the Maya.
Located close to the northern coast of the Yucatan, Dzibilchaltun was one of the oldest and most populated settlements in the Yucatan.
Dzibilchaltun means “place where there is writing on flat stone”. The population maintained themselves with a maritime and coastal economy in addition to agriculture. It is believed that the site was inhabited from around 300BC until the Spanish conquest. The site was at its height during the Late Classic period (600-900 AD) when it had a population of 20,000 inhabitants (although this has been put as high as 40,000) and covered an area of approximately 9 sq kms.
Its design consists of small groups of buildings which are connected by roads. The central zone covers an area of 3 sq kms and comprises a large square. This area was used by the elite and consisted of administrative and religious buildings as well as the square used for ceremonial occasions. The square is over 12,000 sq metres and was originally covered in stucco, although virtually none of this remains today. It is surrounded by a number of buildings, whose stairs all face the centre of the square. These buildings date from 600 – 1000 AD except for two smaller buildings located at the north which date from 1000-1200 AD. The square also includes building 44, which at 130 metres long is probably the longest series of steps in Mesoamerica. These buildings, which were constructed during four periods of construction, also had additional work carried out. The buildings were used during 600-1000 in relation to the rites carried out in the square.
In the centre of the square is a colonial open Christian chapel with a vault and sacristy, which dates from the late 16th century. Its exact year of construction is not known although a stone is engraved with the date 1539. A number of the stones used for construction are known to have been taken from pre-Hispanic buildings. This construction indicates the importance of the site following the arrival of the Spanish. Also in the square are the remains of a cattle range whose origins go back to the 17th century.
Also in the square is a pyramidal structure although it does not contain any remains of a temple which would usually be associated with this type of building. A stela was found at this location which is now displayed in the on-site museum but has a copy of the stela where it was found.
Leading off from the square in a western direction is a road leading to the Cenote, which measures approximately 100 x 200 metres and which today is used by visitors for swimming and recreation. Continuing along this road is the ball court, which is a common area in all Maya sites.
Leading from the eastern side of the central square is a road 20 metres wide which runs for 400 metres to a building known as the Temple of the Seven Dolls, named after the seven rough figures of clay found there, although other artefacts, which included offerings such as shell, fish bone and obsidian were also found there.
This temple was very important in relation to astronomical functions and at the equinox and solstices, the sun shines directly through its doors and windows.
In front of this building is a platform which contains a stela. It is believed that this was originally covered with stucco but as a result of weathering over the years is now smooth; as in fact are the other 19 stelae on the site.
Dzibilchaltun is also an eco-archaeological park and is a good location at which to observe birds and animals.
The site, like most of the Maya sites, has not been fully excavated and it is expected that much has yet to be discovered, with many parts not yet open to the public.