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Athena Review Vol.2, no.2

Puuc, Chenes, and Rio Bec styles of the Late Classic Maya

First-time visitors to Maya sites in northern Yucatán will probably be struck by the distinctive look of the Late Classic buildings in the Puuc architectural style (Puuc is the word for "hill" in the Yucatec Mayan language.) Ancient Maya builders used mosaic elements of limestone masonry to create elaborate building façades, combining geometric repetition and symmetry with symbols including masks of Chacs or Mayan rain gods. This decorative style of AD 600-950, named for the hilly Puuc region along the Ticul fault line of northern Campeche and northwest Yucatán, is found between Edzná and Chichén Itzá, centered around Uxmal and Labná (fig.1).

The Puuc façades are closely related to the slightly earlier Chenes and Río Bec styles originating in lowland Maya regions to the south, especially in the use of masks and other symbolic motifs. Geometric elements and techniques of the Puuc style, however, were also incorporated from more distant areas including Oaxaca, Veracruz, and the Valley of Mexico. Similarities between Puuc architecture and contemporary use of geometric mosaic veneer masonry at Mitla and other Zapotec sites in the Valley of Oaxaca show increasing contact between Late Classic and Postclassic Maya and Mexican cultures, culminating in the Toltec rule at Chichén Itzá in ca. AD 1000.By AD 750, the Puuc style proliferated from the palaces and temples of Uxmal, Kabah, Labná, and Sayil to Chichén Itzá and Yaxuná, all flourishing as local or regional Late Classic centers. The latest use of the Puuc style from AD 900 to 1000 overlaps the first Toltec structures at Chichén Itzá, where Mayan Chac masks at times (as in the Temple of the Warriors) share temple façades with Toltec serpents and eagles.

[Fig.1: The northern Maya lowlands, showing the Río Bec (tan), Chenes (red), and Puuc (yellow) architectural styles.]

Most distinctive about Puuc architecture is its exterior surface, fashioned from a mosaic of cut limestone elements tenoned into the core with cement. Often the lower portions of the walls were left plain, decorating only the upper level or cornice. Puuc-style buildings create a uniquely dynamic impression due to varying amounts of repetition, symmetry, and symbolism on their façades. The basic materials used in the Puuc style were prefabricated limestone mosaic elements. Most are small, squarish plates about 20 cm wide and a few cm thick carved with surface and/or openwork relief, whose symbolism shows strong influences from the Chenes and Río Bec regions. These were applied by simplified, mass production techniques also used during the Late Classic in central Mexico and Oaxaca. Besides  a background lattice made up of thousands of “X” forms, common Puuc mosaic elements include T-shapes, serrated disks, stylized serpent heads, and stepped frets. The latter were used as protruding “Chac noses,” resembling the curved nostrils of God B in the Maya Codices, and thought to represent the Maya rain god. Chac masks abound in the buildings in the Puuc region, such as Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil and Labna (fig.2). Other typical elements of Puuc façades are flat pilasters, usually repeated in short horizontal rows. More fully sculptural heads and headdresses also occur, as on the Governor’s Palace and in the Nunnery Complex at Uxmal.

Fig.2: Wall section on the Temple of the Magician (Adivino) at Uxmal, showing superimposed Chac masks in center and along corner, and X-form lattice at bottom (photo: Athena Review).

Many of the roots of the Puuc style’s ornamentation and complex iconography lie in the Río Bec and Chenes styles from Maya zones to the south. Their most notable traits include “monster mask” façades on building fronts, with doorways like gaping mouths, a trait that probably has links back to large architectural stucco masks of the Late Preclassic. Openwork relief elements of stepped frets and “X” forms predominate in both the Chenes and Río Bec styles, along with stiff sculptural forms, as in the Temple at Hochob. In the Puuc style, such complex openwork forms were adapted to mass production methods for a number of late Classic palaces in northern Yucatán by recreating them out of simpler mosaic elements, a masonry technique shared with central Mexican sites such as Mitla. The Río Bec style occurs in southeast Campeche and southwest Quintana Roo, in a transitional zone between Petén rain forests and scrub plains of Yucatán. The nearly 40 Río Bec sites (many still unexcavated) include Río Bec, Becán, Xpuhil, and Chicanná, some on chicle plantations.

Río Bec architecture employed towers topped by false temples, emulating the high pyramids at Tikal, El Mirador and other Petén sites. Usually both the upper and lower portions of Río Bec buildings are decorated. One of the largest Río Bec sites is at Chicanná, 3 km SW of Becán, which includes five groups of mounds and buildings. Structure I has endtowers imitating Tikal’s pyramids, while Structure II has its main façade completely covered with mosaic masks. Similarly, Structure I at Xpuhil has three solid masonry false towers, and doorways flanked by large serpent heads in profile, with open jaws at the sides of the entrance.

Late Classic sites in the Chenes zone of Campeche combine large masks and openwork relief over the entire façade ,but lack the false towers of Río Bec. Zoomorphic portals in the Chenes region show a tripartite foundation consisting of a central body flanked by two wings, as in Buildings I and II at Hochob. Other examples in northern Campeche include Xtampak, Tabasqueño, and to a lesser extent, Edzná.  In the Puuc region, Chenes monster masks occur at Uxmal at the door of Temple IV of the Adivino. and in modified form, on the Monjas façade at Chichén Itzá Chenes-style decor often uses stone heavily overlaid with stucco, in contrast to the Puuc style’s use of stone with a thin layer of plaster. Most mosaic parts of Chenes masks, including eyes, are made up of openwork relief stepped frets. This contrasts to Puuc mosaic masks, which usually employ a variety of precut relief elements including round disks for eyes (fig.3).

Fig.3: A continuous series of Chac mask mosaics share round, interchangeable eyes, from the Late Classic Puuc style façade of the Codz Po’op at Kabah, Yucatán (photo: Athena Review).

Lacking inscribed stelae, the Chenes and Río Bec styles are difficult to date  more precisely than within the Late and Terminal Classic time frame (AD 600-1000). While there were certainly mutual influences throughout this period, it appears that major iconographic elements originating in the Petén flowed north, with Puuc constructions adapting elements of the Chenes and Río Bec mask façades and openwork relief. These were then recast, in the Puuc region, into smaller, modified versions using methods shared with the geometric, mosaic veneer masonry used at Mitla and other Mexican sites.  All such architectural evidence indicates that, during the Late Classic, northern Yucatán was a major cultural crossroads between the Petén and Mexico.

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