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Athena Review Vol.2, no.1

Maya sites in Quintana Roo: Tulúm

Tulúm, meaning "wall" or "fortification" in Yucatec Mayan, is located on the east coast of the Yucatán peninsula in Quintana Roo, near the southern tip of Cozumel Island. A popular tourist spot near beach resorts, Tulúm is easily reached by highway from Cancún, 128 km to the north.

Setting and Chronology: Tulúm was probably glimpsed as an active, occupied site in during Juan de Grijalva's 1518 expedition when a brief coastal exploration was made south of Cozumel. Juan Díaz, chaplain of the expedition, reported "a very large town," and "the highest tower they had seen" in the area of Tulúm, Xelhá and Tancah (Fuentes 1963). Largest of these three coastal sites was Tulúm on the edge of 12 meter-high cliffs, with the Castillo (figs.1,2) overlooking the sea at the only rocky promontory on the Quintana Roo shoreline.

All structural and ceramic evidence at Tulúm, as well as its important corpus of murals and relief sculpture, date from the Middle and Late Postclassic (AD 1200-1520), corresponding to the Hocuba and Tases phases, as defined at Mayapán (Smith 1971). The site's chronology appears complicated by reused Classic inscriptions brought from neighboring towns. Stela 1, found at Tulúm by Stephens and Catherwood in 1843 with an Early Classic date of (AD 564), probably came to Tulúm from nearby Xelhá. Another reused stela of AD 761 ( originated only a few km to the north at Tancah, a site whose pottery shows continuous Late Preclassic through Late Postclassic occupation.  At Tulúm, the earliest ceramics date from the Middle Postclassic Hocaba phase (Smith and Gifford 1965). Besides possible Puuc-derived roof combs, pecked masonry, and colonnades, there are few other signs of direct Classic period influence.  

The site's oldest buildings include an earlier version of the Castillo, and structures with multiple columns such as the House of the Columns, and the House of the Halach Uinik or "Primary Lord."  After AD 1250, Tulúm became a commercial port, probably settled by a group of Putún Maya trading in alliance with the new Maya capital at Mayapán. The population within the walled town itself of Tulúm may have been only several hundred persons.

[Fig.1: Plan of Tulúm (after Lothrop 1924).]

History of Exploration: After probable sighting by Grijalva's 1518 expedition, Tulúm may also have been mentioned in the 1549 Tax List of Yucatán (Gates 1937). The site then remained in obscurity until rediscovered by Juan José Gálvez in about 1840. Shortly thereafter it was visited by Stephens and Catherwood, as the last major place they described (1843). Catherwood made a number of excellent drawings of Tulúm's major structures, plus a site plan. Excavations began in 1913 by Sylvanus G. Morley and George P. Howe, and continued from 1916 to 1922 under the Carnegie Institution. Later excavations were conducted by Miguel Angel Fernandez (1938 to 1940s), Ignacio Marquina in 1951, and William Sanders in 1955 and 1960. In the 1970s Arthur Miller (1982) studied the site's mural paintings.

Site Description: The many visible structures at Tulúm date from the Postclassic, with most rebuilt in the Late Postclassic using methods such as beam and mortar construction similar to that at contemporary Mayapán. Many of Tulúm's buildings are unusually small, with low doorways. The masonry at Tulúm is relatively crude and thickly plastered, with many of the façades built with a strong negative batter or outward slope (figs.3,4).

The Great Wall on the three landward sides (N,W,S) of Tulúm encloses an area of 385 by 165 m. The masonry Wall, 2 to 5 m high and averaging 6 m thick, has watchtowers on its NW and SW corners. Access is gained through five narrow, corbel arch gateways, with guardhouses on either side of the NE gateway, and small rooms spaced irregularly along each of the walls. Roads (sacbeob) lead out into the countryside from each of the five gates.

Within the enclosure, Tulúm is laid out along a main street axis, as a planned town. Tulúm's main plaza, the recinto interior, is within a low masonry wall near the edge of the cliff, centering around the Castillo (fig.2). This, the largest building at the site, was built over the central portion of an earlier colonnaded structure with beam and mortar roof. The wings of this still extend N and S beyond the platform. Most of what survives today dates from the 12th or 13th century AD.

[Fig.2: The Castillo at Tulúm ,viewed from the west (photo: Athena Review).]

 The two-room, vaulted temple on the 7.5 m-high platform of the Castillo has a doorway with two round columns, later modified into feathered serpents like those at Mayapán and Chichén Itzá. Three niches above the Castillo doorway each held stucco relief decorations, with a statue in the center of the Diving or Descending God.  These unusual figures, also known at Cobá and Sayil, are commonly thought, based on their apparent antennae and insect-like torsos, to represent the bee gods Ah Muzencab, known from the Madrid Codex.

Just north of the Castillo, the smaller Temple of the Diving God (fig.3) is named for a stucco relief of this deity in a niche above its western doorway. The exterior walls were painted with images of sun, rain, and maize gods framed by snakes, in a mixture of Mayan and Mixteca-Puebla styles typical of Late Postclassic Tulúm. The interior back wall is also covered with mural paintings. Among the motifs are a large feathered rattlesnake head and a richly adorned god with seashells, possibly Chalchihuitlicue ("Jade Water"), the consort of Tlaloc, the Mexican rain god, and goddess of the sea.

[Fig.3: Temple of the Diving God at Tulúm (photo: Athena Review).]

The Temple of the Frescoes or Structure 16 (fig.4), located west of the Castillo, has a small colonnaded lower gallery with murals in the Mixteca-Puebla style somewhat resembling that of the Paris Codex, and dated to about AD 1450 (A. Miller 1982). The paintings show the Maya deity Itzamná or Lizard House, and the moon goddess Ix Chel holding two small Chacs or rain deities. The central theme of these murals is maize and associated ceremonies of death and rebirth. The interior shrine of the lower gallery is the oldest part of the temple. Outside, the temple frieze has three niches, with two surviving stucco reliefs including a central Diving God. On the corners are low relief Chac masks of late types (without the protruding nose) combined with Mixteca elements. In front of the temple is a small altar and stela with a short count date of Katun 2 Ahau (AD 1263).

A cluster of temples stands on a promontory near the north wall of the site. In 1924 Lothrop observed that the altar inside the small Temple of the Wind (Structure 45), built on the circular platform, was still being used for religious purposes. Nearby, a small shrine aligned with a break in the offshore reef may have been used as a beacon to signal trading canoes. There is also a break in the cliff between this promontory and the Castillo which formed a natural harbor. Along the north wall is the House of the Cenote (Structure 35), built on the edge of a small sinkhole providing essential fresh water. Also within the walls are house platforms (Structures 26, 33, 37, 38, 46-53), ceremonial platforms (Structures 8, 17), small shrines (Structures 15, 39-44), and tombs (Structures 13, 19).

[Fig.4: Temple of the Frescoes at Tulúm (photo: Athena Review).]

The Murals of Tulúm: The stylistically complex wall paintings found in various buildings, usually blue, red, and yellow figures outlined in black, show Maya deities portrayed with strong Mixtec and Central Mexican influences. Some paintings also show Mexican figures such as the Aztec war god Tezcatlipoca, prominent about the time (AD 1450-1500) these murals were painted (M. Miller 1986). Similarities between the Tulúm murals and the style of the Paris and Madrid codices led Thompson (1972) to conclude that these manuscripts may have been written in the area of Tulúm. Arthur Miller (1974) has found many symbols of birth and rebirth in these wall paintings. Umbilical cord motifs are seen in the Temple of the Diving God, Temple of the Frescoes associated with Ix Chel, and the House of Halach Uinik. The round platform of the Temple of the Wind may also symbolize birth, as an aspect of Venus as the Morning Star, reborn after passage through the Underworld.

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