free trial issue                                        subscribe                                            back issues

Athena Review Vol.2, no.2

Maya Lowland Centers: Uxmal

Uxmal, the largest of the Late Classic Maya sites in the Puuc or hill region of northeast Yucatán, is 58 km south of Mérida and easily reached today by highway. The site’s name probably comes from Oxmal, meaning “thrice built” in the Yucatec Mayan language. During the Late Classic and Early Postclassic periods, from the 8th to 10th centuries AD, Uxmal became the political center of one of the strongest dynasties in northern Yucatán. Uxmal included among its dependencies the nearby Puuc sites of Kabah, Sayil, and Labná, to which it was connected by road (sacbe).

The earliest descriptions of Uxmal are by Count Jean-Frédéric Waldeck in 1836. A few years later in 1841, John L. Stephens and Frederic Catherwood visited Uxmal and, (here as elsewhere) produced relatively accurate, detailed descriptions and site plans. Initial excavations at Uxmal were conducted in 1929, 1936 and 1938 by Franz Blom. In 1943 José A. Erosa began restoration work for the Mexican Ministry of Education, now continued by the Mexican Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (INAH). In 1964-65, M. Foncerrada de Molina studied the sculpture of Uxmal, and a major ceramic sample from the site was analyzed by R.E. Smith (1971). Part of the site has also been surveyed by Alfredo Barrera Rubio (1980). Beyond significant restoration of buildings, most archaeological work has been preliminary, with many questions still unanswered on the overall occupation at this important Maya center.

Uxmal contains a number of large, open plazas, first mapped in detail by Catherwood in 1841. The architecture includes some Chenes elements but is mainly that of the 7th-10th century AD Puuc style, with the upper façades decorated in elaborate mosaic friezes also including various influences from central Mexico. Near the site entrance is the strikingly rounded Pyramid of the Magician (El Adivino), rising 31.5 m high and 85 m wide at the base. On top are the 9th-10th century Temples IV and V, the most recent of five temples built during the Late Classic period which combine the Mayan Chenes and Puuc architectural styles (fig.1). Temple IV, using the front of earlier Temple III as its back wall, was built in the late 9th or early 10th century AD. Its façade is in the Chenes style, with the entrance forming the mouth of a huge “monster mask.” The main doorway lintel has a large Chac mask and several smaller masks with curved, protruding noses. In the final construction phase of the Adivino Temple V was built on top of the Pyramid, whose central room is approached on the west by narrow stairways.

[Fig.1: Chac Masks on the side of Temple IV on the Pyramid of the Magician (photo: Athena Review).]

Just west of the Adivino is The Nunnery Quadrangle (Cuadrángulo de las Monjas), a large (64 x 45 m) plaza surrounded by four elongated, Puuc-style buildings. Similar to a convent cloister, it has a total of 78 rooms, of which 35 open directly onto the central plaza. These were probably residences of priests or palace nobility. The north building is the oldest and largest, built on a 6.7 m platform whose staircase is flanked by two smaller structures or temples. 13 paired compartments each have outer rooms leading to an inner chamber. The doorways are alternately decorated by three superimposed Chac masks, or by Maya huts topped with two-headed serpents. Above the cornice are masks portraying the Mexican rain god Tlaloc.

Next constructed was the south range, whose 20 rooms include eight pairs opening onto the courtyard, and four chambers at either end of the structure which were later additions. Each doorway is surmounted by a Chac mask above a Maya hut whose door served as a statue niche.  The eastern building of the Nunnery sits on a small raised platform, with five doorways leading to paired outer and inner chambers. Chac masks above the central doorway and at the corners of this structure are separated by a lattice background with serpent heads and owl masks. The western range has seven pairs of inner and outer chambers. Over the central doorway is a turtle with a human head, standing on a throne under a feathered canopy. Two crossed serpents suggesting a Mexican influence run along much of the front.

Located south of the Nunnery Quadrangle is the Ballcourt, with high walls typical of 7th century Yucatán. The sides of the 33 by 9 m court held tenoned stone rings, one of which, found during excavation, had an inscribed date of AD 649. The Great Plaza at the south end of the site, dominated by the Governor’s Palace, contains on its north side the small and relatively austere House of the Turtles. This 28 x 10 m building has entrances on the north, east, and west each leading to a pair of rooms. Carved around its frieze is a series of stone turtles shown in simple but effective realism .

The elongated Governor's Palace (101 by 12 m, with a height of 8.5 m)  was considered by Stephens (1843) to be the most impressive ancient Maya structure in all of Yucatán. Built by the ruler Lord Chac in about AD 900-915, it is possibly the latest major building on the site (Kowalski 1987). A masterpiece of the Puuc style, it also retains elements from an earlier Chenes structure visible on the west side. The central building has ten rooms, all entered from the east, including massive central chambers 20 m long, suitable for holding formal audiences. Two smaller outbuildings at either end, each containing five rooms, were connected to the central structure by the tallest known Maya corbeled arches.

The three-part façade of the Governor's Palace includes a lattice pattern to symbolize royal power, and long-nosed Chac mask panels. Overall, the façade is made from an estimated 20,000 individually sculpted mosaic panel elements. Above the main entrance to the central building is a representation of the king seated on his throne before intertwined serpents. The Governor’s Palace, like the Temple of the Magician and the Nunnery Quadrangle, was associated with the cult of the Evening Star, and is aligned with the azimuth of Venus.

The Great Pyramid  beside the Governor’s palace has been fully reconstructed to a height of 30 m. The temple on top is entered through a doorway made, in Chenes style, to resemble a monster’s mouth. The entrance is decorated with macaws, fire symbols, and Chac masks. A tomb was found within the temple.

West of the Great Plaza lies the Cemetery Group , with one restored temple and a collection of carved stelae with well-preserved death’s head symbols and other glyphs showing central Mexican influence. Nearby are the unrestored Group of the Columns, and two other unexcavated courtyard areas, the North and Northeast Groups. Among several smaller quadrangles is the distinctive House of the Pigeons (El Palomar), a palace structure built ca. AD 700-800. Remains of a roof comb (not very typical of the Puuc style) give a notably serrated or niche-like appearance which resembles that of pigeon houses or dovecotes.

Ruins southeast of the Great Plaza include the remains of plaster-lined chultuns probably used to collect water for the city, and the House of the Witch (Pyramid de la Vieja). This grass-covered, unexcavated mound is associated with a statue said to represent the mother of the legendary dwarf who (as recounted by Stephens in 1843) built the Pyramid of the Magician. Further to the south is the unrestored Temple of the Phallus, named for the associated phallic-shaped stones. About 750 m south of the Palace of the Governor is an archway marking the beginning of the sacbé or road which led to Kabah and Labná, both dependencies of Uxmal during its Late Classic peak.

In the Early Postclassic, with the ascendance of Chichén Itzá under Toltec rule (AD 1000-1250), architectural evidence at Uxmal shows a decline in growth and prosperity. The site later became allied with Mayapán in the Late Postclassic. Parts of Uxmal’s Late Classic and Postclassic history are related in the early colonial Maya Books of Chilam Balam. Some details were also recorded by the Spanish missionaries Fray Alonso de Ponce and Fray Diego López de Cogolludo. The Chilam Balam of Maní records the migration to Uxmal of a group of Xiu Maya, led by Ah Zuitok Tutul Xiu in Katun 2 Ahau (, between AD 987 and 1007. Along with the Itzá and the Cocom lineages of Mayapán, the Xiu Maya formed the “League of Mayapán” in the 12th century. Uxmal, however, was by then no longer prominent enough to join this confederation, which collapsed in the 13th century when Mayapán destroyed Chichén Itzá. Although Uxmal apparently remained neutral during this conflict, Xiu princes were held hostage in Mayapán until 1441 when Ah Xupán Xiu sacked that city. The Xiu then abandoned Uxmal and moved to Maní about the time of the Spanish conquest in 1526-1546 .

Athena Review Image Archive™   | Guide to Archaeology on the Internet   |   free trial issue |  subscribe  |  back issues

Main index of Athena Review   |   Subject Index   |   Travel Pages   |  Galleries and Museums  |  Ad rates |  Current issue index

Copyright  ©  1996-2003    Athena Publications, Inc.  (All Rights Reserved).