Tuesday, August 28, 2012

San Bartolo -- Home of the Oldest Maya Murals

In the northeast of Guatemala's Department of Petén is the site of San Bartolo, about 28 miles away from the site of Tikal. This site is now known to be the home of the oldest murals painted by the maya. After its discovery, San Bartolo was written on  by National Geographic, published in their April 2001 issue.

Ancient History
San Bartolo is classified as a Formative period as well as a Classic period site. Multiple monuments exist, along with other items, that date from the Late Classic period. However, the majority of the site's buildings are Middle Preclassic buildings that people built over during the Late Preclassic period. It has been theorized that the San Bartolo was a living community from around 400 BC to around 400 AD.

At some point in the site's history, looters found out about the site and began to make various trips to it. Before its rediscovery, about 200 looting trenches were dug at San Bartolo.

Eventually, the site was officially rediscovered approximately eleven years ago, by an archaeologist named William Saturno -- one of the Peabody Museum's researchers -- in March 2001. He was working for the museum's Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, a project being directed by Ian Graham. Working with authorities, Saturno -- along with people such as Ian Graham and David Stuart -- began to work on the site.

San Bartolo extends to about half a mile in all directions. Over 100 stone structures have been discovered by Saturno and the people working with him at the site.

The main group of buildings at San Bartolo is called the Ventanas Group. Within the Ventanas group is a central plaza. A building named Structure 20 -- the tallest building of the group -- is on the north side of the central plaza.

Starting at the Ventanas Group and heading in a southerly direction is a causeway. East of the Ventanas Group is the Pinturas Group. Not as big as the Ventanas Group, this group has a pyramid about 85 feet tall that was built somewhere between 300 BC and 50 BC.

In an earlier building -- Structure 1 -- within a pyramid located in the Pinturas Group, Saturno accidentally discovered murals in a looter's tunnel. (This tunnel showed the pyramid was the last of about six previous buildings built on top of each other.) These murals, dating between 100 BC and 50 BC -- using the radio-carbon dating method --, are currently the oldest known murals in the ancient Maya world.

Another discovery was made at San Bartolo in 2005. The discovery was of another group of structures.

Not far from San Bartolo, a painted text has been discovered. This text appears to be similar to an undeciphered kind of Epi-Olmec (later Olmec) writing system found in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. It is thought that the painted text was written between 300 BC and 200 BC.


"Historical Dictionary of Mesoamerica"; By Walter R. T. Witschey, Clifford T. Brown; 2011

"The Ancient Maya"; Robert. J. Sharer, Loa P. Traxler; 2006

"Oldest Mayan Mural Found by Peabody Researcher: Jungle Ordeal Leads to Surprise Treasure"; Alvin Powell; March 21, 2002

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Chicanná -- An Ancient Retreat for Elites

Author's note: I was able to find a map of Chicanná, but not all of the buildings were given a name or described. It is this map, which can be seen in Moon Yucatan Guide (see the References section), that I reference in the article.

Chicanná is an ancient Maya town that is located in the Mexican state of Campeche, in the Yucatan Peninsula.  North of the Calakmul Biosphere reserve, this site is located west of Becán and Xpujil, by around one mile. Its' name has been translated in various ways, including "House of the Mouth with Snakes", "House of the Snake Jaws" and "House of the Serpent Mouth".

It is understood that the height of this site occurred during the Late Classic period. It is thought to be a "retreat" for elites in association with the site of Becán. Discovered in 1966,  it was named Chicanná after one of its buildings, Structure II.

Architectural Style
Chicanná's architecture is a combination of Chenes and Río Bec styles. Structures are set in groups. The structures at Chicanná would have had decorated roofcombs with themes of gods and rulers, though many do not anymore.

Chicanná has a central plaza around which are four or five structures, with a rectangular structure on its east side. Structure I borders the west side of the plaza, Structure III is on the north side, on the south side is Structure IV  Structure II borders the plaza's east side.

Structure II (in some sources, Estructura II or Temple 2) at Chicanná possesses a Chenes-style monster-mask door -- in which the square doorway is the mouth -- with fangs. This door, the specific reason for Chicanná's name, may be a representation of Itzamna, as it seems to have crossed eyes and disc-like earrings. Structure II is also decorated with vertical rows of mosaic stone Chac masks (Chac being a rain deity), which still have some of their original red paint.

To the northeast of the plaza is a structure that the map titles Chultún. West of the plaza is a structure, and to the plaza's southwest is Structure XI.

Further west from the plaza, is Structure XX, which has three structures to its left. Dating from around 840 AD, Structure XX has levels of stone heads, sometimes thought to be Chac or Itzamná, a creator god. Inside Structure XX, some interior stucco artwork still exists, which includes depictions of human faces. In the Moon Yucatan Guide, the building is referred to as a temple-residence.

Southeast of the plaza is Structure VI, which still has some of its roofcomb. Structure VI has a smaller structure to its southwest and another one to its southeast.

Today, people have to pay to see the site of Chicanná -- as of 2011 it costs M$37 to get in at a ticket booth north of the site. Also north of the site -- just across the street -- is the Chicanná Ecovillage Resort.


"Cancún, Cozumel and the Yucatán"; Greg Benchwick; 2010

"Yucatan Pocket Adventures"; Bruce Conord, June Conord; 2005

"Explorer's Guide Mexico's Aztec & Maya Empires"; Zain Deane; 2011

"Moon Yucatan Guide"; Liza Prado, Gary Chandler; 2009

"Karen Brown's Mexico: Exceptional Places to Stay & Itineraries"; Clare Brown, Karen Brown, Jane Stevenson Day; 2006

"Mexico Handbook"; Patrick Maher; 2000

"The Rough Guide to Cancun and the Yucatan: Includes the Maya Sites of Tabasco & Chiapas"; Zora O'Neill; 2011

Saturday, August 18, 2012

El Petén Architecture

The El Petén style of architecture is one of the approximately five styles of ancient Maya architecture that archaeolgists have classified. It is older than the Río Bec style -- which it influenced and the Chenes style. For those looking for El Petén style sites, Xunatunich, Tikal, Uaxactun and El Mirador are several such sites.

Various structural features common to El Petén style architecture include prominent staircases, stepped terraces, gently curving corners and tall, somewhat slender pyramids -- some nearing 250 feet in height. The interior of El Petén style buildings is narrow and has arched ceilings. Stucco masks are a common decorative feature.

"Crests" or roofcombs are also a feature of El Petén. These are tall standalone wall-like features that are set on the back wall of a construction.


Southwest Missouri State University: Maya Architectural Styles

"The Maya World"; Demetrio Sodi M.; 1976

The Free Dictionary: Encyclopedia: Roof Comb

Monday, August 13, 2012

Río Bec Architecture

Río Bec is a term used to describe one of the approximately five different kinds of ancient Maya architecture. A style that combines styles of the northern and the central lowlands, the Río Bec style is named after a site located in Quintana Roo, a Mexican state in the eastern side of the Yucatan Peninsula. For those in search of Río Bec style sites, a few examples include Becan, Chicanná, Hormiguero, Xpuhil and of course the site of Río Bec.

Río Bec architecture developed in the Late Classic period (about 600 AD to 900 AD), and was influenced by the El Petén style of architecture. It is related to the Puuc style -- which came after Río Bec -- and Chenes style -- which also predates the Puuc style.

One of the most distinctive features of Río Bec style buildings are its false towers. These false towers -- or very steep sided pyramids, filled with rubble. On top of these towers are "temples" -- also full of rocks -- that have false doors for entrances. Leading up to the false doors are steps too steep to be used. Decoration-wise, the Río Bec false towers' foundations have mosaics, and the tower-top temples have Chenes style facades and monster masks.

"Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World"; Lynn V. Foster; 2005

Southwest Missouri State University: Maya Architectural Styles

"The Ancient Maya"; Robert J. Sharer, Loa P. Traxler; 2005

"Mesoamerica's Ancient Cities: Aerial Views of Pre-Columbian Ruins in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras"; William M. Ferguson, Richard E. W. Adams; 2001

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Chenes Architecture

The word Chenes is used to describe one of the approximately five different kinds of ancient Maya architecture that archaeologists have classified. Chenes is a lowland Maya kind of architecture that can be found in sites located in the southern area of the Yucatan Peninsula, in the Chenes and Río Bec regions, north of the central lowlands. Examples of Chenes style architecture include such places as Dzibilnocac, Hochob, Edzná, Chicanná and part of Uxmal's Pyramid of the Magician.

Chenes architecture occurred during the Classic period. According to Exploring the Life, Myth, and Art of the Maya, the style came about in the Late Classic period, a sub-section of the Classic period. Historical Dictionary of Mesoamerica states the style was used in both Late Classic and Terminal Classic times (the Terminal Classic period being the sub-section of the Classic period that came after the Late Classic). Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America: An Encyclopedia states that the Chenes style started around the beginning of the 600s AD (around the beginning of the Late Classic) and continued into the beginning of the 800s AD (around the beginning of the Terminal Classic). The Chenes architectural style was an influence in certain kinds of Puuc architecture and is also related to Río Bec architecture.

Features: What Chenes Structures Look Like
Chenes makes use of carved mosaic facades on both the upper and lower facades of the structure. The mosaic decorations took the form of spirals as well as distorted beings. Chenes style facades are commonly one story high.

Another major feature of Chenes architecture is the practice of framing of doors with monster masks -- the actual doorway making the "mouth". The mask possibly represented a sky deity or a mountain deity -- sometimes identified as Chac (God B), the rain god. It is understood that the mask doorway indicated an entrance to the spiritual world.

Foundations of Chenes buildings are also of note. Unlike other styles, Chenes style buildings have shorter foundations.

Features: What They Don't Look Like
The Chenes style also is known for what it doesn't incorporate. It doesn't use columns, and glyphic inscriptions (including stelae) are not often used.


Southwest Missouri State University: Theme #17 Maya Art and Architecture

"A Dictionary of Archaeology"; Ian Shaw, Robert Jameson; 2002

"Prehistoric Mesoamerica"; Richard E. W. Adams; 2005

"Exploring the Life, Myth, and Art of the Maya"; Timothy Laughton; 2011

"Pre-Columbian America: Empires of the New World"; Kathleen Kuiper; 2010

"The Ancient Maya"; Robert J. Sharer, Loa. P Traxler; 2005

"Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World"; Lynn V. Foster; 2005

Southwest Missouri State University: Maya Architectural Styles

"Historical Dictionary of Mesoamerica"; Walter R. T. Witschey, Clifford T. Brown; 2011

"Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America: An Encyclopedia"; Susan Toby Evans, David L. Webster; 2013