Uxmal is stunning right from the entrance at the spectacular oval "Pyramid of the Sorcerer". Followed by amazing stone carving, especially the serpents, in the "Quadrangle of the Nuns" and "Governor's Palace", massive pyramids to climb and the beautiful pierced stonework roof comb of the "Dovecote".
The Englishman Frederick Catherwood was an avid explorer of ancient antiquities and came to Central America with his friend John Lloyd Stephens, an American lawyer equally fascinated by ancient civilisations. They had both explored historic European and Egyptian locations such as Rome, Jerusalem and Thebes but in 1839 they travelled together to discover the lost world of the Maya.1
Catherwood's meticulous drawings - he was an architect by training - remain a highly valuable resource for those studying these ancient sites.
The entrance to Uxmal is probably the most impressive of any of the sites we visited. Immediately one is confronted by the massive "Pyramid of the Sorcerer" - a spectacular 35m high oval-shaped pyramid. The name comes from a mistranslation of "shaman".
The orientation of the pyramid is east-west - the broad great staircase is on the east face. The staircase on the opposite side is much steeper and leads to two temples, one above the other.
The pyramid and its temples are covered with many Chaac masks. a line ascending either side of the staircase, on the corners and one set in the stairs just before the lower temple.
Work was being carried out on the temples so we couldn't climb this pyramid.
The area on the west side of the Pyramid of the Sorcerer is called the Quadrangle of the Birds because of some small bird sculptures on one building. It dates from between the eighth and twelfth centuries A.D.
The south building is very unusual for Mayan architecture. On both north and south sides of the building is a colonnaded arcade with classic Puuc columns and square capitals.
More classic Puuc architectural elements can be seen all around. North of the Bird Quadrangle is a building which has been called the Nunnery Annex, because behind is the Quadrangle of the Nuns. This building has the most elegant, tall, corbel-vaulted passage.
There is another classic Puuc corbel arch leading west from the Bird Quadrangle to the Quadrangle of the Nuns.
The Quadrangle of the Nuns dates rom 900-1000 A.D. and has some very interesting carving: snakes, faces, Chaac masks, human figures and geometrical designs.
We entered the quadrangle via the south staircase and arched passage - typical red hand prints on the walls. The quadrangle of buildings was built on an elevated platform and would have been visible from far away.
The north building has a wide central staircase, at the level of the platform flanked by large rooms fronted by four square columns.
The front facade appears to have been plain on the lower half, even in antiquity,2 while the upper portion was completely decorated from end to end with a stack of masks above each doorway which project above the roof line. The mask stacks differ in style and complexity, the most complex is that above the central doorway. between the stacks are geometric carvings and small sculptures. At the east and west end of the building a typical stack of Chaac masks on the corners, only the east end stack is preserved.
The north building has eleven doorways, the central one much wider than the others. Only six stacks remain to any degree: largish ones over doorways 2,4,6 (centre) and 11 and a smaller ones over doorways 3 and 5 - counting from the left (west). Each doorway leads to two rooms, one in front and another behind. The building also has doors on the east and west ends which also lead to two rooms.2
The central doorway mask stack once had four Chaac masks surmounted by a mask of Tlaloc, the Teotihuacan rain god - one of the most widely depicted gods in Mexico. He is characterised by goggle eyes and fangs. Some of the Chaac masks have rows of curved teeth, others a set of large fangs.
Above doorways 3 and 5 are delightful sculptures of the entrances to domestic huts, complete with thatched roofs. Above the hut entrances three double-headed snakes are carved - one whose body is actually hidden behind the thatch.
Below the hut on the stack above doorway five is a small sculpture of back-to-back jaguars with their tails entwined. These types of sculptures adorn the facade of the buildings at Uxmal. Many of the smaller ones are made from sculpting the end of a stone plug which is slotted into the facade but from which the sculpture projects.
The mask stack above doorway 11 is topped by the best-preserved mask of Tlaloc - big eyes, round ears and a moustache!
The east building of the quadrangle is a beautiful exercise in geometric carving and symmetry.
A shallow flight of steps lead up to the building which has five doorways. As with all the buildings in this quadrangle, the facade is plain at the level of the doorways with a decorative frieze above. However, in the east building this is restrained and elegant.
The decorative frieze consists of a background of carved crosses on which are superimposed, above each doorway apart from the central one, a trapezoidal arrangement of double-headed serpents with a small owl head sculpture centralised at the upper level of each.
Above the central doorway there is a stack of three Chaac masks surmounted by three double-headed serpents and there are vertical mask stacks at each corner.
The decoration and design of the three masks on the stacks and above the central doorway are exactly the same. For instance the top mask has fangs and crosses on the eyebrows, the eyes formed by square blocks on either side.
The five doorways each lead to two rooms, one behind the other. The rooms accessed through the central doorway also have a shrine room at each end.3
The south corner stack of masks on the front face of the east building is the only one where the curved trunks are preserved to any degree - they curve in quite a different manner to those at Kabah.
The south building of the quadrangle stands on the same level as the courtyard; the east and west buildings of the quadrangle are higher on the platform and the north building higher still. The unrecessed doorways are surmounted by hut and mask sculptures. Perhaps the hut doorways once held small statues. The masks do not have the usual curving trunk of Chaac but something that does resemble a moustache so maybe Tlaloc?
In contrast the frieze of the west building is exuberantly carved from end to end. Again, the central doorway is wider than the others but it is surmounted not by a mast stack but a canopied alcove with a throne.
Either side of the central doorway are three further, narrower doors. The end doorways (1 and 7) have a hut and mask sculpture above, the next inner doorways (2 and 6) a stack of three Chaac masks and the doorways next to the central doorway (3 and 5) a niche for a sculpture. There is a stack of three Chaac masks at each corner. Each doorway leads again to a room with another behind.4
The most appealing feature of the frieze is the two head-to-tail snakes which wind their way across almost its full width.
These are rattlesnakes and their bodies twist in and out of the other decorative elements, sometimes behind a panel, other times their bodies horizontally above or below, and every now and then intertwining vertically.
The rattle of one of the snakes is beautifully preserved. Only one serpent head remains and from within its jaws a masked human head emerges, the recurring symbol of rebirth.
The Quadrangle of the Nuns must have been awe-inspiring when Uxmal was at its peak. As to what went on here, no one seems to know for sure. Perhaps each of the cell-like rooms housed a priestess, or was a shrine to a particular deity, or esteemed ancestor shrines, or royal rooms - whatever function they had, they were obviously an important part of Uxmal.
South of the Quadrangle of the Nuns is the ball court. By the time we'd got to Uxmal, we'd seen many ball courts and this one was fairly typical.
Two parallel structures separated by a playing space 10m by 34m. The structures each have a shallow sloping section at the edge of the playing space backed by a steeper, deep, high structure which may have been used by spectators.
In the the centre of the wall, on the playing side, would have been a stone ring through which, it is thought, the heavy rubber ball was meant to be projected. Since hands and feet were not allowed to be used, only hips, arms and legs protected by thick padding, this would seem to be rather difficult. Only one of the rings remains.
There is another ball court ring of quite different design in Merida, unlike any other ballcourt ring that we saw. It is much thicker, with a relatively smaller hole and with a kneeling figure carved along one side.
South again is the House of the Turtles, oriented east-west, 30m by 10m. Quite restrained it has a beautiful colonnaded upper level decorated with turtles. The tightly packed columns are reminiscent of the wooden poles used in the walls of village homes.
Doors on the east and west faces of the House of the Turtles lead to two rooms, one behind the other. A central southern doorway leads to three rooms, one behind the other with a possible north doorway in the north wall, opposite the south doorway. This type of room arrangement seems to be very common at Uxmal. There seems to be some confusion as to the number of doorways. A north doorway, for instance, is clearly visible, but questioned by experts.
The sculptures of turtles march around the cornice of the building, the sole decorative elements. It is thought these mean that the building has something to do with the Mayan preoccupation with water.
Between Catherwood's two expeditions in 1839 and 1842 "... the whole of the centre had fallen in, and the interior was blocked up with the ruins of the fallen roof."1
The House of the Turtles sits at the north west corner of an elevated platform on which the Governor's Palace is located. Both date from 900 1000 A.D. The Great Platform is 187m by 170m and up to 12m high.
The palace is around 100m long and 12m wide, its main facade facing east, and is considered to be one of the greatest Mesoamerican buildings. The whole building is raised above the level of the great platform, reinforcing its importance within the complex of buildings.
The building is divided into three sections by two corbel-arched passages, recessed from the front and rear facades. The north and south sections each have two recessed doorways, the central section has seven, and the central of these is wider than the others. There is also a doorway on the north and south faces. The two passages are open and have no doorways so that the three sections of the building are separated.
The doorways are all double-recessed, another indication of importance. The central section of the building is composed of rooms one behind the other, two entered from each of the end two doorways on each side, and one set of two long rooms entered by the central three doorways. The end sections of the building have a slightly more complex suite of rooms. When Catherwood explored Uxmal in 1839 all of the wooden door lintels had already decayed.1
The decorated frieze runs around the whole of the building at the upper level and is intricately carved with over 15,000 mosaic pieces.5 Chaac masks are stacked on the corners and cover the whole of the east-facing frieze, running diagonally up to a line of masks on the cornice above a sitting figure then diagonally back down, the sequence repeated across all facade.5 The north, south and west friezes have mask stacks and geometrically arranged patterns on a latticework background.
The carving above the central doorway is very elaborate and believed to be the greatest of the Uxmal rulers, Chaak. The sky band bodies of the double-headed serpents which form the background to this carving are decorated with images of objects in the sky such as constellations or planets. There are eight double-headed serpent bars, clearly seen from Frederick Catherwood's drawings from his expeditions in 1839.1
In front of the palace on the east side is a shrine which had an inverted conical stone, now tilted almost onto its side.
Beyond this is a platform with steps on all four sides leading to a double-headed jaguar throne. The two tails are wrapped around the centre of the throne and curled on top.
The paws are beautifully modelled, as are the faces and ears.
Over 900 offerings were found including jade earrings, spear heads and flint and obsidian knives.
The Great Pyramid, dating from the eighth century, sits at the south west corner of the Great Platform. Only the northern face of the pyramid has been restored. Measuring 80m long it rises 30m in a series of nine levels to the Temple of the Macaws.
The grand staircase is very wide and very steep. Near the top a platform juts out from the centre of the steps.
The Temple of the Macaws at the top is unusual for Uxmal in that the lower portion of the wall is decorated with stone carving. Once there were three doorways but now only the central door remains, the other two have been filled in, probably to help maintain structural integrity.
There are Chaac mask stacks at each corner. One has as unusual stone plug at the side of the trunk. None of the other masks have this - perhaps it is a misplaced ear plug. Otherwise it looks awfully like a tusk!
A type of elephant did once roam Central and South America but it is said to have become extinct many thousands of years ago.
Also, between the jaws of the masks are carved human heads.
The carving on the facade includes representations of entwined serpents and many reliefs of macaws, from which the temple derives its name.
Within the central doorway of the temple the room has been blocked off with a wall but a very well-preserved Chaac mask step can be seen, much like those at the Codz Poop in Kabah.
West of the Great Pyramid there was once another cluster of palace-like buildings surrounding a courtyard. Only one of these is left to be seen today with substantial remains of a long building with what must once have been a beautiful roof comb. It is formed of nine stepped pierced triangles of stonework, the building nicknamed the House of the Doves for its similarity to a dovecote.
Each of the triangles once supported a sculpture of a human figure.
The structure has a central corbel-arched passageway. On either side on the south of the building, facing the courtyard, were a number of corbel-vaulted rooms.
From the Great Pyramid there is an excellent view of the House of the Doves. More structures can be seen poking up above the forest canopy - it would take some time to explore what has already been excavated and restored!