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Carved lintel, Yaxchilan, Mexico
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Mexico: Yaxchilan
April/May 2012

Yaxchilan - the ball game


Yaxchilan is a fabulous large Mayan site with many impressive ruins to explore, famous for intricately carved lintels in doorways and a wonderfully evocative depiction of the ball game.

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Location of Yaxchilan.
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Plan of Yaxchilan marking some of the larger structures; not to scale, not all structures marked.

Mesoamerican civilisation is divided into pre-Classic, upto about AD 300, Classic, up to AD 800-900 and post-Classic from then to the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century.

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 Approaching Yaxchilan on the river a pyramid can be seen hidden in the trees.
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Yaxchilan had its origins in pre-classic times but it was as a Classic-era city that it saw its greatest development between AD 400 and AD 800, becoming the regional capital when K'inich Tatb'u Skull II came to the throne in 526. Under the rule of Shield Jaguar IV in the late seventh century A.D. it reached its peak of influence over the surrounding cities. As with many other Mayan cities it declined in the ninth century.

Identification of the Rulers of Yaxchilan follows Martin & Grube, 1 but it is a little confusing, especially when it comes to the numbering - whether Shield Jaguar III or IV for instance. Principal amongst these are Shield Jaguar III (681-742) and his son Bird Jaguar IV (752-768).

Set in a horseshoe loop of the Rio Usumacinta surrounded by dense jungle Yaxchilan echoes with the noise of howler monkeys and insects - a very atmospheric place.

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The path to the Labyrinth lies next to a pyramidal structures currently undergoing renovation - note the rounded corners.

It is renowned for its ornately decorated temples strung out on a terrace on low hills high above the main plaza and especially its richly carved  lintels which are a particular feature of the city. Most of the carvings we saw date from the reign of Shield Jaguar III and his son Bird Jaguar IV.

We approached from the river north-east of the city, which is aligned on a north-west south-east axis. The site is actively undergoing renovation and we could see a number of men with hand tools working on the face of a pyramid.

The Great Plaza is entered via Structure 19 through a dark passageway up narrow stairways known as the Labyrinth, inhabited by numerous bats.

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In the Labyrinth.
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Inside the Labyrinth; exits to the Grand Plaza are on the right.

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Entrance to Structure 17.
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Entrance to the Labyrinth.

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Structure 19 has four doorways with niches between them.
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Altar 1 in front of Structure 19.

Emerging into daylight you are in the Grand Plaza of the Central Acropolis, a vast space. If this were an original entrance to the Grand Plaza it was obviously designed to impress the visitor with a sudden view of monumental buildings, but it does seem a strange approach. Now, though much cleared, the Grand Plaza is still quite overgrown with trees so that it looks as if the site could disappear into the jungle again in a very short time.

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The corner of the platform at the north-east of the site with the river just behind and below.
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Looking toward Structure 17 from Structure 19.

At this northern section of the site is a long stepped platform aligned north-east south-west with Structure 19 at its western edge and Structure 18 at the east. Its eastern edge lies very close to the perimeter of the site from where there is a steep drop to the river. A roadway leads south-east from this platform, in front of Structure 18, through the Grand Plaza.

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Platform and Structure 18 to the north-east of Structure 19 - a roadway approaches from the south-east ...

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... the same roadway continues in front of Structure 17, the next building to the south east.
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Lintel 39: the reclining ruler with distinctive feathered head-dress looks to the left, his left leg is bent with knee raised, his right leg is also bent at the knee but lies flat on the ground.

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The Grand Plaza Ballcourt showing the shapes of the platforms and location of the five ballcourt markers.

Structure 17 lies south-east of the platform and is one of the more unusual buildings, thought to have been a ritual cleansing sauna.

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Lintel 39 on Structure 16, a residential building.
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Structure 17 - a ritual sauna.

Yaxchilan is most famous for its intricately carved lintels. These huge rectangular stones rest on the tops of walls to from doorways into buildings and were most often carved on the underside. These are not easy to look at and so there must have been some other specific purpose in placing the carving on the underside. Perhaps passing beneath the carving conveyed some form of power or authority.

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A young Spider Monkey.

 

Three lintels which were unusually carved on their vertical faces can be found in Structure 16 which lies south-east of 17. These are designated 38, 39 and 402 and all three are carved only on the front edge.

Lintel 39 probably shows one of the important rulers, reclining and holding a massive serpent bar - several of the stelae at Quirigua have rulers holding serpent bars. These are horizontal bars with a serpent at each end, sometimes breathing fire, others have a demon or god emerging from the serpent's jaws. Serpents were revered by the Maya; as in many cultures their ability to shed skin and emerge renewed represented rebirth.

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The Grand Plaza
The stepped structure is the outer edge of the north-west side of a ballcourt.

All the time we were looking around Yaxchilan we were accompanied by the noises of the jungle: insects, birds and monkeys lazily making their way through the trees.

There are two ballcourts at Yaxchilan, the larger is on the north-eastern edge of the Grand Plaza.

Five ballcourt markers were found in situ: three aligned along the centre of the playing area and one on each of the platforms.

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The playing area of the Grand Plaza Ballcourt.
The three markers down the centre can clearly be seen, along with one on a side platform.

 

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Ballcourt Marker
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From the British Museum: Lintel 25, Structure 23.
The blood sacrifice conjures up the ancestral spirit of the founding ruler of Yaxchilan, Yat Balaam, dressed as a warrior and emerging from the jaws of a double-headed serpent rearing up above Lady Xoc.

 

The best preserved of the markers again shows a ruler holding a ceremonial serpent bar.

 

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From the British Museum: Lintel 24, Structure 23.
The ruler Shield Jaguar III holds a torch over his principal wife Lady Xoc as she performs a blood-letting ceremony which took place on 9.13.17.15.12 or 28 October AD 709.

Opposite the ballcourt, on a ridge facing the river, is Structure 23. Two wonderful lintels from this building were removed on the orders of Arthur Maudslay who investigated several Mayan sites in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

As well as making plaster casts of many lintels at Yaxchilan he removed a total of eight. He left his collection to the British Museum where it is possible to see some wonderfully well-preserved carving in these original lintels as well as a number of casts.

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From the British Museum: detail Lintel 24, Structure 23.
Lady Xoc draws a rope, embedded with thorns, through her tongue. The bloody rope falls onto a basket of paper strips which soak up the blood.
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Glyphs of Lintel 37
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The final two glyphs on Lintel 37.

Two of the lintels from Structure 23 were on display when we visited in 2013; these were Lintels 24 and 25, commissioned by Shield Jaguar III to record the rituals commemorating his accession to the throne in AD 681. They show Shield Jaguar III and his wife Lady Xoc performing a blood-letting ritual.

The deeply incised carving of these wonderful lintels demonstrates how all of the sculptures would have looked originally.

Next to the ballcourt is Structure 12, a small eighth century building, with two lintels in situ, both carved on the underside. One, Lintel 37, is very well-preserved and shows a grid of hieroglyphs. The second is also a grid of glyphs but is much more worn.

It is thought that Bird Jaguar IV had Structure 12 built to house these lintels which record the history of the first nine rulers of Yaxchilan; the lintels are centuries older than the building.

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Structure 12
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From the British Museum: the fifth century Lintel 35 from Structure 12 ends with the accession date of Ruler 10 K'inich Tatbu Skull II.
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Lintel 37 in Structure 12

 

 

Bird Jaguar IV is known for a programme of building and improvments to the city, always careful to retain important older artefacts in the Mayan tradition.

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Lintel 29 in Structure 102

Megan E O'Neill in her article Object, Memory and Materiality at Yaxchilan: the reset lintels of Structures 12 and 22,3 provides a wonderful overview of the work that has been done on researching Structures 12 and 22. The lintels of Structure 12 are identified as sixth century placed into the eighth century building. The building originally had seven doorways on the front, each with a carved lintel, and one on each end, only one of which had a carved linel. Only one of the lintels was pictorial and this was above the central front face doorway3, though this central aperture had a lintel carved with hieroglyphs when we saw it. The others formed two sets. One set of three has a full figure Long Count of 9.4.11.8.16 translating as 1 February AD 526 and a narration of the accession of Ruler 10 K'inich Tatbu Skull II. Lintel 37 belongs to the second set of four lintels which recounts the history of Yaxchilan through its first ten rulers.

Lintel 35 was originally set in Structure 12 in the doorway to the left of Lintel 37 and to the right of the central doorway and is the culmination of the historical sequence ending with the accession date of Ruler 10. It now resides in the British Museum.

Near to Structure 12 three buildings form an L-shape, one of which is Structure 10, where we saw more lintels carved with hieroglyphs. These describe the birth and accession of Bird Jaguar IV.4

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Left foreground is Structure 22 - Structure 23 is out of shot to the left. Centre is the L-shaped sequence of buildings which includes Structure 10, behind and to the left Structure 12 can be seen.

We had now reached a clearing where there was once the main entrance into the city from the river, flanked by Structures 6 and 7. Both these buildings had three doorways facing the river and three facing the plaza.4

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Structures 6, on the right, and 7
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The monumental staircase leading to Structure 33. Stela 2 is on the lower stairs. It commemorates the period ending 9.9.0.0.0, which, if I've done the conversion correctly,6 falls in AD 613.
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Structure 6 with a carved mask in a niche.
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Stela 1 - temple side.
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Stela 6 with a portrait of Bird Jaguar III in a magnificent head-dress, detail below, and hieroglyphs marking the completion of two katuns as ruler in the seventh century.

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Structure 7 is in a poor state of repair but Structure 6 is much better and retains a deep, double-walled roof-comb. Its three doorways into the plaza were closed off some time in the past and new doorways created in the side walls. In one of the plaza-facing niches is a huge panel carved into a mask, possibly of the Rain God Chaac.

Across the clearing a monumental staircase ascends south west to Structure 33.

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The better-preserved of the two crocodiles flanking Stela 1.

Here at the foot of the monumental staircase and nearby were the first stelae we saw at Yaxchilan.  Carolyn Tate, in an article entitled ""The Period-Ending Stelae of Yaxchilan"5, describes how there were once over thirty stelae at Yaxchilan and discusses in detail eleven which were grouped in and near the main plaza. All of these eleven were carved with king figures dressed as warriors on the broad side facing the river, and ritual scenes on the temple-facing side. Being visible from the river they were designed to impress upon travellers the magnificence and power of the ruler. When stelae fell, as the city decayed, the lower surfaces were quite well preserved while the exposed surfaces became badly worn due to weather erosion.

Stela 1 stands in the main plaza between the monumental staircase and the river. It is unusual in being placed on a substantial platform and flanked by sculptures of crocodiles - though these are very weathered.

Nearby are five more stelae: 3,4,5,6 and 7. The hieroglyphs on the temple sides celebrate accession anniversaries and Period Endings.5

When Yaxchilan was intact it must have displayed a comprehensive history of the city as seen through the eyes of the rulers, marking great events, particularly on the field of battle and in the lives of the elite, and designed to impress both citizens and vistors.

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Stela 7 wth Structure 20 on a ridge behind.
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Detail from Stela 7.
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Structure 22 stands at the right hand side of the monumental staircase, 21 on the opposite side and beyond it Structure 20. Structure 23 is out of shot to the right of 22.

 

Though the portraits of rulers and captives may be stylised, looking at them seems to bring the actual people very much closer. Real people and real events are depicted here - the closest we'll get to visuallising this society.

Structures 20 and 21 stand on the left hand side of the monumental staircase at the lower end.

Structure 20 has two beautifully carved lintels: 13 and 14, of which 14 is in superb condition.

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Structure 20, Lintel 14
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Structure 20, Lintel 14: Lady Chak Chami on the left and her brother on the right.

 

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Structure 20, Lintel 13 detail: Lady Chak Chami, wife of Bird Jaguar IV.

On Lintel 13 Bird Jaguar IV and his wife Lady Chak Chami hold blood-letting instruments. They must have just completed a blood ritual to conjure up a vision of a serpent; an image of their child Shield Jaguar IV, emerges from between the jaws of the serpent.2

On Lintel 14 Chak Chami is portrayed with her brother, again with blood-letting instruments, and a conjured serpent and child Shield Jaguar IV.2 Her brother is identified as the guardian of the king hence, I suppose, his appearance in such an important position, mirroring that of the king himself in Lintel 13.

This is a really impressive lintel and, seen in situ, gives a good impression of how beautiful and awe-inspiring Yaxchilan must have been.

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From the British Museum: Lintel 16, Structure 21.
Bird Jaguar IV stands over a captured noble who has already had blood let from his face.

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From the British Museum: Lintels 15, Structure 21.
Lady Wak Tuun, wife of Bird Jaguar IV, conjures a serpent and ancestor vision after a blood sacrifice.

 

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Structure 20, Lintel 14: brother of Lady Chak Chami.
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From the British Museum: Lintel 17, Structure 21.
Bird Jaguar and one of his wives, Lady Balam-Ix, take part in the blood-letting ritual.
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Structure 21: A mirror hangs behind Stela 35 so that the carving on the back can be seen. Thi shows Lady Ik Skull pulling a rope through her tongue as part of the blood-letting ceremony.

Structure 21 retains beautiful decoration and sculpture, this time in the form of a stela and stuccoed walls. Three lintels from this building were also removed on the orders of Arthur Maudslay and are now displayed in the British Museum: Lintels 15,16 and 17 show Bird Jaguar IV enacting a blood-letting ceremony.

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Structure 21, Stela 35: Lady Ik Skull.

The ceremony is the same as that enacted by his father Shield Jaguar III almost 50 years earlier shown in lintels from Structure 23. Bird Jaguar IV was officially pronounced king on 3rd May AD 752 after the capture of high-ranking prisoners and the birth of a male heir. The captions for these lintels and others in the British Museum use information both from the British Museum and the online Peabody Museum Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions.

Blood was an essential of many rituals. Sacrificing the life force of the most important members of the society as well as the lives of the most prestigious prisoners was believed to ensure the favour of the gods.

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Structure 21: seated stucco figures with traces of the original colours.

Within Structure 21 Stela 35 depicts Lady Ik Skull, the mother of Bird Jaguar IV, a princess from Calakmul. She is also known, rather beautifully, as Lady Eveningstar. Behind her the wall was once covered with life-size stucco figures, coloured fragments of which remain.

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Structure 33: The roof comb is amazingly well-preserved; a seated stone figure in its centre gazes out over the staircase and plaza to the river from where it would have been visible. The ball game frieze - a hieroglyphic step - is protected from the elements.

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Shield Jaguar III, father of Bird Jaguar IV.
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Structures 25 and 26.

We continued climbing the monumental staircase, passing Structures 25 and 26 on the way - ruined but rather atmospheric among the trees.

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Three-dimensional figure on the facade of Structure 33.

 

Though Structure 33 can be seen from the plaza below, as you climb the steps it is only gradually fully revealed.

Built by Bird Jaguar IV at the highest point of the Central Acropolis, Structure 33 was intended to impress and demonstrate his power.

His father, Shield Jaguar III, had married Lady Ik Skull from Calakmul in an effort to bring peace to the warring cities. As the son of a foreign princess, however, Bird Jaguar IV was not totallly trusted by the people of Yaxchilan. When he became ruler he emphasised his power and lineage in a number of ways. Creating new buildings which incorporated older lintels depicting ancestral rulers as in Structure 12, lintels in Structure 21 which show him performing the same blood-letting ceremony as his father in older lintels in Structure 23, and here, in Structure 33, a beautiful carved frieze at the base of the building showing Bird Jaguar IV playing the ball game with a huge ball enclosing a captive and watched by two dwarfs. On the left his father is shown and on the right his grandfather, both also playing the ball game.

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The central carving on the hieroglyphic step - Bird Jaguar IV.
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Bird Jaguar III, grandfather of Bird Jaguar IV.
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Lintel 1: Bird Jaguar IV.
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Lintel 3: Bird Jaguar IV - traces of colour remain on this lintel.
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A bound prisoner depicted within the ball.

 

This is a largely intact structure, with wonderful carvings, standing high about the city. Yaxchilan wouldn't have had the resources, nor the manpower, to create magnificent pyramids such as can be seen elsewhere in the Mayan world, but by exploiting the local topography they too could create awe-inspiring buildings.

Within the structure three lintels: 1,2 and 3,are very well-preserved with deeply carved images of Jaguar IV in various dance ceremonies.2

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Lintel 1: Bird Jaguar IV dances with his wife Lady Great Skull.
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Lintel 3: Bird Jaguar IV dancing alongside one of his nobles K'in Mo' Ajaw, shown here.

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Structure 33: The head belonging to the statue.

 

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Lintel 1: Bird Jaguar IV
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Structure 33: Headless statue of (probably) Bird Jaguar IV.
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Lintel 3: Bird Jaguar IV wears a magnificent head-dress.

Also inside the building is a headless statue, probably once depicting Bird Jaguar IV, and the sculpted head. The niche in which it stands would be illuminated by the sun at sunrise on the summer solstice.

We went around the back of Structure 33 to begin our return journey to the boat.

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The rear of Structure 33.

We passed more quite substantial ruins, part of the West Acropolis, like the South Acropolis which we did not visit, very much smaller than the Central Acropolis.

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All of this area was quite thick jungle - it must take a good deal of work just to stop the vegetation from taking over. Very atmospheric though!

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We returned on the river to have lunch - a very cooling 40 minute boat ride - before travelling to Bonampak.

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References

  1. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens by Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube via mesoweb
  2. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology
  3. Object, Memory and Materiality at Yaxchilan: the reset lintels of Structures 12 and 22, M. E. O'Neill, Journal Ancient Mesoamerica, 22, (2011), 245-269
  4. Kelly, Joyce (2001). An Archaeological Guide to Central and Southern Mexico. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-3349-X, via Wikipedia
  5. The Period-Ending Stelae of Yaxchilan PDF, Carolyn Tate, Dallas Museum of Art
  6. Mayan Calendar Tools