Chichén Itzá




Chichén Itzá

Site Information

Country: Mexico
State: Yucatan
Location: 20° 40' 58" N - 88° 34' 8" W
Elevation: 0m above sea level
Field Documentation Date(s): October 22nd, 2007
Project Release Date(s): November 26th, 2008
Time Range: 600 CE - 1221 CE
Era: Late Classic to Postclassic
Culture: Maya
Site Authority: INAH
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3D point cloud of El Castillo, created from laser scan data

Site Description

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The ancient Maya ruins of Chichén Itzá, located on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula about 50 miles inland south of the Caribbean coastline, represent the remains of one of the largest and most powerful city states of the pre-Columbian Americas. While the fully-restored monumental core of Chichén Itzá's archaeological zone covers approximately 5 square kilometers and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world, the estimated extent of dense urban development at the city's peak is thought to have reached 25 square kilometers. However, much of these surrounding ruins are unexcavated and are currently covered with a mixture of dense forest and farms. Chichén Itzá translates as "At the Mouth of the Well of the Itza" in Yucatec Mayan, a reference to the nearby Sacred Cenote, or sinkhole, where offerings were made to various deities and from which the city derived much of its water supply.

Chichén Itzá was a highly cosmopolitan city with a wide range of distinct architectural styles displayed in both its domestic buildings and major monuments. This range is reflective of both local Yucatecan styles and influence from several prominent Mesoamerican cultural groups and clans that were drawn to the city as a regional center during its long history of occupation.

The civic heart of Chichén Itzá is surrounded by a boundary wall and was the ultimate destination of several long, broad stucco-paved roads (plurally known as Sacbeob) leading to surrounding population centers and other areas of importance. This central plaza is essentially an immense platform defined by three great building complexes surrounding it. The buildings along the Great Plaza are seemingly designed in such a manner as to pay homage to Kukulkan, the feathered serpent divinity also associated with a legendary king of the Toltecs who was broadly worshipped in Mexico. Kukulkan was alternatively known as Quetzalcoatl, a manifestation named and revered by the later Aztec empire up through the Spanish conquest.

According to archaeologist Cynthia Kristan-Graham, many structures at the site reflect a concept of city planning known as a ‘Galactic Polity’; at Chichén Itzá, scale replicas of important buildings connect to their larger center by means of a specific Sacbe (ceremonial road). This pattern can be seen at archaeological site of Mayapan as well, which was constructed as a small-scale replica of Chichén Itzá’s monumental core.

To the plaza's west side is the Great Ball Court, the largest in all of Mesoamerica at 154.8 meters in length and bounded by walls reaching over 9 meters in height. The Pyramid of Kukulkan, also known as El Castillo, is located to the south and reaches 30 meters in height with a base extending over 55 meters across. The Temple of the Warriors, located to the east, is a four-platform structure surrounded by 200 round and square columns with bas-relief carvings depicting individual warriors. This temple is very similar in design to the Temple of the Warriors in the Toltec city of Tula, over 1000 kilometers away in the northern Valley of Mexico. The Sacred Cenote is located along a wide stucco-paved Sacbe 300 meters to the north.

Further to the south of Chichén Itzá's Great Plaza are located several smaller building complexes, primarily built in the elaborately-carved Puuc (Yucatec Mayan for Hills) architectural style common in nearby cities, such as Sayil and Uxmal. These building complexes date to the same time period as these cities. While the ceremonial monuments of the Great Plaza are primarily dedicated to the worship of Kukulkan, the constructions to the south are mainly dedicated to the Maya deity Chaak (or Chac), a curl-nosed divinity primarily associated with the bringing of rain; these structures embodied the value of water, as Chichén Itzá was located in a dry tropical forest environment where drought could easily bring widespread famine.

Chichén Itzá contains a relatively wide range of roofing styles, which is unique for a Mayan archaeological site. The site includes rectangular beam-and-mortar structures such as the temple atop El Castillo, wooden or thatch ones such as the roof that probably rested atop El Mercado, and Mexican-styled round structures such as El Caracol. The majority of the structures, however, were built with the traditional Maya corbeled vault, which is a narrow vault made of courses of stone that are projected into an apex, creating a triangular archway. The Nunnery, so-called by the Spanish as they felt it resembled the convents of Spain, features carved stone latticework and Chaak masks decorating the upper facades and corners of the buildings.

Nearby is the fascinating structure known as the Caracol, a stone structure round in plan, that originally generated a cylindrical shape with a domed roof, now partially ruined. Narrow windows cut into the outer walls seem to have been designed in order to observe the irregular movements of Venus, which was considered to be the sun's twin and held great significance for the Maya, particularly in decisions pertaining to war. The staircase at the front of the Caracol faces 27.5 degrees north of west, perfectly in line with the northern positional extreme of Venus and producing alignments at the building's northeast and southeast corners that track both the summer and winter solstices. The Caracol is one of the oldest standing observatories in the Americas, and highlights the great importance that astrological phenomena held for the people of Chichén Itzá.
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History

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Chichén Itzá's history as a major political center in the northern Yucatán is extensive, stretching from the Classic period well into the Post-Classic. Towards the beginning of the 7th century CE, during the beginning of the Late Classic, this Maya agricultural region saw increasing population density and the construction of some permanent structures, including the Puuc-styled Las Monjas (Nunnery) complex. It was during the 9th century, however, that the settlement began to turn into a city, and by the early 10th century, during the Terminal Classic, Chichén Itzá was a regional powerhouse. As this was happening, major Classic-period centers to the south in the central Maya lowlands, such as Tikal and Palenque, were undergoing the profound social and demographic shift popularly known as the Classic Maya Collapse. These cities gradually ceased to function as major centers and caused an exodus of people to migrate from the densely-populated central lowland area to other cities, such as those along the Gulf coasts and in the ancient Maya heartland in the volcanic highlands to the south.

The region that received the greatest population expansion during the Terminal Classic period, however, are the northern lowlands of the Yucatán, where Chichén Itzá became the largest and most powerful city. With this influx of diverse populations, a powerful new ideology emerged at Chichén Itzá in the mid-9th century, combining elements of the belief systems of Classic-period lowland Maya, the militarized Putun Maya from the Gulf Coast (including the Itza), traditional Yucatec Maya beliefs, and religious beliefs and military traditions of peoples from the Valley of Mexico. These far-flung affiliates included the Toltecs, whose Temple of the Warriors at their capital Tula bears marked architectural and thematic commonalities with the same-titled complex at Chichén Itzá. The legendary king Topiltzin Ce Acatl of Tula, often conflated with the deity Quetzalcoatl/Kukulcan, is claimed by ethnohistorical sources to have come to Chichén Itzá during the 10th century CE.

As with many places in Mesoamerica during the Post-Classic, distinctions between traditional and regional cultures in the Yucatán became blurred as the populations in large cities became ethnically-mixed. As a result, power was often based more on ideological affiliations or conquest than rigidly-defined ethnicities. Chichén Itzá, with a mostly local Yucatec Maya population, established regional alliances with polities such as Uxmal that are reflected in both hieroglyphic inscriptions and Puuc architectural commonalities. Concurrently, the Putun Maya lineage known as the Itza was expanding its sphere of influence into Yucatán's southwestern Gulf Coast, at the city of Chakanputun (now called Champoton). The Itza were primarily maritime traders, their sphere was quite large and they had active canoe-route networks as far afield as Honduras. Chichén Itzá had frontiers throughout the Maya region and in the Valley Mexico.

In the mid-9th century, according to the Book of Chilam Balam, the Itza established a presence at Chichén Itzá, and were firmly in control of the city by 987 CE. Many of the major constructions in and near the Great Plaza (such as the Ball Court and the Caracol) had been built a few decades earlier, but it was during the Itza period that these buildings took on the specific motifs and monumental character that was to last for the next 200 years. During this period of Itza dominance, with help from their Mexican allies and trading partners, strong military and religious traditions from the Valley of Mexico were cemented in Chichén Itzá by the Itza themselves. Some other powerful lineages also held some influence in the city: the Cocom, the Chel, and the Xiu, whose capital was in Uxmal 100 kilometers to the west. All of these groups vied for power in both Chichén Itzá and across the region; as a result, small-scale warfare and political intrigue were commonplace during the city's long and powerful fluorescence as a center of culture, commerce, and military might unparalleled in the Maya world.

Chichén Itzá is alleged, by the Book of Chilam Balam, to have finally collapsed in 1221 from a violent revolt by non-Itza lineages, as well as attacks from the city of Mayapan (which had a city center designed as a small-scale replica of Chichén Itzá) under the Cocom ruler Hunac Ceel. The Itza were driven out of Chichén Itzá and Mayapan's period of dominance began, lasting until the collapse of Mayapan in 1441 after a Xiu revolt; this event marked the civil wars that began in the mid 15th century. Chichén Itzá (particularly the Sacred Cenote) continued to be a place of pilgrimage for all the lineages, even while it lay mostly uninhabited and firmly within Cocom territory. The civil wars continued for almost a hundred years, fracturing potential Maya alliances against the Spanish, who subjugated the peoples of the Yucatán in 1546. As for the Itza, they were driven far south to the Petén in the central lowlands. There, they came to settle at the island city of Tayasal on Lake Petén Itza, near the ancient ruined city of Tikal and on the site of what is now the Guatemalan city of Flores. Being particularly fierce, isolated, and in a defensible position, the Itza city of Tayasal did not fall to the Spanish until 1697 and represented the last major Maya polity to fall in the long and brutal Spanish Conquest.

Hieroglyphic records indicate that the Post-Classic Yucatán has a history marked by the rulership of lineages such as the Itza, Cocom, and Xiu. These lineages were essentially ethnic groups, and monumental inscriptions emphasized group identity. This is in stark contrast to expressions of power in the Classic Period Maya polities of the central lowlands, which emphasized the divinity of individual rulers and their immediate dynastic successors.

Recent archaeological investigation has presented compelling evidence that Chichén Itzá actually ceased to function as a major power center sometime in the early 11th century, 200 years earlier than the chronicles indicate. If this is true, then there is a large time gap between the fall of Chichén Itzá and the rise to regional prominence of Mayapan in the mid-13th century. Perhaps the 16th-century chronicles reflect a biased view of the city's history and decline from the perspective of the different ethnic groups struggling for power in a politically-fractured landscape, or perhaps the most recent archaeology is not presenting an accurate chronological picture.

Chichén Itzá never left the consciousness of Maya peoples of the Yucatán, though besides several mentions in Spanish colonial chronicles it was not investigated by westerners until Frederick Catherwood and John Lloyd Stephens began documenting it in 1842, capturing the public imagination and beginning a long series of archaeological investigations that continue to the present day. Cleared and restored, Chichén Itzá now stands as one of the greatest cities and centers for technological achievement in the pre-Columbian Americas. It is one of the world's most popular tourist attractions, and serves as an enduring symbol of cultural pride for both modern Mexico as a nation and millions of people of indigenous descent in the Yucatán today.
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Perspective of the limestone column in the Cave of Balankanche, created from laser scan data

Project Narrative

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In 2007, the Oakland, California-based Chabot Space and Science Center, in conjunction with InSight Digital and ArtsLab, embarked upon a mission to produce High Definition laser and photographic data from the ruins of Chichén Itzá’s civic core for its ambitious Maya Skies Project. CyArk was called upon to spearhead the mission for its expertise in the HD Documentation and Heritage fields. In October 2007 CyArk assembled a documentation team to be sent to the Yucatán, in conjunction with their Michigan partners Metco Services. Over the course of three weeks, a highly detailed data set was produced which included HDS, close-range Laser Scanning, panoramic photography, HDR photography, and traditional survey. Dozens of scans were produced from a Leica Geosystems Scan Station laser scanner, including 37 scans of the Caracol structure alone, which was the most complex structure and the main focus of the project. Six other important structures in the civic core were also thoroughly scanned, including El Castillo. A site-wide closed traverse encompassing the six focus structures was completed, with 20 primary control points included. The overall angular error of closure was five seconds with an accuracy of 1/32000. The data collected was used as part of the Chabot Center’s Maya Skies Project exhibit, and is accessible online in the CyArk Website Archive. This entire project was made possible by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
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North elevation of El Castillo, drawn from laser scan data

Preservation

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Chichén Itzá is a major national park in Mexico and has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, particularly due to its proximity to the international resort city of Cancún, where a day trip to the site is considered an important part of any stay in the region. As a result of this, the site’s core has sustained considerable wear, with over 100,000 visitors per year climbing on monuments that in the pre-Columbian past likely saw only the footprints of a small cadre of social and religious elites. Citing concerns over safety after various incidents of death and serious injury that visitors have sustained over the years at Chichén Itzá, the Mexico's INAH has closed down most of the popular monuments to foot traffic. This includes El Castillo, which was closed after a tourist fell to her death in 2006. Additionally, the Jaguar Throne room was also closed down in 2007. While these closures have often frustrated longtime visitors to the site, they will likely prolong the lifespan of many of the monuments, which have been structurally worn down due to a huge amount of tourist traffic.

Beyond the fully restored 5km core area of Chichén Itzá, the actual ruins of the city and overall archaeological zone extend over 25km and hold many unexcavated ruins and areas of high historical/archaeological significance. Both the core and the overall archaeological zone are actually located on private land, and though the core area is under the official stewardship and protection of the INAH, the surrounding areas are not under any state protections and are primarily utilized for agricultural purposes by village cooperatives and individual landowners. Issues surrounding local patrimony over land ownership and questions of proper use have often pitted indigenous Maya farmers (often self-identified as Ladinos, inferring a lack of emphasis on indigenousness in favor of a Mexican or broader Yucatecan identity) against archaeologists. Additionally, large international companies who own and operate many of the tourist hotels in the region have expanded outward from the periphery of the site core which has raised issues with the Mexican National Government represented by the INAH. These issues are further complicated by an influx of people to the region who have come to work as vendors of goods and services for the tourist trade, and who now constitute a significant new population that want their own land and resources. All these issues together make for a site with a well-maintained core, but in danger of being overwhelmed by tourism and its requisite population pressures, which may make the site unable to sustain itself.
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Area Descriptions

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Gruta de Balankanche
North Group
Court of the Thousand Columns
Ball Court 1
Ball Court 3
North Colonnade
Northeast Colonnade
Southeast Colonnade
Steam Bath 2
Temple of the Little Tables
Ball Court 2
Palace of the Sculpted Columns
The Market
Great Plaza
El Castillo
Upper Temple
Great Ball Court
South Temple
Temple of the Bearded Men
Temple of the Jaguars
Platform of the Eagles
Platform of the Skulls
Temple of the Big Tables
Temple of the Warriors
Venus Platform
Northeast Group
Sacred Cenote
South Group
El Caracol
House of the Deer
Red House
Osario
House of the Metates
Las Tumbas Platform
Round Platform
Small Venus Platform
Temple of Obscure Writing
Temple of the Wall Panels
The Nunnery
Iglesia
Nunnery Annex
Xtoloc Temple
Xtoloc Cenote

Gruta de Balankanche

Gruta de Balankanche Description:

Located about 5.5km from the monumental core of Chichén Itzá, the Grutas de Balankanche ('Cave of the Jaguar's Throne' in Yucatec) were evidently one of the city's most important ceremonial sites. In ancient Maya belief systems, a cave (Gruta) is a sacred place. Caves offer a portal to Xibalba, the Maya underworld, where the spirits of the valiant dead tangle with supernatural beings, and the roots of the great World Tree are found. From here, these roots extend through the earthly realms of the forests up to the celestial heavens of the mountains. Caves are seen as the mouths of the Witz mountain spirits, and water is seen as having its origin deep within them, issuing forth as rain or rivers.

The limestone karst landscape of the Yucatán possesses many extensive caves, and most Maya cities have several which were used as elite temples for ceremonial purposes, mainly those involved in the invocation of water and crop fertility (corn is also seen as having originated in Xibalba). Their existence was long-known to local people and explorers, but it was not until 1959 that a local tour guide named Jose Humberto Gomez stumbled upon a passageway that had been deliberately obscured in antiquity. Through this passage was found the main chamber with all of its artifacts intact surrounding a great natural limestone column, stretching from floor to ceiling, in the center of the room. All artifacts were left in situ, where they remain today.


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North Group

North Group Description:

The North Group is the section of Chichén Itzá from the Great Plaza and northward. Archaeologists and authorities have long used the term "New Chichén" to describe this area, previously considered to be the product of a later time period than the Puuc-styled areas to the south; However, there is little evidence that they were not contemporaneous. This area contains a high concentration of large monumental construction primarily devoted to the worship of Kukulkan (The Feathered Serpent), including El Castillo, the Great Ballcourt, and the Temple of the Warriors. It also geographically encompasses other major site features such as the Sacred Cenote, a deep natural sinkhole located north of the Great Plaza at the end of a wide Sacbe (ceremonial road).


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Court of the Thousand Columns

Court of the Thousand Columns Description:

Located to the west of the Great Plaza, the Court of the Thousand Columns is a raised plaza surrounded by long Colonnades of carved warrior reliefs, ball courts, temples/council halls, and a large steam bath. The colonnades in this area were possessed of long formal benches lining the northern and eastern sides. Carvings of human actors in ceremonies decorate the temples which are bordered by traditional Maya structures such as the small (usable) ball courts and sweatbaths. Archaeologist Rosemary Joyce has postulated that this area was intended to be a large-scale version of traditional Classic Maya house compounds that enclose a plaza area on all four sides, essentially a giant council-house residence for Chichén Itzá's numerous elite.


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Ball Court 1

Ball Court 1 Description:

Mesoamerican Ball Courts are often located in or adjacent to important ceremonial and monumental areas, and were used for playing a ritualized ballgame that involved heavy natural rubber balls and solid wood bumpers around the waist. It is believed that the losers of this ballgame were ritually sacrificed. As with other structures in the Court of the Thousand Columns, Ball Court 1 was probably in active use by the elites of Chichén Itzá. It is of a typical size for Classic Period Maya sites in the Yucatán, and stands in sharp contrast to the mammoth Great Ball Court to the east of the Great Plaza, which may not have actually been used for the game at all.


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Ball Court 3

Ball Court 3 Description:

Mesoamerican Ball Courts are often located in or adjacent to important ceremonial and monumental areas, and were used for playing a ritualized ballgame that involved heavy natural rubber balls and solid wood bumpers around the waist. It is believed that the losers of this ballgame were ritually sacrificed. As with other structures in the Court of the Thousand Columns, Ball Court 3 was probably in active use by the elites of Chichén Itzá. It is of a typical size for Classic Period Maya sites in the Yucatán, and stands in sharp contrast to the mammoth Great Ball Court to the east of the Great Plaza, which may not have actually been used for the game at all.


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North Colonnade

North Colonnade Description:

Located on the northern edge of the Court of the Thousand Columns, the Northern Colonnade is a 183 by 23-meter stretch of alternating round and square columns that extends to the south and west of the Temple of the Warriors. Many of these columns are topped with square capitals, and are covered on all sides with carvings of individually-distinct warriors atop feathered serpent motifs. These warriors are depicted wearing Mexican-style garb and are mostly facing to the west. Columns like this have not been found in other Classic Period Maya contexts but are found in abundance in the Toltec city of Tula in the Valley of Mexico, leading many early scholars to assume that the city was under absolute control by Toltecs. In actuality, however, the relationship between these cities was considerably more complex and probably involved a great deal of influence going both ways; one way or another it is clear that Chichén Itzá was a highly influential city in the Yucatán region.


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Northeast Colonnade

Northeast Colonnade Description:

The Northeast Colonnade is located adjacent to Ball Court 1 and the Temple of the Little Tables. Many of these columns are topped with square capitals, built up from three or four separate drums (for round columns) or blocks (for square columns) held together with mortar. Some of the round drums were convex in section. They are covered on all sides with carvings of individually-distinct warriors atop feathered serpent motifs. These warriors are depicted wearing Mexican-style garb and are mostly facing to the west.


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Southeast Colonnade

Southeast Colonnade Description:

The Southeast Colonnade is located to the east of the Market. A limestone-block wall surrounds the atrium, which is composed of seven rooms. This atrium is filled with a series of round columns topped by square capitals in the style of the Northeast Colonnade, though some of the columns make up part of the wall structure. Several benches and Atlantean figures (large columns sculpted in the actual shape of warriors) are also located in the building.


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Steam Bath 2

Steam Bath 2 Description:

Sweat Baths, or Steam Baths, served a vital role in elite ancient Maya society as places for visions, meeting other important personages, healing, and basic hygiene. They are often located adjacent to Ball Courts, and may have served some dual ceremonial purpose with them. Steambath 2 is a large enclosed chamber, featuring a Maya corbelled vault and built in the Puuc architectural style, which used rocks heated in a hearth to fuel both dry and steam saunas. Benches lined the structure, a canal under the floor provided drainage, and two ventilation shafts were cut into the walls.


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Temple of the Little Tables

Temple of the Little Tables Description:

The Temple of the Little Tables, similar in design to the Temple of the Big Tables and Temple of the Warriors to the east, went through several remodeling periods during Pre-Columbian times, with the last period adding a second story to the structure. In addition to sculpted Atlantean figures, serpents, and Chac masks are numerous depictions of jaguars. These are identified by their spots and are accompanied by glyphic inscriptions which read 'ajaw' (Mayan word that means 'lord' in one definition) and 'k'awiil'; this combination of elements has led to speculation that the lord or lineage that ruled this palace was named B'alam Ajaw K'awiil (Jaguar Lords).


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Ball Court 2

Ball Court 2 Description:

Mesoamerican Ball Courts are often located in or adjacent to important ceremonial and monumental areas, and were used for playing a ritualized ballgame that involved heavy natural rubber balls and solid wood bumpers around the waist. It is believed that the losers of this ballgame were ritually sacrificed. As with other structures in the Court of the Thousand Columns, Ball Court 2 was probably in active use by the elites of Chichén Itzá. It is of a typical size for Classic Period Maya sites in the Yucatán, and stands in sharp contrast to the mammoth Great Ball Court to the east of the Great Plaza, which may not have actually been used for the game at all.


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Palace of the Sculpted Columns

Palace of the Sculpted Columns Description:

Similar sculptural motifs to those on the façade of the Temple of the Little Tables can be found at the adjacent Palace of the Sculpted Columns. Additionally, a Chacmool statue that closely resembles iconography of the Mexican deity Mixcoatl was found here. A small room inside the structure may have served as a sanctuary, closed off by a curtain, wherein a Lord could have provided counsel to attendees without being seen; similar rooms were reported by Spanish colonial authorities as being used in such a manner in nearby cities several centuries later.


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The Market

The Market Description:

The Market is a seventy six meter-long raised portico filled with alternating square and rounded columns stretching east and west; its center is a square building with tall, rounded columns that would have originally supported a roof of wood and/or thatch. The Market (El Mercado) was named as such by the early Spanish colonists who were exploring the site; they felt its dimensions and design resembled a typical Spanish open marketplace. In reality, however, this building likely functioned as a council hall or place for religious ceremonies. Three large metates found in the interior area may have been used for preparing feasts, or designed to be symbolically evocative of domestic areas in noble houses.


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Great Plaza

Great Plaza Description:

The civic heart of Chichén Itzá is surrounded by a boundary wall and was the ultimate destination of several long, broad stucco-paved roads (known as Sacbe or, plurally, Sacbeob) leading to surrounding population centers and other areas of importance. This central plaza is essentially an immense platform defined by three great building complexes surrounding it: El Castillo, the Great Ballcourt, and the Temple of the Warriors. These buildings are seemingly designed in such a manner as to pay homage to Kukulkan, the feathered serpent divinity also associated with a legendary king of the Toltecs. Kukulkan was alternatively known as Quetzalcoatl, and was revered as such by the later Mexican Aztec Empire up through the Spanish conquest.


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El Castillo

El Castillo Description:

El Castillo is centered in the Great Plaza, the northern part of Chichén Itzá. It is a large step pyramid dedicated to the deity Kukulkan, the feathered serpent. El Castillo has nine terraces and four staircases. A large square temple with four doorways sits atop its highest terrace. It towers 30 meters above the Great Plaza with a base of 55 meters on four sides. It is made of cut limestone blocks atop a rubble-fill core.

El Castillo has 91 steps on each side for a total of 365 steps, equal to the number of days in the year under the solar Haab calendar - one of two the Maya used; the 2 equinoxes and 2 solstices each year occur at 91-day intervals. At sunset on the equinoxes (spring and fall), a special phenomenon can be observed at El Castillo - the interplay of light and shadow from the sun's position make it appear that a serpent is slowly snaking down the balustrades of the staircase; this was likely designed as a visual cue for the proper time to do agricultural ceremonies, harvest, and plant new crops.

Deep within this pyramid lies the Jaguar Throne room. It was dedicated to the deity Kukulkan, the feathered serpent.


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Upper Temple

Upper Temple Description:

Located atop El Castillo's uppermost platform, high above the Great Plaza below, is the Upper Temple. The Upper Temple was likely the scene of many of the most important ceremonies conducted by Chichén Itzá's rulers; it was considered to be closest space to the celestial realm as it was the highest point in the city. It has four entrances, one on each side above the great staircases, but the north entrance (facing the Sacred Cenote) is the largest and most ornate. Two great serpent ballustrades flank this portal and support the stone lintel above. Inside the temple are representations of Chaak (or Witz) on the facades, and ornately-carved columns help support further roof lintels; these are mostly carved from long zapote hardwood trees that survived over time.


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Great Ball Court

Great Ball Court Description:

To the Great Plaza's west side is the Great Ball Court, the largest in all of Mesoamerica at 154.8 meters long, 29.9 meters wide, and bounded by walls reaching over 9 meters in height. It was designed along a north-south axis, with sloped panels at the bottom of the vertical walls bearing three separate forty-foot long carved murals that depict ritual beheadings; although we know very little about the Mesoamerican Ball Game, it is believed that the victors of this game sacrificed the losers. Two enormous carved stone rings were placed near the top of the walls on both sides; the inaccessible placement of these seem to indicate that it was highly unlikely they were actually employed during the game itself. Indeed, it is currently thought that this enormous court may have been an "effigy" construction not used for playing the ball game at all, but rather for ritual dedications and ceremony involving Chichén Itzá's elite.


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South Temple

South Temple Description:

This temple, located to the southern end of the Great Ball Court opposite the Temple of the Bearded Man, contains the bases of six large round columns and surrounding walls. Little else is known about the South Temple, and it is in relatively poor condition. Due to the unusual acoustics of the Great Ball Court, a person standing in the Temple of the Bearded Man can easily hear a person speaking at a normal volume level in the South Temple.


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Temple of the Bearded Men

Temple of the Bearded Men Description:

Located at the northern end of the Great Ballcourt, this three-tiered temple opens into a sanctuary at the top flanked by two large round columns. Its name is taken from a bas-relief of bearded lords inside its sanctuary; depictions of beards in Maya art are very uncommon overall except at Chichén Itzá. Other bas-reliefs depict trees, birds, flowers and Maya deities. Due to the unusual acoustics of the Great Ball Court, a person standing in the Temple of the Bearded Men can easily hear a person speaking at a normal volume level at the Court's opposite end.


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Temple of the Jaguars

Temple of the Jaguars Description:

The Temple of the Jaguars, located in the southeast wall of the Great Ball Court, has two distinct levels. The Lower Temple has an inner sanctuary which opens out directly to the Ball Court. Its entrance is flanked by intricately-carved square pillars and a limestone jaguar between them. The Upper Temple is reached by a steep stairway to the south, with a balustrade carved in a representation of a feathered serpent. Two huge columns carved as feathered serpents flank the portico, heads on the platform, open mouths facing outward over the Ball Court below. Inside the Upper Temple is a large wall painting depicting the destruction of a Maya village or city by warriors of Chichén Itzá, this is thought by modern scholars to represent the sack of Piedras Negras during the 9th century.


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Platform of the Eagles

Platform of the Eagles Description:

Located between the Castillo and the Great Ball Court, the Platform of the Eagles is a low platform with a talud-tablero (slope-panel) base. Serpent heads protrude from the cornice just under the top of the platform. There was never a permanent structure built atop the Platform of the Eagles and it was likely used for public address or performances of some sort, such as dance or sacrifice.


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Platform of the Skulls

Platform of the Skulls Description:

In Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, this platform is known as Tzompantli, or "Wall of Skulls". Indeed, this relatively large platform is decorated all along the side molding, frieze, and upper molding with carved human skulls, all depicted with eyes. The platform surface above is punctuated with holes; these likely held stakes to impale the skulls of sacrificial victims and defeated warriors. Other carved motifs include one of an eagle eating a human heart, a strongly Mexican-identified icon. Similar "skull racks" are found at several archaeological sites in the Valley of Mexico.


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Temple of the Big Tables

Temple of the Big Tables Description:

Adjacent to the Temple of the Warriors is the Temple of the Big Tables, which mimics the form of its larger neighbor in the same manner that El Castillo and the Osario are scale replicas of each other. The Temple of the Big Tables was restored only recently, during the 1990s. During these excavations an older sub-temple was discovered interred within the outer structure; a large polychrome mural of feathered serpents was painted on the interior walls in vivid blue, yellow, and red hues outlined by charcoal lines.


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Temple of the Warriors

Temple of the Warriors Description:

The Temple of the Warriors is a four-platform structure, a three-tiered step pyramid with a single stairway to the west facing the Great Plaza. At its summit is a square temple that was formerly roofed by a vault supported by carved columns within its outer walls. In front of the Temple's entrance at the top of the staircase sits a so-called Chacmool statue, a name conferred by early European explorer Augustus LePlongeon for these reclining figures found in several places around the city. Additionally, the upper temple contains a stone bench which is supported by miniature Atlantean figures, warrior sculptures carved with hands upward to hold aloft a roof, door lintel, or dais.

An earlier structure, known as Temple of the Chacmool, is encased within the Temple of the Warriors, that contains a number of these Chacmool sculptures. At the pyramid's base, the Temple of the Warriors is surrounded to the west and south by 200 round and square columns adorned with bas-relief carvings depicting individual warriors. This temple is very similar in design to the Temple of the Warriors in the Toltec city of Tula, over 1000 kilometers away in the northern Valley of Mexico.


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Venus Platform

Venus Platform Description:

Located to the north of the Castillo, the Venus Platform is a low platform with a talud-tablero (slope-panel) base; there was never a permanent structure built atop it and it was likely used for public address or performances of some sort, such as dance or sacrifice. Like similar structures in the city it is inscribed on its base panels with images of Kukulkan and representations of the planet Venus, which is believed to have been of great symbolic importance to the Itza. The Venus Platform is also known as the Tomb of the Chacmool, as a Chacmool statue was found interred inside it during excavation.


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Northeast Group

Northeast Group Description:

The Northeast Group lies largely under present-day agricultural fields and buildings, and has been little-excavated. It was likely an elite residential complex for citizens of Chichén Itzá.


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Sacred Cenote

Sacred Cenote Description:

The Sacred Cenote, deep opaque green in color and surrounded by jungle, is a circular sinkhole located 300 meters to the north of the Great Plaza at the end of a wide Sacbe. In Yucatec Mayan, "Chichén Itzá" translates roughly into "At the Mouth of the Well of the Itza", and indeed this great well has long been considered the most sacred ceremonial site in the city. The ancient Mayas artificially rounded this natural Cenote to be 285 feet in diameter with a 60 foot-drop from rim to water level; from there, the water reaches a depth of approximately 40 feet. It was referred to as the "Well of Sacrifice" by Spanish Colonial authorities in the 16th century, who documented the custom of throwing precious offerings into the depths following ceremonies conducted in the small Temple of Xtoloc (Lizard) along the Cenote's southern rim. The ancient origin of these ceremonies was confirmed by later archaeological excavations of the well's bottom sediments, investigations that also confirmed Spanish accounts of occasional human sacrifice carried out during times of drought.


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South Group

South Group Description:

To the south of Chichén Itzá's Great Plaza are located several smaller building complexes, primarily built in the elaborately-carved Puuc (Yucatec Mayan for "Hills") architectural style common in nearby cities, such as Sayil and Uxmal. These building complexes date to the same time period as these cities, though they are not necessarily older than the constructions in "New Chichén" around the Great Plaza. While the ceremonial monuments of the Great Plaza are primarily dedicated to the worship of Kukulkan, the constructions to the south are mainly dedicated to the Maya deities Chaak (or Chac) and Witz, or mountain spirits. Both are curl-nosed divinities with several different aspects but are generally associated with the bringing of rain, a vital force to invoke in a dry tropical forest environment where drought could easily bring widespread famine.


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El Caracol

El Caracol Description:

El Caracol is a round stone structure with a partially ruined domed roof that originally had a cylindrical shape; it was named Caracol (Snail) due to its internal spine that climbs up in a spiral. The staircase at the front of the Caracol faces 27.5 degrees north of west, perfectly aligned with the northern positional extreme of Venus. Additionally, the building's northeast and southeast corners track both the summer and winter solstices. The Caracol is one of the oldest standing observatories in the Americas, and highlights the great importance that astrology held for the people of Chichén Itzá.

In the upper tower of El Caracol are found three, narrow windows in the wall facing the skies. The placement of these openings suggest that they were viewing shafts for astrological phenomena, specifically the equinox sunset and the northern and southern positional extremes of Venus, as well as the direction of magnetic (astrological) south. Venus was considered to be the sun's twin and held great significance for the Maya, particularly in decisions pertaining to war. The movements of Venus take place over 263 day intervals, with 50 days in which the planet cannot be seen in the skies at all. These time frames correspond roughly to the number of days in the Maya Tzolkin calendar, which has 260 days and interlocks with the Haab (365 day calendar) in 52-year intervals.


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House of the Deer

House of the Deer Description:

The House of the Deer is located in a small plaza south of the Osario, an area which likely contained a residential complex associated with the Osario; this plaza also holds the Red House and the House of the Metates. The House of the Deer was built on a platform with rounded corners and an undecorated facade, similar to the Red House and House of the Metates. This building is called the House of the Deer because an interior wall painting of a deer was discovered upon its initial excavation; this has unfortunately faded with time.


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Red House

Red House Description:

Red House is the southernmost building in a small plaza south of the Osario, an area which likely contained a residential complex associated with the Osario; this plaza also holds the House of the Deer and the House of the Metates. Red House is a Puuc-styled building of block-masonry construction. It is called the Red House because it still displayed traces of red paint when it was uncovered, and is also known as Chichancob ("Little Holes") because of the open latticework in its roof comb. Materials associated with the construction of this building have been carbon-dated to the Middle Classic Period, around 600 CE, though this may indicate re-use of wooden beams rather than the actual date of construction.


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Osario

Osario Description:

The Osario, or High Priest's Grave, was constructed as a scaled-down version of El Castillo about 9 meters in height. It is similarly flanked by four staircases, and contains a sanctuary at its summit with a portico-fronted gallery. Feathered serpents are carved into the sides of the stairway, and carved motifs on and around it are reminiscent of those at the Temple of the Warriors and Venus Platforms. Four high-relief carved tablets feature images of men in masks with beaks and bird-feather costumes, seemingly performing a ritual dance.

On the top of the Osario between the first two serpent-carved pillars is a stone-lined shaft, descending vertically to the base of the pyramid, past a short set of stone stairs, and into a 12 meter-deep cavern. When this cavern was excavated by E.H. Thompson, seven tombs were discovered with rich funerary caches of jade, copper bells, rock crystal, and shells.

Three platforms stretch east from the Osario, which together resemble a scaled-down version of the platforms found in the Great Plaza to the north. It is not certain whether the Osario Plaza was modeled after the Great Plaza or the other way around. According to archaeologist Cynthia Kristan-Graham, many structures at Chichén Itzá reflect a concept of city planning known as a 'Galactic Polity'; in the Mesoamerican version of this system, scale replicas of important buildings connect to their larger center by means of a specific Sacbe (ceremonial road).


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House of the Metates

House of the Metates Description:

Situated on the Osario platform to the south of the Osario itself, the House of the Metates was named for the numerous food preparation implements found within it upon excavation. It was most likely a place where communal food preparation was conducted for feasts in ceremonies centered on the Osario.


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Las Tumbas Platform

Las Tumbas Platform Description:

This is the easternmost of three small platforms found in a line stretching from the Osario. It is a low platform with a talud-tablero (slope-panel) base. Human remains, along with obsidian and shell offerings, were found interred within it. It originally had a roof, supported by several columns. The three platforms of this plaza resemble a scaled-down version of the platforms found in the Great Plaza to the north, just as the Osario resembles a scaled-down Castillo.


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Round Platform

Round Platform Description:

This low platform was one of the only round-shaped structures at Chichén Itzá. Archaeological excavations revealed a stone-paved patio and a container with sacrificial offerings. It is the middle platform of three stretching east from the Osario, which together resemble a scaled-down version of the platforms found in the Great Plaza to the north, just as the Osario resembles a scaled-down Castillo.


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Small Venus Platform

Small Venus Platform Description:

This is one of two Venus Platforms found at Chichén Itzá, with the other one located near El Castillo in the Great Plaza. The carved motifs are very similar, as is the architectural design, and an offering of a decapitated skull from a man was found beneath the eastern stair. It is the westernmost platform of three stretching east from the Osario, which together resemble a scaled-down version of the platforms found in the Great Plaza to the north, just as the Osario resembles a scaled-down Castillo.


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Temple of Obscure Writing

Temple of Obscure Writing Description:

Akab Dzib means "Obscure Writing" or "Dark Writing" in Yucatec Mayan, and this building got its name from a glyphic text on a lintel within its southern inner doorway; this text contains the only Classic Maya long count/initial series date (the most common horizon marker for that period) found at Chichén Itzá - 889 CE. The building is Puuc-styled, and the facades are plain. Its initial constructions (around 600 CE) place it as one of the oldest buildings at Chichén Itzá.


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Temple of the Wall Panels

Temple of the Wall Panels Description:

This eroded structure is similar in form to the Temple of The Warriors but significantly smaller in scale. Columns stretch out in front of it, and its name is drawn from the sculptured panels located on the north and south walls flanking the colonnade; these panels seem infused with a narrative involving two war captains in a battle over Chichén Itzá and the mythological associations around this conflict. It is framed within a world of animals and plants, including feathered serpent figures. Initial excavations by the Carnegie Institute seemed to indicate that fire ceremonies were held here.


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The Nunnery

The Nunnery Description:

The Nunnery, so-called by the Spanish as they felt it resembled the convents of Spain, is now thought to have been used for governmental purposes. It features carved stone latticework and Chaak masks decorating the upper facades and corners of buildings. This building is one of the oldest major constructions at Chichén Itzá, with at least two major construction periods dating to as early as 600 CE. It continued to see use and remodeling well after that time, as the older rooms were filled with rubble to give additional support to the new buildings above them.


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Iglesia

Iglesia Description:

Located in the northeastern corner of the Nunnery Complex, the Iglesia ("Church" in Spanish) is a rectangular building consisting of one large room and a single portal to the west. The upper façade of the building is decorated with a massive frieze and a roof comb; the corners of these feature sculptures of a curl-nosed Maya divinity who has been variously identified as Chaak, Witz, and even the celestial Yucatecan creator deity Itzamnaaj.


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Nunnery Annex

Nunnery Annex Description:

This ornately-decorated building within the Nunnery Complex is topped by a roof comb with lattice motifs featuring Chaak masks, though it has recently been postulated that these curl-nosed images are actually intended to represent the Witz, or spirits-within-mountains; regardless, both divinities are important in the invocation of rain. The front façade of the Nunnery Annex is carved in the shape of a giant Witz mask, replete with the door as a mouth. Interestingly, an undulating serpent is also carved into the cornice. This building embodies the widespread Chenes and Rio Bec architecture of the Late Classic period in the Yucatán.


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Xtoloc Temple

Xtoloc Temple Description:

The Xtoloc Temple is located next to the Xtoloc Cenote and was likely used in religious ceremonies related to the Cenote. It is larger than the other Xtoloc Temple located next to the Sacred Cenote to the North, and contains numerous carved depictions of warriors and religious functionaries on its columns. Bas-reliefs of plants, birds, and mythological scenes decorate the altar located inside the Temple. Its central entrance is oriented west along with the Sacbe that leads to the Osario.


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Xtoloc Cenote

Xtoloc Cenote Description:

The Xtoloc Cenote is the second-largest Cenote (sinkhole) found at Chichén Itzá, after the Sacred Cenote, and was likely used as a primary water source.


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References:

    more
  1. Castañeda, Quetzil. E. In the Museum of Maya Culture: Touring Chichen
    Itzá
    . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996
  2. Cocom, Juan Castillo. It Was Simply Their World: Yucated Maya PRInces in YucaPAN and the Politics of Respect. Critique of Anthropology, Vol. 25(2), 2005. pp.131-155
  3. Demarest, Arthur A. Ideology in ancient Maya cultural evolution:
    The dynamics of galactic polities.
    In The Ancient Civilizations of Mesoamerica: A Reader. Michael E. Smith & Marilyn A. Masson (eds.). Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 2000. pp. 279-299.
  4. Edgeworth, Matt (ed). Ethnographies of Archaeological Practice. Rowman Altamira, 2006. pp.160-66
  5. Instituto Nacional de Antroplogia e Historia (INAH). Data from informational signs posted onsite and in site museum.
  6. Joyce, Rosemary A. Gender and Power in Prehispanic Mesoamerica. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000.
  7. Koontz, Rex and Kathryn Reese-Taylor. Landscape and Power in Ancient Mesoamerica". Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2001. pp.330-335

  8. Schele, Linda & David Freidel. A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya. New York: Quill William Morrow, 1990
  9. Schele, Linda & Mary E. Miller. The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and
    Ritual in Maya Art
    . London: Thames and Hudson, 1986
  10. Sharer, Robert. The Ancient Maya (5th Edition). Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2006.
  11. Stuart, David. Arrival of strangers: Teotihuacan and Tollan in
    Classic Maya history
    . In Mesoamerica's Classic Heritage: Teotihuacán to the Aztec. David Carrasco, Lindsay Jones & Scott Sessions (eds.). Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1999.
  12. Tozzer, Alfred M. Landa's Relación de las cosas de Yucatán: A
    translation.
    Cambridge: Harvard University, Peabody Museum of
    American Archaeology and Ethnology, 1941.

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