What makes this site special?
large masks and Zodiac frIeze
The ruins are completely integrated with the town. The symbiosis is simply marvellous, but it is due to the sad fact that the Spanish conquistadores used the stones of the Maya pyramids and temples to build their Catholic church in its place, to show who was in power. As a result, most of the ancient city is buried. What remains in the main square is the Mask Pyramid and right next to it is a grocery store and a bakery and opposite is the Catholic church.
There are two main sites within the town of Acanceh. The Mask Pyramid is in street 21 at the zócalo and the Stucco Palace is in street 18. The recently discovered Observatory is also downtown.
I came here with my husband Rhod in May 2018 and we absolutely loved it. The town of Acanceh is a typical small colonial town, with a zócalo square and two fine haciendas. For full details see my posts Acanceh town, Hacienda Tepich and Hacienda Yabucú.
Acanceh means 'groan of the deer' in the Yucatec Maya language. Perhaps there were a lot of deer in the jungle around as the ancient Maya tended to name their settlements very simply, by the features of nature. In essence, the whole of the Yucatán Maya lands were referred to as the Land of Deer.
Different sources give different dates for this city. I will settle on the initial date as 700 BC as some researchers base it on the pottery fragments. The buildings that we see today are possibly from the Early Classic period, 250 to 550 AD.
Archaeologists have made associations between Acanceh and other cultures, for example the masks here use Olmec symbols and the friezes have a glyph puh (Place of the Reeds), which identifies ties with Teotihuacán (today's Mexico City). The architectural style resembles Tikal in the Petén region (Guatemala) and the site of Dzilbilchaltún to the north. Trade must have flourished between these regions.
The site, unlike many others, was never fully abandoned as it is mentioned in a number of the 16th and 17th century sources.
The first mention of Acanceh from an archaeological perspective was made by the French explorer Desiré Charnay, followed by a visit from the Austrian explorer Teobert Maler. By 1933, the Mexican scholar Miguel Angel Fernández worked at the site. Recently, Beatriz Quintal surveyed Acanceh including the ancient town, and determined the existence of a minimum of 160 structures spread over an area of more than two square kilometres.
The People: The Astronomers
The astronomers were not the only people at Acanceh but I focus on them because the masks at the pyramid suggest the cult of the Sun; the friezes tell a cosmological story and the presence of an observatory speaks for itself. Like any other city, by the Classic period the social hierarchy was fully in place: upper class (kings, priests, astronomers), middle class (artisans, traders, warriors, craftsmen) and commoners (farmers, hunters, slaves).
The astronomers watched the horizon with the naked eye to trace the motions of the sun, the stars and planets. They used shadow-casting, and water containers for their observation. With the aid of a forked stick they observed Venus and calculated its path. They have recorded everything in their books, or codices. Their ceremonial buildings were aligned with compass directions. From their observations, they developed calendars to keep track of time.
Their position in society was in the upper class. They dictated to the king when to start ceremonies or wars (the right position of Venus was a condition for a successful war, hence they called them star wars). Transfers of royal power were also timed by the summer solstice. They calculated the length of the lunar month (28 days), the Earth cycle (365 days) and the cycle of Venus (584 days), figures that match our knowledge of today. They invented a system of different calendars, based on those observations. Despite their scientific knowledge, they believed that the gods guided the Sun and Moon across the sky. The Sun and Moon continued to journey through the Underworld, where they were threatened by evil gods who wanted to stop their progress. To appease the evil gods they carried out sacred rituals such as self-mutilation and human sacrifice.
The priest-astronomers had other roles too. They learned and taught reading and writing, instructing sons of nobles in maths, science, astronomy, medicine, writing, and of course, religion. They kept track of genealogies and lineages. They told the people when to plant, when to harvest, when to marry, who to marry, how to behave. They would prophesy and foretell future events. They were intermediaries between the people and their deities. Human sacrifice was performed by the chief priest, called the nacom, as they had a hierarchy within the priesthood, with specific duties for each rank. Some were rainmakers, others were healers etc. For the full hierarchy see my post San Gervacio ruins.
Here at Acanceh the astronomers had an observatory, attached to the Pyramid of Masks by a sacbé (elevated 'white road' built from limestone). This structure is located approximately 900m from the Pyramid of Masks. It was discovered in 2007 and it was dated to 600-850 AD. It is a small platform with a staircase leading to a temple with a circular chamber. It was used for tracking the Sun and Venus. The doors align with the rising and setting of the sun during the spring and fall equinoxes, and the semicircular building is set up so that it casts no shadow in the midday sun.
The Focus: The Temple of Masks
This pyramid temple sits at the zócalo (the main square). It is a lovely stepped pyramid with amazing zoomorphic masks. The upper portion with the masks was once protected by a thatched roof. Sadly, during a town celebration a few years back fireworks set the thatch ablaze and damaged the stucco decorations. A metal roof is now in place.
It is thought that originally there were eight masks here; today only five remain.
Some scientists talk of the Olmec influence, for example a three-part headband on the mask forehead. Also the eyes of a figurehead have a shape similar to an 'L' letter that seems to correspond with elements of Olmec masks. In view of that, they could be about 2,000 years old.
To me, they look like the masks of the Sun God of Kohunlich, a site that I visited before I came to Acanceh. That was my opening line when we climbed the pyramid (on a wooden staircase) with the INAH guide Agustín. The earmuffs most likely represents the germination of corn. Apparently they have a superior and inferior knot, although I don't understand what that means.
As for the function, I also think they could have been used in the same way as the masks in Kohunlich. As in Kohunlich, each mask is 'sitting' on a panel block and the masks could represent the rulers. After all, they are not identical. Each ruler was thus portrayed as a deity – the kings even took the god's name as their noble title: K'inich Ajaw (sun-eyed lord). According to researcher Karl Taube, the manner in which they 'sit' indicates that each ruler had his 'miniature house' where he was buried. And indeed a burial was found in this structure (of a male and a female). In Taube's view, these panels with masks were probably shrines for the honoured dead rulers, who would be conjured up during fire rituals. The masks could have been used as actual incense burners. Temple censers served as a means of conjuring and communicating with the divine, so portraying the ruler in such a way (as a censer) made him a sacred intermediary between supernatural and mortal beings. Originally, they would have been painted red. Just visualise the power of the fire around that red mask!
The Mystery: The Maya zodiac stucco frieze
The other complex to be seen is the Acropolis in street 18, in between residential houses. The INAH guide will need to come with you and unlock the gate. This is a massive platform supporting the remains of a few temples and vaulted rooms. It is surrounded by walls but when I asked our guide Agustín if they were ancient, he admitted that they were built from the stones of the Acropolis by local residents around their houses and gardens that outline the site. This is nothing new, it happened at many sites, but I find it very sad.
The focus of the Acropolis is the Stucco Palace on the top level, named so because it has a stucco frieze panel. And what a frieze it is! Stucco has been used since very early by the Maya and we can see it at many ruins, the best being the one in Ek' Balam; others can be found at Dzibilchaltún, Ek Izamal, Oxkintok, Xcambó, etc. This one is special because it is a hidden mystery, with possible astronomical connotations.
The frieze was first reported by Adela Briton in 1908 who did some drawings and Teobert Maler later that year took some photos. Agustín pointed out to us a few animals on the frieze panel and suggested that they probably represent the underworld. Some researchers think that the animals represent entities called way or accompanying spirits. The Maya believed that every person had a way whose destiny was intertwined with their own. The way animal had certain attributes and the person would have the same attributes. Many Maya deities, like shamans and priests who conducted rituals, were able to shape-shift into their way. If the priest's way was a jaguar (symbol of power and valour), he would shift into a jaguar through such a ritual.
After our visit I searched for more answers and I came upon an article by Stansbury Hagar in the American Anthropologist journal. He (and other scientists) suggest that the frieze represents the Maya Zodiac.
So if you decide to come to Acanceh, you can try and see if you can spot the zodiac yourself. Here is the guide, as described by Stansbury Hagar. I am citing most of his article, but in a shorter form.
The inscription is divided horizontally into three parts. In the top band there is a series of symbols, probably representing the butterfly, which may be solar, and the stellar eye symbol. In the lowest band are alternating symbols of the planet Venus and two intertwined serpentine figures symbolizing the year marked by the northward and southward course of the sun along the ecliptic, and its daily course above and below the horizon. The middle band contains the most important symbols, which can't be exactly identified. The lower row contains eleven human and animal figures, while the upper is composed of seven birds and two human figures. All face toward the west, or left, as is usual in Maya inscriptions. The inscription terminates at each end in the figure of a large bird. The lower band relates to asterisms (groups of stars) and the upper band to the deities governing them. For example for the Libra sign, the asterism is the Serpent and the governing deity is the Death God.
If we look closer at the figures (from east to west), the first figure is a rattlesnake. Tzab Ek, the Rattle Asterism, is the Maya name of the Pleiades in Taurus. Above is a human figure descending downward head-first. Such a figure appears in the Dresden Codex with the double sign Aries-Taurus. It is possible that this falling figure represented the descent of one of the Taurid meteors of the time. Next to the left in the lower line is a human figure with abnormal proportions. It could be the Mexican (Teotihuacán) Xolotl, lord of twins and of deformed beings. He shares with his twin brother Quetzalcóatl the rulership of the sign Gemini, the Twins. Above him is the quetzal bird, symbol of this deity.
Next in the lower line is a human figure with the head of a crocodile or some amphibian. It is probably Imix, the eighteenth Maya day-sign. Imix could be the zodiac sign of Cancer the Crab (originally it would have been the cuttlefish, but it became later corrupted as crocodile). Above, an ara flies downwards. We now know ara as the Alta star in the Milky Way, near Scorpius. For the Maya it was K'inich K'ak Moo, the Sun Eye and the Ara of Fire, which descended from the sky upon an altar at the moment of the June solstice to consume the offerings (when the sun is in the sign of Cancer).
The next zodiacal sign is Leo, shown as the figure of a jaguar, with the severed head of a human victim next to him. Above is a pelican swallowing its food. The pelican is a greedy fisher taking its prey by hovering over the water. The Maya festival of fishermen and hunters was held during the month of Pop, when the sun was in Leo.
The next lower panel contains a lizard, associated with Virgo. The figure in the panel above is the maize deity eating a maize cake. He is dressed in dancing costume and carries a basket, which may contain tobacco. Under Libra, the following sign, the rattlesnake appears again beside a crescent-shaped object (thunderbolt?). Above the rattlesnake is an owl, the symbol of the Death God A, who rules the death-signs Libra and Scorpio. In the lower Scorpio panel is a man seated in a chair and wearing an artistic headdress, probably indicative of high rank. A symbol of speech comes out of his open mouth. His protruding tongue identifies him with the Chilan or oracular priest. The tail behind him may be that of a scorpion. A similar figure represents Scorpio in the Borgian and other Mexican codices.
I have used the better photos from the mesoweb site to show where all these animals sit: in the mouldings (squares or rectangles). These were identified as ohl (dating to Olmec times), which functioned as portals used by priests to move from one plane of existence to another, perhaps with the help of fasting and hallucinogens.
As for the zodiac list, a bat is next. He is above the Chilan priest. This animal relates to the Libra month Tzotz, or Bat. The bat deity in the Maya codices devours the light as a ruler of the subterranean cave into which the sun sinks at setting. It could be a symbol of the autumnal equinox.
The next lower panel is partially obliterated, it seems to be a tablet supported on two legs, probably of a puma, or ocelot, and at the top of the panel is the head and antlers of a stag. Both the ocelot and the stag are used as symbols of Sagittarius. The long round objects to right and left could be cases of arrows or other weapons to correspond with the attributes of the war god who rules this sign.
Finally, the Pisces panel contains a frog. The spiral speech or sound symbol issuing from its mouth may refer to the noisy croaking of the frogs.
The Aries zodiac sign is missing.
Uff, I find this analysis by Stansbury Hagar fascinating. It is up to you to judge if you go by it, of course. To me it sounds highly probable. What look like innocent stuccos of birds and animals, have deep mythological or astronomical meanings. I was not able to see or understand all of this. I wish the INAH guides were more instructive. I find time after time that I have to come prepared with the information, which I did not do in this case. But the search for possible explanations is certainly worth it. Otherwise, one just looks at stones with pictures, not understanding what mankind knew in the past and wanted to tell us.
Try not to miss the back pyramid behind the Pyramid of Masks, at the site by the main plaza. It is pretty damaged, a result of looting. Surprisingly, you are still allowed to climb it. Burials were apparently found here. And try and find the Observatory. I am not sure if it is open to the public but the INAH staff will advise you.
If you come here at Easter weekend, the town enacts the crucifixion of Christ at the pyramid yard. A real symbiosis of two cultures and religions.
How to get there:
Drive off Highway 180D (Cancún-Mérida) turn to road 184 (the Convent Route). It is about 45 minutes to the south of Mérida.
You can take a colectivo bus from Mérida.
The site is open from 8am to 5pm every day and the entry fee is 45 pesos.
Mix & Match
Hagar, Stansbury (1914), The Maya Zodiac at Acanceh, American Anthropologist, archive.org/stream/jstor
Ancient Mayan Observatory Was Used to Track Sun and Venus, researchers find (2016): foxnews.com