Bonampak

Chiapas, Mexico


The Name   |   The Age   |   The People   |   The Focus   |   The Mystery   |   Don't Miss   |   Mix & Match


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What makes this site special? The Amazing murals!

They are like photographs but better!!! For me, they make the Maya very human, unlike a lot of stone reliefs or even sculptures. You can admire in detail their clothes, their weapons, their musical instruments and get emotional over their warfare and bloodletting.

They vividly tell us how the ancient Maya lived everyday life in the 8th century AD in a detail that reliefs are unable to do. And they debunked early assumptions that the Maya were a peaceful culture (a position long held by the archaeologist Sir John Eric Sidney Thompson).

Tragically, the vivid colours and even the underlying plaster, were damaged in 1949 by archaeologists from modern times. They doused the murals in kerosene to remove the dirt and intensify the colours. This weakened the plaster, causing both paint and plaster to flake and fall off. We now need reconstructed paintings to help us see the details. There is a vivid reproduction in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City, but you have to see the originals. This is how they looked during my visit in April 2017. I was allowed to take photos, but of course, no flash.

 
Outside the Pink Palace with a group from Playa del Carmen, March 2017.
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The Name

The vivid coloured frescos give Bonampak its name. It means Painted Walls in modern Maya. This is a reference to frescoes located in the Temple of Murals (Structure 1) in the Main Plaza. This is a place of worship for the Lacandón Indians. In ancient times the town's emblem glyph was Ak'e (meaning 'will be finished'). In fact, some murals were never fully finished (the site was abandoned before the end) but the name tells us that it was a lengthy process and refers to the people's desire and determination to complete them.

 
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In its local area it is known as Usiij Witz (Vulture Hill). Well, there are plenty of vultures in the Lacandón jungle around the site. It is a very lush jungle, with very tall trees (30-50m) and plenty of wild life.

At the mid section of the Acropolis.

At the mid section of the Acropolis.

 

The Age

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The site is very small because Bonampak was never a major city. Alongside Yaxchilán, Piedras Negras and Palenque they used the Usumacinta River for trade (it now forms the border between modern Mexico and Guatemala) and competed for territory and dominance.

Bonampak's setting in dense jungle hid it from the outside world until 1946 when it was rediscovered by American travellers. There is some controversy about who was first so I shall not name any, but it's one of those stories of jealousy, delusion and tragic death that could be straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. Our local guide to the Bonampak site, Chan Bor Yuk, claims that it was his grandfather who showed it to the Americans! But given the size of the local Lacandón community, it's possible that anyone else in the village could say the same.

As for the ancient history, the current buildings date from 580-800 AD. Bird Jaguar in the early 5th century fought against K'inich Tatb'u Skull I in Yaxchilán, and lost his freedom. Other nobles were captured in a later war against Knot-eye Jaguar I who was later (in 514) himself taken captive (by Ruler C of Piedras Negras), giving Bonampak some respite. But after 526, his successor K'inich Tatb'u Skull II attacked Bonampak again and captured more lords.

 
Stela 1. Ruler Chan Muwan II with his scepter.

Stela 1. Ruler Chan Muwan II with his scepter.

Stela 2. Chan Muwan preparing for a ritual bloodletting ceremony.

Stela 2. Chan Muwan preparing for a ritual bloodletting ceremony.

 

By 600 AD Bonampak had become a vassal of Yaxchilán. In 790 AD the lord of Yaxchilán Itzamnaaj Bahlam II (Shield Jaguar II) appointed his nephew Yajaw Chan Muwan I as lord in Bonampak. The 6m-high Stele 1 in the Gran Plaza depicts Chan Muwan II holding a ceremonial staff at the height of his reign. He also features in Stele 2 and Stele 3 on the Acropolis, which rises from the south end of the plaza. In Stela 2 he is preparing for the bloodletting ceremony, to communicate with deceased ancestors. He is assisted by his mother (on the right) and his wife, the sister of Shield Jaguar of Yaxchilán. His mother is handing him a sting-ray spine and paper strips.

 
The Procession of the Lords. Right: lower panel, warriors.

The Procession of the Lords. Right: lower panel, warriors.

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The People

There are two kinds of people at Bonampak. The current ones, and the ancients.

The people who live around the site now are Lacandón Maya. They are not direct descendants of Bonampak rulers as they came here later, in the 16th century, from Guatemala (the Petén region) and from Yucatán (the Campeche area), hiding from the Spanish conquerors. They used a dispersed settlement pattern to protect their traditions, customs and religion. They supported themselves for centuries by practising a method of agro-forestry, like all the Maya. They worship in Bonampak as they believe their gods once dwelt here. Our guide to Bonampak was Chan Bor Yuk (also known as Elias), a Lacandón Maya. I have an extensive story about him in the post the Lacandón jungle. Lacandón are easily recognisable as they wear long white tunics in everyday life.

 
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Chan Bor Yuk, aka Elias.

Chan Bor Yuk, aka Elias.

 

The murals of the three rooms of the Temple of the Murals tell the story of the ancient rules and nobles, in particular Chan Muwan and his wife, a princess from Yaxchilán, probably a descendant of Yaxchilán’s ruler Itamnaj Balam III (Shield Jaguar III). They are portrayed about two-thirds of life-size. The murals hint at a story of political uncertainty in contrast with the triumphal majesty of the celebrations they portray. 

The murals offer a rare view of daily life in a Maya court (usually this is available only on painted vessels). It is interesting to observe their feasts, clothes, rituals, musical instruments, weapons and warfare.

The narrative should be viewed in chronological order. In reality, the scenes go back and forward in time.

·      Room 1: the acknowledgement by the Bonampak ruler, Yajaw Chan Muwan, of his son’s right to rule, 792 AD. This is in front of the court and the dedication scene is full of dances and musical performance.

·      Room 2: the battle, 787 or 792 AD, and sacrifice of captives in the presence of the court.

·       Room 3: celebration after the battle, including blood-letting

One can see the same people across several images; for example, the lords of the south wall of Room 1 reappear on the north wall of Room 3.

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We were lucky to have Chan Bor Yuk as a guide, not only because he made a walking stick for my friend John but because he is a real local expert and the ex-president of the local eco-tourism board. His life effort is to promote their culture and he is truly prepared with diagrams of the rooms, showing the walls and the ceilings. We were even welcome to his wooden jungle house, to see how he lives. Certainly different from the ancient Mayan rulers who lived in the stone Acropolis of Bonampak!

 
In the house of Chan Bor Yuk

In the house of Chan Bor Yuk

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Room 1: The ceremony

A ceremony is attended by the king, Chan Muwan, and his wife. A child is presented to the gathered nobles by a high dignitary.

The scenes are depicted over two levels:

Upper level (left photo below): Here we can see a series of giant masks connected to sky deities and stars. The central scene is represented just below it. From a higher throne on the west wall the royal couple assists with the ceremony. High dignitaries and nobles, dressed in white cloaks, stand in front of another noble carrying a child, the possible presentation of the royal heir. On the north wall three dignitaries, one of which is the king, are dressing for the ceremony with elegant clothes, jaguar pelts, and feathered headdresses.

In the scene where they dressed the king (left photo below) the servant to the left is adjusting his master's bracelet, the one on the right daubs his master with red paint, others nearby are waiting their turn. Infrared photography revealed that the painters applied black outline over the colours and body contours and that for example the hands were painted with the utmost care.

Lower level (right photo below): A series of standing figures can be seen here. Some of them wear masks; others are musicians playing gourd rattles, wooden drums, and trumpets. Four masked actors (who are not visible in this picture) dance in front of the musicians. Of them then is disguised as a giant crab (representing the underworld).

 
May 2016. Our family friend Leopoldo Rodriguez training with his team to take part in the reenacted sacred journey to Cozumel, to worship the Moon goddess Ixchel.
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In the scene of the Procession of the Lords (left photo below), thirteen sajals (12 regional governors and one lady) are dressed in white robes, which indicates that they came to pay tribute to the king and present him with gifts. Their number is probably significant. The principal lords of the dressing scene on the north wall are then represented as dancers. The sequence is clear: dressing precedes performance. The first lord (close to the smallest dancer) bears a short-handled parasol in his hands, an indication of political subjection although they all appear as individuals of privilege. They are entering the doorway in pairs and musicians lead the way, with gourd rattle players at the front. One of the sajals smokes a thin cigar, another one is explicitly named as a k'ayoom (singer). One wonders if they are not the ones who commissioned the scene as they are painted with remarkable attention to detail and given a lot of space, while the royal family is painted clumsily (perhaps done by a less adept artist).

I can't help it, but the current Lacandón Maya look very similar in white tunics. Surely they copied the attire to maintain their heritage, although they came here 300 or so years ago from different Mayan regions. Well, that may be the reason, actually. Perhaps they needed to emphasise with their dress code their right to live there.

 
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The Focus: Murals of life at the court

Room 2: The mural of the battle

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Here, at the centre of the south wall, the ruler Chan Muwan is leading his warriors into battle. He is grabbing the hair of an opposing trooper (who is already stripped of clothes) and threatening him with his spear. He is dressed in a jaguar skin jerkin and a jaguar headdress. On his chest he has a 'trophy head', on this occasion made of jade. A faint outline in front of his face is a mask – he went into battle in the guise of a deity or ancestor. The thrusting spear was the main weapon used by the Maya in war. It was a jabbing weapon, not meant to be thrown. For long range battle they used atlatl, a spear-thrower rather like a wooden sling. For protection they used shields (circular or square). They went into battle accompanied by the blowing of conch shell trumpets and the beating of drums. Small parasols, when held in a downward position, were symbolic of submission or defeat. If you are interested in more detail about Maya warfare, you can read my post Warriors in the Mystery section. Needless to say that battle scene now looks pretty destroyed (see the photo on the right below).

 
El Castillo (the Castle, as the Spaniards named it).
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Upper level:  The king stands at the centre with the noblemen, two Yaxchilán representatives and the queen. They wear elegant headdresses, jaguar pelts and jade pectorals, which stand in high contrast with the naked captives at their feet.

Lower level: The sacrifice of captives after the battle.

King Yahaw Chan Muwan stands above the dead captive at the centre of the wall. A number of captives are sitting or kneeling on the stairs. Nude captives (only wearing a loincloth) are depicted in deep agony. Some of them are in the process of having their fingernails ripped off, or have already undergone this torture and bleed from their wounds. In the centre one captive is lying dead below the king; it seems the artist made sensuality out of sacrifice. The severed head of another captive is at his feet (his grey brains dribbling from the open cranium). The bottom drawing shows a series of standing warriors, probably waiting for the final sacrifice of the surviving captives.

The north wall is one of pain and suffering. To view it, a visitor would have sat on the south bench above the bound captives, as if becoming a part of the scene. For this reason, I could not take a photo of the scene, as it is in the dark spot above the entrance. The captives were important to kings and were the aim of the warfare – they used them either as slaves or for sacrifice (they believed that the blood had to be returned to the gods, who gave their own blood to humans when creating them).

 
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Nikolai Grube explains that the officer opposite the king extends his arm to present the captives. In one hand he has a jade bead, in the other quetzal feathers. These are precious possessions, probably the loot from the captives.

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A new study by Kevin Johnston, an anthropologist at Ohio State University, suggest that this could be a murder of royal scribes. After photo enhancement of the painting, he realised that the captives on the stairs were holding quills. He suggests that as the official scribes of Maya kings were considered important to the kings' power, they were especially targeted by enemies in warfare. If captured, their fingers were broken and their fingernails ripped out. Then they were executed. Destroying a conquered king's ability to communicate was a powerful act of symbolism.

According to Mary Ellen Miller, at the south end of the main plaza at Bonampak, rising to the acropolis, the first tier of steps provides the likely physical setting for the scene in Room 2. Just seven steps, as depicted, rise to the level where Stelae 2 and 3 are positioned.

 

Room 3: The battle aftermath

The murals in Bonampak's Room 3 portray the celebrations that followed the events of Rooms 1 and 2. The scene takes place in front of and beneath the palace entrance.

Upper level: The eastern wall portrays a private scene of the royal family, sitting on a throne bench, and performing a bloodletting ritual to celebrate the success of the war. In front of them, a procession of dancers, musicians and members of the nobility participate in the celebration, in a scene developing all along the southern, western and northern walls.

Lower level: This scene is taking place in real life on the stairs outside the palace. A series of dancers with feathered headdresses dance at the bottom of the building's stairways, while a procession of nobles stand in front of the steps with banners and trumpets.

The upper level of the east wall (left photo) shows the noblewomen holding stingray spines to their tongues in a bloodletting ritual. A large man offers bloodletting supplies to the women on the throne (the man is not seen in the picture below). Immediately above, in the vault, is a supernatural entity spewing blood. I include my photo (on the right) just for comparison of its state today.

 
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The Mystery: Riddle of the Missing Skull

After a series of earthquakes from 2005 through 2007, archaeologists began a restoration project at Bonampak. During a radar survey they detected a cavity beneath the torture mural. According to Chan Bor Yuk, two more tombs have been discovered since. Burials under the temples and pyramids were commonplace. Given the size of the Acropolis, one presumes that the burial chamber was built first and the Acropolis above it later. The tomb was sealed and a part of the original construction of Structure 1, not created at a later date.

The tomb of a headless man decorated with jade earrings (left photo). Who was he? A captive warrior who was sacrificed? One of the victims in Room 2 mural? After all, the body was right under the torture mural and was not in a sarcophagus. I don't believe so as they would have removed his jade and replaced it with paper, in order to humiliate him, as was common practice. Or a relative of the city's ruler? Or could tomb raiders have stolen the skull? As the tomb was sealed, this is less likely. Did the skull just erode?Preliminary analysis of the skeleton indicates that it belonged to a 35- to 42-year-old man (and he had arthritis). His skull is missing although the lower jaw is preserved.

The victim may have been beheaded. However, jade earrings were on the ground, as if they'd fallen from his ears. This could be a clue that the skull may have disintegrated. The deceased also wore a pendant made from the shell of a spiny oyster. This suggests he was an elite. But whose side was he on?

Two multicolored ceramic plates, an alabaster vase with a hole in the base, and a stone knife also accompanied the body. The perforated vase and knife are indicative of Maya sacrifice, though not necessarily beheading. One option might be that he was a high-class warrior from an opposing group who was sacrificed at a ceremony dedicating the temple, as National Geographic reports. However, the skeleton does not have his hands tied behind (like those found at the Quetzalcóatl temple in Teotihuacán).

 
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A fuller scene of the battle.

A fuller scene of the battle.

 

Alternatively, the man could be a relative of Chan Muwan II, who ruled Bonampak at the time the murals were painted. The skeleton's jade and shell jewellery, for example, matches that of the Bonampak nobles depicted in Room One. Even if he was a Bonampak insider, it wouldn't rule out the possibility that he was sacrificed to the gods or killed in a battle or died of natural causes.

Could it be the body of Yajaw Chan Muwan? The murals are clearly part of the tomb so they were likely built to tell the life story of the person buried within it. 

The ruler's child being presented to the lords. Was it a daughter? I took the photos at the Mayan Museum in Chetumal.

The ruler's child being presented to the lords. Was it a daughter? I took the photos at the Mayan Museum in Chetumal.

Did he die as the painting was being planned, and does the prominence of the three young heirs in the murals signal the succession issue? The child being presented in Room 1, thought to be their heir to the throne, is apparently female, as Heather Hurst suggests.

Last but not least, could it be the lord of Yaxchilán? He is absent in the murals, yet he commissioned them and even provided his artisans. Did he commission his own tomb? Our guide told us there are other tombs now discovered on the site but we will have to wait until the scientists analyse the discoveries.

 
At the mid-section of the Acropolis.
 

Don't Miss: The royal princes

The real protagonists of the murals are not the kings but the royal court – attendants, musicians, performers, warriors, and messengers. Messengers gossip amongst themselves, one performer even stops to smoke a cigar (a Maya invention), indifferent to the world around him. The sheer presence of so many courtiers and the growth of elite ranks was one of the challenges facing Maya society in the decades before the collapse.

Take the celebratory dance in Room 3 which is taking place on the steps of a giant pyramid. What captures one’s attention immediately are the three elaborately dressed individuals in the upper register. Musicians crowd the north and west walls. The dance is observed by messengers on the north wall, and by the women of the royal court, seated on a throne on the protected inner east vault.

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The three noblemen are wearing wearing tall, green, quetzal-feathered headdresses and dancer's wings. So the focus is not on the king but on three royal princes (young heirs), who dance the quetzal dance. These are the same brothers from Room 1. The infrared images revealed that one of the figures in this scene has in his left hand the still beating heart of the sacrificial victim below who is being dragged down the pyramid steps by two attendants. Violence is never far away in Mayan art. The noblemen appear frequently in the murals, always accompanied by their names and royal titles. They are now the most damaged figures in the murals as people like to touch them. For example Aj K’an Yuyum, whose name in translation means 'yellow oriole'. It was very common to use colours and animals for personal names.

 
The mural room behind me. They are small; only two people can go in at a time.

The mural room behind me. They are small; only two people can go in at a time.

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The site map

  • Open daily 8:00am – 5:00pm.

  • It is wise to arrive at 3:00pm at the latest.

  • There are restrooms on the site, also souvenir stalls and they sell cold fresh water.

 
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How to get there:

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Bonampak and Yaxchilán are off the Frontier Highway 307. You can take a three-hour bus ride from Palenque; by car it is 2.5 hours. The bus will drop you near the ruins, at the village of San Javier where there is a booth for paying the jungle entry (65 pesos) next to the police booth. You will need to take a taxi or another local bus (I would not bet on this option). A sign in the village of San Javier points at the possibility of taking a taxi to Crucero Bonampak (right photo above with a taxi sign). Another option is to hike the last 3km to Crucero Bonampak, the Lacandón community settlement.

From Crucero Bonampak you can't go further by car and you will have to go with a guide or walk. There is a restaurant 3km away, where you can go afterwards for your lunch, as well as cascades, Laguna Lacanjá and a camping site. The guides will advise you further. Highly recommended. You will hear and feel the nature there. From here they will allocate you a Bonampak guide with a van (we paid 1,000 pesos in 2017). There is a separate entry fee to the ruins (65 pesos).

If you take a tour, you will have your own guide from Palenque, not the local Lacandón guide. If you travel by car, expect to pass a few military checkpoints. Don’t be alarmed, the soldiers may or may not check your car; they are polite and respectful.

For lunch after the visit to the ruins, you could try the palapa restaurant at Crucero Bonampak. It was closed when we were there so we went to San Javier village. There is a restaurant at the crossroads, right next to the police road checkpoint. It has no sign but they offer home-made quesadillas and fresh fruit drinks.

 
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Mix & Match

Most people go here after the Palenque visit. The best combination is a two-day trip, visiting Yaxchilán and Bonampak. If you want to do some jungle trekking or boat trips in the lagoons, you will need more time.

Sources:

Nikolai Grube, Maya, Divine Kings of the Rain Forest, 2012, Ullmann

The story of the murals

Site map: Bonampak

The procession of the musicians

Bonampak Room 2: scene of the battle

The battle mural

Detailed scene of the captives

Female nobles piercing their tongue

National Geographic: Riddle of the missing skull

Kevin Johnston: Murder of royal scribes

Mary Ellen Miller: The architectural backdrops of murals in Structure 1, Bonampak

RuinsLydia JonesComment