Quintana Roo, Mexico
What makes this site special?
Frieze of Captives on the stairway.
Dzibanché is Costa Maya's best kept secret. It is known for the frieze of carved captives on the temple stairway. The original friezes are now kept at the Cancún Mayan museum.
There are hardly any tourists so you may have the site to yourself, like we did when we came here with my husband in September 2017. Also, I did not expect it to be so large and elegant. The lawns are certainly manicured.
The site is made up of several plazas surrounded by palaces and platforms. In the past (250-600 AD) the site was integrated into four groups: Kinichná, the Central Complex (or Lamay), Tutil and the Main Group. Today, Kinichná is a separate site (2km away), with just one Acropolis, and Lamay and Tutil are not open to the public.
Dzibanché seemed to be the hub of those four satellite cities. It would have been the ceremonial centre. It had advanced water engineering as the centre of Dzibanché was built near the Escondido river. It is very likely that the Aguada, which is located just east of Plaza Xibalbá (the top square), is man-made, and served as a water deposit channelled from the Escondido River in rainy weather.
Dzibanché was once the early capital of the famous Kaan (Snake) dynasty, in the 5th and 6th centuries, which was later ruled from the great city of Calakmul (about 130km west).
Like Calakmul, the ruins of the city are situated on a raised area surrounded by an extensive area of seasonal swampland, known as a bajo, which gave the city fertile soils (due to their clever agricultural techniques). The site is very pleasant for a stroll. Watch out for spider monkeys. We did not see or hear them, perhaps because as it happens the maintenance staff were cutting the grass in the plaza with modern (and noisy) lawn mowers. So I presume they fled from the noise.
The name Dzibanché means 'writing on wood'. The name is derived from the sculpted wooden lintels of the Temple of the Lintels. You can't see the original lintels, as they have been replaced by new ones painted black. The old lintels (dated 733 AD) are supposed to be at the Museo de la Cultura Maya in Chetumal but I have not seen them there.
I have been to most museums in Yucatán but have not found the original lintels yet. If you have, please let us know.
The city was discovered by Thomas Gann, an Irish military doctor and amateur archaeologist, in 1927. By then the ruins had been penetrated by the roots of wild figs and today those roots give the place the mystique of the old days.
The settlement was occupied from about 200 BC. The hieroglyphic stairway at Dzibanché contains the earliest known use of the Kaan (Snake) dynasty emblem glyph, dated to 495 AD. Around 580 to 590, the Kaan dynasty apparently moved their dynastic seat to Calakmul, although it was not until 631 that the Snake Kings erected a monument declaring themselves the masters of the city, having displaced a dynasty there known as the Bats.
I have tried to trace the Snake kings and it seems that the Snake dynasty started in El Mirador, then moved to Dzibanché, then to Calakmul, and ﬁnally to Calkini near the north-west coast. The current research at this site apparently also indicates that the Kaan dynasty settled down in Ichkabal between 450 and 620 AD. We have to wait to see what this research will bring forward.
It is believed that the city extended over 40 km2 at its peak (300-900 AD). I presume that with the move of the Royal Snake seat to Calakmul there would have been a gradual decline in the importance of Dzibanché in the region. However, new excavations (in 2008 and 2009) have exposed large elite residences built in the Middle Classic (550-650), as well as administrative buildings that make Dzibanché a site of great importance even after the supposed relocation of the Kaan dynasty to Calakmul.
The Snake emblem glyph found here helps us understand how dynasties developed. There is also a lot of discussion currently among Mayologists about what emblem glyphs represented and there is now general agreement that they were toponyms. They labelled royal houses (like the Snake House) and their connection to the ancestral place of origin. They remained constant even if the royal family moved to another place (where they also used their emblem glyph).
Dzibanché was one of the last cities in the Maya area to create a dated hieroglyphic text, in 909 AD. After that date, it was presumed that the city was abandoned. However, very recent research by the INAH (the National Institute of Anthropology and History) at the nearby site of Ichkabal (10km from Dzibanché, soon to be open to the public) indicates that the site may have been occupied until the arrival of the Spanish conquerors in the 16th century. Archaeologist Sandra Balanzario, responsible for the investigation project in Dzibanché, reports that the city was inhabited until the Late Post-classic period (1200 – 1550 AD). This could potentially change our views on the collapse of the Mayan societies, i.e. they never collapsed?
Another important aspect that came out of the Ichkabal research is the agricultural system: a method different from 'tumba y quema' (slash and burn) was employed in this area; this theory has been in use since the 1970s, but archaeological evidence has not been found to prove it. The thesis developed by North American archaeologist Peter Harrison points out that the Maya here built raised fields, similar to Chinampas placed on river meanders.
Also, beside some natural water sources, this site contains several chultunes or underground excavations that served as water collection structures.
The rulers and the elite erected their homes on the upper square, Plaza Xibalbá (Underworld square). And it is in the Temple of the Owl at this Plaza where a few burials were found, offering an insight into the life of the rulers. In the royal tomb there were clay vessels painted with white owls, messengers of the underworld. This is where the Temple got its name from. The burial also contained an engraved shell that was part of the offering. The image could be the representation of a ruler evoking a historical 'hero' or an ancestor. The shell inside shows a ruler dressed in a jaguar skin skirt (the spots marked with coral), a belt with three jade hatchets, signifying power, bracelets, a necklace, a nosepiece and an earmuff. Sitting on a soft mat throne, he holds an undulating double-headed serpent from which deities emerge, and he wears a headdress with bands topped by the jester god and a glyph with the noble title of ajaw.
A serpent deity emerges from the jaws of another serpent; this was a usual way of expressing the birth or rebirth of gods and rulers. The deity on the left is the solar god K'inich ajaw. The symbols define him as a sovereign linked with the ancestors and with the noble lady, who was also buried in the tomb (300-450 AD). She wore a pectoral, shell necklaces, earmuffs, pendants, a ceremonial bill and jade dental inlays.
The hieroglyphic stairway names Yuknoom Ch’een I, an early Kaan dynast who conquered smaller cities surrounding Dzibanché in the early 6th century. He was the captor of the prisoners named on the steps at the Temple of the Captives. The stairway tells the story of his conquests, possibly between 479 and 490 AD. He was possibly the father of Tuun Kʻab Hix (Bound Stone Jaguar) who ruled 520 to 546 AD. His son is known as the Snake ruler on Calakmul monuments but I am not clear if he was just listed there as one of the Snake kings in the area or actually ruled there. By then the Snake Kingdom was asserting its influence in the southern Maya lowlands and fought for supremacy with its great rival Tikal. Stela 25 from Naranjo records the accession of Aj Wosal Chan K'inich in 546, installed by Tuun Kʻabʻ Hix, so he was a powerful lord. It was probably during his reign that a ruler of El Resbalón declared himself to be a vassal of Kaan in 529.
It may be also worth noting that the Río Bec architectural style reached the nearby sites, for example Kohunlich, but did not affect Dzibanché. Here the architecture resembles mostly the Petén style (like Tikal in Guatemala). Why would that be? Architecture is always a reference to social reality and an indicator of origins and alliances. Did Dzibanché not have contact with the Río Bec sites? Did the power of the elite weaken after the seat was moved? Is it possible that with the relocation of the Kaan dynasty to Calakmul towards the first quarter of the seventh century, Dzibanché had entered into a kind of social lethargy?
Well, perhaps, but it would have been short-lived. As I already mentioned, it does not look like they stopped building. For example, the Pom Plaza was built between 600-700 AD. It is a complex of five buildings that were in the past decorated with stuccoes of deities and characters (rulers?). All the buildings in Plaza Pom were equipped with sidewalks, which indicate that the complex served as a residence.
It is here where they discovered the Kaan (snake) emblem glyph in a ceramic pot, which indicates that Pom square was the residence of the K'uhul ajaw (Lord) of Dzibanché. The pot with the glyph was deliberately broken and deposited as an offering (this was standard practice with offerings). A reading of the engraved glyphs on the vessel mentions sukuwinik ch’ok kaloomte’ (Older Brother Prince, Kaloomte). Kaloomte was a noble title, something like 'supreme lord'. So we have a situation here with two brothers, one of them ruled in Dzibanché (the older one?), while the other one moved to Calakmul, as part of the same branch of this dynasty. Could this possibly be Sky Witness, ascending to the Calakmul throne in 561 AD?
There is evidence to suggest that antagonistic groups of interests confronted each other in Dzibanché around 700 AD. The characters bearing symbols associated with power were totally destroyed in the frieze of Ball Game 2, while the only individual of minor status in that same frieze was respected (the same happened in the Tutil site next door, when only one character with a jaguar was completely destroyed). A revolt or a civil war? It is possible that the confrontation was between groups of power members of one or different dynastic groups, but also between the ruling elite and the commoners. Interestingly, none of the captive friezes were destroyed. At this moment we don't have an answer. What we do know is that Dzibanché put itself together fast, as the intensity of construction activity afterwards shows. That probably culminated with the emergence of new centres of power and cultural renewal nearby (Becán, Río Bec, Kohunlich).
And what else do the site structures tell us? The Small Acropolis with four structures was used as the administrative centre. Its walls were covered with graffiti of both a figurative and an abstract nature. Were they drawn after the site was abandoned? Well, apparently not, because in some areas two layers of stucco are overlaid with graffiti so it seems the building was receiving maintenance while its walls were filled with graffiti.
On the other hand, the graffiti were not made for posterity and they were made by people with no special drawing skills. This suggests that they were made at the time of making a presentation in the context of an official audience; they perhaps supported or settled an argument that was going to be presented. I would love to have been a fly on the wall in that audience!!!!!
On the way to the Plaza Gann (named after the archaeologist who discovered the site) we passed some defensive walls (still covered by jungle) and stopped by the Temple of the Toucans (structure 16). Here we encountered some zoomorphic masks, that reminded me at first sight of Witz, the Mountain Monster that was placed on buildings to mark them as living sacred mountains, with the entry to the underworld (see more in my post Monsters). However, looking more closely, the masks seem to have more human features than those of the monsters so they could be the masks of rulers or gods. The nearby sites Kohunlich and Becán have stucco masks on their pyramids and they are of the Sun God, K'inich Ajaw. I presume the same worship was practised in Dzibanché. Each mask is 'sitting' on a panel of each stairway block, exactly like in Kohunlich. These panels were probably shrines for the honoured dead rulers. The rulers adopted the titles of the gods as their own noble titles, which gave them divine status, and so it is possible that in reality they were the masks of the rulers. In my imagination, the masks would function as censers, with the head serving as a burning brazier, in the same way as they do in Kohunlich. Imagine this pyramid at night, full of small fires, during the fire rituals. What a sight! This was the way of conjuring and communicating with the divine; the ruler portrayed in such a way was an intermediary between supernatural and mortal beings.
The Focus: THE PALACE OF THE LINTELS
The city's history is reflected in the architecture. The most important groups of buildings are the Temple of the Lintels (labelled on-site as Structure 6); Gann Plaza, which is flanked by the Temples of the Cormorants, Captives and Toucans; Xibalbá Plaza (Underworld Square), the site of the Temple of the Owl and the North and South Palaces. The buildings are all labelled on-site, for ease of orientation.
The overall style of the buildings is the Petén style (one of five styles of Mayan architecture). Petén is a department of the nation of Guatemala. Typical features of this style are prominent staircases, stepped terraces, gently curving corners and tall and slender pyramids. And indeed, the steep stairways and the lofty upper temples are reminiscent of Tikal in Guatemala. The staircases are flanked by stucco figureheads that are either anthropomorphic or zoomorphic. It is a style characteristic of the sites of the late Pre-Classic period (300 BC-250 AD) and the early Classic period (250-600 AD).
The first restored structure you will encounter is the Temple of the Lintels, which gave the site its name. This is a perfect spot to orient yourself for the rest of the site: facing the steps, you are looking east. It’s a pyramid topped by a temple with two vaulted galleries; the base dates from the early Classic period (AD 300–600), while the temple on top is from the late Classic period (AD 600–900). The stairs were built in three stages; you can see parts of two of them from the front of the building. You can also climb the stairs to the temple on top, for great views and interesting photos but you will not be able to see the lintels with glyphs as they are not kept at the site.
The Mystery: THE TEMPLE OF THE CAPTIVES
This temple is on the second square, Plaza Gann. It is referred to as Structure 13. It has the stairways with the friezes of captives on the step risers, covered with a roofing made of palm leaves, for protection. Also a damaged mask of a ruler (or god) on the side has the same cover.
Warfare was so critical to the prestige of the ruling dynasty that both king and queen were depicted standing atop prisoners. Important captives were named and carved into stone monuments. In Dzibanché the captives are portrayed on the risers of the steps, rather than on a stela slab. So far only the name of the ruler and one captive have been deciphered.
The numerous war captives on the stairs are near naked, with tousled hair and they seem to be struggling with their bonds. This monument cannot be dated with certainty. One of these captives is named as Yax K'ahk' Jolo'm and, although his place of origin is not clear in the accompanying text, the form of his name indicates that he came from the city of El Resbalón, close to Dzibanché itself. The name of the captive on the stair in El Resbalón, is K’ahk’ Jolo’m, very similar to the captive of Dzibanché. It could have been two different individuals, however, the scientists advise us that many proper names had regional distribution. In El Resbalón, the king K'altuun Hix (520-546 AD) was responsible for taking captive the prisoners who are depicted there on the steps.
Nikolai Grube suggests that hieroglyphic steps with the portraits of the captives indicate that Dzibanché was a vassal of Calakmul and that this centre was an Early Classic capital for the Kaan polity. This idea is not supported exclusively by the evidence from Dzibanché, but also by the lack of early inscriptions associating the Kaan emblem glyph with the ancient city of Calakmul. What intrigues me most about the captives is that they are depicted on the risers of steps. I am deducing that in reality they would have been placed in a kneeling position on the steps and the victorious king walked on top of their bodies, to show his power by such humiliation of the captives.
The next question is what happened to these live enemies. If they were of royal blood, they would have been stripped of their clothes and jade jewellery (which was replaced by paper ear-flares for humiliation) and then they would have been sacrificed (by beheading or removing the heart while it was beating). If the captives were commoners, they would simply serve as slaves to the victorious king. The slaves could have worked their way in the society, depending on their skills. For more on the fate of the captives see my post Captives (blog link).There were also political consequences of conquests. At best, the defeated dynasty was allowed to continue ruling but was turned into a vassal (paying tribute). In other instances, the defeated dynasty was taken to the winner's city for prolonged captivity by the ruler.
Don't Miss: THE TEMPLE OF THE CORMORANTS
This pyramid (also called Structure 2) was built during the 5th century AD. It sits on Gann Plaza and behind it is the raised Plaza Xibalbá.
This building has the talud-tablero style of architecture, influenced by Teotihuacán. Perhaps it was trade-related, as Teotihuacán traded obsidian, salt and forest products with the lowland Maya.
A stucco mural was recently found in this pyramid. It is visible on the side of the pyramid and covered by a roof of palm leaves. I could not work out the details of the image but according to Enrique Nalda, director of the Dzibanché Archaeological Project, its iconography represents the sacred mountain (Witz), in which the origin of the Kaan family is described and which in turn legitimises the Snake dynasty. In Maya cosmology, caves in the mountains were entrances to the underworld. So a pyramid marked with Witz symbols provided the setting for royal rituals that were performed to communicate with the supernatural and divine world (and ancestors).
The Temple of The Cormorants is the highest structure of the site and it is also the funerary temple. Enrique Nalda indicated that a bone with an inscription has also been found here, as an offering. I found this bone in the Mayan Museum in Cancún. The character’s glyph states the name on the bone as Yuhkno'm Uht Chan.
Physical anthropology revealed that the man was 30-35 years old at the time of death, 1.62m tall and had cranial deformation (standard practice for the nobles, achieved by putting a board on the forehead from birth). Based on stratigraphic studies and radiocarbon dates, Enrique Nalda declared that the tomb was built between 550 and 600 AD, in agreement with the government dates of Sky Witness (561-572 AD).
I hope that future finds from Dzibanché will ultimately unravel its secrets and give us more opportunities to rethink the 'Serpent State'.
THE SITE MAP
The site is open 8am-5pm.
The entry fee is 55 pesos, and it covers both Dzibanché and Kinichná.
There are restrooms by the ticket office but no other services, so plan accordingly.
How to get there:
It is a 40km drive off the main highway 186 (Chetumal-Escárcega). Turn in at km 50. The side road is overgrown and full of sharp, blind curves and holes. Drive to the towns of Morocoy and San Pedro Peralta. Passing Morocoy, take the road leading to the site, 7km to the east. It is signposted. It will feel like going to the end of the world, because of the condition of the road. But you will get there and the site is worth the effort.