Ek' Balam

Yucatán, Mexico


The Name   |   The Age   |   The People   |   The Focus   |   The Mystery   |   Don't Miss   |   Site Map


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What makes this site special? The AngelS

The startling stucco sculptures of the king's tomb in the Acropolis (halfway up the pyramid) represent the Mayan philosophy of life and death in a way that's much easier to understand than elsewhere.

Ek' Balam is an offbeat site compared with nearby Chichén Itzá, so you may have the site to yourself!! In any case, it's more of an Indiana Jones jungle experience than the manicured lawns of Chichén Itzá or Tulum as you can just walk about and enter or climb some of the ancient buildings.

 
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The Name

Wot the Ek? 

Balam is clear. It means 'jaguar' in the Mayan language (and is a common surname among Mayans today). Ek is less certain. It can mean either 'black/dark' or 'bright star'. So it could be either Black Jaguar or Bright Star Jaguar. Most research refers to Black Jaguar, which is a cool name, so let's go with that.

 
The iconic entrance to the king's tomb

The iconic entrance to the king's tomb

A visit with my friends in spring 2017

A visit with my friends in spring 2017

 

The Age

The foundation of the city dates from the Middle Pre-Classic (700-300 BC). That's how old the ceramics are. Houses were then made of wood so they have left no trace. Most of the stone buildings we can see today date from the classical period (600-900 AD) and only some of the smaller ones date back to 100 BC.

Excavation only started in 1980 (William Ringle and George Bay) and the actual restoration did not begin until 1997. This is a space to watch as a lot is yet to be interpreted and, of course, further excavated.

 
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The People

Here is what I managed to put together so far. If you have any more information, I welcome your comments.

It is believed that Ek' Balam was an important kingdom and at some point it was bigger and stronger than Chichén Itzá.

The ruler Ek' Balam 'arrived' from somewhere else, possibly central parts in the south, on 8 April 770 AD. Why? It is not clear if he conquered the town or if this was due to an arranged marriage, for example. He took the throne a month later and he ruled the kingdom of Talol for a few decades (770-801 AD). He is considered the founder of the Ek' Balam dynasty.

 
On top of the Acropolis, 2013.
Note the drawing of the traders on the side of the door to the tomb entrance. The traders have different colour of skin. Are they from afar?

Note the drawing of the traders on the side of the door to the tomb entrance. The traders have different colour of skin. Are they from afar?

 

We don't know much about the kingdom of Talol. Working from inscriptions, Spanish epigrapher Alfonso Lacadena named this king Ukit Kan Le'k Tok' (with the noble title k'uhul ahaw). We know he was a ballplayer and a reference to this was found at the Ik Kil Mayan site (about 60km south-west). There is also evidence that the king oversaw the construction of Ik Kil, which indicates that Ek' Balam was dominant in the region and Ik Kil was its vassal and would have paid him tribute. He is buried in the Acropolis building, which is the main archaeological feature of the site.

 
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The other known rulers were K'an B'ohb' Tok', Tz’ihb’am Tuun and Kinich Junpik Tok'. It is this last king who visited Chichén Itzá in AD 869, as the murals at Chichén Itzá's Casa Colorada tell us. The scientists deciphered from the text that he was one of the three lords overseeing the fire rituals. The other two were locals: K'ak'upakal K'awiil (c. 869–890) and possibly his brother (both co-ruling).

Given that Kinich Junpik Tok' has been identified as a 'foreigner', the historians deduce that Chichén Itzá was at that time dominated by Ek' Balam and that this lord took a significant role in the administration of Chichén Itzá. This deduction is based on the fact that he oversaw the important ceremony of the 'fire drills' (bow drills for lighting fires), which was performed every 52 years (across Mesoamerica).

At sunset on the last day of the 51st year of the Mayan life cycle of 52 years, the Mayans put out all the fires in the city (which never otherwise 'died' in that period). They saw Orion's belt as the 'fire drill', and when that constellation rose above the horizon, a man was sacrificed. When the first sparks of fire sprang from the drill, the New Calendar Round was declared. The torches were then carried by runners to every ward of the city, where the temple hearths would be lit.

Thus the ruler was presiding over the measuring of time and announcing a new life cycle. Now that's real power! Never mind Executive Orders!

 
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The Ball Court game. The Mesoamerican ball game was not just sport, It was a ritual drama (representing movements of the celestial bodies), and a proxy for warfare  : s  ome ball games were played by kings to resolve bitter disputes between rival cities. The game was also a symbol of regeneration and ended by decapitation of a captain as it was believed that he will be reborn and will bring rain and fertility to the city.

The Ball Court game. The Mesoamerican ball game was not just sport, It was a ritual drama (representing movements of the celestial bodies), and a proxy for warfare: some ball games were played by kings to resolve bitter disputes between rival cities. The game was also a symbol of regeneration and ended by decapitation of a captain as it was believed that he will be reborn and will bring rain and fertility to the city.

 

By 874 AD Chichén Itzá had replaced Ek' Balam as the dominant centre of the north and Ek' Balam's population decreased dramatically. The mural in Las Monjas (the Nunnery complex) at Chichén Itzá depicts Chichén Itzá soldiers attacking a city enclosed by walls, like Ek' Balam. Did they overcome its large neighbour? Did they take the captives to be sacrified (which could partially explain the decrease of Ek' Balam's population?).

In 896 AD, the date of the final inscription found in Ek' Balam, the Toltec army arrived in the area (and conquered neighbouring Chichén Itzá).

After 987, when the Toltecs went into decline, the league of Mayapán was the main power in Yucatán. In 1441 there was a civil war between the two leading members of the league, the Cocom and Tutul Xiues. The rest of the league took advantage of the war and rebelled. By 1461 the League of Mayapán had completely disintegrated into seventeen Kuchkabals (areas ruled by a royal family). When the Spanish conquered Yucatán in the 16th century, the Ek' Balam kuchkabal was dominated by the aristocratic Cupul family but we have no information about them.

 
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The Focus: The tomb of Ukit Kan Le'k Tok'

OK, this gem is really the main reason to visit this site and deserves a focused look. It is situated on the fourth platform of the Acropolis (No 14 in the site map). If you climb it, there are great views of the jungle and the other ruins on the site.

They say that on a clear day you can see the ruins of Cobá, to the south; they are nearly 90km away! I did not manage to see Cobá on either of my visits.

In the past, the tomb was concealed by layers of stones, which is probably why it's so well preserved.

 
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Inside the tomb there are corbel-vaulted rooms on various levels, with stairways and passages. The rooms have capstones painted with figures of the king in a seated position. In 814 AD he was buried here, placed on a jaguar pelt and the room was then sealed as a tomb. A lot of offerings were found by his body, both human and animal sacrifices.

Buried with his bones were over 7,000 treasures including jewellery, shells, clay vessels, knives, jaguar claws, an unusual gold frog (imported from Panama) and next to his head a vase of chocolate. Three objects had the name of the king on them, as it was the practice of the Maya to declare ownership on the objects. The elongated shape of the skull found in the tomb indicated that this person was indeed of royal lineage (the head was shaped like that from the birth of the baby by putting two wooden boards in the front and back of the skull).

 
The King's burial treasure. Merida,  Maya Museum .

The King's burial treasure. Merida, Maya Museum.

 
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On one of the room's capstones the king is portrayed as the young maize god, the deity of resurrection and rebirth who represented the cycle of life and death in the cornfield that was the centre of traditional Maya life. He is believed to have been between 55 and 65 years old when he died.

Within his tomb many inscriptions named the dead king, and one remarkable find was a carved human femur, clutched in the hands of the deceased. A hieroglyphic inscription on this bone indicated that it belonged to a man called Ukit Ahkan, possibly the father of Ukit Kan Le’k Tok'.

There was a tradition amongst the ancient Maya of retrieving the bones of their ancestors to use in rituals designed to commune with the dead. The bone held by Ukit Kan Le’k Tok' in his tomb had one end filed down into a point, possibly to be used in bloodletting rites. 

Maybe the most interesting find in the tomb is the painting of the king, portrayed with a split upper lip (photo on the left taken at Mayan World Museum in Mérida). While most Maya kings were portrayed in an idealised manner, the artists of Ek' Balam saw fit to portray their king as an individual. Osteological examination of the bones found in the tomb revealed that Ukit Kan Le’k Tok' had suffered from a bone disease on his maxillary area, creating an oddly shaped upper lip.

The physical anthropologist Vera Tiesler analysed bone remains of Ukit Kan Lek Tok' and confirmed that he suffered three chronic infections, one very severe in the upper jaw, which caused the loss of five teeth and deformation of the face. In her view, his lips could have been parted with a blow, perhaps the product of an axe during battle.

On each side of the Acropolis stairway, at the bottom, there is a large mask wearing a war serpent headdress. There is a glyph with the name of the Ek' Balam king and his title 'king of Talol'. This means that the king (with the ceremonial headdress of the serpent) commemorates the major architectural remodelling of the staircase. The snake's jaw is open and the tongue descends along the staircase. Hieroglyphs on the snake's tongue indicate that the staircase was dedicated as a war memorial. This commemoration indicates that the king won the war. Which war could this be?

 
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The tomb doorway is in the shape of a monster-like mouth. It has previously been described as a jaguar mouth but recent breakthroughs have helped us to understand that this is actually the witz monster (witz means mountain in the Mayan langauge).

The witz monster is the symbol of the living mountain, in other words, the original mountain in Guatemala which the Maya reproduced in artificial pyramids elsewhere. It is a personification of the creation mountain. Images were placed on temples to transform them into sacred, living mountains. The witz is usually depicted with a zoomorphic face, a huge gaping mouth, and a stepped cleft in the centre of his forehead. The open mouth is the entry into the mountain (and its cave). The witz monster is characterised by its strong teeth, lack of lower jaw, and upper jaw rooted into the earth. The deceased king would have entered the underworld through the mouth and then be reborn (through the tree of life). The tomb entrance has on both sides a relief of the tree of life, the symbol of rebirth. This could not be absent from any ancient Mayan tomb.

The style of stacking witz heads at the corner of buildings was especially prevalent in the late eighth and ninth centuries, from such city-states as Copan and Uxmal. These were previously thought to be the masks of Chac, the rain god.

 
The sacred tree of life, behind me under the angels, April 2017

The sacred tree of life, behind me under the angels, April 2017

 

The jaw part of the mask represents the underworld, with reliefs of water lilies, fish and possibly the Sun God, who is often presented in an aquatic eastern paradise, where he can assume the shape of a chimerical water bird, or as a young man.

The Mystery: The angels, astronauts or warriors?

The tomb entrance is guarded by winged human-like creatures. We know the Maya did not believe in angels, hence the mystery. Here are a few ideas from my own research.

They have hand deformities, and those were a sign of royalty. The deformities were a result of the inbreeding between members of the royal family, and were considered to be special. So it could be the king's father or grandfather.

Deformities were also a sign of spiritual power, so could the winged angels be high-ranking priests?

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The angel's belt is worth noting! The cross-band in the belt represents the sacred tree (where the ecliptic and the Milky Way cross) and/or the sky symbol, in other words, a deity. So this could be a sign of kingship or indicate the status of a celestial being. Celestial beings (gods) accompanied kings on their way to the Mayan underworld so that they could then be reborn as the Maize God.

Other options? Mayan dancers wore large winged costumes, particularly for the Eagle Dance. Could this be a royal ancestor dressed for this ritual as the Eagle dancer?

Or could it be an Eagle warrior? These were a trained elite class of warriors, who became nobles and wore eagle's wings. Would that be how the king's ancestors got to the throne, through military service?

There are other life-size figures around the tomb. More details available in my post Angels (Mysteries).

 
God Itzamná.
 

Don't Miss: STELA ONE

Watch out for this stela in front of the Oval Palace. At first sight it might look boring but if you know what to look for, you may find it intriguing. Stelae are upright slabs sculpted with figures of rulers in relief and with hieroglyphic texts. A lot of them were found in Tikal, Copán, Toniná and Cobá. It is possible that the cult of stelae in Ek' Balam means that the founder of the dynasty came to Ek' Balam from one of these city kingdoms…

Stela No 1 depicts a ruler of Ek' Balam, possibly Ukit Kan Le'k Tok. It is dated in the long count as 840 AD, so it was erected by the king's successors.

 
The king's stela.

The king's stela.

 

The king is wearing a complex headdress featuring stacked monster snouts. In his upraised hand he holds a stylized K'awiil sceptre, which terminates in the head of a snake. This would indicate that this stela commemorates the king's accession to the throne. K'awiil, also known as God K, is a deity identified with lightning, serpents, fertility and maize. The presentation of the head of K'awiil was part of the king's ritual inauguration and accession to the throne. K'awiil not only embodied the king's warlike lightning power, but also his power to bring agricultural prosperity to his subjects.

Note the king's belt with a cross band (a sign of kingship) and a plaque, which hangs from the belt, used to memorialise important events. These were usually carved from a precious stone, jadeite, which had to be traded from the Motagua River in Guatemala.

 
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The Site Map

 
  • Open Daily 8:00 am – 5:00 pm. 
  • It is wise to arrive by at least 4pm for the last entry.
 
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MIX and MATCH:

In my view, the most interesting option after seeing the ruins of Ek Balam is Río Lagartos (Mysteries). 

Another option is to combine it with a swim in a cenote. If the latter is the preference, the nearest cenote options are Hubiku (Cenotes), Xcan Ché  or Zací .

 

How to get there: 

If you do prefer to go by public transportation, you’ll need to take an ADO bus from Playa del Carmen or Cancún to Valladolid. The ruins are 40 km north of Valladolid on the road to Tizimín and Río Lagartos. There are no buses that go to Ek' Balam, you need to take a car, taxi, or colectivo (a van). The colectivos to Ek' Balam go from the town of Valladolid on Calle 37 between Calle 42 and 44.

Also note that Ek’ Balam imposed the state tax for ruin visitors. One payment is for the INAH entrance fee, another payment at a separate window is a state tax fee. Both tickets are required for entrance into the ruins. The total admission fee is 197 MXN (as of 2017).

Sources:

Michael D. Coe and Stephen Houston, The Maya, Thames and Hudson, 2015 (9th edition)

Suzuki, Shintaro, Vera Tiesler and Andrea Cucina: Nuevas Estrategias en la Evaluación de la Edad

Burial treasures