Quintana Roo, Mexico
What makes this site special?
One large acropolis
Part of Dzibanché in the past but away from the main site (about 4km), Kinichná consists of one building. But what a building! The Acropolis had at least five temples on three levels. Quite a monster to explore. You will also see some scattered small ruins in the jungle, yet to be uncovered but at the moment they don't reveal any secrets.
In all honesty, I don't recommend coming here just for this site. The best is to combine it with a visit to Dzibanché, to get a more complete picture. I came here in September 2017 with my husband Rhod after we visited nearby Kohunlich and Dzibanché, and it certainly helped me envisage the life in this city. For example, Kohunlich is full of Sun God masks so you can imagine them more easily at Kinichná, where they are badly damaged by the course of time and nature.
In the past the whole city was formed by Kinichná, Dzibanché, Lamay and Tutil. The Lamay group is a small set of eight buildings spread around two plazas, and it is not open as it has been undergoing restoration since 2011. I can't find anything about Tutil, not even its place on the map.
This cluster of satellite cities reminds me of the Puuc sites, where the cities were also right next to each other, with one of them having a dominant position (Uxmal).
After visiting Dzibanché, make your way back to the fork in the road and head to Kinichná. At the fork, you'll pass the Lamay complex. In the past, the satellite sites were interconnected by sacbés (white Mayan roads, made of limestone).
The site is named after the main pyramid, the K'inich Na', which means House of the Sun God. The Maya glyph Kin (which means 'sun' and also 'day') was found at the back of the Acropolis by Thomas Gann, who explored the site jointly with Dzibanché. Such houses with Sun Gods were erected in nearby Becán (an hour and a half away), Kohunlich (about an hour’s drive from Kinichná) and possibly Dzibanché.
Dzibanché, Lamay, and Kinichná were at their peak between about 250 and 900 AD. They weren’t part of the Río Bec region, but lay on important trade routes that ran from there to the coast. Their strategic location likely helped their growth throughout the Early and into the Late Classic.
The alliance between sister cities Dzibanché and Kinichná was thought to have made them the most powerful cities in southern Quintana Roo during the Mayan classic period (250–900 AD). The fertile farmlands surrounding the ruins are still used today as they were hundreds of years ago.
Dzibanché and Kinichná were rediscovered by the Irish amateur archaeologist Thomas Gann in 1927.
I have dealt with the topic of the rulers in my Dzibanché post. As Dzibanché was one complex with Kinichná, we presume there would be just one ruler for the whole complex. Yuknoom Ch’een I was a member of the Kaan (snake head) dynasty. The stairway at Dzibanché with the captives he captured in battle also 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. The Snake kingdom was once a very powerful city-state, with ambitions to conquer the great Tikal (today in Guatemala), so that places Kinichná among the important Maya cities.
Another known snake king of Dzibanché was Sky Witness, who was buried in the city of Dzibanché (in the Temple of the Cormorants). Two royal burials were discovered inside the K'inich Na' Pyramid as well, but we don't know their identity. I am sure once the analyses bring us a result, we may be in for some surprise in terms of what government was applied in Kinichná, to what extent they were independent (or not) from Dzibanché. Did they have a joint council?
In the meantime, allow me to speculate. Given that Kinichná was a sister city of Dzibanché, I can only presume that the snake kings of Dzibanché ruled over Kinichná. The architectural style of Kinichná and Dzibanché is unique, with rounded pyramidal bases tapering to temples on top. This is unlike the Río Bec style (which was used in nearby sites such as Kohunlich), but is somewhat suggestive of ties to the Petén area of current-day Guatemala.
Is it possible that the 'sister' cities had their own chieftain who answered to the Snake kings? The governor, a Halach Uinic (true man) would probably have been the snake king in Dzibanché (with the noble title of Kaalomte') and the sister towns of Kinichná, Lamay and Tutil could have had a Batab each, a local village or town chief, who would have been responsible to the Kaalomte' lord. This is of course just my speculation, as I have not found any treatments on the political and judicial government of these Maya cities. My assumption is based on similar situations around, for example San Miguelito in today's Cancún was a sister city of El Rey, as close to it as Kinichná is to Dzibanché, and they had this government system. The Batab ruled San Miguelito while El Rey had a lord of a higher rank; in his case it was the title K'inich Ahau (King of the Solar Countenance).
Batab was a hereditary post, chosen from the noble class. In the Classic period (250-900 AD) such a noble was called sajal; in the Post Classic period it was batab. He could have been the king's younger brother, for example. Each batab made sure his town delivered its tribute to the king on time and that its people followed the rules of the city-state (while the commoners paid tribute to their batab). He also made sure that troops were ready for war. A batab served as a judge and could decide legal cases and punishments for criminals in his town. Other officials served as assistants to the batab and carried out his orders. Tupil were like today’s police and were in charge of making sure the citizens followed the law. They could arrest criminals. The ah cuch cab voted on big decisions similar to the way modern council members do. The nalil was the ward and nacom was a special warlord. When laws were broken, the batab handled the court cases that followed. If a case was very serious, the batab might talk with the king before making his decision. Interestingly, the Maya didn’t have prisons. Sometimes people who were found guilty had to pay back the victims in some way. For serious crimes, criminals could be sentenced to death. They could also be sold into slavery.
Last but not least, it is important to note that while the Maya kings had much power, they did not rule alone. The noble class also had some power. A council composed of nobles advised the king and helped him rule – and sometimes limited his power. This council was called a holpop (Head of the Mat). Sometimes, a council would even rule without a king. I wonder how strong the council was in this complex of Dzibanché; a ruler with the title of the almighty Kaalomte' (King of Kings) or K’uhul ajaw (Divine King) and three batabs from the sister towns of Kinichná, Lamay and Tutil.
The Focus: The House of the Sun
K'inich Na' (The House of the Sun) is a three-level pyramidal mound split into Acropolis B and Acropolis C, dedicated to the sun god. Two mounds at the foot of the pyramid suggest that the temple was a ceremonial site. Here a giant Olmec-style jade figure was found.
At its top, Kinichná affords great views of the area from the temple (where offerings were also found). The pyramidal platforms were decorated with stucco masks on both sides of the stairways, similar in design to nearby Kohunlich's masks in the Temple of the Masks, and those of Dzibanché on the Temple of the Toucans. On at least one occasion the ancient masks were covered by new ones, with similar design and dimensions. It was typical for the Mayan rulers to build a new pyramid on top of the old one (for example El Castillo in Chichén Itzá has two pyramids inside, built at two different stages). The same applies to this pyramid, including the masks.
The masks in K'inich Na' are rather damaged and we can only speculate if they could be of the Sun God or rulers (if they had individual features). The glyph Kin that was found at the back of the Acropolis, suggests sun worship at this site. The rulers often adopted titles of the gods as their noble titles, which gave them a divine status, and so the masks of gods could represent individual rulers. According to Karl Taube the masks at Kohunlich are those of individual rulers and they functioned as censers, with the head serving as a burning brazier. I imagine that the same applied here. I also imagine this pyramid at night, full of small fires, quite magical, don't you think? Such visual magic helped to underline that the ritual held here for the ruler made him an intermediary between supernatural and mortal beings. The trees that surround the Acropolis contribute to the beauty and add to the effect.
However, it is difficult to claim with certainty that the masks here are of the sun god or the rulers. So what else can help us to determine what they were? How about the architecture of the Acropolis? The Acropolis is composed of a huge structure and a series of ruins that are situated around the plaza, which possibly functioned as platforms for minor temples. In essence, the Acropolis is a triadic pyramid, similar to the pyramids in Dzibanché. So what was the purpose of a triadic pyramid?
The Mystery: the meaning of triadic pyramid
A triadic pyramid consists of a dominant structure flanked by two smaller buildings. This is not something special, as it was quite common to build pyramids like that. Below is the list of the Mayan Triadic Groups by Jan Szymański (from revistas-filologicas.unam.mx), which shows how spread this style of architecture was. But the question is: why?
The principal function of ancient Maya temples was to commemorate rulers but in the case of Triadic Groups this function might have in fact been secondary. According to one theory, the three hearthstones of the Maya creation myth can be associated with three stars in the constellation of Orion, where life was born (not Orion's belt, but the stars under the belt, in the Nebula fog, where stars are born even today).
So the three buildings would represents the three stars and often the layout of the structures also followed the pattern of the Orion constellation (the same applies in Egypt).
New studies, for example by Jan Szymański, favour an alternative interpretation, according to which the Triadic Groups may represent the moment of resurrection of the Maya Maize God on the top of the Flower Mountain, accompanied by two other deities (represented by two smaller temples). The mythical story about the Maize God was pivotal for the ancient Maya. So what is this story about?
The Popol Vuh, a sacred Maya book, describes how the gods formed the first humans from a dough made out of yellow and white corn, after their attempts to use clay and wood had failed. The maize god was believed to be decapitated once harvesting began and then reborn at the start of the new growing season. He is often portrayed as being reborn from a turtle carapace. Myths about the death and rebirth of gods helped explain the cycle of the seasons and the return of maize. Even the Great King Pakal of Palenque was portrayed on his sarcophagus as being reborn as the Young Maize God. The god was therefore not just associated with maize itself, but also with the cycle of rebirth, the cycle of the seasons and the associated growth of crops. His life cycle could also provide the Maya with a way of understanding the human life cycle.
So the Maize God being on top of the Flower Mountain represents that resurrection moment and the Flower Mountain itself, as identified by Karl Taube, was the dwelling place of the gods. It rose out of the watery underworld and connected it to the sky.
Communication with the gods therefore happens through caves (the flowery mouths of the mountain). So the pyramid represented the sacred mountain and the concept of the Flower Mountain as the Maize God’s entrance to heaven (a mountain full of flowers and birds singing is the image of paradise). Caves were guarded by a zoomorphic Witz (Mountain) Monster and his mask was often placed around the door of a temple, in place of the cave. One of the principal roles of a ruler was to make sure he brought fertility to his subjects. To accomplish that the ruler had to perform self-sacrifice and place his own blood in an offering bowl. This paralleled the fate of the Maize God, who had to be decapitated to bring maize to the human world. Thus linking himself with the Maize God, the ruler could expect that the rest of his destiny would also be parallel and he would be placed among the immortal gods.
In summary, the damaged masks on the Kinichná Acropolis could be those of the Witz (Mountain) Monster, rather than the God of the Sun or individual rulers, marking the building as the Flower Mountain (rather than the Sun House, as its name suggests). I enclose below a drawing of a Witz monster (representing the paradise called the Flower Mountain) by Linda Schele. I have re-coloured it slightly so it is easier to see the features. On top, the Maize God is emerging from the cleft of the monster's forehead. Source: metmuseum.org.
Don't Miss: THE ceiba tree
As you drive into the car park of the ruins, there is an enormous ceiba (kapok) tree by the ramp. Ceiba trees were sacred for the Maya. They called it Yax Che ('Green Tree' or 'First Tree'). We were mesmerised by them. In essence, I liked this site mostly for its jungle…
For the Maya it was the symbol of the universe. The tree signified a route of communication between the three levels of the cosmos: underworld (nine layers), earth and sky (13 layers). Ceiba was of course also used in practical terms, for example hollowed-out canoes were made from the trunk (in one piece), pillows and mattresses from its fibres, tea from its flowers to ease stomach pain, life jackets and painkillers from the bark, soap and fertilisers from the seed oil.
As you drive out of the ruins, look over the cornfield and see an unexcavated ruin. There are two corners of the buried building amongst the trees.
How to get there:
There is no public transportation to the sites, so you’ll need to either rent a car, or visit on a tour. Take Highway 186 west toward Xpujil, there’s a well-marked turnoff 50.6km west of the big intersection at the west end of town. If you’re starting in Costa Maya, you’ll head south on Highway 307 until it dead-ends at Highway 186 (this point’s about 123km from Costa Maya), then go west 38.1km to the turnoff.
From the turnoff, you drive north 17.4km, then east 5.4km along a narrow, but (fairly recently) paved road. The road has its twists and turns, and some stretches are potholed, so don’t let your attention drift.
Take Federal Highway number 186 Chetumal-Escárcega until you reach the San Pedro Peralta. Passing Morocoy, in the place known as La Pista, take the detour that leads to the site, 7km to the east, by an asphalted road that leads directly into the archaeological zone.
The site is open 8am-5pm. The entrance has a ticket office but it is closed. You will need to buy a joint ticket at Dzibanché ticket office. The entry fee is $55 MXN for the two sites.
Bathrooms are only available at the crossroads ticket office and at Dzibanché. You’ll need to pack your own water to drink; none is available at the sites.