Quintana Roo, Mexico
What makes this site special?
Giant stucco masks
The site is known for a cascade of masks of the Sun God. Well, they have pretty individual features so they could be considered rulers.
I was also taken by the tall cohunes (palm trees) that line the jungle paths. The site plazas are manicured, making the place very elegant. The plazas are very open, which adds immediately to the feeling of importance; it was clearly a site of public events.
I came here with my husband Rhod in September 2017, as part of our two-week road trip around the ruins of Route Puuc and the Río Bec Route. Kohunlich was towards the end of our trip but it still managed to surprise us because basically all Maya ruin sites are different from each other. This one stands out for its scenic elegance.
The architecture of Kohunlich resembles the sites of Petén in Guatemala, which indicates strong relationships with that region. However, between 800-1050 AD buildings were built in the Río Bec style: twin or triple decorative towers ('false' towers in the sense that they were not used as temples, only for decoration), false staircases (non-functional, too steep to climb), and pseudo-doorways, which have been built into niches in the fronts of the temples (they don't lead anywhere), often decorated with monster masks.
Interestingly, the name derives from English, not Maya. It is a corruption of Cohune Ridge: where cohune palms grew. It is a species of palm tree native to Mexico. In modern Maya it is called X-làabch'e'en but no one knows what it was called at its prime.
Kohunlich also used to be known as Clarksville, which is how it is referred to in old maps and reports, named after Clarksville Lumber Company operating next to the site.
The site was settled by 200 BC, but most of the structures were built in the Early Classic period from about 250 to 600 AD. It is not clear if the site was abandoned around 1200 AD or if it was occupied until the arrival of the Spanish conquerors.
This Mayan settlement was rediscovered in 1912 by archaeologist Raymond Merwin who heard about it from someone working at Clarksville Lumber Company. Merwin did a small excavation of the Palace and of the main plaza, which is now called Merwin Plaza. The site he is most identified with is Holmul in Guatemala.
After that, it was local residents of the nearby town Francisco Villa, in particular Ignacio Ek of Maya descent, who alerted INAH (the National Institute of Anthropology and History, that some looters were sacking the tomb in one of the pyramid mounds. INAH then started exploring the site, under the leadership of Victor Segovia (while Ignacio Ek was appointed the custodian).
The city appears to have functioned as a regional centre and a stop along the trade routes through the southern Yucatán from Campeche and to the south, the cities in the Petén region of Belize. It sits in the area referred to as the southern lowlands.
The city was elaborately planned and engineered, with raised platforms and pyramids; they were laid out to channel drainage into a system of cisterns and an enormous reservoir to collect rainwater. Just imagine the sophistication of the society in their hydraulic engineering! Kohunlich has a ball court, which indicates it was a ceremonial and spiritual place. A huge cistern was even built under the sacred ball court! Well, the ruler was the main rainmaker and his job was to ensure rainwater for the fertility of the land of his people. As there are no rivers or lakes in the area, and the limestone in Yucatán is porous and does not retain rainwater, such engineering was a must for survival.
Administrative buildings and residential palaces speak of royal status for the city. The enormous plaza is surrounded by pyramids and the acropolis. What is today a mown green lawn, in ancient times was covered with 'Maya cement' - a mixture of burnt and crushed limestone with water and crushed seashells traded from coastal communities. That means that they used the cement kiln for fabricating hydraulic cement! Many of the buildings were covered with stucco and painted red (as they were able to produce dyes of all colours!) embellished with stucco figures and geometric designs. Try to envisage this city in its full colours. Elegant, beautiful, magical!
When walking about, try to also imagine everybody in this society going about their daily duties. Priests preparing for the fire ritual to the Sun God, preparing the offerings and bloodletting (cutting their thigh to give blood to the gods). The nobility getting dressed by their servants, their faces daubed with paint. The scribes writing the codices (books made of fig paper) and painting the vases. The women weaving the textiles. The slaves attending the noble houses. The hunters in the jungle hunting for meat (which they had to give as tribute to the ruler). The farmers growing maize…. Talking of farmers, apparently in this area they did not use the slash and burn method for growing maize, but built terraces and raised fields, planting a variety of co-existing and symbiotic plants, such as corn, squash and beans (evidence of this came out of very recent research at the nearby site of Ichkabal, which is to be open to the public soon, in 2018). They were also using muck from the bajos (seasonal swamp) to create fertile fields, human faeces as fertilisers. Usually the Maya are described as living in rainforest but in reality it was a seasonal swampland so such agricultural techniques and irrigation and water reservoirs were necessary for survival.
A time-filling activity was the ball game that Mayans called pitz (also poc a poc), the oldest team sport in the world. The object of the game was to put a heavy rubber ball through a hoop on the other side of the field. Players could only use their hips, elbows, and knees. Well, the game often finished with the decapitation of the captain as this game was also a cosmology ritual (for more see my post Ball Players).
The Maya were a polytheistic people. They worshipped many different gods. Here in Kohunlich the main worship seemed to be dedicated to the Sun God. They believed that stones were living beings and worshipped them too. But perhaps the most infamous aspect of their religion were the human sacrifices they would offer up to the deities, by decapitation or removing the still beating heart. The sacrifice was performed on top of a pyramid (by the temple) and the body would then be thrown down the stairs. For ceremonial purposes they drank balché, made from the fermented bark of the tree of the same name and sweetened with honey and anise. Chocolate-based fermented drinks were also popular, often mixed with hallucinogenic mushrooms (and taken as an enema, to the disgust of the Spanish conquerors). They also drank pulque, an alcohol made from fermented agave.
They were a very hygienic people who bathed often. They would wash their hands and mouths after eating and would often take cold water baths and sometimes steam baths (temazcal) as a purification method. The nobles chewed gum for hygienic purposes (yes, the Maya discovered gum from the chicle tree!). When it came to illness, though, they believed disease was an infliction of the spirit. They would bleed parts of the body, to rinse the body of the illness. Maybe we can learn something today from their healing systems. For example, chia seeds were an important part of the Mayan diet; they grew them from 1500 BC, for their ability to increase stamina and energy over long periods of time. Warriors used chia before their conquests. They also believed that cocoa was an antioxidant and they used it in the most sacred rituals of birth, marriage and death.
Their houses always had a hearthstone made of three stones. According to legend, the three stones were 'tied' by the God Creator Itzamná; they actually represent the stars from the Orion constellation (three stars under his belt). That is where life started. Stars are even today born in the Orion Nebula and the ancient Maya knew that! Imagine further the fires alight in every household hearth all the time, only to be extinguished on the last day of the 52-year life cycle. Then new fires were started again to commemorate the beginning of the new era, like we celebrate a new millennium. Add music and dance, to complete the daily rituals.
The Focus: The Temple of the Masks
The Temple of the Masks was built in honour of the sun god K'inich Ajaw around 500 AD.
After 700 AD, the masks were protected by the construction of a later temple over them. The protection did not work that well in the past as originally there were eight carved masks along the central staircase, but only five remain (three having been looted). They are now covered and protected by two large thatch roofs (against the sun), one on each side of the temple stairway.
The giant masks are pretty impressive. Tendrils curl from either side of the mouth. They represent serpents, or in other words, divine breath. The strokes and dashes in the eyes are references to the symbol kin ('sun'), although it can also mean 'day' and 'time'. Some masks still have remnants of their original red colour, which was made from cochineal insects and painted on top of wet cement.
The masks were positioned to look towards the sunset and believed to represent the Maya Sun God K’inich Ajaw. K'inich Ajaw is the Yucatec and Lacandón name of the sun god. The element k'inich means 'sun-eyed' and it was often used as a royal title during the Classic Period (250-900 AD). Ajaw means lord. The masks differ in their appearance from each other and that is another indicator that they represented individual rulers. Adopting the god's title of the 'sun-eyed lord' gave the king a divine status. The solar aspect of a king also implied their belief in life after death. K'inich Ajaw was also a symbol of war and sacrifice and he was considered an aspect/ avatar of the god Itzamná (the sky God, God creator).
So what were these masks for? And do we know anything about the rituals for the worship of the Sun God? After a long search I have come upon a very interesting explanation by Professor Karl Taube. He notes that each mask is 'sitting' on a panel of each stairway block, and such square or rectangular panels were common on many Mayan stairways. The best way to describe these is that each ruler had his 'miniature house' where he was buried. In Taube's view, these panels were probably shrines for the honoured dead rulers, who would be conjured up during fire rituals atop these miniature houses. He further notes that such stone slab stairway blocks are known by the Q'iche' Maya (from Guatemala) as warabalja or 'sleeping houses', ancestral shrines.
As for the mask image, one view is that the mask has a bird mask above the face, which acts as a headdress for the god, and the jaguar mask under the god's chin, which marks him as a sun jaguar.
This jaguar masks is less visible, in all honesty, because the masks are a little bit destroyed. However, the drawings help us visualize the motifs.
Yet again, Karl Taube comes up with his own theory that Kohunlich Sun Gods wear a skeletal fire headdress topped by smoking fire signs. In his drawings of the gods we can actually see the smoke emanating from the upper example.
And indeed, the masks resemble actual incense burners and I can accept his view that the mask sculptures were used in fire rituals (to honour the deceased sun-eyed lord) and that the skeletal head served as a burning brazier.
The 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.
The Mystery: social arrest and collapse
All Maya cities were at war at some point. I am sure that Kohunlich would have been involved in some wars as the fight for the trade routes grew but it is not clear on whose side. Were they the ally of Calakmul? Were they fighting for dominance over their immediate neighbours such as Dzibanché (25km north of Kohunlich), Kinichná, Lamay and Tutil? If Dzibanché and its sister towns were vassals of Calakmul, can we assume that Kohunlich had the same fate?
By about 800-900 AD there was an atmosphere of political instability. The presence of offerings has been found, containing figurines, shells, carved and polished stone, miniature metates (for grinding grain and cocoa), ceramics, human skeletal remains and those of animals. One of these miniature metates was broken into three pieces; on the back was engraved the glyph of the date 869 AD, a date related to a moment of undoubted social crisis (Balanzario 2004, 2011).
So does the political instability in 869 AD bring the town to its end? Similar social arrest happened in nearby Dzibanché, although it was a bit earlier there (around 700 AD). Here the friezes of Ball Court 2 were destroyed. We don't know if it was a civil war of the royal lineage or a revolt by the commoners (because of drought and lack of resources?), but we do know that Dzibanché put itself together and it was inhabited until the arrival of the Spanish conquerors in the 16th century. In other words, Dzibanché was not abandoned. But Kohunlich was apparently abandoned, by the 10 or 12th century (sources differ about the timing). So what was the real story here? A revolt, after which the king left? But why was the government not rebuilt later? Did the people migrate in search of water and forest resources? After all, there was a climate change and a drought of 200 years from 800-1000 AD.
I don't want to call it a collapse, because I don't believe the collapse ever happened; the Maya are here even today. But what was the real story of the city's decline? Apart from social revolt and drought, there are theories about possible epidemic as the Maya could have created a 'disturbed environment' by their agriculture, in which parasitic and pathogen-carrying insects often thrive, hampering health and natural growth. Other scientists hypothesise that the decline was caused by the foreign invasion of the Toltecs in the 9th century (they brought with them their own gods and religion and social revolts may have followed in the conquered places). The collapse of the trade routes could be also blamed; and Kohunlich was on a crossroads of the trade routes between north and south. The almighty Teotihuacán fell around 700–750AD (through a social revolt), forcing the restructuring of economic relations throughout highland Mesoamerica and the Gulf Coast and the 'collapse' of the Classic Maya at a slightly later date.
On the other hand, Kohunlich had trade relations with Teotihuacán since the 5th century so perhaps that element did not play a role later in the city's decline. There was a clear shift away, a migration, from the Southern Lowlands as a power centre to Northern Yucatán that continued to thrive in places such as Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, and Mayapán. Independent Maya civilisation continued until 1697 when the Spanish conquered Nojpetén (in Guatemala on Lake Petén), the last independent city-state. The map below right by Barbara Trapido-Lurie from Arizona State University shows that the Central Yucatán lowland was depopulated due to the stresses of deforestation and drought and the dark areas in the northern lands show the occupation during the Post-Classic period, until the arrival of the Spaniards.
Plaza of the Stelae is the central area of the site. A palace was built here around 600 AD. At its foot there are three small stelae, which were plastered and painted in the past, but now eroded.
Plaza Merwin, to the side of Plaza of the Stelae, was used for minor ceremonies. A pretty plaza with palms, trees, flowers and a pond.
Acropolis is the largest building. It was originally C-shaped and was rebuilt several times. It was a residential building with a vaulted interior and the 'false' staircase.
Palace, to the side of the Acropolis, was built in 600 AD and was the residence of the elite. You can see the benches for resting or sleeping inside the rooms.
27 Steps – A structure located furthest from the entrance, the 27 steps are a large platform that held in the past residential buildings for the elite. The view from the top of the platform is terrific and provides an overview of the jungle to the south. Apparently, burials of nobility have been found here with the glyph hiin kajaw ('this is our Lord'). The relatively rich accompanying offerings were sufficient proof of the buried person's stature.
THE SITE MAP
Entry fee: 55 MXN
Open 8am - 5pm
Bathrooms available but no other services. Bring your own water.
There are no guides available at the site.
How to get there:
Kohunlich is 65km on Highway 186 from Highway 307. The site entrance is 9km off the main road and clearly marked. Kohunlich is about an hour from Bacalar, or you can stay at Chetumal.
Mix & Match
We stayed at the village of Xpujil, which is a good option if you are visiting more sites on the Río Bec route, such as Calakmul or Chicanná. Another alternative is to combine with a visit to Dzibanché.