What makes this site special? A spectacular arch gate.
Labná is a small site and yet it gives a feeling of space like none other. The focus is the ancient sacbé road and the artistry of the Palace and the Arch gateway.
I think the feeling of space is created by the sacbé road, which is elevated and sits in the middle of today's site. Labná is the last site on the Puuc route. It is a lesser-known ruin on this route as it is less excavated. It was incorporated with Uxmal as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.
I came here with my husband Rhod in September 2017 and we did all five Puuc sites in one day. It makes it a long day, but it is worth it!
Labná or Lab Nah means in Mayan 'old house'. It does not refer to a particular house, just a generic name for a 'city'.
The old settlement would have been here probably around 200 BC, according to the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History. The people would have built wooden houses, and these have of course not been preserved till today. It is believed at least 3,000 Maya lived here between the years 600-900 AD. The city survived until 1000 AD.
The first written report of Labná was by John Lloyd Stephens who visited it with artist Frederick Catherwood in 1842. On their second expedition to the Yucatán in 1843, Stephens and Catherwood explored the area around Uxmal and discovered the remains of Kabáh, Sayil and Labná, and they have been known to the outside world ever since (see Catherwood's drawing below left, source: latinamericanstudies.org). The photographer and explorer Teoberto Maler also visited the site in the late 19th century.
We must bear in mind that numbers of buildings have yet to be explored or even discovered and that very little excavation has been carried out.
Uxmal, Sayil and Kabáh, together with Oxkintok, Labná and Nohpat seem to have controlled the entire Puuc mountain range, as well as some portions of the northern plains. It is presumed that these were large autonomous centres with full state organisation, with a paramount ruler at their head. They all had the same social structure (see the map below; source: www.pinterest.com.mx): upper class (ruler, noblemen, priests, scribes, astronomers), middle class (artisans, architects, craftsmen, traders, warriors) and lower class (peasants, hunters, slaves). The upper and middle classes lived in the 'centre' of the city, with the lower classes mostly on the outskirts. The 'cities' were large as the agricultural land was included in their territory.
The scientists believe that the urban core of Labná was the result of architectural programmes conducted by several generations of rulers. Three major building episodes have been identified, each related to a ruler. The decoration motifs concentrate on the immortalisation of the kings, the Maya mythology of life creation and the theme of the king's resurrection.
At the collapse of Uxmal in the early 10th century AD, Kabáh, Sayil, and Labná seem to have been part of a confederation or regional state under the authority of Uxmal. However, a century before, Kabáh and Sayil may have been as large as Uxmal and its political equal. The position of Labná is not very clear. The lack of fortifications indicates some form of evolving alliance. Although the four cities may originally have been settled at different times, most of their monumental architecture was constructed between the end of the 8th and the middle of the 10th centuries and shares similarities in architectural style. If you have been to more than one Puuc site, you will immediately spot those similarities in the architecture. The same applied to the lifestyle.
Like the other cities in this arid area, Labná depended on its ability to catch and store rainwater, which it did using nearly 70 man-made chultúns (underground cisterns) aguadas (sealed depressions in the land, similar to a cenote). This was vital for the agriculture (the main crops were maize, beans and squash) and for storing water during the dry season (however, this water management did not save them during a long-term drought in the 9th century).
From the mid-13th century to the 15th century, the League of Mayapán united several of the northern provinces and for a time they shared a joint form of government.
After the Spanish conquest, during the 16th and 17th centuries the population was decimated by the illnesses brought by the Spaniards such as smallpox (one of the main reasons for their low resilience was the absence of domesticated animals which increased their vulnerability to European bacteria). Furthermore, the Spaniards were setting up ranches for livestock or henequén for the production of sisal fibre (it became a major industry for Yucatán and made many Spaniards truly rich). Needless to say the indigenous Maya worked on the ranches as slaves. The Spaniards also had a programme of relocations, in which populations were forcibly moved to smaller towns elsewhere. The resettlement began in the late 18th century. The Maya continue today with their agricultural efforts in their ancestral land (but this time having two or three crops a year, with more modern technology).
The Focus: The PALACE
As at the other Puuc sites, there is a 'Palace', in this case only two instead of three storeys. It is the first major building you will encounter. It is one of the longest structures in the Puuc region at approximately 120m. The Palace has 8 rooms (all L-shaped).
Underground cisterns (chultúns) and mutates (grinding stones for maize) were found here, which indicate that the Palace was a residential place. However, the palaces in Uxmal, Kabáh and Sayil had a dual role; they served as residences for the royal lineages but also as administrative centres. So was it the same here in Labná? Michael D. Coe suggests that it might have been 'Young Men's Houses'. The Aztecs of central Mexico called them telpochcali (in the Nahuatl language), academies for young princes and nobles where they were taught astronomy, writing and religion. At the site of Uxmal this was done in the buildings of the Nunnery Quadrangle. The fact that Labná had its own school indicates perhaps the level of independence of the Sayil city. It means they did not have to send their young nobles for education to the city of Uxmal despite the fact that Uxmal had a dominant regional role in the 9th century.
The Palace and the arch have the step-fret motif: in the photo above right it can be seen on the right, as a G-shape pattern. It could represents stylised waves or a serpent's undulations, but also wind or clouds. It could also depict reincarnation with the steps leading down to the underworld, then looping through a cycle and back to the top of the next stairs. In Karl Taube's view, the continuous repetition of the step-fret motif may be an abstracted reference to the Witz Hill, the sacred Mountain (see more in my post Monsters).
There are also symbols of the reeds or wooden poles used for the walls of the huts, which were built for the commoners (with thatched roofs). In ancient Maya temple scenes, gods frequently appear in their thatched houses, and the representations of thatched buildings on Maya structures probably denote them as dwelling places of gods.
The column motif is present at all Puuc sites.
And then there are amazing zoomorphic masks, similar to those at all Puuc sites. In the past it was believed that they were the masks of Chac, the God of Rain. However, this is an outdated theory now. You can check the details in my posts Uxmal, Kabáh, Xlapak and Sayil. Basically some of these masks are rather those of the Mountain Monster (called Witz), particularly when they frame the temple doors and then they represent the entry to the underworld, which was entered by the deceased king after his death, to begin his journey up the mountain (and the tree of life) to the sky, where he was reborn. In such a case the Witz monster represented the building of a pyramid or a temple as a sacred mountain.
In other instances such masks represent the celestial bird called Itsam Yeah (sometimes also called Itsam Kah) sitting on top of the World Tree, which was also a symbol of rebirth (Linda Schele and Nikolai Grube). This apparently applies to the site of Labná (and all Puuc sites). I personally like this idea but I will leave to you to decide if it is Chac, Witz or Itzam Yeah. The bird was a manifestation of the god Itzamná (creation god of the sky). It is often identified with the mythical bird monster killed by the hero twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque in the stories found in the Mayan book of creation, the Popol Vuh. The bird also represented the Big Dipper constellation. One can only presume that the resurrection happened in that place.
The Palace also has a corner with open serpent jaws and a human head, the ruler, emerging from it. This is yet another metaphor for birth or rebirth (resurrection). See the photo below. The Serpent served as a conduit for passing through the heavens and underworld. For that matter, the serpent itself was sometimes portrayed as the sky symbol. In other words, the serpent often appears in Mayan scenes of celestial ascent. The spirals coming out of the serpent's jaw are symbols of regeneration. They actually represented breath. The building marked with breath symbols was a 'living being' itself. Well, and Witz, the Mountain Monster, also frequently exhales breath serpents from the corners of its mouth.
The Mystery: the Arch
From the palace, visitors can take a walk to Labná’s most distinctive feature: its gate. It is a ceremonial road called a sacbé ('white road' in Mayan, because it was built of white limestone). It is this road that gives the old city a feeling of importance, because it is clearly elevated and a large feature.
The sacbé roads were used for trade (carriers transported the goods on foot and on their backs) and also processions and pilgrimages. After all, Labná was a ceremonial city, with its own school. The sacbé was the main connection that a jungle city had within its boundaries but also with the rest of the Mayan world.
The gate itself is freestanding now. Because of the damage to the adjacent structure the residential quarters have now been destroyed.
Three tall ornamental roof-combs once stood on top of the arch but have long since crumbled. These were added to give additional height to the building, and therefore a greater importance. The arch is known as Labná Vault because the passageway is vaulted. This is the so-called corbel arch. A corbel vault (or corbelled vault) is a vault-like construction method, which uses the technique of corbelling to span a space or void in a structure. Unlike the semicircular Roman arch, where the weight of the structure above is spread throughout the arch and locked by a keystone, a corbel simply builds out diagonally from the side walls until the two independent structures meet in the middle.
The structural design and motifs of the site's buildings are in the regional architectural style known as Puuc. On one side, the arch is decorated with stone reliefs of thatched Mayan huts, the same as on the Palace, and on the other side with step-fret mosaics (G-shaped motif). The question for me is if it is the raised or the sunken part of the image that is supposed to be meaningful? Here in Labná, the two stepped frets, which meet in a V-shape, suggest a stylised mask of its own. I can see the nose in the shape of letter V and eyes in the step-fret motif. A Witz Monster?
Don't Miss: El Mirador
El Mirador (The Lookout) is the first large structure that comes into view on your left as you move down the ceremonial sacbé. The pyramid structure is surmounted by a tall temple. The temple contains four rooms. The decorations are now destroyed but apparently they once included two ballplayers and a large figure above the entrance. I can only speculate that it was a ruler (or god?). I could not find any information about the use of this pyramid. Was it a watchtower? Or could it be related to the rituals of the Mesoamerican ball game? There is another El Mirador in the Sayil site and there they found a market next to the building. Could it be the same here? Only future studies will provide more answers, I hope.
The site map
- The site is open 8am-5pm
- Entrance: $50 pesos.
- There are restrooms on the site.
- Bring your own water.
- Source of the map on the left: reed.edu.
How to get there:
From Playa del Carmen or Cancún, the best option is to rent a car. The fastest way is to go along highway 180, pass Mérida and turn off at the village of Uman. The road is well-signposted but in Uman the trick is to turn off under the bridge. If you go over the bridge, you have missed the turning point. From Uxmal continue on the same road to Kabáh (22km), Sayil is 9km further, then Xlapak 5km from Sayil and the last one is Labná, 3km from Xlapac. It is possible to do all five Puuc sites in one day, if you are travelling by car (if you start early).
Mix & Match
If you are starting out at Uxmal, it is best to visit the locations in this order: Kabáh, Sayil, Xlapak, Labná. To add Loltún caves is a bonus, if you have time.