Mayapán

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Mayapán is a major archaeological site in the northern Mayan lowlands, in the northern part of the Yucatán Peninsula, in the modern state of Yucatán, México.  <>

Mayapán is largest Mayan archaeological site dating to the Late Postclassic period (ca. A.D. 1200-1542), the period immediately preceding the Spanish Conquest of the area. According to historical accounts, Mayapán itself was abandoned about a century before the Conquest of Yucatán, in about 1441. The city was abandoned after a bloody internecine battle between the ruling lineages.

The site is quite large: a nine-kilometer long defensive wall encloses an area of approximately 4.2 square kilometers. Within this area, the Maya built over 4000 buildings. Most of the buildings are residential: the site was densely inhabited by perhaps 10,000-15,000 people. The residential architecture closely matches Bishop Diego de Landa’s sixteenth century description of Maya houses, and so the identification of the residential structures is definite and precise. At other Maya sites, there have been debates about the identification of dwellings. At Mayapán, several hundred public, religious, and elite buildings were concentrated in the ceremonial center in the west-central part of the site.

<>Mayapán enjoys the rare distinction of being one of the few "lost" cities of the ancient Maya that was never misplaced.  Mayapán was known to both Maya and Spaniard during the Colonial period, as the Documentos de Tabi reveal.  The earliest of the Spanish chroniclers refer to the city, including Cuidad Real, Landa and López de Cogolludo, to mention only the most prominent.  Ralph Roys has reviewed the ethnohistorical documentation most directly associated with the site in great detail.  H. E. D. Pollock has reviewed the history of archaeological research at Mayapán up to the beginning of the Carnegie Institution project conducted there during the 1950s.

Not surprisingly, modern exploration of the ruins of Mayapán began with John Lloyd Stephens and his irascible but indefatigable British companion, Frederick Catherwood.  They spent a day at the ruins and provided clear descriptions and illustrations of the two principal temples in the ceremonial center, the "Castillo" (Str. Q-162) and the "Caracol" (Str. Q-152).  As always, Stephens' observations were as astute as they were charming.  He rightly assessed Mayapán as the ruin of a Maya city, in spite of the obvious differences between it and the other cities with which he was more familiar, like Copan and Uxmal.  Moreover, he recognized that Mayapán was the same city described by the Spanish chroniclers as having been abandoned shortly before the Conquest.  This fact was an important link in his argument that the Maya ruins "were not the works of people who have passed away, and whose history is lost, but of the same races who inhabited the country at the time of the Spanish conquest, or of some not very distant progenitors".  This observation, so simple, clear, and obvious to this Emersonian New Yorker, was dismissed by his Continental successors, not mention most North Americans and even the Yucatecan intelligentsia. 

Approximately two decades later, Brasseur de Bourbourg visited the site and provided a few additional details.  He attempted to correlate some of his observations with Landa's description of the site.    In general, however, "all of Brasseur's work is a weird pot-pourri of sound sense, great learning, absurd theories, groundless fantasies, and proof that is no proof, the whole in a spirit as remote as possible from the scientific" (Bernal 1980:108).  Brasseur de Bourbourg was followed by the colorful Augustus Le Plongeon in 1881, whose theories were even more remote from reality than Brasseur's.  It has been reported that the peripatetic Teobert Maler drew Stela 1, but there is no published mention of a trip to the site itself.

Early Work of the Carnegie Institution of Washington

In the earliest decades of the twentieth century, no substantive work was done at Mayapán.  It wasn't until the 1930s that more modern and scientific archaeologists took a look at the site.  Not surprisingly, most of those archaeologists were affiliated with the Carnegie Institution of Washington and its Hydra-like program of Maya research.  Lawrence Roys visited the site in 1936 (Pollock 1962: 3) and wrote an article that attempted to trace the evolution of Maya architecture (Roys 1941).  T. A Willard visited the site in these years as well and provided an entertaining account of his trip (1941: 221-233). 

The first serious and detailed work at Mayapán was a survey undertaken by Ralph T. Patton, partly at his own expense, but under the auspices of the Carnegie Institution.  The survey was conducted because "the archaeological importance of Mayapan...appeared to be far less than its political preeminence in the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries...would have demanded" (Morley 1938:141).  In other words, Morley thought the ruins called Mayapán seemed much too shabby to really be the Mayapán of song and story.  This recalls Thucydides' observation:

Suppose, for example, that the city of Sparta were to become deserted and that only the temples and foundations of buildings remained, I think that future generations would, as time passed, find it very difficult to believe that the place had really been as powerful as it was represented to be.  Yet the Spartans occupy two-fifths of the Peloponnese and stand at the head not only of the whole Peloponnese itself but also of numerous allies beyond its frontiers.  Since, however, the city is not regularly planned and contains no temples or monuments of great magnificence, but is simply a collection of villages, in the ancient Hellenic way, its appearance would not come up to expectation.  If, on the other hand, the same thing were to happen to Athens, one would conjecture from what met the eye that the city had been twice as powerful as in fact it is (Thucydides I, 10 [1972:41]).

Patton's survey followed the Great Wall in its circuit around the site and also included the ceremonial center.  He traced the circuit of the great wall and briefly described its construction.  He showed that the masonry was dry-laid of large irregular blocks.  It measured about 9 km long, 3 to 4 m in thickness, and about 2 m in height on the exterior.  The parapet along the outer edge, the interior stairways, and nine of the portals were identified.  The survey of ceremonial center revealed the presence of colonnades and four round structures, both rare forms of architecture in the Maya canon.  The survey also located a number of stelae with short-count dates that Morley interpreted (Morley 1938:142).  It is apparent from other evidence described below that Patton located and mapped the main sacbe at the site and the large residential groups associated with it.  Morley concluded that "although Mayapan reached a position of first importance only at the close of Maya history when architectural decadence was well under way, its size satisfactorily agrees with the political preeminence ascribed to it by both the native and the Spanish chroniclers" (1938:142).  Although Pollock later avowed that Patton's map was of great help to Morris Jones in making the final site map (Pollock 1962: 3), Patton's work was never published, although Brainerd used part of his map of the ceremonial center as an illustration (Brainerd 1958: 347). 

Not long thereafter, in 1942, George Brainerd undertook the first intensive excavations at Mayapán, again under the auspices of the Carnegie (Brainerd 1942, 1948: 21-23).  Thirteen trenches were excavated, yielding a collection of more than 32,000 sherds.   Brainerd was able to identify limited stratigraphic change in pottery types, notably the succession from "coarse slateware" (now Peto Cream ware) to "coarse redware" (now Mayapan Red ware), and the increasing frequencies of effigy censer fragments through time.  In these observations, he adumbrated the findings of Robert Smith (1971) and established the main features of the Mayapán ceramic sequence.  Brainerd's analysis and conclusions were not published, regrettably, until the later and much more detailed investigations of the Carnegie Institution at Mayapán were almost complete.

Toward the end of Brainerd's work at the site, E. Wyllys Andrews IV arrived and spent a month studying the architecture.  He cleared, largely or completely, eight buildings, in addition to performing a number of other small excavations (Andrews 1942: 261).  He noted the reuse of Puuc-style stones in the Mayapán-period architecture, but observed no standing Puuc architecture.  He recognized the Temple of Kukulcan as a slightly reduced copy of the Castillo of Chichén Itzá and noted the resemblance of the largest of the round temples at Mayapán to the Caracol at Chichén.  He described the Mayapán masonry in some detail, including the salient differences between it and the masonry at Chichén (1942: 262).  He also commented on the remarkable similarity between the Mayapán architectural style and masonry and that of the east coast of Yucatán.  Based on his excavations at a number of sites in northern Yucatán, Mayapán included, he was able to sketch an outline of architectural evolution in Yucatán that stands to this day: Early Classic and early Late Classic block masonry being succeeded by Puuc masonry, followed by Mayapán-style masonry (1942: 262-263).

Later Work of the Carnegie Institution

Extensive and detailed investigations were conducted at the site by a large team of experienced archaeologists over a period of five years (1951-1955) under the auspices of the Carnegie Institution of Washington.  Major preliminary researches preceded that period, and the investigation trailed off slowly into the late 1950s, so that the entire project stretched out over a period of nearly ten years.  The staff of the project included many of the prominent Mayanists of the day, including Edwin Shook, Tatiana Proskouriakoff, Robert Smith, A. L. Smith, J. Eric S. Thompson, H. E. D. Pollock, and Karl Ruppert, not to mention a passel of graduate students and others who directly the daily work and wrote up the field reports.

The Carnegie Institution mapped the entire site, the first time that a whole, large Maya site had been mapped. They recorded the architecture in great detail. They excavated a number of ceremonial structures and quite a few domestic buildings, some modest, some elaborate. Robert Smith described the ceramics and established a ceramic sequence. Tatiana Proskouriakoff described the other artifacts, including the lithic artifacts.

Clifford T. Brown, now a professor at Florida Atlantic University, conducted excavations in the residential zone of Mayapán starting in the early 1990s. These were the first excavations at site in over 40 years. Brown discovered patterns of artifact style and function at the site. That is, he found that the types of artifacts differed among households and groups of households in different parts of the site.

Carlos Peraza Lope, an archaeologist affiliated with the Yucatán office of the National Institute of Anthropology and History, has been excavating and consolidating the major buildings in the ceremonial since 1996. He has uncovered remarkable murals on several buildings. He also found a rather shocking scatter of human bones that may date to the destruction of the site.

Marilyn Masson, of the State University of New York at Albany, directed a major excavation project at Mayapán in the early 2000s in collaboration with Carlos Peraza Lope. She studied the economic structure of the site and found evidence that the site was a major trade nexus.

The site is easily accessible and open to the public. To get to Mayapán from Mérida, the capital of Yucatán, take wither 63rd or 67th Street from the downtown area out to the Mérida beltway (periférico). Turn right (clockwise) on the beltway. Turn left at the sign for Mayapán. Go through the town of Kanasin and take the two-lane highway south past Acanceh and Tecoh. Less than one kilometer after passing the town of Telchaquillo, you will find the entrance to the site on your right. It is well-marked. The site is open every day. There is a modest entrance fee.

<>There is parking and restrooms at the site, but no other facilities. Snacks and sodas are available at stores in nearby Telchaquillo. Local buses are available in Mérida that travel down the Kanasin-Acanceh-Tecoh-Mayapán route.  These buses depart from a terminal near the corner of 52nd and 61st Street in Mérida. There are also taxi-vans that run to nearby towns such as Tekit that will probably stop at Mayapán upon request. The taxi stop is a couple of blocks from the bus terminal.  <>