Chenes Site of Dzibinocac

Dzibilnocac means "Painted Vault" in Maya and gets its name from the painted vaults found here. Although some archaeological work had been done prior to our visit in 1997, the site was seldom visited when we photographed it and was definitely off the beaten path at that time.

The early explorers, John Stephens & Frederick Catherwood, visited the town of Iturbide, where the ruins of Dzibilnocac are located, during their 1841 expedition. Iturbide was then at the frontier of the inhabited part of the Yucatan and it retains its frontier vibe even today. It is easy to imagine how it looked when Stephens visited 150 years ago, although substantial restoration has been completed since our visit.

View of Structure 1A, the only intact structure among the ruins

Dzibilnocac: Entrance to Ruins

Stephens writes: " A short walk brought us into an open country, and among the towering ruins of another ancient city. The field was in many places clear of trees, and covered only with plantations of tobacco, and studding it all over were lofty ranges and mounds, enshrouded in woods, through which white masses of stone were glimmering, and rising in such quick succession." 1

Cows obstructed our path to the ruins

Dzibilnocac: Field of Ruins

Stephens had received many conflicting reports about Dzibilnocac, and writes that no place they visited was more unlike what they expected to find:

"We looked for few remains, but these distinguished for their beauty and ornament, and high state of preservation, instead of which we found an immense field, grand, imposing, and interesting from its vastness, but all so ruined that, with the exception of this one building, little of the detail could be discovered." 2

Help arrives!

Dzibilnocac: Entering the Ruins

We were rescued from these very large and not totally friendly cows by helpful Mayan women, who were amused because they weren't receiving many visitors to their archaeological cow pasture at that time.

We cautiously pass the cows & enter the site

Dzibilnocac ruins

The Temple-Palace at Dzibilnocac sits on a platform 250 feet long and 98 feet wide. The structure consists of a long low building on an east-west axis, with temple/pyramids at both ends and a much larger temple/pyramid in the middle. This photograph shows the well preserved eastern temple and the rubble remains of the collapsed central temple.

The central pyramid has been restored since our visit in 1997.

Structure 1A from Catherwood's 1841 engraving from Steven's expedition

Catherwood's Etching of Structure 1A'

When Stephens visited in 1841, he noticed agricultural activity taking place at the site. Although we did not see tobacco in 1997, we most definitely noticed the cattle.

He writes: "The facades of the towers were all ornamented with sculptured stone. Several of the apartments had tobacco leaves spread out in them to dry. In the centre, one apartment was encumbered with rubbish, cutting off the light from the door, but in the obscurity we saw on one of the stones, along the layer in the arch, the dim outline of a painting like that at Kewick; in the adjoining apartment were the remains of paintings... Unfortunately, they were too much mutilated to be drawn, and seemed surviving the general wreck only to show that these aboriginal builders had possessed more skill in the least enduring branch of the graphic art." 3

Structure 1A with its pyramid base, temple, and vaulted rooms

Dzibilnocac Temple/Palace

The eastern temple is well preserved and was investigated, cleared, and consolidated by Ramón Carrasco of INAH in 1982. 4

The double row of vaulted rooms built at ground level can be seen to the right. It appears that this long one story building was constructed first, then the three temple towers were added later.

Paul Gendrop, the architectural historian and specialist in the Rio Bec, Chenes, and Puuc regions, believes that these "curious multi-functional buildings" combined the religious functions of small, semi-functional pyramids with residential, administrative and other secular functions which were housed in the long range-type building which connects them.

West-facing side of east temple

Dzibilnocac East Temple

The east and west sides of the eastern temple have false doorways with Chenes style monster masks. Eyes and teeth of the frontal mask are visible above the false door, while remains of the profile masks bracket the doorway on each side. Stacked Chac masks decorate the corners of the temple.

Gendrop continues: "The difficulty of establishing a clear distinction between the Rio Bec–Chenes style and the neighboring Puuc style becomes apparant here, where serpent motifs and little masks of the rain god are found together in the small temple on the roof of complex A–1." 5

Vaulted rooms define the single story backbone supporting the three temples

Dzibilnocac: Palace detail

The long central structure consists of a double row of eight east-west aligned vaulted rooms and two rooms that run north-south. Pictured are a set of east-west rooms abutting the eastern temple-pyramid.

The north-facing side of the eastern temple of Structure 1A

Dzibilnocac Temple/Palace

"All four facades of the eastern temple bear relief sculpture of the monster-mouth type made from stone and stucco. The east and west facades have false doorways, while the north and south faces supported the real doorways that gave access to the back-to-back rooms. The real doorways collapsed some time ago, but the one on the north side has been restored. There are remains of the lower section of a roof comb above the medial wall of the temple, and stacked Chac masks on three of the four corners. Those on the southwest corner have fallen." 6

Joyce Kelly, An Archaeological Guide to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula

Restored north side of eastern temple-pyramid showing its open doorway

Dzibilnocac: detail of East Temple

The rough stones over the doorway and on the upper left side indicate where archaeologists have consolidated the building and replaced missing parts.

Painted vault buried in collapsed central temple-pyramid rubble


"Beneath the mound that is the remains of the central temple are the two rooms of the lower range that run north-south, and you can reach the eastern room through an eastern doorway by an easy trail from the back (south side) of the building.

There are some remnants of paint in the eastern room, and in one area there is the upper part of a figure in profile with an elaborate headdress (difficult to discern). Originally there were painted capstones, one each in the eastern and western rooms under the central temple, but both have been removed. Fortunately they were well documented by scholars before their disappearance." 7

Joyce Kelly

The Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology at Harvard University has photographs of two of these painted capstones which can be seen here and here.

The ruined western temple-pyramid of the complex in February 1997

Dzibilnocac Ruins

We found the western temple-pyramid is in a totally ruinous state. It is my understanding that substantial restoration work has been completed here after our visit.

This YouTube video shows changes that the later restoration has brought.

The path back to Iturbide, viewed from the collapsed central temple-pyramid

Dzibilnocac: The Road back to Iturbide

"Beyond were towering mounds and vestiges, indicating the existence of a greater city than any we had yet encountered. In wandering among them Dr. Cabot and myself counted thirty-three, all of which had once held buildings aloft. The field was so open that they were all comparatively easy of access, but the mounds themselves were overgrown.

I clambered up them till the work became tiresome and unprofitable; they were all, as the Indians said, puras piedras, pure stones; no buildings were left; all had fallen; and though, perhaps, more than at any other place, happy that it was our fortune to wander among these crumbling memorials of a once powerful and mysterious people, we almost mourned that our lot had not been cast a century sooner, when, as we believed, all these edifices were entire." 8


1. Stephens, John Lloyd. Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. Illustrated by Frederick Catherwood. Dover Publication, Inc. New York 1963, Volume Two, p. 120-1 21.
2. Stephens, John Lloyd. Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. Illustrated by Frederick Catherwood. Dover Publication, Inc. New York 1963, Volume Two, p. 127.
3. Stephens, John Lloyd. Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. Illustrated by Frederick Catherwood. Dover Publication, Inc. New York 1963, Volume Two, p. 125.
4. Carrasco Vargas, Ramón. 1987 Nuevas perspectivas para la cronología y el estudio de la arquitecture de la region central de Yucatán. Mexicon 9(1):16–20. Berlin
5. Paul Gendrop, A Guide to Architecture in Ancient Mexico
6. Joyce Kelly, An Archaeological Guide to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, p. 221)
7. Joyce Kelly, An Archaeological Guide to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, p. 221-2)
8. Stephens, John Lloyd. Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. Illustrated by Frederick Catherwood. Dover Publication, Inc. New York 1963, Volume Two, p. 127