Rio Bec B, North Group


The Rio Bec sites are extremely isolated and difficult to visit—so much so that Rio Bec B was lost to archaeologists for 61 years after its initial discovery in 1912.

John Hagenbuch, an Internet friend who took all of the photos in this section, wrote to me in March of 2006:

"The road (actually more of a track) is definitely for 4-wheel-drive only, and there are many totally unmarked forks. Diane (who conducts tours to the Rio Bec sites and knows the French archaeologists who have been working there for the past six years) managed to get us to Rio Becs A, B, D, G, and 4, and I took a lot of pictures. It was difficult to get full pictures of the ruins; the forest was cleared for only 20 or 30 feet around the buildings, so I did the best I could.

I will fill you in on the sites at Rio Bec itself. Rio Bec A consists of the single building whose photos you already have. At Rio Bec B, there are two groups: north and south. The photos you have are from the north group; here there are two buildings (6N-1 and 6N-2). I can't for the life of me remember which is which; both are pure Rio Bec types, but one is in an advanced state of ruin, while the other, as you see, has been extensively restored and stabilized.

The second group at Rio Bec B also has two buildings, but they are much smaller and rather unimpressive. There is no arrangement into a Great Plaza, as at Tikal and Calakmul.

At Rio Bec D there are again two rather small and unimpressive buildings; they are under excavation and restoration. Rio Bec G and Rio Bec 4 have not been cleared, excavated, or restored. They are still covered by the jungle, but the French archaeologists were sinking test trenches to get an estimate of the time frame, etc. Rio Bec G had two buildings, and Rio Bec 4 had one, at least as well as I could tell. Thus nowhere at the Rio Bec sites did we see any grand temples or plazas.

The lead French archaeologist at Rio Bec B, Charlotte Arnauld, says that there are no towns in the Rio Bec area. The sites (upwards of seventy of them) are all small, consisting of at most a few buildings.

She believes that they were the Maya-era equivalent of haciendas, occupied by an elite family or extended family supervising a group of peasant farmers in the immediate surrounding area.

I do not find it hard to believe that one of these aristocrats, after a visit to the Peten, decided to build a smaller-scale copy of what he had seen. His neighbors then decided to keep up with the (Indiana?) Joneses and the style spread to surrounding areas, which put their own unique touches on it."

The Beautiful Rio Bec B "fake" towers

Rio Bec B

Rio Bec architecture seems to evoke extreme and opposite reactions from scholars.

Michael Coe, who refers to the Rio Bec towers as an 'aberrant architectural style', writes:

"Here showiness rather than function is what was apparently sought, for characteristic of this style of the Late Classic is the decoration of perfectly ordinary small 'palaces' with high towers imitating the fronts of temple-pyramids; these towers are solid, however, the steps being impossibly narrow and steep, and the 'doorway' at the summit leading to nothing.

It is as though the Rio Bec architects wished to imitate the great Tikal temples without going to any trouble... To today's 'functionalists', the fakery of the Rio Bec style is somewhat repellent, but no one could help but be awed at these mysterious sites crumbling in their jungle fastness."

Michael D. Coe, "The Maya", p.112-3

Paul Gendrop, in contrast, is more sympathetic:

"Something that, a priori, might pass for a simple, decadent copy without any utilitarian value (or worse, mere theatrical scenery) begins to change on analyzing these buildings so characteristic of the Río Bec area, because of the important place they occupy at each site, the detail and excellence of their execution, the peculiarities of their architectural conception, the systematic and coherent use of a series of distinctive traits, and the importance itself of the iconographic motifs used.

We remember, besides, that the era in which these Río Bec buildings were constructed—an era particularly fecund in artistic creativity in this as well as other regions of the Maya lowland—coincides precisely with the time in which Tikal, as a logical result of a rich and uninterrupted architectural progression of twelve or thirteen centuries, is ready to build its most imposing temples.

In the prehispanic Mesoamerican world, public manifestations of worship were made outdoors, essentially.

Situated on top of its pyramidal base, the temple had become, through the centuries, less and less accessible to the common people who, congregated around the pyramid base, had to be content with witnessing from below the ceremonies taking place above, before the door of the sanctuary which, on occasions, was reduced to the condition of a simple tabernacle with accessory functions as a "sacristy" and also, perhaps, as an echo chamber designed to amplify dramatically the voice of the celebrant. In addition—and this is seen particularly at Tikal—as the temple grew in volume and height the interior spaces became narrower.

In order to support the weight of a constantly more impressive roofcomb, the "holy of holies" had been reduced to truly absurd proportions, as in the case of Temple V at Tikal. We might conclude that—at least in regard to some of the gigantic temple-pyramids in the Petén—the ceremonial requirements eventually could get along with just the physical and symbolic presence of the sanctuary whose inner space had become practically useless.

From uselessness to complete suppression was merely a step, and this is what probably took place north of the Petén in the ceremonial centers of Río Bec, where the only thing preserved, though scrupulously, was the exterior appearance of the temple-pyramid with its vital and inseparable addition of symbolic elements."

Paul Gendrop, Rio Bec, Chenes, and Puuc Styles in Maya Architecture, p. 35-36

The beautiful Rio Bec B fake towers are crowned by fake temples

Rio Bec B

On the narrow upper platform, surmounted on their own base, the pseudo-temples are exact replicas—though noticeably reduced in width—of functional sanctuaries, with their lintels above false doorways...

Set off by its delicate moldings, an enormous frontal mask of Itzamná stands out on the upper frieze, contrasting with plain lower walls of the façade, while the narrow end walls feature, in the center of a recessed panel, a vertical row of crosses and remains of a roofcomb at the level of the roof.

Paul Gendrop, "Rio Bec, Chenes, and Puuc Styles in Maya Architecture," p. 56.

The monster-mouth pseudo temple features a huge mask of Itzamna

Rio Bec B

...the enormous frontal mask of Itzamná stands out on the upper frieze of the pseudo-temple, contrasting with plain lower walls of its façade...

The central room features a partially intact roofcomb

Rio Bec B

A view of the center of the main Rio Bec B building, showing the remains of a central roof comb (missing its central part), the flanking towers with their fake temples, and two checkerboard design panels which are a standard feature of Rio Bec architecture.

The stairs on the pseudo towers are not usable and for display only

Rio Bec B

According to the most common convention of the area, the towers of Temple B are strongly compact volumes, and the stairways, provided with ramps, though terribly steep, permit a daring person to ascend, thanks to the accentuated "nose" of its steps.

Paul Gendrop, Rio Bec, Chenes, and Puuc Styles in Maya Architecture, p. 56

The sides of the pseudo temples are decorated with a distinctive square pattern

Rio Bec B

"I also attached a photo of Rio Bec B which shows a view from the rear of the better-preserved tower, with its cruciform arrangements of squares, another common motif in Rio Bec. According to Diane, this represents the four cardinal directions."

John Hagenbuch, in email

It's towers obscured by jungle, only the roof comb is visible from the back

Rio Bec B

In their delightful book of aerial photographs of Mesoamerican ruins, William Ferguson & Arthur Rohn write: "Raymond E. Merwin and Clarence L. Hay discovered Río Bec B in 1912. After the 1912 expedition, Río Bec B literally disappeared.

During the 1930s several attempts were made by the Carnegie Institution of Washington to relocate it. New ruins associated with the site were discovered, but Río Bec B could not be found.

It was finally rediscovered in May 1973 by a documentary film team from Princeton led by Hugh and Suzanne Johnston and accompanied by Gillett Griffin and Andrea Seuffert.

Ferguson & Rohm write: "The site was quite difficult for us to find from the air. We located it by flying to the spot indicated on the map and then initiating a square search of the kind used by John Q. Royce when he was an aircraft carrier squadron commander in the Pacific during World War II.

It took us about 20 minutes flying time to find the beautiful little temple nestled in a small clearing in the forest."

William M. Ferguson and Arthur H. Rohn with photographs by John Q. Royce and William Ferguson "Mesoamerica's Ancient Cities", p169-70.