Introduction to the Split-Sky polity of Yaxchilan

"Yaxchilan, along with Tikal, Copan, Piedras Negras, and Palenque, is one of the most important Classic Period Maya cities in terms of its size and the number and quality of its monuments. It is best known for its sixty carved lintels, which, aside from being aesthetically interesting, depict Maya ritual bloodletting and warfare with an explicitness presented nowhere else.

Other unique aspects of the art and inscriptions of Yaxchilan are the inclusion of many women in ceremonial roles, the complex cosmological format of imagery on the stelae, the degree of documentation of the reigns of two Late Classic kings, Shield Jaguar and his son Bird Jaguar IV, and the unusual design of the city to mimic the passage of the sun over the earth."

Carolyn E. Tate, Yaxchilan: The Design of a Maya Ceremonial City, p. 3

The journey to Yaxchilan is usually by small boat traveling along the ancient trade routes of the Usumacinta River. The journey is a wonderful introduction to the site and constitutes a rewarding part of the total experience.

INAH Map of the ruins of Yaxchilan from sign at site: Click arrows to view photos...

Yaxchilan map

The Usumacinta River bounds the city along the bottom edge of the map

Color-coded structures: Shield Jaguar III (681–742 AD) = orange; Bird Jaguar IV "The Great" (752–768 AD) = light blue; Shield Jaguar IV (769–800 AD) = dark blue

For its entire history, Yaxchilan contended with its powerful upstream neighbor, Piedras Negras, for control of the Usumacinta River portion of the rich circular trade routes stretching from the central Mexican highlands to the Atlantic and into Honduras & El Salvadore to the south. The city itself is situated on the high banks of a giant oxbow bend of that river, a formidable defensive position and ideal toll booth for taxing the rich trade in luxury goods passing its borders.

Aligned and facing all those who were passing by on the river were stelae portraying various victorious warrior kings, while on their reverse temple-facing sides these same kings were shown offering royal bood sacrifices for the well-being of their city.

The Yaxchilan scholar Carolyn Tate writes: "Looking at the map of Yaxchilan, one sees that the entire Main Plaza is oriented from northwest to southeast. Several small buildings sit perpendicular to this axis, and their apertures face southeast, the same direction as the plaza. Bisecting this major axis is a strong axis in the form of the stairway to Structure 33, the temple itself, and the group of monuments in the center of the Main Plaza. All these face northeast...This is not accidental, nor is it common at other Maya cities.

At Yaxchilan's latitude, the sun rises at 115-116 degrees on winter solstice. Like the summer solstice orientation group, the winter solstice buildings are set slightly outside the path of the sun. Again, this allows for a few minutes of illumination of the interior of the buildings, providing the trees at the southeast end of the plaza were kept cut.

Note that all the winter solstice alignments are found on the Main Plaza, where no tall buildings block the path of the sun on winter solstice. So these alignments suggest that at Yaxchilan, winter solstice was the time and direction for the commemoration of the deceased.

The buildings and stelae which face summer solstice, on the other hand, all document Period Endings, accessions, captures, and sacrifices of living kings. Almost every building with associated sculptural or hieroglyphic monuments faces one of these two directions, and the few that do not seem to have been oriented in response to other specific concerns."

Carolyn E. Tate, Yaxchilan: The Design of a Maya Ceremonial City, p. 111

Entrance to Yaxchilan Grand Plaza & the River Structures is through the Labyrinth

The Labyrinth

"Maler had camped in the structure (number 19) and named it the Labyrinth.

The walk through the dark and ingeniously twisted interior replicated the soul's descent to the Otherworld at death, or in the throes of sensory derangement (to which Yaxchilan stood as a singular monument), and its resurrection.

It recalled the Hero Twins' descent to Xibalba in the Popol Vuh, their triumph by guile and imagination over the Lords of Death, and their subsequent rebirth."

Christopher Shaw, Sacred Monkey River: A Canoe Trip with the Gods, p. 272

The path leading into the Labyrinth is sided with platformed niches

The Labyrinth

"On the right side of the passage a row of shallow niches opened, housing short masonry platforms under peaked, "corbel-vaulted," ceilings.

In corbeling, a series of stones, each projecting a little farther than the last, rises to a peak, spanning an opening in a primitive kind of arch."

Christopher Shaw, Sacred Monkey River: A Canoe Trip with the Gods, p. 271-2

We enter the dark interior of the Labyrinth

The Labyrinth

"Then you entered a dark shaft. Inside, you groped along until thin daylight led you up a flight of stairs and around a corner, and you stepped out onto an earthwork platform overlooking the sunken main plaza."

Christopher Shaw, Sacred Monkey River: A Canoe Trip with the Gods, p. 272

The British Museum have a marvelous short clip of a walk through the Labyrinth by flashlight, showing the sleeping bats that call this structure their home.

Emerging from the Labyrinth into the light

The Labyrinth

The Labyrinth empties into a grand plaza around which major structures group

The Labyrinth

"As you emerged into the light, your eyes fell on the plaza--the model of the world, a cosmogram, with symbolic mountains, caves, forests, and waters arranged intentionally to strike awe in the observer and open his senses to the gods. It worked."

Christopher Shaw, Sacred Monkey River: A Canoe Trip with the Gods, p. 272

Looking Toward the Labyrinth from the Great Plaza

Str. 19

"The plaza lay under a soft mat of grass kept trimmed by maintenance workers using machetes. A canopy of scattered ceibas, crusted with epiphytes, filtered the light into flickering bars and motes.

The trees' spacing among the empty plinths where stelas had been hauled off to museums was as aesthetically pleasing as the spacing of the existing stelas themselves. You could very easily imagine them linking the realms of the visible and the invisible, the upper and the lower, and holding up the sky.

At spatially harmonious intervals, intact stelas blended their verticality with the ceibas they symbolized, low altars interspersed among them. Surrounding the plaza, the temples, in various states of restoration or decrepitude, enclosed the open space and distinguished it from the profane exterior surroundings.

The scale was at once human and monumental, and thirteen hundred years after its construction instilled in us a profound tranquillity."

Christopher Shaw, Sacred Monkey River: A Canoe Trip with the Gods, p. 272-3

Yaxchilan: Structure 12

Str. 19

Building 12 is one of Yaxchilán's plainest structures architecturally speaking. Its interior consists of two parallel passageways covered with the typical mayan corbelled vault. Entrance is gained through any of the nine openings: seven on the main façade and two on the sides. It is interesting to speculate that the nine doors may represent the nine layers of the underworld in Maya mythology.

This building's more important feature is the presence of eight lintels with hieroglyphic texts carved on their undersides. Of these, three are in situ, two are on display at the National Museum of Anthropology and one is in the British Museum.

Together, they apparently make up an ancient listing of the city's ten earliest rulers who shaped the destiny of Yaxchilán in the first half of the sixth century. They are believed to have been commissioned by K'inich Tatbu Skull II, son of Bird Jaguar II, in reaction to his brother's capture by the king of Piedras Negras in 521. These lintels provide the list of early Yaxchilan kings from which scholar's understanding of the city's early history depends.

Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube, Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens, Thames & Hudson 2nd ed, London, p. 120-21.

Yaxchilan: Structure 12

Str. 19

"The lintels are undoubtedly early. Continuing studies of the style of carving on Yaxchilan monuments show that attempts to reproduce styles from an earlier era by Bird Jaguar IV's artists resulted in a "handwriting" recognizably different from the style in which all Structure 12 lintels were executed.

Carolyn E. Tate, Yaxchilan: The Design of a Maya Ceremonial City, p. 170

There is speculation that Bird Jaguar IV built Structure 12 to house lintels taken from an older structure commissioned by K'inich Tatbu Skull II, a son of Bird Jaguar II, in the early 6th century and reinstalled them here in the 8th century to enhance his own pedigree and claim of legitimacy, a major theme of all of Bird Jaguar IV's building projects.

Note the presence of the Tikal emblem glyph in the extreme lower left of the inscription.

Yaxchilan: Structure 6

Boats on the Uxamacinta

"Structure 6 is situated on what is now the riverbank. Maler suggested that perhaps much of the ancient site of Yaxchilan has been washed away by the river.

Perhaps a lower terrace of structures, including the area around the Masonry Pier, was once built up.

However, a stairways leads from about 5 m below the plaza level up to the area northeast of Structures 6 and 7, and in ancient times someone entering there would have passed between these two structures as a gateway to the city."

Carolyn E. Tate, Yaxchilan: The Design of a Maya Ceremonial City, p. 157

Yaxchilan: Structure 6

Boats on the Uxamacinta

"At present there remains enough of only one of the supernatural face panels to make a judgement about their original form. This one mask is the rightmost of the three on the façade facing the southeast Main Plaza.

It contains several features characteristic of Late Preclassic Maya and Olmec art: "flame eyebrows"; a cleft form between the eyebrows; a large, cleft, squared oval forming the lips with a downturned opening between them. The eyes are almond-shaped human eyes encased in larger ovals.

Standard Maya features are the large earspools with oval pendants and two sets of volutes, one above the earspools and one emanating from the upper part of the head.

The stucco frame of the mask is in the form of a Maya supernatural under-eye line, with a series of symmetrically distributed volutes and curvilinear forms below. The face is about 45 cm square, and a deeper, recessed area separates it from the cartouche, adding the illusion of greater depth to the relief."

Carolyn E. Tate, Yaxchilan: The Design of a Maya Ceremonial City, p. 160

Yaxchilan: Structure 6

Boats on the Uxamacinta

"Structure 6 was designed to service both the Main Plaza and the river areas. A shallow room with three wide doorways spanned with wooden lintels opens onto the river vista."

Carolyn E. Tate, Yaxchilan: The Design of a Maya Ceremonial City, p. 157

Yaxchilan: Structures 6 and 7

Boats on the Uxamacinta

Yaxchilan: "Temple side" of Stela 1

Stela 1

The stelae at Yaxchilan depict victorious warriors facing all who passed by on the river and images of royal blood sacrifice on the sides facing the hillside temples. Stelae on the Main Plaza all exhibit severely eroded surfaces facing the river and relatively well-preserved surfaces on the temple side, because, as Carolyn Tate explains:

"Due to accidents of weather and human judgement, when the stelae on the Main Plaza fell, they all fell toward the hills, with the river sides exposed to rain."

Carolyn E. Tate, Yaxchilan: The Design of a Maya Ceremonial City, p. 100

Yaxchilan: Lower and Central Register of "Temple Side" of Stela 1

Stela 1

"The regularity of the imagery and the two-sided format show that this entire composition had a fixed meaning. Each location on the surface of the stone — narrow sides, temple and river sides, and, on the temple side, the upper, middle, and lower registers — was a semantic domain, into which were inserted the particular data pertaining to the individual king, his ancestors, his community, and his deeds."

Carolyn E. Tate, Yaxchilan: The Design of a Maya Ceremonial City, p. 100

Yaxchilan: Lower register of "Temple Side " of Stela 1

Stela 1

"Below the ruler's feet is his territory, symbolized as a monster composed of toponymic, agricultural, and astronomical symbols...On the temple side, or front, of Stela I, a frontal sun god holds a skeletal bicephalic serpent bar. The sun god wears an ahau belt like a ruler and is seated like a ruler, but is marked as the sun and holds a skeletal emblem of royal mediating power.

This could be a reference to the deceased members of the Yaxchilan dynasty, who traditionally performed transfers of power on summer solstice, now transformed into the sun and existing in the Underworld."

Carolyn E. Tate, Yaxchilan: The Design of a Maya Ceremonial City, p. 66, 100

Yaxchilan: Central Register, "Temple side" of Stela 1

Stela 1

The central register is the largest pictorial area on the Temple Side of a Yaxchilan stela, and displays a profile view of a historical ruler performing a blood sacrifice. A robed figure with a snaggle-toothed or bird headdress kneels at the feet of the ruler.

Blood sacrifices by royalty were done on Period Endings and accession anniversaries. The illustrated event on Stela I is the Period Ending The ruler always wears what Carolyn Tate has identified as a "Period Ending" costume.

Yaxchilan: Upper Register of "Temple Side" of Stela 1

Stela 1

"Above the scene of the historical ruler engaged in sacrifice is a Skyband Monster.

This symbol has a local meaning which may differ from the meaning of the skyband at other cities. Here it indicates the royal role in maintaining the paths of the sun, moon, and planets thought the sky. The myth of the Hero Twins is evoked by the use of nine GI or GIII heads pendant from the skyband. Two ancestor cartouches ride the skyband. Between them is a bust of GI or GIII.

The portrayal of the ruler's ancestors in the cartouches is at once genealogical documentation, a depiction of filial devotion, and reference to the cosmic role of the deceased royal lineage as embodiment of the sun and moon."

Carolyn E. Tate, Yaxchilan: The Design of a Maya Ceremonial City, p. 100

Two stone-carved crocodiles flank Stela 1

Stela 1

"The section of the plaza that Bird Jaguar created functioned as a sunken viewing ground for ritual gatherings. Several pedestal stones (altars) carved with glyphic inscriptions are located near the center of this space.

The Altar 10 inscription seems to date, which would place it in Shield Jaguar's reign. Altar 11 records the date, shortly after Bird Jaguar's accession. Two stones approximately 2 meters long are carved to resemble caimans. These are located at either side of Stela I."

Carolyn E. Tate, Yaxchilan: The Design of a Maya Ceremonial City, p. 134

Yaxchilan: View from Structure 33

Str. 33

Yaxchilan: The Labyrinth, Str. 19 Yaxchilan: Looking toward the Labyrinth from Great Plaza Yaxchilan: Str. 12 Yaxchilan: Grand Stairway and Str. 33 Yaxchilan: Str. 6 Yaxchilan: Str. 20 Yaxchilan: Stela 1 Yaxchilan: Str. 20 Stelae Yaxchilan: Str. 21