Chichén Itzá, México

El Castillo, Chichén Itzá. Left: Image from 1960s-1970s (2006.017.101). Right: Image by Frederick Catherwood (Stephens 1843:312 "Castillo, Chichén Itzá). What changes have occurred since Catherwood's lithograph? Note the restoration and open space around the building.

Chichén Itzá was a ranch when Stephens and Catherwood arrived, which meant that much of the site had already been cleared by grazing animals. This saved the team days of hard labour and allocated more time to drawing and exploring the site. The style of art and presence of glyphs established the site’s Maya origins. Today the site has been cleared even more for tourist activity, and many of the buildings have been reconstructed.

El Castillo, or the Temple of Kukulcan. Left: Catherwood 1844: "Plate XXII Teocallis, at Chichen Itza". Right: Photo 2017. Accession number 2017.013.136.

    Images of warfare, conquering enemies, men with spears and weapons, and skull motifs were more common in artwork at Chichén Itzá than elsewhere. Softer limestone resulted in less detailed carvings and reliefs than at Uxmal. The feathered serpent is also a popular decorative motif around the city, something that Frederick Catherwood and John Lloyd Stephens had previously seen in Aztec art but not Maya art.

    Stephens and Catherwood noted the Aztec influence in many areas of this Mayan complex, further reinforcing their theory of an Indigenous origin of Mesoamerica’s ancient cities. Archaeologists agree with these early observations, but still can’t explain the link. Was Chichén Itzá a Mayan city or were there periods of Aztec dominance? Was it a multicultural melting pot? Was the city’s trade with the Aztecs so successful that Aztec culture influenced the Maya artistic motifs here? These are some of the questions that experts are still debating.


Compare the images: Catherwood 1844: Plate XXI "Las Monjas, Chichén Itzá" with our archive photograph from 2008 (2008.020.096).

© 2018 SFU Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology, created by Jackie La Mouri. Photographs courtesy of Dr. Barbara Winter and Dr. Brian Hayden.