Tulum, México

Left: Catherwood 1844: Plate XXIII "Castle, at Tuloom." Right: Photograph of El Castillo, courtesy of Dr. Barbara Winter, 2018.

Frederick Catherwood reached Tulum in March 1841. The explorers realized that Tulum, like Chichén Itzá, was one of the last strongholds against the Spanish, thus one of the few Maya cities mentioned in European histories and one of the last cities built pre-conquest. They noted the great walls and fortifications around the city, assuming these and the thick surrounding jungle kept invaders at bay. Today we think the city was eventually abandoned due to the high death toll from newly introduced European diseases.

    In its height, Tulum was an important port centre tied to the larger urban area of nearby Cobá. It is unique in that the city is surrounded by thick defensive walls, as if ready to fend off an attack from the sea and land. Before Tulum, Catherwood and Stephens had not seen any heavily fortified city centres. Tulum was also one of the last cities built by the Indigenous people before the Conquistadors arrived. Today we know that Tulum's strategic wall and cliffside location were to prevent attack, and there was but one small beach for ocean access. There is evidence of trade with places as far as Costa Rica, central Mexico, and Panamá. 

    The change in ecological zone between Uxmal and Tulum also surprised the men, who felt that they had reentered the tropical zone, for Tulum had been mostly reclaimed by the forest, and this made it extremely difficult for them to determine city's borders. Still, they recognised the Mayan origin of the site, especially after finding stelae. Unfortunately, despite finding brightly coloured murals inside many of the buildings, their condition was too poor for Catherwood to sketch.

            Tulum showcases the “east coast architectural” Maya period style. One characteristic is the simplicity of the style. There are fewer decorative elements than in other regions, making this style straightforward but elegant. Another unique aspect is the miniature shrines built near sacred sites (such as cenotes or ceremonial areas). These look just like temples but are too tiny for anyone to fit inside. Most cities and regions have certain gods that are most meaningful to them and appear in architectural details such as archways or lintels. Here, the Descending God appears frequently, as well as at associated cities such as Cobá and Ichpatuun. He is identifiable by his wings, feathered headdress, and position as if falling headfirst, that is with his feet in the air and head and hands pointing towards the ground. Sadly, knowledge of this god has been lost to time. Some posit that he is a representation of the Bee God who was important to the people of the Yucatan in honey and beeswax production. Other theories relate him to the sunset. 

    Tulum was the last major site in Mexico or South America that Stephens and Catherwood visited, despite the shared intention to find more of America's lost civilisations. Catherwood's accuracy and skill helped preserve the past through his illustrations and provided a platform for archaeological research after him. 


© 2018 SFU Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology, created by Jackie La Mouri. Photographs courtesy of Dr. Barbara Winter. Images by Frederick Catherwood.