Uxmal, México

Battling swamps and mosquitoes, the team headed north from Palenque to the Gulf of México then travelled up the coastline by boat to Sisal from where they could continue across land to explore the Yucatan. After a stop in Mérida, they headed for the last destination of their journey. 

Casa de las Monjas and Casa al Adivino. These buildings are nicknamed 'The Nunnery' (left, the Spanish thought it resembled a nunnery) and the Pyramid of the Magician or House of the Dwarf (right) as legend says that a dwarf was challenged to build it one night and succeeded with magic. The top image (Stephens 1841:420 "House of the Dwarf and House of the Nuns") shows the buildings in Catherwood's day, and the bottom image from our archives (2006.016.927) was taken in the 1960s-1970s after repairs had already begun. Can you see what changes and repairs have taken place by comparing the two images?

    The expedition to Uxmal led the team to find lavish buildings and temples like Casa el Adivino and a distinct regional (Puuc) style. The grand scale of architecture implied that Uxmal was a powerful state and home to a large population. At first they marvelled at how a large population was sustainable in an area with such a low water table, but soon discovered water cisterns built across the Puuc region and Yucatan. Cities not located by rivers used these artificial cisterns or chultuns to store water, and Uxmal even had an artificial lake with a plastered bottom to store water. Frederick Catherwood and John Lloyd Stephens spent two months clearing and sketching Uxmal.

    Uxmal, Kabah, Labná, and Sayil were, as we know today, interconnected. These cities were power centres in the Late Classic Period until their decline in the Terminal Classic, and served as the social and economic hubs of the region. Catherwood noted similarities in the architectural style and design specific to the Puuc region. One trademark is the masks along the buildings of the long-nosed Chaac, god of rain and lightning. Uxmal had no natural cenotes or bodies of water to draw from but depended on rain to fill to their chultuns every year. Perhaps this dependence on rain is what made Chaac so popular at Uxmal and across the region. 

      The photos below, taken in the 1960s-1970s, show the Governer's Palace (Casa del Gobernador) in detail. Notice the long nose of Chaac and the detailed geometric forms in the detail of an archway at the palace. The geometric forms relate symbolically to Maya cosmology. These intricate buildings were constructed without iron and the wheel to transport materials. The central photograph shows the palace from a distance, while the image on the right side (Catherwood 1844 Plate: X "Archway, Casa del Gobernador, Uxmal") shows the archway when Catherwood visited. Note the team working to excavate the deposits and clear the archway. 


    Uxmal had already been cleared to make way for corn crops, meaning a less taxing struggle for Stephens and Catherwood. The city was very unique, the style so different from Copán and Quirigua that the men were unsure if they could link it to the Maya culture until they discovered a wooden beam covered with glyphs that they recognised from the other sites. Carvings were found of royalty with captives on their knees around them, a theme they had seen at Palenque. Today we know that a road led directly from the great archway of Uxmal to its sister arch in Kabah, but when Catherwood’s team arrived at Kabah in early January 1842 they assumed that the site was independent from any other, likely because of the isolation they felt in their fallen and overgrown surroundings. Catherwood, who had spent the last while battling malaria, took a turn for the worse and the men readied for the journey home. They departed Mexico in late June 1840.  Uxmal made it's impression despite Catherwood's illness, however, and the men returned, living at the site to finish their work from November 1841 to January 1842. Some of their discoveries at Uxmal would later be confirmed by archaeologists. Their hypotheses for the water cisterns and the use of the ball court as a sporting arena are two examples. 

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