Yaxchilan, located on the banks of the Usumacinta River in the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico, was an important Late Classic Maya centre. The Maya dated the founding of their city to 320 CE, but Yaxchilan flourished between c. 580 and c. 800 CE, benefitting from commerce via the Usumacinta River and trading in copal resin and dyes processed from Brazil wood. Remains of stone pilings suggest the site once had a bridge or toll gate. Impressive in both architecture and sculpture, the site displays evidence of warfare before its collapse in the 9th century CE.
Unfortunately, the buildings of Yaxchilan have suffered from damage and erosion by floods over the centuries. However, further from the river are several small hills on the west and east sides upon which platforms and terraces were constructed. Much of the surviving architecture is in the Petén style, as seen at sites such as Tikal, and contact between the two sites is established through royal inter-marriages. In addition, narrow multiple entrances and ornate roof combs remind of Palenque.
Yaxchilan is noteworthy for its sculpture both on free standing stelae and on buildings, especially lintels.
One of the most impressive Petén-style buildings is the symmetrical Structure 33, built c. 750 CE, which is approached by a double platform with staircases and whose comb is supported by interior buttressing. The structure was built in honour of the mid-8th century CE Yaxchilan ruler Bird-Jaguar (ruled 752-768 CE) whose likeness appeared in stucco decorations in the centre of the building's roof comb. In front of the building is a carved stalactite which represents a sacred cave. Bird-Jaguar went on to expand Yaxchilan and constructed no fewer than eleven more buildings and 33 monuments.
Yaxchilan is also noteworthy for its sculpture, both on free standing stelae and on buildings, especially lintels where the scenes can only be seen from directly below. Early figures are depicted from the front and are relatively unremarkable, but from the mid-8th century CE figures are rendered in profile and designs become more dynamic, often framed by Maya glyphs. Stela 11 shows two standing figures in costume on the front, probably signifying the accession of the ruler Bird-Jaguar alongside his father and, in a quite different style, the reverse side again shows Bird-Jaguar, this time represented as the god Chahk, attacking three kneeling victims with his sceptre.
Scenes on limestone lintels, carved in high relief, typically portray rituals such as a worshipper drawing blood from his tongue in the presence of a priest and Bird-Jaguar standing over a kneeling captive. Another vivid scene, from Temple 23, shows a giant double-headed snake creature from the mouths of which emerge a warrior and the war and rain god Tlaloc, who both tower over a kneeling worshipper, identified as Lady Xok', wife of the Yaxchilan ruler Shield-Jaguar (r. 681-742 CE), who sees the monster in a blood-letting induced vision. This scene, as indicated by the glyphs, occurred on 23rd October 681 CE, the accession of Itzamnaaj Bahlam II, 'Shield Jaguar the Great'. Traces of red, greens, and yellows indicate that the panels were once brightly painted. These violent scenes are amongst the earliest to show such graphic episodes of religious life and conquest, although they would later become common in the art of the Toltec and Aztec civilizations.
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Yaxchilan Lintel 24
Lintel 24 is the designation given by modern archaeologists to an ancient Maya limestone carving from Yaxchilan, in modern Chiapas, Mexico. The lintel dates to about 723-6 AD, placing it within the Maya Late Classic period.  The text of Maya hieroglyphics indicates that the scene depicted is a bloodletting ritual that took place on 5 Eb 15 Mak, 709 AD. The ruler, Shield Jaguar, holds a torch while his consort, Lady Xoc, pulls a rope studded with what are now believed to be obsidian shards through her tongue in order to conjure a vision serpent.
Yaxchilan ruins in Mexico
“Yaxchilán” means green stones in the Maya language. The 560 km long “Usumacinta” river stands for “the howler monkey spot”. And that is for a reason! The area is dominated by rainforest, lots of greenery, a mysterious fog, different monkeys, toucans and beautiful ceiba trees. Especially in the early morning you have the complex almost entirely to yourself. The best way is to stay the night before in Corozal. This way you can wake up early the next day and take the first boat to the Yaxchilan Maya ruins (see below for more practical information)
Yaxchilan Mexico consists of a Gran Plaza, the higher buildings of the Great Acropolis and the even more higher located, Little Acropolis. The site is known for the remains of beautiful decorations, ornaments and hieroglyphics. Because of its isolated location, you are really able to feel the magical vibes of the former Mayan empire. Yaxchilán is one of the most important remote sites of Mexico.
History & background information
Yaxchilán was constructed before DC and no more than a small village in 250 AD. The city began to flourish under the kingdom of kings Shield Jaguar II, Bird Jaguar and Shield Jaguar III, around the end of the 7th century AD. Between 681 and 768 AD, the city even belonged to one of the most important cities in the region and was just as powerful as Palenque and Tikal, in Guatemala. Yaxchilán, like many other Maya cities, was abandoned around 810 AD for still unclear reasons. Nowadays the Yaxchilan ruins complex is open to visitors.
Queens of Yaxchilán
The year was 1831. Irish-Born Juan Galindo, not yet 30 years old, was traveling along the jungle-lined Usumacinta River. When he got to a severe bend in the river, he noticed hills covered in vegetation and crumbled building stones. His indigenous scouts told him that the place was once the home of a famous ancestor called Bol Menché, but no one knew the name of this lost city. Galindo explored the ruins. As a naturalized citizen of the young Republic of Central America and the military ruler of the Petén region of what is now Guatemala, Galindo took extensive notes on any and all ruins he encountered during his various trips throughout his administrative area. The ruins in the bend of the river located today in the Mexican state of Chiapas were later named Yaxchilán by 20 th Century archaeologists, which means “Green Stones” in a local Maya dialect. After the Maya writing system was deciphered to a great extent beginning in the 1950s, the emblem glyph of the site was understood to be read as Siyaj Chan, or “Sky Born” in English. The “Sky Born” city was said to be the capital of a small kingdom called Pa’ Chan, or “Broken Sky.” Juan Galindo wrote about this city now known as Yaxchilán in several articles and letters, with one of his articles published in the London Literary Gazette. In the early 1830s there were many wild theories around about the origins of the people who built the mysterious cities that lay in ruin in the jungles of Mexico and Central America. Through his observations of Maya art – carvings, murals, pottery decorations, etc. – the young military ruler was the first to conclude that the ancestors of the people currently living in the area were the ones who built these once-great cities. This was obvious to him because the current population looked identical to those depicted in the ancient artwork. Galindo would have many more ruined sites to explore and many more theories to ponder as the Republic of Central America granted him one million acres of land in what is now northern Guatemala and Belize. He had a tenuous hold over this claim, though, because some of the land grant overlapped with territorial claims of British Honduras, and the Central American Republic would only let Galindo keep the land if he could settle it and pacify the hostile Lacandon Maya. Juan Galindo went to England to try to iron out his land dispute with the British, but that went nowhere, and he had no clear title to a big chunk of his million acres. He returned to Central America and resumed his role as a military leader, eventually dying in 1840 during a civil war in the republic. Galindo left behind many written observations about the various ruins he surveyed, including the first written accounts of Yaxchilán mentioned earlier. As he was a keen observer of the human form represented in Maya art, he was the first to make note of the seemingly powerful female figures in the many carvings throughout Yaxchilán. Today we know these ancient Maya queens as Lady Pacal, Lady Xoc and Lady Evening-Star.
Unlike Aztec civilization, which was intact when the Spanish arrived, Classic Maya civilization, known for its magnificent art and architecture, mysteriously ended centuries before Europeans arrived in the New World. Fortunately, the ancient Maya had very sophisticated writing and calendar systems which, when combined with beautiful illustrations, tell the tales of kings and queens and exotic happenings from a time long ago. For a detailed exploration of the Maya writing system, please see Mexico Unexplained episode number 16: https://mexicounexplained.com//writing-ancient-maya-history-words/ With the decipherment of Maya writing scholars have been able to piece together elaborate histories of this complex jungle society. With most Maya glyphs interpreted, researchers have a clearer picture of the lives of the rulers of these ancient kingdoms. Carved on monuments throughout their cities, Maya rulers celebrated their victories over other city-states and described important milestones or events in their reigns, to further legitimize their rule in the eyes of their subjects. The archaeological site of Yaxchilán is especially rich in dynastic history with inscriptions going back to the city’s founding in the year 359 AD under King Yopaat B’alam I and going unbroken to the reign of a king known to scholars as K’inich Tatb’u Skull III. K’inich Tatb’u Skull III was the 17 th and last king of Yaxchilán. The last inscription with his name on it at the site dates to 812 AD.
Among the long line of kings at Yaxchilán we see some of the most powerful female rulers the Maya world had ever seen. While various consorts of kings and other female relatives merit passing mention on the city’s monuments, the first one of notable prominence is known as Lady Pacal. This woman is not related to nor should she be confused with Lord Pacal or Pacal the Great from the city of Palenque. The word pacal means “shield” in the local Maya dialect. So, in English, this queen would have been known as “Lady Shield.” Apparently, she was from a very wealthy and powerful local family. Modern people would say that Lady Pacal also had, “good genes.” The noble queen died in the year 705 AD after reaching her 98 th birthday. She would pass these good genes on to her son, King Shield-Jaguar who would live to his mid-90s ruling Yaxchilán for over 60 years. The long life of Lady Pacal could not have been without enormous influence on the city’s politics. In perhaps one of her biggest political moves, Lady Pacal ensured that one of her female relatives, perhaps a younger sister or cousin, married her son, Shield-Jaguar, the heir to the throne. This influential Maya woman’s name was Lady Xoc.
The story of Lady Xoc, Queen of Yaxchilán, is illustrated on what is known on Structure 23 in the heart of the civic-ceremonial center of the city. A series of carved lintels, or supports above building entrances, demonstrate to the world Lady Xoc’s importance in this powerful jungle kingdom. She is shown in several scenes engaging in ritualistic and ceremonial practices at this building. The depiction of a female as the principal participant in ritual is extremely rare to see in ancient Maya art, and this is why researchers believe that Lady Xoc was one of the most important female nobles in the Maya world. The carvings on Building 23 of this famous queen were most likely highly political in nature. Lady Xoc was King Shield-Jaguar’s first wife, but not the mother of his successor. The queen did not bear him any sons, or at least none who survived to rule the kingdom. The marriage to Lady Xoc did solidify Shield-Jaguar’s place on the throne, however, because she came from the most influential family at Yaxchilán. In their book A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya, Maya scholars Linda Schele and David Freidel theorized that even though Lady Xoc would not bear the king a son to succeed him, King Shield-Jaguar wanted to show publicly that Lady Xoc was still important, so as to appease her powerful family. It must have worked, because even though Shield-Jaguar had other wives, including one who would bear him an heir, his rule lasted over 60 years and his reign was uncontested.
The carved lintels depicting Lady Xoc are some of the most spectacular examples of ancient Maya carvings yet known. On Lintel 24 King Shield-Jaguar holds a flaming torch above Lady Xoc as she performs the important ritual of bloodletting by pulling a rope laced with stingray spines through a hole in her tongue. This carving has a date marking its dedication: October 28, 709. Another lintel shows Lady Xoc holding the king’s helmet and shield, helping Shield-Jaguar prepare for an important battle. The carving known as Lintel 25 is perhaps the most curious and the most beautiful. It shows Lady Xoc calling forth the Vision Serpent which is rising from a bowl. The queen is shown looking at the serpent, and in its mouth emerges the first king of Yaxchilán, Yopaat B’alam. Researchers believe that this king is Lady Xoc’s ancestor and this is one of the reasons why she is engaging in a ritual reserved almost exclusively for noble Maya men. Maya historians also believe that Building 23, the site of these elaborate carvings, was the personal property of Lady Xoc, as indicated by the structure’s inscriptions. In the ancient Maya world, the main buildings of the civic-ceremonial centers such as Building 23 were said to belong to the gods and not to individual people. For some reason, this important building in the very center of Yaxchilán was the personal property of the queen which was unheard of in the Maya world. Researchers are at a loss to understand why, but it surely indicates this woman’s important role in the kingdom’s history.
While Lady Xoc would not produce an heir to the Yaxchilán throne, Lady Evening-Star would. The marriage of King Shield-Jaguar to Lady Evening-Star was an international affair. She was a princess, the daughter of the king of Calakmul, a Maya city-state located over 100 miles to the northeast of Yaxchilán. The marriage not only brought peace between the rival kingdoms of Yaxchilán and Calakmul, it produced the male heir that King Shield-Jaguar needed. Lady Evening-Star was in her early 20s and the Yaxchilán king was 61 years old when future king Bird-Jaguar the Great was born. The queen kept close to her family and her own brother would rule the kingdom of Calakmul. With the death of King Shield-Jaguar in his mid-90s, the son of Lady Evening-Star was assumed to accede to the throne of Yaxchilán, but the history written on the stones shows the transition of power was difficult. For almost 10 years Yaxchilán had either no king or several pretenders to the throne trying to take power. Some theorize that the city was a subject state of a neighboring kingdom during this power vacuum, and other theories have Lady Evening-Star ruling as a kind of regent, holding the throne for her son. One can only imagine the politics involved here or what position the queen was in as a foreigner at Yaxchilán with few allies. The fact that Lady Evening-Star was a princess from a foreign bloodline may have caused the old nobility of Yaxchilán to question her son’s right to rule. In the end, Lady Evening-Star would never be a dowager queen as she would die a few months before her son became king. The nature of her death is unknown, but she died at the age of 47 in the year 751. Her son King Bird-Jaguar would rule Yaxchilán from the years 752 to 758 a time of great prosperity for the city with many monumental building projects completed during this time. Within a generation, though, the building would stop and like so many other Maya city-states Yaxchilán would collapse and fade into obscurity. What’s left is not just the crumbling buildings in the jungle but bits and pieces of the fascinating stories of the people who lived there. Many stories are yet to be told.
John van Auken and Lora Little, The Lost Hall of Records
Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube, Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. Rev. ed. Thames and Hudson, London, 2008, pp. 155-159
Excerpts of the now lost manuscript of the Probanza de Votan are included in the work of Dr. Paul Felix Cabrera, Description of the Ruins of an Ancient City discovered near Palenque (based on the original from Captain Antonio del Rio), London, 1822
Lewis Spence, The Problem of Atlantis, London, 1924, p. 107
Carolyn Elaine Tate, Yaxchilan, the Design of a Maya Ceremonial City, University of Texas Press, 1992, pp. 182-185
Christopher Helmke, A Carved Speleothem Monument at Yaxchilan, Mexico. [Online] Available at: http://www.mesoweb.com/pari/publications/journal/1704/Helmke_2017.pdf
Sylvanus G. Morley, 1931 Report of the Yaxchilan Expedition, in Year Book, Carnegie Institution of Washington, pp. 132-139
Marco M. Vigato is an independent researcher into ancient mysteries and megalithic civilizations. A native of Italy, he lives in Mexico City and has travelled extensively across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, South-East Asia, North and South America. He. Read More
Serious fans of the film Raiders of the Lost Ark can fulfill every unmet fantasy of reenacting the opening scene here at Yaxchilan.
Set along the Usumacinta River with Guatemala just on the other side, this archaic city will ignite the dullest of imaginations. The site itself is not huge, but it’s everything you could ask for dense jungle, towering trees, incessant calls of howler monkeys and cavernous ruins ripe for exploring.
The fact that this site is only accessible by boat makes getting there half the fun, and once you arrive at the boat dock, you know you’re somewhere special. After paying entry, you’re free to roam the well-preserved sculptured stone lintels and extensive hieroglyphics. There are several well preserved structures you can explore, their interiors dark and filled with an eerie silence. You might suddenly feel the urge to dash across the grassy, shaded courtyard and pretend you’re being chased by blow dart wielding, loincloth wearing tribesmen.
A grueling schlep to the top of the site’s largest structure, Structure 33, will reward you with a dizzying sense of aloneness. It is possible to be the only visitor at the site at any given time, something that cannot be said of tourist saturated Chichen Itza.
All adventure archaeologist fantasies aside, Yaxchilan is an impressive site. The numerous and wonderfully preserved carved lintels and stelae found here contributed greatly to the deciphering of Mayan hieroglyphs. Carved scenes depicting ritual self-sacrifice and blood-letting helped archaeologists to understand the intricacies of ancestor worship.
Know Before You Go
Bring a flashlight (the one on your phone is fine) because you have to enter through a building, and it is dark inside
As you disembark at the site’s pier, you walk up a ramp and into the jungle that stops short on the bank of the river. The entrance to the site takes you through a tunnel under Edificio 19 (Edifice 19), and you break out into the north west corner of the Grand Plaza—an open space overlooking an ancient plaza, surrounded by structures in varying conditions.
On the left as you look across the Plaza from Edificio 19 are a couple of buildings—making up Edificio 17 , apparently used in ancient times as a sauna.
A number of Steles (stone blocks) are dotted all over this site as in nearby Bonampak some of them are carved on both sides and you can see an example of one of these in Edificio 20 . These Steles have helped archaeologists to piece together much of the history of the site as their paintings and hieroglyphic inscriptions reveal a lot of information about the life and times of the ancient Maya people who inhabited these lands.
Visit the Steles in the Grand Plaza and continue towards Edificios 5, 8 and 20 on the southwest side of the site double back to Stele 1, where on the left you’ll see an ancient stairway rising up to a building on the brow of the hill.
The best preserved building in Yaxchilan is Edificio 33, which you have to climb up to see properly and enjoy there is an ancient stairway to it that rises up from Stele 1. This is the building featured as the main picture of our guide.
There’s a trail that leads behind this building and Edificio 30, and then downhill to the Small Acropolis and Edificios 42,44 & 51 alongside these you’ll also witness some unusual tree formations, where several trees have grown into one!
If you keep walking downhill from here, you’ll end up back on the main trail that led you into the site, beyond the original Edificio 19 that you walked through to arrive on the edge of the Grand Plaza and your tour of Yaxchilan will be complete.
Short Takes: The Bridge to Yaxchilan.
Most people don’t know that the longest bridge in the world, until 1377, was not in Rome, China or the Middle East. It was in the Central American Mayan city of Yaxchilan.
Yaxchilan Bridge reconstruction courtesy James O’Kon PE
Most people don’t know that the longest bridge in the world, until 1377, was not in Rome, China or the Middle East. It was in the Central American Mayan city of Yaxchilan.
The bridge over the Usumacinta river, would have been the longest bridge discovered in the ancient world, dating from its construction by the Maya civilization in the late 7th century. It was a suspension bridge with a more or less level deck.
James O’Kon, an engineer and author, describes the bridge in his new book “The Lost Secrets of Maya Technology”. In his book, O’Kon describes the bridge as necessary for the functioning of the ancient city, located in an oxbow of the river. The tropical river seasonally varies in height by as much as 40 feet, leaving the city isolated on an island for up to half the year.
Yaxchilan map courtesy Google
It has been speculated that the Maya solved this urban transportation problem by constructing a 100-meter long suspension bridge across the river in the late 7th century. The bridge which featured three spans extended from a platform on the grand plaza of Yaxchilan crossing the river to the northern shore. The 63 meter center span remained the longest in the world until the construction of the Italian Trezzo sull’Adda Bridge in 1377.
Bloodletting and sacrifice
A king’s power, and therefore the prosperity of his city state, depended on the favour of the gods. On this lintel the captive has marks of blood on his nose and cheek indicating preparation for a bloodletting ritual. He may also be biting his fingernails in fear. The blood was given to the gods as a renewal of energy and in order to restore blood which, in Mayan creation myths, the gods had given to make humans.
The Maya had numerous festivals and rituals which were marked with sacrifices. However, evidence suggests that the Maya performed far fewer human sacrifices than the Aztecs. Rather, they performed personal blood-letting rites, offering their own blood, and offerings of animal or natural materials such as squirrels, turkeys, pine needles and honey. When human sacrifice was undertaken, for example in rituals for an accession to the throne, the sacrifices were often captives from a nearby city, as is probably the case on this lintel. The ceremony of sacrifice was symbolic of the defeat of the enemy and the victory of the Maya.
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• Original Maya Name: Possibly Pa’ Chan “Broken Sky”
• Classic Period city, recorded history started 359 B.C.E., but started in Preclassic around 300 B.C.E. Peaked 7th-8th C.E.
• Rivals: Piedras Negras, Tikal, Palenque.
Yaxchilan has a storied history filled with kings, their wives, conquests, and basically all the things the Maya loved to record best. The fact that the Maya seemed to generally only record histories of rulers, wives, conquests and wars makes this tale a little biased but who’s judging.
Archaeologists estimate Yaxchilan to have started somewhere in the Preclassic era, about 300 B.C.E. (Coe p. 278). Around 359 B.C.E. the ruler Yoaat B’alam took over as king and his line would continue until around the 9th century C.E. when Yaxchilan eventually collapsed (along with many other Maya sites). So it was a pretty long-lived polity. Yaxchilan’s nearby neighbor Bonampak was constantly invaded, including once by Knot-eye Jaguar I in the 6th century, who captured and killed various nobles (Bonampak is known for its well preserved murals that I will cover at a later date). Later poor Knot-eye Jaguar I himself got captured by rival Piedras Negras.
It’s interesting to read this history of these places and then go to another contemporary polity and see the corresponding history. For example, Knot-eye Jaguar has lintels and stelae commemorating his victories over Bonampark, Piedras Negras, and other locations. Then the lintels might start lauding Knot-eye’s successor. We might never have known what happened to Knot-eye Jaguar except that in Piedras Negras there is ANOTHER inscription talking about his capture.
There were many recorded kings during Yaxchilan’s history, but they will be better studied in more detail at a later date. One thing Yaxchilan has of interest is several lintels featuring wives of kings doing blood rituals in which they pierce the tongue with a thorny rope. Lintel 15 shows a vision serpent appearing after this blood sacrifice. Lintel 24 shows a different wife also doing this ritual, though she shares the lintel with her husband.
As far as the archaeology of Yaxchilan goes, it is a fairly large area near the Ucumacinta River in the southern state of Chiapas, Mexico. There are many structures and buildings, many sculptures, lintels, stelae, stairways and generally it’s a good place for information. Only a few images are readily available, but the buildings seem to vary in size with the largest being about three stories in height.
Structure 33 (left) Unknown Structure (right) Doorway with lintel
The structures of course are in ruins but you can still get a good idea of how they must have looked. Dozens of structures big and small, including two ball courts, loom out of the jungle that now covers the area. Back then the trees wouldn’t cover the area, since the Maya deforested the area to their great detriment.
The ruins were first explored by Europeans (who of course considered themselves the only ones who counted) in the 19th century. Many studies occurred, and Yaxchilan was responsible for helping epigrapher Tatiana Proskouriakoff realize that most of these inscriptions were histories of Maya dynasties.
Slightly exaggerated figure that just barely resembles the figure on Lintel 33.
Lintel: The inside/underside of a door frame, where many carved images and descriptions were placed.
Stela: Carved monument. Plural – Stelae
Polity: Geographic area governed as a state or province. The Maya cities were generally ruled as individual polities, which then waged vicious, vicious wars against each other with the purpose of gathering captives whom they would then torture and kill. The higher the status of the captive (a king was ideal!) the better.