Maya cities of the Petén
Uaxactún, El Ceibal, Yaxhá & Topoxté, Aguateca
The only partially excavated ruins of Uaxactún, located about 20 km north of Tikal, owe their name ‘ uaxac’ (eight) and ‘ tun’ (stone) to their rediscoverer Morley, who found a stele here, whose inscription recorded a date of the 8th Baktún of the Mayan calendar and thus represented the oldest known date of Mayachronology at that time.
Recent research projects, however, have found evidence that the original name of the city was “Sian Ka’an” (where the sky is born).
Besides El Mirador and Nakbé, Uaxactún is one of the oldest and longest inhabited Mayan cities. Its settlement history is divided into three phases: The first began around 1000 BC and lasted until around 100 AD (wooden huts without foundations), the second ended towards the end of the 3rd century AD. This was followed by the classical phase (280 to 890 AD). With the year 890 the building activity ended in Uaxactún.
The best known structure is the temple complex in group E, which probably served as an observatory, or at least as a calendar marker. At the end of the Early Classical period (ca. 200 AD), three temples were arranged opposite a platform in such a way that the sunrises could be observed over the buildings at distinctive quarterly events of the year (solstices and day-night equinoxes). Uaxactún is therefore also famous for the refinement of the Mayan calendar, the improvement of the writing system and for the high quality of its polychrome pottery, which is unparalleled in the Mayan world.
El Ceibal, also called Seibal, was first settled during the Middle Pre-Classical period (ca. 800 BC). Until the time of Christ’s birth it grew in size and population, then experienced a long phase of decline and was finally abandoned in the course of the 6th century AD.
After a phase of repopulation, Ceibal was conquered in 735 A.D. by ruler 3 of Dos Pilas, who started a war in the Petexbatún region, and became controlled for the next 60 years after the capture of Ceibal’s ruler Yich’ak Balam.
Around 830 A.D. the Putún or Chontal Maya-Toltecs invaded Ceibal from the Gulf coast, which led to an enormous population growth for the next hundred years up to an estimated number of ten thousand people.
It was not until 930 AD that Ceibal was finally abandoned. The last stele found dates from the year 899.
More impressive than the buildings of the city rediscovered in 1890 are the artistic steles cut from high-quality limestone, which are among the most beautiful in the Petén region.
The pottery found in Ceibal as well as early jade objects (approx. 1000 BC), which have a clear Olmec influence, are also regarded as the oldest evidence of civilization in the entire Petén region.
Ceibal is situated above the left bank of the Río de las Pasión, about 12 km from Sayaxché. The journey by boat from the jetty on the north bank of the river is already an experience by itself.
Together with Nakum and Naranjo, Yaxhá belongs to the so-called cultural triangle (Triangulo Cultural) in the northeast of the Petén, near the border to Belize.
This region of the Petén was the most densely populated during the classical period of Mayan culture (about 250 – 600 AD).
Yaxhá is Guatemala’s third largest Mayan city, surpassed only by El Mirador and Tikal, hidden deep in the jungle. It is the only Mayan city apart from Tikal to possess twin pyramids, which has led some researchers to speculate that this is due to a similar power structure.
Yaxhá’s ceremonial centre sits 168 m above the northern shore of the lagoon of the same name, whose green-blue waters were called “yaxa” by the Maya. The Mayan explorer David Stuart, famous for his work in Copán, was the first to suggest that the city’s emblem glyphs should be read as ‘Yax-ha’ and that the inhabitants themselves had given the city its name.
Unlike most other Mayan cities, Yaxhá’s political elite resisted the rapid collapse that began around 800 AD. Rather, it was during this period that there was increased construction activity and evidence that Yaxhá was hosting refugees from other collapsing Mayan cities.
The most important architectural complexes in the extensive Yaxhás area include The Palace of the ruling family, the North Acropolis, the Astronomical Complex, two Ball courts, the East Acropolis, the Painter Complex and finally the Twin Pyramid Complex. They are all connected by a system of paved and once stuccoed sacred streets called Sacbeob.
The East Acropolis of the city overlooks an artificial platform of square layout over extremely steep slopes. It marks the highest point of the former city area. Its rectangular square is surrounded on all four sides by massive buildings, including two palace buildings with remains of vaulted rooms.
Building 216 is a high, nine-stepped pyramid with a temple on the uppermost platform. It is located on the central axis of the east side of the Acropolis. From its top you can enjoy impressive views over the lake and the treetops of the surrounding countryside.
Topoxté, located on three small, now uninhabited islands in the Laguna Yaxhá, has a special position among the Mayan towns of Petén. As the capital of the Ko`woj-Maya, which came from Yucatán to the Petén, Topoxté is regarded as the most important centre of the late post-classical period (ca. 1250 – 1697) in the region, even though there are traces of settlements dating back to the Pre-Classical period.
It is assumed that Canté served as a residential quarter for ordinary people, while the noble caste lived on Paxté and especially on Topoxté where the ceremonial buildings were erected. These are located at the highest points of the island and are characterized by wide colonnaded halls as they are known from the north of Yucatán.
The best example of the post-classical architectural style is building C on the east side of the main plaza. It is a step pyramid with three platforms and a steep staircase. On the third platform there is another foundation that supports the former temple, also reached by a staircase.
The central plaza of the site is surrounded on three sides by post-classical temples with the characteristic features of vertical walls, columns and flat stone ceilings that can also be found in Mayapán.
The visit of Aguateca is an impressive mixture of a natural and cultural experience, even if the site does not have any monumental buildings.
Instead, its remains bear witness to massive fortifications that are unique within the Mundo Maya. Its core is a natural, formerly palisaded rock wall.
Together with its sister city Dos Pilas, Aguateca represents the phase of escalating conflicts called “Star Wars” towards the end of the Mayan late classical period, when neighbouring towns were attacked and subdued.
Unlike previous conflicts, these wars affected the entire population and eventually led to the demise of the Maya in the Petén.
Around 830 AD, hostile attacks forced the ruling family around Tan Te’ K’inich to flee from Dos Pilas to Aguateca.
Despite its massive fortifications, Aguateca was also invaded and its buildings burned down. The attackers left the city as quickly as they had arrived, leaving no trace of their identity. The ruling family had already left Aguateca before the attack and just had left some ceremonial objects in a sealed room – hoping for a return? These ritual objects, especially jade, pottery and obsidian, provided valuable indications of that the noble caste of Aguateca was actively involved in the further development of pottery.