Located 30 miles northeast of Mexico City in
the Valley of Mexico, Teotihuacán is one of Mexico’s most popular
archaeological sites and contains some of the largest pyramidal structures built in the
Dating back to 100BC Teotihuacán
was to become the cultural epicentre of ancient Mesoamerica. Yet very little is
known about its origins, its people and where they came from or what language
they spoke for although the civilization left many
architectural ruins, no trace has yet been found of a writing system. The Totonacs have always maintained that they were the
ones who built it, something that was accepted by the Aztecs, although this has not
been corroborated by archaeological findings.
The original name
of the city is also not known, Teotihuacán, which means ‘place of the gods’, was given to it by
the Aztecs although they
never lived in Teotihuacán but visited it as a place
of pilgrimage as they believed it was the place where the world was
Although buildings have
been found which date back to 200 BC the development of Teotihuacán began in
the first century AD, which was when the Pyramid of the Sun was constructed.
This development resulted from the exploitation of natural resources and an
increase in agricultural production resulting in the development of trade. Between
the 4th and 7th century Teotihuacán was to reach it height
with influence throughout most parts of Mesoamerica reaching its peak around
450 AD when it was to become one of the largest cities of the world at that
time covering an area of 30 Sq km (11 Sq
miles) with a population of between 85,000-200,000
Its decline is believed to
have occurred between 650 and 750 AD and evidence has been found of wilful destruction
and damage by fire of some of the main buildings. Some scholars put this down to it being
sacked by unknown invaders although others suggest that it may have been an
uprising of the people against the elite.
Teotihuacán was believed to have been a multi-ethnic
city, occupied by Otomi, Zapotec, Mixtec, Maya and Nahua peoples each with
their own distinct with the majority of people living in large apartment.
Many of the buildings contained workshops where artisans produced pottery and
Running along the centre of
the city is a broad central avenue, called "Avenue of the Dead" which
contained a number of structures.
The avenue was 131 feet wide and stretched for 3 miles, although now only 1.4
miles is discernible. At the side of the avenue is the immense Pyramid of the
Sun which is 210 feet tall, this was 249 feet as it originally had a temple on
top. Its base length is 738 feet, which is 10 feet less than the Great Pyramid of
Cheops. Below the pyramid is a cave which it is believed gave it its special significance as this was
symbolic of the womb. At the north end
is the 138 feet tall Pyramid of the Moon, which was the first large structure
built in Teotihuacán. Along the Avenue of the Dead are many smaller constructions which the
Aztecs believed were tombs, hence the name of the avenue. These are now
believed to have been ceremonial platforms that were topped with temples.
the major ceremonial pyramids, which would have been plastered and painted bright red the colour of blood, there
were also palaces and temples, especially near the north end of the city
surrounding the plaza in front of the Pyramid of the Moon. These included the Palace of Quetzalcoatl, the Butterfly
Palace, the Temple of the Feathered Conches, and the Palace of the Jaguars.
Adorning the buildings are magnificent murals and stone carvings.
At the side of the Avenue of
the Dead is the area known as the Citadel, which contains the ruined Temple of
the Feathered Serpent. This area was a large plaza surrounded by temples that
formed the religious and political center of the city. The name
"Citadel" was given to it by the Spanish, who believed it was a fort.
A large enclosure with a capacity to
hold about 100,000 people, it is believed that this may have been used for
ritual performances although is also thought to have been the marketplace. The interior space is surrounded by four
large platforms surmounted by pyramids. The Feathered Serpent Pyramid - which
is adorned with large sculptural heads - was the central pyramid of the complex.
Also to be seen are many brilliantly painted frescoes. On the site is the museum which contains many
artefacts including numerous masks.
The first major excavations in the city were undertaken by Leopoldo Batres in 1905, since then there have been numerous excavations and the site was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
Located in southern Mexico, the ruins of the Mayan city of
Palenque date back to 100 BC although its name is recently modern coming from
the village located close by. The ancient name of the city was Lakam Ha,
meaning "Big Water", as it has numerous springs and wide cascades.
Palenque flourished in the 7th century with its decline and fall occurring
around 800 AD. After its decline it was covered by the jungle but on going
excavation and restoration work has made it one of the most famous
archaeological sites in Mexico.
much smaller than many of the Maya sites but it contains some of the finest
architecture, sculpture, roof comb and carvings that the Maya produced. A great
deal of the history of Palenque has been obtained from the hieroglyphic
inscriptions found on many of the monuments.
The structures for which Palenque is most famous
include the: Palace; Temple of Inscriptions; Temple of the Sun; the Temple of
the Foliated Cross; the Temple of the Cross; and the Temple XIII.
Standing on a wide artificial terrace 9m high the Palace is 69m long by 61m wide. Covering an area of 6,500m2 it
consists of a complex of
several connected and adjacent buildings with a large number of rooms and galleries the wall of which were decorated
with mural paintings and carved stone slabs. Running under the Palace are a series
of passageways that lead to additional rooms. The palace is situated around four courtyards surrounded by double
galleries. In the south-western courtyard there is a square
tower which originally rose 22m in height. The tower has a solid basement and
three stories with large windows looking toward the four cardinal points of the
compass. It has been suggested that this could have been a watch tower or an
The Temple of Inscriptions was commissioned by Pacal
(903 – 984 AD) the founder of the first dynasty at Palenque towards the
end of his rein. The vaulted chamber which contained the sarcophagus was
discovered in 1949. Originally the temple had eight platforms, which was later added to. As
the sarcophagus is made from a 20 ton single piece of limestone and is larger
than the passage ways, the temple would have been built around it. The lid of the sarcophagus - weighing 5 ton - was elaborately carved
showing symbolic scene of death and resurrection and carved images of Pacal's
ancestry are depicted around his coffin and provided
a great deal of information about Pacal. On the walls of
the tomb are figures of the nine lords of the dead carved in the stucco.
There were also a number of skeletons found in the tomb; these were
probably sacrificed as part of the funeral ceremony. The body of Pacal was
covered in cinnabar and was adorned with pearls, conch shells, pyrite, and jade
ornaments and his face was covered with a jade mask. A copy of the sarcophagus
is held in the on-site museum while the mask is in the National Museum of
Anthropology in Mexico City.
The temples of the Sun, Foliated Cross, and the
Cross are known as the Cross Group and were built between 642 AD to 692 AD by
Pacal's eldest son and successor Chan Bahlum. The temples are arranged around
three sides of the Plaza. Each of the buildings consists of an outer and inner
chamber consisting of three rooms. The walls are decorated with carved stone
panels. Visitors are currently able to climb to these temples but only enter
the chamber of the Temple of the Sun.
Another structure in Palenque is the Temple XIII,
which is adjacent to the Temple of Inscriptions. In 1994 a door was found that
led to an underground temple, with three rooms. In the middle room was a
sarcophagus which was painted with cinnabar to give it a red colour, inside the
sarcophagus was the remains of a woman who became known as the Red Queen. There
were no inscriptions to identify the woman. But it was believed that it could
be the mother of Pacal.
The site also incorporates a museum containing some
of the artefacts found on the site and a reconstruction of the tomb of Pacal as
the tomb itself was closed to visitors.
there was a city in this location as far back as 600 AD Chichen Itza really developed
in the 9th century when the cities of Palenque and Tikel were
deserted by the Mayas who moved north into the eastern part of Yucatán. It was, however, in the 10th century that
the city was to become one of the largest Mayan cities that was to dominate the
area from central Yucatán to the north coast and down the east
and west coasts of the peninsula. It was to retain its dominance for 200
name means "at the mouth of the well of the Itza". The Itza being a group of people who built
the second city at the location of a previous city called Chichen, with the
site today consisting of two areas.
densely clustered architecture, the main area of the site covers over 5 square
kilometres The residential buildings
would have extended far beyond that which is seen today. The area containing
the major architectural buildings was artificially leveled in order to build.
The site contains many buildings in various states of preservation, and many
have been restored. The main ones are explained below.
The Temple of Kukulkan, the Maya serpent
god is usually referred to as El
Castillo (the castle). Rising 30 metres (98ft) high
on the North Platform the step pyramid consists of a series of nine square
terraces, each approximately 2.5 metres (8ft) high, with a temple 6 metres (20ft)
high at the summit, in the temple is a Jaguar throne. The four faces of the pyramid have
protruding stairways that rise at an angle of 45° with 365 steps.At the base of the
balustrades of the northeastern staircase are carved heads of a serpent. At late afternoon on the Spring and
Autumn equinoxes, the north-west corner of the pyramid casts a series of
triangular shadows on the north side that gives the impression of a serpent
moving down the staircase.
Across from El
Castillo is The Temple of the Warriors, this complex consists of a large
stepped pyramid with rows of carved columns depicting warriors. At the top of
the pyramids summit is a statue of Chac Mool, although a number of similar ones
can be seen at closer quarters. The Chac-Mool depicts a human figure in a
position of reclining with the head up and turned to one side, holding a tray
over the stomach, it is suggested that the heart of the sacrificed was placed
on the tray.
Along the south
wall of the Temple of Warriors are a number of columns, which would have
supported an extensive roof system. Some of these columns contains pillars with
carvings of soldiers in bas-relief; carvings of people or gods, and animals and
The Tzompantli or Wall of
Skulls is where the heads of sacrificial victims were placed. The platform
walls are carved with reliefs of the skull rack itself; a scene with a human
sacrifice; eagles eating human hearts; and skeletonized warriors with arrows
Located to the
north-west of El Castillo is the Ball Court. The Ball Court was an important
part of Mayan cities with all but the smallest having one, thirteen have been
identified in Chichen Itza including the largest found in Mesoamerica. The
Great Ball Court measures 168 by 70 metres. At each side of the playing area
are platforms 95 metres long and with 8 metres high walls with a ring at the
centrally positioned. The bases are slanted with panels depicting the game and
players. At either end of the playing area are temples. Built into the east
wall are two temples of the Jaguar, the upper temple overlooks the ball court
while the lower temple has a Jaguar throne similar to the one at the top of the
where proficient astronomers who had mapped many of the celestial objects, particularly
Venus and the Moon and their calculations enabled them to produce precise
calendars. Many of the buildings were aligned to the heavens and were used in
their observation, although the round buildings tended to be labelled as
observatories. Such a building is El
Caracol mounted on a large square platform.
Nunnery was so named by the Spanish and was in fact a palace complex. To the
east is a small temple known as the Church which is decorated with elaborate
masks and hieroglyphic texts.
the area are a number of natural sinkholes known as cenotes, Chichen Itza has
two providing water to the city throughout the year. The large one is 60 metres in diameter and
drops 27 metres to the water table. This canote is also known as the Well of
Sacrifice as it was used by the Maya to sacrificed
objects and people to Chaac, the rain god. Objects such as gold, carved jade, pottery,
flint, obsidian, shell and human remains have been found at the bottom of the
Much of Chichen
Itza has still to be excavated and this is an ongoing process. As it is within travelling distance of the
tourist resorts it is one of Mexico’s most visited sites and makes the most of
this by catering for tourism with souvenirs and a sound and lights show.
Together with Tikal and Chichen Itza, Uxmal most represents Maya Architecture at its best. The name is thought to mean “thrice built” although it has also been suggested that it derives from the word Uchmal, which refers to the future.
Although a great deal of work has been carried out at Uxmal - and in fact is still being carried out – not a lot is known about the city. It is believed that it was founded around 500 AD and that most of its development occurred between 700 - 1000 AD when it became a thriving city and a religious centre with great ceremonial significance. The layout of the buildings suggests knowledge of astronomy by its planners. At its peak Uxmal had a population of around 25,000 inhabitants. Around 1000 AD the city was invaded by the Toltec’s and it started to decline, it was abandoned around 1200 AD.
Covering around 150 acres the central area of Uxmal is reasonably well preserved due to the high quality of the buildings which are constructed of well-cut stones set in concrete. The ruins today providing a good impression of what the city would have looked like at its height.
The first major building seen on a visit to the site is the Pyramid of the Magician, also called Pyramid of the Dwarf as legend states that it was built by a dwarf overnight using magic. A stepped pyramid with five levels it raises to a height of 27.6m. The design is unusual in that the profile of each layer is elliptical in shape and not the normal rectilinear plan found in Maya pyramids. It was a common practice in Mesoamerica to build new pyramids on top of older ones, but in Uxmal a new pyramid was built off centre slightly to the east of the older pyramid, so that on the west side the temple on top of the old pyramid is preserved, but has the newer temple above it.
The temple at the top of the main staircase on the West face has a large mask with the mouth acting as the entrance. It has a number of masks at each corner. The East face has a wider staircase with a hole near its top; this was the result of excavations into the pyramid to study a temple which had been covered by the subsequent construction work. The Maya would rebuild over existing buildings every 52 year cycle.
Located at the side of the Pyramid of the Magician is the Quadrangle of the Nuns, named by the Spanish as it reminded them of a European nunnery. This consists of four buildings placed at different levels that surrounding a courtyard. Constructed sometime after 900 AD the façades are richly decorated with motives and lattice work, masks, serpents, human figures and representations of the gods, it is thought to have been used as a school for training healers, astrologers, shamans, and priests.
Close by is the Quadrangle of the birds with the colonnade one of the buildings showing reconstructed columns.
Walking through the site visitors will reach the Ball Court 33.5m long and 9.8m wide. This is an excellent example and shows the court with its battered side and the location of the ring which was reconstructed in concrete from a remaining fragment.
The Building of the Governor’s Palace is elevated on an artificial platform constructed on a levelled hill and covers over 5 acres. It was the last major structure completed at Uxmal. Its front façade is the largest Maya façade and its frieze consists of 15,000 mosaic pieces of carved stone runs around the entire building. On the façades are vaulted passage ways with plain inner surfaces, which breaks the otherwise continuous frieze. On the same platform next to the Palace is the House of the Turtles so named for the frieze of turtles carved around its cornice.
In front of the Governor's Palace is a small shrine with a monolith in the form of an inverted cone which protrudes into the ground and a shrine with steps on 4 sides with a two-headed Jaguar Throne.
Looking down from the platform of the Governor’s Palace can be seen the Dovecote Roofcomb which has remained preserved over the centuries.
To the side of the Palace is the Great Pyramid with its east side in a collapsed state and the north side - restored in the early 1970’s - with its grand staircase leading to the Macaws Temple with its wide central doorway. The Great Pyramid was originally nine levels high and has only been partially restored.
Throughout the site are a number of stone stelae with hieroglyphic inscriptions containing details of the city’s rulers, many of these stelae appear to have been deliberately damaged. Another indication of conflict can be found in the remains of the wall that surrounded part of the site.
Declared UNESCO World Heritage site in1996 the site also contains a small museum to display a few items found on the site.
Located 18 km south Uxmal and connected to it by a raised pedestrian causeway 5 meters wide with monumental arches at each end is the city of Kabah: The connection between the two sites indicating its importance. It is thought that in early times Kabah and Uxmal were adversaries, but that they eventually became allies with Kabah becoming the second city in importance next to Uxmal.
Kabah, which in Maya means “Lord of the strong and mighty hand” was inhabited from the middle of the 3rd century BC although most of the buildings that can be seen today date from between the 7th and 11th centuries AD reaching its’ height around the end of the 9th century.
The ruins extend either side of the main highway although only a few of the buildings are open to the public there are many more still overgrown and covered with the forest including a large pyramid, although excavation work is underway to carryout archeological excavations and to clear and restore more of the buildings.
The site consists of a number of palaces, low stone buildings, and step-pyramid temples and contains many sculpted panels, mostly depicting the site's rulers and scenes of warfare. The most famous structure at Kabah is the Kodz Poop which means “rolled-up matting” also known as the "Temple of the Masks". This stands on a low platform and has a façade decorated with 250 stone masks of Chaac, the long-nosed rain god. The temple is 46 metres long and contains 10 chambers arranged in two tiers of five built one behind the other. On the east façade are two well-preserved life size stone sculptured figures.
Located in the centre of the city is the Great Palace, one of the best preserved buildings on the site. Set on two levels it displays an elegant roof comb over part of the building. The decoration is simple with three columns with a capitol shaped like a pedestal.
Today the main temple looks like a mound of loose stones but it rested on a large elliptical base with a monumental staircase with two rooms located at the side. It was here that the sacrifices were carried out.
As was common in Mayan Puuc architecture, walls were constructed as a mosaic of molded concrete blocks. The Maya used concrete as a building material as limestone, its main ingredient, was found in abundant quantities throughout the Yucatan.
There are numerous masks of Chaac throughout the site due to his importance as there are no cenotes (natural sink holes containing water) in this area, which placed a greater importance on rain. Reservoirs were constructed to collect rain water and they also had a drainage system of canals to help irrigate the land. However, by the 11th century Kabah and its surrounding sites had been abandoned, with drought being considered the main reason for its decline.
in 500 BC in the Valley of Oaxaca by the Zapotecs, Monte Alban was one of the first cities in the Americas and was to become
the main centre for government and to have a significant effect on the
development of the arts and science. It reached its height in the years 350 –
550 AD during the classical period. Around 800 AD the city began to lose its
power to the Mixtecs and cities such as Mitla and by 850 AD the soil around
Monte Alban was exhausted and the city virtually deserted. In the years that
followed it became a sacred site to the Mixtecs who would visit it but did not
occupy it, although considering it a sacred site they would bury their dead
there and a number of tombs have been found and exhibits of these can be seen
in the on-site museum.
on the top of an artificially levelled hill, the site provides an excellent
impression of the city as it would have been during its occupation with the
Main Plaza providing an impressive site for visitors with the buildings placed
around its sides. Measuring approximately 300 meters by 200 meters the Plaza is
the site's main civic and ceremonial area. It also includes residential
buildings used by the elite of the city, these are located around the plaza or
in its vicinity.
the north and south of the Main Plaza are large platforms which are accessed
via monumental staircases. To the eastern and western sides are a number of
smaller platform mounds on which temples and the residences for the elite were
situated. Also to be seen is the ball-court, this differs from the ones found
in Maya cities as it has no ring indication variations in the game. A north-south central mound is in the centre of the plaza and served as platforms for ceremonial structures.
the north is the sunken patio surrounded by terraces, in the centre is an alter
for human sacrifices. In the south west corner is the Gallery of the Dancers.
This contains a number of reliefs of figures in grotesque postures. These were
originally thought to be people dancing, hence its name, but it has also been
suggested that they represent tortured prisoners, or that they are people with
deformities, as the city may have been used as a teaching centre.
the centre of the Main Plaza, is a building which has an unusual arrow-like
shape. The building is orientated differently from most of the other structures
at the site and contains over 40 large carved slabs and in many cases
characterized by upside-down heads indicating conquest: Although it has been
suggested that the differing alignment was due to it being an Observatory.
Other buildings are also connected to the astronomical aspects of the site such
as a shaft aligning with the sun when it is at its zenith.
of the objects found at the site have been taken to the National Museum of
Anthropology in Mexico City although a selection of objects has been retained
in the site museum.
The archaeological site of Mitla is located in the centre of the town which grew up around the ruins. Close by is the Church of San Paublo which was constructed by the Spanish in the 17th century using much of the material taken from site.
Mitla dates back to about 900 BC while the remains which are visible today date from about 200 AD to 900 AD when the Zapotecs controlled the area. In 1000 AD the Mixtecs took control of the site until 1200 AD when the Zapotecs regained it.
Mitla was the second most important ceremonial centre after Monte Alban. After the disappearance of Monte Alban it became the power centre for the entire valley. Originally known as Mictlan it was shortened by the Spanish to Mitla. Although in Zapotec language the site was called Lyoboa, which translated means “Resting Place”.
The site consists of five main groups of structures, the Southern Group and Clay Group, which have been classified as ceremonial centres. These are formed by the presence of mounds and central squares. The Creek Group, Columns Group and Church Group are classified as palaces, comprising of several chambers, set around square.
The Hall of Columns is 120 x 21 feet in size and has six monolithic columns of volcanic stone that originally supported a roof covering the entire hall. From this is a low, narrow passageway leading to the interior of another enclosure, which originally was covered by a roof. The walls of this chamber are covered with panels of inlaid cut-stone mosaic known as stepped-fret design, whose intricate geometric mosaics are believed to be a representation of the Sky Serpent and therefore a symbol of the Mesoamerican deity, Quetzalcoatl. The use of this chamber is not known although legend says the chamber was used for the final initiation of shamans who had been trained in magic and healing in the school of Mitla. In the Patio of Tombs, adjacent to the Hall of Columns, is a 2.8 meter tall column known as the "Pillar of Death" although this is also sometime referred to as the Pillar of Life.
The group of the columns contains two squares; the northern one, which contains the main building, is bordered by platforms on all four sides. The central patio contains the remains of an altar. It is here that the rectangular great Hall of Columns is found and a decorated patio, which provides access to four rooms. Each is decorated by three panels with ornate mosaics of carved stone of different geometric designs in each band. The panels contain thousands of polished stones, which are cut to fit without mortar.
The site contains a number of beautiful tombs which are located in the northern and eastern buildings; it was here that the Zapotec priests and kings were buried. The tombs are cruciform in plan and the rooms and antechambers are richly decorated with cut stone friezes. The walls are decorated with ornate mosaic panels.
Nearby to Mitla is the town of Santa Maria del Tule which contains the tree of Tule which is one of the oldest living things on earth. With a circumference of over 48 metres at its base, is between 2000 and 3000 years old.