About Triadic Groups…

Welcome in 2015! Below you will find a link to a recently published paper of mine about Triadic Groups and their possible meaning (Estudios de Cultura Maya XLIV [Winter 2014]:119-166). I recommend browsing through the back issues of this renowned journal (especially the previous one), as I am not the only one giving the Triadics a thought. All in Open Access, mind you. Enjoy!



Maya Art and Architecture – review

The silence, that was caused by a prolonged field season and other factors, is over now. So is the wait for the second edition of M. Miller’s Maya Art and Architecture (2014), this time co-authored by M. O’Neil. The short answer for those who wonder whether to buy the 2nd edition despite having the 1st one on their bookshelf, is: most definitely yes! It is not simply a revised and updated version of the earlier book; it has been thoroughly rewritten. Even a short look at the table of contents will tell you so (you can check it out on several webpages, so I am not going to paste it here). Even if you are a seasoned scholar, do not mind its introductory character, for it can greatly help in ordering information and thoughts you have about various aspects of the aestethic sphere of the ancient Maya. That being said – if you are looking for an introduction to Maya architecture, you may be slightly disappointed. The title is somewhat misleading, because there is much more art than architecture in that book. But in the desert every drop counts, so do not miss it!

I will try to complete the next post in a time period a tad shorter than the previous 7 months, so please stay tuned!


M. Miller, M O’Neil

2014 Maya Art and Architecture, Thames & Hudson.

Stinking problem

Imagine an ancient Maya city in its heyday. You will probably see its ceremonial core, with lofty pyramids, elevated palaces, extensive plazas, and everything is either painted bright red, or blinding white. You notice courtiers strolling along private patios, and servants rushing in all directions with their daily tasks. Perhaps there you can catch a glimpse of the ruler, sitting on his cushioned throne somewhere in the guts of a complicated maze of corridors in his palace. There is a sound of a gentle breeze blowing through the roofcombs, and a murmur of undistinguihable conversations. Faint smells of food mix with those of flowers… Then you step outside of the core, and everything changes. Perishable architecture intertwines with small houselot gardens, there are people everywhere, and they all seem to be shouting. Dogs are barking, some turkeys block your way, kids play in a muddy paddle, and you feel nauseous because of the ever-present smell of human waste mixed with odors of organic decay…

Hang on, hang on! Is that really a plausible picture?

Archaeologists have long acknowledged the corelation between phosphorus quantities in the soil, and some domestic activities, especially those involving food preparation and disposal of the organic waste. It has been argued that high phosphorus concentrations constitute a marker of intensive agricultural activities in the form of fertilization (cf. Killon 1992:6; Terry et al. 2000). According to a widely accepted model, the Maya commoners were carrying their own excrements to their gardens and fields in order to replenish the soil nutrition elements, or else, using the milpas and gardens as toilets (Demarest 2004:132). Some scholars even suggested that pottery sherds found in abundance within middens in the vicinity of households were in fact used as an equivalent of toilet paper (Arnold et al. 1999).

However, human waste is not a good fertilizer, at least not without some processing. Composting is required in order to kill the parasites and the ubiquitous E.Coli bacteria that can be lethal if (re)ingested. Besides, composting also slightly diminishes the olfactory impact of fertilization. From a technical point of view, the climate in the Maya area is perfect for compostation processes. Natural heat accelerates the fermentation of a compost heap, and then a chain reaction of sorts occurs that leads to formation of the night-soil. But if compostation pits indeed existed, they must have left a massive archaeological footprint in the form of hyper-phosphorous soil patches. So far none of these have been discovered, however, admittedly, soil-sampling was performed on a handful of sites only (see Parnell et al. 2001 and 2002 for two interesting examples).

The milpas that were cultivated in the swidden cycle could have been replenished by the ashes, but agricultural terraces and houselot gardens would hardly be left fallow, and as such requested some sort of an intensive agricultural method. It is imaginable that the terraces were periodically covered with composted human waste, but the gardens must have been fertilized with other kinds of organic refuse from household middens – otherwise the stench, multiplied by the number of households, would not only render the common parts of the city uninhabitable, but would also penetrate the patios and palaces of the refined nobility. Besides, any given garden or terrace can be covered with only so much compost at one time, and human settlements guarantee a constant surplus of this particular substance. Where did it all go? Was it being removed to ditches on the outskirts of the city? Or perhaps sealed in obsolete chultunes? And more importantly, where were the king going to see a man about a dog?

Palace plans allow us to guess a generic function of particular spaces, and in a few lucky cases (such as in Aguateca)  archaeological research revealed some more exact activities in some rooms. But so far no elite pivies have been found. It is hard to imagine the king to be traversing the city towards a latrine on the outskirts once a day, but it seems equally awkward to assume that there were lines of servants carrying pots or baskets with elite excrements out of the palace and into the composting pits or straight onto terraces. Perhaps, then, there was some more discreet way?

One thing for sure – there are no sewers in the Maya palaces. The only exception of which I know comes from Palenque, where there is a vaulted, 100 m long “aqueduct” that passes under the palace, and some sloping, stuccoed piping. According to some scholars it might have fed a fountain, or was otherwise used in a water manipulation connected with ritual or decorative purposes rather than sanitation, especially that it would inevitably return to the Otulum river that provided water for a great portion of Palenque population (cf. French et al 2012). As in other Maya cities, we cannot expect high hygene standarts in the Classic period (surely not higher than those of ancient Rome, or Medieval Europe for that matter), but archaeology does not provide us with any evidence of widespread chronic diseases. How, then, did the Maya manage that particular issue?

The crappy  problem awaits solving.



Arnold D., H. Neff, R. Bishop, M. Glascock

1999 Testing Interpretive Assumptions of Neutron Activation Analysis: Contemporary Pottery inYucatán, 1964–1994, in Material Meanings: Critical Approaches to the Interpretation of Culture, Chilton E. (ed.), pp. 61–84. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, UT.

Demarest A.

2004 Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of a Rainforest Civilization, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

French K., Ch. Duffy, G. Bhatt

2012 The Urban Hydrology and Hydraulic Engineering at the Classic Maya Site of Palenque, Water History 5(1):43-69.

Killon T.

1992 Gardens of Prhistory: The Archaeology of Settlement Agriculture in Greater Mesoamerica, University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, AL.

Parnell J., R. Terry, Ch. Golden

2001 Using In-Field Phosphate Testing to Rapidly Identify Middens at Piedras Negras, Guatemala, Geoarchaeology: An International Journal 16(8):855-873.

Parnell J., R. Terry, P. Sheets

2002 Soil Chemical Analysis of Ancient Activities in Ceren, El Salvador: A Case Study of a Rapidly Abandoned Site, Latin American Antiquity 13(3):331-342.

Terry R., P. Hardin, S. Houston, S. Nelson, M. Jackson, J. Carr, J. Parnell

2000 Quantitative Phosphorus Measurement: A Field Test Procedure for Archaeological Site Analysis at Piedras Negras, Guatemala, Geoarchaeology: An International Journal 15(2):151-166.

The Maya Towers

A few days ago one of my Facebook friends posted a nice comparison of the Palenque Tower before and after the restoration. Fierce discussion arose beneath the post about the accuracy of restoration of the upmost level. Although such a dispute cannot be resolved, an obvious disregard for anastylosis is observed, most likely in exchange for the tourism-oriented aesthetics and illusion of completeness. But that’s not what this post is about.

Palenque Tower

Fig. 1. Palenque Tower (photo Jan Szymanski).

A number of times a uniqueness of the tower was underlined by various comentators, and that seemed to be the only agreement among the opponents. Well then, is the Palenque Tower unique in the Maya land?

The answer, as it often is in archaeology, is both „yes” and „no”. Yes – because there are no two identical buildings in ancient Maya architecture; not even twin pyramids at Tikal or Yaxha are exactly alike. And up until today no other tall, openwork, scaffold-like, multistorey constructions like that have been reported (fig. 1). However, the answer is also „no”, because there are more examples of Maya structures that can be ascribed to the same genre.

According to a definition by Heinle and Leonhardt (1989:9), two great contemporary structural engineers and theorists of architecture, „[…] the height of the tower is several times the length of its diameter”. Palenque tower fulfills this criterion all right, and so do four square free-standing towers in the Chenes region, and one round tower at Puerto Rico, all in Campeche.

Puerto Rico tower, located a few kilometers north of Xpujil, is perhaps the most peculiar of the lot, for it is circular in plan. E. Wyllys Andrews IV (1968) describes it as being set atop a conical substructure some 2 m high and 8,5 m in diameter. The tower itself was supposed to measure roughly 3 m in diameter and rise some 6,5 m high. The 2010 project (Higón Calvet and May Castillo 2011) has since corrected these measurements a bit. And so the substructure is in fact almost square, with rounded corners, and measures some 4,3×4,5 m. Its height reaches 1,8 m. Four stairways protrude in four directions, all being skewed some 20º east of true north. The tower proved to be somewhat more eliptical then round, with its greater diameter measuring 2,9 m. The overall height of the entire structure is now close to 7,5 m (instead of an earlier 8,5), but the summit is ruined and thus open for interpretations (as is the Palenque example). However, it has to be underlined that the 1995 restoration performed by Antonio Benavides Castillo might have altered the Andrews’s dimensions to a certain degree (fig. 2).

Puerto Rico Tower

Fig. 2. Horizontal section (north) and ground plan of the Puerto Rico Tower (Higón Calvet and May Castillo 2011:135).


Fig. 3. Composite photo of the Puerto Rico Tower after consolidation (Higón Calvet and May Castillo 2011:132).

A surprising feature of the Puerto Rico tower are the so-called „ducts”, or small horizontal shafts found within the otherwise solid body of the structure. Two pairs of parallel ducts pierce the tower on two different levels (4,73 and 7,29 m from the plaza floor), where the bottom pair is roughly parallel to the eastern and western wall of the substructure, and the upper one is perpendicular to the former (or parallel with the southern and northern walls). Eight „semi-ducts”, or half-shafts connect with the ducts at various angles (see fig. 2, right). Their function is being debated (see below).

The other four towers were found approximately 160 km to the north-east, in the Chenes region. They are curiously located at three sites distributed along a straight line, rounning north from Tabasqueño, through Chanchen, and finally Nocuchich, and further pointing roughly towards the great Puuc capital of Uxmal (fig. 4).

Chenes Towers dstribution

Fig. 4. Spatial distribution of the Chenes Towers (Tichy 1992:46).

The site of Nocuchich, located 8 km east form Hopelchen, actually features two tower-like structures, at least according to the definition mentioned above. However, the Structure 1 appears to be a stela, admittedly very peculiar one (Andrews 1989:24). It consists of a 6,75 m high masonry “body” made of roughly cut stone, with its northern face once being covered with a giant stucco head of a human being. The head was still visible on the 1889 photo by Maler, and, partially, on the 1970 photo by Pollock, but Andrews (1989:19) reports that by the late 1980s the stucco had collapsed and is partially recognizable in the pile of rubble at the feet of Structure 1. He also assumes that once the entire north face of Structure 1 was covered with a stucco figure, perhaps of a ruler or a deity (idem). For details, see fig. 5. The quality of scans is, unfortunately, very poor.

nocuchich 1

Fig. 5. Nocuchich Structure 1: section and plan (left), photo by Maler (center), photo by Pollock (right; all figures after Andrews 1989:19).

One possible explanation of the odd shape of Structure 1 is that, in the absence of good quality limestone in the north of the Yucatan penninsula, especially one that can be hewn into long chunks, the local rulers resorted to imitating southern Lowlands stelae in the form of a masonry armature with a stucco decoration. It could have been a conceptual merge of the largest stelae (the closest in size would be the examples from Quirigua and B

onampak) and stucco friezes adorning monumental architecture since the Preclassic times (although Andrews [1989:24] rejects the connection between the Lowland stela cult and Structure 1).

The Structure 2, along with the Structure 1 at Chanchen, and, to some degree, the so-called Emblem Tower at Tabasqueño, form another set, with shared features, such as square or squarish plan, vertical division into sections separated by cornices, protruding stones in the upper sections, and the roofcomb-like, openwork top crests (fig. 6). The latter feature is true for the Nocuchich and Chanchen, but the Tabasqueño tower’s top has been broken off at some 4 m of height (with heights of the Nocuchich and Chanchen examples measuring 9,55 and 7,26 m, respectively), and it can be only vaguely reconstructed as being similar to its siblings to the north. Another difference is that the Emblem Tower is the only one of the Chenes lot that was made of a nicely cut and dressed stone on the outside, resembling an outstanding stonework of the Puerto Rico Tower (cf. figs. 3 and 7).


Fig. 6. Nocuchich Tower in 1887 (Maler 1985).


Fig. 7. Tabasqueño Emblem Tower (Sánchez López and Anaya 2006:843).

What of the function and meaning of these towers? Andrews (1989:24) states, quite logically, that they cannot be treated as a whole. He excludes the Nocuchich Structure 1 (see above), postulating a commemorative, or funerary function of the others (idem). He underlines the similarity of the Chenes Towers with the “false temples” of Rio Bec style. However, the latter are quite clearly imitations of the southern Lowlands temples in the Peten style, with false stairs and blind doorways present. The Chenes towers are solid, without any visible features designed to resemble temples, or any other Maya buildings for that matter. The protruding stones, though, combined with a rough stonework that definitely meant to be plastered, could once have been, accoridng to Andrews, the armatures for elaborate stucco designs (idem).


Fig. 8. Comparison of all Campeche towers (Andrews 1989:22).

The funerary function cannot be verified without further excavations that would include tunneling. They may be markers of underlying crypts, or even elaborate enclosures for other kinds of caches. It is also possible (although not very probable), that they represent tombs of cremated rulers. Cremation, however sporadically present in the Maya Area, was never widespread except for some localised Postclassic examples from the northern Yucatan penninsula, and Chiapas (Blom 1954:125-126; Sharer and Traxler 2006:675; tiesler and Cucina 2007:18).

Last but not least, what to make of the “ducts” piercing the Puerto Rico Tower? Anthony Aveni (2001:361-362) notes that, despite thorough archaeoastronomical measurements and observations, no consistent set of celestial phenomena, nor geographic locations, cannot be securely associated with the shafts. However, the 2011 project not only discovered the second level of shafts, but also associated the long shafts with the important stations of the Sun (sunrise on the Solstices and Zenith-passing), and also posited a significance of some “blind” shafts as sockets for removable gnomons that would cast shadow over certain portions of the substructure (Higón Calvet and May Castillo 2011:135-138). Nevertheless, they admit that not all of the “ducts” can be explained as astronomic devices.


Fig. 9. Puerto Rico Tower during restoration in 1995 (A. Benavides Castillo, after Higón Calvet and May Castillo 2011:133).

Looking at one of the pictures showing the restoration process in 1995 (fig. 9) I had just another flash idea. Maybe the ducts were indeed sockets for removable scaffolds that could be assembled for some ritual performances (dance?), or other activities? We know of such scaffoldings mostly from iconography (to mention the San Bartolo mural, among many others). But then again – why go into all that trouble and line the shafts’ inner walls with thoroughly cut flat slabs? So the question remains.

So is there a genre of Maya towers? Surly enough – yes. But they are far from being homogenous both in shape and function. One can argue that the Caracol of Chichen Itza should be included in the lot – and perhaps it should (although it is too stout to fit the definition; so is Temple I at Tikal). Surely the “false temples” at Becan and Xpuhil would pass the criteria as well. The meaning of towers in general is quite a different matter. It contributes to a spohisticated concept of verticality in ancient Maya culture. But that’s another story.

And the initial question from the Facebook discussion remains unanswered…


Fig. 10. Palenque Tower in 1887 (Maudslay 1889-1902:26).

References cited:

Andrews, G.

1989 Four Unique Free Standing „Towers” in the Chenes Archaeological Region, Cuadernos de Arquitectura Mesoamericana 11:17-24.

Andrews IV, E. W.

1968 Torre cílindrica de las Ruinas de Puerto Rico, Campeche, Boletin INAH 31:7-14.

Aveni, A.

2001 Skywatchers, Texas University Press, Austin.

Blom, F.

1954 Ossuaries, cremation and secondary burials among the Maya of Chiapas, Mexico, Journal de la Société des Américanistes 43:123-136.

Heinle, E., Fritz Leonhardt

1989 Towers. A historical survey, Rizzoli, New York.

Higón Calvet, J., M. May Castillo

2011 La Torre de Puerto Rico, Campeche. Estudio de un caso único en la arquitectura maya, EGA. Expresion gráfica arquitectónica 18:130-139.

Maler, T.

1895 Yukatekische Forschungen, Globus 18:248-282.

Maudslay A.

1889-1902 Biologia Centrali-Americana, vol. IV, plate 26, R.H. Porter and Dulau, London; after Harvard University Library HOLLIS electronic database, http://pds.lib.harvard.edu/pds/view/16771060?printThumbnails=no&action=jp2resize&op=j&imagesize=2400&pvHeight=1200&pvWidth=1200&n=362&rotation=0&bbx1=0&bby1=0&bbx2=130&bby2=83&jp2Res=0.25&pres=.125&jp2x=-1&jp2y=-1&maximum.x=10&maximum.y=9

Sánchez López A., Anaya J.

2006 Dzibilnocac y Tabasqueño: arqueología de la región Chenes, in XIX Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala, Laporte, J., B. Arroyo, H. Mejía (eds), pp.838-855, Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala.

Sharer, R., L. Traxler

2006 The Ancient Maya, 6th edition, Stanford.

Tichy, F.

1992 Las torres en la región de Chenes y el meridiano de Uxmal, Cuadernos de Arquitectura Mesoamericana 19:45-52.

Tiesler, V., A. Cucina

2007 New Perspectives on Human Sacrifice and Ritual Body Treatments in Ancient Maya Society, Springer.


Behind my Central European window it is snowing, so it seems like a good time to start writing about ancient Maya architecture and its beautiful tropical settings. I will try to keep it more or less steady in terms of new posts, but some irregular silent intervals can be expected, mostly because of the fieldwork, academic overburden, or simply lack of steam. Upon the first visit, a lecture of the About This BlogWho am I, and Whom I Target sections is advised.

Soon to be more!