Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Round the World Five - Day 14 (Wed, 19 Mar)

Itinerary: Today you will be collected early for a morning sightseeing tour of the archaeological site. Entrance fee included. Stay at Mayaland Lodge.

I went to see the Light Show at the ruins last night. Commentary all in Spanish. Well, that´s what they speak hereabouts, so not unreasonable. I should get a guided tour of the ruins this morning, before the tourists arrive by road from Cancun, about 200km away. The rest of the day should be 'at leisure' here.

Bit of a false start as guide didn't turn up at eight. I got fixed up with a different guide but then had to pay him. However, when I got back to the hotel, they refunded me, so that's all right. Jaime was an excellent guide with a remarkable English vocabulary so we had a good morning going round the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, right next to the hotel. So, the short version is the one you might have seen a few times before:-

"Jan looks round a load of old ruins".

In the afternoon, I make three more forays into the ruined city. The place now has thousands of tourists and the souvenir sellers ranged around the buildings and along the tracks connecting the buildings are on full alert. But its still possible to find the odd quiet corner.

The following notes are based on what Jaime told me but, of course, it's always possible that I misunderstood some details.

Chicken Itza has a history in some ways similar to Macchu Pichu - a huge city state built using amazing resources which flourished for a few hundred years and then became deserted, bring absorbed back into the jungle. Again, rediscovery was by European adventurers or investigators (the science of archaeology had not yet developed and some of the investigative techniques originally used leave something to be desired).

In the colonial era, Mexico was carved into huge estates, each controlled from the hacienda by the Spanish. The ruined city of Chichen Itza was owned by the hacienda near what is now the Mayaland Hotel. So, when Edward Thompson became interested in investigating the ruins, he acquired the hacienda and became the owner of the city. He explored the site between 1896 and 1907. Ownership of the ruins passed with the hacienda so that the owners of the present hotel also own the archaeological site. The museum site is actually administered by a government department and moves are afoot for title to pass to the government.

Before Thompson, the American lawyer and writer John Lloyd Stephens and English architect Frederick Catherwood jointly explored the site in 1842. Lloyd wrote about the Mayan civilisation and Catherwood produced a series of illustrations of what they saw. I hope his illustrations were accurate, because they were used as guidance in subsequent conservation work! The French Canadian Augustus Le Plongeon carried out investigations with his wife, but he was fond of using dynamite to gain entry to the more problematic ruins. In this way, many valuable artefacts were found and removed from Mexico. A few have since been repatriated.

Between 1924 and 1932 the Carnegie Foundation funded the restoration of about twenty of the most important buildings on the site.

Mayans believed that the universe could be represented by the Sacred Tree of Life, the Ceiba. Heaven was represented by the branches, the earth by the roots. There were a number of divinities, such as the God of Water and the God of Commerce. The early Mayans has acquired great knowledge and skills in building to great precision. They understood the cycling of the seasons and had developed a calendar to plan their activities. The Southern Group of buildings at Chichen Itza includes an observatory with some interesting properties. The equinoxes and solstices were particularly celebrated.

The priorities for Mayans were water, food, clothing materials and shelter.

Water: Although there are no rivers in the Yukatan, there is water underground and so cities were built near water supplies. Water was stored in lagoons or cisterns.

Food: The Mayans were predominmantly vegetarian, eating grains like corn, beans,leaves, squash, roots and tubers. They would eat meat like venison, wild turtle, wild boar but 70% of their diet was vegetarian. Even eggs were rarely consumed.

Clothing materials: The Mayans technical capabiliities had given them a variety of clothing materials li9ke kapok, sisal sabre, sansiberia and other hard and soft fibres.

Shelter: They needed buildings for shelter and for food storage. ould cultivate, gather the crop and store it. It was a highly developed society. As in modern cities, public buildings were in the centre of the site, with the ordinary people housed further out. Civic buildings displayed a mastery of stone working but ordinary houses were simple wooden-framed structures, often with mud walls and pitched roofs thatched with bamboo.

In this period, the population of Chichen Itza was around 70,000 and it's believed that most people worked - the suggestion that extensive slave labour was used is probably an exaggeration.

Local limestone is the main building material but, since this is permeable, walls were often plastered, inside and out, and decorated with polychrome, predominantly red. Flint and volcanic granite transported from other areas were also used. Early Mayan architecture features very precise masonry with high relief carved panels often applied as a cladding in the form of stone 'tiles'. Flint was commonly used for tools as well as the volcanic, glass-like obsidian. The Mayans used gold, silver and jade in their artefacts.


Mayaland, Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza