The Historic Site of Chichen Itza

By Jeffrey Murrah

Mouth of the well of Itza 

The archeological site of Chichen Itza is an outstanding Mayan site. The site also recently received a world heritage designation. The name means "Mouth of the well of Itza ". It is regarded as the most important site for Mayan culture. The site was occupied starting in about 625 AD. Structures at the location reveal that construction occurred in several phases. An alliance between the Mayan and the Toltecs produced many of the notable structures and styles. There are distinct differences in the structures of older Chichen and the later structures which were constructed during the Toltec times.

With the arrival of the Toltecs, the city became the capital of the Yucatan area. About 1194 AD, the Mayans rose up in revolt against the Toltecs and overcame them. The uprising led to invasions into other Mayan areas as well. The city was eventually abandoned by its inhabitants.

Exploration of Chichen Itza 

In 1531, the Spanish conquistador, Francisco de Montejo attempted making the site the capitol of the Yucatan region. A Mayan uprising forced him to change his plans and abandon the area. During that time, there were frequent struggles between the Catholic priests who worked toward ending rituals of human sacrifices and the Mayans who wanted to continue sacrifices and blood sports. Besides sacrifice of captives, the treatment they received was often brutal. Among the practices were pulling the fingers out of sockets, pulling out teeth, pulling out finger nails, cutting off the lower jaw, trimming off the lips and fingertips, and inserting a pin through the lips. The priests attempted outlawing the practice of human sacrifice and all the paraphernalia associated with the barbaric practices. Among the paraphernalia was the banning of the amaranth grain due to it being mixed with human blood in some ceremonies. Although cacao was also used in the practice, it was not banned, but rather used commercially in the production of chocolate.

Due to the unrest and conflicts with the Mayans, the Spanish decided to locate their capitol closer to the coast at the present location of Merida.

The site of Chichen Itza had been lost for many years until it was rediscovered by Paul Lloyd Stephens on one of his trips to the Yucatan in the 1830's. After finding the site, he quickly recognized its significance and purchased it from the owners. A later explorer, Edward Thompson, seeking treasure, ignored the pyramids located at the site and instead focused his attention on the sacred well or centoe, in which his assumptions paid off, for buried in the muck and sediment at the bottom were many articles of Mayan jewelry and artifacts.

The site was largely ignored by the Mexican government until the 1960's. During that time, expeditions went to the site and began exploration efforts. Much of the exploration was done as a result of Carnegie Institute funding. The expeditions recovered 2300 Mayan artifacts. The efforts of these explorations paid off with the recovery of artifacts and managing to turn the archeological site into a major tourist destination.

During the 1970's and 1980's tremendous progress was made in deciphering the Mayan glyphs. Once they were decoded, the history of the people and the culture could be examined in greater detail.

NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) conducted studies of the site as part of their earth sun and ancient astronomy as late as 2005. The studies included taking astronomic measurements along with acoustical readings at the site.

Major Structures at the Site 

The site had several significant structures located there. The large structures were constructed by slave labor without the use of the wheel.

The predominant structure is the pyramid known as "el Castillo". The pyramid is constructed in a style containing elements of the Mayan and Toltec styles. This part of the site was constructed after the Toltecs had invaded and taken over the site. The joining of the two influences is reflected in the style of architecture of the buildings constructed at that time. The pyramid has several features that indicate that its builders had planned it to reflect the knowledge they had gained concerning astrological phenomena. One of the most outstanding features is how at spring and fall solstice, the sun hits the pyramid in such a manner that the figure of a snake appears. This unique phenomena make the site a popular place on those days. The admission to the archeological site is also free on those days. Although in the past visitors were allowed to climb the pyramid, at the present time ascending the pyramid is no longer allowed.  The pyramid also has an echoing acoustic that is part of its construction. The effect of the acoustic would enable the ancient priest to create the impression that he was calling on or talking with a deity.

Besides el Castillo, there are other structures unique to Chichen Itza. The ball court is unique in that the side walls of it are at 90 degree angles from the ground. The ball courts walls at other Mayan sites are constructed at 45 degree angles. Besides the unique construction, the size of the court makes it the largest found in Mayan ruins. The acoustics were constructed so that players could easily hear what the others on the field are saying. A whisper can be heard 500 feet away on the playing field.

The sides of the court also contain carvings showing figures engaged in ball play at the court. The players have protective gear on. One of the figures is shown with his head being cut off. One guide told us that the captain of the winning side was killed when the game ended. Another guide informed us that this did not make sense, it was the losing team whose captain was portrayed as being killed. One of the fascinating things about archeological sites is that there are many interpretations about what the findings mean.

There was also the temple of the jaguar located as part of the ball court complex. The temple has both an upper and lower portions. There were also platforms located in the central area near the ball court. Some of the platforms were adorned with carvings of jaguars about to consume a human heart. The platforms were used as part of the worship ceremonies conducted at those sites.

Besides the platforms, there was a skull rack, where the skulls of ball players and military captives were displayed. Those sacrificed were most often captives from neighboring tribes. The long rows of carved skulls bears a silent testimony to what the morbid display would have looked like with actual skulls mounted on the site. Given the tropical heat, the site would have been hideous both visually and in terms of smell.

The site also contained other temple and worship structures. From el Castillo in one direction was the sacred cenote where victims were thrown to die. The cenotes were believed to be portals into another world. A cenote consists of a limestone sinkhole used for water or ceremonial purposes. Some of the archeological evidence reveal that some victims did not go willingly and were wounded in their heads prior to being thrown into the sacred well.

In the opposite direction were Mayan ruins from an earlier period of Chichen Itza's history. The older ruins (aka Chichen Viejo/Old Chichen) were in the traditional style of Mayan construction also known as Puuc style. The most famous of these was the observatory known as the "Caracol" or snail. The name comes from the snail like appearance of the observatory remains. When NASA investigated the site, they found that the observatory was oriented to the planet Venus and its various positions at key points in its orbit. Some portions of the building are also oriented to the summer and winter solstices. It is the only building with such an orientation at the site.

Many of the Puuc structures were adorned with carved faces of the deities worshiped at this location. The stone structures still contain carvings made by the builders. The first Spanish explorers who visited the site thought that the royal palace looked like a nunnery and referred to the building as such. The name "nunnery" has stuck to that building since then. The reality is that the building was part of the royal palace constructed at that location.

Our tour guide claimed that there was evidence that the Mayan civilization at Chichen Itza shared some commonalities and with the ancient Egyptian culture. This is based to some degree on the mummification ceremonies which each culture practiced and the material used in the process.

Some of the structures remain on private property and access to them is limited. One of the fascinating aspects is that no metal tools have been found at Mayan sites, which suggests that the construction was done without metal tools. Although the Mayans knew about the wheel, it was not used for construction, but rather reserved for religious purposes.