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In-depth descritpion of the archaelological site of Chicheiza.... More...
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In-depth description of the archaelogical site of Chicheiza. Discusses the discovery of the site. Cataloging its major findings. Contribution of knowledge of Mayan society & the site's role in the future of Mexican archaeology. Its significance as a major MesoAmerican ruin in what was once the greatest Mayan city.
Chichen Itza is the most famous and well-known Mayan archaeological site. It has astonished visitors for over a thousand years and is a prime example of the glory that was the Mayan empire at its peak. Archaeologists have visited this impressive site for over two hundred years, poring over the many ruins and the impressive castle that is the heart of Chichen Itza. In the last twenty years the site has become a major tourist attraction as well, with over 40,000 people gathering twice a year to see Chichen Itza’s seminal attraction: the snake formed by the sun during the fall and spring equinoxes. When speaking of Chichen Itza, one thing is certain: there may be prettier archaeological sites, there may be better maintained archaeological sites, but there is no archaeological site in the world that is more impressive. This paper will take an in depth
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Meanwhile, modern dating techniques have shown that thecity of Tula flourished in its Toltec phase from 95 -115 A.D. The legends of the region say that thefeathered serpent led the Toltecs to greatness and then for some reason orother fell from power and caused the ruin of the fabulous city of Tula.Fallen from grace, K'uk'ulkan and his loyalists fled East to the Yucatanand, according to legend, began another empire that lasted several hundredyears. The samehistorical sources point to two names for the city. The playing alley of the Great Ballcourt lies in the middleof two large buildings that are parallel to each other. Chichen Itza is divided into two precincts, surrounded by demarcationwalls. The Itza people who settled in Chichen Itzahave been under much historical debate. It isknown that by 12 , all construction had ceased at Chichen Itza and thecity center had fallen into disuse. To this end, themagnificent observatory was built to measure the rising and setting of thesun, the moon, and the planet Venus during the solstices and equinoxes.The windows in the dome were strategically placed to catch the first andlast rays of all these heavenly bodies as they appeared and disappearedduring those significant dates (niu.edu). Theybuilt Snake Mountain, the Primordial Sea, the Council House, and of course,the Great Ballcourt. Thompson became the first archaeologist toactually live at Chichen, using money contributed by his close personalfriend Alison V. It is truly impossible to gaze upon the writhing serpentformed by the setting equinox sun and not feel the power of these ancientpeoples still reverberating through time. The remarkable Castillo dominatesChichen Itza both literally and figuratively, casting its broad shadow overthe lands around it and lending credence to the genius of its Mayaarchitects. The Castillo is anenormous radial pyramid with four stairways rising to a temple at its peak(Schele, 2 5). Chichen Itza is truly one of the most majestic and awe-inspiringruins in Mesoamerica, if not the whole world. As such it bore a central place in their mythology and theirhistory. This was the legendary cenote that BishopLanda believed was the receptacle for many human sacrifices, and thatThompson dredged so many baubles from. Le Plongeon removed thestatue from the site in an ill-conceived attempt to transport the enormousand weighty statue to Philadelphia to exhibit it at the World Fair.Unfortunately, Le Plongeon was waylaid by the Mexican government, whichclaimed ownership over the statue and eventually moved it to the NationalMuseum of Anthropology in Mexico City, where it remains today (137-139). Additional irony comes from the fact thatmost of the artifacts found in the Sacred Cenote were actually not of Mayanorigin. According to the traditional explanation of Chichen Itza's history, therewere two major eras during which the metropolis flourished. Thompson's most interesting discoveries at Chichen Itzaemerged from his explorations of the "Sacred Cenote." This large naturalwell had been used by the Maya as a place of pilgrimage, where people fromfar and wide came to cast offerings in hopes of divining the future orplacating the rain god. Although the city remained animportant center for pilgrimages and in fact continues to serve thatfunction, it's status as a functioning metropolis ends abruptly around 125 A.D. Although amateurs had beenvisiting Chichen Itza for decades, Thompson was the only one who was ableto spend more than a few months exploring. In Chichen Itza, a long "sacbe," or whitelimestone pathway, led North from the base of the Castillo to the enormous"Sacred Cenote" at the northernmost point of the city. Le Plongeon's major discovery at Chichen Itza was astatue he named Chacmool, or the Tiger King. 1 "(Schele, 2 ). The cross-sectionof the court is very different from the traditional Maya ballcourt,although the components are practically the same. This led to what is known as the "Yucatan TrojanWar," and an ally of Izamal called Hunac Ceel apparently sacked ChichenItza and took back the stolen bride. LePlongeon's main legacy, Chacmool aside, was being the first archaeologistto make an extended exploration of Chichen Itza at a time when the localconditions were highly unfavorable. Although we may never know whythe Maya fell so precipitously, we can still revel in their genius. Sometimearound 145 A.D., the Maya empire dissolved completely and withoutexplanation (138-14 ). Thompson convinced backers in the United States toforward him the money to purchase diving suits and explore first hand thedepths of the Sacred Cenote. According to legend, the Toltecpeople migrated from Tula, a ruin in central Mexico, to conquer thepeaceful Maya of the Yucatan peninsula to teach them the "ways of war andsacrifice" (Schele, 198). Thus, the two maincenotes were a vital part of the city both spiritually and logistically. During this tenure Plongeon and his wife drew up plans of allthe major edifices, copied 2 sheets of mural drawings, and took over 5 photographs (148). From the depths of the mud he found dartthrowers, ceremonial daggers, copper and bronze bells, decorated disks,jade items, and even some human remains. Although the pyramidhas from that day been known as the "High Priest's Grave," modernarchaeologists believe it is unlikely that the distinguished corpse wasindeed a priest. According to legend, Chichen Itza was founded by three brothers whobuilt all the buildings there. This paper will take an in depth view at Chichen Itza,beginning with its discovery, cataloging the major findings it hascontributed to our knowledge of Mayan affairs, and ending with the site'srole in Mexican archaeology's future. A secret staircase led to the Red Jaguarthrone room, where a life sized effigy of a jaguar painted bright red stoodguard over the temple's altar. The next archaeologist to domajor work on the site was Augustus Le Plongeon in 1874. The Maya were truly remarkable in their dominion of theheavens. It is truly remarkable that the traditionalpilgrimages to the city during the equinoxes and solstices not onlycontinue to this day but draw tens of thousands of people. Thus,traditionally it has been thought that there were two very distinct periodsof occupation at Chichen Itza. They built the city around the Xtolocwell, one of the two major wells that have played a significant role in thecity's history. Indeed, ethno-historical sources point to one ruling family, the "holy Kokom Lords"having controlled Chichen Itza right up until the Spanish conquest. When speaking of Chichen Itza, one thing is certain: there maybe prettier archaeological sites, there may be better maintainedarchaeological sites, but there is no archaeological site in the world thatis more impressive. The last important features of Chichen Itza are the cenotes that lieat the heart of the city's history. Named for the winding staircase thatleads to the structure and resembles a snail, the Caracol was an enormousobservatory dome out of which many windows have been cut out. Thus the Caracol, in conjunctionwith the Castillo, demonstrates the intense fascination the Maya had withcelestial events. Having been intrigued by a hollowsound on the platform, he raised the flagstones and found a shaftpenetrating the pyramid. According to this legend, the Itzaabandoned their city and migrated south to the empty forests of Peten,settling in an island that still bears their name: Peten Itza (Stuart,98). It is bright green and filled withscummy water, and no individual unlucky enough to be thrown in (or fall in)could possibly escape unaided. It is the largest ballcourtever discovered in Mesoamerica, and also by far the most complex in itsarchitecture. Many anthropologists believe that the later period of Chichen Itza'soccupation bore a strong Toltec influence. He sent many of these discoverieson to the Peabody Museum at Harvard. The other important cenote, or the "ProfaneCenote," was used by the Maya to supply drinking water for the city. His list of discoveries is long anddistinguished. Chichen Itzawas joined by roads to the Mayan city of Izamal and to the seacoast city ofPole, making it a likely hub of trade and information for the Mayan empire. (Sabloff, 136-14 ). The evidence for this theorycomes from the fact that the "New Chichen" buildings are much larger, havefew definitive Maya style inscriptions, and show many figures that arewearing double robes common in central Mexico. Theirdescendants still live in the Yucatan today (Schele, 197). It has astonished visitors for over a thousand years and is a primeexample of the glory that was the Mayan empire at its peak. Representing a crack in the nature of the world, theBallcourt gave the Mayans a symbolic access to the Otherworld where theirancestors and Gods were said to reside. In the last twenty years the site has become a major tourist attraction aswell, with over 4 , people gathering twice a year to see Chichen Itza'sseminal attraction: the snake formed by the sun during the fall and springequinoxes. Armour to purchase almost 1 square miles of land aroundthe site, including several square miles of ruins of the ancient Chichenthat had never carefully been explored. The architecture of old Chichen is fairly homogenous, withsimilar motifs, masks, colonnettes adorning most of the structures. Thompson. The name Chichen Itzatranslates to "Mouth of the Well of the Itza." Itza by itself translatesto "sorcerer of water" (198). A cenote is a large natural sinkholewhere the covering limestone has collapsed, revealing a river that flowedfar beneath the surface. Adjacent tothe North is the Temple of the Tables, and to the South the Group of theThousand Columns (2 5). Indeed, "Stephens had looked forward to Chichen...butsomehow his account fails to register the same enthusiasm that marks thedescription of other sites" (Brunhouse, 93). According to this traditionalanthropological theory, Chichen Itza was first founded in 432 A.D. Most of what is known about theItza people comes from Bishop Landa's descriptions, the Books of ChilamBalam, and the Classic period inscriptions in Chichen Itza itself. The Great Ballcourt is one of the most intriguing and noteworthyarchaeological structures in Chichen Itza. The architecture of this early period of occupation, from 432-692 A.D., is authentic early Mayan in nature (Vargas, 1). It stands on a flat plain, and the massive pyramid that standsat the heart of Chichen Itza can be seen for miles around. One ofThompson's main distinguishing characteristics was that "personalcuriosity, rather than a thirst for publication or acclaim by fellowarchaeologists, prompted his careful explorations of the ruins" (181).This meant that Thompson did not feel the need to make sweeping, grandexaggerations about the site. Thus the Itza were the true founding fathers of thecity of Chichen Itza, and it is from their early dominion that the historyof the city unfolds. WORKS CITED PAGEBrunhouse, Robert L.: In Search of the Maya: The First Archaeologists,University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1973.Sabloff, Jeremy A.: The New Archaeology and the Ancient Maya, ScientificAmerican Library, New York, 199 .Schele, Linda and Mathews, Peter: The Code of Kings: The Language ofSeven Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs, Scribner Press, New York, 1998.Stuart, George E.: The Mysterious Maya, National Geographic Society Press,Washington D.C., 1977.Vargas y Vargas, Dr. Eduardo: Chichen Itza, http://www.mayan-world.com/ruinas/chichen.htmvon Hagen, Victor Wolfgang: The Ancient Kingdoms of the Americas, PaladinPress, New York, 1961.http://www.campus.northpark.edu/history/WebChron/Americas/ChichenItza.htmlhttp://www.isourcecom.com/maya/cities/chichenitza/sacred.htmhttp://www.niu.edu/anthro_museum/caracol.html Itseems apparent that when the Itza first arrived at Chichen, "one of theirinitial tasks was to create the supernatural charter for their politicalpower" (2 4). The striking architecturalfeatures of this Northern precinct bear strong similarities to thearchitecture found in the ruins of Tula, lending credence to the notionthat perhaps the feathered serpent did in fact relocate to Chichen Itza.Thus, some scholars believe that Chichen Itza's later years were dominatedby the Toltec rather than the Maya. The most important of the early archaeologists to visit Chichen Itzawas Edward A. Archaeologists from the Carnegie Institution wererestoring the great Castle when they discovered that it had been built ontop of a more ancient temple. Theold Chichen bears many similarities in its art to the ancient Puuc style(191-193). to 695 A.D. Shrouded in the mysterious vapors of time, the city dominates theYucatan both physically and spiritually, having become one of Mexico'slargest tourist attractions. Through this exploration of thesite's history one will see that Chichen Itza is one of the most importantarchaeological sites in the entire world. Thisallowed them to plant their crops during the most favorable periods(northpark.edu). All told, Thompson lived on-site for over three decades, exploring the ruins at a leisurely pace andoccasionally making grand discoveries (Brunhouse, 179-182). In a departure from what has become the norm, forStephens Chichen Itza was merely a side trip on his long epic journey toover 4 Mayan ruins. Two of these five individuals were in fact brothers (ofthe same mother), which leads credence to the old myth. Although the dredging of the cenote offeredfew tangible results at first, eventually Thompson was able to extract astaggering amount of objects. Not much is known of this period, although one ancientchronicle recounts that a ruler of Chichen Itza stole the bride of one ofthe lords of Izamal. The fabulous buildings thatare the city's trademark have provided anthropologists with manyrevelations about the Maya empire and the ancient peoples' day to daylives. It may well be that the legends reflectsome part of the true story of Chichen Itza, for the inscriptions that tellthe tale of the city's founding relate that there were five individuals whoruled conjointly. The northern precinct iscompleted by the Great Ballcourt. The stepped shape of theglyph that represents the ballcourt in traditional Maya pictography"reflects its definition as the crack in the top of the Creation Mountain"(Schele, 2 7). One of his main discoveries was a series of five successivegraves underneath a lesser pyramid. Proponents of this theory point to the strong Toltec influences inthe later architecture at Chichen Itza. Another truly inspiring structure at Chichen Itza is the Caracol,otherwise known as the observatory. Thus,modern archaeologists do not draw such a stark contrast between the OldChichen and the New Chichen. Although de Landa was indeedthe first European to visit Chichen Itza, there would be many more to comeas the site became one of the most important archaeological ruins in theworld. To the East of the great pyramid is the Temple of the Warriors, wherelegend has it that the council met to run the Itza kingdom. This incrediblestructure demonstrates the Maya's advanced knowledge of astronomy and howthey used celestial events to guide their day to day lives. Although the people of Mayapan copied some of thearchitecture from Chichen Itza, it was on a much smaller scale. The first archaeologist of note to visit the site was John LloydStephens in 1841. Finishedaround 1 A.D., the round dome represents one of the pinnacles of Mayaarchitecture-especially given that windows were strategically placed in thedome to line up with astronomical events (northpark.edu). The site was abandoned then, but Landa'sfanciful descriptions of the site implied that the Maya were still animportant presence at Chichen Itza, still going there to throw offeringsinto the famous "Sacred Well" (Schele, 197). The pyramid represents "Snake Mountain," the place oforigin established at the beginning of the world in ancient Maya legend.The Castillo also served as a form of solar calendar. It seems likelythat the ballgames that took place here were not so much sporting events asthey were deadly serious affairs that involved communication with theOtherworld and affairs of state (2 6-2 7). The great reign of Chichen Itza's rulers ended abruptly during thethirteenth century. Le Plongeon'strip to Chichen Itza was in itself noteworthy, due to the high levels ofconflict between the Mexican authorities and the local population.Nevertheless he persevered, and with his wife spent over three months atChichen Itza. As a result of this mandate, they embarked upon one of themost ambitious construction campaigns in the history of Mesoamerica. The group of the thousand columns consists of aseries of columns whose position form an irregular square. Most anthropologists today are loathe to draw such stark distinctionsbetween the "Old Chichen" and the "New Chichen." Advanced radiocarbondating techniques have shown that all the ceramics that archaeologists hadassociated with the supposed Toltec era of occupation actually date out tobefore 1 A.D. Almost perfectlycircular and 197 feet in diameter, the upper rim stands 73 feet above thewater's edge (isourcecom.com). Most of the long-snouted masks at Chichen have a floweredheadband which is identified as "Mut Itzama," a great bird sitting atop theWorld Tree. The Caracolwas built to ensure the accuracy of the Maya's calendar. The riseof Mayapan marked the beginning of the end of the Maya empire. At Chichen Itza the so-calledcrevice in the earth boasts a large wall enclosing the playing field. When Chichen Itza fell, the neighboring city ofMayapan rose to prominence and experienced a brief period of prosperity forabout two hundred years. Because a wide-scale settlement study has never been conducted onChichen Itza, archaeologists do not know what the size of the city'spopulation was any more than they know how in fact it actually fell. This is by far the most common image found in the inscriptionsat Chichen, and may well be the reason why the Maya a later period calledthe city the "Place of Itzam" (2 -2 1). Chichen Itza has been one of the prime destinations for early-American archaeologists since the early 18 's. called the"Old Chichen", and a later Mayan-Toltec occupation from 948-12 4 A.D.called the "New Chichen" (Von Hagen, 192). This interpretation hinges on the role of thegreat Toltec king K'uk'ulkan (known among the Aztec as Quetzalcoatl), orfeathered serpent, who ruled Tula. Archaeologistshave visited this impressive site for over two hundred years, poring overthe many ruins and the impressive castle that is the heart of Chichen Itza. Thesecenotes are significantly larger than the norm, and were the probable causefor the settlement of Chichen Itza (Stuart, 97-98). Although the origins of the Itzapeople are under much anthropological debate, their handiwork is not. Chichen Itzamaintains its position in Mexican history as the pre-eminent shrine to theMaya, showcasing the brilliance of their intellect and the majesty of theirarchitecture. Chichen Itza has figuredprominently in the world's imagination since Diego de Landa, the secondbishop of the Yucatan, first visited the magical site shortly after theSpanish conquest of the region. Thismeant that relatively few people could watch the games. byimmigrants from the Old Empire. It is indicative of Chichen Itza's splendor that the city boastedthe most impressive and awe-inspiring Ballcourt in the entire Mayan empire. As thesun set each day it would cast shadows on a different step, giving theMayans an incredibly accurate method of keeping track of the seasons. The Castillo was constructed so that during the spring andfall equinox an awe-inspiring light and shadow serpent appears snaking downthe staircase. In a tragic irony, however, Thompsondid not live to read the many scholarly analyses of the artifacts that hehad so meticulously discovered. Chichen Itza is the most famous and well-known Mayan archaeologicalsite. Each of the fourstaircases has ninety-one steps plus one shared by all sides up top for thealtar, resulting in 365 steps-the exact number of days in the year. The jaguar boasted seventy-three round jadedisks for its spots (von Hagen, 193). According to this interpretation,while the Southern half of the sacred precinct of Chichen Itza bearsstriking Puuk-Maya traits, the Northern half (called "New Chichen") bearsmore resemblance to Toltec architecture. Thesesources all say that the Itza people had a strong affinity with the godItzamna. The Northern precinct is the larger of the two and hinges on theCastillo, the definitive feature of Chichen Itza. On the southside the square is completed by a building called the Market, which has asmall ball court on its East side (Vargas, 4). Using a rope the intrepid Thompson explored eachchamber and discovered the grave of an important person surrounded byofferings of alabaster, jade, and mother of pearl. The Castillo has achieved international fame and draws tensof thousands of visitors a year because of the incredible show it puts ontwice a year. There was anearly pure Mayan era of occupation from 432 A.D. The Ballcourt was a livingmetaphor for the Maya, a place of life and death and an entryway to thegreat beyond. If thischronology bears the test of time, it means that any scenario that involvesthe Toltec conquest of Chichen Itza is highly unlikely because there islittle temporal overlap between the cities of Tula and Chichen. This suggests that both the old and new Chichens wereactually contemporary rather than different eras. Chichen Itza was undoubtedly the greatest Mayan city on the Yucatanpeninsula. Pots made in thesupposed Toltec-Maya style have also been found inside buildings at thearchaeological site of Uxmal, an old Maya ruin and contemporary of the "OldChichen." Indeed, "present archaeological evidence indicates that the Izaconstructed all the main ceremonial buildings at Chich'en before A.D. Thus, Chichen Itza's fall in many ways demarcatesthe beginning of the end of the Maya empire, once again highlighting theimportance of the city in Maya affairs.
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