structure 1A                                    steve mellard

mask main pyramid                      tlatlacateculo

acropolis                                                        inri

palace of stuccos                                     hjpd

mask main pyramid                               hjpd

acropolis                                                       google earth

​structure 1                                                          steve mellard

ACANCEH-Yucatan, Mexico 

Acanceh, “moan of the deer” in Yucatec Maya, is a small yet important site located on Highway 18, 15 miles/25kms southeast of Merida in the present town of the same name. It is hard to miss being situated along the edge of the town plaza. The plaza itself retains the same basic dimensions as once existed in the ancient city.

Today the main pyramid complex is bordered by commercial buildings and a church. The Acropolis containing the notable Palace of the Stuccos with its unique frieze is located two blocks south of the pyramid. The time period of the site’s occupation and construction dates from the Middle Pre-Classic (700 B.C.-200 A.D) through the Classic (200-900 A.D.).

ENTRANCE FEE: U.S. $2.50/40 Pesos
GUIDES: Yes. No fixed rate, but be generous. This is a small town
SERVICES: None, but you are in the center of town.
ACCOMMODATIONS: Local hostel, but you are a short drive from Merida

GPS: 20d 49' 14" N, 89d 27' 12" W

The history of Acanceh is not well known. There are no known stelae (free-standing carved stone slabs) or other glyphic writings that can help identify its rulers or associations with other city states. What is known of its time frame has been deduced from the examination of pottery fragments, burials and architectural styles.  Archaeologists and researchers have made associations with the central Mexican highlands; Tikal in the Peten region of Guatemala; and the site of Dzilbilchaltun to the north. The site, unlike many others, was never fully abandoned as it is mentioned in a number of sixteenth and seventeenth century sources.

The first modern report was made by Desire Charnay in 1888. Another important survey was reported by Adela Breton in 1908, which included her recently rediscovered paintings of the now deteriorated frieze at the Palace of the Stuccos. 

The first structure to report on is the main pyramid that fronts the north side of the plaza in the center of the modern town, Structure 1. It was first unearthed and explored by Teobert Maler in 1908. The base measures about 100 feet/30 meters, and the height has been calculated at about 33 feet/10 meters. Large Sun-god masks have been uncovered near the top of the pyramid that flank the four stairways, one on each side of the pyramid. Though vandalized, they are very impressive and resemble very closely those found at the site of Kohunlich, 170 miles/272 kms to the south in the state of Quintana Roo, as well as at a few other Early Classic (200 A.D.-600 A.D.) sites. They were originally painted red along with the adjoining stairs that leads to a small chamber. A burial was discovered under the chamber which held the remains of a male and female, presumably of noble lineage. What is really striking here is that there is a fair amount of original smooth stucco remaining on the pyramid surface, especially the inner stairway, which helps to show how these structures looked in their finished state when actually in use.

The upper portion of the pyramid was once protected by a thatch roof. Unfortunately during a town celebration a few years back fireworks set the thatch ablaze resulting in damage to some of the stucco decorations. These were restored, and a metal roof installed in its place. Behind this pyramid is a well-proportioned multi-tiered pyramidal structure, Structure 1a.

The other significant structural complex to be seen is the Acropolis. This is a massive platform supporting the remains of numerous buildings, now in a reduced state of preservation. The most significant of these is the Palace of the Stuccos. This building, containing four vaulted rooms, was unearthed in 1906 by local residents quarrying the site for building material. This practice, unfortunately, has been going on for centuries, and many sites have been severely disturbed while others completely destroyed and their history lost. 

Contained on the upper facade of this structure is a magnificent stucco frieze unique in all the Maya area both in style and theme. It contains a fabulous display of intricately molded stuccoed deities, animals, and birds in natural or anthropomorphic form. At the time of its discovery there were 20 figures identified with an additional one thought destroyed. It was divided into two rows, was painted in brilliant colors, and in near perfect condition. Through neglect and vandalism it is now a shadow of its former self. 

The frieze was first reported on by Adela Briton in 1908. Her drawings, and the photos taken by Teobert Maler later that year, are the best known resources for interpretation. It has baffled archaeologists and researchers as to just what it represents. Some believe it may have astronomical connotations relating to the Zodiac. Others think that the figures may represent spirit companions, or that it is a depiction related to the Underworld.  Whatever it is, the mystery surrounding this site alone makes it worth a visit.


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