mask tomb 1 structure VII INAH
structure II stephan merk
CALAKMUL- Campeche, Mexico
Calakmul, Two Adjacent Mounds in Yucatek Maya, was the capital of the Snake (Kan) Kingdom, and is the largest of the Rio Bec architectural style sites, as well as, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has the highest pyramid in the Maya world, and contains the greatest number of stelae (commemorative carved stone slab markers), found at any site (120). Discovered under a late period temple are some of the most stunning murals ever seen in the Maya world. There are at least eight Sacbe (white stone roads) that have been identified in the archeological zone.
Located deep in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve about 22 miles/35 kms from the Guatemala border, Calakmul was built atop a small natural plateau surrounded by a savannah. Water was provided by a series of canals and aguades. It was one of the largest and most powerful city-states in the Maya world with an estimated population of over 50,000, and political control of over a million inhabitants.
The site covers about 7 sq. miles/112 sq. kms and contains over 6,000 structures, though the core area is much smaller. It is located off the Chetumal-Campeche Highway 186, outside the town of Conhuas (km 95). From there it is a drive in of about 37 miles/60kms over a rough road.
HOURS: 8 A.M-5 P.M.
ENTRANCE FEE: INAH- $4.50/85 Pesos, Ejidatarios-$3.30/60 Pesos, Biosphere Preserve-$4.25/80 Pesos, Total $11.75/225 P.
GUIDES: Inquire at visitor kiosk, or nearby villages
SERVICES: Bathrooms and pamphlet sales at visitor kiosk
ON-SITE MUSEUM: No
ACCOMMODATIONS: Food and lodging at the town of Xupijl, or in either of the state capitals Campeche and Chetumal
GPS: 18d 06' 23" N, 89d 49' 01" W
MISC: Bring water/snacks, best visited Nov-March
HISTORY AND EXPLORATION
Calakmul has a very well-defined history. More than 20 kings have been identified covering a time span of over 400 years. Numerous stelae here and at other sites, as well as other original sources such as hieroglyphic stairways and ceramics, have recorded a time line of events such as royal births, accessions, deaths, marriages, alliances, conquests and defeats. A unique matched pairing of Kings and their Queens appear among many of the stelae.
Calakmul, with its allies, was in constant conflict with the equally powerful kingdom of Tikal and its allies. These struggles encompassed most of the Classic period (250-850 CE) and dictated the narrative of the Maya Lowlands. Calakmul’s influence, or vengeance, was felt as far away as Copan in Honduras, then an ally of Tikal. Many parallels could be drawn regarding the history of Europe, and the contemporary East/West cold war. It was a life or death struggle, with death being the operative word here.
Ceramics and architecture reveal that Calakmul was first settled in the Middle Preclassic (700-350 BCE), and by the Late Preclassic (350 BCE-200 CE) was already an important center along with El Mirador, Wakna, and Nakbe. The recovery of numerous “Codex Style” ceramics has led some researchers to contend that Calakmul, along with Nakbe and El Mirador, was involved in producing these very distinctive pieces.
The historical data is very sparse before 631 CE. A stela identifies a ruling dynasty which carried the Bat emblem glyph in the 5th century. A Bat Dynasty ruler named Chan Yopaat is identified on Stela 114 celebrating the important Baktun Ceremony of 18.104.22.168.0 8 Ahaw 13 Kej, December 9, 435 CE. Another stela, Stela 43, marks a Katun Ending in 514 CE, but this time identifies an individual with a lineage designation of Chitan Winik, which was also used in the Mirador Basin, and could indicate a new ruling dynasty.
The Snake Kings
A lineage line of the Kannul/Kaan Dynasty relocated to Calakmul in c.631 CE, following a possible internal power struggle at Dzibanche. Prior to this relocation the Snake Kings had already expanded their influence and power to numerous other sites under the rulership of at least seven known kings. Ut Chanal, aka Sky Witness (ruled c.561-572 CE), and Uneh Chan, aka Scroll Serpent (ruled 579-c.611 CE), were two of the most notable with Ut Chanal decisively defeating arch rival Tikal in 562 CE, sacrificing its king, Wak Chan K’awiil, and beginning the 130-year hiatus at that site. Uneh Chan went on to defeat Palenque (Lakamha) on two occasions, 599 and 611 CE, causing that important city/state to suffer a lengthy decline.
The first reference to the Kaanul/Snake Dynasty at Calakmul is recorded on Hieroglyphic Stairway 1 at Naranjo in 631 CE which details the defeat of Naranjo by ruler Yuknoom “Head” (ruled 630-636 CE). His arrival at Calakmul initiated the dislocation of the previous Bat dynasty who apparently relocated to Oxpemul.
Yuknoom Head begins the era of the “Three Kings” who expanded and ruled over perhaps the largest Maya empire, and lasted for over 100 years.
Yuknoom Cheen II, also known as Yuknoom the Great, was Calakmul’s premier king, and one of the most famous and successful kings in all of Maya history. He ruled from 636-686 CE, and controlled a vast empire through marriage and military allegiances of vassal states. Tikal, his bitter enemy, was defeated on more than one occasion with the considerable assistance of powerful allies such as Caracol, then under the rulership of the notable Kan II. It should be noted that some researchers consider Yuknoom ”Head” and Yuknoom the Great to be one and the same person.
All good things come to an end however, and in 695 CE during an attack against Tikal, the probable son of Yuknoom the Great, Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk, aka Jaguar/Fire Paw, was defeated by Tikal King Jasaw Chan K’awiil I. His death around this time ushered in his successor, Yuknoom Took’ K’awiil, who ruled until c.736 CE. His demise coincides with a further attack from Tikal c.735 CE. A lavish tomb, Tomb 1, located within Structure VII is thought to be his.
Calakmul lost its importance as a major power, though it continued to hold influence for a time over some sites including Caracol, El Peru, Dos Pilas, Naranjo and La Corona/Saknikte. In 731 CE a monument at La Corona/Saknikte records the arrival of a Snake Dynasty princess who married into the rulership.
It is thought that the last Snake King who ruled from Calakmul may have been Wamaw K’awiil, who ruled after c. 736 CE, and may have been the son of Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk. Though the record is sparse, it appears he initiated, or completed, the participation of Calakmul with Quirigua ruler K'ak' Tiliw Chan Yopaat to oppose the overlordship of Copan, who was then a strong ally of Tikal (What was it with these guys?). He is depicted on a stela there performing a ceremony. Quirigua captured the famous king of Copan, Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah, aka 18 Rabbit, and sacrificed him in 738 CE in a public display of defiance. Quirigua gained its independence from Copan, and Copan itself was forever degraded as a regional power.
The time frame after 736 CE is bit murky as the Bat emblem glyph is recorded for the first time on a stela at Oxpemul in 731 CE, and later upon several stelae at Calakmul itself. This may indicate that the Bat Dynasty regained its position and power in some manner, and displaced the Snake Dynasty who presumably relocated to an unidentified location.
The last reference to the Snake King Dynasty was from a list of dynasties inscribed on Stela 10 from Seibal in 839 CE, and naming a ruler, Chan Pet, but not the location from where he ruled.
A final note on the Snake Dynasty. Some researchers have proposed that the Snake Dynasty originally came from El Mirador as a Snake/Kan glyph has been discovered there dating back to the Preclassic. Other relationships include a sacbe which connected the two sites, as well as the architectural style and the aforementioned “Codex Style” ceramics. Future epigraphic discoveries may help fill in the details.
A later ruler, Bolon K’awiil, is mentioned on several monuments and reigned c.751-c.771. He is titled simply as “Holy Lord of Chiik Naab”. No dynastic emblem glyphs are recorded.
The last recorded king of Calakmul was Aj Took, who is referenced on a stela, Stela 61, in 909 CE, one of the last stelae erected by the Maya with a readable date. The site continued on with a reduced population and as a pilgrimage destination into the Post Classic (1050-1450 CE). Ceramic evidence indicates it was still visited as a pilgrimage destination in the Early Colonial Period.
The site of Calakmul was brought to the attention of scholars by botanist Cyrus Lundell in 1931 with information provided by two local chicle workers; Manuel Orsono and Jesus Garcia. Graffiti etched into the stucco inside Structure III relates to prior visits of unreported visitors in 1926-28. The site was explored and reported on by Sylvanus Morley in 1932. There followed Karl Ruppert and John Denison (1943), Raul Pavon (1966), Eric von Euw (1975), Peter Schmidt (1981), and the comprehensive Calakmul Project headed by William Folan (1982-1994).
More recent investigations and restorations have been carried out by Carrasco Vargas and Colon Gonzales in 2005, and Rodriguez Campero in 2008 within the Calakmul Archaeological Project (PAC). Excavation, conservation and consolidation of structures continues under INAH.
Calakmul consists of several groups radiating out from the Central/Grand Plaza, and oriented to the cardinal points a few degrees east of North. The Central/Grand Plaza Group contains structures II, IV, V, VI and VII. The plaza itself measures about 197 feet/60 m x 656 feet/200 m, and exhibits 47 stelae and 5 altars. The plaza, its structures, stelae and altars were once all painted, mostly in red. Traces of yellow, blue/green, white and black have also been discerned. This sector of the site experienced uninterrupted occupation from c.400 BCE to c.900 CE, a time frame of over 1,200 years.
By far the most impressive structure at Calakmul is its massive pyramid known as Structure II. It is situated on the south side of the plaza. This structure was built-over and enlarged a number of times over the course of over ten centuries to reach its final height of around 164 feet/50 meters, one of the highest and most massive structures in the Maya world. Its base measures around 400 feet/130 m square.
Structure II contains several sub-structures dating back to c.250 BCE, some recently excavated and open to the public. Sub structure II-C-1 features a central stairway flanked by two, large Olmec-style stucco masks. A frieze measuring 65 feet/20 meters in length depicts a mythological scene with the Rain God Chaak floating/swimming between two supernatural birds, framed by a blue sky band and the two-headed cosmic monster. This style of iconography has also been found at the Preclassic sites of Izapa, Abaj Takalik, and Nakbe. It is worth noting that located within the sub-structures two extremely rare rounded arches, without the usual keystone, have been excavated.
Nine royal tombs have been found within the pyramid, some containing rich funerary offerings including jade masks. One of these tombs, Tomb 4, is thought to belong to Yuknoom Yich'aak K'ahk who ruled 685-695 CE. His reconstructed burial is now housed in the Baluarte de San Miguel Museum in Campeche.
An immense central stairway, flanked by four large Early Classic masks, leads up several tiers to Structure II-B. A stela is planted on a small terrace part-way up. Two smaller stairways appear on opposite sides of the central stairway. Structure II-B, houses nine chambers. It once featured a painted roof comb. Two smaller structures face each other across a courtyard, and all three form a triadic complex. Behind this structure, and rising up upon its own platform base, is Structure II-A. This multi-tiered pyramidal structure dates to the Preclassic. Its summit exhibits the foundation remains of a masonry temple. In front of the pyramid are several stelae dating from the early eighth century.
Located on the west side of the Central Plaza is Structure VI; Structure VII on the north; Structure IV on the east; and Structure V on the south in front of Structure II.
Structure VII is a temple/pyramid complex originally constructed in the Peten style that rises to a height of 82 feet/25 meters, making it the third highest structure at the site. Its base measures about 131 feet/40 m x 155 feet/47 m. It has a broad stairway leading up to a triadic arrangement on its summit. The central structure is a three chambered temple crowned with a roof comb that rises up on a small platform base. Within was found an eighth century tomb, Tomb 1, of one of Calakmul’s kings, most likely Yuknoom Took K'awiil, containing a fabulous mosaic jade mask. Other jade and shell ornaments, obsidian blades, and ceramic objects were discovered as well. A patolli game plan was found etched into the surface of one of the chambers. Five stelae and one altar are situated in front of the structure.
To the side of Structure VII is the small Structure VIII. This single chamber structure is set on a low, two-tiered platform. A single stela and altar are located in front of it.
Structure V features a single temple chamber, and is set on a low platform base. Located around the structure are ten stelae and one altar attesting to its importance for such a small structure.
Structures IV and VI are thought to have had an astronomical function, marking the equinox and solstices, and form a paring that is termed an “E Group”.
Structure IV is an elongated platform base housing a two-storey temple central structure and two smaller structures on its far ends. These two smaller structures align with the winter and summer solstices as viewed from Structure VI. The central structure was found to hold 6 burials. One of the burials, Tomb 2, contained a black mosaic mask and several blackware ceramics dating to the Early Classic. Eighteen stelae are associated with this structure.
Structure VI is of a pyramidal design and rises up on three tiers. This structure has been paired with Structure IV forming an “E Complex” used for astronomical as well as ceremonial purposes. Stairways are located on its east and west sides. A single chamber structure is located on its summit. Five entryways face to the east across a narrow terrace. The west side of the structure exhibits a single entryway that looks across a larger patio, and on down to the Jaguar Plaza. Six stelae and one altar are associated with this structure.
North of the Central Plaza is a complex known as the Chiik Nahb Group, “Place of the Water Lilly”. The complex measures about 495 feet/150 meters square. It contains around 68 structures and dates to 450-500 CE. There are a number of defaced stelae located within the complex.
This complex is famous for its startling murals recently discovered within one of its structures. The structure, Structure 1, consisted of 5 sub-structures reflecting a building period covering hundreds of years. During excavations brilliant murals were discovered on the stuccoed outer walls of Sub-structure 4, a small three-tiered pyramid. These murals are unique in the Maya World as they depict not royalty or warfare, but nobles and commoners engaged in social activities as might be seen in a marketplace. A number of the scenes depict a Maya noble woman who is identified as Lady Nine Stone.
An associated long, bench-walkway construction measuring about 5 feet/1.5 m in height also retains elaborate decorations of birds and other aquatic features, such as turtles, fish, and small waves. Interspaced among these features are cartouche decorations containing the Chiik Naab glyph. This most likely indicates an identification of the complex, and the secondary name for the site itself.
To the southeast of Structure II is a large pyramid, Structure I. It is the second highest pyramid within the site reaching a height of 130 feet/40 meters. The platform that supports the pyramid measures about 328 feet/100 meters on each side. At its base are three, very large monolithic altars representing the “Three Hearth Stones” often associated with the constellation Orion, and the birthplace of the gods. It is a perfect representation of the site name “Uxte’tuun”. A steep, broad stairway measuring 59 feet/18 meters in width, and once flanked by large stucco masks, leads to a small temple at the top. Numerous whistle figurines were located within the structure, as well as, a royal tomb containing a mosaic jade mask.
To the northeast of Structure I is Structure III, also known as Lundell’s Palace. It is considered an elite residence containing 12 chambers entered through three doorways. The structure is set on a platform base measuring about 105 feet/32 m x 118 feet/36 m, consisting of five levels. It is accessed by a broad, central stairway that extends up about 16.5 feet/5 m, and faces west towards the Central Plaza. Its architectural style suggests a date of 370-400 CE. Three roof combs graced the structure in a triadic fashion, and its western façade once featured stucco masks. Excavations have uncovered a rich assortment of grave goods including 3 jade masks from an important burial of an Early Classic ruler found in Tomb 1.
To the west of Structure VI, and across the large Jaguar Plaza, is the West Group, or Great Acropolis. This massive complex, with a base of about 1,148 feet/350 m x 1,574 feet/480 m, houses multiple structures including a ball court, pyramids, temples, and palaces.
The acropolis includes 20 plazas, courtyards, and patios, making it one of the largest palace complexes in the Maya World. It is divided into two main sectors. The east sector, consisting of the North Court, Southeast Court and the Plaza of the Prisoners, was of a semi-public area. The larger west sector/Acropolis Group was a restricted elite residential complex.
Structure XIII, located on the north side of the North Court, is a four-tiered pyramid platform. The platform base has a length of about 141 feet/43 meters. A central stairway leads up to a two-storey structure atop the pyramid summit. A number of stelae are located here and place the date of the visible structure to the 8th century. A sub-structure dates back to the Preclassic. Four stelae and one altar are associated with this structure.
Structure XIV was the main entryway into the North Court from the Jaguar Plaza, and is situated on the east side of the North Court. A broad central stairway leads up from the Jaguar Plaza to a superstructure having three entryways that opened into two galleries.
A ball court, Structure XI, is located on the west side of the North Court, and separates the North Court from the Plaza of the Prisoners. The ball court is of standard design with open end zones. It is set on a North/South axis. It is most unusual for a site as large as Calakmul to feature only one ballcourt.
A fine carving of seven kneeling prisoners, located in the Plaza of the Prisoners, has been discovered on a natural limestone outcrop. It has since been reburied to preserve it. The plaza is found on the western side of the ball court.
Structure XV is located on the east side of the Southeast Court. The structure contains three tombs of high-ranking personages. One of them, Tomb 1, has been identified as the wife of Yuknoom Ch’een II who ruled from 636-698 CE. She was the mother of the previously mentioned Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk. Her body was wrapped in chicle strips. Her tomb contained a rich assortment of funerary goods, including a large pectoral made of jade and shell. Another tomb, Tomb 3, contained a finely crafted jade mask. Five stelae are set up in front of the structure which is situated on the east side of the Southeast Court.
Structure X is an elongated platform, that extends out from Structure XV. It divides the North Court from the Southeast Court.
Structure XVI is a massive, raised platform of approximately 263 feet/80 m x 328 feet/100m. It is situated on the west side of the Southeast Court, and is a part of the west sector/Acropolis Group of the acropolis. The platform base rises up about 29.5 feet/9 m from the Southeast Court across from Structure XV. Five stelae are located here. The summit of the platform base has a series of structures that ring an interior courtyard forming a quadrangle. The north side of the structure faces onto the Plaza of the Prisoners, and features two stelae. This structure, like many of the structures within the acropolis, is in an unrestored state.
Structure XVII is a pyramidal structure with a length of 164 feet/50 m and features a broad central stairway that leads up to a two-chamber superstructure. A single stela located here dates to 790 CE. This structure anchors the south side of the Southeast Court.
Structure XIX is an elongated platform base with a double row of galleries running its width. It functioned as the north entrance to the acropolis, and is located within the west sector/Acropolis Group.
Structure XX is set on a low platform base that measures about 118 feet/36 m x 262.5 feet/80 meters, with a current total height of about 26 feet/8 m. The main structure is flanked by two smaller gallery-type structures. One of these smaller structures features two storeys. An Early Classic tomb was located within a sub-structure containing an offering of nine ceramic vessels. It is located within the west sector/Acropolis Group on the west side of the Plaza of the Prisoners. It served as an entryway into the more restricted western sector/Acropolis Group. Many of the other structures associated with this sector remain to be excavated and studied.
A wall has been excavated on the north side of the Great Acropolis and functioned as a controlled access to the site. It may also have had acted in a defensive role. A remaining section of the wall measures about 20 feet/6 m in height, and about 6.5 feet/2 m in width. It has been conjectured that the wall, at different heights, runs .6 mile/1 km to the east. More research is needed.
To the east of the Central/Grand Plaza is the Small Acropolis, an elite residential compound. It is made up of numerous courtyards, patios, and residential structures. To the north of this complex is a large residential group called Chan Chi'ich set around several courtyards.
The Northeast Group is a large complex including fifteen stelae. This group is mostly in an unexcavated state. An excavated, single platform housing three structures and four stelae have been restored, and is possible to identify when first entering the site. To the north of this complex is the small, partially excavated Taman residential group also seen when first entering the site.
The Utsiaal Caan and the House of the 6 Ajaw, both sectors of the K’iinich Pak Group, form a residential grouping to the northwest of the Great Acropolis. There are other elite residential areas that surround the central core area.
Several sacbeob (raised white stone roads) have been located at Calakmul. The longest is Sacbe 7, and stretches 27 miles/34 km southwest to El Mirador indicating a close relationship with this site.
Calakmul is an impressive site which will take many years to fully excavate. Without a doubt, many new discoveries await the archaeologist’s pick and trowel.
updated Jan 2023
structure V kai devandahl
structure 1 adrian zwegers
chan chi'ich complex kai devandahl
mural detail calakmul archaeological project/PAC
structure III gautier poupeau
structure II olmec style mask kai devandahl
structure III w/stela 88 roberto llebig
E group elelicht
chiik naab mural PAC
chiik naab glyph PAC
structure II ant mela
structure V with stelae 28 & 29 stephan merk
stela 51 thelmadatter
chi'ck naab mural PAC
chi'ick naab bench/walkway mural detain kai devandahl
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recovered ceramic saiko
chi'ick naab bench/walkway mural kai devandahl
structure II PAC
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structure XI ball court peter fordham
chiik naab restoration INAH
taman group kai devandahl
chiik naab structure I INAH
mask tomb 4 structure II kai devandahl
chiik naab mural PAC
chi'ick naab mural calakmul archaeology project/PAC
chi'ik naab bench/walkway mural detail
yuknoom yich'aak k'ahk burial recronstruction INAH
chi'ick naab mural PAC
structure XX kai devandahl
structure IV hjpd
northeast group kai devandahl
structure XIV PAC
structure VII kai devandahl
chi'ick naab miral PAC.
site plan INAH
structure XIX kai devandahl
structure VI kai devandahl
structure XVII kai devandahl
structure XV kai devandahl