west acropolis                                                        david holt

​​YAXCHILAN- Chiapas, Mexico

Yaxchilan ("Green Stones" in Maya) is one of the best-known Classic Period (250-850 CE) kingdoms. It is located within a rainforest on the Usumacinta River that forms a part of the border between Mexico and Guatemala. It was situated within a loop of the river which afforded it a protective status, and allowed it to control the lucrative trade route that passed along it.

 Its ancient name has now been deciphered as Pa’ Chan (Divided Sky in Maya). This large site contains numerous structures, many of which have beautiful, intricately carved lintels. These lintels are best observed and photographed from a prone position as the inscriptions have been carved on their underside. There are also an abundant number of finely carved stelae (stone monuments), and a few incised altars found throughout the site. 

The site is located in the state of Chiapas. It is reached by traveling from Palenque southeast on Highway 199 to the Highway 307 turnoff. Continue on and watch for the turnoff to the border town of Frontera Corozal, a total of about 140 miles/225 km. Frontera Corozal can also be reached from San Cristobal de las Casas on the Highway 199 through Ocosingo (visit Tonina here) and to the Highway 307 intersection, then south to Frontera Corozal. 

Lodging, guides, and transportation down the Usumacinta River to the site can be arranged in Frontera Corozal. It is about an hour ride that passes through some nice scenery that features high escarpments and hills. It takes the skilled hand of the boatmen to navigate the rapids of Anaite, about 12 miles/20 km downstream, and then on through a second set of rapids located between El Cayo and Piedras Negras. It is recommended to include in your tour a trip further downstream to the important site of Piedras Negras. Make sure you take your passport as Piedras Negras is in Guatemala, and you must first check in at the military checkpoint a bit further downstream.

This area of Mexico is a bit remote. Check security conditions before leaving from either Palenque or San Cristobal de las Casas. It is highly recommended to arrange a guided tour from either Palenque, Ocosingo or San Cristobal de las Casas. Plan on spending the night in Frontera Corozal.

HOURS: 10 A.M.-5 P.M.
ENTRANCE FEE: U.S. $5.00/80 pesos (waived?) Ejido fee $2.10/35 Pesos
GUIDES: None on-site. Make arrangements at Frontera Corozal
SERVICES: Bathrooms
ACCOMODATIONS: Lodging, guides and transportation to the ruins can be found at Frontera Corazal
As of January 2024 site is closed due to security concerns

Yaxchilan has a very well-defined history. A series of at least 19 recorded kings have been identified covering a time span of over 400 years. This information is recorded on some of the 59 lintels, 30 stelae, 29 altars, and 5 hieroglyphic stairways located throughout the site recording a time line of events such as royal births, accessions, deaths, marriages, alliances, conquests, and defeats. The Yaxchilan Emblem Glyph, Pa’Chan, is also associated with the kings of El Zotz, although a historical link between the two dynasties has yet to be identified.

Ceramic evidence points to an early occupation from at least the Late Preclassic (250 BCE-250 CE). The recorded history of Yaxchilan appears around the mid-4th century CE and continues for another six centuries until the site was abandoned sometime in the tenth century. Its rise in importance begins in 359 CE with the enthronement of Yopaat Bahlam I, referenced on Hieroglyphic Stairway 1, who initiated a long lineage of kings.

Yaxchilan was in constant rivalry with downstream Piedras Negras with each defeating the other over the course of time for control over the lucrative Usumacinta River trade. Some of the texts deciphered here and at Piedras Negras record military engagements against each other. Stela 8 at Piedras Negras records a victory over Yaxchilan in 726 CE and the capture of a subordinate lord.

By 510 CE the city attained a position of importance under the reign of Joy Bahlam I/Knot-eye Jaguar (r.508-518 CE) who registered victories against Bonampak, Tikal and Piedras Negras, information that appears on Stela 27 (Structure 9). Piedras Negras returned the favor and defeated Joy Bahlam I in 514 CE as recorded on Lintel 12 at that site.

Yaxchilan expanded under the long reign of Itzamnaaj Bahlam III/Shield Jaguar (r. 681-742 CE). His military exploits are recorded on various lintels and stelae against polities such as Hix Witz/Zapote Bobal (c.646 CE), Xukalnaah/Lacanjá, Palenque (654 CE), and Piedras Negras among others. He began an impressive building program that included numerous structures, stelae, and carved lintels. He, like many other rulers, had more than one wife, these marriages usually arranged to cement relations with other kingdoms or lesser polities. His most prominent wife was Ix Kʼabʼal Xook/Lady Xoc who was important enough to have her own palace, Structure 23, which featured three masterpieces of Maya art, Lintels 24-26, two of which (24 & 25) are now in the British Museum. These lintels depict Lady Xoc and her husband in ritual blood-letting performances.

Another of his wives was Lady Eveningstar/Uuh Chan Lem from the K'aan Kingdom located at Calakmul. It was her son, Yaxun Bahlam IV/Bird Jaguar IV (r.752-768) who became the next ruler of Yaxchilan after a ten-year interregnum/interruption which could possibly indicate a power play by that distant kingdom to assert an overlordship upon Yaxchilan. It is also possible that its downstream arch nemesis, Piedras Negras,may have had a hand in things.

 Bird Jaguar IV/Yaxun Bahlam IV was one of the most well-known kings from the Classic Period. It is during his reign that Yaxchilan reached its apex. He erected more than half of the known monuments including Hieroglyphic Stairways 1, 3, and 4. He commissioned at least 15 well-executed lintels, along with at least two stelae to promote his military exploits, and his legitimate right to rule. He defeated or ruled over several polities including Bonampak, Piedras Negras, and Lacanja, among others.

Lintel 8 (Structure 1) shows Yaxun Bahlam IV and a high-ranking noble, K'an Tok Wayib', standing over two prisoners; "Jeweled Skull" and a lord named Kok Te' Ahaw. The date of  the event is recorded as 7 Imix 14 Sek- May 9, 755 CE.  K'an Tok Wayib' is also named on Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 and bears the title B’aal Sajal/ First Sajal, and may have been the ruler of a subsidiary site known as Tixan.

Lady Yax-Rabbit/ Lady B'aahkab', a princess from the royal court of Yaxchilan, is recorded as becoming the wife of the ruler of Bonampak, Yajaw Chan Muwaan I (r.776 CE), cementing ties between the two polities. In 791 CE Yaxchilan king Itzamnaaj Bahlam IV (r.769-800?) oversaw the installation of Chan Muwaan II (r.c778-805 CE) in Bonampak, as recorded in the famous murals and lintels located in Structure I at Bonampak.

The last known king of Yaxchilan, K’inich Tatbu Skull IV, ascended the throne in 808 CE, and is commemorated on Lintel 10 within Structure 3. The lintel records the capture of K'inich Yat Ahk II, the last known king of Piedras Negras. Apparently, it was death to the bitter end between these two polities. There are no known inscriptions after this date though ceramic evidence shows that the site was occupied into the tenth century before it was abandoned to the jungle. The last known recorded dates for other sites within the Usumacinta River Basin are at Piedras Negras (795 CE), Palenque (800 CE), Bonampak (805 CE). and at Toniná with the latest recorded date in the Maya area, 909 CE.

Yaxchilan is given a brief mention by Juan Galindo in 1832 in his work Description of the River Usumacinta, in Guatemala, published in 1833 by the Royal Geographical Society. In 1871-72 a local woodcutter, Rito Zetina, is known to have referred to the site as Menché. The first written reports of the site were by Edwin Rockstroh, a German professor, also employed by the Mexico-Guatemala Boundary Commission. His reports were published in Guatemala City newspapers in 1881 detailing his scientific expedition within the Usumacinta River Basin.

The next explorer on the scene was Alfred Maudslay who produced a photographic record of the site in 1889, and removed and shipped several lintels to the British Museum. Unfortunately, the individual he hired to remove the lintels, Gorgonio López, did considerable damage to the structures in the process. It has been demonstrated that these removals, and the removal of others that followed, have severely weakened the overall integrity of the structures, and caused some to subsequently collapse.

Desire Charnay arrived at Yaxchilan two days after Alfred Maudslay, and contributed additional information on the ruins. Teobert Maler conducted exploration between 1897 and 1900, and added his photographic and written record to the corpus on Yaxchilan, as well as assigning the current name to the site. Other researchers include Karl Sapper (1891), Gerónimo López de Llergo (1891), Alfred M. Tozzer (1901), Herbert J. Spinden (1914), Frans Blom (1928), and Agustín García (1931). Sylvanus G. Morley, Karl Ruppert, F. K. Rhoads and John Bolles of the Yaxchilán Expedition from the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C. visited in 1931. Linton Satterthwaite carried out an expedition between 1934-1935. Later researchers included Merle Greene Robertson in the 1960s and early seventies, and Ian Graham in the 1970’s. There have been ongoing excavations, consolidations, and restorations by INAH beginning in 1973 by Roberto García Mol, and at times partnered with international universities.

This large site contains over 80 noteworthy structures, set among several architectural groups. These groups are set among the different elevations that are scattered along the shoreline and inland on a roughly southeast/northwest axis. Most of the temple structures display a decorative roof comb. There are four main groups; the Great Plaza, South Acropolis, Acropolis West, and the South-East Group. A mound of stone, Structure 89, is located within the river near the shore and has been identified as a possible pier or jetty.  It has also been suggested that the mound may have been a foundation for a rope bridge to access agricultural areas across the river.

The first structures encountered when entering the site form around a small plaza and is here named the North-West Group. This group consists of Structures 18, 19, and 76-78.

Structure 18 is a pyramidal structure that is located on the west side of the North-West Plaza. It has a central, plaza facing stairway that leads up to the remains of a summit temple. Several monuments including Stela 8 are found in front of the structure. Structure 77 is found on the south side of the plaza with Structure 78 located on the north side of the plaza. Both are partially restored pyramidal structures. The east side of the plaza is taken up by Structure 19 and a long, attached platform that extends along the entire length of the plaza. These two structures also form the western edge of the Great Plaza which is entered by a passage through Structure 19.

The Great Plaza includes more than a dozen structures found along an elevated, flat, narrow strip of land alongside the banks of the Usumacinta River. This is where the largest number of stelae and altars are located, many now protected beneath palapa coverings. It has been noted that many of the stelae that record Katun-endings were carved and erected in such a manner that the images relating to warrior imagery faced east to the river, while images of bloodletting faced west towards the temples. The axis of the site plan has been shown to have been based on astronomical alignments.

Structure 19/The Labyrinth is located on the western edge of the Great Plaza, and has been nicely restored. The structure has several entryways on two sides and is composed of nine vaulted chambers connected by 16 galleries spread out across three levels accessed by interior stairways. The remains of a roof comb are clearly visible. Three eroded altars are positioned on a terrace in front of the structure including Altar 2 which still retains some nice iconography.

The southside of the Great Plaza is set on raised terraces and small hills and contains Structures 1-3 and 20-23. The northside of the plaza is set on the plaza level with the river behind it and features structures 4-17.

Structure 17 is one of two steam baths recorded at the site, the other being Structure 48 located in the South-East Group. It is attached to the north end of the long Structure 19 platform and forms the north end of a small sub-plaza with the Structure 19 platform on the west and Structure 16 on the east. The structure likely had a ritual relationship with the nearby ball court, and is set atop the center of a broad, three-level platform accessed by a central stairway. The single, low entrance is located on the lower second level of the terrace.

Structure 16 is a temple structure on the east side of the small sub-plaza referenced above. The structure faces east to the ball court across an open area between the two. The front of the structure displays three entryways each of which houses a lintel, Lintels 38-40, and leads into two parallel galleries. The rear gallery retains the remains of partition walls.

The Ball Court, Structure 14, is of an open-end zone type with an axis about 27 degrees east of North. Five ball court markers have been located here, though they all exhibit an advanced degree of erosion.

Structure 10 is a two-chamber palace structure that shares a platform with two other structures, Structures 13 and 78. It housed three lintels, Lintels 29-31, inscribed with calendric and historical information on ruler, Yaxun Bahlam IV. An interesting date referencing the 819-day cycle is mentioned on each lintel. This unusual cycle has recently been identified (May 2023) as incorporating the synodic periods of the visible planets within a roughly 45-year time frame (20 periods of 819 days). It also meshes with the Tzolkin and the Calendar Round. An amazing, mathematical/astronomical accomplishment more than 1,200 years old!

Structure 13 is a multi-chamber palace structure that sits on a right angle to structure 10. Three carved lintels, Lintels 32, 33 and 50, have been recovered.

Structure 11 is a partially restored temple structure with three entryways located on the riverside of a small courtyard behind Structures 10 and 78. Lintel 56 was originally set within the structure but was removed and unfortunately destroyed in Germany during WWII. A plaster cast survives.

Structure 12 is a palace type structure located between Structure 10 and the ball court. It features two parallel galleries and houses 8 lintels in all including Lintels 36-37, and 47-49.

Structure 8 is an unrestored platform mound that extends into the plaza from Structure 7 with a west stairway facing onto Stela 1.

Structures 6 and 7, both palace type structures, are located between the unrestored Structures 9 and 5 having facades that face both the river and the plaza. Structure 6 is also known as the Red Temple, and has been nicely restored.  It features three entryways that are found on each side of the structure, the plaza side exhibiting a nicely restored mask. Two upper levels of the structure have been partially restored. A perforated roof comb graces the top of the structure.

Structure 5, a platform structure, is set on the northeast end of the plaza. It displays a mostly eroded, six-step, hieroglyphic stairway, Hieroglyphic Stairway 1. The 111 glyph blocks contained within the six steps name a succession of historical rulers.

Structure 1 is situated on a natural rise in the southeast corner of the plaza. It is a palace type structure with three chambers, and contained four beautifully inscribed stone lintels, Lintels 5-8, which were removed and photographed by Maler in the 1890’s. These lintels correspond to the end of a Katun dated 2 Ahaw 13 Sek, May 7 751 CE, and which details events in the life of Bird Jaguar IV.

Structure 2 is an unrestored temple mound found below Structure 1 and where a lintel, Lintel 9 since removed, and a stela, Stela 30, are located. Structure 3 is a small temple structure located next to Structure 2 and housed two lintels, one of which, Lintel 10, was carved.

Structures 20-24 are positioned on an elevated terrace on the southeast side of the Great Plaza.

Structure 20 is a temple type structure exhibiting three chambers and housed Lintels 12-14 along with stucco figures that were set into recessed niches. It has a high upper body that features large, framed niches that held stucco figures, and exhibits the remains of a roof comb. A hieroglyphic stairway, Hieroglyphic Stairway 5, runs the length of the structure though most of the surviving blocks are heavily eroded. The stairway memorializes the capture of sixteen captives through various military campaigns. On the terrace in front of the structure are scattered prone stelae. Four stelae, Stelae 4-7, and their associated altars commissioned by Itzamnaaj Bahlam III are positioned in front of the structure at the plaza level.

Structure 21 is a temple structure that contained Lintels 15-17. These were removed by Maudslay to the British Museum in the 1890’s. The rear chamber is noted for Stela 35 which features the mother of Bird Jaguar IV, Lady Eveningstar. The remains of a nice stuccoed mural appear on the wall behind the stela. It features four women and one man, and is decorated with snake heads and a figure of Tlaloc. Traces of red and blue paint can still be discerned. Very impressive!

A wide terrace is situated between Structures 21 and 22. A stela, Stela 2, and a small altar are located here. The very long, impressive Grand Stairway begins its accent from the terrace to Structures 25-30, and then beyond up to Structure 33. Directly across the terrace in the middle of the Great Plaza is Stela 1.

Structure 22/Four Bat Place, is a palace structure that was constructed to honor the memory of the early rulers of the site as recorded on Lintels 18-22. In the central doorway Lintel 21 relates a ritual performed by the rulers Moon Skull/Kahk' Ti'is Chan (r.464-467 CE) and Yaxun Bahlam IV more than two hundred years apart.

Structure 23 is a palace type structure featuring two parallel galleries. It is the palace of Lady Xoc. The palace housed some of the most definitive artistic expressions of Maya art, Lintels 23-26.  The artistic masterpiece, Lintel 24, depicts an important bloodletting ritual featuring Lady Xoc passing an obsidia-studded rope through her tongue in the company of her husband Itzamnaaj Balam III in 681 CE. It now resides in the British Museum along with another masterpiece, Lintel 25. The scene in this exquisitely carved lintel shows Lady Xox conjuring Ajk'ahk 'O' Chaahk, patron of war, who emerges from the jaws of a vision serpent. Two important tombs, Tombs 2 and 3, were found here during the 1979 INAH excavation season. It is believed that they may be the final resting places of Lady Xoc and her husband, both including a rich array of funerary items including jade, shell, flint and ceramics.

Structures 25 and 26 are temple structures featuring the now familiar twin galleries entered between three entryways. They are accessed via a secondary stairway that branches off to the left.

Structures 27-30 are positioned on the right side of the main stairway. Structure 30 is made up of a two-tier platform base best accessed by a separate, winding stairway that leads up from the west end of the Great Plaza across from Structure 16. The temple structure is set on a platform and displays three entryways with the central entryway surrounded by a protruding frame. The interior is made up of two interconnected galleries exhibiting a well-preserved vaulted ceiling. Stela 10 is set in front of the structure.

Structure 33 is the most imposing and best-preserved structure in Yaxchilán. The structure is accessed via the long, steep stairway from the Great Plaza passing by Structures 25 and 26. The stairway ends at a terrace that measures about 49 feet/15 meters x 98 feet/30 meters. A carved stalactite, Stela 31, is positioned in front of the structure featuring incised figures and glyphs.

The structure is set on a 6 foot/2 meter high platform and accessed via a wide stairway which incorporates Hieroglyphic Stairway 2. The stairway displays thirteen carved blocks, ten of which depict rulers engaged in various aspects of the ball game. Three steps display female figures wielding K’awiil scepters. The stairway leads up to three entryways and into a narrow gallery. Each entryway contains a well-executed lintel, Lintels 1-3 that still exhibit traces of color. In the center of the interior gallery is a finely carved sculptured figure set within a niche. The head and headdress were broken off sometime in the 19th century and are located nearby. A very faded series of four columns of glyphs is present on the wall behind the sculpture and reference Yaxun Bahlam IV.

A frieze extends along the upper exterior façade and exhibits remains of stucco figures including a seated figure over the central entryway. A very impressive roof comb contains the remains of a large, seated figure wearing a decorative headdress.

Between Structure 33 and the South Acropolis are Structures 34-38 that form two groups and have been termed the Central Acropolis. The lower group consists of temple structures, Structures 35 and 36, and a palace structure, Structure 34. Two palace structures, Structures 37 and 38, are located just below the South Acropolis.

 The South Acropolis is located up the hill from Structure 33, and contains the highest structures at the site. It consists of three structures, Structures 39-41, and is located at a height of about 293 feet/90 meters above the Great Plaza level. Several altars extend across the terrace in front of the structures.

Structure 39 is set on a small platform base and is accessed through three entryways into a single chamber. Its orientation is somewhat offset from the other two structures. Altars 4-6 and Stela 10 are associated with this structure.

Structure 40 is set on a two-tiered platform base. Two stelae flank the sides of the upper stairway. The single-chamber temple structure is entered through three entryways. The rear wall displays the remains of three stucco figures against a polychrome mural that once featured brightly colored leaves, volutes, and flowers as reported by Teobert Maler. The exterior façade once featured a frieze and a roof comb that displayed stucco figures. There are three altars, Altars 12-15, that are located on the terrace in front of the structure. Stelae 11-14 are associated with this structure with Stela 11 currently positioned in front of Structure 5, the result of a failed attempt to remove it from the site.

Structure 41 is the larger of the structures but has suffered the most and is only partially restored. It is a temple structure accessed through three entryways into a single chamber. The exterior frieze once featured zoomorphic masks. This temple structure was set on a high platform base consisting of four tiers with a wide terrace on the second level. Hieroglyphic Stairway 4 consists of three step blocks and is associated with the structure. Step III from the stairway records the capture of Chak … Took’, of Wak’aab, a sajal/lord of Pay Lakam Chahk, lord of Wak’ab (possibly Santa Elena) on 6 Kaban 5 Pop, ( 8 752 CE) by Yaxun Bahlam IV. Six stelae have been recovered here; Stelae 15-20.

The West Acropolis is made up of a large group of structures, Structures 42-52, and  located around two small plazas. Many of the structures have entrances on both sides that face the plaza and towards the river, and all exhibit a degree of restoration. It is situated on a small, possibly modified hilltop in the northwest sector of the site.

Structure 42 is a restored single chamber temple displaying three entryways each exhibiting a carved lintel, Lintels 41-43. Along with two glyph steps they relate to events recorded by Yaxun Balam IV.

Structure 44 is a single vaulted temple structure having three entryways.  A short hieroglyphic stairway of six step blocks, Hieroglyphic Stairway 3, is located here along with three lintels, Lintels 44-46, commemorating military victories by Itzamnaaj Bahlam III dedicated in 732 CE. The remains of a painted mural have been observed within the structure. There are at least six stelae, Stelae 14, 17, 21-23 and 26 located in front of the structure. There are pairs of inscribed steps that give access to each of the three entryways and along with the stelae relate to war events during the reigns of Yaxun Balam IV and Itzamnaaj Bahlam III. The latter ruler is depicted with war captives including a lord, Aj Kan Usja from the unidentified site of Baktun, and another captive Aj Nik from an unnamed site.

The South-East Group is a continuation of the Great Plaza that lines the bank of the river. It is currently closed to the public. This group consists of structures 53-67.

Three lintels, Lintels 54, 57-58, have been identified within the three entryways of Structure 54. Structure 55 is a temple construction set on a platform base with three entryways that each exhibit a lintel, Lintels 51-53, referencing Itzamnaaj Bahlam IV (r,769-c.800 CE). The construction of this group has been mostly attributed to this late ruler.

Structure 66 is an unusual grouping of seven small pyramids that form a straight line facing the river. It is very likely they may have had astronomical and ritual associations. Structure 67 is the second ball court at Yaxchilan, and has an axis of about 37 degrees west of North. It is located directly across from the Structure 66 pyramids. Most of the remaining structures are located on the south side of the plaza at a slightly higher elevation.

The North-West Group is a residential area consisting of Structures 81-88 and is located in the extreme northwest corner of the core archaeological zone. A lintel, Lintel 55 was located within Structure 88. This area is close to the landing strip and the caretakers' housing units.

updated March 2024

structures 25 and 26                             erick martin del campo

west acropoli                                                                           smyd

structure 24                                              erick martin del campo

structure 40                                                                  morriitz

lintel 16                                                                 michael wal

west acropolis                                                        bernard dupont

sculpture head and headress             dennis jarvis

grand stairway                                                 adrian hernandez

great plaza                                               erick martin del campo

lintel 17                                                             michael wal

structure 6                                                                dennis jarvis

entry through north-west group               erick martin del campo

detail lintel 15                                                  jorge perez de lara

structures 6 and 7            erick martin del campo

structure 33 step                                                 bernard dupont

structure 6 mask                                                    jami dwyer

structure 30                                                               thelmadatter

​​​​​welcome to the mayan ruins website .

structures 12 and 13                                 erick martin del campo

structure 33 sculpture                      dennis jarvis

site map                                                                            inah.

​structures 13 and 10


altar 2 srtucture 19                                                 thelmadattar

west acropolis                                                         ihiroalfonso

structure 33 step                                                                                                                                                                       bernard dupont

structure 77                                                             thelmadatter

structure 39                                                              michael wal

structure 14 ballcourt                                           thelmadatter

structure 20                                                              thelmadatter

structure 39                                                           teobert maler

structures 17 and 16                          mauriciosalinasmorano

structure 33 frieze detail                          erick martin del campo

tructure 33 step                                                          bernard dupont

lintel 14                                                                             dennis jarvis

structure 18                                                                dennis jarvis

structure 19 platform                                                 thelmadatter

structures 22 23 24                                  erick martin del campo

structure 41                                                                    morriitz

overview                                                                                google earth

west acropolis                                                           jacob rus

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west acropolis                                        ricardo david sanchez

structure 33                                                                 momo

structure 33                                               erick martin del campo

structures 20 and 21                                  erick martin del campo

structure 33 c.1889                                                desrie charnay

lintel 24                                                                michael wal

stela 35 structure 21                                         luisinho

lintel 15                                                       jorge perez de lara

site map                                  herbert pesquera/luz de lourdes

mound 89 pier/bridge foundation

lintel 25                                                  jorge perez de lara

structure 19                                                           panza rayada