Tulum: Eyewitnesses to the Encounter of Two Worlds

An interpretive text from Tulum, the most heavily trafficked archaeological site that we visited, invites the tourist to imagine the first encounter between the Spanish and the ancient inhabitants of Tulum from two different perspectives.  This encounter, it tells us, is the first moment in the creation of a new cultural order.

The painted reconstruction of that moment of encounter is imagined from the native point of view, but written description asks the reader to imagine him or herself as the Spanish conquistador, Juan de Grijalva, seeing the people of Tulum for the first time.

You are Juan de Grijalva, the Spanish captain.

You sail from Cuba on an exploratory voyage.

You landed on the an island (Cozumel) surrounded by reefs, where people hide when they saw you.

Now you are sailing along a coast, near a city with large buildings and towers that remind you of far-away Seville.  You don’t land, you sail away.

You ask yourself: Who are they?  What riches do they have?  Are they dangerous?

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Who Owns The Maya? (Part 6)

You would be hard pressed to find any history of the Yucatan Peninsula in which the relations between the indigenous Mayan population and the Hispanic conquistadores would be described as anything other than fractious and violent.  Certainly to call it something like a “cultural cohesion” would be to gloss mightily over centuries of domination and subjugation.  To summarize archaeologically:  the Spanish arrived, toppled Mayan buildings and pyramids, and used the giant limestone pieces as the foundation stones for their own cathedrals.

And yet at Tulum, that relationship is summarized on this large placard.  Note the final paragraph:

The logo of the National Council for Culture and the Arts and the National Institute of Anthropology and History at the bottom left of the sign tells the story:  it is the Mexican state, not the Mayan people, which has the power to erect this informational sign, and who can contest it?  Bear in mind that Tulum is the single most visited Mayan ruin, which by definition means that for many tourists this is the only storyline of the Mayan-Hispanic relationship they will read.

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Traditional Altar and Tourist Stops outside Uxmal

Leaving Uxmal we discovered a restaurant that surely relied upon the tour buses that visit Uxmal. In fact, two pulled in after (thank goodness!) we had already ordered. Most of the [other] tourists were Russian.  The bus driver (fluent in Russian and Spanish) explained to us that the tour had originated in Mexico City and was touring all of the major archaeological sites in Mexico in a whirlwind of sightseeing.

Restaurant Outside Uxmal

As we ate, my eyes wandered to the traditional altar set up by the bar.  I asked for and was given permission to take a photo of the altar.

Altar in Restaurant Outside Uxmal

The waiter told us that the man in the middle is the founder of the restaurant and the father of the current owner. The photo of the women to the right of the altar are owner’s mother and sister. The virgin on the altar is dark skinned; a beautiful connection to indigenous roots.  I couldn’t tell if others noted this traditional feature of Mexican culture.  It certainly helped to identify this establishment as “authentic” for me.

And close by we made another stop and found a very similar building designed for tourists; this one offering the usual tourist objects as well as gourds made on site as their “unique” offering to the tourist community passing by.  As did the ancient Maya, the proprietors of this shop offered objects made from natural resources like obsidian and jade, the raw materials imported from all over Mexico.  Jo bought a beautiful carved gourd.

Tourist Shop Close to Restaurant outside Uxmal

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Who Built Uxmal?

How ruinous should a ruin be?  As I visited Uxmal, I noticed the contrast between the ruins that Stephens described (and lived in) and those that I saw. The stones used to be a jumble, but today the monuments are consolidated, restored and reconstructed.

For instance, the Mexican government’s Departimento de Monumentos de las Secretaria de Educacion Püblica restored Las Monjas (the Nunnery) in 1937-1938.

Las Monjas is a rectangular building (perhaps a palace) with 74 rooms built around a courtyard.  Compare Catherwood’s drawing of a portion of the western façade and my photograph of that part of the building and the building as it stands today:

Restoration work conserves monuments and protects them from the elements and tourists (who are very hard on sites).  Some restorations are better than others, but all belong to a particular moment in time and attest to its archaeological understanding of the remains from the past.

It’s important to note that the ruins at Uxmal are not only the work of the Maya.  They are also, in part, the work of the scholars who excavated and studied them.  What the tourists see is a sort of museum display, that is, a ruin that has been studied, cleaned up, put back together, and presented to them by modern archaeologists.

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Who owns the Maya (Part 5)

Plaque at the entrance to Uxmal informing us that in 1976, the government of the state of Yucatan gave these “installations” to the INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropologia y Historia):

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Who Owns the Maya (Part 4)

Up to this time our course had been before the wind.  Our journey from Merida had again been a sort of triumphal procession.  We had been passed from hacienda to hacienda, till we fell into the hospitable hands of Don Simon Peon, and were now in absolute possession of the ruins of Uxmal.

Stephens, Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan, Volume One, p. 90.

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Romancing the Maya: Uxmal and the American past

As soon as we entered the grounds of Uxmal, we stopped.  This first sight of the Pyramid of the Magician was so much more. . .well, magical than anything we had seen so far.  In fact, the best term to capture my response might be rapt—especially apt since we visited the site on the day of the predicted Rapture.

Pirámide del Enano (Pyramid of the Dwarf, also called Pyramid of the Magician)

As we’ve found so often, Stephens anticipated our reaction.  He describes his first experience of Uxmal this way:

We took another road, and, emerging suddenly from the woods, to my astonishment came at once upon a large open field strewed with mounds of ruins, and vast buildings on terraces, and pyramidal structures, grand and in good preservation, richly ornamented, without a bush to obstruct the view, and in picturesque effect almost equal to the ruins of Thebes. . . .The place of which I am now speaking was beyond all doubt once a large, populous, and highly civilized city. Who built it, why is was located away from water or any of those natural advantages which have determined the sites of cities whose histories are known, what led to its abandonment and destruction, no man can tell.  (John Lloyd Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas & Yucatán, 1843)

Stephens captures the elements that still shape response to this site:  difficulty of access, making the encounter with fabulous ruins even more impressive; intimacy, helping modern visitors to picture the ways the Maya might have lived there; architectural vocabulary, rendering the site more accessible to those familiar with classical motifs; and of course the essential romance and mystery that have been projected onto the Maya for two hundred years.  (Towards the end of our trip, Heath helpfully told me that my preference for Uxmal was entirely predictable:  the site’s size and relative remoteness from the contemporary tourist trail, combined with the relative simplicity of its Puuc-style architecture, make it a prime introduction to romancing the Maya.)

We’d driven down from Mérida early in the morning, having already learned that the only way to beat both the heat and the crowds was to arrive the minute the sites opened (usually at 8 a.m.).  We arrived in good time; still, Uxmal was initially less appealing than Chichen Itza—which we first glimpsed through the lovely colonial archways of our hotel, and which we entered by wandering up a pathway lined with ancient Piich (elephant ear), mango and acacia trees.

By contrast, Uxmal appeared, from the outside, much more controlled and regulated.  To enter, we had to pass through a concrete patio to buy tickets and be tempted by a range of tourist shops.

Uxmal entrance

Once we entered the site itself, though, our experience of it was transformed.  Although Uxmal has been extensively restored so that tourists can imagine how it (might have) originally looked (see Jo’s post “Who Built Uxmal” for more on this), ironically it seemed less institutionalized than Chichen Itza:  the crowds, ropes, and signs that controlled our experience there were far less intrusive here.

To some extent, this is simply an issue of access:  Uxmal, a six hour drive from the “Maya Riviera,” is somewhat off the tourist trail. During our visit, we saw so few people that we came to know them a bit (there was the German couple in matching turquoise shirts, for example, or the Mexican woman whose t-shirt proclaimed “I only date nerds,” while the guy at her side reinforced this sentiment by constantly lecturing her on what she was seeing).  The lack of crowds meant that this site seemed more peaceful and personal than others we visited.  (But why do tourists revel in the experience of spaces free from other tourists?  Interestingly, not all of us were bothered by the crowds at other sites; Matt noted that he could “filter them out,” while I found this difficult.)

Fern at Uxmal

In addition to providing a less regimented experience of its space, Uxmal is smaller than Chichen Itza and so feels more intimate. Although our first sight of the ruins was spectacular—immediately on entering the gates, you’re faced with the impressively sized Pyramid of the Magician—most of the site is organized into quadrangles.  So after moving past the  pyramid, we entered an open plaza facing the building dubbed, by the Spaniards, Casa de las Monjas or Nunnery because of its many small rooms or cells.  Many of Uxmal’s structures are long and low, with clean–almost classical–lines. Wandering through the open space, entering the small, cool rooms with their neat piles of as yet unreconstructed stone blocks, I disturbed only a few iguanas.

Uxmal iguana










Later, climbing the gran pirámide, we gained an amazing view of the entire site, including a ceremonial archway that seemed to lead to a sacbe, one of the raised roads built by the Maya to connect their cities.  The site’s clear, simple organization highlighted the ways that Uxmal, built in Puuc style of the Late Classic period (roughly 600-900 AD), is less ornate than Chichen Itza; its details reinforced this impression, since in place of stylized skulls and heart-devouring jaguars, Uxmal’s buildings feature geometric motifs like the latticework or mat design associated with power, as well as beautifully detailed (and notably peaceful) depictions of animals like the twin cats in front of the Palace of the Governor–

Catherwood, Double Headed Lynx












–or the small round turtles marching round the façade of the House of the Turtles:

House of the Turtles, Uxmal

House of the Turtles, Uxmal (detail)









Stephens shares some of the stories behind the buildings, too, and for those who read his or other versions, the tales help to connect visitors to the site.  The Pyramid of the Dwarf was, so the Mayan legend tells us, built by a dwarf who, with the help of his mother the bruja or witch, challenged the ruler of Uxmal and won—it’s a kind of David and Goliath tale of a dwarf boy and a woman combining their wit and skill to defeat a powerful king.  Then there’s the myth to explain the House of the Turtles:  supposedly, the Maya regarded turtles as similar to humans in that they suffered during months of drought and therefore prayed to the same god humans did, the rain god Chaac, who covers the buildings of Uxmal (and no wonder, since there are no cenotes or other reliable sources of water at the site).

In his essay “Putting the World in Order:  John Lloyd Stephen’s Narration of America,” my colleague Miguel Cabañas explains Stephens’ goal in “discovering” these lost (from an outsider’s perspective) ruins:

Both elegiac and commercial forms of exploitation join the peripheries to the mainstream as American cultural artifacts. The simultaneous fetishization and commodification of indigenous cultures reveal a dual motive in Stephens’s travel narratives: the narratives mix mythmaking and pragmatism in a contradictory quest that asserted the project of modernization by re-appropriating the value of premodern societies. (12)

Miguel makes me wonder:  what quest are we on today, as we follow in the footsteps of these Anglo-American explorers? As we tour these archeological sites, aren’t we participating in the same fetishization and commodification of indigenous cultures that Stephens carried out in 1843 (see Matt’s “Who Owns the Maya” posts)?

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The Hacienda, Revolution, and the Drug War

Stephens wrote about the treatment of Indians working on Haciendas like the one where we went to the spa:

Early in the morning we were roused by loud bursts of music in the church.  The cura was giving them the benefit of his accidental visit by an early mass.  After this we heard music of a different kind.  It was the lash on the back of an Indian.  Looking out into the corridor, we saw the poor fellow on his knees on the pavement, with his arms clasped around the legs of another Indian, so as to present his back fair to the lash.  At every blow he rose on one knee, and sent forth a piercing cry.  He seemed struggling to restrain it, but it burst forth from him in spite of his efforts.  His whole bearing showed the subdued character of the present Indians, and with the last stripe the expression on his face seemed that of thankfulness for not getting more.  Without uttering a word, he crept to the major domo, took his hand, kissed it, and walked away.  No sense of degradation crossed his mind.  Indeed, so humbled is this once fierce people, that they have a proverb of their own, “Los Indios no oigan si no por las nalgas” — “The Indians cannot hear except through their backs.”

(Stephens, Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán, Volume One, page 82)

I’m no expert on Mexican history, but I’ve learned that the virtual enslavement of the poor on haciendas and elsewhere eventually led to ten years of bloody civil war.  Upstairs at the museum I saw a powerful exhibition entitled “A War Testimony.  Photography of the Mexican Revolution.”  It focused on images of daily life during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) — on photographs of anonymous individuals, particularly women and children, and the terrible trials that they endured (hunger, bombings, forced recruitment, fear, executions) during the war.

This revolution, I learned, established democracy in Mexico and granted land to the peasants who had worked as indentured slaves on the haciendas and elsewhere.

The exhibit ended with a graffiti board that encouraged visitors to write down their own thoughts and impressions for others.  I found it interesting that the horrific images of the past stirred some to protest the United States and the present war on drugs in Mexico.


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The Footsteps of Stephens and Catherwood in the Museo Regional de Yucatán

Why travel in the footsteps of Stephens and Catherwood or anyone else, for that matter?  I think footsteps add historical depth to a journey.  They help us think about the space between the past and the present.

Others have felt the same way.  When we entered the late nineteenth century neo-classical/French baroque Museo Regional de Yucatán, we were greeted by large reproductions of Catherwood’s engravings.  (Indeed, we have found reproductions of the engravings throughout the Yucatán — on restaurant menus, the walls of our hotel rooms, signs at archaeological sites, magnets in gift shops and more).  Everywhere the reproductions take on a different meaning.  In the museum, they remind me of Stephens and Catherwoods’ plans to display the Maya material that they collected in the United States.  Catherwood’s images in the museum resonate with the history of the collection, display, and looting of ancient remains from the Yucatán.

Stephens wrote often about his work collecting Maya objects.  Preparing, storing, packing and shipping pieces of the monuments, he said, was the most arduous task of his journey.  His treasures were destined first for Catherwood’s Panorama on Broadway in New York (a display for tourists that included a ten thousand square foot mural of Jerusalem and another of Thebes!  Catherwood, it seems, earned part of his income from this attraction and another one similar to it in London).  After the exhibition of the objects in New York, Stephens planned to ship them to the National Museum in Washington D.C.

In one passage Stephens recounted how he packed off a rare sculpted beam from Uxmal to the U.S.:

…I had determined not to let the precious beam escape me.   It was ten feet long, one foot nine inches broad, and ten inches thick, of Sapote wood, enormously heavy and unwieldly.  To keep the sculptured side from being chafed and broken, I had it covered with costal or hemp bagging, and stuffed with dry grass to the thickness of six inches.  It left Uxmal on the shoulders of ten Indians, after many vicissitudes reached this city uninjured and was deposited in Mr. Catherwood’s Panorama.

(Stephens, Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán, Volume One, page 103.)

Unfortunately, a fire destroyed Catherwood’s Panorama before Stephens could transfer his Maya treasures to the National Museum.  Stephens laments:

…on the burning of that building…this part of Uxmal was consumed, and with it other beams afterward discovered, much more curious and interesting; as also the whole collection of vases, figures, idols, and other relics gathered upon this journey…if I were to go over the whole ground again, I could not find others equal to them.  I had the melancholy satisfaction of seeing their ashes exactly as the fire had left them.  We seemed doomed to be in the midst of ruins; but in all our explorations there was none so touching as this.

(Stephens, Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán, Volume One, page 103.)

Stephens and Catherwood were the first in a long line of foreign collectors of Maya antiquities.  Many remains from Chichen Itza, for instance, are displayed today in Harvard’s Peabody Museum.  Edward Herbert Thompson, an American who was inspired by Stephens’ books, purchased Chichen Itza in 1904 and subsequently shipped many of his finds to Cambridge.

Unlike the Peabody, the Museo Regional de Yucatán is small.  It opened in 1959 and has seven elegant galleries on the first floor that display a modest collection of Maya material.  Here, I found much that helped fill out the picture of the daily life of the ancient inhabitants of this region: spindle whorls, wooden planting sticks hardened by fire, images of Maya women grinding corn, cocoa beans, red shells and green stone beads used for money, and human bones.

But the museum itself also resonates with more recent history.  Its architecture is colonial; its size speaks eloquently about the movement of Maya artifacts to museums in the United States, Europe, and Mexico City; and its organization attests to the role of archaeology in the creation of knowledge about the Maya past.



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Unadvertised Ritual at Hacienda Chichén Itzá

As we ventured into the “Nature Reserve” on the Hacienda’s grounds we crossed an old road leading to a small hill on top of which perched the Hacienda’s ancient 16th century Catholic chapel. Obviously there had been a fiesta recently, as papel picados (perforated paper flags) were still flying in the wind.

Chapel at Hacienda Chichén ItzáInside the Chapel at the Hacienda

After exploring the chapel, we descended the hill and noticed the remnants of another ritual, perhaps performed by the same people?

Hidden Ceremonies

We investigated the site, noting the “altar” surrounded by four hoops of bamboo decorated with leaves and flowers.  The four torches that marked the perimeter of the site were oriented to the compass directions. The hollow log was a “drum”, and someone had left the “drum sticks” behind, along with gourd containers. I am not quite sure to which religious tradition these ceremonial remains belong, especially since we know the Spa features a syncretized New Age “Maya” tradition.  Ah, if only I had more time!!

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