Chichen Itza: Archaeological Paradise

Chichen Itza or as the Yucatec Maya called it Ch’iich’en itzam,[1] is one of the most well-known ancient Maya cities in the world. Labeled as one of the 7 wonders of the world by UNESCO, Chichen Itza is one of the most visited tourist attractions in all of Mexico. Outside of being a major tourist spot, Chichen Itza is a major archaeological site with many mysteries yet to be solved. The name Chichen Itza is the Spanish name for the archaeological site and translates to ‘En la boca del pozo de los itzaes’[2] or “At the mouth of the well of the Itza” in English. The site is home to El Castillo de Kukulkan, El Caracol, the Sacred Cenote, and The Great Ball Court, just to name a few. Archaeology and astroarchaeology have helped us understand the Maya people better through studies of building arrangements across Chichen, the function of the Sacred Cenote, and what ultimately caused the fall of the city-state.

Chichen Itza is a place full of mystery, but archaeology has aided us in obtaining a better understanding of the life the Itza people had in the pre-Hispanic city-state. More specifically, the field of astroarchaeology has helped in decoding many of its secrets. The Maya are revered for their calendar and how accurate it is when compared to the Gregorian calendar that is used presently. The existence of the calendar helps demonstrate the important role astronomy played in the daily life of the Maya. The Maya used astronomy to set farming and harvesting times of the year. El Castillo consists of 365 steps on each side, the same number of days in the Haab (the Maya solar calendar).[3] Aside from the Haab, the Maya had two more calendars, the 260-day calendar Tzolk’in and the Long Count.[4] While the calendars weren’t created by the Maya in Chichen Itza, they played a major role in the development of the city when it came to the layout of the buildings across Chichen Itza.[5]

Additionally, the Maya also arranged their buildings in specific orientations that depended on the rising and setting of the Sun along with certain star alignments. By studying the arrangement of civil and festive buildings, they were arranged from east to west.[6] This shows that virtually any building in ancient Maya cities had an astronomical function tied to them. This orientation in buildings is what allows the descending snake shadow to be seen from El Castillo as the Sun begins to set on the archaeological site during the spring and fall equinoxes. The arrangement of buildings within Chichen Itza has been observed to have different intervals between their construction of one another from east to west of approximately 13 or 20 days.[7] These intervals have connections back to the agricultural cycles the Maya observed in the ancient city. By having these specific intervals, the Maya understood the time of the year and what food needed to be planted and harvested. By observing the eastern horizon, it could be concluded what time of the year defined the Maya agricultural cycle in Chichen (in this case the months were February and October-November). While the western horizon defined April and May as the burning and planting seasons.[8] This is all an ingenious way to keep track of time and develop a system to maximize system resources.

Furthermore, the 13- and 20-day intervals between building construction not only functioned for the agricultural cycle but also correlate with different significant religious periods of the 260-day Tzolk’ in the religious calendar.[9] By designing this kind of lifestyle, the Maya were able to predict rituals or agricultural practices ahead of time with the limited impact of minor obstructions, such as a cloudy day, if it were to present itself.

Within Chichen Itza, there are two major cenotes in the area. The Sacred Cenote where the Maya sacrificed people to the gods and another where the Itza people would collect water for drinking and agricultural work. There is evidence using geolocation that a hidden cenote could be hidden underneath El Castillo, but not much research has been done on the matter regarding this hidden cenote. Located 300 miles north of the civic center of Chichen, the cenote, the Spanish word for sinkhole, has a diameter of 60m and a maximum water depth of 14m.[10] Even after Spanish colonization, the cenote was a popular pilgrimage location for the Maya. Sacrifices in the cenote ranged from jewelry, pottery, and human bodies. The recovered items later revealed a layer of blue tint that used to be coated on the sacrificial items as noted by Bishop Diego De Landa.[11] Analysis and study of the remains help understand how Chichen Itza was well renowned in Mesoamerica as a pilgrimage site. The isotope analysis helped discover that outsiders of the city were sacrificed into the cenote at some point.[12] This demonstrates that Chichen had active migration patterns or was a pivotal trade contributor in Mesoamerica with Central Mexican tribes and other Lowland or Highland Maya tribes in present-day Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize.

The connection of certain foreign bodies within the sacred cenote having traits to those of Central Mexican tribes can also help understand why certain architectural designs with Chichen Itza differ from other Maya cities. It is disputed that there could’ve been a Chichen Itza ruled over by Central Mexican tribes.[13] While the evidence is limited because of the lack of writings and dates, analyzing certain structures in the northeastern portions of Chichen have a resemblance to the Toltec capital of Tula.[14] This can also explain how the feathered serpent god Kukulkan is absent at older Maya sites like Palenque, located in modern-day Chiapas, but is present in the Yucatan peninsula. Another point to consider is the similarities between Kukulkan and the central Mexican tribe god Quetzalcoatl. Furthermore, the big issue is the lack of period end dates in the Terminal Classic structures of Chichen.[15] The lack of dates makes it hard to pinpoint transition periods of the city-state and potential conquests by other tribes.

Ultimately, everything must come to an end and that was no different for Chichen Itza. A common misconception regarding the Maya spread in early childhood education is that the Maya just suddenly vanished without leaving a trace. That can’t be further from the truth. As shown by the writings of Bishop De Landa in the 16th century or by visiting the Yucatan Peninsula in the modern-day, the descendants of the Maya people are alive and well. Archaeological records also show how Chichen Itza was also experiencing its highest point of growth during the Terminal Classical period, but ultimately collapsed at the end of the 11th century. The cause is unprecedented climate change in the Yucatan Peninsula resulting in long and recurring droughts in Chichen Itza.[16]

The area where Chichen Itza is located within the Yucatan Peninsula lacks rivers in the area.[17] This is crucial in understanding why cenotes and constant predictable rainfall were a must for Chichen Itza to exist and how detrimental long droughts can be. Unlike neighboring Uxmal, Chichen had more stable water supplies and was able to hold on longer but ultimately collapsed by the latter half of the 11th century.[18] These stable water supplies also helped in understanding the transformation of Chichen following its collapse. Measurements of the limestone shelf of the Holtun cenote help picture the different time periods of drought and how the rain returned to the area several years later. Aside from the limestone shelf dating, the cenote has a collection of remains from sacrifices that could only have been placed when the water was below the shelf.[19] This evidence aids in understanding the transformation Chichen experienced in its later years. Even though the rain returned, the Itza left to find a new home. They were left dumbfounded and unable to think of a solution regarding the ever-changing and unpredictable way the Earth’s climate changes. While people occasionally visited Chichen Itza on pilgrimages and continued to sacrifice things in the cenotes, the city was never rebuilt.[20]

While the mysteries at Chichen Itza continue and will remain an enigma of the past, archaeology and astroarchaeology have aided in our understanding of this magnificent ancient city. From the architectural arrangements of structures aligning with the east and west and different calendar intervals to understanding the role Chichen Itza played as a potential religious and trade hub and its final collapse, we slowly build a better concept of what Chichen Itza truly once was.