Bones Abroad: Chichén Itzá in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula

Over the last couple weeks, I had the privilege to travel to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The Yucatan is primarily known for its white beaches, crystal clear turquoise water, and Cancun, the safe haven for Spring Breakers young and old. However, if you venture away from the beach bars and nightclubs, into the jungle and off the beaten path, this region of Mexico has a lot of history and adventure waiting to be explored. This week, I’m going to share some of my favorite mortuary sites and morbid finds from this region so that when you visit, you can also see these amazing sights. I’ve always had a soft spot for Mayan archaeology- it is one of the first regions that got me interested in doing archaeological work, and as an undergraduate I was lucky enough to be able to do a field school on Mayan archaeology and ethnography in this area. If you are looking for adventure in a region with deep history, this is the place for you.


El Castillo at Chichen Itza, taken by Katy Meyers Emery

When you think about Mexico’s Mayan culture and archaeology, you probably think about Chichén Itzá, and specifically the giant temple that looms large over the entire site. Symbols of Chichén Itzá’s primary temple, known as El Castillo- the Spanish for castle, are found on tourist billboards, money, license plates, and it seems to be the unofficial symbol of this region. So today we’re going to talk about this most famous of sites, and dig a little deeper into the mortuary secrets and symbolism.

Chichén Itzá

Chichén Itzá was a major focal point of the Mayan Empire during the the Late Classic and Terminal Classic periods (600-900 CE). It’s architecture is a mix of Central, Northern and Southern Mayan styles, that may indicate there were periods of migration of people or ideas to this site. It is one of the largest Mayan cities, and is one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico. The site was a major economic power during its heyday, and was able to obtain exotic goods from across Central America. The decline of this city in the mid 13th century CE is not well understood, so we do not know if it fell from power, collapsed or was overthrown.

'Skull rack' or Tzompantli at Chichen Itza, taken by Katy Meyers Emery

‘Skull rack’ or Tzompantli at Chichen Itza, taken by Katy Meyers Emery

One of the first things you’ll notice at Chichén Itzá (if you are into mortuary archaeology and death- which I assume you are since you’re still reading this) is the prevalence of imagery relating to death on the walls and structures. While the broader region isn’t known for its depiction of skeletal imagery, Chichén Itzá you can find decapitated heads, skulls, skeletons, and partially skeletal or skull-masked figures depicted in all media from jade to wall paintings. Captors and the captives are shown in groups, and while there isn’t actual depiction of decapitation, the aftermath of this act is seen throughout the site. One of my favorite stone carvings is known as the ‘skull rack’ or tzompantli, and displays 2,400 skulls laid out horizontally along the structure. Actual skeletal material was found within the structure, further showing its importance and dedication. Within other temples and structures there are depictions of people with skeletal heads, skull and bone costumes, skull masks and bone imagery. The ball-court has dozens of these types of images across its panels- though you’ll need to look carefully to find them (For a fantastic discussion of Mayan skeletal art and symbolism, read Miller 2007).

While you can’t actually see the actual human remains found at the site, there have been numerous burials, deposits and caches of human skeletal material found across Chichén Itzá. Across the site, whole skeletons, headless skeletons, decapitated skulls, and individual bones have been found in a wide variety of contexts at this site, and range from individual to group burials to caches of random skeletal material. Caches of human bone have been found scattered across the site and located within portions of the buildings. In the Nunnery building, there were offerings of almost 40 skulls found within the structure. The Platform of the Tombs had 12 individuals laid to rest in two tombs, and burials were found under the Osario. Underneath El Castillo, archaeologists found a male skeleton accompanied by a cylindrical stone vessel, wooden disks encrusted with turquoise, coral, and shell, two large flint blades, 2,000 turquoise beads, and a number of jade objects. Overall, the burials found seem to be offerings or dedications to the construction of the associated building.

Skull being used as a ball in the ball court at Chichen Itza, taken by Katy Meyers Emery

Skull being used as a ball in the ball court at Chichen Itza, taken by Katy Meyers Emery

While display of human remains either as bones or in imagery is not new- people have been displaying their military prowess and victory over enemies in this type of way for thousands of years, Chichén Itzá is a unique site in the sheer number of skulls and skeletal figures represented on a large scale in public places, and is one of the first Mesoamerican city to create a permanent, decorated structure for the display of human bones. This type of display however doesn’t necessarily reflect a high number of sacrifices or violence. Miller (2007) argues that it may instead be a representation of the collective power of the people who lived here, and perhaps a warning to visitors to this region of the potential outcome they may face if they try to attack the city.

Tips for Visiting Chichén Itzá

  1. Bring your own bottled water so you don’t have to buy it at the site, Bring sunscreen- most of the site isn’t covered by trees and it gets really hot, and Bring a snack- after a few hours walking in the hot sun, you’ll want something to nibble on.
  2. Tour guides are available to help you out, but they vary highly on how much they know and how accurate it is. Last time I used a tour guide he was positive that El Castillo was created with the help of aliens…
  3. Get a map of the site- there are so many amazing things that are off the beaten path at this site like the cenote, the Observatory and the Nunnery. You’ll want a map so you don’t miss them!
  4. Have money for tips in case you do end up using a guide!

Works Cited

Miller 2007. Skeletons, Skulls, and Bones in the Art of Chichén Itzá. In New Perspectives on Human Sacrifice and Ritual Body Treatments in Ancient Maya Society. Tiesler and Cucina, eds. Springer.

3 responses to “Bones Abroad: Chichén Itzá in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula

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