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  • Carolyn Tate

Ancient Maya city in the modern state of Chiapas, Mexico, which flourished as an important lowland capital c. 300–810 CE. Yaxchilan occupies the hills and riverbank overlooking a great bend in the Usumacinta River. Its eighteen or nineteen rulers perpetuated a 400-year-long rivalry with Piedras Negras, about 48 km downstream, for control of the subsidiary centers and sacred caves of the region. Yaxchilan’s approximately 130 carved monuments include stelae, lintels, altar-pedestals, thrones, circular ballcourt markers, and five grand hieroglyphic stairways. Their texts and images present the broadest range of ritual activities seen at any Maya site. In addition to the variety of sculptural formats and subjects, some of the monuments of Yaxchilan are widely considered to be among the most skillfully designed and carved of Maya art works. And as at many Pre-Columbian centers, its designers created alignments to solar phenomena as they planned specific buildings.

The site became well known following the explorations of Alfred Maudslay, Désiré Charnay, and Teobert Maler, who investigated the ruins at the turn of the 20th century. Since 1975 the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia has cleared much of the site and excavated and consolidated some of its most important buildings, while its sculptured monuments have been recorded by the Peabody Museum of Harvard University. Eighteen of its monuments reside in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City, eight are in the British Museum in London, and lintel 56, for a time in Berlin, was destroyed during World War II. The rest remain at the site, some in their original locations and others buried or in storerooms.

Most of the city extends as a linear chain of plazas, courts, and structures for nearly 1 km along the bank of the river. This area is known as the Great Plaza. Several other groups of structures occupy ridges or hilltops above this lower section; these are called the Central, South, and West Acropolises. Two groups of alignments are prominent: Structures 20, 21, 33, 40, and 41, on elevated ground in various parts of the site, have monuments that refer to royal accession. A person standing in their entryways and looking out faces 50–54 degrees east of north, toward the sunrise on summer solstice. Another series of buildings along the low-lying Great Plaza have walls that point to 118 degrees east of north, toward the winter solstice sunrise. The monuments in these buildings refer to ancestors.

Although the site was inhabited by about 300 CE, early constructions were mostly covered up by the buildings of several Late Classic rulers. By that time, the city’s architects had developed a distinctive building style, of which Structure 33 is a prime example. At the center of the site, the temple is built above a stairway that rises 50 m above the Great Plaza. The facade consisted of three superimposed sections. Its 22.18 m wide lower portion, with undecorated masonry, was pierced by three entryways that defined the central section of the elevation. Above each entry was a sculptured limestone slab serving as a lintel. Each lintel shows two figures engaged in a ritual performance. These scenes commemorate the accession and alliances of Late Classic ruler Bird Jaguar IV and portray his son, who became the next king. The exterior walls tapered slightly inward and were capped by a projecting cornice. Above the cornice, the middle section consisted of a frieze whose slope echoed that of the interior corbel vault that it covered. This frieze was once decorated with over-life-size stucco enthroned figures, one situated over each of the three entryways below. Interlacing among the seated figures were serpentine reliefs in stucco supported by small shelves of stone. Above another, less prominent cornice, the uppermost section of the 12.75 m high building consisted of a corbel-vaulted roofcomb formed of a stone lattice. At the center of this highest layer was an even larger enthroned figure. Unfortunately, most of the stucco decoration is eroded to the point that it is impossible to determine the identities of the figures. This building style, with triple entryways topped by carved lintels, beveled cornices, and insets for tenoned sculptures above the entryways, was adopted by several sites subsidiary to Yaxchilan.

Within Structure 33 was an almost twice life-size statue, one of the few known three-dimensional Maya stone sculptures, presiding on an elevated bench behind the central doorway. On summer solstice the rising sun illuminates this sculpture, identified by a text in the headdress as Shield Jaguar the Great, father of Bird Jaguar IV, the king commemorated in the lintels. Hieroglyphic Stairway 3 stretched below the entryways. Its thirteen vertical slabs illustrate several generations of rulers engaged in playing the sacred ballgame, or contacting ancestors via serpent-monsters. The central and largest slab, erected by Bird Jaguar IV, included a text that commemorated three primordial sacrifices that offered precedents for the rituals of the Yaxchilan dynastic rulers.

While Yaxchilan’s architecture is impressive, it is better known for its carved monuments, especially those of two artistically prolific Late Classic kings, Shield Jaguar the Great (Itzamnaaj Bahlam III, reg. 681–742) and his son, Bird Jaguar IV (reg. 752–768).

Unlike the stelae of Yaxchilan, which showed bloodletting on the period ending on one side and a capture on the other, the scenes on carved lintels were highly innovative. Around 726, when Shield Jaguar erected Structure 44, his “war memorial,” atop the West Acropolis, scenes showing the king in the midst of battle were rare. Lintels 44, 45, and 46, set into the three entryways of the building, show him seizing captives. Texts indicate they were from three small sites presumed to be close to Yaxchilan. In several cases, the texts draw a parallel between Shield Jaguar’s captures and those of his ancestors. Below each lintel were two hieroglyphic steps that illustrated more captives.

Also in 726 was the dedication event (“fire entering”) for a building on the first terrace above the Great Plaza, Structure 23. This is perhaps the only building in Maya history that documents, in four lintels, the deeds of a royal woman. Lady K’abal Xook was the principal wife of Shield Jaguar and the two are portrayed together in the three figural lintels, numbered 24, 25, and 26. The dates recorded on the undersides of the lintels fall in 681 (central lintel, 25), 709 (left of center, 24), and 721 (right, 26). There has been considerable debate about the reading order of this composition. Should we understand it to have a central focus, with the earliest date, corresponding to the accession of Shield Jaguar, as the most important, and the outer two lintels, one of which depicts Lady K’abal Xooc bloodletting on the twenty-eighth anniversary of the King’s accession and the other of which shows her presenting his war costume to Shield Jaguar, as both secondary and complementary? Or should we read it as a sequence of bloodletting (Lintel 24); then the accession scene, which shows Lady Xook kneeling before a “vision” of acentipede-serpentine creature that rises out of a bowl on the ground and emits a fully garbed warrior, who looks very much like Shield Jaguar but is named as a manifestation of the ancestral founder (Lintel 25); then the scene in which she hands her husband his war costume (Lintel 26)? Resolving the issue of reading order of multiple scenes extends to compositions at other sites, including the Proto-Classic murals of San Bartolo and the Late Classic murals of Bonampak.

When Bird Jaguar IV took the throne after the ten-year interregnum, he deployed monumental art, especially carved lintels, as a way to cement alliances with factions within and beyond Yaxchilan. He showed himself engaged in rituals with three wives from other sites and one from Yaxchilan. He also was featured on lintels at La Pasadita, a site on the frontier with the Piedras Negras polity. In fact, so many buildings were erected during his sixteen-year reign that we must question their patronage. Should we assume that the ruler shown on a monument was its patron? Or could the secondary lords featured dancing with the king have dedicated the monuments to indicate their loyalty?

In addition to scenes of tongue bloodletting, capture, fantastic centipede/serpents, and dancing, Yaxchilan featured another unusual subject: the summer solstice ritual that involved a banner with quatrefoil-shaped cutouts. This emphasis on royal intervention with the course of the sun during summer solstice reinforces the ancient name of the site, as recorded by its primary Emblem Glyph, perhaps read Pa’ Chan, “where the base of the sky breaks” or “to dawn.”


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