The discovery of a lost Mayan city named by archaeologists as Chactún in the Biosphere Reserve of Calakmul, Mexico, adds to the nearly 20 major centres so far located by the Archaeological Survey Project in Southeast Campeche, including the city of Uxul.
View of structure 1-A at the archaeological site of Cheyokolnah. Image: INAH
Searching for cities
Dr. Ivan Sprajc, leader of the survey team, and Nikolai Grube, the project epigraphist, have been working in this archaeologically under-researched area of Mayan culture for 15 years. The work has been supported from its inception in 1996 by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) to help slowly fill gaps in the understanding of the ancient Maya.
The study which took place between 1996 and 2007 covered the southern part of the uninhabited Calakmul Biosphere, covering an area of circa 4,000 km2 and a strip zone southeast of Campeche, to the south of the town of Xpujil to the border with Guatemala and the border with Quintana Roo and Belize, measuring between 17 and 35 kilometres wide.
The survey was recently extended to the north, an area that was a key intermediary in the interaction between two regional power centres. It was here in June they discovered Chactún, a city site that covers more than 22 hectares.
Looking south along the hallway of Structure V at Balakbal archaeological Site. Image: INAH
An impressive list of sites
Chactún was added to a list of impressive city sites all named by the team as Altamira, Altar of Kings, Balakbal, Calakmul, Champerico, Two Gouache, The Chicken Coop, El Palmar, The Doll, The Scorpions, Los Angeles, Mucaancah, Oxpemul, Uxul, Yaxnohcah, Los Hornos and Uitzilná.
Guided by reports published in 1943 by Karl Ruppert and John Denison Jr., the locations of these forgotten sites were soon detected by the new generation of archaeologists.
The sites have now been mapped using the latest technologies. The dense jungle smothers the true size and layout of these prehispanic cities making them look like nothing more than mounds before they are laid out in a digital 3d plan.
3D model of Uitzilná city viewed to the west. Made by Ales Atasta Marsetic and Flores. Image: INAH
The monumental architecture of all urban sites in the survey area includes a combination of pyramidal structures with predominantly religious functions, and more complex structures in a variety of settings, which can be classified as administrative buildings and residences of high rank. In both types of architecture can be found burials say the archaeologists.
The archaeological map of southeastern Campeche has now taken shape and so far includes 18 major and a similar number of lesser monumental sites. There are also a dozen small sites and scores of minor settlement areas, providing a fuller picture of how it would have looked during the Maya period.
Ceramics allowed the archaeologists to assign approximate dates of occupation and abandonment, showing the number of settlements grew significantly during the Classic period, between 250 and 900 CE.
Linked with Petén culture
Sprajc, from the Scientific Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, suggests that southeastern Campeche was linked with the Petén culture – as demonstrated by the similarities in architecture, such as the triadic configuration buildings.
“Now, in light of the data we have obtained, it is clear that the construction of the architectural complexes of this type was widespread in southeastern Campeche, where previously their presence was documented only in Calakmul, before our explorations” says Sprajc.
Also, the ball game courts that have been found in some higher-ranking sites, including Mucaancah, Oxpemul, Uxul and Chactún, which also have inscribed monuments, confirm a higher level of status compared to other settlements.
Stela 18 at the site of Oxpemul. Image: INAH
Glyphic inscriptions allowed Nikolai Grube, who directs the excavations at Uxul, to show an important link between this city and Calakmul. The story and interactions are beginning to come to light, allowing an enriched picture of Maya life.
Sprajc and Grube both agree that it is necessary to continue surface surveys in areas that remain unknown to archaeology, in order to rescue valuable information which is being lost or threatened by natural processes and man-made damage.