Acanceh is a small town located in the Mexican state of Yucatan, situated 21 km from Mérida.
The population of Acanceh is almost solely Maya, with the Mayan language predominantly spoken.
Acanceh represents an interesting contrast – a town square with a Mayan pyramid on one side, and a catholic church across from it. Acanceh is unique in its integration of the modern town and the remains of its ancient past.
For example, next to the Acanceh pyramid, there is a grocery store, a bakery, several lots, and even an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting place. The Palace of the Stuccos is surrounded by private property where washing lines are not an uncommon sight.
The central plaza is buzzing with activity. The ancient pyramid is an odd sight on the edge of the plaza, but a refreshing one.
In Acanceh, more than in other places, you can really sense the pride that locals have for their wondrous Maya heritage.
A striking recent discovery is the fact that Acanceh seems to have always been the name of this place, as proven by an ancient hieroglyphic text found in the town and only recently read by epigraphers.
The word “Acanceh” means “Lament (groan) of the Deer” in the Yucatec Maya language.
The history of Acanceh is not well known.
There are no known stelae or other glyphic inscriptions that can help identify its rulers or associations with other city-states. What is known of its time frame has been deduced from the examination of pottery fragments, burials, and architectural styles.
Archaeologists and researchers have made associations with the central Mexican highlands (Tikal and Dzibilchaltun). Being so near to Merida, ancient T’Ho, it is hard not to imagine a relationship with that site as well.
Acanceh, unlike most others, was never fully abandoned as it is mentioned in a number of 16th and 17th-century sources.
The site of Acanceh was never fully abandoned, as it has been uninterruptedly occupied since the Preclassic until the present.
Acanceh was founded sometime between 300 and 500, during the Early Classic period. The city was founded by the Itza people.
The first mention of Acanceh from an archaeological perspective was made by the French explorer-photographer Desiré Charnay in 1888, who spoke of structures built with finely carved blocks, not unlike other Maya buildings in the area.
Adela Breton visited the site in 1908 and painted a full-size color copy of the famous frieze at the Palace of the Stuccoes.
Teobert Maler also visited in 1908 and took several photos of the frieze which have been of great value in helping to understand the composition and nature of the frieze which has since dramatically deteriorated.
There followed Edward Seler 1911, T.A. Willard 1928, Miguel Fernandez 1933, George Brainerd 1958, and Andrews IV 1965, among others.
The first archaeological work to have ever taken place in this old town was done by Austrian explorer-photographer Teobert Maler, who reported a mound of loose stone in the town’s main square, underneath which he found remains of a once-vaulted chamber as well as stucco masks.
Nevertheless, Maler did not consolidate the building. It is important to mention that Maler also photographed the unusual and fascinating stucco reliefs for which the Palace of the Stuccos, the second major structure in Acanceh, is named.
By 1933, when Mexican scholar Miguel Angel Fernández worked at the site, he noted that the decoration reported by Maler was all but gone. Nevertheless, through the use of what remained and Maler’s photographs, he was able to draw a reconstruction of the building prior to consolidating it.
It turned out that the building was of a typical early (Late Preclassic to Early Classic) Petén configuration known as a radial pyramid: one that is basically square and has staircases oriented towards all four cardinal directions.
The loose stone, however, points to the fact that there once was a later construction covering the early building visitors see today.
INAH began consolidations and restorations in 1996 which continue to the present time.
Very recently, Acanceh was the focus of a major archaeological effort, conducted by Beatriz Quintal.
Quintal’s project uncovered a great deal of the hitherto unexcavated Palace of the Stuccos, brought to light a previously ignored but substantial pyramidal building in the town, and found four spectacular giant stucco masks on the main temple’s eastern, western and northern façades.
Judging from the style of the large masks, the building may have well been built in the Late Preclassic, marking Acanceh as an important urban center as early as some 2,000 years ago.
Quintal’s project also included a general survey of the ancient town, which determined the existence of a minimum of 160 structures spread over an area of more than two square kilometers.
This ancient Maya city covered more than 4 square kilometers and had about 400 buildings. Three of these buildings have been restored and are open to the public, although recent excavations have uncovered more structures.
Archaeologists date the ruins of Acanceh to 300 CE and the dawn of the Classic Era. At this stage in Maya history, the great cities were much farther south in Guatemala and the Chiapas region of Mexico.
There’s a reason to suspect that Acanceh wasn’t even founded by the Maya – its oldest carvings are evocative of Teotihuacan, a powerful empire from northern Mexico.
In a rare juxtaposition of the pre- and post-Columbian religions, Acanceh’s central pyramid is found right across from the town cathedral.
The main pyramid of Acanceh
The main pyramid fronts on the north side of the plaza in the center of the modern town.
Mayan structures in populated towns were almost always demolished by Spaniards so that their stones could be used as material for the new churches, but Acanceh’s pyramid was allowed to survive.
It was first unearthed and explored by Teobert Maler in 1908.
The base measures about 30 meters square, and the height has been calculated at about 11 meters. It has rounded, inset corners, apron moldings, and recessed stairways.
An early sub-structure exhibiting large sun-god masks of K’inich Ahau has been uncovered near the top of the pyramid. Two masks flank each of the four main stairways and were originally painted red.
Though vandalized, they are still very impressive and resemble very closely those found at the site of Kohunlich 272 km to the south, and at Izamal just to the north.
On the east side of the substructure a smaller, inset stairway leads up to an inner chamber. A burial was discovered under the chamber floor which held the remains of a male and female, presumably of noble lineage.
What is really striking here is that there is a fair amount of original smooth stucco remaining on the pyramid surface, especially the inner stairway, which helps to show how these structures looked in their finished state when actually in use.
The sub-structure has been dated to the Late Pre-Classic (300 B.C.-200 A.D.).
The upper portion of the pyramid was once protected by a thatch roof. Unfortunately during a town celebration a few years back fireworks set the thatch ablaze resulting in damage to some of the stucco decorations.
These were restored, and a metal roof was installed in its place.
Four-tiered pyramidal structure
Behind the main pyramid is a four-tiered pyramidal structure, Structure 1B.
Structure 1B is just to the northeast of the main pyramid with which it forms a courtyard. It is smaller, about 4.5 meters in height, and has centrally positioned south and north-facing stairways. A ruined masonry chamber crowns the summit.
A third pyramid that surrounded the plaza was reported on by Desire Charnay in 188 but was dismantled to build the local train station. No drawings or information on this structure survives.
The other significant structural complex to be seen is the Acropolis. This is a massive platform supporting the remains of numerous buildings. It measures roughly 50 meters square with a height of 8 meters.
Early reports mention structures with interior chambers that once depicted now lost painted murals.
Palace of the Stuccoes
The most significant structure is the Palace of the Stuccoes. This building, containing four vaulted rooms, was unearthed in 1906 by local residents quarrying the site for building materials.
This practice, unfortunately, has been going on for centuries, and many sites have been severely disturbed while others completely destroyed and their history lost.
Contained on the upper north-facing facade of this structure is a magnificent stucco frieze, both in style and theme.
It exhibits a fabulous display of intricately molded stuccoed deities, animals, and birds, either in natural or anthropomorphic form and all once brightly colored. It measures about 2 meters in height by 415 meters in length.
At the time of its discovery, there were 20 figures identified with an additional one thought destroyed. It was divided into two rows, painted in brilliant colors, and in near-perfect condition.
Through neglect and vandalism, it is now a pale shadow of its former self with many of the figures obliterated.
The frieze was first reported on by Adela Briton in 1908. Her colored paintings, and the photos taken by Teobert Maler later that year, are the best-known resources for interpretation.
The frieze is flanked by two large anthropomorphic birds whose wings contain flaked limestone chips embedded into the stucco to simulate feathers.
A series of 21 (possibly more) cartouches are divided in a staggered fashion into two registers.
The upper register shows mostly birds and animals that either fly or live in treetops, while the lower register exhibits terrestrial animals. Two individuals interspace the scene which has both an upper and lower border.
The upper border displays Central Mexican water/rain symbols, while the lower border may exhibit astronomical symbols. On the lower register, a squirrel that is depicted is very similar to one seen on the beautiful frieze located at Balam Ku.
One can only imagine how incredible this may have looked in its entirety if the frieze continued around the structure as some have suggested.
The frieze has baffled archaeologists as to just what it may represent. Some believe it could have astronomical connotations relating to the Zodiac. Others think that the figures may represent spirit companions, or that it is a depiction related to the Underworld.
A small structural group has recently received some attention. Structure 6 has been deemed an underground observatory, and dates to the Early Classic Period (200-600 A.D.).
The semi-circular structure is set within a raised platform base, though the observatory chamber itself does not penetrate below ground level. During the equinox, the Sun enters through an opening in the stone roof and displays no shadow to those gathered below.
The Parroquia de Nuestra Senora de la Natividad dates to the 16th Century and is currently painted a brilliant yellow.
The contrast of the yellow, along with the day’s deep blue sky, made for some beautiful pictures.
The interior of the church is quite austere, as is typical in the smaller Yucatecan churches.
This is a very simple chapel accessed by a series of steps. Inside there are a few pews and a framed picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The chapel dates to the 16th century.
Archaeologists working at the Mayan site of Acanceh in the Yucatan have unearthed a building that was used as an observatory by ancient priests during the Early Classic period (CE 300-600).
One of the oldest observatories found to date, the semi-circular structure is aligned with the sun and Venus, a planet of immense symbolism for the Maya.
The archaeologists discovered that when Venus reaches its maximum brilliance in the north every 584 days the building’s alignment marks the planet’s location with light and shadows on the southern wall.
It also records the moment when the sun reaches its zenith and shadows disappear for a short time.
During the spring and autumn equinoxes in March and September, the setting sun is visible through the two doorways of the observatory and the rays also hit the Pyramid of the Masks, the largest and most important building in Acanceh.
Five masks on the Pyramid façade portray Kinich Ahau, the sun god, reinforcing the temple’s symbolism.
The easiest and cheapest way is to take a second-class bus from the Merida bus station.
You can also take a “collectivo” from Mérida to Acanceh.
Or just take a taxi from Merida to Acanceh (0:30 min).
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