Located in Mexico’s modern-day state of Yucatan, Uxmal was a Late and Terminal Classic Maya center with considerable political and economic clout. The name Uxmal is thought to derive from Yucatec Maya, and roughly translates as “thrice built.” Given its history and spectacular architecture, Uxmal is well named.
Archaeological excavations at Uxmal have been minimal, but consolidation of structures in the urban core has shed light upon the center’s later history. Little is known about the earliest occupation of Uxmal, ca. 600-300 BC. However, the last major building episodes-and the ones that are presently visible on the surface—date to the ninth century, and indicate that the center reached its apogee during this time. With the demise of Maya centers in the southern and central lowlands, sites in the northern lowlands, such as Uxmal, flourished during the Late and Terminal Classic periods (ca. AD 600-1000). Evidence of increased building activities and expansion of trade networks testify that Uxmal was an important urban center. By AD 1000, the city was abandoned for reasons that are poorly understood, but may be connected to Chichen Itza to the east and the rise of the Itza, a Maya group who wielded considerable influence in the Postclassic Maya world. Nonetheless, religious pilgrims periodically visited Uxmal over the next three centuries.
Uxmal is best known for its distinctive Puuc-Chenes architectural style. Puuc style buildings are visible on the surface today, and date to the late and terminal classic periods. Chenes style buildings, entombed within Puuc architecture, represent earlier construction phases. Chenes buildings are low-lying and rectangular in shape; they are commonly found at Maya sites throughout the central lowlands of northern Guatemala (the Peten), and southern lowland sites near the Usumacinta River, which forms the Guatemala-Mexico border. Named for the low range of hills that crosses the northern Yucatan, the Puuc style of architecture has several distinguishing features. Stone masonry was fine cut with no mortar. Sculpture and mosaics were concentrated on structures’ upper façades. Buildings were vaulted, and had corbelled doorways and roofcombs. Certain structures were oriented with respect to astronomical and solar events. Notable and visually stunning buildings at the site include the House of the Governor, Nunnery Quadrangle, and House of the Magician. In particular, the House of the Governor is an impressive low-lying “palace” situated on an artificial platform. The building served as an elite residence and administrative center. Intricate masonry work depicts the rain god Chac, serpents, netted motifs, and astronomical symbols. It is likely that the structure was built to commemorate Lord Chac, one of the last reigning rulers. The seated human sculpture that hangs above the central doorway may in fact represent the ruler.
In his wanderings throughout Central America, 19th-century explorer John Lloyd Stephens offered a detailed description of the center’s “magnificent” and “lofty” edifices. In 1996, UNESCO inscribed Uxmal as a World Heritage Site, as its ceremonial structures “represent the pinnacle of late Mayan art and architecture in design, layout, and ornamentation.” A visual and political force to be reckoned with in its heyday, Uxmal today remains a prominent and striking marker of national identity.
- Kowalski, J. K. (1987). The house of the governor. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
- Miller, M. E.. (1996). The art of Mesoamerica. New York: Thames and Hudson.
- Sharer, R. J. (1994). The ancient Maya. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.