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Site name: Yaxchilan Site volume and author reference
Location and Access
Principal Investigations
Notes on the Ruins
References Cited
 

Usumacinta, La Ville Lorillard, Menché Tinamit, Lorillard City, Menché, Lorillard Town.

LOCATION AND ACCESS:

The Usumacinta River, in its middle reaches, runs in a bed that is cut deeply into hilly terrain and follows a fairly straight northwesterly course toward the Gulf of Mexico. In two places, however, the river has been forced into detours having the form of great loops, both of them, as it happens, destined to have important ceremonial centers built upon their banks. On the right bank of one lies Piedras Negras, while on the other, about 50 km upstream and halfway around the more perfectly formed of the two loops, lies Yaxchilan. The smoothly curving course of this loop traces the form of a capital omega, its neck no more than 500 m across, its diameter about 3.5 km.

In this region the river flows, for the most part, between sandy terraces of varying width, but on the order of 100 m wide, at the back of which rise up escarpments or irregular masses of karst- formation hills. It is along a stretch of such a terrace, about 1 km in length, and on the ledges and prominences overlooking it, that Yaxchilan was built.

Until recently, access to Yaxchilan had not been easy. The river, it is true, does provide a year- round means of communication, but only in the upstream direction. Passage in a dugout canoe through the rapids of Anaite, about 20 km downstream, and through other rapids at about the same distance farther on, between El Cayo and Piedras Negras, is at best unnerving; at other times, when the level of the river is not propitious, the journey cannot be recommended at all. Rapids below the Piedras Negras make the journey onward to Tenosique impossible at all times.

Upstream, it is a two- day journey (except by speedboat) to Sayaxche, and an expert boatman who knows all the shadows and rocky snags must be employed.

Until recently the only overland route in regular use, since mahogany- cutting along the river began more than a century ago, had been through Guatemalan territory on the other side of the river, passing through Macabilero, Piedras Negras, and Tres Champas, crossing the border there and proceeding to Tenosique. It is a four- day walk.

Since 1974, however, motor vehicles have been reaching the riverbank opposite Yaxchilan over a track that starts at Paso Subin, a settlement on the road between Flores and Sayaxche. The track was seldom passable, but now, at the time of writing, it is being improved.


Yaxchilan may also be reached by light plane. The landing strip is on the terrace west of Structure 81.

 

PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATIONS AT THE SITE:

The existence of the ruins now called Yaxchilan seems to have been known, at least by vague report, among Mexican settlers in the lower Usumacinta drainage since the early nineteenth century. What may be the first published expression of those rumors was made in 1833 by Juan Galindo in his report on the Pasion and Usumacinta rivers. “Within an extensive cave on the left bank,” he wrote, “are some extraordinary and extensive ruins; and somewhat lower down the stream there is a remarkable monumental stone, with characters” (Galindo 1833, p. 60). As this section of Galindo’s report seems not to have been based on his own observations, one may perhaps speculate that the word curva, in notes written by an informant, was misread by him as cueva. The “remarkable monumental stone” could well have been at El Cayo.

The first visitor to Yaxchilan coming with an educated eye was undoubtedly Edwin Rockstroh, an instructor at the Colegio Nacional, Guatemala City. At some time after his visit in 1881 he evidently wrote an account of the site (Maudslay 1889- 1902, vol. 5, p. 40). As is mentioned in the text on Lintel 24 (page 3:54), Rockstroh attempted to carry that lintel away. He also, according to Maudslay’s friend Joyce, “give [the site] the name Menché after the eponymous ancestor, Bol Menché, of the local Maya inhabitants. Maudslay naturally adopted the name” (Joyce 1923, p. 42n).

After hearing about the ruins from Rockstroh, Alfred Maudslay made a detour from his route to Tikal to see them. During his week’s stay there, by extraordinary coincidence, he was joined by Désiré Charnay, who had come from the opposite direction. Before the end of that year, 1882, Maudslay had read a paper in which his discoveries were briefly described (Maudslay 1883), the ruins being there referred to simply as “Usumacinta”; perhaps at the time of their meeting Rockstroh had not yet decided on the name Menché, or Menché Tinamit.

The various apellations by which Charnay chose to dignify at once the ruins and his patron were: La Ville Lorillard, Villa Lorillard, and in the English version of his book, Lorillard Town and Lorillard City (Charnay 1885).

An important consequence of Maudslay’s meeting with Charnay was that he learned from the latter the technique of making paper molds. In 1886 Maudslay sent his assistant Gorgonio López back to Yaxchilan to make molds by this process and to remove certain lintels, under a permit granted by the Government of Guatemala, within the borders of which the ruins were considered at that time to lie. These pieces were sent to London, and are now in the British Museum.

There is one exception: the front edge of one lintel was sent by mistake to Berlin. Maudslay published a photograph of a cast of this piece (Maudslay 1889- 1902, vol. 2, pl. 98). Its provenience has never been known. In a letter to C.P. Bowditch from Merida, October 3, 1903, (Peabody Museum Archives), Maler attributed this lintel, which he designated as Lintel 47, to the central doorway of Structure 9, but it is clear that the stone shaft he saw was really Stela 27. I, however, found a lintel with its front edge cut off lying between Structures 74 and 11. The dimensions of the sawn face correspond with those of the plaster cast (the original was destroyed during World War II). The exact position of the lintel was not recorded, but I remember it as lying close to the northeast corner of Structure 74. However, it is probable that it came from Structure 11; a note on a manuscript version of Maudslay’s site plan (British Museum, Dept. of Ethnography) refers to House C (Structure 11) as a “much ruined house, 2 lintels in position with hieroglyphs.” At the time of writing, there is no means of determining which doorway in the building it came from, so that its placing in the site plan given here is arbitrary. Its designation as Lintel 56 is due to Morley.

The most extensive report on Yaxchilan is that of Teobert Maler. Following a brief visit in 1895, Maler returned to the ruins in 1897, spending the months of July and August digging out fallen stelae and lintels and photographing them. On this visit he discovered Structures 39- 41. Maler’s work was completed during the months of January to March 1900, while he was working under the auspices of the Peabody Museum. In addition to photographs, Maler took a number of paper molds during that visit, the casts from which are in the Peabody Museum; unfortunately they do not show fine detail. Maler’s report, with its superb photographs, was published three years later (Maler 1903).

Unwilling to adopt the name used by Maudlay for the ruins, Maler devised another: Yaxchilan Xlabpak (letter to Bowditch, May 11, 1897, Peabody Museum Archives), the “Xlabpak” being later, and rather mercifully, dropped. Maler admittedly had grounds for rejecting the linguistically hybrid combination of Menché with Tinamit (Maudslay, it may be noted, never wrote “Menché Tinamit” in his text; his only use of it was on his site plan), but “Yaxchilan” is no less objectionable, and should never have been adopted.

Morley paid two brief visits to Yaxchilan in 1914, and a third lasting a month in April- May 1931, when several new inscriptions were recorded. During this third sojourn he was accompanied by Karl Ruppert and John Bolles, the latter being responsible for surveying the ruins to produce the plan published by Morley (1937- 38, vol. 5, pl. 201).


Linton Satterthwaite spent a week working at Yaxchilan in 1934, and two weeks in 1935, when he discovered Lintels 57, 58, and 59.

A more detailed account of investigations at Yaxchilan by those already mentioned, and by others, is given by Morley (ibid., vol. 2, pp. 342- 344). Doubt, however, may be cast on his view that “the first European known to have visited the site would seem to have been the Maestro de Campo Jacobo de Alçayaga,” in 1696. Morley writes that Alçayaga and his party left Dolores and set off down the Lacantun River in fifteen large canoes, traveling “downstream to the confluence of the Lacantun and the Usumacinta, and then probably down the latter for some 550 km (140 leagues) in a vain search for Lake Peten Itza. While exploring the banks of the Usumacinta, they discovered Yaxchilan”; Villagutierre’s account of the soldiers’ coming upon ancient ruins near the river is then quoted. The chief difficulty with this is that Villagutierre expressly states that from the mouth of the Lacantun the flotilla went upstream (Villagutierre 1701, p. 362).

For three decades after the work of Morley and Satterthwaite, nothing worthy of note occurred at Yaxchilan, other than the steady erosion of sculptures that now lay exposed for the first time to rain and moss. Photographs show, for example, that in 1931 the design on one side of the large lowermost fragment of Stela 7 was still in excellent condition, although the design on the other side was almost obliterated; by 1970 both sides were almost equally eroded.

An aspect that more than counterbalanced the neglect of conservation during this period was the nearly total absence of looting. This was due to the wise decision of the Mexican authorities to install a guardian, Ulíses de la Cruz, some of whose sons and grandsons have followed in his footsteps. While I cannot claim to have inventoried the sculpture yet, I know of only one significant (and lamentable) loss: the upper step from the central doorway of Structure 44.

In 1966, a number of stelae and lintels were transported by boat to Agua Azul, and thence by air to Mexico City, for installation in the new Museo Nacional de Antropología. Among the pieces removed was Stela 11, which was found, upon delivery at Agua Azul, to be too large and too heavy for the aircraft. It was later brought back to Yaxchilan by Gertrude Duby de Blom, and is lying at present under a protective roof to the east of Structure 5.

In 1973, a program of restoration at Yaxchilan was initiated by the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, with Roberto García Mol appointed field director the following year. At the time of writing, Structures 6, 19, and 33 have been consolidated; excavation in front of Structure 33 has revealed a step composed of thirteen carved blocks, designated HS2 in the present work; the well- preserved lower portion of the incised stalactite noticed by Maler in front of the same structure was also found, and is designated as Stela 31; and the carved altar on the north side of Stela 3, shown by Maler on his plan and in his figure 46c, but apparently not seen by Morley, has come to light. It is here designated as Altar 22.

One sculpture ascribed to this site must be rejected the so- called Yaxchilan Lintel 60 (Barthel 1966). This lintel can instead be confidently attributed to a small site named La Pasadita, situated to the north of Yaxchilan, in Guatemalan territory.

My work of recording the sculpture of Yaxchilan has been carried out during numerous short visits, from 1970 onward.

 

NOTES ON THE RUINS:

For a general description of the ruins, the reader is referred to the rather detailed account of Bolles (Morley 1937- 38, vol. 2, pp. 351- 360).

 

A NOTE ON THE PLAN OF THE RUINS:

The site plan provided in this volume has been copied from that published by Morley (1937- 38, vol. 5, pl. 201), which is based on the survey by Bolles. Small changes have been made, several of them in accordance with data incorporated by Morley in his great work subsequent to the drafting of the plan.

Morley’s separate symbols for sculptured and unsculptured altars have been retained, even though the latter is identical with the symbol for chultun given in volume 1, appendix B, of the Corpus (there are in fact no chultuns at Yaxchilan). The manner of representing buildings, and lintels in them, is likewise not in accord with those given in the same place.

The plain altars have not been given numbers, but the one plain stela has been designated as Stela 32.

On top of the famous masonry “pier” constructed on the rocky edge of the river’s central channel there lies a slab which may well have been an altar. It is not, however, marked as such on the plan.
It is hoped that before very long a new survey will be undertaken, so that a more detailed plan can be issued with a later section of this work.

 

NOTES:

1. Although in this work stelae are generally treated before lintels, practical considerations here require their relegation to third place.

2. Lintels 11 and 23, provided for by Maler, appear never to have existed.

3. Hieroglyphic Stairways 1 to 3 are those of Structures 5, 33, and 44, respectively.

4. Miscellaneous 1 is the statue in Structure 33; Miscellaneous 2 is the inscription on the façade of Structure 41.

5. Ball- court Sculptures 1 to 5 are marked on the plan with the designations given them by Morley, viz., a to e.

6. Lintel 19 is at present precariously poised over a doorway nearly filled with debris, and thus is impossible to photograph. Inspection shows Morley’s drawing (1937- 38, vol. 2, fig. 60) of the one remaining glyph to be essentially accurate. When a photograph becomes available, a description of the lintel will be issued in a later section of this work.

 

REFERENCES CITED:

BARTHEL, THOMAS S.
1966 “Yaxchilan Lintel 60: eine neuerwerbung im Berliner Museum für Völkerkunde,” Baessler- Archiv, n.s. vol. 14, pp. 125- 138. Berlin.

CHARNAY, DESIRE
1885 Les anciennes villes du Nouveau Monde: voyages d’explorations au Mexique et dans l’Amérique Centrale. Paris.

GALINDO, JUAN
1833 “Description of the River Usumacinta, in Guatemala,” Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, vol. 3, pp. 59- 64. London.

JOYCE, THOMAS A.
1923 Guide to the Maudslay Collection. British Museum. London.

MALER, TEOBERT
1903 Researches in the Central Portion of the Usumacinta Valley. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum, Harvard University, vol. 2, no. 2. Cambridge, Massachusetts.

MAUDSLAY, ALFRED P.
1883 “Explorations in Guatemala and Examination of the Newly- discovered Indian Ruins of Quiriguá, Tikal, and the Usumacinta,” paper read at the Royal Geographical Society, London, December, 1882, and printed in the Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, vol. 4, April 1883.
1889- 1902 Biologia Centrali- Americana: Archaeology. 5 vols. London.

MORLEY, SYLVANUS G.
1937- 38 The Inscriptions of Peten. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication 437, 5 vols. Washington, D. C.

VILLAGUTIERRE SOTO-MAYOR, JUAN SE
1701 Historia de la conquista de la provincia de el Itza. Madrid.

SITE VOLUME REFERENCE:

SITE VOL/Part Monument Side Page Pub.year Notes Peobody Number
YAXCHALIN 3.1 Map 5 1977
YAXCHILAN 3.1 Map of Ruins 6 1977
YAXCHILAN 3.1 Lintel 1 13 1977 2004.15.6.5.1
YAXCHILAN 3.1 Lintel 2 underside 15 1977 2004.15.6.5.2
YAXCHILAN 3.1 Lintel 3 underside 17 1977 2004.15.6.5.3
YAXCHILAN 3.1 Lintel 4 underside 19 1977 2004.15.6.5.4
YAXCHILAN 3.1 Lintel 5 underside 21 1977 2004.15.6.5.5
YAXCHILAN 3.1 Lintel 6 underside 23 1977 2004.15.6.5.6
YAXCHILAN 3.1 Lintel 7 underside 25 1977 2004.15.6.5.7
YAXCHILAN 3.1 Lintel 8 underside 27 1977 2004.15.6.5.8
YAXCHILAN 3.1 Lintel 9 underside 29 1977 2004.15.6.5.9
YAXCHILAN 3.1 Lintel 10 underside 31 1977 2004.15.6.5.10
YAXCHILAN 3.1 Lintel 12 underside 33 1977 2004.15.6.5.11
YAXCHILAN 3.1 Lintel 13 underside 35 1977 2004.15.6.5.12
YAXCHILAN 3.1 Lintel 14 underside 37 1977 2004.15.6.5.13
YAXCHILAN 3.1 Lintel 15 underside 39 1977 2004.15.6.5.14
YAXCHILAN 3.1 Lintel 16 underside 41 1977 2004.15.6.5.15
YAXCHILAN 3.1 Lintel 17 underside 43 1977 2004.15.6.5.16
YAXCHILAN 3.1 Lintel 18 underside 45 1977 2004.15.6.5.17
YAXCHILAN 3.1 Lintel 20 underside frag 47 1977 2004.15.6.5.18
YAXCHILAN 3.1 Lintel 21 underside 49 1977 2004.15.6.5.19
YAXCHILAN 3.1 Lintel 22 underside 51 1977 2004.15.6.5.20
YAXCHILAN 3.1 Lintel 24 underside and front 53 1977 3 copies, …21.1;.2;.3 2004.15.6.5.21
YAXCHILAN 3.1 Lintel 25 front edge 55 1977 2004.15.6.5.22
YAXCHILAN 3.1 Lintel 25 front edge 56 1977 2 drawings are missing 2004.15.6.5.23
YAXCHILAN 3.1 Lintel 26 underside 57 1977 drawing missing 2004.15.6.5.26
YAXCHILAN 3.1 Lintel 26 front edge 58 1977 2004.15.6.5.28
YAXCHILAN 3.1 Lintel 27 front edge 59 1977 2004.15.6.5.29
YAXCHILAN 3.1 Lintel 28 front edge 61 1977 2004.15.6.5.30
YAXCHILAN 3.2 Lintel 29 underside 67 1979 2004.15.6.6.1
YAXCHILAN 3.2 Lintel 30 69 1979 2004.15.6.6.2
YAXCHILAN 3.2 Lintel 31 71 1979 2004.15.6.6.3
YAXCHILAN 3.2 Lintel 32 73 1979 2004.15.6.6.4
YAXCHILAN 3.2 Lintel 33 75 1979 2004.15.6.6.5
YAXCHILAN 3.2 Lintel 34 77 1979 2004.15.6.6.6
YAXCHILAN 3.2 Lintel 35 79 1979 2004.15.6.6.7
YAXCHILAN 3.2 Lintel 37 83 1979 2004.15.6.6.8
YAXCHILAN 3.2 Lintel 38 front edge 85 1979 2004.15.6.6.9
YAXCHILAN 3.2 Lintel 39 front edge 87 1979 2004.15.6.6.10
YAXCHILAN 3.2 Lintel 40 front edge 89 1979 2004.15.6.6.11
YAXCHILAN 3.2 Lintel 41 91 1979 2004.15.6.6.12
YAXCHILAN 3.2 Lintel 42 93 1979 2004.15.6.6.13
YAXCHILAN 3.2 Lintel 43 underside 95 1979 2004.15.6.6.14
YAXCHILAN 3.2 Lintel 44 97 1979 2004.15.6.6.15
YAXCHILAN 3.2 Lintel 45 underside 99 1979 2004.15.6.6.16
YAXCHILAN 3.2 Lintel 45 details 100 1979 2004.15.6.6.17
YAXCHILAN 3.2 Lintel 46 underside 101 1979 2004.15.6.6.18
YAXCHILAN 3.2 Lintel 46 details 101 1979 2004.15.6.6.19
YAXCHILAN 3.2 Lintel 47 underside 103 1979 2004.15.6.6.20
YAXCHILAN 3.2 Lintel 48 underside 105 1979 2004.15.6.6.21
YAXCHILAN 3.2 Lintel 49 107 1979 2004.15.6.6.22
YAXCHILAN 3.2 Lintel 49 107 1979 smaller scale 2004.15.6.6.23
YAXCHILAN 3.2 Lintel 50 109 1979 2004.15.6.6.24
YAXCHILAN 3.2 Lintel 51 111 1979 2004.15.6.6.25
YAXCHILAN 3.2 Lintel 52 113 1979 2004.15.6.6.26
YAXCHILAN 3.2 Lintel 53 115 1979 2004.15.6.6.27
YAXCHILAN 3.2 Lintel 54 117 1979 2004.15.6.6.28
YAXCHILAN 3.2 Lintel 55 119 1979 2004.15.6.6.29
YAXCHILAN 3.2 Lintel 56 front edge 121 1979 2004.15.6.6.30
YAXCHILAN 3.2 Lintel 57 underside 123 1979 2004.15.6.6.31
YAXCHILAN 3.2 Lintel 58 125 1979 2004.15.6.6.32
YAXCHILAN 3.3 Lintel 59 131 1982 2004.15.6.7.1
YAXCHILAN 3.3 Lintel 19 133 1982 2004.15.6.7.2
YAXCHILAN 3.3 Lintel 23 front 135 1982 2004.15.6.7.3
YAXCHILAN 3.3 Lintel 23 underside 136 1982 2004.15.6.7.4
YAXCHILAN 3.3 Lintel 26 correction to 3:57 139 1982 no drawing
YAXCHILAN 3.3 Lintel 34 additional framents 140 1982 no drawing
YAXCHILAN 3.3 Map 141 2004.15.6.7.7
YAXCHILAN 3.3 HS 1 step I 143 1982 oversize 2004.15.6.7.8
YAXCHILAN 3.3 HS 1 step II 145 1982 oversize 2004.15.6.7.9
YAXCHILAN 3.3 HS 1 step III 147 1982 oversize 2004.15.6.7.10
YAXCHILAN 3.3 HS 1 step IV 149 1982 oversize 2004.15.6.7.11
YAXCHILAN 3.3 HS 1 step V 151 1982 oversize 2004.15.6.7.12
YAXCHILAN 3.3 HS 1 step VI 153 1982 oversize 2004.15.6.7.13
YAXCHILAN 3.3 HS 2 structure 33 155 1982 2004.15.6.7.14
YAXCHILAN 3.3 HS 2 step I 156 1982 2004.15.6.7.15
YAXCHILAN 3.3 HS 2 step II 156 1982 2004.15.6.7.16
YAXCHILAN 3.3 HS 2 step III 157 1982 2004.15.6.7.17
YAXCHILAN 3.3 HS 2 step IV 157 1982 2004.15.6.7.18
YAXCHILAN 3.3 HS 2 step V 158 1982 2004.15.6.7.19
YAXCHILAN 3.3 HS 2 step VI 159 1982 2004.15.6.7.20
YAXCHILAN 3.3 HS 2 step VII 160 1982 2004.15.6.7.21
YAXCHILAN 3.3 HS 2 step VIII 162 1982 2004.15.6.7.22
YAXCHILAN 3.3 HS 2 step IX 163 1982 2004.15.6.7.23
YAXCHILAN 3.3 HS 2 step X 163 1982 2004.15.6.7.24
YAXCHILAN 3.3 HS 2 step XI 164 1982 2004.15.6.7.25
YAXCHILAN 3.3 HS 2 step XII 164 1982 2004.15.6.7.26
YAXCHILAN 3.3 HS 2 step XIII 164 1982 2004.15.6.7.27
YAXCHILAN 3.3 HS 3 structure 44 165 1982 2004.15.6.7.28
YAXCHILAN 3.3 HS 3 step I tread 166 1982 2004.15.6.7.29
YAXCHILAN 3.3 HS 3 step I riser 167 1982 2004.15.6.7.30
YAXCHILAN 3.3 HS 3 step II 168 1982 2004.15.6.7.31
YAXCHILAN 3.3 HS 3 step III 169 1982 2004.15.6.7.32
YAXCHILAN 3.3 HS 3 step IV 170 1982 2004.15.6.7.33
YAXCHILAN 3.3 HS 3 step V tread 171 1982 2004.15.6.7.34
YAXCHILAN 3.3 HS 3 step V riser 172 1982 2004.15.6.7.35
YAXCHILAN 3.3 HS 3 step VI 173 1982 2004.15.6.7.36
YAXCHILAN 3.3 HS 4 step I 175 1982 2004.15.6.7.37
YAXCHILAN 3.3 HS 4 step II 176 1982 no drawing
YAXCHILAN 3.3 HS 4 step III 176 1982 2004.15.6.7.39
YAXCHILAN 3.3 HS 5 structure 20 177 1982 2004.15.6.7.40
YAXCHILAN 3.3 HS 5 blocks 1-30 179 1982 2004.15.6.7.41
YAXCHILAN 3.3 HS 5 blocks 31-45 181 1982 2004.15.6.7.42
YAXCHILAN 3.3 Map 183 1982

AUTHOR REFERENCE:

SITE (by Vol) VOL/Part Author(s)
YAXCHILAN 3.1 Ian Graham and Eric von Euw, Vol 3.1, 1977
YAXCHILAN 3.2 Ian Graham, Vol. 3.2, 1979
YAXCHILAN 3.3 Ian Graham, Vol. 3.3, 1982
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