A return to glory for the once forgotten Maya city of Moral de Reforma

Archaeology Monday provides historical background, photos and practical information about these ancient marvels and how to get out and enjoy them for yourself. This week we venture deep into Tabasco, and back in time to explore the restoration of Moral de Reforma.

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.

If you are reading this, chances are that at one point or another you have dreamed of the “romantic life” of an archaeologist.

But if you have any experience at all, or have actually talked to an archaeologist, you will surely know that archaeology is nothing like Indiana Jones movies or Tomb Raider video games would have you believe. 

Makeshift basecamp structure at Moral de Reforma, Tabasco. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Being an archaeologist in Mexico (and many other countries) involves long seasons sleeping in makeshift huts with swarms of mosquitoes, grueling hours in the lab, and maybe worst of all — writing grant applications.

But for us amateurs, there is still a great allure to the profession, especially when we get the opportunity to see them at work — especially if they seem to be making exciting discoveries.

Back in 2009, while driving through Tabasco on a business trip, I spotted a suspicious mound in the distance and decided to make a detour to investigate. 

The view as I began my approach to the mysterious mound. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

It was easy to tell that this was not a natural formation. Perhaps it was a pile of rubble left by a construction crew, I thought to myself, trying to not get too excited.  

Once I got closer, my suspicions were confirmed. This was no ordinary mound, it was an ancient Maya pyramid.

My excitement grew as I discovered just how accurate my hunch has been. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

As I got even closer I could see a great deal of commotion — dozens of workers, archaeologists, and vehicles — all working together to help reveal this ancient treasure from at least a millennia of abandonment.

Laborers and archaeologists were hard at work at Moral de Reforma, Tabasco. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The structure, which would come to be known as “the double pyramid” of Moral Reforma, was extremely impressive, even back then when only its base had been excavated.  

Standing at nearly 30 meters tall, or 100 feet, the structure is now known to resemble more of a large artificial platform, featuring two pyramidal structures, each with its own staircase standing side by side.

Fully restored double pyramid at Moral de Reforma, Tabasco. Photo: Wikimedia Foundation

As I explored the area, I was informed by an archaeologist that they had documented at least 30 structures at the site, but that it was likely that many more had been disassembled over the centuries by farmers. The surrounding area was all being used as pasture for cattle. 

Aside from the double pyramid, several other structures quickly caught my eye, including an already reconstructed Mesoamerican ballcourt. 

The ballcourt at Moral de Reforma lays adjacent to Group 1, near the ancient city’s main ceremonial center. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

As it turns out, the ancient city we now know as Moral de Reforma had early on in its history been a domain of the great city of Calakmul but fell under the control of Palenque in the 7th century CE. 

The original name of this ancient city has been lost to time. Its insignia has apparently been identified on stelae found at the site, which has turned out to be illegible. The name Moral de Reforma was assigned to the site by Teobert Maler, who first documented the ancient city in the early 20th century.

The architecture of the site shares features with both the Río Bec and Peten artistic styles. 

Another noteworthy architectural complex at Moral de Reforma is Group 1, which features two more side-by-side pyramidal structures designated Estructura 1 and Estructura 2. 

Though Estructura 1 and Estructura 2 are covered in vegetation, it is still possible to imagine what they must have looked like in their heyday, covered in stucco and painted bright red. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Several ceremonial platforms can also be seen at the site, though only a few of them have been restored.

An ancient Maya ceremonial platform, likely dating to the 6th century CE at the archaeological site of Moral de Reforma in the Mexican state of Tabasco. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

During my visit to the site, it was still possible to observe several stelae still face down in the ground, which have since been restored to something resembling their past glory.

Ancient Maya stela lay in the ground where it fell a millennia ago, waiting patiently to be restored. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The most significant of these stelae, Estela 1, was moved to a museum in Tabasco’s state capital, Villahermosa. 

Estela 1 depicts a local lord identified as Chan-na K’awill. Photo: Wikimedia Foundation

If you go

Moral de Reforma is about 70 miles / 113 kilometers northeast of Palenque in the Municipality of Balancán in the state of Tabasco. It is also near the San Pedro Mártir River, a tributary of the Usumacinta.

Map showing the location of Moral de Reforma, Tabasco in South-Eastern Mexico. Image: Courtesy Google Maps.

Getting to the site is not exactly easy. Much of the way runs through farmland with less than ideal roads. As far as I am aware there are no tours available to Moral de Reforma, so you will have to bring your own transportation or hire a private guide.

An unrestored mount at Moral de Reforma archaeological site in Tabasco. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Being in proximity to the Trinfuo ecological reserve, birdlife in the region is quite abundant. Make sure to keep your eyes open for interesting specimens.

A brown jay at Moral de Reforma in the Mexican state of Tabasco. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The entrance fee to Moral de Reforma is free and accessible from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

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