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Comalcalco, the oddball of the Maya world

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 travel far afield to western Tabasco to explore the unique ancient city of Comalcalco.

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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.
The back of Temple I at Comalcalco, as approached from the entrance to the site. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Comalcalco is an ancient Maya archaeological site in the state of Tabasco, inside the modern town of the same name.

Several details make Comalcalco a real oddball in the context of Mayan cities. For one, it was likely the westernmost major Maya settlement. The name Comalcalco is actually not Maya at all but rather Nahuatl and means house of the comales  — a smooth, flat griddle typically used in Mexico. However, the original name of the site was Joy Chan, meaning round sky. 

Mayan hieroglyphs found in Comalcalco’s Temple I. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

But the thing that really makes Comalcalco stand apart is the materials from which the city was constructed. Unlike virtually every other Maya city or settlement, Comalcalco was built using bricks rather than limestone masonry. The city is near the coast in an area full of swamps and mangroves where workable stone is in short supply and difficult to quarry. The bricks are of irregular sizes and were made by cutting large sections of clay instead of using molds. On your way to the site, notice that many contemporary structures in the surrounding area still use this technique to this day.

Brickwork visible on the stucco peeled facade of structure at Comalcalco. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The foundation date of the city is not known, but it is believed that Comalcalco reached its greatest splendor sometime in the 5th century CE and was completed along with other major cities such as Palenque and Yaxchilán. 

A partially reconstructed temple in Comalcalco, Tabasco. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The clay bricks used in the construction of the city’s many structures give Comalcalco a unique look. However, an architectural style similar to that of Palenque was apparently superimposed onto its temples. It is likely that these modifications were made during a time of a close alliance or perhaps occupation by Palenque. Evidence suggests that following the conquest of Palenque by Tonina, the city’s elite fled to Comalcalco to continue their rule in exile. Later in its history, Comalcalco came to be dominated by Nahua groups migrating from central Mexico — as evidenced by the Nahuatl name the city is known by today.

Temples at Comalcalco were completely covered in stucco, making their brick construction invisible to the naked eye. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

When entering the site, the first structure you will likely notice is the large pyramid known simply as Temple I. This structure has a central stairway that rises 20 meters and passes through 10 tiers in the Talud-tablero style of Teotihuacan influence. Like many other notable structures at the site, most of the stucco on this temple has been lost. The good news is that this allows us to appreciate its unique brick construction.

Frontal view of Temple I at Comalcalco. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

At the top of the temple, we can observe several large pillars and walls which were once used to support a large sanctuary chamber.

Temains or arches and large containment walls at Comalcalco. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Other notable constructions include Temples VI and VII which sit on a 35-meter tall artificial platform known as the Great Acropolis.

The Great Acropolis at Comalcalco. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The acropolis and its structures are all well known for their elaborate altars and stucco work.

A stucco frieze from Temple VII. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
A stucco mask depicting the solar deity Kinich Ahau in Temple VI. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The Great Acropolis is also notable for its extensive funerary vaults and the discovery of the largest burial ground found in the region to date. Archaeologist discovered three chambers which contained the skeletal remains of 116 high-ranking individuals, most of whom exhibited cosmetic features associated with Mayan elites such as cranial deformation and teeth filling and incrustations. The burials are thought to date to either the late classic period (8th century CE) and also included 50 ceramic funerary urns. 

Ceramic funerary vessels are on display at Comalcalco’s on-site museum. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Adjacent to the archaeological site there is a great museum that houses artifacts from the site. The quality and state of preservation of these artifacts is stunning. Visitors can examine sculptures of marine animals and birds as well as funerary urns and masks. Additional sculptures depict the city’s elite. 

The head of a pelican sculpture found at Comalcalco. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Sculpture depicting a member of Comalcalco’s elite. Notice the protruding teeth, sloped forehead and piercings. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The archaeological site is located well inside the modern city of the same name and is walkable from the local bus station terminal, but taking an organized tour is likely a better option. Hotels in nearby Villahermosa are likely to have the information of tour companies organizing day trips. But since the site does not receive a large number of visitors — especially international — you may have to hire a private driver. As drivers in Villahermosa and the surrounding region are aggressive (even by Mexican standards) renting a car is not advisable. 

If you go

As with all archaeological sites in Mexico, it is prohibited to bring food or drink other than water. The entrance fee is 65 pesos Monday through Saturday. On Sunday admittance is free for Mexican nationals and foreign residents with official ID.

Map showing the location of Comalcalco Tabasco in South-Eastern Mexico. Image: Courtesy Google Maps.

As of mid-May 2021, Comalcalco remains closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Check back for updates.

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