Discovering, or stumbling upon, the ancient city of Xiol

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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.

There are few things more exciting than stumbling across an archaeological site you didn’t know existed. This is exactly what happened to me a couple of months ago when going out to Kanasín to visit my mother-in-law. 

Since that time, I have returned to this site a handful of times trying to learn more about this enigmatic place, get some better photos, and make some rough sketches. 

A pyramidal structure in Xiol Kanasín faces toward the setting sun. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

In the Yucatec-Maya language, Xiol roughly translates as “spirit of man.” But this name was only recently given to this ancient site by the INAH, as its original name has been lost to time. 

Archaeological reconstruction at Xiol was mostly completed just before the outbreak of the pandemic, so people are just now starting to discover its wonders. 

The observable archaeological site is made up of seven restored Puuc-style structures and dates to the late classic period, which is to say from roughly 600 to 800 CE.

Aerial view of Xiol’s main ceremonial center in Kanasín’s industrial zone. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Within the surrounding jungle, another 30 structures have been found, though they still remain untouched. 

Though “only” 37 structures have been mapped in what we now call Xiol, it is likely that many more remain undiscovered in the regions surrounding fields. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

By all reports, the INAH and the landowners have reportedly been working well together. But one can’t help but be a bit concerned for the structures that still remain unrestored in the low-lying jungle and may be threatened by nearby construction projects and industrial activities. 

A large construction is currently being built just a few meters from a Puuc-style temple in Xiol. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The core of Xiol’s ceremonial center is made up of five structures. The largest and most imposing of these is a complex made up of a ceremonial platform sitting next to a small pyramid-like structure. 

Both of the structures in this complex contain evidence of ceremonial use and were most likely topped with thatched roofs. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Both of these structures that make up Xiol’s largest architectural complex bear evidence of ceremonial use and the remains of stone altars.

Next to the temple’s main stairway, it is possible to observe niches that likely housed stucco images of local lords or deities. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Directly across from the previously described complex, and closest to the highway, lay a structure leading towards a small geological opening, which turns out to be a cenote.

Though the structure leading to the cenote is quite badly damaged, it is possible that it may have served as a chol tún (artificial water reservoir) to store surplus water during the rainy season. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

It is likely that this cenote was the main source of water for Xiol’s population, though given its location in the middle of the ceremonial center it may have had more ritualistic uses and connotations.

Several other cenotes are known to exist in close proximity to the ceremonial center, bearing further credence to the notion that the source of water at the center of the site was more for ritualistic use. But this is ultimately just speculation on my part. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

On either side of the main ceremonial center sit two low-laying platforms. 

The more notable and largest of these platforms is the one on the southern side. Interestingly it appears to be sloped on both ends. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

A few hundred meters south of the main ceremonial center lays a beautiful Puuc-style structure.

This beautiful structure, along with another further north of the main ceremonial center is gated off. While this is not exactly aesthetically pleasing, it is perhaps understandable given a lack of any security at the site and the presence of several easily removable objects. Photo: Yesica Benitez

Given its location in the context of the site, it is likely that this structure served as a residential area for members of the city’s elite, though it is hard to know for sure.

This structure is divided into several chambers and rooms and resembles similar constructions at Puuc sites such as Kabah or Sayil. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

It is interesting to note that although the Puuc influence at Xiol is undeniable, one of the Puuc styles defining characteristics appears to be absent — this being Chaac rain god masks. This is likely due to the natural abundance of water in the area as opposed to the Puuc zone, which is much more reliant on rain.

Another similar residential structure, also gated off sits a few hundred meters to the north of the main ceremonial center.

This structure, which is also gated off, bears clear evidence of corbel Maya arches and passageways. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Surrounding this structure it is also possible to observe several stone tools including metates used to process corn.

The presence of these types of stone tools right next to the structure reinforces the idea that these where in fact residential complexes. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Within the site, archaeologists also discovered 38 funerary deposits complete with offerings that included ceramics, jewelry, and obsidian tools. 

A handful of the ceramic vessels discovered at Xiol are in surprisingly good condition, while others have succumbed to the centuries. Photo: Courtesy INAH

Other notable finds include carved stone heads which for reasons which are understandable have been removed from the site to avoid pillaging. 

I have not been able to track down any information on where exactly these stone heads were taken, so if you have any idea please feel free to get in touch. Photo: Courtesy INAH

If you go

If you decide to visit Xiol keep in mind that the site is not officially open to the public and lay entirely on private land owned by a Chinese conglomerate. That being said at the main ceremonial center there are no signs, barriers, or guards indicating one to keep out.

A map shows the location of Xiol in the municipality of Kanasín on the outskirts of Mérida. Image: Google Maps

But as previously mentioned a couple of the structures outside the site’s main core are indeed gated off. As long as you don’t try to jump the gate or do anything stupid, I don’t really foresee any problems.

Detail of Puuc-style facade in Xiol Yucatán- Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
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