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Thursday, September 28, 2023

Exploring the ‘hidden’ Maya archaeology of eastern Mérida

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Few cities in Mexico can compete with Mérida for the sheer amount of archaeological remains. 

Many of the grand pyramids and temples that once stood in what today is Mérida have succumbed to the ravages of time and pillaging. However, there are still a great many sites to explore in Yucatán’s capital city.

“Hidden” archaeological gems are everywhere in Mérida, and it’s all about knowing where to look. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

One of the largest concentrations of Prehispanic archaeology in Mérida can be found in the settlement known as Chen Hó — often described as one of the area’s oldest elite suburbs of Maya antiquity. 

Chen Hó’s largest structure and possible ceremonial center. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But like today, large civic and ceremonial centers don’t exist in isolation. Smaller surrounding communities to house and feed the principal settlement are indispensable.

Near Chen Hó are several examples of structures that likely existed in mainly agricultural settings used to store crops and house their own workers and elites.

Chen Hó and the nearby settlements of El Cerrito, Las Tumbas, and Misne. Graphic: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

One of the best examples of these support settlements can be visited at the archaeological site known as El Cerrito, which translates in Spanish as “a little hill.”

El Cerrito got its name in the 20th century from folks who lived around the yet-to-be-excavated site and assumed the formations they saw were natural. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

At El Cerrito, it is possible to observe two structures of considerable size atop a large artificial platform, which suggests that these constructions likely fulfilled multiple roles, including a ritual/ceremonial purpose. 

The construction of artificial platforms for multiple structures is usually considered a sign of status in ancient Mesoamerica, as building these foundations was often as laborious as the temples or residences themselves. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The largest structure atop the artificial platform is a pseudo pyramid with a series of broad and long steps leading to its summit. Looking closely, it’s possible to see the remains of stucco and some red paint, hinting at what it must have looked like in its prime. 

A large platform or pseudo pyramid at El Cerrito sits in the east of Mérida. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The second structure atop the artificial platform demonstrates features that suggest it was likely a residence, though, at times, it may have also been used to store crops such as maize and squash.

No evidence of the roof of this structure has been found, which could suggest that its materials were pillaged or that its roof was made out of perishable materials, which is especially likely if its main purpose was residential. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Another interesting feature of El Cerrito is its Puuc architecture, which is most prominently on display on the facade of the second structures surviving decor. 

A detail of a structure at El Cerrito shows clear evidence of sculpted stone “cylinders” characteristic of Puuc architecture. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Though the Puuc architecture of El Cerrito indicates the site as seen today was constructed sometime in the 6th century onward, archaeological research suggests that this location and perhaps even its artificial platform date to the 1st century BCE. 

Aside from the stone structure at El Cerrito, the surrounding area would have been filled with homes made of perishable materials, similar to those still seen in Yucatán’s countryside. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

To the south of El Cerrito are the remains of a settlement known as Misne, which appears to have been similar but has yet to be restored. 

The limited excavations undertaken at Misne suggest the site was occupied between the 5th Century BCE and the 2nd Century CE, making it one of the longest inhabited settlements in eastern Mérida. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The extensive damage to Misne is likely the result of pillaging during the construction of the nearby hacienda of the same name.

Little remains of Misne’s ancient architecture and stone tool artifacts can be easily spotted across the site. The area is officially protected by the municipality, though no security is readily visible. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine 

Slightly to the west of Misne are the remains of an urban archaeological site known as Las Tumbas.

Like many urban archaeological sites in Mérida, Las Tumbas is surrounded by contemporary constructions and is adjacent to a city park. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

As its name suggests, Las Tumbas gets its name from the fact that during excavations, archeologists discovered the bodies of several elite members of Prehispanic society adorned with jade that was imported from the Mayan highlands in what today is Guatemala. 

It is far more likely than not that this complex was surrounded by other structures, perhaps even a ceremonial center, but the damage to the area is far too extensive to ever be certain. 

The artificial platform and Prehispanic burial site of Las Tumbas in Mérida. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

If you go

All of the sites in this article are open to the public 24/7, as they are within municipal parks. 

Reconstruction of El Cerrito produced by the INAH and on display at the site itself. Photo: Courtesy

Though they are all close to each other, moving around in a car is still the best way to experience them, unless on a “winter’s day” on foot or bicycle — which actually sounds like fun. Just be careful at intersections. 

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.
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