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Friday, July 1, 2022

Pomoná — punching above its weight and proving that bigger is not always better

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 journey deep into rural Tabasco to explore one of the Usumacinta region's most important players in the game of Mesoamerican power politics.

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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.

Strategically located in the basin of the mighty Usumacinta River, the Maya city of Pomoná used its influence and power to control large amounts of trade, offer logistical assistance to its allies in times of war, and of course, enrich itself.

Pomoná’s Structure 6 offers a fantastic view of the main ceremonial center and the lush jungle below. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Known in Mayan as Pakbul, meaning “the house of copal,” Pomoná was likely settled sometime in the first or second century CE. This timing comes as no surprise as during the time commercial activity along the Usumacinta appears to really have begun to pick up steam to an even higher degree. 

Copal is a particular type of tree resin used by the cultures of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica as ceremonially burned incense and for other purposes. Photo: Álvaro de la Paz Franco

However, recent analysis of ancient hieroglyphs found at the site suggests that the true name of Pomoná was actually Pakbul, which epigraphers have translated as “Divine lord of the pipe.”

Several stone-carved stelae and reliefs have been discovered at Pomoná but all have been removed from the site proper to ensure their preservation. Controversially, several of these artifacts have ended up in Europe, including museums in Spain and Switzerland.

A replica of the stelae key to the decipherment of Pomoná’s true name (Pakbul) sits where the original was found on Structure 4. The original is currently under maintenance at Pomoná’s onsite museum run by INAH. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

It is not clear if Pomoná was founded as an independent city-state or if it was a client or vassal kingdom. But one thing is for sure, the city would become a key player in trade and warfare for centuries to come and play a key role in the “star wars” fought between the mighty cities of Calakmul and Tikal

Just like modern warfare, conflicts in ancient Mesoamerica played out on several fronts through proxy battles or economic embargoes and were prone to shifting alliances. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Archaeological evidence suggests that Pomoná reached its greatest splendor during the 5th century CE, likely as the result of the wealth it was able to collect from its vanquished foes during a long series of wars and proxy battles.

Through the centuries Pomoná played a key role in several conflicts and may have even on occasion switched sides, the city seems to have had a particularly close connection to Piedras Negras, a much larger Maya city 30 kilometers downriver in what today is Guatemala. Illustration: Tatiana Proskouriakoff

As a result most of the observable archaeological remains today date to this same era, giving us a glimpse of the ancient city at its height. 

But despite its riches, Pomoná is not exceedingly large, opting to keep a relatively compact and defendable size — likely for strategic reasons. 

A young ceiba tree offers shade in the middle of Pomoná. Just don’t use it to lean on, for obvious reasons. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

But just because the city was able to extract large amounts of wealth by leveraging its strategic position does not mean they were not involved in agriculture. In fact, the city appears to have been particularly self-sufficient in this respect, having large fields dedicated to the production of corn, beans, squash, and chilies.

Given its location on the banks of the Usumacinta, it is likely that fishing was also a major activity in Pomoná, though not much archaeological evidence has been found to back up this claim. Today crops and pastures dominate the landscape. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Like nearby Comalcalco, Pomoná is a bit of an oddball architecturally. The reason for this is not immediately apparent when simply glancing at the city’s temples. But rather its unique style comes down to the wide variety of materials used in its construction. 

Even a cursory glance at the architecture found in Pomoná hints at just how many different types of materials were used in the constructions of its temples. But it’s important to remember that this mishmash of materials would not have been visible during antiquity, as all structures were covered in stucco and painted. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

People accustomed to the architecture of the Yucatán Peninsula know that carved limestone was the preferred material in this region. However, in the Usumacinta Basin, this material is not as abundant, leading the Maya of the area to utilize several different types of stone, but also clay bricks —  though not in quantities as significant as in Comalcalco.

Though not as strong as carved stone, clay bricks are of course much lighter and malleable and allow for the construction of wider arches and hallways, though few examples of these constructions survive in any capacity to this day.

Archaeologists have observed some rather unorthodox construction techniques involving the use of clay bricks in the interior of a handful of structures at Pomoná, including the severely damaged Structure 15. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

It is interesting to think what could have been possible had the Maya embraced the use of clay bricks in the building of larger complexes, as this lighter material would have perhaps allowed for the construction of even larger internal chambers, capable of sustaining their weight with the assistance of large wooden beams. But in the end, this is just a long-held pet theory by yours truly. 

The bulk of monumental construction at Pomoná can be found in the Central Plaza, which is made up of 13 structures divided into six main architectural groups. 

Though severely damaged and looted, archaeologists believe that Pomona’s Structure 1 once resembled a miniature versión of the temple of the inscriptions in Palenque. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

It has been suggested that secondary plazas have been struck from the archaeological record due to the construction of the nearby highway to Tenosique. Sadly, this seems to be a fairly common theme for archaeological sites found in Tabasco, given the large amount of infrastructure needed to support the region’s oil industry. 

The most imposing structures at Pomona’s  Central Plaza were likely used for ceremonial purposes and include Structures 5, 6, and 7, located at the west of the main architectural complex. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Of these temples, Structure 6 is perhaps the most impressive, with its large single stairway and monumental large but badly damaged stone masks of the sun god Kinich Ahau.

Aside from its size, Pomoná’s Structure 6 is notable for the large number of stelae found adorning its base and facade. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

Directly in front of Structure 6, it is possible to view a surviving altar similar to those found at other Maya sites including Tikal and Calakmul. 

Though relatively small in size, the altar across from Pomoná’s Structure 6 has small stairways on each of its sides, likely a reference to the four cardinal points so central in Maya cosmology. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Like all other ancient Maya cities, the bulk of the population lived a distance away from the main ceremonial center in houses that resemble those seen in the countryside even today.

Foundations of what likely was an elite residence made from perishable materials within Pomoná’s ceremonial center. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Unlike most ancient Maya cities, no Mesoamerican ballcourt has been found in Pomoná, as it was likely destroyed in the construction of the nearby highway. 

If you go

During my several visits to Pomoná, I have only ever encountered a handful of other visitors. Most people visiting Pomoná start their trip in Tabasco’s state capital Villahermosa, but as already alluded to this region is not often frequented by tourists given its lack of beaches and amenities. 

A map shows the location of Pomoná in Tabasco, near the Guatemalan border. Image: Google Maps

Though it’s possible to rent a car and drive the nearly 200 kilometers of winding roads from Villahermosa, it’s a much better idea to find yourself a local driver to take you, The area is infamous for its erratic weather and mudslides are a problem. 

Though some sections of the road to Pomoná are quite good, others are not much more than jungle paths. Photo: Carlos Rsoado van der Gracht

If the idea is to explore the region a little more in-depth, it is a good idea to spend the night in a community such as Emiliano Zapata on the banks of the Usumacinta River. There are a handful of small hotels and motels, nothing too fancy, but not terrible by any means — especially after a long day of exploring ruins. The entrance fee for Pomoná is a great deal at just 36 pesos, not even 2 USD.

Lush vegetation surrounds the pasture lands on the outskirts of Pomoná’s ceremonial center. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
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