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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

The grand ancient city of Becán — a microcosm of Maya history

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 southern Campeche to explore one of the region's most ancient Maya cities.

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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.
Becán is notable for the size of its constructions as well as its characteristic Rio Bec style. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Becán is a remote archaeological site of the Maya civilization located in the south of the Mexican state of Campeche. The ancient city was christened Becán by archaeologists who named it after the Yucatec-Maya word for moat — which is one of its most distinguishing features

An illustrated map depicts the core of Becán’s ceremonial center as well as its grand moat. Photo: Courtesy

When entering Becán via a land bridge, you really get the sense of how impressive the city’s fortifications actually were. In past articles, we have discussed other Mayan cities such as Tulum, Mayapán, and Ek Balam, all possessing considerable defense features, but Becán takes it to a whole other level. 

Fortified walls and passageways offered Becán an additional level of protection from invading forces. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Archaeological evidence suggests that Becán was first occupied by the Maya as early as the 6th century BCE, making it one of the earliest city-states in the region. Given its early chronology, it is likely that the city was founded by migrants from further south in Peten’s first great city, El Mirador — though this notion is purely conjecture. 

The population of the city appears to have contracted dramatically in the 3rd century CE but bounced back again in the 5th. This was likely due to an influx of migrants from central Mexico which is attested to by the import of architectural styles and trades goods traceable to Teotihuacan. 

A large elevated platform constructed during Becán’s period of Teotihuacan influence. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The construction of major edifications seems to have halted sometime during the 9th century CE. By the 13 century, the city appears to have been almost entirely abandoned as the center of political power in Mesoamerica had several centuries prior shifted north to the north of the Peninsula with the rise in prominence of cities such as Uxmal and Chichén Itzá.

Becán’s structure VI features a large stairway that leads up to a central patio divided into several chambers. Zoomorphic facade details still survive on the structure’s upper level. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Because of Becán’s longevity, in its history, we can see evidence of a microcosm of Mayan chronology packed into a single site. From the early archaic period where structures were essentially limited to stone platforms with edifications made of perishable materials atop, to the rise of the first great pyramids in the pre-classic, to the consolidation of a golden age in the classical period, to a gradual shift to the north, and eventual collapse. 

Estelae found near Structure IX in Becán, Campeche. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The constructions found in Becán are usually thought of as conforming to the Rio Bec style of Maya architecture. However, examples of just about every other form are observable in the ancient city as well. 

Towers of Becán’s Rio Bec style structure VIII as seen from the summit of the site’s tallest pyramid. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Becán’s largest tallest structure is a pyramid known as Structure IX (creative, I know). This pyramid is 32 meters tall and offers at its summit a spectacular view of the ancient city.

Unfortunately, Becán’s Structure IX pyramid has lost almost all of its decorative elements to time (and looting) but it is still tremendously impressive. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

One of Becán’s most iconic structures is a monumental construction (Structure VIII) which features two large towers on the north and south sides which fame a grand facade The staircase entrance to the structure is framed by large stone columns made up of meticulously carved stone blocks.

The exact purpose of Becán’s Structure VIII is not entirely clear, but archaeologists believe that it was used mostly for ceremonial purposes. It may have also served administrative functions. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

As the area contained by Becán’s moat was clearly not large enough to house all of the city’s inhabitants, most residential areas were constructed on the outside of its periphery. But the inhabitants of these dwellings were likely offered shelter within the fortified city core during sieges or invasions. 

A residential complex within the city core, likely the home of Becán’s elite. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The structure known simply as the Circular altar seems to have been one of the last edifications to have been erected in Becán’s long history and dates to the 11th century CE.

The Circular Altar presents hallmarks of Teotihuacan influence and was likely associated with the feathered serpent deity known as Kukulcán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Becán’s Structure II is made up of a large elevated platform topped with a secondary edification containing several chambers.

Whenever you see plexiglass or some other kind of protection over an ancient structure chances are there will be something interesting there for you to encounter. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

But it is what is found on one of its facades that is of most interest — a magnificently preserved stucco mask, likely depicting one of the cities nobles wearing an extremely ornate headdress.

Though this stucco figure which still preserves much of its original coloring sure is beautiful, it would have by no means been uncharacteristic of Becán during antiquity. It just so happens that this marvelous example survived long enough to be discovered and preserved by archaeologists. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If you go

To visit Becán and other nearby sites such as Hormiguero and Chicanná it is highly advisable to spend the night in one of the region’s hotels or campgrounds, near the town of Xpjuil. Though roads in this part of Campeche are fairly good, keep in mind that these are some of the most remote archaeological sites in the country, so fill up on gas often and make sure to always bring enough water along. 

A map shows the location of Becán on the Yucatán Peninsula. Image: Google Maps

The entrance fee is 65 pesos from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday. On Sunday admittance is free for Mexican nationals and foreign residents of Mexico with ID. Becán remains closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Check back for updates.

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