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Thursday, December 8, 2022

Uaxactún, the lofty Maya city born of heaven

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 explore Uaxactún, one of Guatemala’s oldest and most storied ancient cities.

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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.
Named Uaxactún by famed archaeologist and explorer Sylvanus Morley in May 1916, the name has stuck despite the discovery of its true ancient name. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

In the Yucatec-Maya language, the name Uaxactún translates to “eight stones.” But the ancient city’s original name Siaan K´aan has a much more lofty meaning — born of heaven. 

The first known ruler of Uaxactún is recorded on Estelle 3 as Wak Kab’ Ajaw’, usually translated as “Lord of the Sixth Earth”. Illustration: A. Safronov, Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

This choice of name is particularly apt when we consider that Uaxactún /  Siaan K´aan was the first site in the Mayan world documented to possess structures especially built for the purpose of observing the night sky. 

It does not take long before nature begins to creep back in. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Some of the celestial events of most interest to the ancient Maya included the summer solstice, spring equinox, and the transit of Venus.

Reproduction of the Maya Haab calendar (left), next to the famous Aztec sun-stone. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Over time archaeologists discovered dozens of other ancient astronomical observatories in the Maya world. Some of the most well-known examples can still be seen today at Chichén Itzá, Mayapan, and Palenque

This study of the heavens aided the Maya to refine their calendars. This allowed them to more accurately predict the beginning of each season for the purpose of maximizing agricultural efficiency. 

Corn was first domesticated by the Maya and along with squash and beans was, and continues to be, their main agricultural staple. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

However, the study of the stars was not just pragmatic. The ancient Maya, including those in Uaxactún, placed great religious importance on the night sky which they believed to be the realm of their gods.

Given its remote location, Uaxactún is also a great place to spot several species of animals, including spider monkeys and a variety of birds. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Given its strategic location between Tikal and Calakmul, it would be no surprise to discover that Uaxactún played a significant role in the centuries-long “Star Wars” conflict between these two great powers.

Much more can be said about the long series of conflicts nicknamed the Star Wars, but we will save further details for an upcoming article on the topic. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

In her seminal work, A Forest of Kings, Linda Schele devotes an entire chapter to a war between Tikal and Uxactún. After the dust settled Tikal came out victorious under the leadership of Lord Siyaj K’ak’ in 378 CE.

Uaxactún would be subordinate to Tikal for a century and a half after its defeat to Tikal in 378 CE. But the exact nature of the political arrangement is unknown, as Uaxactún appears to have maintained much of its ability to rule locally. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Though most of the structures visible today at Uaxactún date to the age of the Classic Maya, the history of the site dates back to at least the 5th century BCE.

The remains of a elite residential complex within the core of Uaxactún’s ceremonial center. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

There is reason to believe that during its early history, Uaxactún was likely under the influence, if not outright control, of the Ka’an dynasty of El Mirador — thought by many to be the first great Maya city-state capital. 

Many of Uaxactún’s oldest structures remain unrestored but are likely to hold the key to better understanding the city’s relationship with its early contemporaries. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Architecturally, Uaxactún is a great example of classical era Petén style architecture and shares many features with other sites in the region.

Though only a fraction of Uaxactún temples has been restored, given the magnificence of its structures it does not take too much imagination to picture the city at its height. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The archaeological site itself is made up of eight groups, with groups A and H taking on a classical triadic or acropolis-like configuration. 

Plazas or acropolis were centers of religious, commercial, and civic life in most ancient Maya cities. Photo: Carlos Rosaso van der Gracht

The first structure most visitors to Uaxctún notice when arriving at the site is the Temple of Masks. 

Uaxactún’s Temple of Masks is made up of a multi-leveled platform with a staircase on each of its four sides. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The temple of masks was most likely covered with a thatched roof and used for both ceremonial purposes as well as the observance of astronomical phenomena.

The Temple of Masks at Uaxactún famously features 16 stucco masks that combine human features with those of jaguars and other animals sacred to the Maya. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

It was not uncommon for large Maya city-states like Uaxactún to build multiple Mesoamerican ballcourts. On the extreme end of the spectrum, the famed city of Chichén Itzá is known to have had at least 10 of these ceremonial arenas. 


The configuration of Uaxactún’s main Mesoamerican ballcourt dates to sometime in the 6 century CE but appears to have undergone several prior phases of construction and redesign. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Much has been written about the collapse of the Classic Maya that swept the region beginning sometime in the late 5th century CE. Along with even larger cities like Tikal, Uaxactún entered a long period of decline, before eventually being abandoned in the late 9th Century.

The last inscribed monument in Uaxactún, Estelle is dated to 889 CE. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If you go

Uaxcatún is not exactly easy to get to as few tour companies offer tours that far out into the jungle and driving yourself is certainly not advisable.

A map shows the location of Uaxactún in northern Guatemala. Image: Google Maps

The best way to get to the site is to get yourself to Tikal good and early and try to talk to one of the tour guides at the site to take you the rest of the way (23 kilometers) along a winding jungle path. Needless to say a 4×4 truck or Jeep is ideal. 

Though the distance is not that long, prepare for a fairly bumpy ride and needing to get out a few times to help your guide move fallen trees from the path. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Aside from the cost of transportation, visitors to the site have to pay a fee of 10 Quetzales, or roughly 1.5 USD. The archaeological site of Uaxactún is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day of the week. That being said, it would be a good idea to ask around before planning your trip and taking the weather into consideration. 

As this is not a tour regularly offered, it may be a little expensive, but is truly worth it. Keep your eyes open for birds and other animals on the sides of the road. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Upon a recent visit to Uaxactún with my father, upon arrival, he excitedly exclaimed “I never thought I would get to visit this place, this is just beyond amazing.”

My father, Jorge Carlos Rosado Baeza, a long-time lover of Maya culture and archeology, poses in front of Uaxactún’s Temple of Masks with a big smile on his face. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
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