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.
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.
Some of the celestial events of most interest to the ancient Maya included the summer solstice, spring equinox, and the transit of Venus.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Architecturally, Uaxactún is a great example of classical era Petén style architecture and shares many features with other sites in the region.
The archaeological site itself is made up of eight groups, with groups A and H taking on a classical triadic or acropolis-like configuration.
The first structure most visitors to Uaxctún notice when arriving at the site is the Temple of Masks.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”