Uncover the secrets of Sayil, but look out for anthills

Archaeology Monday provides historical background, photos and practical information about the wonders of Mesoamerican antiquity and how to get out and enjoy them for yourself. This week we continue to explore the Puuc region and visit the ancient Maya city of Sayil.

Just 10 minutes south of Kabah lay the ruins of the city of Sayil. As you continue driving south and further into the jungle, you will notice a gradual thickening of vegetation, the presence of more and more birds, and if you are lucky, countless tiny yellow butterflies that seem to appear out of nowhere after a good rain. 

Sayil’s three level great palace. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

In Yucatec-Maya, Sayil means “place of the ants.” Take the hint and wear closed shoes instead of sandals, and watch your step. As always plenty of water, a rimmed hat and sunblock are always a good idea.

A little flycatcher (Legatus leucophaius) enjoys some breakfast. Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Sayil shares many architectural features with its Puuc Valley neighbors. However, evidence suggests that it was founded in the 8th century, a good deal later than most other large cities in the area. Sayil is believed to have supported a population of approximately 10,000 people and was an important agricultural center. 

The largest structure at the site is known as the Great Palace. This monumental three-story building has more than 90 rooms, eight chultunes, or underground cisterns, and was built between the 8th and 10th centuries. It was likely a multi-functional complex with residential quarters for the city’s elite, administrative offices and storage areas for grain. 

At Sayil, a restored section of Great Palace’s main external staircase. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Although not as grand as pyramids or large palaces, chultunes were essential to life in the Puuc Valley where — unlike other areas in Yucatán — cenotes are scarce. These underground cisterns were dug and then lined with stucco to keep stored water from draining away. This meant that cities in the Puuc region were much more dependent on rain than those in areas such as Chichén Itzá where underground water was plentiful. 

Small chultunes are common in the Puuc region. Illustration: Courtesy.

For reasons that should now be clear, many structures in Sayil are adorned with rain-god masks. It is interesting to note that although all rain-god masks in the Puuc share the same basic elements, the artisans of each city seem to have added their own touches. In the case of Sayil, keen observers will note that Chaac’s hook-like nose appears a little more trunk-like. 

Photograph of complete rain god mask at Sayil and an illustration of the same feature by explorer Frederick Catherwood in 1839. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The structure known as El Mirador is built on a four-meter platform and topped with a building divided into two rooms and heightened by a crest or roof comb. Although the crest is badly eroded, a little stucco remains and hints at a colorful green design featuring feathers and flowers.

Crests are relatively rare in the Puuc region, as more often than not they do not survive the ravages of time. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

At the bottom of Sayil’s estela No. 4, we may see a pattern which according to archaeologists symbolizes passing to the afterlife. Though the face of the human figure is badly eroded, it is possible to make out an adorned headdress that borrows elements from the ever-present rain god, Chaac. 

Estela No. 4 at Sayil. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht, Illustration: Courtesy

As of mid-February 2021, Sayil remains closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Check back for updates. 

A rain god mask in Sayil is missing its nose. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

As with all archaeological sites in Mexico, it is prohibited to bring in food or drink other than water. The entrance fee is 55 pesos Monday through Saturday. On Sunday admittance is free for Mexican nationals and foreign residents of Yucatán with ID. 

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.