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Public History Day Five - Uxmal and Yaxcopoil

On Saturday, June 4, we traveled from Merida to visit the archaeological site at Uxmal. On the way, we stopped at the small village of Yaxcopoil, where our guide, Raul Garcia, led us to the ruins of a henequén plant that had once functioned as part of Hacienda Yaxcopoil. The name Yaxcopoil means “The Place of Green Alamo Trees” in Maya, and the plantation was named after the Maya ruins nearby. The hacienda was once considered one of the most important rural estates in Yucatan due to its tremendous size and production. Covering roughly 22,000 acres, it first served as a cattle ranch and then turned to henequén cultivation during the late 19th and early 20th century. Henequén , the fiber that comes from the agave plant native to Yucatan, can be processed to make agricultural twine that is strong, durable, and resistant to saltwater. Although henequén (like sisal) remains one of the world’s finest natural fibers, production plants in Mexico and other countries have gone out of business due to global competition and changes in production.

Returning to the van, we found a small tortilla business that allowed us to buy some hot, homemade tortillas. For fifteen pesos, we purchased a kilogram of tortillas (several dozen), which we happily ate on the rest of our drive.

The late-classic city of Uxmal (“thrice built”) presents perhaps the greatest example of Puuc style architecture (from the Puuc hills). Mayan sources written shortly after the Spanish conquest link the founding of Uxmal to 750 C.E. Although the city’s history of development remains uncertain, most of the structures at the site date from the 7th to the 10th centuries, when Uxmal served as the dominant power in the Santa Elena Valley of western Yucatan. During that period, the population at the site grew, construction of monumental architecture boomed, and militarism increased. Sakbes (the famous roadways of the Maya) also connected Uxmal to other centers of trade. In fact, historians suggest that Uxmal united itself with nearby towns Nohpat and Kabah by the late 9th century, leading to a brief period of prosperity. Within a century, however, the city entered a period of decline, and by 1150 or so people had abandoned the site due to military and environmental pressures.

Raul told our group that Uxmal grew because of the rich farmland in the surrounding valley. Yet, the site had little access to water. There were no large lakes or ponds in the region, and groundwater was more than 250 feet below the surface. So, the people of Uxmal built chultuns, underwater storage chambers, to collect and store thousands of gallons of rainwater for future use. Even these tanks proved insufficient in times of drought, however.

On our tour of Uxmal, we saw many of the outstanding structures. The real function of many of the buildings remains unknown, and they retain the fanciful names given to them by the Spanish. We saw the Magician’s Pyramid, Nunnery Quadrangle, ballcourt, Jaguar Throne, Governor’s Palace, Great Pyramid, Dovecoat, and House of the Turtles. All the buildings were ornate and many featured serpents and the Mayan rain god Chac (which may be explained by the scarcity of water of Uxmal).

After our tour of Uxmal, we ate lunch at the restaurant on site and returned to Merdia. On the drive back we listened to and discussed John Burnett’s story for radio expeditions, “Tomb Raiders Threaten Mayan City’s History.”

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