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The importance of Chichen Itza

            Anthony P. Andrews recently asserted:

            The rise and fall of the Itzá state in the northern Maya lowlands of the Yucatan peninsula, Mexico, during the Terminal Classic and Early Postclassic times, was probably the single most important process in late Maya history. This was a time of momentous changes, of great social stress exacerbated by foreign influences, invasions, and warfare. It was also a period in which the elite of a single capital embarked on an attempt to forge the largest polity in Maya history, and, for reasons that are poorly understood, failed to do so. (A. P. Andrews 1990:258)

            Throughout the Late Classic and Terminal Classic, and perhaps into the Early Postclassic, Muyil is similar to Coba in its ceramic record. Coba was a major political and economic force before the rise of Chichen Itza in the ninth century. It is not surprising that these two major powers collided along the nearest borders of the areas they controlled. Recent research is bringing to light the extent to which Chichen Itza spread its trade goods by coastal canoe travel, at times leap-frogging the ports of its competitors (Andrews et al. 1988:196-207). This may have been of special relevance to Coba, since Itzá ceramics are documented as far south on the east coast as northern Belize (Nohmul) and the Itzá may have been severing Coba's trade ties along the coast from port areas such as Tancah, Xelha, and Muyil. The interaction between Coba and Chichen Itza serves to highlight the recent proposal that the Itzá were forging a new political structure in which power resided in a ruling class, perhaps with multiple rulers or brothers (Andrews 1990:260). This contrasts with the Classic-period political structure, in evidence at Coba on the stelae, of single rulers in dynastic succession.

            These interactions are the source of our questions about and research into the ceramics of Chichen Itza at Muyil.


The interpretive problems with Chichen Itza

            The final 600 years' history of the preconquest Maya and especially the history of Chichen Itza has been difficult to establish and frustrating to researchers for a variety of reasons: (1) conflicting correlations between the Maya and the Christian calendars — an issue now resolved in favor of the Goodman-Martínez-Thompson correlation; (2) failure of the Maya to record long-count dates in stone after the Terminal Classic; (3) inability to reconcile high levels of activity in northern Yucatan with the collapse of central Peten sites; (4) an influx of new people and new iconographic and architectural elements at Chichen Itza and elsewhere from the central Gulf coast or central Mexico; (5) the traditional belief that Chichen Itza survived into the thirteenth century confronting accumulating archaeological evidence that it was in decline 200 years or more earlier; (6) an apparent resurgence of Maya activity along the east coast of Quintana Roo in the Late Postclassic; and (7) ambiguities in and interpretive problems with the Maya chronicles and relaciones, whose cyclic replay of past history and future prediction obscures the past.


Prior findings about the ceramics of Chichen Itza

            The Cehpech ceramic sphere encompasses Muna Slate ceramics of the Puuc region and of Coba across the northern lowlands. The Sotuta ceramic sphere to the north encompasses the ceramics of Chichen Itza, particularly the Muna-like slate ceramic, Dzitas Slate. Dzitas Slate is often used as evidence of the presence of Chichen Itza ceramics at sites in the northern lowlands. The Sotuta ceramic sphere was once believed to follow the Cehpech sphere in time, but most researchers now accept a considerable temporal overlap between the two (Ringle and Bey 1991:3).

            Andrews (1990:261) says that many sites between Chichen Itza and the north coast yield substantial amounts of Chichen Itza ceramics. In contrast, Ringle and Bey found a high proportion (30%) of Muna Slate ceramics at Ek Balam, 58 km east-northeast of Chichen Itza, but few (<1%) Dzitas Slate sherds. From this they conclude that the ceramics of Chichen Itza must not have affected the production and distribution of Cehpech ceramics at Ek Balam (Ringle and Bey 1988:42). Robles (1990) considers Sotuta ceramics at Coba to be a minor intrusion. On Cozumel, Connor (1983:181, 241) reported 85% as many Dzitas Slate sherds as Muna Slate sherds. At Xelha, Canché M. reported significant numbers of Dzitas sherds, but in proportions like those of Muyil and Coba.

            At the Classic/Postclassic transition, both Coba and Chichen Itza ceramics appear at many peninsu­lar sites, but in different ways. In some areas, as has been shown above, one or the other is clearly domi­nant in the ceramic record. Muyil could have been closely associated with one or the other ceramically, or could have had yet a third, more independent ceramic pattern. Along the east coast, the picture in Quintana Roo is confused, perhaps due to the common practice of excavat­ing test pits in mixed platform fill. Coba ceramics and Chichen Itza ceramics some­times occur in isola­tion, sometimes occur in superposi­tion, and sometimes are mixed (see, for example, Canché M. 1992: Tables 1 and 2).





Intersite comparisons of Cehpech and Sotuta ceramics

Research at Muyil

            At Muyil, several questions about the Classic/Postclassic transition, especially with respect to Chichen Itza, were investigated using the ceramic evidence: (a) to what extent do we see the ceramics of Chichen Itza at Muyil? (b) do the ceramics of Chichen Itza follow those of the Puuc in time (and swamp them) or do they coincide or at least overlap in time and space? The first of these alternatives would support a later (Early Postclassic) date for the pre-eminence of Chichen Itza, while the latter would support an earlier (Terminal Classic) date for Chichen Itza; (c) how does the record of Chichen Itza ceramics at Muyil compare with the record of Coba ceramics at the site and at other nearby sites?

Figure 2 Dzitas group and Muna group ceramics at selected sites. (Robles 1990, Connor 1983, Canche M. 1992)




Proportions of Cehpech and Sotuta ceramics at Muyil

            I began by constructing the accompanying chart (2), which shows a percentage comparison of Muna group ceramics with Dzitas group ceramics. The sherd counts for these two major groups of slipped ceramics are taken from four sites (Muyil, Xelha, Coba, and Cozumel.) The Muna ceramic group is associated with the Cehpech ceramic sphere of northwestern Yucatan and extending eastward to Coba and the coast, and the Dzitas ceramic group is associated with the Sotuta ceramic sphere centered at Chichen Itza. From the Muna group the abundant types Muna Slate, Chumayel Red-on-slate, and Sacalum Black-on-slate are used. From the Dzitas group, the parallel ceramic types are used: Dzitas Slate, Balam Canche Red-on-slate, and Balantun Black-on-slate. Sherd counts are from the analyses of Robles (1990:211-214) for Coba, of Canché M. (1992:183-186) for Xelha, and of Connor (1983:188-192, 202-206) for Cozumel.

            The proportion of the Dzitas group is between 15% and 20% of the total at Muyil, Coba, and Xelha, with Coba the lowest and Xelha the highest. The fact that the three sites have such similar proportions of Dzitas material challenges expectations for several reasons. At Coba, Dzitas material is considered by Robles (1990:212) as a negligible intrusion into a Cehpech sphere site, while at Xelha, the influx of Chichen Itza iconography is considered stronger — Toltec-style architectural elements, such as murals and serpent-head balustrades, are cited in support. Thus, we might expect Xelha to have a much higher proportion of Dzitas ceramics than Coba does. Xelha has Toltec-style architectur­al elements, but none have been found at Muyil. We would, therefore, expect a higher proportion of Dzitas ceramics at Xelha than at Muyil, but the proportions of Dzitas material at the two sites are similar. A significant part of the Chichen Itza ceramics spread by sea travel (from the Itzá port at Isla Cerritos and to Cozu­mel, for example), yet Coba, an inland site, has virtually the same proportion of Dzitas material as do Muyil and Xelha, on the coast. At Cozumel, long considered an Itzá outpost, the proportion of Dzitas material reaches about 45%, providing support from ceramic distribution patterns for this assertion (Connor 1983:192).

            These findings lead to several conclusions. Since the ceram­ics of Chichen Itza reached Muyil, Xelha, and Coba in similar amounts, but architectural influences from Chichen Itza are strong at Xelha and weak at Coba and Muyil, I infer that the architecture of Chichen Itza was propagating differently from the ceramics. This strongly suggests that Itzá traders were not significant builder-settlers within the Coba area of control.

            Since the ceramics of Chichen Itza reached inland to Coba to the same extent that they were imported to the coastal sites of Muyil and Xelha, in spite of the possibility that these Sotuta ceramics were imported into Coba from the interior to the west as well as from the coast to the east, I suggest that the cultural correlates of the Chichen Itza ceramics operated similarly throughout the area that Coba controlled. I infer that Muyil remained within the Coba hegemony as Chichen Itza ceramics were spreading, but that due to the additional presence of Chichen Itza architectural elements, Xelha became more closely associated with Chichen Itza than did Muyil. I also believe that the presence of the architectural elements at Xelha is a sign that the sea trade of Coba, through Xelha, Tancah, and Muyil, was beginning to be disrupted. This architecture is the first evidence of divergence between Xelha on the one hand and Tancah and Muyil on the other.

The implications of Kukula group ceramics

Figure 3 Muna, Dzitas, and Kukula ceramic group proportions at selected sites. (Robles 1990, Connor 1983, Canché M. 1992)


            In the second illustration (3), which still includes the Muna and Dzitas group sherds as described above, sherds from the Kukula group have been added. These include the types Kukula Cream and Xcanchacan Black-on-cream. The proportions of the Postclassic Kukula group ceramics are the same at Muyil and Xelha, but the group is absent at Coba. The first conclusion is that while heavy occupation in the Early Postclassic, when Kukula group ceramics first appear, continued at Muyil and Xelha, it virtually ceased at Coba. This is the data that Robles (1990:41) reports for Coba and it is fully consistent with the commencement of a strong coastal development in the Postclassic. Second, the proportion of Dzitas group sherds to Muna group sherds is similar at Muyil, Xelha, and Coba. At Muyil and Xelha, the proportion of Dzitas group to Kukula group is similar, but is strikingly different at Coba. This strongly suggests that Dzitas Slate predates Kukula Cream and adds support for a Terminal Classic date for the period of Chichen Itza. The extraordinary proportion of Kukula group ceramics at Cozumel (Connor 1983:260-271) suggests that both coastal trade and the site of Cozumel were growing in importance in the Postclassic.

            Kukula group ceramics are virtually absent at Chichen Itza also (Ringle and Bey 1991:2). I infer that this indicates that both these two great interior sites, Coba and Chichen Itza, had fallen into inactivity at the onset of the Early Postclassic and Kukula group ceramics.


The date of Sotuta ceramics at Muyil

Does Dzitas Slate appear intermixed with Muna Slate?

            The last line of evidence to consider with the Muyil data is that from the individual test pits. I was especially interested in the question of whether Dzitas group ceramics occur earlier than, mixed with, or later than the Muna group ceramics. I shall briefly review the evidence based on the details of the stratigraphic excavations. See Appendix 2 for additional details.


Evidence from the Muyil test pits

            Dzitas group sherds appear in sixteen Muyil test pits: (1, 2, 11, 13, 16, 17, 22, 23, 24, 32, 43, 48, 49, 50, 65, 68). In these are thirty levels with Dzitas group sherds. Of these, 21 levels (70%) also contain Muna group sherds. Three of the remaining nine levels contain Dzitas, but no Muna, but occur between two levels (one immediately above, one just below) that do contain Muna group sherds. This establishes that in 80 percent of the levels where Dzitas group sherds are found, they occur with Muna group sherds.

            When one isolates Muna material in only those test pits from the list above that are located in midden areas, as opposed to platform fill, of which midden pits 11 and 16 are good examples, we find that the Muna group sherds occur not only with Dzitas group sherds, but also below them. For example, test pit 11 contains four levels (1-4) with both Dzitas and Muna group sherds. Below level 4, eight of the next nine levels (5-9, 11-13) contain Muna but no Dzitas group sherds. In test pit 16, levels 1-3 contain Muna group sherds only; level 4 contains one sherd each from the Muna group and the Dzitas group; and levels 4-9 contain Muna group ceramics only. In addition to these two examples, seven other Muyil test pits contain levels with Muna group ceramics below the lowest level containing Dzitas group ceramics. This indicates that at Muyil the Dzitas group ceramics arrive during the later part of the period during which slate wares (Muna and Dzitas) were in use. I infer that Muna Slate was in use during both the Late Classic and the Terminal Classic, but that Dzitas Slate does not arrive until the Terminal Classic (A.D. 800 - 1000).

            These last findings correspond well with the association of calibrated radiocarbon dates with ceramic spheres illustrated by Robles in Canché M. (1992:Table 5, cited with Robles' permission.) Dates associated with the Cehpech ceramic sphere (Muna ceramic group) from Uxmal, Sayil, Loltun, and Isla Cerritos show an earliest 1-sigma date of about A.D. 500 (Uxmal Y‑627  calibrated A.D. 560±60, 1390±60 B.P.]) and a latest 1-sigma date of A.D. 1250 (Loltun I-11, 036) with three dates having 1-sigma limits between A.D. 640-950 (Isla Cerritos BA-14081, Uxmal IVIC‑485 calibrated A.D. 740±60, 1210±60 B.P., and Sayil IVIC‑484 calibrated A.D. 720±60, 1190±60 B.P.). Dates associated with the Sotuta ceramic sphere show an earliest 1-sigma of A.D. 630

(Chichen Itza TBN-313-2 radiocarbon years B.P. 1350.0±70.0) and a latest 1-sigma of A.D. 1400 (Isla Cerritos BA-14085) with six dates whose 1-sigma limits fall in the range A.D. 850-1050 (Chichen Itza TBN-313-1 radiocarbon years B.P. 1170.0±70.0; Chichen Itza Y-626 radiocarbon years B.P. 1160.0±70.0; Chichen Itza Y-626-bis radiocarbon years B.P. 1140.0±100.0]; Chichen Itza UCLA-1706 radiocarbon years B.P. 1135±60 calibrated A.D. 900-1000; Balankanche P-1132 radiocarbon years B.P. 1072.0±51.0 calibrated A.D. 896-1012 and P-1133 radiocarbon years B.P. 1028.0±42.0 calibrated A.D. 979-1023). This illustrates, using data from other sites, both the overlap of the two ceramic groups, Muna and Dzitas, and also the somewhat later temporal position of the start of Sotuta sphere (Dzitas group) ceramics as compared with the Muna ceramic group.



Conclusions about Chichen Itza

            Although these findings suggest the temporal span of Dzitas ceramics at Muyil, they leave several questions open. Why are Dzitas ceramics found in the same proportions at two sites (Coba, Muyil) neither of which has Chichen architectural elements, as well as at Xelha, which does show such architectural elements? Perhaps as A. P. Andrews (1990:261) says, "the new [Itzá] rulers permitted local Maya chiefs to continue to rule over their provinces while paying tribute and allegiance..." Such a policy would have provided the freedom for local chiefs to incorporate new architectural and artistic elements from the Itzá repertoire as they saw fit. The result would be that some sites, such as Muyil and Tancah, might conservatively continue with Classic-period traits while others, such as Xelha, moved to adopt new Itzá architectural practices. It is also possible that the trade of Itzá commodities in Dzitas vessels operated well beyond the locus of sites controlled by Chichen Itza, such as Xelha (perhaps a satellite distribution point) that adopted Chichen Itza iconography.

            I also leave unanswered whether other sites along the east coast of Quintana Roo, to the north of Muyil, show the same proportion of Dzitas material (15-20% Dzitas group; 80-85% Muna group) as is found at Muyil, Xelha, and Coba. Are there grounds to hypothesize a pervasive (but low level) interaction between Chichen Itza and the eastern half of the peninsula? I believe Coba, Muyil, and Xelha show this low-level interaction. The contrast is sharp between this proportion of ceramics, and that of an Itzá-controlled outpost, if the high Cozumel proportions (45% Dzitas : 55% Muna; Connor 1983) are to be a model of the Itzá establishing an outpost under their control and the resulting ceramic record. 

            The total absence of Kukula group ceramics at Coba, following a millennium of ceramic parallels between Coba and its two nearby coastal neighbors, Muyil and Xelha, suggests that the actions of Chichen Itza prior to its own collapse did play a role in the disruption of Coba's commerce. In the Postclassic, the strong presence of Kukula group ceramics along the coast signals the arrival of new trade networks and heightened coastal activity — but without the participation of the earlier and more powerful interior sites, Coba and Chichen Itza.

            The evidence from Muyil shows that Muna group ceramics arrive earlier than Dzitas group ceramics. The record also shows that Dzitas group ceramics are found with Muna ceramics in levels above those that contain Muna but no Dzitas group sherds. At Coba and Chichen Itza, in contrast with Xelha and Muyil, Kukula group ceramics are absent. These factors taken together favor an earlier (Terminal Classic/early Early Postclassic) date for the fall of Chichen Itzá over a later (late Early Postclassic) date as has been preferred by some earlier researchers.

            In summary, I believe that the evidence of Chichen Itza ceramics at Muyil, Coba, and Xelha is quite similar. Dzitas group sherds occur at a rather modest level when they arrive (constituting only 15-20% of the major slipped ceramics at the sites). They arrive later at Muyil (and, I believe, at the other two sites) than the Muna group ceramics of the Cehpech ceramic sphere and they reflect the growing coastal commerce of the Itzá. Muyil and Xelha, as well as Coba, never approach the high proportion of Dzitas group ceramics to Muna group ceramics as Cozumel has. Although Chichen Itza control may have bypassed the ports at Xcaret, Tancah, and Muyil, the Itzá development of trade routes along the coast, perhaps with Xelha as an Itzá outpost, may have significantly disrupted the previously strong flow of goods across the peninsula (to and through Coba) in the Late Classic. But development at Chichen Itza could not be sustained either. The Itzá capital, Chichen Itza, was as far from its north coast port, Isla Cerritos, as Coba was from its ports at Muyil, Tancah, and Xelha. Andrews' comment about the Itzá may well apply also to Coba:

            It was caught in the midst of a desolated and increasingly hostile countryside, far removed from its main economic base, the coast. This isolation from the coast, its resources, and related trade networks may have rendered [its] position all the more vulnerable to the destabiliza­tion in the interior." (Andrews 1990:264)

The Postclassic commences with the loss of both Coba and Chichen Itza as major power centers in the northern Maya lowlands.

New Developments on the East Coast


Early Postclassic (Chunkopo ceramic complex A.D. 1000-1200)

            During the Early Postclassic, regional developments in the northwest around Mayapan and along the east coast proceeded without the influence or participation of Coba for the first time in a millennium. In addition, Chichen Itza was no longer a factor in commerce or in political control. Peto Cream ware (Kukula group ceramics) of the Postclassic is abundant at Muyil, Xelha, and along the coast as well as in the northwest of the peninsula, but is completely absent at Coba and at Chichen Itza.

            At Muyil, I believe that construction continued to enlarge the structures at the center of the site, and to build new ones. This period seems the most likely one for the construction of the upper sacbe segments, for the Castillo (the radiocarbon date of its lintel places it within this era), and for the pyramids in the Entrance Plaza Group whose style is the same as the Castillo. I would also date the pyramids of the same style found at Tancah and at Chamax on the coast to the same period. This substantial building program indicates that a vigorous population was thriving in the Muyil area.


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