Sacbe discovery and survey
The sacbes at Muyil are numbered 2, 3, 1, 5, and 6 as one travels
west to east. (Sacbe 4 is a modern causeway associated with the Vega farm and
was likely built early in this century.)
During the 1987 survey, we learned the full extent of Sacbe 1. Both
Spinden (1926) and Peissel (1961) had mapped its western end at the Castillo
(Structure 8I‑13). Our survey located Structure 10H-1 at the eastern
end of Sacbe 1. We also identified Sacbes 2 and 3. Much of Sacbe 3 had been
destroyed by bulldozing in the 1960s, but its original extent had been
documented in Spinden's notes (1926).
During the 1988 survey, I noted from our maps that Sacbe 1 pointed
toward Structure 12H-1 in the grasslands by the Muyil lagoon. We then
located Structure 11H‑1 midway between Structure 12H-1 and
Structure 10H-1 at the east end of Sacbe 1, and also a few isolated
stones along the line between the structures. Four clearing operations and
probes in the mangrove marsh revealed segments of Sacbes 5 and 6, connecting
Structures 10H-1, 11H-1, and 12H-1.
The western transect was surveyed during the 1990 field season. It began
at the western edge of the quarries on the west side of the modern highway, at a
point due west of Sacbe 2. One of the purposes of surveying this transect
was to look for evidence of sacbe construction to the west of the
highway. We hypothesized that there might be sacbe segments continuing
westward. No such evidence was found, and I believe that the west end of Sacbe 2
is the west end of the system. We also conducted reconnaissance along likely
northern alignments for sacbe segments leading toward Coba. Although a
direct route to Coba takes one past the Muyil North Group 1.5 km away, we
found no other sacbes within this range.
As Map 5 and the maps of Appendix 5 show, the sacbes of Muyil form
a unified linear whole with temple-pyramids placed about every 125 m. The
Castillo (Structure 8I-13) and the three structures to the east of it,
Structures 10H-1, 11H-1, and 12H-1, are all aligned with their
front stairways facing approximately 12°
north of west along the line of the sacbes. The Castillo and Structure 11H-1
are built on supporting platforms that provide easy passage around the base of
the pyramid in either direction. There is, however, evidence for a preferred
side (north) of passage around them. Where Sacbe 1 articulates with the
Castillo platform, it does so at the northeast corner of the platform, not on
the Castillo centerline. Similarly, where Sacbe 5 adjoins Structure
10H-1, it connects on a line to the northeast corner, not to the midpoint
of the east side. I conclude that the Maya who built and used the sacbes
preferred the shorter passage around the north side of the structures as they
passed them along the roadway. I have no explanation for this off-center
connection to the back of the structures. At other sites, structures are
situated on the centerline of the associated sacbe (or are fully set to
one side of the roadway.) This off-center connection to the backs (east sides)
of the structures notwithstanding, at Muyil, all sacbe segments depart
the west side of each of the temple-pyramids on the centerline of the structure
and its front stairway.
We excavated several test pits along the length of the sacbe and
conducted four sacbe clearing operations on Sacbes 5 and 6. The following
discussion describes these test excavations beginning at the west end of the sacbes
and continuing eastward to the Muyil lagoon.
The west end of Sacbe 2 terminates at a group of three temple pyramids
and a double platform with a Postclassic temple on it (Structures 7I-4, 5,
8, 9, 10; see map of grid square 7I in Appendix 5.) These structures are
adjacent to the Entrance Plaza Group, known for its early occupation by the
abundance of Late Formative Sierra Red ceramics recovered from test pits 5 and 6
in the artificial platform of the plaza. Thus, the western end of the sacbe
system (Sacbe 2) reaches into the heart of the oldest area of the site.
Sacbe 2 was not excavated. From its surface remains, two parallel lines
of unworked stones similar to field walls, I believe it originally had stone
sides made of rocks about 30 cm in diameter and a packed earth fill.
Portions of Sacbe 3 still remain after losses both to bulldozing for
the highway and to reuse of stones for modern field walls. It appears to have
been constructed entirely of unworked stones. If Maya practice elsewhere were
followed here, then the roadway surface of the sacbe would have also been
plastered. Sacbe 2, with its presumed earthen fill, and Sacbe 3 with a fill
of unworked stones represent two of the four different construction techniques
used by the sacbe builders of Muyil.
Two test pits were excavated adjacent to the Castillo, Structure 8I‑13,
into its supporting platform. Test pit 4, in front of the Castillo, sampled
Sacbe 3. Test pit 69, at the rear of the Castillo sampled the supporting
platform, but did not directly sample Sacbe 1, whose western terminus is a
few meters north of the test pit.
Pit 4 produced an abundance of Navula Unslipped and Chen Mul Modeled
sherds in the first three levels to a depth of 40 cm. This material also
included small counts of Muna Slate, Ticul Thin-slate, and Kukula group
Xcanchacan Black-on-slate. This evidence identifies these levels as Late
Postclassic, with Early Postclassic and Terminal Classic material in the
construction fill. In level 4, at 47 cm below datum, we encountered broken
pieces of stucco, a layer of chich, then dry-laid stones with cavities
between them. This is rather clear evidence of a floor, although it certainly
was not intact. The levels below continued to produce a little more Late
Postclassic material, but with a higher proportion of Classic slate material and
unidentifiable polychromes. With this evidence from pit 4, the platform (and the
Castillo) cannot be dated any earlier than the Early Postclassic. As discussed
more fully in Chapter 3 above, a radiocarbon analysis of wood from the remaining
lintel of the Castillo (Structure 8I-13) gives a calibrated two-sigma
date in the range A.D. 1010 (1043, 1105, 1112, 1150) A.D. 1220, the
Early Postclassic, based on a 14C date of 930 ± 50 years BP
(radiocarbon years before 1950 A.D.).
Pit 69, into the platform at the back (east side) of the Castillo, also
produced Late Postclassic materials, but somewhat more Classic and Early
Postclassic evidence in the form of sherds of Arena Red, Teabo Red, Kukula
Cream, and Ticul Thin-slate.
Continuing eastward along the sacbe system (but still up on the
karstic shelf), test pits 7 and 14 sampled Sacbe 1 at its eastern end in front
of Structure 10H-1. Test pit 7 was designed to sample the
cross-section of one-half of Sacbe 1, and did produce further evidence of the
construction technique used for Sacbe 1: large limestone slabs measuring 50-60 cm
across were stood on edge to form the edge of the sacbe, and then the
roadway was formed by placing large slabs horizontally, and then covering these
with rubble fill between the two edges formed of upright slabs. This is the
third of four construction techniques we observed for Muyil sacbes. Test
pit 7 produced no identifiable sherds among the twelve recovered.
Test pit 14, directly in front of Structure 10H‑1 on the west
side, produced Navula Unslipped or Chen Mul Modeled (Navula group) sherds in all
five levels. One sherd of Sierra Red: Clear-slip Variety was found in level 2,
and one sherd of Ticul Thin-slate: Xelha Variety was recovered in level 4.
Again, this suggests a Late Postclassic construction time for this structure and
for Sacbe 1.
To the east of Structure 10H-1, halfway down the slope of the edge
of the karstic shelf, we excavated test pit 26 to sample for port structures.
The single sherd from the Timucuy group recovered from this pit, in isolation,
offers no evidence to support any conclusion. The test pit quickly reached
bedrock, and no structures were encountered.
The sacbe clearing operations are identified as pits 75, 76, and
77 into Sacbe 5 and pit 78 into Sacbe 6. These operations were designed more to
reveal the alignment of the sacbe sections through the mangrove swamp
than to recover ceramics. They have no stratigraphy. In all four cases, the
operation consisted of removing a thin layer (about 20 cm) of soil from the
tops and sides of the single layer of stones forming the sacbe. The
protrusion of some stone tops through the humus first revealed the sacbe
alignment. With the exception of a single unidentifiable polychrome sherd, pit
75 produced Late Postclassic Navula Unslipped and Payil Red material. Test pit
76, slightly to the east, produced one identifiable sherd of Late Classic
Becanchen Brown. Pit 77, even further east on the same sacbe produced
five sherds of Navula Unslipped (Late Postclassic) and test pit 78 produced no
identifiable ceramics. I date these two sacbe sections (5 and 6) to the
Late Postclassic. These two sacbe segments are at the same elevation as
the grasslands and the Muyil lagoon. When the rainy season started in June 1988,
our cleared sections 76 and 77 flooded to the tops of the stones the first day.
Test pit 3, in front of Structure 12H-1, the temple in the
grasslands, samples both Sacbe 6 and the apron of Structure 12H-1.
This is the structure and the test pit nearest to the lagoon. Level 1 (3 cm
deep) of pit 3 contained 28 sherds of Chen Mul Modeled censers and one sherd of
Payil Red, all Late Postclassic. Levels 2 through 5 also contained predominantly
Chen Mul Modeled censer material, plus Navula Unslipped, Payil Red, and Mama Red
from the Late Postclassic. Level 4 contained the remains of a stucco floor
and levels 4 through 6 contained a few sherds of unidentifiable polychromes.
Sherds of Navula Unslipped and Chen Mul Modeled censers, however, are also found
below this floor, indicating that both the platform with the floor, and the
construction above it date to the Late Postclassic. This pit produced only Late
Postclassic material, with a few sherds of earlier polychromes as might be
included as a result of collecting material for platform fill.
Sacbe construction techniques
Survey, test pit excavations, and sacbe clearing operations
ultimately revealed four different sacbe construction techniques had been
used by the builders at Muyil: stones sides with earthen fill, unworked stone
throughout, vertical slab sides and slab base, and single-course stone pavement.
Sacbe 2 consisted of a double line of numerous unworked stones 25-40 cm
in diameter. Throughout its length, but especially pronounced at the western
end, the soil level between the two lines of stones was 30-40 cm lower than
the tops of the stones. This gave the appearance of two collapsed field walls
spaced about 2½ m apart. The alignment and conjunction with other
structures, however, identify them, as Spinden did, as a segment of the sacbe
system. I believe that this section was originally filled with packed earth
which has since eroded to near the level of the surrounding terrain, leaving
only the stone sides of the sacbe to identify its alignment.
Sacbe 3, west of and in front of the Castillo, was made completely of
unworked stone. Test pit 3 sampled its construction, and in its use of unworked
stone throughout, possibly with a layer of chich and plaster on top, it
conforms to a common pattern. For example, Folan et al. illustrate such
construction for sacbes at Coba (1983:82 Figure 5.12).
Sacbe 1, largest of the Muyil sacbes in height and length, used a
third construction technique. Here, sacbe sides were formed of a single
row of large upright slabs of unworked limestone. The interior of the sacbe
was begun with the placing of additional large flat unworked slabs horizontally
between the upright sides, then filling the balance of the height with
increasingly smaller stones, and presumably chich and plaster. In their
discussion of linear features at Coba, Folan et al. describe a similar
construction technique for elaborate walkways (1983:95-96).
The fourth construction technique used at Muyil, employed for Sacbes 5
and 6, built the roadway with a single layer of unworked stones, closely laid
directly on the soil to form a paved walk. Many of the limestone rocks in the
area have two relatively flat parallel sides owing to their sedimentary origins,
and may be laid in this fashion without significant dressing.
An unusual structure
Sacbes 2 and 3 are linked by an unique double structure on a platform.
(All other sacbe-related features are temple-pyramids.) The platform
itself is 60 cm high, and has steps down to Sacbe 3. Sacbe 2, on the west
side, has an elevation of about 40 cm. On the platform are a pair of
buildings (Structures 7I-11 and 7I-13) that are badly ruined. One
can, however, discern that they probably had a passageway between them. Thus,
travelling either direction over Sacbes 2 and 3, one must, at their junction,
climb up two to four steps, and pass between the two buildings. Folan et al.
(1983:83-84, Figure 5.15) illustrate a similar twin edifice situated on Sacbe 3
at Coba (leading to San Pedro). They suggest that perhaps there was originally
an arch to be passed through at this point, with rooms on either side. They also
note that this configuration is unusual at Coba. Although I have no other means
to date this portion of the Muyil sacbe system, the parallel between this
feature and the one at Coba suggests a date in the Late Classic or Terminal
Classic for it at Muyil. This is the only point on the sacbe system which
seems to front both east and west — all other structures face west.
The missing Muyil port
One key question raised by Muyil investigations was, "Where is the
port facility?" I originally hypothesized that at the east end of Sacbe 1,
associated with the edge of the karstic shelf, there would be platforms, walls,
and other structures that served as the port facility at Muyil. Extensive
reconnaissance, clearing, and survey failed to produce evidence of any
port-related structures. Freidel and Sabloff (1984:185-192) note that Cozumel,
among other points in the Maya coastal trade network of the Postclassic, has
storage facilities located away from the coast. "... warehousing facilities
on Cozumel, and perhaps elsewhere during the Postclassic, are nucleated but not
necessarily located at centralized port facilities" (1984:186). This
suggests the possibility that the Muyil sacbe system is the only
sea-route-related structure to be found near the water. Storage of goods in
transit may have been on large low platforms of just the sort one finds in the
vicinity of Temple 8 at Muyil.
Comparisons with Xelha
The Xelha sacbe system bears several points of similarity with the
one at Muyil. Map references here are to Canché M. (1992:Figure 2), a map of
Xelha drawn by Carlos Pérez Alvarez and Rafael Cobos Palma in 1980-82. Sacbe 1
(Xelha) connects the Group of the Jaguar (C) with the Lothrop Group (B) along a
northwest-southeast line. This intrasite sacbe connects two major
architectural groups, just as Sacbes 2 and 3 (Muyil) connect the Entrance Plaza
Group with the Castillo.
Sacbe 3 (Xelha) connects the Lothrop Group with the edge of the Xelha
inlet where there is a small altar. Although this sacbe does not extend
in full to join the Lothrop Group at its west end, the alignment is
unmistakable. This sacbe offers a striking parallel to Sacbes 1, 5, and 6
at Muyil which extend from the Castillo to the lagoon.
These parallels, when combined with the ceramic evidence as well as the
settlement pattern evidence of similar field wall systems at the two sites,
reinforces the similarities between Muyil and Xelha in the Postclassic.
The age of the sacbe structures - a summary
for dating the sacbe structures and for the use of the sea-access
watercourse by the ancient Maya is meager and equivocal. Beginning at the far
west of the sacbe system, the west end of Sacbe 2 falls into the oldest
area of the site, but cannot be dated on the evidence at hand. The structures
between Sacbes 2 and 3 are not dated by ceramics, but may date to the Classic or
Terminal Classic by parallel with a similar configuration at Coba,
The Castillo dates to the Early Postclassic. Sacbes 1, 5 and 6, and
Structures 10H-1, 11H-1, and 12H-1, the temple in the
grasslands by the lagoon, all date to the Late Postclassic. The temple at Vigía
del Lago on Cayo Venado, on the basis of both ceramics and architectural
style, dates to the Postclassic.
shows the proportions of ceramics by period
from excavations along the sacbe system. In all cases, Navula group
ceramics constitute 70-100 percent of the identifiable ceramics.
© Copyright 2000-2005 Walter R. T. Witschey Page last updated Wednesday, April 02, 2008