Sacbes
Home Up Background Sacbes Lagoon Edge Canal Trade Summary

 

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.

Test excavations

            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

Figure Ceramics from the Muyil sacbes

           Evidence 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