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The Mason-Spinden Expedition

            We know today that the tallest structure at Muyil is more than 17 m (50+ feet) above the nearby terrain and about 24 m above the water level of the lagoon. It certainly would have been noted by the Carnegie Institution's expeditions had they been aware of it. This temple-pyramid (Structure 8I-13), was first recorded and photographed by the Mason-Spinden Expedition of 1926, the first archaeological expedition to visit the site (Photograph 2, Mason 1927, frontispiece). 

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Photograph 2, The Castillo, (Structure 8I-13) by Mason (1926, frontispiece)          Click picture for high-resolution version of the picture.

            Gregory Mason and Herbert J. Spinden, the latter of the Peabody Museum of Harvard, traveled by motor-sailer northward from Belize. 

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Photograph 3, The Mason-Spinden Expedition (Mason 1927:272)                            Click on picture for high resolution version.

            While presenting their credentials to Candelario Garza, the local Mexican Governor, (at Payo Obispo on Chetumal Bay) they were told by Engineer Raymundo E. Enríquez, a forester, of two ruins (Muyil and the isolated structure at nearby Vigía del Lago on Cayo Venado where it joins with the Chunyaxche Lagoon ). Enríquez had seen both sites while prospecting for chicle (the white chewing gum sap of the zapote, still collected commercially in the Muyil area.) Enríquez accurately described and sketched for Mason and Spinden the water route from Boca Paila, westward up Cayo Venado to the Chunyaxche Lagoon, across the northern end of the lagoon, through a 500-m channel to the Muyil Lagoon and across it to Muyil (Mason 1927:40-42).

            Mason's report of the trip through the channel is a good representation of what Maya canoes must have encountered:

         Boca de Paila means "Mouth of a Cauldron." The "mouth" in the reef here is narrow, and the water inside is nearly always turbulent, for the insufficient reef merely knocks the white caps off the sea rollers, does not stop them or even change their rhythm. ... After dodging coral heads all the way in from the reef mouth and bumping bottom twice here we anchored in the midst of them on none too good holding ground, pitching and lurching in a nasty swell with the foaming beach only four hundred yards under our lee...

         About half a mile directly behind the mouth in the reef is a break in the shore, an opening into a great expanse of lagoons, lakes, and swamps. ... This inner boca is guarded by a bar. [after crossing the bar...] We were soon in smooth water... Here at its entrance the lagoon offered loveliness to lure us into the mud and mangrove horror beyond. Through the deliciously clear tropic water white sand gleamed under our keel, exaggerating the vivid gold and blue and black of swift fish. The lagoon was so narrow that on each side we could almost count the shells on a creamy beach. The lagoon forked... Almost immediately we ran aground. ... [The guide] added that it was shallow for only twenty feet. We all got out and dragged the boat through six inches of water ... [for 550 yards] The lagoon was now a wide shallow lake of brackish water with low shores of the monotonous mangrove... At last we reached the other side of this expanse of open shallows and entered a channel some hundred yards wide which wound among clumps of mangrove. Herons, white egrets and their reddish cousins and roseate spoonbills rose at the buzz of the first gasoline engine they had ever heard. In a half hour or so the channel narrowed rapidly. We tasted the water, it was sweet. The wide sluggish river had become a freshwater stream with a very perceptible current. ... The current was increasing ... [and] the course of the stream now wound like the path of an erratic snake. ... It was like Mississippi navigation on a Lilliputian scale... As we grazed a bank, Spinden sighted rare orchids and jumped ashore... The swamp gradually gave way to savannah. We swept around a bend ... and there was the first temple, dazzling white in the sun.

         It is a one-storied, oblong building, rather small — in short, an outpost of the city. It faces a lake about two hundred feet west of it, a lake of which the river we had been following is an outlet. With happy inspiration Spinden promptly named the building "Vigía del Lago" ("The Watch on the Lake" or "The Lookout on the Lake").  


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Photograph 4. The temple at Vigía del Lago (Mason 1927:160)

         There were no trees near the building except a dead one on its roof. But there was a lot of brush and high grass, which had to be cut down before we could get photo­graphs of the front of the temple with its three doors, and an interesting carving over them. 

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Photograph 5. The temple at Vigía del Lago (Mason 1927:184)

         The size of the lake surprised us... It was the narrow northern tip of the lake which we crossed. [We were heading] directly into a bank of high grass when it suddenly opened and showed us a channel as narrow as the upper end of the river we had left. The more we studied the construction of this, the more convinced were we that it was a canal, a canal made by the Mayas centuries ago. It ran nearly straight, and although its banks were covered with grass, they were higher than the land behind, and on each side of the water and paralleling it could be seen the long mound made of the earth thrown out when the canal was dug. A barely perceptible current moved against us.

         After a quarter of a mile of this we entered a second lake, perhaps a mile and a half broad and two miles long... A dazzling white beach belted the lake. (Mason 1927:152-161)  

            The description of what they found at the site contains several points of primary data no longer available to us today. For example, in their description of the Castillo (Structure 8I-13) they say:

         ... a typical Maya pyramid, four-sided with ascending terraces and a wide stairway. And on its top a temple ... and carved on its corners — one to each corner — the faces of old gods. (Mason 1927:164)

We found no trace of these faces during our work at the site. They also said:

         There is much evidence that Muyil belongs to the last great period in Maya culture, the Period of the League of Mayapan. Of course, the city's location in the northern part of the Maya area would lead to this supposition before an examination had been made. Then a look at the grotesque faces decorating the four corners of the highest temple would alone incline the archæologist to the opinion that Muyil is not a First Empire city. Such faces or "mask panels" are common in Maya architecture; but in the southern and older area the details of the face are generally built up of stucco, whereas in the northern and later area they are in relief — that is, cut into the walls.

         This tall temple with the grotesque faces of conventionalized art at its four corners presents one entirely new feature in Maya architecture. This is a round cupola or small tower, which rises from the roof of the temple proper, itself set upon a pyramidal mound of five terraces, ascended by a wide stairway. (Mason 1927:170)

The cupola or turret is still in place and is still unique. They continue with relevant comments about the arrangement of buildings:

         Nearly all Maya buildings, whether temples or palaces, are placed upon artificial terraces. But in the southern area there was a tendency to place these separate mounds on one large common base or artificial acropolis. This sort of acropolis was not used in the north, where the city planning seems to have been more haphazard. Indeed, it was mainly in the south, too, that cities were carefully oriented with regard to the four chief points of the compass.

         Regular depressions or sunken courts, which may have been theaters, are also characteristic of the south. The same thing is chiefly true of the use of stelæ or obelisks, carved with inscriptions.

         Muyil, which has stelæ, and which is marked by some observance of the principle of orientation, is situated in the southern part of the northern area. (Mason 1927:172)

            Although it was not mentioned by Mason, Muyil not only has "some observance of the principle of orientation" but also has instances of "one large common base or artificial acropolis" (the Entrance Plaza Group and the walled Temple 8 precinct are two examples) and of "sunken courts" (the northern end of the Great Platform.)  

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Photograph 6. Temple in the Entrance Plaza Group (Mason 1927;166) 
Click on picture for high resolution version.

  Mason reported one additional unique architectural feature at Muyil:  

         About one-third of a mile northwest from our camp on the edge of the lake we found a group of four buildings. They were so far gone that their past function was hard to determine, but the fourth was a fairly well preserved temple. On clearing away a pile of rubbish from the western and chief entrance to this we found that this portal had two sets of pillars at each side, one pillar behind the other instead of abreast of it. This is the first instance of this tandem arrangement of pillars we know of in the whole Maya area. (Mason 1927:175)

            From Spinden's notes and sketches (1926) we know that this is a description of Temple 6 (Structure 7H-3).

            They say about Temple 8 (Structure 9K-1), which their guide called "El Centro," that they found a subterranean passage under the front stairway. As they entered, their guide said the inner chamber had been used as a hiding place during the Caste War. They found not only rotted baskets and gourd vessels but also a piece of a boat's rudder with an iron fastening. These artifacts they attribute to indians hiding within Temple 8 during the Caste War. They noted three interior altars that are missing today.

            Elsewhere they report finding two stelae, one on each side of a shrine, with no traces left of inscriptions. We found no traces of stelae at the site, although in several locations at Muyil, very large slabs of stone were used for platform sidewall construction or as lintels. These slabs are quite similar to stelae in size and shape. In one instance, at Structure 9L-1, we observed lintel stones whose earlier fall left them near the base of the supporting pyramid. We at first mistook them for stelae.

            Spinden's notes (1926; 16 unnumbered grid-ruled pages of sketches plus two 17x22" larger maps) provide several key items of information which supplement our own work. Spinden drew the floor plan of Structure 8J-4, an unusual double-temple on a truncated pyramid. In our own survey, we believed this mostly ruined structure consisted of two completely independent structures, each with triple entryways formed by two columns supporting lintels. Spinden shows the two temples as sharing a common side wall. His notes also say that the more southerly of the two rooms was not clear.

            Spinden also clearly mapped Sacbe 3 between the Castillo (Structure 8I-13) and Structures 7I-11 and 7I-13. We had assumed the existence of the western portion of Sacbe 3 because of the end-to-end alignment of Sacbes 2 and 3, but the western portion had been destroyed by bulldozing during construction of the modern highway. Spinden's notes document the missing portion (on the alignment shown on our maps.)

            Spinden's plan and elevation of the easternmost temple of the sacbe system, Structure 12H-1 in the grasslands, clearly indicates that this structure was essentially intact in 1926. Today only a portion of the north wall remains.

            Spinden's sketches show that the Mason-Spinden Expedition recorded the Castillo, Sacbes 2 and 3, the Entrance Plaza Group, the Great Platform, Temple 8, its sub-structure, and its walled precinct, together with large residential platforms to the west and to the north of the walled area, as well as Structure 12H-1, the temple in the grasslands near the Muyil lagoon at the eastern end of the sacbe system. Together with Mason's comment about, "mounds too numerous to count," (1927:196) we know that the Expedition located virtually all of the major and much of the minor architecture at the site.

            Tony Andrews (A. P. Andrews 1973) annotated Spinden's notes and said, "Muyil is a huge site and will require a major project to investigate it properly. ... any future project should include Spinden's notes as well as the published data of Mason and Peissel."            

        The Mason-Spinden expedition remained at the site six days (Mason 1927:161-186), and from their reports we have the formal designation of the ruins as "Muyil." "Altogether we found twelve temples or ceremonial buildings at Muyil, and mounds too numerous to count where others had crumbled." (Mason 1927:196) Spinden's notes were never published. Following Mason's book in 1927, González Avilés mentions Muyil in 1950 and, since 1959, Muyil has been visited frequently.  

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© Copyright 2000-2005 Walter R. T. Witschey   Page last updated Wednesday, April 02, 2008