Home Up Background Sacbes Lagoon Edge Canal Trade Summary


Settlement and Trade: ceramic clues to the sea route

            There are four periods when the Muyil route to the sea may be associated with the changes in the ceramic record. In only one case, Late Postclassic Chen Mul Modeled censers, are the ceramics in direct association with the sacbe system. The others may by tied to the sea route access by inference, and these possibilities are discussed next.  

Middle Formative sherds and Muyil settlement

            The attraction of the canal route to Muyil pulls the curious toward it. I suggested above that the sea access route may have played a major role in the early settlement of Muyil during the Middle Formative. Restating the facts clarifies the argument. Muyil has Middle Formative ceramics; such early ceramics are not reported for other coastal sites in the region, nor are they reported for Coba in the interior. The major concentrations of Middle Formative ceramics are found in the Peten and in the northwest of the peninsula. The appearance of Middle Formative ceramics in the northwest may be due to the arrival of sea-borne travelers moving along the gulf coast from the Usumacinta drainage, since such early ceramics are not found between these areas in the interior of the northern lowlands. Therefore, the first appearance of Middle Formative ceramics on the Quintana Roo east coast at Muyil may also be associated with coastal travel — with people who passed through the Muyil passage and settled on the high ground near the karstic collapse.

            The early presence of Sierra Red ceramics from the Late Formative adds additional weight to the above argument. When I compared the proportion of Sierra Red ceramics to Muna Slate ceramics found at Muyil with the like proportions found at Xelha and Coba, I saw that at Coba, the proportions of Sierra Red were much lower than at the two coastal sites, Muyil and Xelha. In addition, no Middle Formative sherds are reported for Coba. From this, I infer that settlement and development on the east coast preceded settlement and development in the interior at Coba. If settlement occurred first along the coast, then the use of protected sea access by early coastal travelers follows naturally. Both Muyil and Xelha offer such natural protection for canoe sailors.

            This evidence and the inferences are indirect. As pointed out above, there are only a handful of Middle Formative sherds from Muyil, and, as one would expect, none of these can be directly associated with any structure.  

The Early Classic and ties to Belize

            As pointed out in an earlier chapter, there were ceramic ties between Muyil and Belize during the Late Formative and the early Classic. These links were severed in the Late Classic with the arrival of Muna Slate ceramics. The ceramics of the two areas remained different until the Late Postclassic, when Chen Mul Modeled anthropomorphic censers spread widely and once again linked Belize and the east coast.

            From this observation, one which applies equally well to Coba, plus the geographic proximity of the two areas by coastal travel, I infer that the passage of traders through the Muyil sea route may have been the primary source of the Belize ceramics in the Muyil area. Such ceramics may have reached Coba through several different routes, including overland from Muyil, Tancah, and Xelha.  

Chichen Itza ceramics

            In the following chapter I discuss the presence of Chichen Itza ceramics (especially Dzitas Slate) at Muyil. Several of my later conclusions are mentioned here, because they are relevant to the role of Muyil in maritime trade.

            No appreciable numbers of Chichen Itza ceramics are found in direct association with the sacbe system of Muyil. Only two sherds of Dzitas Slate were recovered from the test excavations described earlier in the chapter. Both came from test pit 4 in front of the Castillo.

            The evidence of the next chapter shows that Chichen Itza ceramics are found in approximately equal proportions, compared to Muna Slate, at Muyil, Xelha, and Coba. This Dzitas Slate might have equally well arrived at Coba overland on the Coba-Yaxuna causeway from Chichen Itza as by coastal travel to the Xelha-Muyil area and then west or north overland. Therefore, these proportions do not suggest a preference for use of the sea route versus an overland route for their arrival. The documented level of Chichen Itza coastal traffic elsewhere, however, does suggest such a preference.

            Andrews et al. (1988) report a major Itza port facility on Isla Cerritos, north-northeast of Chichen Itza. In addition, Connor (1983) reports a much higher proportion of Dzitas Slate to Muna Slate on Cozumel than has been reported for Muyil, Xelha, and Coba. This affirms the strength of the Chichen Itza trade along the coast. These do not constitute the only evidence for Chichen Itza's involvement in coastal trade but are sufficient to suggest that Chichen Itza ceramics were arriving at Muyil by sea, through the sea access channel.  

Late Postclassic censers

            Fragments of Chen Mul Modeled censers on the Late Postclassic are found in abundant quantities along the Muyil sacbe system and at Vigía del Lago. In fact, they are so common along the sacbes that one is tempted to impute to these causeways a purely religious function. Freidel and Sabloff provide additional insights into this apparent contradiction between religious versus commercial use of the sacbes.  

They say:

            The Classic period transcendent idea of a cohesive, hierarchical cosmos in which everything has its place was successfully replaced in the Postclassic by the transcendent event of moving from shrine to shrine, weaving a fabric of unity over the dispersed symbols of heterogeneity. ... All traders were in fact "pilgrims" traveling under divine sanction for the ostensible purpose of visiting shrines and participating in festivals. ... From this perspective, it seems quite reasonable to suppose that Cozumel, documented as one of the three major pilgrimage sanctuaries on the Yucatan peninsula in the Decadent and located on the coast at a time when canoe trade was ascendent, was also a major commercial center. (1984:185)

            This paints a picture of canoe trade actively interwoven with religious ceremony. We now may fit together the major infrastructure, the Muyil sacbe system, with the religious nature of the temple-pyramids along it and the abundant Chen Mul Modeled censer fragments. In the Late Postclassic, trade and religion were inextricably intertwined. Muyil served as a debarkation point for pilgrim-traders making their rounds of religious/commercial towns and shrines along the coast.


© Copyright 2000-2008 Walter R. T. Witschey   Page last updated Thursday, April 03, 2008