Stephens and Catherwood (Stephens 1843) made the first relatively modern
visit to the Tulum and Tancah area. During their visit, they saw the Castillo at
Tulum from the sea, turned in at Tancah to land, and ultimately set up
housekeeping in the Castillo at Tulum. They promptly encountered the three-sided
city wall, and mapped the wall as well as some fifteen other structures within
it and a small number outside the wall. Catherwood made two etchings of the
Castillo and one each of four other structures. Their map is remarkably
accurate. (Stephens 1843:261-281)
Following John Lloyd Stephens' expedition, the hostilities of the Caste
War prevented any extended archaeological visits to the central coast of
Quintana Roo for many decades. In fact, Lothrop says that the Carnegie
Institution expeditions of 1916, 1918, and 1922 were not without some risks:
Owing to local conditions, the working time at the various sites was
reduced to a minimum; ... The east coast of the peninsula of Yucatan, from Cape
Catoche to the borders of British Honduras, is one of the wildest and
least-known parts of the New World, for the aborigines, though once conquered,
have regained their independence and do not welcome the presence of strangers.
Centuries of oppression and decades of barbarous warfare, and more particularly
recent attempts to exterminate the Indian, have long rendered this coast
unsafe except for large armed parties. (Lothrop 1924:3)
The Carnegie researchers focussed their efforts on Tulum, but also
visited sites to the north as far as El Meco, as well as Cozumel and Isla
Mujeres. The Tulum/Tancah area, like Muyil, is located about 45 km from
Coba and is well placed to have been a port for Coba. We continue to rely on the
Carnegie work for a number of important points. First is that the east coast is
the home of and "Tulum is the center of a somewhat specialized form of Maya
architecture, which extended from Espiritu Santo Bay to Cape Catoche and an
unknown distance into the interior." (Lothrop 1924:25)
In the summary of architectural traits he says,
The typical building of eastern Yucatan has a simple ground plan. It
stands on a low substructure and a bench or step runs around the building
itself. The doorway is narrow, and, if the building is large, it is divided by
two or more round columns with square capitals. Over the door, the lintel is set
back a few inches to form a sunken panel, above which may be a niche containing
relief sculpture. The walls flare slightly outward and carry one or two strings
of molding set well towards the top. The interior may be vaulted or may have had
a beam-and-rubble ceiling which has now fallen. There are one or more small
windows and probably a small altar set against the rear wall. (Lothrop 1924:40)
There are several instances of this distinctive "east coast"
style of architecture at Muyil, of which the most easily visited examples are
Temple 6 (Structure 7H‑3) in the Entrance Plaza Group and Temple 8
Lothrop cites the presence at Tulum of stelae, as Mason did for Muyil
(1927:169); stucco relief sculpture, as Mason also did for Muyil (1927:170); and
sculpture in the round, as reported by Peissel (1963:297). Lothrop reported
serpent columns at Tulum, but neither we nor prior researchers found any at
Muyil. He also describes the abundant murals and frescoes at Tulum. There are
very few remaining examples of such work, however, at Muyil.
In his discussion of Tancah (5 km north of Tulum) Lothrop stated
Architecturally, Tancah is surprisingly different from the neighboring
Tulum remains. The features which seem worthy of special notice are the
(1) At Tancah there is only one building with a wooden ceiling, and this
is not of the Tulum type.
(2) At Tancah there are no columns.
(3) At Tancah there are no structures of the palace type.
(4) The step which usually surrounds the Tulum buildings is not common at
(5) The three-member molding, typical of western and northern Yucatec
buildings of the period of the League of Mayapan, is not seen at Tulum, but
there are four examples at Tancah.
(6) Shrines at Tulum are placed on the ground or on low platform mounds;
at Tancah they are found on relatively high terraced pyramids in positions
indicating an important place in the religious organization of the city.
(7) The pyramids supporting the shrines are of the same type as those
supporting temples with roof-combs... It therefore appears that the two types of
edifice are coeval.
From these indications, together with the lack of features of the Toltec
period, such as serpent-columns, battered bases of walls, etc., we conclude that
the buildings of Tancah are earlier than those of Tulum, except, perhaps,
structure 59 at the latter place. The roof-combs and moldings suggest that these
edifices were erected towards the end of the League of Mayapan — perhaps
during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and a count of the plaster layers
(assuming renewals every Katun or 20 years) leads to the same conclusion. (Lothrop 1924:121)
note this contrast because Muyil shares architectural traits with both sites and
certainly spans the occupation periods of both sites.
© Copyright 2000-2008 Walter R. T. Witschey Page last updated Thursday, April 03, 2008