Calakmul: Ancient Mayan City of the Two Pyramids and Three Stones
Calakmul is truly a lost ancient Mayan city. It is situated deep in the dense jungles of the Petén Basin of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Soon after it was abandoned, the impressive city was reclaimed by the jungle.
The archaeological site is located in Cempeche. Calakmul was discovered in 1931 and some investigations were carried out at the site in the years that followed. The exploration of the site, however, came to a halt, and was only resumed during the 1980s. Today, Calakmul is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it continues to be investigated by archaeologists.
In 1931, an American botanist by the name of Cyrus Lundell stumbled across the ruins of a Mayan city whilst conducting fieldwork in the forests of Cempeche. Lundell decided to name the ruins Calakmul, which is Mayan for ‘City of the Two Adjacent Pyramids’, a reference to the two pyramids that dominate the ruins. Later on, it was discovered that the city was known by the Mayans as Ox Te' Tuun, which means ‘Three Stones’. Nevertheless, Lundell’s name for the site continued to be used. As a side note, although Lundell was a botanist by profession, he was also passionate about Mayan archaeology. It has been reported that between 1931 and 1933, Lundell discovered as many as 16 Mayan ruins.
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In the following year, a survey of the site was conducted by Sylvanus Morley of the Carnegie Institute of Washington. The archaeological work at Calakmul continued until 1938, after which it stopped for several decades. It was only in 1982 that work at the site resumed, this time under the direction of William J. Folan of the Universidad Autonoma de Campeche. Folan’s work at Calakmul lasted until 1994, after which the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (National Institute of Anthropology and History) took over the investigation of the site.
Thanks to the archaeological work done at Calakmul, we know today that the site was occupied from around 600 BC to 900 AD. Most of the buildings at the site were completed by 250 AD, and the city reached its zenith around the 6th century AD. This period of prosperity lasted until the 9th century AD, during which time the inhabitants of the city are estimated to have numbered around 50,000. In addition to this, Calakmul also exerted its influence over other distant settlements, and may have impacted the lives of up to 1.5 million people.
Stele 51 from Calakmul, representing king Yuknoom Took' K'awiil, on display at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. (Public Domain)
Be that as it may, Calakmul did not have undisputed control over the region, as its main rival was Tikal, another important Mayan city located to its south, in what is today Guatemala. Archaeologists have determined that Calakmul was mentioned at other Mayan sites, such as Yaxchilan, and Naranjo. These cities were located to the west and east of Tikal respectively. It has been speculated that during the 6th century AD, Calakmul was forming alliances with such cities so as to encircle its rival Tikal, and eventually led to that city’s defeat in 562 AD.
Tikal was able to rise up again after this defeat, and, according to the epigraphical evidence, avenge their loss by besting Calakmul in 695 AD. This, however, did not affect Calakmul’s dominance in the region, and the city maintained its importance until the 8th century AD.
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Tikal Mayan ruins Guatemala 2009. (chensiyuan/CC BY SA 3.0)
The City Falls
In the early part of the following century, the recorded history of Calakmul seems to have ended abruptly. From inscriptions discovered at Seibal (another Mayan site in the region), archaeologists believe that Calakmul was occupied at least until the middle of the 9th century AD. Moreover, Folan speculated that the site was also occupied between 1450 and 1550 AD, though probably on a temporary basis; for instance, for ceremonial purposes.
In 2002, Calakmul was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As the site was reclaimed by the jungle after its abandonment, this World Heritage Site includes the surrounding jungles, which is significant for being a Mesoamerican biodiversity hotspot. Thus, apart from the Mayan ruins, visitors to Calakmul have the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the local wildlife, including various species of birds, as well as spider and howler monkeys.
Calakmul ruins. (Pete Fordham/CC BY SA 2.0)
Top Image: Structure I, one of the two pyramids at Calakmul. Source: PhilippN/CC BY SA 3.0
By Wu Mingren
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