A sacred mountain, water, and earthly power converged in Maya city of Nakum
A new study suggests the rulers of the Maya city of Nakum used water as a social control method. They represented themselves as rainmakers, researchers say, showing themselves on monuments with water symbols, conducting water-related rituals and constructing waterworks.
Engineers in Nakum and other ancient Maya cities used construction projects to direct rainwater from city buildings, structures and plazas to nearby reservoirs or ponds for use by residents.
Water is indispensible to everyone, but to Maya areas plagued by drought for long periods, water may have been a source of social control. Some researchers have even blamed the collapse of Maya society on drought and climate change, though recent research says other factors too were at work in some failed Maya settlements.
Archaeologists with the Institute of Archaeology of Jagiellonian University in Poland and Guatemalan experts with the Guatemalan Institute of Anthropology and History have been studying Nakum in northeast Guatemala for several years.
At Nakum, water and a manmade structure that the researchers think was a symbolic sacred mountain, converged in a particular spot in what they call the Acropolis.
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The researchers and others have speculated that pyramids and other Mesoamerican structures represented sacred mountains, which the people saw as sources of creation, life, sustenance and water. The structure that researchers think represented a sacred mountain at Nakum is a tall trapezoidal wall painted red, which was part of the city’s rainwater drainage system. That the sacred mountain was associated with water was probably no accident.
This trapezoidal structure that was part of the underground drainage system of the Acropolis may have symbolized a sacred mountain to the people of Nakum. (Photographs: Wiesław Koszkul and Robert Słabo´nski).
“The management of water was a very important aspect of Maya daily life and ritual,” says a paper by Jarosław Źrałka and Wiesław Koszkul in the journal Antiquity, published in April 2015. “Almost every site had a system to collect water runoff, from architectural buildings to special reservoirs or other catchment systems. The Maya modified the landscape and designed their building programs with the intention of draining their cities and particular complexes, and canalizing the water to exterior areas and collecting the runoff in aguadas, chultuns (usually bottle-like, artificial features dug into the bedrock) and other reservoirs.”
Maya architects and engineers designed and sloped patios, plazas and other structures to direct rainwater to reservoirs and ponds, some dug out of bedrock. In Nakum there was an aguada or water catchment basin west of the city’s Acropolis—a large area of structures that were built, rebuilt and built over through the centuries.
“The ancient Maya applied many different drainage and flood-control constructions such as aqueducts, channels, drains, substructures or subterranean conduits, dams and other devices,” the paper says.
An artificial aguada or water catchment basin close to the Acropolis, which was constructed in such a way that water was sluiced to the reservoir. The aguada was a vital source of water for the people of Nakum. (Photograph: Robert Słabo´nski).
The trapezoid was covered with stucco and was attached to a larger, pyramid-like structure nearby. The trapezoid was possibly a replica of a sacred mountain or a mountain peculiar to Nakum.
“Mountains played an extremely important role in the belief system of Mesoamerica in pre-Columbian, as well as modern, times. Scholars distinguish various types of sacred mountains in Mesoamerican mythology, such as water mountains, flower mountains, snake mountains or sustenance mountains,” the paper says.
“Although they bear different names in scientific discourse, these mountains represent and symbolize in most cases a sacred, blissful location, imbued with supernatural powers; a place where, according to Mesoamerican beliefs, the first people originated,” the authors added. “The sacred mountain was also the source of water and maize, as well as the realm of ancestors and deities. It was the archetype of sustenance and a synonym for paradise, in addition to being the location associated with creation and foundation.”
“We know that, for the Maya, pyramids were symbols of sacred mountains; buildings were in many cases embellished with [stone] representations of witz monsters ( witz means ‘hill’ or ‘mountain’ in the Mayan language)—zoomorphic portrayals of mountains, signaling the sacred status of such structures [see the drawings at the top of this webpage for representations of witz monsters]. Masks would feature mountains as living, animated entities. Sometimes they were accompanied by vegetation (especially maize) and water elements. All these features would serve to mark mountains as sources of food and water.”
The Maya adorned their temples and buildings with "witz" monster masks or hill or mountain monsters that represented the sacred mountain. They were often depicted with water. From: "A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya" by Linda Schele and David Freidel.
The archaeologists also found what they call a Hidden Building with a secret passageway near the trapezoidal sacred mountain. Unfortunately, the room was looted in pre-Columbian times. But they found teeth and carbon remains on the floor that led them to believe it was a temporary tomb or elite funerary shrine. It was constructed around the same time as the drain and “might have symbolized an entrance to the mountain or, in other words, to the underworld. It may not be coincidental that this space was used for rituals related to funerals or was perhaps a resting place for one of the local lords. Maya lords, buried in tombs located within pyramids were symbolically encapsulated in the realm of the underworld, an artificial cave hidden inside the sacred mountain.”
At left is a plan of all buildings found below the Structure 14 mound (drawing: Aleksander Danecki and Wiesław Koszku)l. The photo on the right shows the interior of the Hidden Building with its small chamber and a doorway only 1.4m high; arrows mark three hinges used to block the entrance to the room (Photograph: Wiesław Koszkul).
These Maya lords or ‘rainmakers’, as the authors call them, represented themselves with “water symbols on carved monuments, conducting water-related rituals or constructing water-related features.” This suggests that the rulers were “crucial in the supplication of water and in keeping its balance during periods of both shortage and excess. As such, the control of water and its sources might have been one of the fundamental issues on which the power of Maya rulers was based and which enabled control over Maya society.”
Featured image: The Orange Temple at Nakum; to Mesoamericans, pyramids and other structures may have represented sacred mountains that were sources of creation, life, sustenance and water. (Jorge Antonio Leoni de Léon/ Wikimedia Commons )
By Mark Miller