Sacbe - The Ancient Maya Road System

Sacbeob: Part Mythology, Part Causeway, Part Property Line, Part Pilgrimage

One of several sacbeob at Cobá
One of several sacbeob at Cobá. SABET sabet

A sacbe (sometimes spelled zac be and pluralized as sacbeob or zac beob) is the Mayan word for the linear architectural features connecting communities throughout the Maya world. Sacbeob functioned as roads, walkways, causeways, property lines, and dikes. The word sacbe translates to "stone road" or "white road" but clearly sacbeob had layers of additional meanings to the Maya, as mythological routes, pilgrimage pathways, and concrete markers of political or symbolic connectinos between city centers.

Some sacbeob are mythological, subterranean routes and some trace celestial pathways; evidence for these roadways are reported in Maya myths and colonial records.

Finding the Sacbeob

Identifying the routes of the sacbe on the ground has been extremely difficult until recently when techniques such as radar imaging, remote sensing, and GIS became widely available. Of course,  Maya historians remain an important source of information for these ancient roadways.

The issue is complex, ironically enough, because there are written records that contradict one another. Several of the sacbe have been identified archaeologically, many others are still unknown but have been reported in colonial period documents such as the Books of Chilam Balam.

In my research for this article, I did not discover any explicit discussions on how old the sacbeob are but based on the ages of the connecting cities, they were functioning at least as early as the Classic period (AD 250-900).

Functions

In addition to simply roadways that facilitated movement between places, researchers Folan and Hutson argue that sacbeob were visual representations of economic and political connections between centers and their satellites, conveying the concepts of power and inclusion. Causeways may have been used in processions that emphasized this idea of community.

One function described in recent scholarly literature is the role of the sacbe road system in the Maya market network. The exchange system of the Maya kept the far-flung (and very loosely connected) communities in touch and made it possible both to trade goods and make and sustain political connections. Market centers with central locations and associated causeways include Coba, Maax Na, Sayil, and Xunantunich.

Other Mayan Words for Roads

There are several Mayan words for flavors of roads, all of which relate in some way to sacbeob.

  • Be tun (another word for sacbe)
  • Noh be (or camino real, principal road)
  • Chibal be (possibly camino real, a main road from which side roads branch out
  • Cuxaan zum, celestial way
  • Buth, Buth be, Buthbil be (filled road)
  • Cochbaben be (wide road)
  • Haban be (bush road)
  • Xay be (fork in the road)
  • Hol can be (crossroads)
  • Holocnac be (open road)
  • Chux be, ek bay, luth be, thuthul be (pathways)
  • Miz be (sweep the road)
  • Miz luum (sweep the land)
  • Miz kiuic (sweep the plaza)
  • Miz peten (sweep the region)

Deities and Sacbeob

Maya deities associated with roadways include Ix Chel in several of her manifestations. One is Ix Zac Beeliz or "she who walks the white road". In a mural at Tulum, Ix Chel is shown carrying two small images of the Chaac god as she is walking along a mythological or real roadway.

The deity Chiribias (Ix Chebel Yax or the Virgin of Guadalupe) and her husband Itzam Na are sometimes associated with roads, and the legend of the Hero Twins includes a journey through the underworld along several sacbeob.

Sacbe 1: From Cobá to Yaxuna

The longest known sacbe is the one that stretches 100 kilometers (62 miles) between the Maya centers of Cobá and Yaxuna on the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico, called the Yaxuna-Cobá causeway or Sacbe 1. Along Sacbe 1's east-west course are water holes (dzonot), steles with inscriptions and several small Maya communities. Its roadbed measures approximately 8 meters (26 feet) wide and typically 50 centimeters (20 inches) high, with various ramps and platforms alongside.

Sacbe 1 was stumbled into by early twentieth century explorers, and rumors of the road became known to the Carnegie Institution archaeologists working at Cobá by the early 1930s.

Its entire length was mapped by Alfonso Villa Rojas and Robert Redfield in the mid-1930s. Recent investigations by Loya Gonzalez and Stanton (2013) suggest that the sacbe's main purpose may have been to connect Cobá to the large market centers of Yaxuna and, later, Chichén Itzá, in order to better control trade throughout the peninsula.

Other Sacbe Examples

The Tzacauil sacbe is a solid rock causeway, which starts at the Late Preclassic acropolis of Tzacauil and ends just short of the large center of Yaxuna. Varying in width between 6 and 10 meters, and in height between 30 and 80 centimeters, this sacbe's road bed includes some crudely cut facing stones.

From Cobá to Ixil, 20 kilometers in length, is a noh be followed and described in the 1970s by Jacinto May Hau, Nicolas Caamal Canche, Teoberto May Chimal, Lynda Florey Folan and William J. Folan. This 6 meter wide sacbe crosses a marshy area and includes numerous small and large ramps. Close to Coba was a fairly large platform next to a vaulted building, which the Maya guides referred to as a customs house or way station. This road may have defined the boundaries of Coba's urban area and region of power.

From Ich Caan Ziho through Aké to Itzmal, is a sacbe approximately 60 km in length, of which only a portion is in evidence. Described by Ruben Maldonado Cardenas in the 1990s, a network of roads still used today leads from Ake to Itzmal.

  • Between Uxmal and Kabah, followed by Victor Segovia Pinto
  • From the Temple of the Seven Dolls at Dzibilchaltun to the Cenote X-Lah Cah, appears to be astronomically aligned, and 20 meters in width
  • From Calakmul to El Mirador, crosses a wide seasonal marsh
  • From Merida to the shrine of Ix Chel on Cozumel island
  • From Coba to the Grand Cenote at Chichen Itza, through Uxmal to Tenochtitlan
  • From Valladolid at Coba to Tulum, said to have been built by the Itza Rey Macehualo
  • From the cenote X-Lah Cah at Dzibilchaltun to Itxmal
  • From the cenote X-Lah Cah at Dzibilchaltun to Chablekal (mythological subterranean)
  • From Acan Muul to Campeche and Uxmal (mythological subterranean)
  • From Copan to Quirigua (rumored)

Sources

Bolles D, and Folan WJ. 2001. An analysis of roads listed in colonial dictionaries and their relevance to pre-hispanic linear features in the Yucatan peninsula. Ancient Mesoamerica 12(02):299-314.

Folan WJ, Hernandez AA, Kintz ER, Fletcher LA, Heredia RG, Hau JM, and Canche N. 2009. Coba, Quintana Roo, Mexico: A Recent Analysis of the Social, Economic and Political Organization of a Major Maya Urban Center. Ancient Mesoamerica 20(1):59-70.

Hutson SR, Magnoni A, and Stanton TW. 2012. “All that is solid…”: Sacbes, settlement, and semiotics at Tzacauil, Yucatan. Ancient Mesoamerica 23(02):297-311.

Loya González T, and Stanton TW. 2013. Impacts of politics on material culture: evaluating the Yaxuna-Coba sacbe. Ancient Mesoamerica 24(1):25-42.

Shaw LC. 2012. The elusive Maya marketplace: An archaeological consideration of the evidence. Journal of Archaeological Research 20:117-155.