The Sacred Well of Chichén Itzá - History and Archaeology

A Peek Beneath the Waters of the Sacrificial Well at Maya Chichén Itzá

Great Cenote at Chichen Itza
Great Cenote at Chichen Itza. Michael Rael

The Sacred Well or Great Cenote of Chichén Itzá is a huge, cylindrical water-filled hole in the ground, located within the Maya capital city in the northern Yucatán peninsula of Mexico. Also known as the Sacred Well, Cenote Sagrado, Chen K'u, and the Well of the Sacrifices, the Great Cenote is the largest of two cenotes within the city center of Chichén Itzá--the other, smaller cenote is Xtoloc. Cenotes are the only natural freshwater sources in the Yucatán peninsula, and so perhaps it's not so surprising that they were treated as sacred and often flanked by massive constructions with vaulted buildings and elaborate architecture.

To get to the Great Cenote from the main monument of El Castillo in Chichén Itzá, you walk 300 meters (about 1000 feet) down a specially constructed processional route called a sacbe. The cenote itself is a huge opening, about 65 m (213 ft) in diameter with vertical walls reaching 25 m (82 ft) below the surface to the water.

Edward H. Thompson, who in the early 20th century owned part of Chichén Itzá, said the water in the cenote changed at different times of the year: most of the time it is dark brownish green, but sometimes algae turns it a jade green, and other times flower and seed capsules make it blood red. Because of its turbidity, he said, the water reflected light like a mirror rather than allowing people to see below the surface.

History of Investigations

In the 1870s, French traveler Désiré Charney read about the cenote in the translated works of the 16th century Spanish colonial Bishop Diego de Landa.

In 1882, Charney attempted to dredge the Great Cenote, but he failed because the walls were too high for his equipment.

The first known successful explorations were hardly scientific; they were conducted with a dredge by Edward H. Thompson between 1904-1910. Thompson was the American Consul at the time, who bought part of Chichén Itzá during his stay in Mexico.

Some of the materials he recovered from beneath the surface are in the Peabody Museum at Harvard University; others at the Field Museum in Chicago. A catalog of the artifacts recovered was published in three immense volumes between 1984 and 2004, a massive effort edited by Clemency Chase Coggins. A total of 94 gold artifacts were returned to Mexico by the Peabody Museum in 1959.

In 1960s, the Great Cenote was excavated by the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) under the direction of archaeologists William Folan and Román Piña Chan, who lowered the water in the cenote and formally excavated the deposits.

Artifact Collections

The artifacts recovered from the Great Cenote included a huge range of materials, including textiles (basketry, twined sandal soles, cordage); stone tools (large bifaces, obsidian prismatic blades and polyhedral cores); ceramics (including whole vessels, ranging in date from Terminal Classic-Early Postclassic (AD 800-1200 and Middle through Late Postclassic (1200-1550); and wooden artifacts, some covered in paint (Maya blue in the later phase, but also red, white, green, yellow, coated with a resin).

Wooden objects included complete atlatls (some beautifully carved with gold encrusted and gem mosaics), clubs, chert biface handles, batons, scepters, effigies/figurines, animal effigies, phallus effigies, perforated objects, spindle whorls and other weaving tools; copal and rubber (latex) objects.

Also found were animal bone which might represent live or dead sacrifices or animals who fell in, or even lived in the cenote; metals (gold, copper and silver); stone figurines; jade and obsidian; and plant remains in very poor shape.

Also found in the depths of the cenote were human remains: a minimum of 222 people are accounted for in the collections. Analysis of the remains have found a population that has a large percentage of sub-adults, with children between the ages of 4-12 the most commonly occurring. Of the 101 skeletons in the Peabody collection, 51 were juveniles; Piña Chan's collection of 121 had 76 juveniles.

Sacrifices

It's inescapable: the Great Cenote was used for human sacrifice, particularly children. Other evidence that ritual human sacrifice was practiced at Chichén Itzá has been found, such as mural and sculptural art depicting warriors and decapitation. Historical accounts of the Spanish also describe ritual sacrifice, albeit in inflammatory language designed to make the Maya look as inhuman as possible.

Between 1561 and 1565, the Spanish reported there were 55 human sacrificial events with 114 human victims at cenotes throughout the region, two of which events occurred at Chichén Itzá.

Other patterned ritual deposits found in the Great Cenote are related to water imagery--dedicatory caches of a spondylus shell with a jade bead. A bowl with copal mixed with Maya blue was reported from the Field Museum in 2008. According to the Popul Vuh, when the bones of the Hero Twins are placed into a river they are reborn. central mexican mythos say that sacrifice by drowning ensured a soul's entrance into the sweet afterlife.

Sources

This article is a part of the About.com guide to the Maya Civilization, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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Coggins CC, editor. 1984. Cenote of Sacrifice: Maya Treasures from the Sacred Well at Chichén Itzá.

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Coggins CC, editor. 1992. Artifacts from the Cenote of Sacrifice, Chichen Itza, Yucatan: Textiles, Basketry, Stone, Shell, Ceramics, Wood, Copal, Rubber. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Coggins CC, editor. 2004. Artifacts from the Cenote of Sacrifice, Chichen Itza, Yucatan: Textiles, Basketry, Stone, Bone, Shell, Ceramics, Wood, Copal, Rubber, other Organic Materials, and Mammalian Remains. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Cockrell B, Ruvalcaba Sil JL, and Ortiz Díaz E. 2014. For Whom the Bells Fall: Metals from the Cenote Sagrado, Chichén Itzá. Archaeometry:n/a-n/a.

de Hoogd C. 2013. Diving the Maya World: Reassessing old excavations with new techniques: a case study on the Sacred Cenote of Chichén Itzá. Leiden: University of Leiden.

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