Yaxchilán - Classic Maya City-State in Mexico

Conflict and Elegance in Classic Period Maya City State

Structure 33, Mayan Archaeological Site, Yaxchilan, Chiapas, Mexico, North America
Structure 33, Mayan Archaeological Site, Yaxchilan, Chiapas, Mexico, North America. Richard Maschmeyer / Getty Images

Yaxchilán is a Classic period Maya site located on the riverbank of the Usamacinta river that borders the two modern countries of Guatemala and Mexico. The site lies within a horseshoe meander on the Mexican side of the river and today the site can only be reached by boat.

Yaxchilán was founded in the 5th century AD and reached its maximum splendor in the 8th century AD. Famous for its more than 130 stone monuments, among which include carved lintels and stelae depicting images of royal life, the site also represents one of the most elegant examples of classic Maya architecture.

Yaxchilán and Piedras Negras

There are many extant and legible inscriptions in Maya hieroglyphs at Yaxchilan, which provide us a nearly unique glimpse into the political history of Maya city-states. At Yaxchilan, for most Late Classic rulers we have dates associated with their births, accessions, battles, and ceremonial activities, as well as their ancestors, descendants, and other kinsmen and companions.

Those inscriptions also allude to an ongoing conflict with its neighbor Piedras Negra, located on the Guatemalan side of the Usumacinta, 40 kilometers (25 miles) upriver from Yaxchilan. Charles Gordon and colleagues from the Proyecto Paisaje Piedras Negras-Yaxchilan have combined archaeological data with information from the inscriptions at both Yaxchilan and Piedras Negras, compiling a political history of the intertwined and competing Maya city-states.

  • Early Classic 350-600 AD: Both communities began as small cities during the Early Classic in the 5th and 6th centuries AD, when their royal dynasties were established. As early as the 5th century, a neutral zone existed between Piedras Negras and Yaxchilan that was not controlled by either polity; and warfare was limited to a few, unusual episodes of direct conflict.
  • Late Classic 600-810 AD: During the Late Classic, the neutral zone was repopulated and transformed into a contested frontier. Warfare was most frequent in the 8th century AD and involved the governors of secondary and tertiary centers loyal to each combatant.
    Between the 7th and 8th centuries AD, Yaxchilán gained power and independence under the rulers Itzamnaaj B’alam II and his son Bird Jaguar IV. Those rulers extended their dominion over other nearby sites and started an ambitious construction program that included most of what is visible on at Yaxchilan today. At about 808, Piedras Negras lost its ruler to Yaxchilan; but that victory was brief.
  • Terminal Classic 810-950 AD: By 810, both polities were in decline and by AD 930, the region was essentially depopulated.

Site Layout

Visitors arriving at Yaxchilán for the first time will be mesmerized by the tortuous, dark passageway known as “the Labyrinth” leading into the main plaza, framed by some of the most important buildings of the site.

Yaxchilán is made up of three major complexes: the Central Acropolis, the South Acropolis, and the West Acropolis. The site is built over a high terrace facing the Usumacinta river on the north and extending beyond there into the hills of the Maya lowlands.

Main Buildings

The heart of Yaxchilan is called the Central Acropolis, which overlooks the main plaza. Here the main buildings are several temples, two ballcourts, and one of the two hieroglyphic stairways.

Located in the central acropolis, Structure 33 represents the apex of Yaxchilán architecture and its Classic development. The temple was probably constructed by the ruler Bird Jaguar IV or dedicated to him by his son. The temple, a large room with three doorways decorated with stucco motifs, overlooks the main plaza and stands on an excellent observation point for the river. The real masterpiece of this building is its nearly intact roof, with a high crest or roof comb, a frieze, and niches. The second hieroglyphic stairway leads to the front of this structure.

Temple 44 is the main building of the West Acropolis. It was constructed by Itzamnaaj B’alam II around 730 AD to commemorate his military victories. It is decorated with stone panels depicting his war captives.

Temple 23 and its Lintels

Temple 23 is located on the southern side of the main plaza of Yaxchilan, and it was built about AD 726 and dedicated by the ruler Itzamnaaj B’alam III (also known as Shield Jaguar the Great) [ruled 681-742 AD] to his principal wife Lady K’abal Xook. The single-room structure has three doorways each bearing carved lintels, known as Lintels 24, 25, and 26.

A lintel is the load-bearing stone at the top of a doorway, and its massive size and location led the Maya (and other civilizations) to use it as a place to exhibit their skill at decorative carving. Temple 23's lintels were rediscovered in 1886 by the British explorer Alfred Maudslay, who had the lintels cut out of the temple and sent to the British Museum where they are now located. These three pieces are almost unanimously considered among the finest stone reliefs of the entire Maya region.

Recent excavations by the Mexican archaeologist Roberto Garcia Moll identified two burials under the temple floor: one of an aged woman, accompanied by a rich offering; and the second of an old man, accompanied by an even richer one. These are believed to be Itzamnaaj Balam III and one of his other wives; Lady Xook's tomb is thought to be in the adjacent Temple 24, because it features an inscription recording the queen's death in AD 749.

Lintel 24

Lintel 24 is the easternmost of three door lintels above the doorways in Temple 23, and it features a scene of the Maya bloodletting ritual performed by Lady Xook, which took place, according to the accompanying hieroglyphic text, in October of 709 AD. The king Itzamnaaj Balam III is holding a torch above his queen who is kneeling in front of him, suggesting that the ritual is taking place at night or in a dark, secluded room of the temple. Lady Xook is passing a rope through her tongue, after having pierced it with a stingray spine, and her blood is dripping onto bark paper in a basket.

The textiles, headdresses and royal accessories are extremely elegant, suggesting the high status of the personages. The finely carved stone relief emphasizes the elegance of the woven cape worn by the queen. The king wears a pendant around his neck portraying the sun god and a severed head, probably of a war captive, adorns his headdress.

Archaeological Investigations

Yaxchilán was rediscovered by explorers in the 19th century. The famous English and French explorers Alfred Maudslay and Desiré Charnay visited the ruins of Yaxchilan at the same time and reported their findings to different institutions. Maudslay also made the fist map of the site. Other important explorers and, later on, archaeologists that worked at Yaxchilán were Tebert Maler, Ian Graham, Sylvanus Morely, and, recently, Roberto Garcia Moll.

In the 1930s, Tatiana Proskouriakoff studied the epigraphy of Yaxchilan, and on that basis built a history of the site, including a sequence of the rulers, still relied on today.


Edited and updated by K. Kris Hirst

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Maestri, Nicoletta. "Yaxchilán - Classic Maya City-State in Mexico." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/yaxchilan-mexico-maya-center-173249. Maestri, Nicoletta. (2020, August 27). Yaxchilán - Classic Maya City-State in Mexico. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/yaxchilan-mexico-maya-center-173249 Maestri, Nicoletta. "Yaxchilán - Classic Maya City-State in Mexico." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/yaxchilan-mexico-maya-center-173249 (accessed March 21, 2023).