Termination Ritual Deposits at Yaxuna:

Detecting the Historical in Archaeological Contexts.

David A. Freidel
Charles K. Suhler
Rafael Cobos Palma

Terminating Maya Centers

Archaeologists working at the Late Preclassic site of Cerros in northern Belize formally identified and defined Maya termination ritual deposits as a type of context in the late 1970s and early 1980s (Garber 1983, Garber 1989, Robertson-Freidel 1980, Robertson 1983, Freidel 1986). Subsequently, continued analysis and research of Cerros material by Debra Walker (1991, this volume) and Kathyrn Reese-Taylor (in preparation) confirms the validity and usefulness of this concept for understanding culture history in Maya country. It is hardly surprising that the Cerros research raised this distinctive form of primary deposit. The ancient inhabitants, or their enemies, terminated virtually all of the civic-religious architecture of this center at the time of its collapse and abandonment in the Late Preclassic period. It is in the context of this pervasive termination of the final, ceramically coeval, construction episodes on many public buildings, that we can speak of an archaeologically detectable historical event of major consequence.

Freidel (1992) and Reese-Taylor (in preparation) now believe that this Late Preclassic historical event at Cerros probably followed in the wake of a decisive military defeat of the Cerros king. This destruction may have been carried out by disenchanted members of the defeated community (Schele and Freidel 1990:127). Alternatively, extrapolation of the later Classic period patterns of desecration of Maya centers by victors (Schele and Freidel 1990, chapter 5; Freidel, Schele and Parker 1993, chapter 7, Suhler 1996), alerts us to the prospect that termination of civic centers, even in the Preclassic period, constituted an important act of war. Indeed, a careful reading of William Coe's (1990) monograph on the North Acropolis at Tikal reveals substantial evidence for burning and desecration of Preclassic buildings there.

Current work at the site of Yaxuna in northern Yucatan is generating the material basis for a pattern of destruction comparable in some respects to that found at Cerros, dated by preliminary ceramic evidence to the end of the Early Classic period or the beginning of the Late Classic period. We believe that as we proceed with the Yaxuna research, we will be able to effectively test the hypothesis that at various points in time the government of this center suffered major defeats and the systematic termination of its ritual structures and principal residences. Because Maya archaeologists are still in the process of defining what termination rituals look like in the ground, we provide a detailed description of test exposures in one Early Classic palace in an important elite residence complex in the southern part of the settlement. We now have substantial evidence for similar termination deposits from other building groups in the site, particularly in the northern acropolis.

Yaxuna: Some Background

Yaxuna is a second-rank center situated 20 km southwest of Chichén Itza in Yucatan (N 20 degrees 32.41', W 88 degrees 40.31', Fig. 1; it is designated site 16Qd(8):3, in the Archaeological Atlas of Yucatan, see S. Garza T. and E.B. Kurjack 1980). The site is famous as the place were the longest intersite masonry causeway, or sacbe, ends its journey from the city of Coba near the east coast of the peninsula. Eight summer seasons of research (Freidel 1987, Freidel, 1989, Freidel, Suhler and Krochock 1990, Freidel, Suhler and Cobos P. 1992, Suhler and Freidel 1993, Ardren and others 1994 Suhler and others 1995 Ambrosino and others 1996) have recorded more than 650 structures in the central 1.5 sq km of the site, varying from major acropolises covering more than a hectare to small foundations of surface level perishable buildings. The mounded features of the site continue unabated outwards from the center for at least 1 km in all directions and we have discovered no clear limit to the ancient community. Minimally, the formal community covered 4 sq km.

Our research generally shows that Early Classic period witnessed the culmination major construction stretching back to the Middle Preclassic period. In the Early Classic, Yaxuna was a royal capital ruled by kings using mainstream Maya symbols of royal power (Freidel and Suhler 1995). During the Early Classic, a king of Yaxuna was decapitated, entombed with his entourage in Structure 6F-4, a pyramid of the northern acropolis, and replaced by his conqueror. Forensic anthropologist Sharon Bennett (1994) documented this event. Stratigraphically and contextually, the tomb was part of broader desecration and dedication deposits in the pyramid and elsewhere in the northern acropolis (Suhler 1996, Suhler and Freidel 1994). That conqueror evidently raised a stela portrait of himself in Mexican style war regalia (Brainerd 1958). In the Late Classic period, the northern acropolis at Yaxuna was again attacked and this Early Classic conqueror's victory monument was desecrated and dumped on the northern side of Structure 6F-4 (Ambrosino 1996, David Johnstone personal communication 1996). Indeed the northern acropolis remained a focus for repeated military activity in the later history of the community.

But with continued research, we hypothesize that other important building groups in the site center witnessed similar repeated attacks. We think that the Early Classic sacrificial event in the northern acropolis was part of a larger Early Classic sacking of the city which included the destruction of the Structure 5E-50 Group and other buildings in the southern sector of the community. The settlement in the following a Late Classic period evidently witnessed more modest activity in the main buildings and a smaller community in the zone (with the caveat that the ceramic diagnostics of the Late Classic period are only now being effectively defined and identified in stratigraphic contexts). Terminal Classic period phase at Yaxuna (800 1000 A.D.), when the sacbe definitely joined it to Coba (Robles and Andrews, 1986; Andrews and Robes, 1985), constituted a resurgence of occupation and public construction. The evidence for the denouement of the Early Classic community and relatively more modest Late Classic occupation includes radical reorientation of buildings and groups of buildings during the Terminal Classic period and the direct stratigraphic superposition of some Terminal Classic period construction on top of Early Classic and Preclassic building surfaces. Additionally, and despite a very impressive and extensive reoccupation of the settlement zone, the Terminal Classic people only selectively reused civic-religious buildings. The final construction phases of some buildings thus date to the Early Classic or Late Preclassic period.

The Structure 5E-50 Group, a Terminated Elite Residence.

Our project concentrated great effort in the Structure 5E-50 Group during the 1991 field season, under the field supervision of Rafael Cobos Palma. In our field reports we have argued that settlement pattern evidence shows that this large and complex group was significantly spatially integrated into the civic-ceremonial urban design of Yaxuna in its early phase of occupation. We think this group may have housed part of the ruling family of the community in the latter part of the Early Classic period or Yaxuna IIb (roughly equivalent to Manik III at Tikal, Suhler, Ardren and Johnstone n.d.). Our rationale for the royal residence here is based on the integration of this group into a remarkably clear spatial plan of building groups and intrasite sacbeob defining the public sectors of Yaxuna in the early phase of occupation (Fig. 2). Kurjack and Garza T. (1976) have reviewed the extensive evidence for intrasite causeways in the northern lowlands and their significance in linking major groups of buildings within them. Wendy Ashmore (1989) has proposed that some Maya centers were organized with royal public architecture in the northern sector linked to royal or high elite residential groups in the southern sector as an expression of cosmological principles of spatial order.

Structure 5E-52 is the principal building of the group at 3 m high (Fig. 3). It falls into the lower end of the range of identifiable civic-religious buildings at Yaxuna, but it also has a relatively broad summit amenable to a superstructure with ample interior space. Moreover, it is not part of a formal triadic compound of structures such as typify the larger acroplises at Yaxuna. Instead, Structure 5E-52 is flanked on both the east and west by extensive low substructures characteristic of residential compounds. The principal orientation of the building was to the east, but it likely had an access to the northwest as well.

This building and its group are connected to the formal plan of the center in strategic several ways. Firstly, 5E-52 is oriented to the civic cardinal axes (ca. 20 degrees east of north) and faces eastward towards the southern plaza which anchors the central North-South axis of the community (linking the northern acropolis with the southern plaza by means of Sacbe 3). Secondly, the importance of this connection to the civic plan by means of the southern plaza (the plaza of Structures 5E-26 is through 5E-34) is emphasized by the presence of Sacbe 5. Sacbe 5 runs along the southern edge of the group housing 5E-52 and links it concretely to the southern plaza of the civic plan.

Excavation revealed that Structure 5E-52 was a masonry-walled superstructure situated on a low building platform and facing eastward onto the eastern plaza of the group. This is a large superstructure for Yaxuna, 7 m wide and at least 14 m long (at least 100 sq m of interior space). No doubt the building had a perishable roof, possibly of palm thatch. The eastern, plaza side, walls were of well dressed masonry blocks. These walls carried a frieze of modeled and red-painted stucco. Our test excavations did not encounter interior walls or clear evidence of the eastern doorways. In part, this lack of plan details can be laid at the feet of the people who thoroughly and ritually destroyed this building in antiquity. The 1991 excavations in the Structure 5E-50 Group document not only the ritual destruction of the main building, but also point to the termination of smaller buildings in the group. The precise timing of this major event in the Early Classic history of Yaxuna remains to be pin- pointed through ceramic chronology and other means. We believe that the group indeed did function as a household for leaders in the community, that it was violently destroyed at the end of the Early Classic and that it's destruction marked the eclipse of early phase Yaxuna as a political capital.

Structure 5E-52 is rather modest construction for a royal palace. But the lack of thick walls and a vaulted roof was off-set by the masonry front wall, which carried a modeled and red-painted stucco frieze along the length of its surface. Only a few elements from this frieze, now completely shattered into small pieces, carry symbols we can now interpret, most of the pieces are fragments of scrolls. Scrolls in Classic Maya stucco friezes carry the general connotation of ch'ul, holy spirit (Freidel, Schele and Parker 1993:142), although lazy-s scrolls specifically can mean muyil, clouds or atmospheres. A recently discovered royal linearies the lazy-s muyil scrolls between portraits of ancestors peering out of portals on its frieze (Andrews and Fash 1992). One interpretable symbol in the Yaxuna case is the lower half of a face depicting a god with a t-shaped incisor and large corner scrolls in the mouth. This tau-shaped tooth is diagnostic of such gods as Hun-Nal-Ye, First Father, and the Ancestral Hero Twins, his children, and it constitutes a small but clear documentation of Yaxuna's participation in main-stream Classic period royal iconography. Human kings also wear the tau-tooth when they are portrayed masked as gods on early friezes, as in the case of the famous Early Classic building at Kohunlich. The presence of this stucco frieze on the Yaxuna building, combined with its ample interior space and settlement context, provide encouraging support for the original hypothesis that this is a royal compound.

The final form of Suboperation 15-B was a 24 m long and 2 m wide trench that ran east-west across the middle of Structure 5E-52 following compass orientation as laid out by the transit. In the course of excavation, archaeologists determined that the orientation of the building is actually east of north, like the general north-south axis of the causeways connecting the southern residential area to the northern acropolis. The original 3 x 2 meter (long axis east-west) unit 15-B was the eastern-most unit in the trench and the 7 additional units were 3 x 2 meter extensions appended onto the western edge of this first unit. Ambient ground surface elevations of the Sub- operation ranged from 100.67 m in the lower plaza on the western side of the structure to 103.41 m on the top of the structure to 102.38 m in the raised plaza of 5E 50.

A post-abandonment humus, dark dirt, and small rock mix covered the surface of the entire trench and varied in depth from 8-40 cm. Under this upper natural layer there then occurred a white marl layer. The upper 20-40 cm of this deposit was a darker gray in color than the lower parts of the deposit. We attribute this discoloration to mixing and downward seepage of the black humus rich surface soil layer. The lower part of the white marl deposit was pure white in color and covered the north-south oriented rectangular building platform and superstructure. This structure was 7 m wide with the north-south dimensions as yet not determined, but at least 14 m. The structure appears to have had a perishable superstructure as the archaeologists did not encounter evidence of masonry vaulting or the characteristic concrete debris of beam and mortar roofing during the excavations.

The two outer walls of the structure were quite distinctive in their construction techniques. The western wall was preserved to a higher elevation than the eastern wall and was not quite as robust. The blocks used in the western wall's construction were less than half the size of those used in the eastern wall. It is possible, however, that the row of blocks at the outer base of the western wall constituted the foundation of a fallen second layer of masonry. This would have more than compensated for the smaller size of the building blocks in the wall. Additional excavation is required to make a decision on this possibility.

To the west of the western wall of the superstructure, the excavators found two terraces leading down to the western-most plaza in this group. These two terraces were around 2 m in width and one meter in height. The floor of the western plaza was not found during these excavations. We presume that is was eroded away in antiquity. We regard this western side of 5E-52 as the backside of the structure and it is a fairly elaborate primary substructure for a residence group. The excavators found wall stones of the western wall fallen and embedded into the marl layer outside of, down slope of, the western wall of the superstructure, suggesting that this wall, like the eastern wall, was at least partially made of stone masonry.

The interior floor of the superstructure on Structure 5E-52 occurred at about 102.61 m over the entire area. This floor was around 20 cm thick and was underlain by large cobble construction fill, time did not permit further penetration of this area. The preserved eastern wall of the building platform was two courses high and it was footed on gravel and dirt. A uppermost exterior plaza floor abutted the eastern face of the wall at 102.15 m. The placement of this floor showed that it was associated with the construction of the building. However, there were two earlier floors underneath this one at 102.03 and another 101.81 m. We identify the lower of these two floor as an earlier general plaza level for the group, for we have evidence of this floor on the eastern side of the plaza in Suboperation 15-C.

From our limited probe of this stratigraphic sequence here, the people who raised the building platform began by laying down a compact layer of gravel and dirt on the floor at 101.81 m raising the level to about 102 m. They then established the retaining walls of the building platform and filled in behind them with cobbles to a thickness of about 40 cm at which point they capped off the construction fill with an interior floor at 102.6 m and continued to raise the walls of the superstructure directly on top of the retaining walls of the building platform. We infer that the floor at 102. 15 m represents some limited refurbishment of the plaza floor in the immediate vicinity of the eastern side of the building, perhaps placed to seal an offering piercing the 102 m floor somewhere in this zone. Only further excavation will reveal the complete sequence of construction events on this part of Structure 5E-50.

Extending out 3 to 4 m east of the face of the building platform, and continuing for 2 to 3 m west of the edge of the platform into the interior of the superstructure, the excavators found a layer of pure white marl that rose to cover the building platform and which contained jumbled dressed masonry stones from the eastern superstructure wall and red painted stucco fragments from the decorative frieze that adorned the wall. We believe that the stratigraphic facts of the context point conclusively to its status as a primary and deliberately created deposit. The extensive deposition of the wall stones and shattered stucco frieze remains on both sides of the original eastern "front" wall, layered in a pure white marl lacking any evidence of humus accumulation from a long period of simple abandonment, could not be the product of natural wall collapse. This pattern of deposition, when coupled with the similar scattering of the western wall stones down over the western slope, shows that ritualists tore down the two walls of the superstructure. They then scattered and buried the wall stones and frieze fragments in white marl as part of a deliberate ceremony. The presence of painted stucco in the destruction zone of the eastern wall and the absence of painted stucco in the destruction zone down the slope of the western wall shows that only the eastern wall of the building was decorated.

David Johnstone's preliminary analysis of the ceramic materials from the lower portion of the deposit in direct association with the building suggests that they are wholly Early Classic period in date. This indicates that the building itself dates to the early phase occupation at Yaxuna.

In summary, the information gathered from Suboperation 15-B documents an early phase superstructure 7 m in width east-west and at least twice that long on its north-south axis (we exposed the east wall of the building platform in Suboperation 15-E, see discussion below.) Based on the quantity of eastern wall stones, we estimate the original height of that front wall at between one and two meters. This wall was decorated with a red painted stucco frieze. At some point in time, people deliberately pulled down the walls and scattered fragments of it upon a prepared surface of white marl and then they covered the broken pieces of stucco frieze and the wall stones with another layer of white marl. Pending our ceramic analyses, we hypothesize that the event occurred at the end of the Early Classic period and at the end of the early phase occupation at Yaxuna. Subsequent to this termination ritual, there was no further occupation of this structure locality. We hope to investigate other important structures in the vicinity in order to see if this was an event of destruction and termination repeated in other areas in Yaxuna as part of some wider extinction of the center as a political capitol.

Suboperation 15-E

Four meters south of the Suboperation 15-B trench on the top of Structure 5E-52, archaeologists opened up Suboperation 15-E, a 2 x 2 meter test unit. Average ground surface elevation was 103.27. The excavators hoped to determine the southern extent of the buried building platform inside Structure 5E-52. As it happened, they contacted the eastern retaining wall of the building platform in the initial 2 x 2 m unit and it ran north-south through the unit, continuing south for an undetermined distance. We hope to clear and expand this unit and follow the wall to the corner in 1992.

The initial 30-46 cm of the Suboperation was composed of humus and soil. Below this humus layer, the archaeologists uncovered a layer of marl and gravel that extended over the entire unit. This marl and gravel layer appears to be the same termination deposit that was in Suboperation 15-B. In this stratum, the excavators discovered pieces of painted and modeled stucco mixed in with the other material of the deposit. They recovered the majority of the painted stucco pieces from the eastern portion of the unit, outside the building platform. As in Suboperation 15-B, they also found cut stones mixed with the stucco pieces and this destruction layer appeared to be sandwiched between upper and lower layers of white marl. This entire termination deposit rested on a hard plaster floor at 101.98 m, the general elevation for the plaza floor associated with the building platform. In the western edge of the unit, they cleared the upper course of the building platform. They then established a 2 x 2 meter extension to the eastern edge of Suboperation 15-E to expose the deposit fronting this feature to the east.

The upper stratigraphy of this extension, Suboperation 15-E-1, was the same as that in the unit to the west. The humus layer was a little thicker and the plaster layer seemed to slope to the east as expected because the unit was close to being off the top of the mound and on the slope. The broken modeled stucco was still present in the same manner as the original unit and Suboperation 15-B. Rafael Cobos Palma made an unexpected discovery of a large monolithic stone block dug out in the manner of a grinding stone. He found this stone resting on the plaza floor of Suboperation 15-E-1. The top of this monolith was at 102.36 m which was also the approximate level at which the painted stucco and cut stone became particularly concentrated in the white marl. This monolithic block, converted into a deep grinding surface or "pila", was exactly like those we have found exposed on the surface of mounds at Yaxuna; but, as might be expected, this one was much better preserved. The basin of the monolith was filled with the same white marl as surrounded it and the base of the stone itself rested directly on the hard plaster floor at 101.94 m.

Given the context relative to Structure 5E-52, this grinding basin was either associated with the regular use of the building or it was brought in for the specific act of terminating it. Since the structure appears to have been "swept clean" before being terminated, we think that this massive metate is associated with the termination ritual itself. Corroborating evidence for this interpretation may be found in the fact that monoliths at Yaxuna converted to grinding stones in other mound groups occur either on the surfaces and edges of the lower plazas or on the ground surface surrounding the mound groups; that is, at some distance from building platforms and foundation braces. Moreover, as Freidel notes in his concluding remarks to this volume, grinding stones are featured in termination rituals elsewhere in the Maya area, including Terminal Classic Chichén Itza.

Suboperation 15-E exposed the eastern retaining wall of the building platform and the 5E-52 superstructure which we documented in Suboperation 15-B. Moreover, we found substantive evidence of the same termination ritual: the presence of jumbled wall stones and stucco frieze fragments deposited between two layers of white marl.

Summary and Conclusions

We have detailed our preliminary excavations in Structure 5E-52 to give some idea of the kind of contextual documentation we can bring to bear to the recognition of termination rituals at Yaxuna. The test excavations elsewhere in the Structure 5E 50 group corroborate those in the main palace (Freidel, Suhler and Cobos 1992) and show that the entire group was destroyed, blanketed with white marl, and abandoned as a single event. The Structure 5E-50 group illustrates both the prospects and the challenges of identifying large-scale, multi-feature primary deposits in Maya archaeological contexts. On the one hand, such deposits do not consistently occur in each plausible locality, both because of variable processes of erosion and preservation and because of variation in the intensity of spatial focus by the ritualists. On the other hand, the presence of the distinctive deposit in a number of different parts of this group allows for an integrated stratigraphic interpretation of the whole on the basis of limited and selective exposures.

The characteristic white marl matrix of the termination deposits in the Structure 5E-50 group is readily identifiable in other test excavations elsewhere at Yaxuna, especially in the same general southeastern zone of the settlement. In 1989 (Freidel, Suhler and Krochock 1990), we put in a 2- 6 m trench and exposed the south side of Structure 4E-5, a pyramidal secondary substructure on an extensive primary substructure that marked the end of the east-west sacbe 5. This is the sacbe that runs along the southern edge of the Structure 5E-50 group. Our original interpretation of the deposit posed that the white marl matrix was "stucco melt" and natural decay of a thickly plastered decorated terrace with cut-stone walls. In retrospect, we now think it more likely that this deposit represents a termination ritual, for the jumble of cut blocks which we found is much more akin to the deliberately destroyed front wall of Structure 5E-52 than it is to any natural deterioration we have seen elsewhere at Yaxuna. The very small ceramic sample included 3 Cehpech diagnostics, 4 Early Classic Cochuah sherds, and 2 Tohosuco Late Preclassic sherds. Since the summit of this pyramid was reused for a substantial perishable superstructure in Terminal Classic times, we think the side deposit likely dates to the early phase of occupation at Yaxuna.

Similarly, a 2 by 2 m summit test on a small 4 m high pyramid about 200 m northwest of Structure 4E-5 (Freidel, Suhler and Cobos P. 1992) exposed the on the surface of a two-step building platform. We anticipate that the ceramics sealed under the plaster floor of this platform will date to the Early Classic period and earlier.

White marl was a characteristic matrix of termination deposits at Cerros in Belize and so there may be some distinct quality to this material, which is nowadays prized for house floors and wall daub. Although marl can be quarried almost anywhere under the caprock, the pure white material is only available in some places. The color likely carried special connotations for the ancient Maya. The word sak in Precolumbian Maya texts means "white, resplendent, human-made". Sak-lak, "white bowl" was a general name for dedicatory flaring- sided bowls and other vessels used in lip-to-lip caches in the Classic period. There are good reasons to believe that dedicatory and termination rituals involved many of the same materials, including white marl layers (Freidel and Schele 1989).

However, there are clearly also going to be differences in Maya termination ritual practices. At Cerros, termination rituals included a variety of broken and scattered artifacts, including pottery vessels and jades. So far, termination ritual deposits in this southern royal residential area of Yaxuna include only the broken stucco of facades and the cut stones of destroyed walls. In the northern acropolis, we have evidence that a thick white marl blanketing of the southeastern plaza area next to Structure 6F-4 included sherds from smashed Early Classic polychrome vessels and a restorable miniature "poison bottle" probably used to hold paint for writing.

Maya termination rituals show promise of providing an especially valuable form of primary deposit that can allow the documentation of extensive contemporaneous intentional actions in large and complex sites. These deposits, however, can also be especially vulnerable. For many termination deposits
occur outside the final preserved architectural contexts, walls and floors.

Traditionally, Maya archaeologists have searched for "sealed deposits" of artifacts inside such preserved buildings to the detriment of their observations of "out of context" dirt and marl matrix blanketing the buildings. Hopefully, with care and caution we will begin to find that the "out of context" overburden contains some of our most useful evidence of intentional behavior.