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Article suitable for older students

Dr. Claudia Brittenham

Question for September 2019

How long did it take to build Chichen Itza? Asked by St. George’s RC Primary School. Chosen and answered by Dr. Claudia Brittenham.

Pic 1: Aerial view of Chichen Itza
Pic 1: Aerial view of Chichen Itza (Click on image to enlarge)

Like Rome, Chichen Itza was not built in a day. Many of the buildings at Chichen Itza have other buildings inside them, suggesting that the city grew and changed over time. For example, on the Great Plaza, the Castillo has at least one - and maybe two -smaller pyramids inside it, with major changes between one building plan and the next suggesting that ideas about rulership at Chichen Itza were changing at the same time. The Monjas (or “Nunnery”) compound, which may have been an elite palace, has as many as seven different construction phases.
Archaeologists suggest that a small group of people had been living at Chichen Itza since the middle of the first millennium BCE, with the population slowly increasing over the first millennium CE. But it was only in the late 8th or early 9th century CE that the city really started to grow - right at the same time as many older Maya cities in the southern lowlands were beginning to be abandoned.

Pic 2: The Nunnery (Monjas) building at Chichen Itza: note the ‘Russian doll’ form of construction
Pic 2: The Nunnery (Monjas) building at Chichen Itza: note the ‘Russian doll’ form of construction (Click on image to enlarge)

Maya hieroglyphic writing from Chichen Itza allows us to date some construction with precisions. The earliest date at Chichen Itza corresponds to 832 CE, at the Temple of the Hieroglyphic Jambs in the southeastern part of the city. There seems to have been a major building spree under the ruler Kakupacal, whose name is found on a cluster of buildings and monuments between 864 and 890 CE. But sometimes Kakupacal’s name was on additions to existing buildings, as with a series of lintels dedicated on the second story of the Monjas compound in 881, which belong to the fifth or sixth construction stage of the complex (pic 2).

Pic 3: The Temple of the Warriors, Chichen Itza
Pic 3: The Temple of the Warriors, Chichen Itza (Click on image to enlarge)

After 890, there is nearly a century with no hieroglyphic inscriptions at Chichen Itza. Building undoubtedly continued, but the idea of writing long dedicatory texts on buildings fell out of fashion. The latest date at Chichen Itza comes from the Osario, or High Priest’s Grave, to the south of the Great Plaza, and corresponds to the year 998 CE.
So we know that Chichen Itza was being built between 832 and 998 CE, and we also know that people were living near what became Chichen Itza for centuries before. What scholars still continue to debate is how long building continued at Chichen Itza after that 998 date. Some scholars think that the city continued to grow for another century or two, while others believe that the Osario must have been one of the last buildings to be made at the site. What we do know is that the people of Chichen Itza feared a violent end to the city, and fortified walls and gates around the Great Plaza late in its history, as if to protect it from attack. What we also know about Chichen Itza is that it remained a powerful place in the memory of its neighbors for centuries, and indeed it remains so today.

Further reading:-
• Bolles, John S. 1977 Las Monjas: A Major Pre-Mexican Architectural Complex at Chichén Itzá. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press
• García Moll, Roberto, and Rafael Cobos Palma 2011 Chichén Itzá: Patrimonio de Humanidad. Mexico City: Grupo Azabache
• Kowalski, Jeff Karl, and Cynthia Kristan-Graham, eds. 2007 Twin Tollans: Chichén Itzá, Tula, and the Epiclassic to Early Postclassic Mesoamerican World. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection
• Ringle, William M. 2017 “Debating Chichen Itza” Ancient Mesoamerica 28:119-136
• Volta, Beniamino, and Geoffrey E. Braswell 2014 “Alternative Narratives and Missing Data: Refining the chronology of Chichen Itza” In The Maya and their Central American Neighbors: Settlement Patterns, architecture, hieroglyphics, and ceramics, edited by Geoffrey E. Braswell, 356-402. London, New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Images from Wikimedia Commons.

Dr. Claudia Brittenham has answered 2 questions altogether:

How many books existed [among the Maya] before the Spanish Conquest?

How long did it take to build Chichen Itza?

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