National Geographic : 1959 Jan
The National Geographic Magazine concealed, array-20 square miles by our current estimate, more than one-quarter the size of the present-day District of Columbia, one-third that of the modern capital city of Mexico. So vast is its scale, so small the portion yet excavated, that even I, after long study, have trouble bringing it into focus. Yet I can sense the nobility of its proportions, the grandeur of its conception. Dzibilchaltun, in its heyday, had a central area thick with pyramidal temples, palaces, and buildings of vaulted stone. Thatched houses on stone foundations crowded between the more massive and permanent structures. Outside this 10-square-mile "downtown" zone lay "suburbs" studded with fewer pyramids but equally dense in stone-vaulted temples and residential platforms. Memories of the Gods Grew Dim Long before the birth of Christ, men in habited this site, and not even when the Spaniards came and conquered did they leave it. For thousands of years the rulers of Dzibilchaltun-secular or clerical-held court upon this plain. Had Dzibilchaltun simply been abandoned, like many another Maya center, more of it might have remained intact. But its distinc tion of long, continuous occupation brought with it attendant penalties. In its temples men worshiped until their memories of the gods grew dim; then they used the holy places as houses. In time the builders of seven haciendas and two towns ravaged the old city for stone; much of it went into the highway from Merida to the port of Progreso (map, page 95). Even in 1958, despite strenuous efforts by the Mexican Government to protect the site, fleets of trucks every day raided the ruins for mate rial to feed near-by gravel crushers. I first visited this site in 1941 with the late Dr. George W. Brainerd of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Near the hacienda of Dzibilchaltun we found a large group of hitherto unreported mounds. While Dr. Brainerd collected pottery, I explored, re corded bits and fragments of architecture, and studied the one temple that remained partially standing. Even those few short weeks convinced us that we had stumbled upon the remnants of a truly extraordinary city. Not only was it of very large size, but it appeared to predate other well-known Maya centers in Yucatan, such as Uxmal and Chichen Itza.* To an archeologist this was of major im port. Maya centers of power earlier than these cities were all supposed to lie in the lowland jungles to the south, in Guatemala, Honduras, and adjacent regions of Mexico. They were not known to exist in northern Yucatan. Yet here was a city at the peak of its grandeur perhaps half a thousand years before the rise of Chichen Itza, 75 miles away. World War II cut short any further investi gation. Not for 15 years, despite all my plans and pleas, was I to return. Then in 1956 the Middle American Research Institute of Tulane University signed a contract with the Mexican Government authorizing four seasons of work at the ruins. In our first season we set about restoring the still-standing temple; it seemed in immi nent danger of collapse. And day after day my young assistant, Willard Sloshberg of the Tulane graduate school, tramped through the brush with his Brunton transit to make a rough survey of the site. It extended beyond our most ambitious estimates. Sloshberg located more than 400 ruined edifices, yet had to leave large areas totally unexplored. Even now, after a second * See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: " 'Pyramids' of the New World," by Neil Merton Judd, January, 1948; and "Yucatan, Home of the Gifted Maya," by Sylvanus Griswold Morley, No vember, 1936. Drowned Treasures of the Ancient Maya Return to the Light of Day National Geographic divers, in three months' work in Cenote Xlacah at Dzibilchaltun, raised some 6,000 artifacts. Among several puzzling finds was the shallow dish at lower left. No one knows its origin; the staring eyes and dripping fangs seem non-Maya. The larger human thigh bone (center) may have been a slain Spaniard's; the smaller, that of a Maya. Broken skulls await anthropological study to determine if they were male or female, young or old. The fine intact jar in center is that shown on the pre ceding page; most others had to be reconstructed. Pieces of a branching gorgonian (lower right) baffled archeologists. Occurring only in coral waters, the sea fan must have been carried inland and thrown into the cenote, possibly as a ritual offering. Dr. E. Wyllys Andrews, leader of the National Geographic Society-Tulane Univer sity expedition, examines a part of the collection. KODACHROMEBY LUIS MARDEN,NATIONALGEOGRAPHICSTAFF© N. G. S.