less frequent variants) is the name given to site of one of the
largest ancient Maya
uncovered. It is located in the 1,800,000 acre Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in the
Mexican state of Campeche, deep in the
jungles of the greater Petén Basin region, 30 km from the Guatemalan border.
Rediscovered from the air by biologist Cyrus L. Lundell
of the Mexican Exploitation
Chicle Company on December 29, 1931, the find was reported to
Sylvanus G. Morley of the Carnegie Institute at Chichen Itza in March 1932.
According to Lundell, who
named the site, "In Maya, 'ca' means 'two', 'lak' means 'adjacent',
and 'mul' signifies any artificial mound or pyramid, so 'Calakmul'
is the 'City of the Two Adjacent Pyramids'."
was a major Maya superpower within the northern Peten region of the Yucatan of southern
Calakmul administered a large domain marked by the
extensive distribution of their emblem glyph of the snake head
sign, to be read "Kan". Calakmul was the seat of what has been
dubbed the Serpent Head Polity. This Serpent Head polity reigned,
like Tikal, during most of the Classic Maya period. Calakmul itself
is estimated to have had a population of 50,000 people and had
governance, at times, to places as far away as 150 kilometers.
There are 6,750 ancient structures identified at Calakmul the
largest of which is the great pyramid at the site. Structure II is
55 meters high, making it the tallest of the Maya pyramids. Four
tombs have been located within the pyramid. Like many temples or
pyramids within Mesoamerica the pyramid at Calakmul increased in
size by building upon the existing temple to reach its current
size. The size of the central monumental architecture is
approximately two square kilometers and the whole of the site;
mostly covered with dense residential structures is about twenty
Stelae, Murals and Ceramics
Calakmul is one of the most structure rich sites within the Maya
region. The site contains 117 stelae the largest total in the
region, most are in paired sets representing rulers and their
wives. However, due to these carved stelae being produced with soft
limestone most of these stelae have been eroded beyond
interpretation. Also many elaborate murals were discovered at
Calakmul. Unusually these murals do not represent activities of the
elite class. Elaborate market scenes are depictions of people
preparing or consuming products such as atole or tamales or tobacco
as an ointment. Also items being sold were textiles and needles.
These murals also have glyphs within them describing the actions
occurring. The most prominent figure in these murals is identified
as Lady Nine Stone, she appears in many scenes. This brings a world
of the Maya marketplace to vibrant life for archaeologists. Another
highly beneficial resource to Maya archeological understanding at
Calakmul is the ceramic remains. The composition of the ceramic
materials identifies the region or more specifically the polity
that produced them. Ceramics found at several sites which also are
found to have the snake emblem glyph give more evidence to identify
ties or control over that site by Calakmul.
Calakmul vs. Tikal
Much that led to the collapse of classic Maya civilization was
warfare and degradation of natural resources. Within the greater
Peten region of southern Mexico the two main contributors to this
collapse were the superpowers of Calakmul and Tikal.
initial understanding from Maya archaeologists was that Tikal and
Calakmul were active competitors of resources in their region. They
waged almost constant warfare through to the terminal classic
period and could have begun their rivalry in ancestral times.
Calakmul rose to be powerful then defeated Tikal; Tikal eventually
gained strength and returned to defeat Calakmul. Calakmul allied itself
with Yaxchilan, Naranjo, and
Caracol surrounding and conquering Tikal.
remained in power until two of these polities began fighting and
then Tikal muscled itself out of control of the northern superpower
and in 695 AD conquered Calakmul. Calakmul in turn, utilized
surrounding smaller cities of the Tikal sphere of power to defeat
their political center at Tikal. It was originally understood that
Tikal was the more powerful of the two polities, however, recent
archaeological evidence supports that both were influential and
each was the seat of their respective dynastic polities. Calakmul
is located approximately 60 miles north of Tikal within the Peten,
so they are relatively close to each other and inevitably were
competing for the same resources. Calakmul acquired and influenced
other outposts including many in the Tikal zone such as El Peru and
Dos Pilas. Dos Pilas was originally created as an outpost for Tikal
who implanted rulers from the royal lineage of the great city.
hurricane ripped through the northern jungles of Guatemala and
uncovered ten previously unknown glyph ridden stairs at the site of
Pilas, adding to the eight already known and deciphered
steps of the hieroglyphic staircase #2, structure L5-49.
to the decipherment the glyphs indicate that the ruler of Dos Pilas was actually brother to the ruler of Tikal and
ascended to the throne at age four.
The ruler of Dos Pilas,
Balaj Chan K’awiil, was a great warrior and was loyal to his
brothers’ empire until while in his twenties the enemy of Tikal
sacked the young rulers city and he became subordinate to Calakmul.
According to the glyphs Balaj Chan K’awiil, acting as a “puppet
king”, waged a ten year proxy war against Tikal. What is described
in the staircase at this point is a very graphic description of the
victory over Tikal by Dos Pilas under the Calakmul authority. A
direct quote from the translation of the glyphs is “Blood flowed
and skulls of the 13 peoples of the Tikal place were piled up”.
Tikal didn’t remain in subordination of Calakmul for very long;
shortly after the events described in the staircase at Dos Pilas,
Tikal sacked Calakmul and crushed the superpower. Calakmul never
fully recovered and after the k’atun ending in 909 AD we have
little evidence of Calakmul being a significant center at all. It
is clear that warfare was a constant during the classic Maya period
and the rivalry between the polities of Calakmul and Tikal were
tantamount to catalysts in the great collapse in the greater Peten
region in the terminal classic. The terminal classic is identified by a shift
of powerful polities within the Peten and the central lowlands to
the post classic centers of the Yucatan peninsula, such as Chichen Itza, Coba, and
After a long period of inactivity following Morley's 1932
expedition, the city was explored by William Folan between 1984 and
1994, and is now the subject of a large-scale project of the
Institute of Anthropology and History
(INAH) under Ramón
Known rulers of Calakmul
This list is not continuous, as the archaeological record is
- Unknown: Yuknoom Ch'een I
- c.520–546: Tuun K'ab' Hix
- c.561–572: Sky Witness
- 572–579: First Axewielder
- 579–c.611: Scroll Serpent
- c.619: Yuknoon Chan
- 622–630: Tajoom Uk'ab' K'ak'
- 630–636: Yuknoom Head
- 636–686: Yuknoom Che'en II "Yuknoom the Great"
- 686–c.695: Yuknoom Yich'aak K'ak'
- c.695: Split Earth
- c.702–c.731: Yuknoom Took' K'awil
- c.736: Wamaw K'awil
- c.741: Ruler Y
- c.751: Ruler Z
- c.771–c.789: B'olon K'awil
- c.849: Chan Pet
- c.909: Aj Took'
- (Schele and Freidel pp.456–457)
- Nikolai Grube, "Hieroglyphs" in Divine Kings of the Rain
Forest (Könemann, 2000), 115f; 120
- (Sharer and Traxler pp.356)
- (Folan et al. pp.316)
- (Sharer and Traxler pp.356)
- (Sharer and Traxler pp.379, 390-394)
- (Coe pp.130)
- (Sharer and Traxler pp.387)
- (Schele and Freidel pp388)
- Coe, Michael D. "The Maya." New York: Thames and Hudson,
- Fahsen, Federico. "Rescuing the Origins of Dos Pilas Dynasty: a
Salvage of Hieroglyphic Stairway #2, Structure L5-49." FAMSI,
- Folan, William S., Marcus, Joyce, Pincemin, Sophia, Carrasco,
Maria del Rosario Dominguez, Fletcher, Loraine, and Lopez, Abel
Morales. "Calakmul: New Data from an Ancient Maya Capitol in
Campeche, Mexico." Latin American Antiquity, Vol. 6, No. 4, Dec.
- Martin, Simon. "Recently Uncovered Murals and Fascades at
Calakmul." The Maya Mural Symposium. Oct. 2005.
- Schele, Linda and Freidel, David. "A Forest of Kings: the
Untold Story of the Ancient Maya." New York: Harper Perinial,
- Sharer, Robert J. and Traxler, Loa P. "The Ancient Maya."
California: Stanford University Press, 2006.