Archaeology of Altun Ha

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Introduction

The name "Altun Ha", literally "rockstone water", is a rough translation of the name of a nearby village, Rockstone Pond, into Yucatec Maya. The site includes at least 500 visible structures or mounds. At its peak, the population of Altun Ha and the surrounding vicinity ranged between 8,000-10,000 inhabitants, with around 3,000 individuals living in the central core of the city.

The earliest evidence of settlement at Altun Ha dates to 200 B.C., although it is likely that nomadic hunting-and-gathering tribes lived in the area long before then. The earliest permanent buildings were erected in an area west of the central precinct, not now accessible to visitors. The earliest construction in the central precinct (on the site of Structure A-1) may date to the time of Christ. The first major construction took place around A.D. 100 in the form of a temple near the principal reservoir, but by the beginning of the Classic Period (A.D. 250) the focus had shifted to the area which the visitor sees today. This was to be the central core of the site for some six centuries. The northern plaza (Plaza A) was the primary ceremonial precinct until close to the end of the Early Classic (around A.D. 550) when construction was begun on the Plaza B.

Construction at Altun Ha continued until A.D. 900, though a decline in the quality of new buildings was evident 150 years earlier. At Classic Maya sites, the society appears to have been severely disrupted early in the tenth century A.D. Although no single factor explains the decline of Maya civilization, there is some evidence that regional conflicts may have contributed to the downfall of the Maya at Altun Ha. The center was not completely abandoned after the collapse, but appears to have been occupied for about 100 years after construction activity had ceased. It was once again reoccupied 200 years later during the 13th and 14th centuries.

Plaza A

This large courtyard is enclosed by 8 large temples and palaces. Unlike most Maya centers, however, there are no carved monuments, or stelae, in front of these structures. The reason for their general absence at Altun Ha is unclear, but it may be that the stela cult did not extend to regions on the fringes of the Maya area.

Several construction efforts are represented in the present reconstruction of Temple A-1. The final form of this structure, a terraced platform originally marked by a broad stair extending about halfway up the structure and supporting a chambered building, was achieved by the late 5th to early 6th century A.D. Numerous minor modifications continued to be made in succeeding centuries. The frontal stair was eventually covered by a large subsidiary platform which cut off access to the chambered building, requiring the addition of a staircase let into the south side of the new construction.

A single tomb, possibly containing a ruler, was found hidden deep inside A-1. This tomb dates to about A.D. 550, and is the earliest known tomb from the site center.

The tomb was constructed in a manner characteristic of Altun Ha but not known from any other Maya site. The walls were formed of roughly shaped pieces of quarried limestone and occasional facing stones, and covered by a ceiling of huge slabs of flint and limestone.. Despite this crude construction, the tomb, like others at Altun Ha, was marked by a surprising richness of contents. The presence of nearly 300 jade objects has led this to be called the “Green Tomb”. Other artifacts included shell necklaces and ornaments, pottery vessels, stingray spines (used in ritual bloodletting), and groups of ceremonial chert (flint) eccentrics (elaborately shaped chert sculptures), as well as the remains of more perishable items - skins, cloth, and wooden objects. The remains of a codex, an ancient book made on bark paper, were also found. The fragments were too fragile to be reassembled, but they at least tell us that codices were sometimes buried with elites during the Classic period.

Structures A-2 and A-8, now connected to A-1 were once free standing buildings. The latter platform supported a chambered building and the former a residential building. A-8 originally faced onto the plaza, but was dramatically cut off by the construction of A-2. Structure A-3, the smallest temple in Group A is like A-1, a composite of various construction efforts which were sufficiently well-preserved to permit their incorporation into an assemblage which gives a reasonable idea of what the building look like about A.D. 600.

Structure A-4, located on the southeast side of Plaza A, forms parts of the southern and eastern borders of the plaza. It appears to have simply been a long, low, narrow platform, with no structure atop it, serving as a border between the two plazas.

Less is known about Structure A-6 than of the other structures in Plaza A due to its great size and the poor condition of its platform facing. Although an earlier building may be hidden deep within A-6, excavations indicated that the entire mass may have been raised in just two stages, from A.D. 550-600. A-7, the final element of Group A, is a small, low mound asymmetrically placed in the northeast corner of the plaza.

Plaza B

Plaza B differs from Plaza A both in sequence of construction and its orientation. The sequence of floor constructions suggests that modifications in one plaza were not always accompanied by changes in the other.

Structure B-1 abuts A-4, the low divider mound between the two plazas, at a slight angle. The greater height of B-1 and the difference in alignment indicated that it is a separate structure from A-4. Little is known about this building, however, since no excavations have been done. Little is also known about Structure B-2, as much of it was destroyed by local quarrying. Its shape suggests that it was a residence or palace, but we can not be certain of its use.

A complex of three buildings, B-3, B-5, and B-6, forms the southern boundary of Plaza B. These were originally separate structures, the former two residential and the latter a small temple.

The most imposing building at Altun Ha is Structure A-4, the Temple of the Masonry Altars, rising some 54 feet about the plaza floor. The entire construction history has been probed, uncovering eight phases of construction. The first construction effort began about A.D. 550, although little is known about the form of the building. The present reconstruction represents the temple as it appeared around A.D. 600-650.

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