Balamku – Campeche
This site is situated 100 km east of Escarcega and 3 km north-east of Conhuas. The distance from Chetumal is approximately 180 km. The archaeological area comprises several architectural groups distributed around medium-height jungle zones. To the north of the buildings open to visitors is an aguada, which had an important function in pre-Hispanic times. The pre-Columbian site was christened by the archaeologist Florentino Garcia Cruz, who made his first survey at the beginning of the 1990s, prompted by various episodes of plundering in the area. The name chosen means temple (ku) of the jaguar (balam), a reference to a striking stucco motif at the site.
History of the explorations
Garcia Cruz and Ramon Carrasco of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) were the first people to study the site and define the archaeological area. Carrasco conducted work on several constructions in the central architectural precinct and restored the volume of the building containing stucco-modelled elements. In 1995 a team of French researchers led by Dominique Michelet and Pierre Becquelin embarked on a series of excavations and consolidated various buildings in the South Group.
Timeline, site description and monuments
The occupation of the Maya city stretches from several hundred years prior to the Common Era to approximately the 10th century AD.
In the middle of this area stands a pyramid platform approximately 10 m high. The various buildings arranged around it form four plazas. The pyramid was built during the Early Classic (AD 250-600) and was subsequently covered by another one; although this later construction has not survived, its fillings facilitated the preservation of the present day monument. The upper part is occupied by a temple whose facade provided the basis for a giant zoomorphic mask – one of the earliest examples of this type of facade in the region. This important architectural feature, symbolising the powerful deity Itzamnaaj, gradually evolved to cover entire building facades. The finest and best-preserved examples of whole zoomorphic facades can be found at Chicanna in southern Campeche and Tabasqueno in the Chenes region. The northern section of the South Group contains several examples of elite dwellings: masonry constructions clad with carefully cut veneer stones and even forming stacks of masks around the main entrances. Various of the rooms have broad benches. The constructions are situated at the cardinal points and form rectangular plazas, in keeping with the typical Mesoamerican pattern.
This comprises 30 or so monumental buildings distributed around three large plazas. Explorations have been conducted on several buildings that indicate the entrance to the architectural group and beyond them three pyramid platforms whose sides are now abutted as a result of their gradual expansion. The early constructions are clad with carefully cut veneer stones in the Rio Bec style; it is still possible to see rounded corners, masonry columns at the entrances to rooms, some with benches, but the vaulted roofs and elaborate stairways flanked by balustrades have been lost. We then proceed south to a plaza whose west side displays a broad stairway leading to a large building that has not yet been explored. Three platforms stand at the north end of the plaza. The excavations conducted confirmed architecture principally of the Peten style, developed during the early centuries of the Common Era.
Pyramid platform in the north-west section.
It was this structure that led to the original exploration of the site. Various episodes of plundering had dismantled the final construction stage, exposing a large proportion of a sub-structure whose frieze had once been decorated with interesting stucco-modelled motifs. The various elements have preserved most of their original colour, which is mainly red, but there are also traces of cherry red, black and blue. The motifs found in this building correspond to the frieze of its main facade. These are situated above three entrances and symbolically display opposing and complementary aspects of the ancient Maya world view. Originally, the lower section of the frieze depicted four imposing images of Cauac or the Earth Monster, one for each cardinal point. These alternate with images of jaguars, animals associated with the underworld. The upper part of each Earth Monster has a large crack, from which sprout toads on the left and crocodiles on the right. The reptiles and amphibians evoke the damp, fertile earth, recalling the original sea from which the legendary Maya world emerged; they represent the transition between the abode of the gods and that of human beings. From the amphibians’ jaws sprout sacred lords, the governors of the Classic period, seated on jaguar skin thrones. These are flanked by the stems of water lilies or other flowers, elements that indicate abundance because high-ranking officials were responsible for providing their subjects with well being and everything they needed. The dignitaries’ headdresses are poorly preserved but must have displayed zoomorphic figures associated with deities. Overall, the frieze shows the emergence of a legendary world of governors closely tied to the deities and their powerful religious symbols. Balamku had stone hieroglyphic inscriptions but to date only a few greatly decayed stelae have been found.
Importance and relations
The extraordinary stucco frieze at Balamku is one of the finest examples of the Early Classic iconography of the Maya world. It tells us of the governors’ complex world view and their association with a supernatural world from which they believed their political authority emanated. To a certain extent, the stucco motifs are comparable with those of the frieze at Placeres, a site in the southernmost part of Campeche; this frieze is thought to have been dismantled by plunderers but has fortunately been recovered and is now on display in the Maya Room of the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Meanwhile, the monuments at Balamku demonstrate the site’s former influence over the surrounding area, where it coexisted alongside other important sites such as Becan, 40 km to the east; Oxpemul and Calakmul, in the south; Silvituc, around and on the island in the Centenario Lagoon, 40 km to the west; and Nadzcaan, a vast city situated some 25 km to the north.
From: ‘The Maya: an architectural and landscape guide’, produced jointly by the Junta de Andulacia and the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico, 2010, pp324-326.
1. Plaza A; 2. Plaza B; 3. Plaza C; 4. Plaza D.
How to get there:
There are 4 or 5 buses, each way, which do the run from Xpuil and Escarcega, passing through the settlement of Conhaus. The approach road to the site is to the west of Conhaus. Then there’s a just under three kilometre walk to the site.
18d 33′ 42″ N
89d 57′ 06″