Labná, Portal to Maya Late Classic

Labna Arch
Labna Arch

Labna is a mid-size elite and ceremonial city in West-central Yucatán, with a multi-level palace connected to a pyramid-temple and the ancient city landmark, the Arch, also called the “Portal”, is the site landmark. The city’s name translates as “Old Houses” or “Ruined Houses” in Maya; either may not be the original name, now lost.

Puuc Highway

This small Late Classic site in hilly area of central Yucatán is called the Puuc a name that means hills in Maya. The site is located in a cluster of other ancient sites of great interest, a few miles from each other, shown on partial map below, from Joyce Kelly, 1993:115.

The Classic Puuc style side date from the Late to Terminal Classic (862AD), and was restored in 1991 by the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia of Mexico. Together with Uxmal, less than 20mi/30km away, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996 (Puuc, see Annex.7 in Labná @ MWI).

Labna Map

The Arch is not free-standing, as are the arches at Uxmal and Kabah, but a passage within a building complex, with a plaza on each side. Tatiana Proskouriakoff (1909-1985, Annx.3 in Labna @ MWI), in her restoration drawings, show that individual sections of the roof comb were stepped. Mosaic Cha’ak masks adorned the two northwest upper corners.

Labná is a relatively minor site compared to Kabah or Sayil, but is notable for its magnificent architecture, among the best in the Puuc style. It was an important city in the political structure of the region in the Late Classic. The Palace, Group.2, is a large terrace with 40 rooms on its first floor, and 27 on the second, built in three sections, that were consolidated at a later date.

The sacbè, or “white road” (Maya for: sac > way or road, and > white), is 4ft/1.25m high over the ground on average. It runs about 145yds/130m north-south through the center of the site, and connects the Palace to the group of the Mirador aka El Castillo, and the Arch.

Either or both sides of the sacbè, may have been used as water catchment areas (buk’te), the causeway acting as a retaining wall.

water catchment areas (buk’te)
Water catchment areas (buk’te)

Water in central and northern Yucatán is scarce during the dry season, in particular. The peninsula lacks surface rivers and relies on cenotes, or sinkholes, hand dug small wells to tap the water table 5 to 10 feet underground; a common practice in the northeastern part of the peninsula, where the table is lower than in other parts of the State.

The other water supply is of course the rainy season, stored for both human consumption and cultures. The problem is that seasonal rains are not constant in their frequency nor volume. The answer by communities then was to both build chultunes (plural for chultun = cistern) described below, and aguadas, or buk’te, large surface areas prepared to receive rain fall.

Labna chultunes

In cities and towns, the water capture was done through a slightly concave circular lime plastered area, that covered level spaces of plazas, with a central catchment: the chultún. The catchment circular area declination then channeled rain water toward its opening, at the center of the catchment (arrow), where the water was stored in a large lime coated ceramic jar.

Labna: Cha’ak’s nose
Labna: Cha’ak’s nose

The Palace East Wing holds a close architectural affinity with Sayil. Cha’ak geometric masks and step frets are shown above each doorway. The stepped portion formed by a series of squares are arranged in a 45-degree diagonal line. They are combined with colonettes that fill the space, both above and below the squares. Squares and colonettes represent Cha’ak’s nose, while the eyes are represented by long frets on each side.

On the western corner of the Palace, is a most interesting mythological assemblage, among which is a human head emerging from a serpent’s open mouth. The serpent is tenoned into the face of the god Cha’ak, whose upturned snout can be seen over the upper mandible of the snake (Cha’ak in Annex.5, Labna @ MWI). The human head is shown coming out of the snake’s throat, in the middle of the wide mouth.

Vision Serpent
Vision Serpent

The serpent open mouth with a human head, is known as a Vision Serpent, a “conduit” for the ancestors between this world and the “other”. Ancestors intercede with gods, deities and other ancestors, for an individual or his family, not for a person or group foreign to that family.

Reference to the serpent do not refer in any way to the zoological animal. It does however, refer to the swirling shape of the smoke curling up from a brazier burning bark paper and incense, sprinkled with blood from the supplicant, after a bloodletting ritual.

Labna palace’s connecting courtyards
Labna palace’s connecting courtyards

One of the Palace’s connecting courtyards where elite life took place, had a cohesive footprint, distinct from common people simple houses, spread out between and beyond residential buildings.

Around houses, in elite and commoner areas alike, fruit trees were planted, as well as small and large gardens of various edible food crops, medicinal, and ornamental plants. Small animals, mammals and birds, were kept for food and as pets.

Beyond the main residential complex, folk homes and compound entrances were, as a rule, facing toward one of the cardinal points. The buildings in the courtyard shown, were used by city elite as prestige places to receive visitors, as well as for storage of valuable goods, government and priesthood working areas.

Labna palace second story
Labna palace second story

The second story of the Palace is made up of separate structures. Is of interest here to quote Tatiana Proskuriakoff: “In spite of some attempt at balance and symmetry, the Palace, especially when compared with that of Sayil, seems to lack unity and compactness, perhaps because, like many Maya structures, it was not built according to a preconceived plan, but grew by accretion as the exigencies of changing times demanded” (1946:58).

Her remark is indeed grounded in the seemingly random urban construction pattern, that may be seen at other sites.

El Mirador” is Early Puuc style; the pyramid temple also known as “El Castillo” is a religious-ceremonial structure. Its rectangular base is 125ft/38m EW and 100ft/30m NS, and faces south; its main staircase was 50ft/15m wide. The roof comb is 13ft/4m high that translate into a “flying” façade, adorned with 6 rows of vertical rectangular openings, and stucco figures. The structure had 4 rooms, 2 inside and 2 facing outside, before collapse. Frederick Catherwood, 1842 drawing already showed a 10ft/3m section missing; the drawing then showed two doors (Annex.2 in Labná @ MWI). One is left today from an original four; the pyramid-temple must have been an imposing structure in its heyday.

El Mirador
El Mirador

The Arch, also called the “Portal” is the passageway between two courtyards.  Its eastern façade shown below, is pure Puuc style with stepped frets and geometric designs, essentially different from the ones on the east façade.

The altar in the foreground, faces North toward El Mirador. The east plaza may have served distinct ceremonial functions than its western counterpart.

Labna’s Arch

The Arch or Portal is built on a 4 ft/1.3m high platform; its eastern rectangular footprint façade measures 42ft/12.6m long x 13ft/4m wide; the vault is 10ft/3m high. Like its west side, it faces an enclosed plaza with an altar; no doors.

Arch's eastern facade
Arch’s eastern facade

On the Arch eastern façade is seen, two geometric Cha’ak masks with colonettes, both above and below diagonal rows of square. A single stone square mark the center of the stylized mask. To be noted, the medial molding decorated with the zigzag motif of a serrated serpent design, that surrounds the building; designs typical Puuc Classic Style.

The Ancient Maya –
 Robert J. Sharer with Loa P. Traxler, 2006
An Archaeological Guide to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula – Joyce Kelly, 1993
Early Puuc Architecture – George F. Andrews, 43rd International Congress, 1979
The Puuc: An Archaeological Survey of the Hill Country of Yucatan and Northern Campeche, Mexico – Harry E.D. Pollock, Vol.19 Carnegie Institution, 1980


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