Posted by: Johan Normark | March 29, 2009

Between Maya collapse and Spanish conquest

I am working on an article concerning Postclassic shrines, altars and their relation to settlement. The preliminary title is: Between Maya collapse and Spanish conquest: Ritually reusing the past and domesticating the future. The Postclassic period (A.D. 1000/1100-1544 in the Cochuah region) is often considered to be the “dark ages” of the “Maya culture,” a period of cultural, demographic, political, social, artistic, and economic decline following the Terminal Classic “collapse” and preceding the Spanish conquest. Some Mayanist researchers have had an old-fashioned culture-evolutionary view on this period as Coe’s evaluation of Postclassic architecture at Tulum shows: “The principal temple, a miserable structure called the Castillo” (Coe 1993:159, my emphasis).

In the Cochuah region there are scattered remains of Postclassic shrines and altars of varying sizes. On the grander scale we find structures crowning Classic period pyramids at the site of Yo’okop. These can be up to six m tall and have two stories with interior stairways and an excess of stucco. The main interest for this project is small shrines with altars found throughout the region. The small site of Nohcacab has an unusual high concentration of these small Postclassic shrines. Fourteen securely defined Postclassic shrines, eleven altars, and two possible shrines are known (Normark 2003). Most of the structures are not larger than a few square meters. The shrines are all one-room constructions with one entrance. Building elements from older structures, such as Terminal Classic doorjambs, have frequently been used to construct the shrines. These shrines are found on top of older structures with a small altar in front of, and at a lower elevation than, the old structure. The altars are about 1 x 1 m square, consisting of several smaller flat stones arranged into a quadrangular shape.

Postclassic shrine at Nohcacab
Postclassic shrine at Nohcacab

The shrines most likely were once palm thatched and resembled residential houses. Depictions of miniature shrines in the codices show us house-like structures for deities to dwell in. The depicted deities may also have been idols such as ceramic effigy censers. In front of some structures, the early Spaniards saw deer antlers and hunters made sacrifices at such places. Petitions to deities who controlled game and fish may thus have been one reason for using the structures (Lorenzen 2003:26-27). Lorenzen (2003:XIII) “posit[s] that Late Postclassic miniature shrines were the focus of perpetual subsistence rites intimately tied to ancestral deity veneration and the ritual incorporation of sacred caves, perceived as the paramount source of fertility, spiritual power and creation.” These structures seem to have focused on increasing rain, agriculture and game.

Originally, we could not detect any associated contemporary settlement. In 2008, the small cave site of Gruta de Alux (see below) was located near Huay Max. The site has a dozen small round foundation braces surrounding a cave and located near what appears to be a ballcourt. Surface finds indicates a possible Postclassic date for these potential domestic structures. We therefore now believe that Postclassic domestic structures may have been round rather than rectangular or apsidal (Normark 2008). My study will therefore focus on the not clearly understood relationship between shrine and domestic structures by revisiting earlier discovered round foundation braces in the region.

Gruta de Alux
Gruta de Alux


Coe, M. D. 1999. The Maya. Thames & Hudson, London.

Lorenzen, K. J. 2003. Miniature Masonry Shrines of the Yucatan Peninsula: Ancestor Deification in Late Postclassic Maya Ritual and Religion. University of California, Riverside, Riverside.

Normark, J. 2003. Small Postclassic shrines at Nohcacab. In Final Report of Cochuah Regional Archaeological Survey’s 2003 Field Season, edited by J. M. Shaw, pp. 34-38. College of the Redwoods, Eureka.

Normark, J. 2008. Gruta de Alux. In Final Report of Cochuah Regional Archaeological Survey’s 2008 Field Season, edited by J. M. Shaw, pp. 44-47. College of the Redwoods, Eureka.



  1. Are you familiar with the work of Drs. Arlen and Diane Chase from the University of Central Florida? Dr. A. Chase is our dept head. He and his wife run the longest-running Maya dig associated with an American university. It is in Caracol, Belize.
    I’m glad I stumbled upon your site. I will be applying to UCF’s anthropology MA program for fall 2010. As part of that program I will do archaeology in Caracol. I can’t wait.I am leaning toward a thesis on the Dresden Codex.

  2. Yes, I know some of their work quite well. My dissertation thesis concerned causeways and the causeway system at Caracol is one of the most extensive we currently know.

    I began my field work in Belize (Baking Pot and later at El Pilar). I have only been to Caracol once and that was in 1997. The site has gone through some major changes since then.


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