Posted by: Johan Normark | November 20, 2012

Political implications of rejolladas, cenotes, and sacbes

Rejolladas (sinkholes with soil in the bottom), cenotes (sinkholes with groundwater in the bottom) and sacbes (Maya causeways) have been important in several of my studies. In an interesting article, my former “thesis opponent” Scott Hutson (and others) discusses the political implications of these features at two smaller sites near Late Formative Yaxuna.

Joya is located 2 km east of Yaxuna. It lacks monumental buildings but it has a large plaza that seems to be the focal point of the community. There is a small sacbe that connects it with the eastern portion of Yaxuna. Joya has two rejolladas and a cenote. Rejollada 1 is located directly east of a building in the eastern side of the plaza. It contains three rockshelters, a 5 m tall pyramid, masonry walls, rock carvings, modified speleothems and artifacts. The pyramid’s peak is 4 m below the rockshelter it abuts. The rockshelter behind the pyramid was originally completely sealed by additional walls. The cenote at the site is located near one of the site’s larger groups.

Tzacauil is located 1.1 km east of Joya’s plaza. It has a one hectare large acropolis that rises 8.5 m above the terrain. It is dominated by a triadic group. The site is also connected to Yaxuna by a small causeway that runs parallel to the Joya sacbe. Tzacauil has two cenotes but the settlement did not encompass them. At Joya, the cenote was anchored around a cenote.

Both Tzacauil and Joya are from the Late Formative but it is likely that Joya grew as Tzacauil faltered. Since the Tzacauil sacbe articulates with the acropolis it cannot be later than that. The people of Joya constructed buildings near the Tzacauil sacbe and at these locations there are gaps in the sacbe. Since people of Joya removed stones from this sacbe it must have ceased to be maintained.

This shift of political strategy from monumental construction at Tzacauil to non-monumental constructions at Joya is interesting. In one set of interpretations monumental construction consolidates power and in the other interpretation it exposes or creates weaknesses because architecture reveals persuasion. In the first perspective bureaucracies emerge through the organization of monumental construction. This is why we tend to find the largest buildings early in the history of various “civilizations” (Pharaonic Egypt, Mesopotamia, Peru and Mesoamerica). Once these organizations have emerged authorities shift away from these great buildings and focus on other efforts. See my previous post on Rathje’s discussion of Monstrous Visual Symbols in the Mirador Basin.

Joya’s main performance space, the plaza, was far more accessible that the acropolis at Tzacauil. It is stated that “what took place on top of the acropolis could not be seen from below” (p 50). However, the idea that the plaza was the main performance space is speculative (why cannot it have been a market place as proposed for Chunchucmil where Hutson has worked before?). If the plaza at Joya was used for an audience instead and the rituals were performed on the pyramid in the rejollada behind the eastern structure on the plaza these performances would not have been more accessible. Indeed, the authors write that there were exclusive spaces in the rejollada that only could accommodate few people.

I agree with the conclusion that “the greater accessibility of space at Joya suggests that the structure of authority at Joya does not represent the same structure of authority as at Tzacauil” (p 51). However, are we talking about differences of degree or in kind? The authors say that at Joya people met on more equal grounds whereas at Tzacauil the acropolis divided people into hierarchical positions. I fail to see how the rejollada and its pyramid could not do the same thing? If the rejollada was forested or surrounded by a wooden palisade people would have been unaware of what was going down there.

One thing that strikes me, based on my experience from the Cochuah region, is that settlement concentrations near karstic features occur during drier conditions. Tzacauil was probably mainly settled during the earlier and wetter phase of the Late Formative whereas the greater concentration around karstic features at Joya may have coincided with the late Late Formative drier conditions. Caves became settlement attractors during this period and this repeated during the Terminal Classic again (at least in the Cochuah region). Hence, drier conditions may have dispersed people from Tzacauil. With less productive harvests, etc. people also had less capacity to invest in monumental architecture. Having access and control of an important rejollada may have replaced the acropolis as a power manifestation by the local authorities.

Hence, from what I can tell I see a difference in degree of political structure. This is supported by the quote from Connerton that Hutson and others use: “All beginnings contain an element of recollection”. Recollection relates to something already existing and there is therefore never a true break with the past. The main element of recollection at Joya is the sacbe. Instead of using the preexisting sacbe from Tzacauil the people of Joya built a new one, only 60 m north of the old one. The sacbe is a social statement. It was built to show that Joya also was a serious site, “it made itself intelligible by following the local precedent of the previous political center, even though it sought to distance itself from that center” (p 52).

Hutson, Scott R. et al. (2012). Memory and power at Joya, Yucatán. In Power and Identity in Archaeological Theory and Practice:  Case Studies from Ancient Mesoamerica (Eleanor Harrison-Buck, ed.) University Of Utah Press, pp. 39-52.



  1. In the TV show “Världens museer” (Museum secrets) yesterday they showed a researcher diving in a Cenote (I think it was close to Chichen Itza) and examining some skeletons down there.


%d bloggers like this: