Balamkú Archaeological Zone
For years archaeologists and the area’s few tourists paid scant attention to little old Balamkú (8 a.m.–5 p.m. daily, US$3) preferring instead to focus on Calakmul, Becán, and the grander sites of this region. But in 1990 archaeologists uncovered an incredibly well-preserved 20-meter (65-foot) stucco frieze inside a ruined pyramid here, and Balamkú instantly became a must-see on the southern Campeche Maya route.
Balamkú (House of the Jaguar) shows signs of occupation as early as 300 B.C. It reached its peak in the Early Classic era (A.D. 300–600) before collapsing, along with so many other Maya cities, toward the end of the first millennium.
The frieze was built around A.D. 550–650 and is located in one of three bases that make up Structure I, in the site’s central group. The frieze had been deliberately covered, probably in the course of enlarging the pyramid. Relatively little has been excavated here, and there’s not much to see beyond the frieze.
Balamkú’s frieze depicts a rich scene of gods, animals, and men quite different from those appearing at surrounding sites. Some 20 meters (65 feet) long and in remarkably good condition, including a great deal of original color, the frieze has four frames.
At the center of each is an animal—a toad and two crocodiles are discernable, the forth has decomposed. Toads and crocodiles (both amphibious) represented fertility to the Maya, especially in this arid region.
Above the animal figures—in the case of the toad, emerging from its gaping upturned mouth—are kings, sitting cross-legged on jaguar-skin cushions and surrounded by lilies, another sign of fertility. The implication is that the king, too, is endowed with powers of rebirth and prosperity, and will deliver them to his subjects.
The frames are separated by jaguars with reptile heads. Two are bound like prisoners, and were likely meant to evoke war, ritual sacrifice, and the middle world between life and death.
The cardinal directions figure prominently in Maya mythology, and Maya artisans had to develop ways of portraying the four directions in two-dimensional forms. In Balamkú’s frieze, the bottom of each frame has a mask portraying cauac, the snaggle-toothed Earth Monster. The end masks are in profile, and represent north and south.
The center masks both face forward; however, the one beneath the toad is pictured with a serpent devouring a bird, a symbol for “west.” Epigraphers, who decipher ancient writing, believe such devices would have been readily understood by most Maya observers, even illiterate commoners, and visitors from far-off cities and kingdoms.
The chamber where the frieze was found has been carefully reconstructed to protect the fragile stucco and preserve the appearance of the surrounding structure and plaza—from the outside you can hardly tell anything is there. It is accessible through a side door that is kept locked—ask at the entrance, or the attendant at the site, to open the door for a peek inside.
Balamkú is located just off of Highway 186, about five kilometers (three miles) west of the turnoff to [node"34875 link Calakmul].
© Gary Chandler & Liza Prado from Moon Yucatán Peninsula, 9th edition