Following hard on the heels of the last post on Labna comes this one on Sayil, just a few kilometers down the road from Labna. Though they are a stone’s throw from each other on the ground, they’re completely different and if you’re in the area both sites should be on your bucket list. Don’t think for a moment that if you’ve seen one Mayan archeological site you’ve seen them all, not even if they’re only a few kilometers apart. Labna and Sayil are as different as chalk and cheese and I’m very glad I devoted ample time to each site. Each provided its own set of experiences and pleasures. With Labna handled in the last post it’s time to turn our attention to Sayil. Let’s get going.
From my go-to site for Mayan ruins, themayanruinswebsite.com, comes this information on Sayil:
Sayil is a Classic Maya site (600-900 A.D), that reached its greatest extent in the 9th-10th century. It was part of a group of sites that stretched along the base of the Puuc Hills and shared in the same time frame and architectural style. They include Kabah, Labna, Uxmal and Oxkintok, though a few of these have a much earlier history.
While a few stelae have been recovered at the site, none have been able to provide definitive information on its rulers, though one provides a date of 810 A.D.. Artifacts recovered from the site reveal a strong trade relationship with the Peten region in Guatemala. The site, along with most of the other associated Puuc sites, was abandoned around 1000 A.D.
Sayil was rediscovered by those intrepid explorers John Lloyd Stevens and Fredrick Catherwood in the 1840’s. Exploration, excavation and restoration work has been carried out for most of the past century, with the University of New Mexico undertaking extensive investigations in the 1980’s-90’s.
From the Wikipedia page on the site comes this additional information:
Sayil first was settled circa AD 800, in the Late Classic Period, possibly by small Chontal warrior groups. The city reached its greatest extent c. 900, when it covered an area of approximately 5 km² and had a population of perhaps 10,000 in the city itself with an additional 5,000–7,000 living in the surrounding area.
At the height of the city’s occupation, the population reached the limits of the agricultural carrying capacity of the land, with crops grown in gardens and fields among the residential complexes and irrigated from artificial cisterns built to store water from the seasonal rains, and more distant fields in neighbouring valleys, probably were cultivated. Additional agricultural produce probably was supplied from nearby satellite sites.
Sayil began to decline c. 950 and the city was abandoned by c, AD 1000, a pattern of rapid growth and decline that probably was typical of the Puuc region.
Archaeologists have surveyed 2.4 km² of the site, revealing an average structural density of 220 structures/km². Population estimates have been produced based on a count of structures, giving a result of 8,000–10,000 spread over an area of approximately 3.5 km². Population estimates based on a count of subterranean storage chambers known as chultuns produce a figure of 5,000–10,000. Both estimates refer to the maximum population in the Terminal Classic.
Political, economic, social, and religious leadership at Sayil appears to have been distinct and relatively decentralised. Economic rank has been analysed based on architectural scale, while political leadership was determined on the basis of the distribution of so-called altars, tall cylindrical stone features with elite associations. The distribution of religious leadership was determined by the distribution of ceramic incense vessels and social leadership by the presence of rare ceramics obtained via intercommunity social alliances.
Smaller sites around Sayil, such as Sodzil, Xcavil de Yaxche, and Xkanabi, may have been tributary communities.
Since Sayil is only 5km from Labna on the way back to Uxmal, it figured as the second site of the day I spent doing the Ruta Puuc. The point I made above about the two sites being very different hits you as you enter the Sayil site. It’s more developed and there’s a stela standing near the entrance hut. Unfortunately it’s so eroded you can barely make out the figures, so it’s a bit disappointing, but still, a stela is a stela, so let us not cavil:
Since it’s unlikely that I’ll ever see the more impressive stelae at Copan before I kick the bucket, I took my luck for good seeing this stela at Sayil. At least I can now say I’ve been in the presence of such a creature, and that’s worth something to anybody who cares about Mayan art as I do.
The main difference between Labna and Sayil is openness and the lack of it. Labna stands out in the open exposed before God and everybody. Sayil is exactly the opposite. You wander through the forest on (often muddy) paths to reach various groupings of buildings. There is only one place where a broad vista greets the eye, and that place is the Palace. Since the open ground around the Palace is specific to that building it struck me as the Mayan equivalent of an English country house — say, Chatsworth. There the Palace sits, the largest building of any I saw at Sayil, with a lovely green open space around it keeping the encircling jungle at bay. That impression overwhelmed me as I caught sight of the building through the branches and leaves of a kapok tree growing on the path leading to it. In my mind I flipped from Sayil sunk in the jungles of the Yucatan to Sayil-on-Thames, the seat of the Dukes of Something-or-Other (maybe Ek Poop Balam or something equally outlandish), sat here in the middle of nowhere to remind us of the checkered history of the landed aristocracy, since as we all know the dukedom went extinct and the stories about the last inhabitants of the ducal seat leave one in no doubt about the wages of aristocratic decline. Here are the pics: