The Stucco Frieze at Balamkú

We travelled to Calakmul in Campeche, the heart of the Mexican Petén. Once the capitol of the Kingdom of the Snake, Calakmul now lies at the end of dusty, bumpy road in the Calakmul Biospheric Reserve. Famous for its spectacular pyramids, seeing it was the high point of our second trip to the Yucatán Peninsula. But while Calakmul is architecturally and historically important, the exteriors of the ruins are badly preserved and are virtually devoid of the stucco sculpture that the Maya are known for. So for a bit of a palette cleanser, it’s nice to add Balamkú, a nearby site, to your journey. Over the course of three visits to the Mayan world we saw many examples of architectural sculpture, the frieze at Balamkú was one of the most impressive. Not only is it one of the largest—about 60 feet wide— it’s among the best preserved since it remained covered beneath a second building for more than a thousand years.

One of the interesting practices of the ancient Maya was their penchant for building buildings on top of prior buildings. From their point of view, not only did this honor the prior builder, but it made it possible for their structures to be even larger and more impressive. Frequently at Mayan sites, you’ll see tantalizing steel doors set into the stone walls of pyramids. Invariably, these are locked, only accessible to INAH (Mexico’s agency for the preservation and management of its archeological heritage) approved personnel. For the curious, these are incredibly frustrating, (though completely understandable). It’s one thing to read that there are substructures buried beneath the visible exteriors and another to actually find yourself in the gap between them and able to appreciate the earlier, buried building. Balamkú, is the only site we have seen so far (as far as we know) where that experience is possible for a member of the public—though the exterior had to be rebuilt. But first, you have to find someone to make sure that the steel door is unlocked. If you look at the photo above, you’ll see the figure of a woman speedily walking ahead of us to unlock the door. Balamkú is a bit off the beaten track, so they tend to lock it between visitors.

The frieze at Balamkú was discovered in 1990 when archeological looters dug a trench through the exterior structure. I have not been able to find an account of how much of the damage to the sculpture they caused, but fortunately it was far too large for them to drag off. This picture, which is from National Geographic’s Lost Kingdoms of the Maya (1993) shows the frieze as it was found in 1990. I’m posting it so that people can grasp the extent of the restoration. I picked this book up at a thrift store last year and was immediately struck by this photo, which isn’t even identified as Balamkú in the text.

Photo of a photo by Kenneth Garrett

The following photos are all mine. I like the idea that they could be useful to students and other interested people, so feel free to swipe them. I just ask that you credit them to Alex Galt with a link back to this page. The space is lit with skylights cut into the roof above. There’s a narrow space between the two structures, making it practically impossible to photograph the entire frieze. The below was digitally stitched together from several photographs.

The central scene of the frieze. (Fuji XT-1, Fujinon XF 18mm f2.0, stitched with Adobe Lightroom.) No rights reserved.

Here’s what INAH’s website says (translation courtesy of Google):

In Balamkú there is a unique modeled and painted stucco frieze in the Mayan area, which was made between 550 and 600 AD. C. In the frieze 4 scenes of ascension alternated with three jaguars can be seen. Each comprises an animal with its head turned back, seated in the front slit of a figurehead of the Earth Monster; his mouth gives way to a king on his throne. In addition to illustrating in detail the opposite and complementary aspects of the underworld, the set shows that the dynastic cycle is equated with the solar cycle. In this conception, the accession to the throne is illustrated by the king coming out of the jaws of the terrestrial monster, as the Sun comes out of the mouth of the Earth; the king's death is seen as a sunset, as he falls into the Earth Monster's mouth. Main chronological setting: Classic, 300 to 1000 AD. c.

As usual, I struggle to fully comprehend Mayan culture. While the foregoing makes sense for a structure that is meant to mark the dynastic importance of a ruler, it would be impossible for me to arrive at that interpretation of the frieze on my own. I don’t have the training, I don’t know how to read the visual imagery. I look at the animal figure beneath the ruler in the photo above, for example, and I see a mouse. Unfortunately for me, it’s a crocodile. I have done some reading on Mayan cultural and religious beliefs, of course. But I think I would have had to start at a much earlier age in order to fully take it in.

Jaguar (Fuji XT-1, Fujinon XF 18mm f2.0) No rights reserved.
A second view of the central figure. (Fuji XT-1, Fujinon XF 18mm f2.0) No rights reserved.
Jaguar (Fuji XT-1, Fujinon XF 18mm f2.0) No rights reserved.

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