Ek’ Balam, Mexico 2021
In October of 2021, I had the opportunity to explore the Mayan Ruin of Ek’ Balam. The Ek’ Balam archaeological zone is roughly a 2 hour drive from the Riviera Maya and 40 kilometers north of Valladolid on the road to Tizamin and Rio Lagartos.
Ek’ Balam is a large site with a continuous settlement area covering about 10.4 square kilometers. The outer wall is over 1,330 meters in circumference, and it outlines a roughly oval shape that measures over 330 meters from east to west (its longest dimension). It encloses an area of about 30 acres.
I began my tour on the south-side of the Ek’ Balam site. The first thing that I passed was “The Gate”. Pictured below, the Gate was constructed over the road that leads into the city. It is open on all four sides. It served as a city gate and was used for ceremonial and religious processions. The roof with a false, crossed vault is unique in Mayan architecture.
Immediately east of the “Gate”, I walked on the south side of a fair-sized platform with the remains of two identical buildings on top, called Las Gemelas (“The Twins or Siblings”). The platform and buildings are collectively called “Structure XVII”, and it borders the south side of the plaza. Pictured below, the upper buildings face east and are some of the best-preserved architecture at Ek’ Balam. At the top of the main platform are 2 temples that mirror one another. They are two vaulted buildings each with four rooms. The backs and sides of the buildings are standing, and the structures are separated by a passageway. The entire platform measures 40 m long, 17 m wide, and is 6 m high. Both structures have a simple, three-member, rectangular medial molding, with a recessed middle section. Beneath these temples, lie the structure of an older structure. It was common for the ancient Maya architects to build new buildings on top of older ones.
The “Oval Temple” on the south, (right as you face the back of the structures), has a few stones of its cornice molding in place. In the upper wall zone, between the two molding, there are projecting tenons that probably supported stucco decorations originally. The fronts of the buildings have fallen, but each structure originally had four rooms. The building were once covered with stucco and are believed to have been elite residences.
Pictured above & below, this impressive oval-building contains burial relics, and was aligned for cosmological ceremonies. The Oval Palace is on a rectangular base that was used for ceremonial activities. There are 10 rooms on the first level and 2 more at the top level of the Palace. The top is crowned by a small temple.
In the plaza, (north of the “Oval Palace”), is a stone stature of a headless torso wearing a pectoral. His arms are behind his back, and it appears that the figure depicted is a captive. Close by are a couple of carved stones that were probably part of an architectural decoration. Near this are remains of a couple of carved but broken stelae.
The “Stela” depicts a ruler of Ek’ Balam, Ukit Kan Le’k Tok. In part of the stela, he is wearing a complex headdress featuring stacked monster snouts. In his upraised hand, he holds a stylized K’awiil scepter that ends in the head of a snake. With his other hand, he was scattering an offering. Above this is the inscription that refers to Ek Balam’s most venerated ancestor, Ukit Kan Le’k Tok’. This king founded the Ek’ Balam dynasty and built most of the Acropolis to the north of here.
To the east of the “Oval Temple”, and occupying the southeast corner of the plaza, is Structure X, a platform with remains of a small standing temple on top. Structure X is 43 m long, 30m wide, and 5 m high. On the upper part are 3 more structures. There are 2 platforms and a vaulted temple with thick walls and an altar inside. Interestingly the base was built between 700-1000 AD. While the upper structures weren’t built until 1200-1542 AD.
The temple faces west and has one room and a single doorway spanned by a stone lintel. The temple has a rectangular base with sloping walls. Most of the facing stone has fallen, but on the south side of the temple (right as you are facing it), part of a three-member molding with a recessed middle part is still in place. Structure X’s most decorative element is the upper part of the cornice. This is formed by a band of large stones projecting out from the wall. Some of these stones are 1 meter across! Also, the corners of the base are round which is very unusual.
Ek Balam is a Yucatec Maya name that translates to “the black jaguar” or “bright star jaguar.” Ek Balam’s most important cultural period was during the Late Classic Period 700 – 1000 A.D It wasn’t until the late 1980’s when the site was mapped, and research continued into the 1990’s.
Ek Balam was in operation for over 1000 years. Construction started in the late Pre-Classic Period (100 B.C. to 300 A.D.) and continued well into Late Classic Period, 700 to 900 A.D. Speculation suggestions that the city may even have been inhabited as late as the Spanish invasion in the 16th Century. In 1597 conquistador Juan Gutierrez Picon mentioned it in his written notes.
Pictured above, on the west side of the plaza, is the small “Ball Court”. Interestingly, a temple of runs the entire length of the court on one side. Also, the sides of this ballcourt aren’t as steep as those at many other Mayan settlements. Only the most important people were allowed to play the ball game.
Pictured above, “Structure II” is a huge platform, over 20 m tall, and some of the facing stone of the platform is in place on the north side. There is a simple molding near the top of the west side of the platform is mostly ruined. Structure II is the third-largest structure on the site and measures 80 m long and 55 m wide. The rooms on top of the structure, which aren’t present anymore, would add another 4 m to its height. When found by the explorer Desire Charnay in 1866 it was described as having a palace 70 m long. And it contained a double row of 24 rooms at the top of the structure. Due to the resemblance of the rooms as cells in a nunnery, it was named the Palace of the Nuns. Now only part of one of these rooms remains.
Pictured above, on the north side of the Plaza and the “Steam Baths’, is the Acropolis or El Trono, the largest at Ek’ Balam. It is 151 meters long half as wide, and about 33 meters tall at it’s highest point. As with other structures at Ek’ Balam, the Acropolis is made up of many levels. For the Acropolis, it has 6 levels with highly decorated facades. A total of 72 rooms have been excavated so far. These provided space for apartments for the Mayan elite who lived on the plateau.
The Acropolis is composed of a 10 meter high basal platform and the fallen remains of several structures on top, (pictured above and below). At the top of the basal platform, on the western side, there is a saucer-shaped depression, dug by looters, and nearby you can see the entrance to a vaulted stairway that goes into the basal platform.
The central structure is the largest and tallest, and brings the Acropolis to its highest point. There is a stairway to the top of the platform, (pictured below). The climb to the top of the central structure atop the platform is steeper and longer, and there is not much standing architecture, but a lovely view.
I climbed this part, and from the top I could see the pyramids at Coba, over 56 km away (pictured below). From the top, I could also see the Oval Temple and Twins’ structures across the plaza.
On the 4th level is a perfectly preserved tomb of Ukit Kan Le’k Tok – the first and greatest Mayan king. The Acropolis looks even more impressive because of the palapa roofs. These protect the structure just as it would have been when Ek’ Balam was a thriving settlement (pictured below).
The glyphs in the top row here (pictured below) spell the name of Ukit Kan Le’k Tok’. At the lower left is the emblem glyph of Ek Balam, naming the ruler as a Divine Lord of Talol. This was the name of the kingdom in ancient times.
Pictured above, is the intricately carved figures that contained a large altar resembling the mouth of a jaguar. Behind the facade is the inner chamber of where the body of the king lay. At the time of discovery, the tomb was surrounded with funerary offerings including over 7000 pieces of jewelry.
Pictured above, inside and above the king’s burial chamber is a painted capstone that represents the king as a Maize God, (an important figure for the Maya). But interestingly it has a deformed lip. Usually, rulers would idealize their appearance.
initial excavations didn’t uncover the tomb as the facade of the tomb was hidden with stone and limestone fragments (pictured below). But one day a worker found a piece of a small carving, which led them to excavate this area. They then found a perfectly preserved stucco facade. A magnificent decorative facade as you can see from the above pictures.