Featured Site: Yaxchilan, Mexico

City on The River

Located on the Southern shores of the Usumacinta river in Chiapas, Mexico, Yaxchilan is a site that saw its greatest fluorescence of art and culture in the Late Classic Period. What we know about its history is shaped by the political agenda of its kings, who tout their military successes as well as emphasize their own lineage and right to rule. Reading between the lines of the beautiful carved lintels and monuments that adorn the site, Yaxchilan’s secret history seems to have more twists and turns than what the hieroglyphs themselves record.

Early History of Yaxchilan: Military Conquests 

Most of what we know about Yaxchilan’s early history and rulers come from monuments commissioned by later kings, so the intricacies of the site’s founding in the early classic period are still unknown. A ruler named Yopaat Balam I is retroactively recorded as having founded the ruling dynasty of Yaxchilan in the fourth century AD. Texts about this early period frequently discussed military conquests in the form of captives taken from other polities. Thus, the rulers of Yaxchilan are depicted in the corpus as military heros, exerting their dominance over elite members of nearby cities (See More: Classic Maya Political Systems).

Over the centuries, Yaxchilan had a consistent regional rivalry with the site of Piedras Negras. Also located on the Usumacinta River, it’s possible that control of trade along this waterway is part of what led to their longstanding feud. Yaxchilan reports taking several captives from Piedras Negras throughout the fifth and early sixth centuries AD. Then the tides change around 521, when Yaxchilan’s sixth ruler Knot-Eye Jaguar I is reported as being taken captive by Piedras Negras, ending his reign.

The Reign of Itzamnaaj Balam The Great

While the pendulum of power swings back and forth between Yaxchilan and Piedras Negras up until the 7th century, the reign of Itzamnaaj Balam The Great saw a huge increase in Yaxchilan’s public construction of art, buildings, and monuments. This is likely thanks to the ruler’s military success, which resulted in an influx of resources to the site during his reign. Itzamnaaj Balam The Great is emphasized in his role as warrior, and given titles that reflect his successful capture of foreign elite. His reign lasted over 60 years, with the majority of his building campaign throughout the city taking place during the last third of that time. 

The principal wife of Itzamnaaj Balam The Great was Lady K’ab’al Xook, and a large temple was dedicated to her in 726, forty-five years into the ruler’s reign. The temple features three large lintels that are renowned for their artistry. Their deep relief style has allowed them to remain well-preserved over time. 

The lintels feature a series of three images of Lady K’abal Xook alongside her husband. On lintel 24, the queen performs a blood sacrifice by pulling a thorny rope through her tongue in 709. Lintel 25 features the queen conjuring a vision from the maws of a serpent-like creature during the time of her husband’s succession in 681. On lintel 26, the final piece chronologically, Lady K’abal Xook hands her husband a jaguar helmet in 724. 

Bird Jaguar IV 

Following the reign of Itzamnaaj Balam The Great is a ten year quiet period where the only Yaxchilan ruler known comes from a brief mention at the site of Piedras Negras. Following this, Bird Jaguar IV takes the throne and begins what Simon Martin and Nickolai Grube refer to as a “relentless promotion of his own legitimacy”. Like his father, Bird Jaguar IV is venerated for his military successes, but a great deal of the art produced during his 16 years in power is related to his lineage. 

Bird Jaguar IV was not the son of Lady K’abal Xook, the queen venerated so highly while his father was in power. Instead, he was the child of a lesser queen named Lady Ik’ Skull who hailed from Calakmul. Bird Jaguar IV commissioned many texts that highlight his relationship to his parents. The huge amount of art and construction that occurred during his reign has been interpreted by archaeologists as a propaganda campaign by the king to prove his own legitimacy. The ten year hole in Yaxchilan’s king list between the reign of Itzaamnaaj Balam The Great and Bird Jaguar IV is now understood to represent a period of time during which the throne was contested. Bird Jaguar IV was eager to promote himself as the true king in the face of possible challenges to that claim. 

Bird Jaguar IV’s promotion of his lineage serves as an important reminder that the historical information contained in the hieroglyphs is similar to the way in which Winston Churchill described our own history: “written by the victors”.  Indeed, Bird Jaguar IV would go on to beautify and build up Yaxchilan in the footsteps of his father, while the legacies of any would-be-usurpers remain a shadow in the past. 

Yaxchilan’s Later Years

After the reign of Bird Jaguar IV, construction at Yaxchilan began to slow down. Military campaigns, however, seemed to have continued at full force. During the second half of the eighth century, Yaxchilan appears to have maintained control over smaller regional sites such as Bonampak, La Pasadita, and Lacanha. The grandson of Bird Jaguar IV is the last named king of Yaxchilan, and was responsible for only one known hieroglyphic text. Somewhat poetically,  it’s a text that ends with the capture of a ruler from Piedras Negras, giving Yaxchilan the final word in their age-old rivalry. 

Learn More On Mesoamerican Studies Online: 


Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens, Simon Martin and Nicolai Grube

The Ancient Maya, Robert Sharer and Loa Traxler

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