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A Marketplace of Ideas at Chichén Itzá: The Mercado and the Group of the Thousand Columns

Cynthia Kristan-Graham, Auburn University, Alabama, Summer Fellow 2012

My summer fellowship allowed me to research and write the first part of a long-term project about the Mercado, a gallery-patio building in an elite ritual-residential compound at the Maya site of Chichén Itzá, Yucatan, Mexico. I suggest that the gallery evolved from Late Classic Mesoamerican royal/lineage houses into ritual, performative spaces. The gallery’s focal point was a carved and painted dais. This ubiquitous yet often ignored component of Epiclassic-Postclassic architecture functions here as both throne and artificial landscape. The dais includes a cornice that can be read as a skyband. In place of glyph blocks, plumed serpents and Venus glyphs express the ideas of rulership, fertility, maize, ancestry, and Kukulcan as a deity or planet. Below, the talus depicts elite prisoners and human sacrifice; the talus profile is that of a pyramid/mountain and symbolizes origins and preciousness. Together these architectural components can be understood as chan witz, “sky-mountain,” a Maya creation place and a powerful geographic and political setting for rites of rulership.

The throne exemplifies a shift in representation and language after the Classic period, when logographs and symbols replaced phonetic language. The political implications of a ruler sitting on chan witz could be expressed to Chichén’s multi-ethnic population without the need for linguistic literacy. This reading has implications for understanding similar daises at Tula, other Epiclassic sites, and even Tenochtitlan. I plan to publish this in an edited volume of papers from a 2012 SAA symposium about Chichén Itzá.