Over the course of several visits to Bonampak, Chiapas, I’ve been intrigued by the unusual design of the site, and the way its buildings and plaza clearly “face” out toward the range of hills to the northeast. A great many Maya buildings exhibit architectural orientations of one sort or another, but few if any whole sites are so clearly oriented toward one particular direction.
As one can see in the accompanying map (Figure 1), the principal structures of Bonampak are built on the side of a natural hill, probably once named Usij Witz, “Vulture Hill.” The buildings generally face over the large open plaza that gives the site its clear orientation, about 30 degrees east of north. I find it remarkable that this orientation faces precisely in the direction of the far larger site of Yaxchilan, located on the Río Usumacinta some 24 kms. distant (Figure 2). To my knowledge, this is a unique instance of a entire site’s ceremonial layout reflecting an orientation toward another, distant center.
Inscriptions at Bonampak show very strong historical and political ties to Yaxchilan during the Classic period. According to the main text of Structure 1’s murals, the late ruler Yajaw Chan Muwaan II assumed the throne under the auspices of Yaxchilan’s king Shield Jaguar II. He was also married to a Yaxchilan woman, depicted on Stela 2 as well as in the murals. Two of Yajaw Chan Muwaan’s monuments, Stela 1 (780 A.D.) and a lintel from Structure 1 (791 A.D.), exhibit carver’s signatures citing artisans from the court of Yaxchilan. Moreover, a much earlier local Bonampak ruler named Yajaw Chan Muwaan was said to have been placed in office by the contemporaneous Yaxchilan king nearly two centuries before, in the year 600 A.D.
Throughout Bonampak’s history, then, the ties between the two sites were extremely close, with Yaxchilan clearly the more larger and dominant of the two. Given what we know of architectural development of Bonampak, its overall orientation toward Yaxchilan seems to have been established early, perhaps when Yaxchilan’s ruler began exerting their political authority in the region in the sixth century. By the end of eighth century, in the reign of Yajaw Chan Muwaan II, the same linear axis continued to be emphasized, with Yaxchilan’s “presence” strongly indicated in the sculpture as well as in the murals.
(I would like to thank Stephen Houston, Charles Golden and Andrew Scherer for their emailed comments and feedback on the issue of Bonampak’s orientation, placing it in valuable regional context.)
Paillés, Maria de la Cruz. 1986. El nuevo mapa topográfico de Bonampak, Chiapas. Primer Coloquio Internacional de Mayistas, Tomo I, pp. 277-302. México: UNAM.