Archaeological Site Overview
The site of Ucanal is identified epigraphically as K’anwitznal or “Yellow Hill Place” in Classic period (ca. AD 300-830) hieroglyphic texts. The site of Ucanal, however, was occupied much earlier from at least the Middle Preclassic period (ca. 700-300 BC) and continues to be inhabited as part of the village of Pichelito II and as a national park managed by the Guatemalan Instituto de Arqueológía e Historia (IDEAH) today. It was during the Late Classic (ca. AD 600-830) and Terminal Classic (ca. AD 830-1000) periods when the site of Ucanal was at its largest, with settlement extending over 26 km2 and an urban site core of approx. 7.5 km2. The site is located on the Mopan River in eastern Petén, Guatemala, and as such, was well-positioned to control trading routes and to engage in alliances with peoples living in what is now Belize and out to the Caribbean coast as well as with peoples in the Maya Mountains to the southeast and through overland routes to southern Petén and the Highland regions to the west and south.
Unlike other sites in the Southern Maya Lowlands that were partly abandoned or whose royal dynasties collapsed during the Terminal Classic period (ca. AD 830-1000), Ucanal continued as a thriving city and political capital of the K’anwitznal polity. Earlier during the Classic period, however, the polity was subordinate to a number of different sites, including the powerful site of Tikal during the Early Classic period (ca. AD 300-600), Naranjo during the end of the 7th century and the first half of the 8th century, and Caracol for a short time around AD 800. These political relationships are known primarily from hieroglyphic texts on stone monuments from these dominant sites rather than from the point of view of K’anwitznal kings, queens, and scribes.
During the Terminal Classic period the K’anwitznal polity, however, emerged as an independent political power as these former superpowers weakened. But what changes were implemented during the Terminal Classic period?
One of the major changes that occurred during the Terminal Classic period was a move away from overt, ostentatious displays of wealth and status. Inhabitants of Ucanal stopped building temples and palaces with masonry walls and vaulted stone roofs, even though some of the earlier masonry buildings built in the Late Classic period may have continued to be used. The Terminal Classic period buildings had stone foundations with perishable wood walls and wood and thatch roofs. Thus, many of the highest elite appear to have lived in thatch roof buildings like the rest of the population. In addition, new circular and semi-circular temples were also made of wood and thatch on stone foundations.
During the Terminal Classic period, many different types of construction projects were underway. Not only did most households engage in refurbishments to their homes, but major public works projects were also undertaken. One of the public buildings newly built during this time was a large ballcourt (Ballcourt #1) in Group A, which was one of three ballcourts at the site. The size of the ballcourt was 40m long (but 54.5m long if the enclosed end of the playing alley is included), which is larger than most ballcourts in the Southern Maya Lowlands.
Another construction project at the site of Ucanal during the Terminal Classic was an investment in public infrastructure projects revolving around water. Ucanal inhabitants built many large water canals that were between 400-650 m long. Interestingly, they were not designed to capture water in reservoirs. Rather, they run from the high areas of the site, where settlement is dense, to the Mopan River. As such, they served as flood water canals that had the capacity to drain the city of excess water during heavy rains. Such features would have prevented the build-up of stagnant water, breeding grounds for mosquitos and the transmission of diseases. Along the canals, inhabitants built several dams to slow down the flow of water and prevent erosion. These features suggest that the Maya were not only faced with episodes of drought during the Terminal Classic period as previous paleoenvironmental studies have stressed, but that years of droughts may have been interspersed with years of heavy rains, hurricanes, and storms. Such plans and investments in infrastructure for dealing with erratic climate swings may have helped promote a longer longevity of the city.
In addition, the Terminal Classic period inhabitants of Ucanal forged new economic networks, created new alliances, and embraced political expressions with peoples from distant lands. Foreign influences, such as the use of Central Mexican style dart throwers or atlatls, are noted on Ucanal stone monuments that depict Terminal Classic K’anwitznal rulers, such as Ucanal Stela 4 and newly discovered Ucanal Stela 29. Long distance interactions, however, are also evident from the quotidian objects used by ordinary people. Inhabitants at the site began to have greater access to manos and metates from the highland regions of Guatemala. They also began, for the first time in the history of the site, to toast food on comales, kitchen equipment that was well known in Central Mexico from the Late Preclassic period onward. In the Maya area, while the making of tamales has a long history dating back to the beginning of the Classic period if not much earlier, tortillas and other foods made on comales became more popular at the end of the Classic period and into the Postclassic period (ca. AD 1000-1521). The small frequency of comales at the site of Ucanal, however, suggest that during the Terminal Classic period, these types of food were speciality or festive foods rather than everyday items.
During the Postclassic period (ca. AD 1000-1521), occupation at the site of Ucanal declined significantly. Nonetheless, some residences continued to be occupied, and ceremonial activities in the plaza spaces and monumental buildings also continued. Less is known about the site during the Contact period when Maya kingdoms in the Peten Lakes region, just northwest of Ucanal, actively resisted Spanish domination (ca. AD 1521-1697). During this period as well as later historic periods of colonial and national development, the region was populated by the Mopan Maya and the Chinamitas, a branch of Mopan Maya, who are poorly known from historic documents. Today, the Mopan Maya straddle the borders of Peten, Guatemala and Belize and various new migrants, especially from the Guatemalan Highlands, make their home in what is now known as the Mopan River Valley.