Orienting Bonampak

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. 

Figure 1. Topographic map of Bonampak, Chiapas, adapted from Paillés (1986).

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.

Figure 2. Google Earth view, showing line of orientation between Bonampak and Yaxchilan. The high ridge between them prevents any direct line of sight.

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.

6 thoughts on “Orienting Bonampak

  1. Phil May 8, 2009 / 1:08 PM

    The forest is overgrown at these sites, but I had the impression they were not visible even if the forest was cleared. You’re proposing I believe that the Maya were able to plan sites using a map (in the western sense). They were able to measure great distances and make calculations base on this. The large preclassic projects at Edzna and El Mirador suggest this is possible, these canals and causeways were constructed in straight lines directly to otherwise invisible places.
    Structure 1 at Calakmul seems to be unrelated to other structures or natural features at the site, but is oriented towards El Mirador. This structure and El Mirador are of course Late Preclassic, and Calakmul is more or less connected to El Mirador via causeways. Its hard to see this as a coincidence, but I have reservations that structure 1 was intentionally built to face El Mirador. I am told El Mirador is visible from Calakmul. Having visited both sites I have doubts, and if this is true, only the very tops of the summit temples would be visible, so the construction of these massive temples would have to have been done wholly based on theory too.

  2. Johan Normark May 9, 2009 / 6:30 AM

    Constructing linear alignments over great distances is not impossible even if the area in between the connected locations is forested or the locations are not visible from the ground level. If major structures at El Mirador and Calakmul are aligned with each others they must have been so from the ground level (as no adjustment in alignment in constructions higher up on the pyramids are known to me).

    I doubt that the usual “shouting” method often used by workers when they locate their fellow workers some distance away and start cutting the forest from two directions is relevant across greater distances.

    However, something visible from ground level that reaches great heights and is visible from great distances is smoke. The constructors at Bonampak may have used fire and smoke at Yaxchilan and on the hills to get a basic orientation. The same goes for Calakmul and El Mirador. Another example are causeways that connect preexisting sites. The Coba-Yaxuna causeway aligns with several locations along its 100 kms long trajectory. Straight brechas may have preexisted the causeway but to align even the original brechas with preexisting sites one would need something possible to see from greater distances (and in the northern Yucatan the topography is far flatter than at Calakmul and for sure at Bonampak).

  3. Greg May 16, 2009 / 4:41 AM

    You don’t need a map if there is some point between the two sites from which you can see both; it was entirely possible for the builders of Bonampak to orient their city towards Yaxchilan from some high vantage point on the ridge between the two cities. I think it’s clear how that can be done from Figure 2. If I was a Maya architect, I would build a huge fire on the vantage point, so the workers back at the site know exactly how to start the construction.

    When I visited Calakmul, it was a very clear day, and I *think* I was able to see El Mirador through binoculars from the top of Structure 1. But of course I have no way to be sure.

    • David Stuart May 24, 2009 / 3:10 PM

      Yes, the large ridge between Bonampak and Yaxchilan is very visible from both sites. It dominates the entire eastern horizon of Bonampak, in fact. Tracing a direct line from the top of that ridge to each place would have presented no challenges whatsoever.

  4. Bill Ringle June 8, 2009 / 11:30 PM

    I guess the problem then, supposing one was at an intervisible place on this ridge, would be to determine if one was positioned on a direct line between sites, or was at the apex of a triangle. How’s this for a seat-of-the-pants solution? take a long straight tube, such a bamboo pole. Look through it telescope like at Yaxchilan. Keeping it fixed except for a vertical up-down rotation, go to the other end and see where you are looking. When you are looking at both sites from either end of the tube, you would be along a direct line.