Calakmul is located in Campeche state in southeastern Mexico, about 35 km north of the border with Guatemala and 38 km north of the ruins of El Mirador. It is located on a rise above a large seasonal swamp lying to the west, known as the El Laberinto bajo (denoting a low-lying area of seasonal marshland). The swamp was an important source of water during the rainy season. The bajo was linked to a sophisticated water-control system including both natural and artificial features such as gullies and canals that encircled a 22-square-kilometre (8.5 sq mi) area around the site core, an area considered as Inner Calakmul. The location of Calakmul at the edge of a bajo provided two additional advantages: the fertile soils along the edge of the swamp and access to abundant flint nodules. The city is situated on a promontory formed by a natural 35 m high limestone dome rising above the surrounding lowlands. This dome was artificially levelled by the Maya. During the Preclassic and Classic periods settlement was concentrated along the edge of the El Laberinto bajo, during the Classic period structures were also built on high ground and small islands in the swamp where flint was worked.
Calakmul was a major Maya power within the northern Petén region of the Yucatán of southern Mexico. Calakmul administered a large domain marked by the extensive distribution of their emblem glyph of the snake head sign, to be read “Kaan”. Calakmul was the seat of what has been dubbed the Kingdom of the Snake or Snake Kingdom. This Snake Kingdom reigned during most of the Classic period. Calakmul itself is estimated to have had a population of 50,000 people and had governance, at times, over places as far away as 150 km. There are 6,750 ancient structures identified at Calakmul; the largest of which is the great pyramid at the site. Structure 2 is over 45 m high, making it one of the tallest of the Maya pyramids. Four tombs have been located within the pyramid. Like many temples or pyramids within Mesoamerica the pyramid at Calakmul increased in size by building upon the existing temple to reach its current size. The size of the central monumental architecture is approximately 2 km2 and the whole of the site, mostly covered with dense residential structures, is about 20 km2.
Throughout the Classic Period, Calakmul maintained an intense rivalry with the major city of Tikal to the south, and the political maneuverings of these two cities have been likened to a struggle between two Maya superpowers.
Calakmul vs. Tikal
The history of the Maya Classic period is dominated by the rivalry between Tikal and Calakmul, likened to a struggle between two Maya “superpowers”. Earlier times tended to be dominated by a single larger city and by the Early Classic Tikal was moving into this position after the dominance of El Mirador in the Late Preclassic and Nakbe in the Middle Preclassic. However Calakmul was a rival city with equivalent resources that challenged the supremacy of Tikal and engaged in a strategy of surrounding it with its own network of allies. From the second half of the 6th century AD through to the late 7th century Calakmul gained the upper hand although it failed to extinguish Tikal’s power completely and Tikal was able to turn the tables on its great rival in a decisive battle that took place in AD 695. Half a century later Tikal was able to gain major victories over Calakmul’s most important allies. Eventually both cities succumbed to the spreading Classic Maya collapse.
The great rivalry between these two cities may have been based on more than competition for resources. Their dynastic histories reveal different origins and the intense competition between the two powers may have had an ideological grounding. Calakmul’s dynasty seems ultimately derived from the great Preclassic city of El Mirador while the dynasty of Tikal was profoundly affected by the intervention of the distant central Mexican metropolis of Teotihuacan. With few exceptions, Tikal’s monuments and those of its allies place great emphasis upon single male rulers while the monuments of Calakmul and its allies gave greater prominence to the female line and often the joint rule of king and queen.
In 751 Ruler Z erected a stelae that was never finished, paired with another with the portrait of a queen. A hieroglyphic stairway mentions someone called B’olon K’awiil at about the same time. B’olon K’awiil was king by 771 when he raised two stelae and he was mentioned at Toniná in 789. Sites to the north of Calakmul showed a reduction in its influence at this time, with new architectural styles influenced by sites further north in the Yucatán Peninsula.
A monument was raised in 790 although the name of the ruler responsible is not preserved. Two more were raised in 800 and three in 810. No monument was erected to commemorate the important Bak’tun-ending of 830 and it is probable that political authority had already collapsed at this time. Important cities such as Oxpemul, Nadzcaan and La Muñeca that were Calakmul’s vassals at one time now erected their own monuments, where before they had raised very few; some continued producing new monuments until as late as 889. This was a process that paralleled events at Tikal. However, there is strong evidence of an elite presence at the city continuing until AD 900, possibly even later.
In 849, Calakmul was mentioned at Seibal where a ruler named as Chan Pet attended the K’atun-ending ceremony; his name may also be recorded on a broken ceramic at Calakmul itself. However, it is unlikely that Calakmul still existed as a state in any meaningful way at this late date. A final flurry of activity took place at the end of the 9th century or the beginning of the 10th. A new stelae was erected, although the date records only the day, not the full date. The recorded day may fall either in 899 or 909 with the latter date the most likely. A few monuments appear to be even later although their style is crude, representing the efforts of a remnant population to maintain the Classic Maya tradition. Even the inscriptions on these late monuments are meaningless imitations of writing.
Ceramics dating to the Terminal Classic period are uncommon outside of the site core, suggesting that the population of the city was concentrated in the city centre in the final phase of Calakmul’s occupation. The majority of the surviving population probably consisted of commoners who had occupied the elite architecture of the site core but the continued erection of stelae into the early 10th century and the presence of high status imported goods such as metal, obsidian, jade and shell, indicate a continued occupation by royalty until the final abandonment of the city. The Yucatec-speaking Kejache Maya who lived in the region at the time of Spanish contact in the early 16th century may have been the descendants of the inhabitants of Calakmul.