Chichén Itzá’s Sacred Cenote

People migrated to the Yucatán Peninsula roughly 11,000 years ago. While ancient civilizations in the Middle East were able to develop along streams and alluvial rivers, the Yucatán Peninsula's geography is far different from the fertile crescent. Ancient civilizations in México, such as the Maya, developed with scarce water resources. A reason for water scarcity is because the Yucatán “Peninsula is formed of a porous limestone karst unable to support much surface water," explains Christopher Boyer.

Though water sources were scarce for the Maya, they did have a naturally occurring water source called a cenote. Richard Bloom defines a cenote as, "a natural occurring geographical sinkhole.” F. G. Hall describes four common shapes for these sinkholes: 1) Jug-shaped; 2) Vertical-walled; 3) Aguada-like; 4) Cave-like. Cenotes collect rainfall and ground water. The water is filtered by both underground rivers and limestone. Cenotes were essentially natural occurring wells that supplied the Maya with clean water.

With a scarcity of water came the conceptualization of water being holy. The water within cenotes can be used for two things: a well for drinking water, or a holy landmark to hold ceremonies. Chichén Itzá is one of the archeological sites that has a ceremonial cenote. The site is located in the Yucatán Peninsula and dates back to the Pre-Classic Period (1500BC - 300AD). Archeologists know this particular cenote was used for ceremonial sacrifice because near the top is a small building indicates a priest lived there.

Another indication that the cenote was wholly ceremonial is the site’s name. Chichén Itzá roughly translates to “the mouth of the well” of the Itzá people. At Chichén Itzá, the well was associated with a mouth. Mouths were visual depictions of a portal between the underworld, Xibalba, and the terrestrial world. In this case, the mouth of the cenote would be affiliated with Chaac, because of the rain god’s popularity in the region. Unfortunately, there are no other indications or artifacts left at Chichén Itzá to suggest the cenote is holy.

However, when archeology was developing into a new field of study, a new archeologist by the name of Edward H. Thompson attempted to empty Chichén Itzá’s cenote, so he could excavate it. On March 5, 1904, Thompson began dredging into the site’s ceremonial cenote. Thompson’s failed to empty the cenote because he did not know about the underground river. After Thompson arguably desecrated the holy cenote, he did manage to find artifacts; He found gold, jade ornaments, and a human skeleton. It’s unclear if the human skull was sacrificial. However, the gold and jade were extravagant, and to toss them at the bottom of a cenote suggests they were gifts to the gods.

Today, Chichén Itzá is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the world. The cenote at the site is protected. While some cenotes are preserved at archaeological sites, other cenotes have developed their own tourism base.


Chaac Cornerstones

Chaac Cornerstones

A popular rain god, Chaac, in the region of Chich©n Itza, Uxmal, and Mayapan. The archeological site of Uxmal, has temples decorated with Chaac. The rain god appears on temple doorways and cornerstones. A temple doorway may depict Chaac™s mouth, which represents a passage into a realm of the gods. Chaac is usually depicted as having a square jaw, a pierced nose, and stretched earlobes. View File Details Page

Chich�©n' Itza�™s Sacred Cenote

Chich©n' Itza™s Sacred Cenote

Cenotes are natural geological formations. They are described as being a sinkhole or well. They can be used for clean drinking water or for religious purposes. They occur all across M©xico, especially in the Yucatan Peninsula. The cenote in the image was taken at the archeological site called Chich©n' Itza. At Chich©n Itza the Maya used this cenote as a place of ceremony. The small building was likely a temple that was used by a high priest. | Source: This photo was taken by Debra Sandidge. | Creator: Savanah Nicole Burns View File Details Page

Secluded Cenote

Secluded Cenote

The cenote in the image was from a secluded location. Locals used it as a swimming pool and place to gather drinking water. It is not uncommon for locals to charge tourist to swim in a nearby cenote. Cenotes are a growing tourist attraction. Inside the cenote, there were vines and tree roots that lined the limestone sides. The locals installed a ladder, deck, and diving platform for tourists. | Source: This photo was taken by Savanah Nicole Burns. | Creator: Savanah Nicole Burns View File Details Page

Chich�©n Itza's Sacred Cenote

Chich©n Itza's Sacred Cenote

This cenote is located at Chich©n Itza. The cenote was used to hold religious rituals and customs. The water was not used as drinking water. | Source: This image was taken by Savanah Nicole Burns at Chich©n Itza. | Creator: Savanah Nicole Burns View File Details Page

Temple at Chich�©n Itza

Temple at Chich©n Itza

The temple at Chich©n' Itza was created around the Post Classic Period. The temple corresponds with the Spring and Winter equinox. The architecture shows how the Maya knew mathematics, astronomy, and, of course, architecture. The top room of the temple was used by a religious high priest. The temple™s stones were hand-laid, covered in a type of plaster, then painted with bright colors. There are six tiers above ground with three more tiers below ground. Each tier would have been designed and decorated differently. | Source: This photo was taken by Savanah Nicole Burns at Chich©n Itza. | Creator: Savanah Nicole Burns View File Details Page

Dredging Tool at Chich�©n Itza

Dredging Tool at Chich©n Itza

By the 1840™s, Edward H. Thompson bought Chich©n Itza from a local landowner for $50. When Thompson excavated the site, he wanted to pump the water out of the site™s sacred cenote, Charney. The reason Thompson wanted to do this was because he thought that the cenote contained many valuables, such as gold. To attempt emptying the cenote, Thompson used a dredging tool. Thompson was unsuccessful in emptying the cenote, because he was unaware of the natural underground spring. If one visits the site at Chich©n Itza, they can see Thompson's dredging tool. However, the artifacts Thompson did find are no longer in M©xico. He donated them to the Peabody Museum at Harvard University. | Source: This photo was taken by Savanah Nicole Burns at Chich©n Itza. | Creator: Savanah Nicole Burns View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Savanah Nicole Burns , “Chichén Itzá’s Sacred Cenote,” HistoricalMX, accessed May 27, 2018,

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