Expert opinion
The Walled City
An exceptional site with well-preserved buildings, ornate wall painting and a striking setting overlooking the Caribbean.

The walled city of Tulum is an exceptional archeological site. Each of its structures presents individual details which make a visit worthwhile and enriching. Building 16, also known as the Building of the Paintings or Temple of the Frescoes, is among the most outstanding buildings which can be seen today. Despite the fact that Tulum was one of the first places sighted by the Spanish conquistadors, the chronicles of the sixteenth century only mention El Castillo ("The Castle") and the structures visible from the sea. Juan José Gálvez mentioned the site to Juan Pío Pérez briefly in 1840, but the first description of the building we shall describe here was by John Stephens in the mid-nineteenth century, who described the building’s exterior decoration as well as the paintings inside, which he could not see properly because they are “green and covered in mold by the exuberant vegetation which was suffocating the building.” His fellow adventurer Frederick Catherwood, produced a beautiful engraving of the structure which was published in their book.

The lengthy indigenous rebellion known as the Caste Wars began shortly after the visit by Stephens and Catherwood. Tulum was inside rebel territory and by 1871 it was one of the sanctuaries of the Talking Cross, led by the priestess María Uicab. The next visitors after the end of the war were all members of the nascent discipline of archeology. Mention must be made of the visits by William H. Holmes in 1895, George P. Howe in 1911, William D. Parmelée, Prince Wilhelm of Sweden, and of course the celebrated Sylvanus G. Morley, who organized the first Carnegie Institution expedition in 1916, and others in 1918 and 1922. Morley was accompanied on these expeditions by a few notable academics and explorers such as Oliver Ricketson, Thomas Gann and Samuel K. Lothrop, who wrote a detailed study “Tulum: an Archaeological Study of the East Coast of Quintana Roo” (1924), which remains an essential reference for the region’s architecture. In this publication, the author presents a detailed description of Building 16 and its paintings, identifying some of the divinities shown, including gods D (Itzamnaaj), E (maize god), B and K, as well as intertwined snakes and the celestial motifs at the ends of the walls. Lothrop writes that the ground of these frescoes is painted in a “vivid blue-green, the color of the water seen from the cliff of Tulum.” On the architecture, he added that “structurally it is exceptionally interesting, because of its various periods of growth,” identifying up to five stages of construction. Enthused by its form, paintings and decorative elements, Lothrop said that Building 16 “probably reveals the splendor of Mayan architecture in its pristine state, better than any other hitherto discovered building.”

It is probable that the extensive clearing and cleaning by members of the Carnegie expedition between 1916 and 1922, with no accompanying conservation work, caused serious deterioration to the Building of the Paintings and other structures. When Miguel Ángel Fernández, an archeologist at the newly-created National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) arrived at the site in 1938 to work on reconstruction and excavation, he found that the priority was to stabilize the structures. This is why one of his first tasks was to restore the facade of Building 16, “one of the most beautiful temples of Tulum,” whose northeast corner had collapsed at least 10 years previously. Since archeological conservation techniques were in their infancy at the time, Fernández, who was a painter as well as an archaeologist, had to use hydrochloric acid to dissolve the accretion of carbonates which had developed over many years on the surfaces of the paintings.

In a joint publication with archeologist César Lizardi and artist Rómulo Rozo, Fernández stated that the Building 16 paintings were “freehand over a fine stucco ground, showing great skill, and they appear to have been done with a round brush. The background is black and the figures have green and brown lines. The rest of the frescoes, which is the part drawn by us, shows influence and methods from Nahua codices.” Regarding its interpretation, the authors comment that “they are images concerned with fertility, which seems to be indicated by the serpents’ heads and intertwined bodies, which form the frames and subdivisions of the fresco panels. Fruit and flowers such as green beans, as well as the stylized cobs and ears of corn abound in this painting, pointing to its agricultural and propitiatory significance.”

After Miguel Ángel Fernández, William T. Sanders arrived in 1960 to carry out the first archeological excavation at Tulum which aimed to establish a chronology. Not long after, in 1969, the paved highway between Carrillo Puerto and Tulum opened, then the highway between Playa del Carmen and Tulum three years later, heralding the era of tourism at Tulum, and its entry into that market. The early 1970s also marked the start of INAH’s stronger and more proactive role, both in terms of the custodianship of the site and the production of various research, conservation and maintenance projects.

In 1972, Arthur G. Miller began a research project looking at the mural painting tradition in the Tancah-Tulum area. As a result, the author proposed that in the Middle Postclassic, from approximately 1200 to 1400, the mural paintings of the site showed significant changes in relation to previous periods, such as the reduction in the scale of the figures and the adoption of a more linear style of presentation. The style of painting began during this period known as “codex style,” a name given by George Vaillant who in 1940 linked it to the Mixtec region of Oaxaca and Puebla because of the similarity of the lines of the region’s codices and ceramics with some Mayan manuscripts of the same period, especially the Madrid Codex. The mural paintings concerning us here have been identified with the so-called “international style” defined by Donald Robertson in 1970, since it shared certain iconographic elements with many different regions of Mesoamerica. It was also at this time that the now vanished mural paintings from the site of Santa Rita, in Corozal, Belize, would have been painted, as well as those in the Temple of the Paintings at Coba.

According to Miller, the development of the Late Postclassic mural technique represents a radical change because it demonstrates great richness in its artistic complexity and execution. There is superior control of the lines and better handling of color, which are probably indicative of improved paint brush design. The most notable feature of these murals is the good control and thickness of the lines, which makes for a high quality visual effect. Miller points out that Tulum’s Postclassic paintings show human or animal figures in profile, while objects such as glyphs, offerings and so on are represented face on. In both cases the positioning of the images aims to clarify the scene, for all elements to be recognizable and for the content of the images to be very evident.

According to this author, the iconography of the Building 16 paintings relates to ideological themes connected to birth and rebirth, as well as the crossing from the underworld to the middle earth, where Venus and the Sun also played very significant roles. Miller proposes that the Tulum sanctuaries would have been used for rituals in which pilgrims from various places participated, and these may have been associated with long-distance trade. In other words, Miller posits that at Tulum there was a very close tie between the sacred and the profane because trade would have been the economic foundation of the city that enabled it to become a great ceremonial center.

On the other hand, in one of the most recent studies, by Karl Taube in 2010, the emphasis is on the floral designs identified in the Tulum paintings, which are more than mere ornaments but represent the spirit of life and the paradise of the sun. According to this researcher, many of the elements of the murals, such as the intertwined plumed serpents, the quetzal feathers and the jade beads are references to the east: the direction of the sunrise and the source of the rains. The existence of the paintings hinges on the deeper symbolic meaning of Tulum’s setting on the east coast of the peninsula, and this would link to the “international style” and the use of a group of symbols identified as the Flower World Complex, which was widely dispersed across Mesoamerica.

Taube also proposes that the principal scene inside the Building of the Paintings shows a very elaborate Postclassic version of the witz monster (“witz” means mountain in Maya), which has two serpent’s heads with upward pointing jaws, ornamented with flowers and pumpkin heads. For this reason, Taube considers it is probably a "Flowery Mountain." The two mountains which frame the scene serve as the containers of a body of water which could well be the Caribbean Sea, since a ray and fish can be seen swimming in its waters. These elements could be a metaphor for the emergence of maize and of humans from the surface of the earth. According to the author “this mythical emergence event is repeated every day at Tulum, when the sun, the gods and the ancestors arise from the Flowery Way of the eastern waters of the Caribbean Sea.”

Taube’s conclusion on the Building of the Paintings and other important structures at Tulum is that even the external decoration reinforces the notion that the symbolism of the site is strongly linked to rebirth, since the flowers that adorn the facade of B-16 and the faces of the ancestors which frame its corners, turn the whole building into a Flowery Mountain.

It is difficult to be certain that the mural paintings of Building 16 have a cross-cultural aspect, or that they are really associated with an international style tied to the concept of worldwide systems. Whether or not the paintings are actually evidence of Tulum as a commercial or pilgrimage site, it is undeniable that the paintings of the Temple of the Frescoes are rich and beautiful, and that the intention of the artists was to represent the Caribbean Sea. Visitors should not forget that the mural paintings of Tulum’s Building 16 are the most complete and best preserved of the Mayan Late Postclassic period.
INAH-CINAH Quintana Roo/F. Dávalos
Flowery mountain, E.16
INAH-CINAH Quintana Roo/F. Dávalos
Mural painting, Building 16

  • Boone, Elizabeth H. y Michael E. Smith, 2003, “Postclassic International Styles and Symbol Sets”, en Michael E. Smith y Frances E. Berdan (eds.), The Postclassic Mesoamerican World, Salt Lake City, University of Utah.
  • Catherwood, Frederick, 1844, Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, Nueva York, Bartlett and Welford.
  • Fernández, Miguel Ángel, 1945, “Las ruinas de Tulum I”, en Anales del Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, tomo III, vol. 5, México, INAH.
  • Taube, Karl, 2010, “At dawn’s Edge: Tulum, Santa Rita, and Floral Symbolism in the International Style of Late Postclassic Mesoamerica”, en Vail, G. y C. Hernández (eds.), Astronomers, Scribes, and Priests: Intellectual Interchange between the Northern Maya Lowlands and Highland Mexico in the Late Postclassic Period, Washington, D.C., Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University.
  • Vaillant, George C., 1940, “Patterns in Middle American Archaeology”, en Hay, C. L., R. L. Linton, S. K. Lothrop, H. L. Shapiro, y G. C. Vaillant (eds.), The Maya and their Neighbors: Essays on Middle American Anthropology and Archaeology, New York, Appleton Century.


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