Expert opinion
The Head of "The King"
The monument commonly known as Cabeza de El Rey (“Head of the King”) is a unique and special sculpture, not only for the site but for the whole region. The site of El Rey (“The King”) is itself named after this sculpture.

The earliest references to this Mayan site were by John Stephens, who in 1842 recalled having seen stone buildings on the island of “Kancune.” A few decades later, Alice Le Plongeon (1889) wrote a detailed description of the site and the sculptural elements visible at the time, naming the site Nizucte. A few years later, in 1895, William Holmes described approximately 12 mounds of stone, columns and stairways, while in 1909, Arnold Channing and Frederick J. Tabor Frost produced a schematic plan of the main group with reference to the general characteristics of the buildings and their state of preservation, including the first published photograph of the anthropomorphic monument which we know today as the Cabeza de El Rey. In 1911, Raymond Merwin toured the site and took a new photograph of the sculpture.

Thomas Gann and Samuel K. Lothrop, members of the expedition organized by the Carnegie Institution of Washington, visited El Rey once again in 1918. In their 1924 publication, Lothrop made a brief mention of the site, but it was Gann who wrote a lot more about it in his book “In an Unknown Land” (1924). Gann was the first to refer to Structure 3, which is one of the principal structures of the site, as "the Palace of the King." Also, in terms of the sculpture which concerns us here, he wrote: “In a recess in this cornice, just between the doors, stood the stucco figure of the King of Cancuen, ‘El Rey de Cancuen’ which gave the building its name” (Gann, op. cit.: 150). This military doctor related how shortly before his visit, the figure of the personage was complete, including “relatively shrunken” arms and legs, and that it sat at the entrance to the palace, but that a “mischievous Mexican peon” had pried the king loose and tumbled him to the ground, breaking the limbs and the lower part of the body without any possibility of repair, preserving only the head and the headdress (Gann, ibid.).

The author added that he was informed that the perpetrator of the destruction “had died very painfully within two weeks of his act of vandalism, his death being looked upon by the other laborers as a direct visitation of the wrath of the ancient god for desecration of his sanctuary.” (op. cit. 151). Fearing that what remained of the monument would also be destroyed, Gann made arrangements with the owner to take the sculpture on his ship, but this was hindered by the bad weather, therefore “El Rey still rules over his ancient kingdom of Cancuen.” (ibid.).

Gann’s detailed description of the sculpture’s features is compelling: “The face, which is very well (though roughly) modeled, is cruel and malignant in expression; the nose is large and broad, the mouth wide, and the forehead high, by no means typically Mayan in cast. The headdress consists of some broad flaps which fall to the side of the large circular earplugs, attached to two bands which come down to the center of the forehead.

Above these is seen the head and the upper jaw, with projecting teeth and the large eyes of some mythological animal, attached to the forehead [of the personage] with a tenon that is now so weathered as to be unrecognizable. The whole figure had been painted in various colors, but these are now almost entirely obliterated by time and exposure.” (ibid.).

Gann’s interpretation was not so wide of the mark. The “Cabeza de El Rey” does indeed appear to represent a high status personage, wearing an elaborate headdress with a fantastic animal, possibly an evocation of Itzamnaaj, the Mayan god of creation, who was enormously popular in the Late Postclassic.

It is worth mentioning that the upper part of the headdress of the sculpture has a small gap, which could have been used to insert a part of the monument which has now disappeared, but which still appears in the photograph by Arnold and Frost, as well as that taken by Merwin. It could also have been used to leave a small offering, a common practice at the altars of the region.

After the visit by members of the Carnegie expedition, El Rey was not visited by specialists again until 1954. In that year William Sanders carried out stratigraphic excavations with the aim of dating this and other sites in the region. The creation of the new touristic center in Cancun in the 1970s set the scene for INAH commencing archeological excavations of the site under the direction of Pablo Mayer Guala. The archeeologists Ernesto Vargas and Akira Kaneko also worked there later on, as part of a UNAM project. It was during the 1980s that it was decided to transfer the “Cabeza del Rey” to the Archeological Museum of Cancun, which at the time adjoined the Cancun Convention Center. In 2012 it was taken to the new Cancun Mayan Museum, where it is currently a central piece in the Mayan archeology gallery.

In 1993, the archeologists Enrique Terrones and Luis Leira carried out new excavations and major maintenance work at El Rey, given that the weather and hurricanes had practically reburied a good part of the site’s buildings under the sand. The work of both archeologists continued in the residential area of the site in 2007. Three years later Sandra Elizalde carried out a season of major maintenance, conservation and improvement of some of the major buildings.
Under translation
Under translation

Arnold, Channing y Frederick J. Tabor Frost, 1909, The American Egypt: A Record of Travel in Yucatan, México, Londres, Hutchinson and Company

Elizalde, Sandra, 2010, Informe de los trabajos de mantenimiento mayor realizados en el sitio de El Rey, Quintana Roo, Archivo Técnico del CINAH Quintana Roo, INAH, México.

Gann, Thomas, 1924, In an Unknown Land. Nueva York, Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Holmes, William H., 1895, Archaeological Studies among the Ancient Cities of Mexico. Chicago, Field Columbian Museum, Anthropological Series, Vol. 1, núm. 1.

Le Plongeon, Alice, 1889, Here and there in Yucatan, Nueva York, John W. Lovell Company.

Lothrop, Samuel K., 1924, Tulum: An Archaeological Study of the East Coast of Yucatan, Washington D.C, Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication 335.

Mayer Guala, Pablo, 1990, Arqueología de Can Cun, la relación arquitectura-cerámica, Tesis de licenciatura, México, Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia.

Terrones, Enrique y Luis Leira, 2007, Informe de exploraciones arqueológicas en el sector sur de la zona arqueológica de El Rey, Quintana Roo, México, Archivo técnico del CINAH Quintana Roo, INAH.

Velázquez Morlet, Adriana y Luis Leira Guillermo, 2010, Guía. Tulum, El Meco, El Rey, Xcaret, San Gervasio, Xelhá, Muyil, Cobá, Quintana Roo, México, serie Zonas Arqueológicas, Arqueología Mexicana, INAH, México.


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