Chichen Itza

The Sacred Well

El Cenote Sagrado

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A long, white limestone road or sacbe, extends north from the base of the north staircase of the great pyramid, El Castillo. The road passes the Temple of Venus and continues for a thousand feet to a large, limestone sinkhole the Maya call "cenote." This is El Cenote Sagrado, the Sacred Well, found at the northernmost point of the Chichen Itza archaeological zone. This large cenote was likely a key reason for why the Maya built such an immense city here. The cenote is fed by an underground river, and supplied water for the city as well as served as a location where the Maya conducted religious rites .

Almost perfectly circular, the cenote is more than 50 meters in diameter, and its upper rim stands more than 20 meters from the waters surface. The water itself is almost 15 meters deep with a thick layer of muck at the bottom that has so far proven too deep to measure, or to allow for easy exploration of its depths.

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In 1894, Edward Thompson, the United States Consul in Merida, purchased the plantation which included the ruins of Chichén Itzá. Ten years later he dredged the cenote, recovering artifacts of gold, copper, carved jade and pottery, as well more fragile items such as textiles, spears, and rubber containers that held a form of incense. The artifacts are believed to have been thrown in as offerings to the Maya rain god Chaak.

Thompson shipped the artifacts to the Peabody Museum at Harvard University. In 1926, the Mexican government demanded the return of the artifacts and tried Thompson on charges of theft. The case went up to the Mexican Supreme Court, which in 1944 found in favor of Thompson. Beginning in 1959, the Peabody Museum gave many of the valuable artifacts but some of it remains on display at Chichén Itzá near a plaque in Spanish that condemns to the Mexican government, which displays some of them in Mexico City.

Thompson also recovered numerous skeletons, which lends credence to the early Spanish chroniclers who said the cenote was the scene of human sacrifice. It is known that the Toltec influence on the Maya introduced the concept of human sacrifice to Yucatan.

Chichén Itzá also has a sister cenote called the Xtoloc Cenote. Unlike the turgid waters of the Sacred Well, Xtoloc is relatively fresh and pure, prompting the belief that it served as the major water supply for the city while the Cenote Sagrado was reserved for ritual purposes.

-- Chris Reeves/E.J. Albright