About 96 kilometers (58 miles) north of Campeche City, the swampy offshore Isla Jaina holds the largest-known Maya burial ground on the Yucatán Peninsula; more than 1,000 interments have been found inside the two imposing pyramids on the island: Zacpol and Sayasol.
According to the archaeologist Sylvanus Morley, who discovered the impressive site in 1943, Jaina was used by the Maya elite—probably Puuc nobility—beginning in A.D. 652. Bodies were carried in long, colorful processions to this island and were interred in burial jars in crouched positions, their skin often stained red—a symbol of eternal life—and bodies wrapped in either a straw mat or white cloth.
Some were found with a jade stone in their mouths. Plates with food, jewelry, weapons, tools, and other precious items were placed on the heads of the dead to accompany them to the afterlife. Small figurines (4–10 inches tall) also were buried, resting on the deceased’s folded arms.
These finely crafted ceramic sculptures now are considered masterpieces of Mesoamerican art. They portray the buried in ritual costumes, like those of warriors and ball players, and are frozen in ritual positions, including as captives being tortured. These tiny sculptures also often doubled as rattles, with clay balls rolling around the hollow interiors.
Interestingly, to build the pyramids and the other ceremonial structures on the island, the Mayas raised the low elevation of the island by building platforms made of sascab (limestone material) brought from the mainland in canoes. This material covered the brittle coral of the island.
Visiting the Island
Isla Jaina is not officially open to the public, but the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) can issue special permission to those interested in visiting. Call or apply in person at INAH’s Campeche office (Calle 59 between Calles 14 and 16; tel. 981/816-9111, 8 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Fri.), which can process the paperwork in a single day, if you’re lucky.
The island is usually reached by boat, though there is a reportedly rickety bridge that allows vehicle access; ask at INAH or the Campeche state tourist office (Plaza Moch-Couoh, Av. Ruiz Cortines between Calles 63 and 65, tel. 981/811-9229, 8 a.m.–9 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 9 a.m.–8 p.m. Sat.–Sun.) for assistance in securing transportation and a knowledgeable guide.
© Gary Chandler & Liza Prado from Moon Yucatán Peninsula, 9th edition