Monday, December 10, 2007
Dramatic rescue snatches back Mayan altar - 30 October 2003 - New Scientist","","","< class="'sastyle_link_moreinfo'" style="'white-space:nowrap;color:#012D6F;padding-right:0.3em;font-weight:normal'" href="'http://www.siteadvisor.com/sites/newscientist.com?ref=" client_ver="FF_26.5_6176&locale=" premium="false&aff_id=" target="_blank">More info...","",'green','Dramatic rescue snatches back Mayan altar - 30 October 2003 - New Scientist',1.0)" src="chrome://safe/content/green.gif" style="font-size: medium; height: 1em; position: absolute; z-index: 999;" border="0" hspace="5">... that symbolised an alliance between Taj Chan Ahk, the last and greatest in ... later, undercover officials tracked down a photo of the altar and arrested a ...www.newscientist.com/
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- Archaeologist Arthur Demarest had been training local Maya villagers to be tour guides for the ancient site at Cancuén (Image: Andrew Demarest)
Related ArticlesThe stone altar pictures two Maya lords facing one another (Image: Andrew Demarest)
In an operation worthy of a major movie, Guatemalan authorities have recovered an important Maya stone altar from looters.
US archaeologists and Mayan villagers aided the six-month investigation, which led to several arrests. Three ringleaders will go on trial in January. Archaeologists are now deciphering the text, which they hope will help them understand the fall of Mayan civilisation shortly after it was engraved in 796 AD.
The altar was one of a pair at opposite ends of the royal ball field in the ruined city of Cancuén. It depicts a ritual ball game that symbolised an alliance between Taj Chan Ahk, the last and greatest in Cancuén's long line of rulers, and another Maya king.
The first altar, discovered in 1915, is among the greatest Maya treasures in Guatemala's National Museum of Archaeology. The second is better preserved, but was unknown when Vanderbilt University archaeologist Arthur Demarest began investigating the Cancuén site in 1996.
Looters hauled away the 270-kilogram altar after heavy rains exposed it in 2001. After turning down an offer of $4000 from local drug dealers, the gang broke up and four of its members stole and hid the altar.
The leader recovered it after a gun battle in December 2002. Then, early in 2003, drug dealers returned to try to steal the altar, and beat a local woman when they could not find it.
Disturbed by the theft and the beating, four elders of the Q'eqchi' Maya asked for help from Demarest, who had earned their trust by involving villagers in developing the archaeological site for sustainable ecotourism. He persuaded the local drug lord not to intervene, only to find he was murdered hours later, and took up the case with the Guatemalan authorities. They raided the looters' camp in April, but the altar had already been sold.
A month later, undercover officials tracked down a photo of the altar and arrested a dealer, who said he had sold it on to another dealer near the border with Belize. Recent raids brought yet more arrests and recovered the altar, now in the national museum.
The fact that the recovered altar comes from the last years of Cancuén makes it "scientifically much more important", Demarest said. Located at the head of the Pasión river, Cancuén was a rich port that controlled the jade trade.
The text on the altar shows that Taj Chan Ahk was still expanding his kingdom and forming alliances as other Classic Maya centres in the area were collapsing.
He was also building a vast palace, but soon after the altar was laid the residents of Cancuén moved to a more protected city in the north, leaving the palace unfinished.
Maya Rise & Fall - National Geographic Magazine","","","8 green downloads","1.4 e-mails/month","Linked to green sites","More info...","",'green','Maya Rise & Fall - National Geographic Magazine',1.0)" src="chrome://safe/content/green.gif" style="font-size: medium; height: 1em; position: absolute; z-index: 999;" border="0" hspace="5">Feature Main Page. Photo Gallery. Interactive Map. Maya Quiz. Missions ... The architect of this golden age was King Taj Chan Ahk, who came to power in 757 ...www7.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0708/
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By Guy Gugliotta Photograph by Simon Norfolk Scholars have long puzzled over the Maya civilization's rise to glory and fall to ruin. The latest thinking is that a man named Fire Is Born made the Maya great. But no one person or problem caused the collapse. Simply put, everything went wrong.
THE STRANGER ARRIVED as the dry season began to harden the jungle paths, allowing armies to pass. Flanked by his warriors, he marched into the Maya city of Waka, past temples and markets and across broad plazas. Its citizens must have gaped, impressed not just by the show of force but also by the men's extravagant feathered headdresses, javelins, and mirrored shields—the regalia of a distant imperial city.
Ancient inscriptions give the date as January 8, 378, and the stranger's name as Fire Is Born. He arrived in Waka, in present-day Guatemala, as an envoy from a great power in the highlands of Mexico. In the coming decades, his name would appear on monuments all across the territory of the Maya, the jungle civilization of Mesoamerica. And in his wake, the Maya reached an apogee that lasted five centuries.
The Maya have always been an enigma. Decades ago the glories of their ruined cities and their beautiful but undeciphered script had many researchers imagining a gentle society of priests and scribes. As epigraphers finally learned to read the Maya glyphs, a darker picture emerged, of warring dynasties, court rivalries, and palaces put to the torch. Maya history became a tapestry of precise dates and vividly named personages.
But deep mysteries remained, among them what spurred the Maya's final leap toward greatness. Around the time Fire Is Born's fame was spreading, a wave of change swept the Maya world. What had been a collection of inward-looking city-states expanded their ties with their neighbors and other cultures and reached the heights of artistic achievement that define the Classic Maya period.
New clues, unearthed from overgrown ruins and teased from newly deciphered texts, point to Fire Is Born as a central figure in this transformation. Though fragmentary, the evidence that has emerged over the past decade suggests that this mysterious outsider remade the political leadership of the Maya world. Mixing diplomacy and force, he forged alliances, installed new dynasties, and spread the influence of the distant city-state he represented, the great metropolis of Teotihuacan near present-day Mexico City.
Scholars disagree about the nature of his legacy—whether he ushered in a lasting era of foreign domination or catalyzed homegrown change. It is also possible that the Maya were already destined for greatness, and Fire Is Born just picked a lucky time to visit. But there is no question that his arrival marked a turning point. "I don't know if Fire Is Born invented the new system," says Nikolai Grube of the University of Bonn, "but he was there at the beginning."
EVEN BEFORE FIRE IS BORN, the Maya had risen to unlikely heights in a harsh land. Today, the lowlands of southern Mexico and Guatemala's Petén region yield little beyond bare subsistence to their inhabitants. "A high civilization," says Vanderbilt University Maya scholar Arthur Demarest, "had no business being there."
The setting of ancient Waka, now known as El Perú, is probably much as it was when the first Maya arrived, in perhaps 1000 B.C.—a dense rain forest where scarlet macaws, toucans, and vultures nest in towering tropical hardwoods. Spider monkeys swing from branches and vines, and howler monkeys bellow in the distance. When it rains in the Petén, mosquitoes swarm in such clouds that today's Maya have to drive them away with greasy smoke from torches burning cohune palm nuts. In the dry season, the heat bakes the swampy bajos, or bottomlands, the rivers fall, and drought threatens. It is a land of machetes and mud, serpents and sweat, and cats—most notably balam, the jaguar, lord of the jungle.(1 of 6) Next >>
The earliest arrivals probably had no choice—overcrowding elsewhere may have forced them into this forbidding environment. But once there, they mastered its challenges. Settling near rivers, lakes, and swamps, they learned to maximize the thin soil's productivity. They cleared the forest for maize, squash, and other crops by slashing and burning, much as today's Maya do, then re-enriched the land by alternating crops and letting fields lie fallow.
As populations grew, they adopted more intensive methods of cultivation—composting, terracing, irrigation. They filled in swamps to create fields and carried silt and muck from bottomlands to fertilize enclosed gardens. Artificial ponds yielded fish, and corrals held deer and other game flushed from the forest. The ancient Maya ultimately coaxed enough sustenance from the meager land for several million people, many times more than now live in the region.
Over the centuries, as the Maya learned to prosper in the rain forest, the settlements grew into city-states, and the culture became ever more refined. The Maya built elegant multiroom palaces with vaulted ceilings; their temples rose hundreds of feet toward the heavens. Ceramics, murals, and sculpture displayed their distinctive artistic style, intricate and colorful. Though they used neither the wheel nor metal tools, they developed a complete hieroglyphic writing system and grasped the concept of zero, adopting it for everyday calculations. They also had a 365-day year and were sophisticated enough to make leap-year-like corrections. They regularly observed the stars, predicted solar eclipses, and angled their ceremonial buildings so that they faced sunrise or sunset at particular times of year.
Mediating between the heavens and earth were the Maya kings—the kuhul ajaw, or holy lords, who derived their power from the gods. They functioned both as shamans, interpreting religion and ideology, and rulers who led their subjects in peace and war. Demarest and others have described the Maya centers as "theater states" in which the kuhul ajaw conducted elaborate public rituals to give metaphysical meaning to movements of the heavens, changes of the calendar, and the royal succession.
Behind the cloak of ritual, the Maya cities acted like states everywhere, making alliances, fighting wars, and trading for goods over territory that ultimately stretched from what is today southern Mexico through the Petén to the Caribbean coast of Honduras. Well-worn trails and stucco-paved causeways crisscrossed the forest, and canoes plied the rivers. But until Fire Is Born arrived, the Maya remained politically fragmented, the city-states charting their own courses in the jungle.
BY 378 WAKA WAS A prestigious center, boasting four main plazas, hundreds of buildings, temple mounds up to 300 feet (90 meters) tall, ceremonial palaces clad in painted stucco, and courtyards graced with carved limestone altars and monuments. A trading power, it occupied a strategic location on the San Pedro River, which flowed westward from the heart of the Petén. Its market was filled with Maya foodstuffs such as maize, beans, chilies, and avocados, along with chicle harvested from sapodilla trees to make glue, and latex from rubber trees to make balls for ceremonial games. Exotic goods found their way to Waka as well. Jade for sculpture and jewelry and quetzal feathers for costumes came from the mountains to the south, and obsidian for weapons and pyrite for mirrors from the Mexican plateau to the west, the domain of Teotihuacan.
A sprawling metropolis of 100,000 people or more—perhaps the largest city in the world at the time—Teotihuacan left no records that epigraphers have been able to decipher. But its motives in dispatching Fire Is Born to the Maya region seem clear. Waka sat on a promontory overlooking a tributary of the San Pedro with a protected harbor, excellent for berthing large canoes. "It was a perfect staging area" for military action, notes Southern Methodist University archaeologist David Freidel, co-director of excavations at Waka. Which may be precisely what Fire Is Born had in mind.
Waka appears to have been key to the envoy's mission: to bring the entire central Petén into Teotihuacan's orbit, through persuasion if possible, force if necessary. His principal target was Tikal, a kingdom 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Waka. Tikal was the most influential city-state in the central Petén. Bring Tikal into the fold, and the other cities would follow.
Fire Is Born's soldiers were probably shock troops, designed principally to display his bona fides and demonstrate good faith. He needed reinforcements, and he had come to Waka to get them. In return, he could offer the goodwill of his patron, a mysterious ruler known from inscriptions as Spear-thrower Owl, probably a highland king, perhaps even the lord of Teotihuacan.
Waka's ruler, Sun-faced Jaguar, apparently welcomed Fire Is Born. Based on hints in texts from Waka and other sources, Freidel, project co-director Héctor Escobedo, and epigrapher Stanley Guenter suggest that the two rulers cemented their alliance by building a fire shrine to house the sacred flame of Teotihuacan.
Along with moral support, Fire Is Born probably secured troops. His expeditionary force likely carried the spear-throwers and javelins typical of Teotihuacan and wore backshields covered with glittery pyrite, perhaps meant to dazzle the enemy when the soldiers spun around to hurl their weapons. Now warriors from the Petén, equipped with stone axes and short stabbing spears, swelled their ranks. As armor, many wore cotton vests stuffed with rock salt. Eleven hundred years later, the Spanish conquistadores shed their own metal armor in the sweltering rain forest in favor of these Maya "flak jackets."
The military expedition most likely set out for Tikal in war canoes, heading east, up the San Pedro River. Reaching the headwaters, the soldiers disembarked and marched either along the river or on the canyon rim overlooking it.
Garrisons probably dotted the route. News of the advancing column must have reached Tikal, and somewhere along the stretch of riverbank and roadway, perhaps at a break in the cliffs about 16 miles (26 kilometers) from the city, Tikal's army tried to stop Fire Is Born's advance. Inscribed slabs, called stelae, later erected at Tikal suggest that the defenders were routed. Fire Is Born's forces continued their march on the city. By January 16, 378—barely a week after his arrival in Waka—the conqueror was in Tikal.
The date is noted on Tikal's now famous Stela 31, which yielded early clues to Fire Is Born's importance when David Stuart of the University of Texas at Austin deciphered it in 2000. The second passage on the stela records what happened after the city fell: Tikal's king, Great Jaguar Paw, died that very day, probably at the hands of the vanquishers.
Fire Is Born appears to have dropped whatever pretense he had assumed as a goodwill ambassador. His forces destroyed most of Tikal's existing monuments—stelae put in place by 14 earlier rulers of Tikal. A new era had begun, and later monuments celebrated the victors. Stela 31, erected long after the conquest, describes Fire Is Born as Ochkin Kaloomte, or Lord of the West, probably referring to his origins in Teotihuacan. Some Maya experts have also suggested another meaning: that Fire Is Born represented a faction that had fled to the west—to Teotihuacan—after a coup d'état by Great Jaguar Paw's father years earlier and had now returned to power.
It apparently took Fire Is Born some time to pacify Tikal and its environs. But a year after his arrival, Tikal's monuments record that he presided over the ascension of a new, foreign king. Inscriptions identify him as the son of Spear-thrower Owl, Fire Is Born's patron in Teotihuacan. According to Stela 31, the new king was less than 20 years old, so Fire Is Born probably became Tikal's regent. He was certainly the city's de facto overlord.
IN THE YEARS THAT followed the conquest, Tikal itself went on the offensive, expanding its reach across the Maya region. Fire Is Born appears to have masterminded the campaign, or at least inspired it. References to him have been identified in cities as distant as Palenque, more than 150 miles (240 kilometers) to the northwest. But the most poignant testimony to his empire-building comes from Uaxactún, just 12 miles (19 kilometers) from Tikal. There a mural shows a Maya nobleman giving homage to a warrior in Teotihuacan regalia—perhaps one of Fire Is Born's troops. A stela depicting a similar warrior guards a tomb where archaeologists found the remains of two women, one pregnant, a child, and an infant. Freidel and others have concluded that these were the remains of Uaxactún's royal family, slain by Tikal's forces. The king, presumably, was taken to Tikal and sacrificed there.
Decades after the arrival of Fire Is Born and long after he must have died, the aggressive rulers of Tikal continued to invoke Fire Is Born and his patron state, Teotihuacan. In 426, Tikal took over Copán, 170 miles (274 kilometers) to the south in present-day Honduras, and crowned its own king, Kinich Yax Kuk Mo, who became the founder of a new dynasty. A posthumous portrait shows him wearing a costume typical of central Mexico—a reference to Teotihuacan—and like Fire Is Born, he bore the title Lord of the West.
Some Mayanists believe that Tikal was acting as a vassal state for Teotihuacan, expanding its dominion throughout the Maya lowlands, with Fire Is Born acting as a kind of military governor. Others see him less as a conqueror and more as a catalyst who spurred Tikal to expand its own power and influence.
His fate is a mystery. There is no known record of his death, and no evidence that he ever ruled a Maya kingdom. But his prestige lived on. The Waka stela recording his arrival there wasn't erected until a generation later, indicating that even a long-ago visit from the great Fire Is Born was a matter of civic pride.
The Maya were never the same after him. Later rulers transformed Tikal into what Nikolai Grube, and Simon Martin of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, have described as a Maya superpower. And in both religion and art, the Classic Maya began to embrace foreign motifs and themes, adding sophistication and cosmopolitan exuberance to an already flourishing culture.
Soon another political development fed this cultural flowering. In the sixth century, the kan (meaning "snake") lords of Calakmul, a city just north of the Petén, began their own expansion. In time Calakmul came to challenge Tikal, and the rivalry split the Maya world. Like the 20th century Cold War, this contest spurred heights of achievement even as it sowed tension and strife. But unlike our own, the Maya Cold War ended in catastrophe.
ONE DAY IN THE YEAR 800, the peaceful Maya city of Cancuén reaped the whirlwind. King Kan Maax must have known that trouble was coming, for he had tried to build makeshift breastworks at the approaches to his 200-room palace. He didn't finish in time.
The attackers quickly overran the outskirts of the city and streamed into Cancuén's ritual heart. The speed of the attack is obvious even today. Unfinished construction projects lay in tumbled heaps. Half-carved stone monuments littered the pathways. Pots and bowls were strewn about the palace kitchen.
The invaders took 31 hostages. The jewels and ornaments found with their remains marked them as nobles, perhaps members of Kan Maax's extended family or royal guests from stricken cities elsewhere. The captives included women and children; two of the women were pregnant.
All were led to the ceremonial courtyard of the palace and systematically executed. The killers wielded spears and axes, impaling or decapitating their victims. They laid the corpses in the palace's cistern. Roughly 30 feet (nine meters) long and 10 feet (three meters) deep, it was lined with red stucco and fed by an underground spring. The bodies, accompanied by ceremonial garments and precious ornaments, fit easily. Kan Maax and his queen were not spared. They were buried a hundred yards (90 meters) away in two feet (0.6 meters) of construction fill intended for remodeling the palace. The king still wore his elaborate ceremonial headdress and a mother-of-pearl necklace identifying him as Holy Lord of Cancuén.
No one knows who the killers were or what they sought. Booty apparently did not interest them. Some 3,600 pieces of jade, including several jade boulders, were left untouched; household goods in the palace and ceramics in Cancuén's giant kitchen were undisturbed. But to archaeologists who have dug up the evidence over the past several years, the invaders' message is clear. By depositing the bodies in the cistern, "they poisoned the well," says Vanderbilt University archaeologist Arthur Demarest. They also chipped the faces from all the carved likenesses on Cancuén's stone monuments and pushed them over, facedown. "The site," says Demarest, "was ritually killed."
CANCUÉN WAS ONE OF the last major dominoes to fall in the Pasión River Valley, part of the ancient Maya heartland in present-day Guatemala. Many other cities had already met similarly decisive ends, and throughout the southern lowlands of Mesoamerica, what came to be known as the collapse of the Classic Maya was well under way. The civilization that had dominated the region for 500 years was sliding into a prolonged, irrevocable decline.
While warfare obliterated some vibrant city-states, others simply faded. The kuhul ajaw, or holy lords, who had celebrated their every deed in murals, sculpture, and architecture, no longer commissioned new works. Public displays of hieroglyphic writing became scarce, and dates in the Long Count calendar system all but disappeared from onuments. Population fell drastically. Nobles abandoned palaces and squatters moved in, lit cook fires in the old throne rooms, and built lean-tos next to crumbling walls. And then even the squatters left, and the jungle reclaimed what remained.
Elsewhere in the Petén lowlands of Guatemala and in southern Mexico, the collapse took longer. Even as Cancuén fell, rulers of the great city-state of Tikal in the northern Petén were building ceremonial structures. But 30 years later Tikal's population began to drop precipitously as well. Its last dated monument was inscribed in 869. By 1000, the Classic Maya had ceased to exist.
The question has fascinated scholars and the public since 19th-century explorers began discovering "lost cities" in the Petén: How could one of the ancient world's great civilizations simply dissolve?
Early speculation centered on sudden catastrophe, perhaps volcanism or an earthquake or a deadly hurricane. Or perhaps it was a mysterious disease, untraceable today—something like the Black Death in medieval Europe or the smallpox that wiped out Native American populations at the dawn of the colonial age. Modern researchers have discarded these one-event theories, however, because the collapse extended over at least 200 years. "There isn't any single factor that everybody agrees on," says Southern Illinois University's Prudence M. Rice.
Scholars have looked instead at combinations of afflictions in different parts of the Maya world, including overpopulation, environmental damage, famine, and drought. "You come away feeling that anything that can go wrong did," says Rice.
They have also focused on the one thing that appears to have happened everywhere during the prolonged decline: As resources grew scarce, the kuhul ajaw lost their divine luster, and, with it, the confidence of their subjects, both noble and commoner. Instability and desperation in turn fueled more destructive wars. What had been ritualized contests fought for glory or captives turned into spasms of savagery like the one that obliterated Cancuén. Says Simon Martin of the University of Pennsylvania Museum: "The system broke down and ran out of control."
For more than a millennium, the Maya had entrusted their religious and temporal well-being to their god-kings. These leaders displayed their might and majesty in lavish rituals and pageants, in opulent art and architecture, and in written records of their triumphs, inscribed on stone, murals, and ceramics.
The system prospered—indeed, its excesses created the artistic achievements and learning that defined the Maya as one of the ancient world's great cultures—as long as the land could satisfy people's basic needs. This was easy at first when cities were small and resources relatively plentiful, but over time, growing populations, an expanding nobility, and rivalry between the city-states strained the limits of the environment.
Today the Petén, geographically the largest province in Guatemala, has a population of 367,000, living in isolated towns scattered through a forested wilderness. In the eighth century, by some estimates, ten million people lived in the Maya lowlands. The landscape was an almost unbroken fabric of intensely cultivated farms, gardens, and villages, linked by a web of trails and paved causeways connecting monumental city-states.
Maya farmers were well schooled in sophisticated techniques designed to get maximum production from delicate tropical soils. But beginning in the ninth century, studies of lake-bed sediments show, a series of prolonged droughts struck the Maya world, hitting especially hard in cities like Tikal, which depended on rain both for drinking water and to reinvigorate the swampland bajos where farmers grew their crops. River ports like Cancuén might have escaped water shortages, but across much of the Maya region the lake-bed sediments also show ancient layers of eroded soil, testimony to deforestation and overuse of the land.
When bad times came, there was little the kuhul ajaw could do to help their people. Monoculture farming—growing one staple food crop that could be accumulated and stored for hard times or for trade—could not be sustained in the rain forest. Instead, each city-state produced small quantities of many different food items, such as maize, beans, squash, and cacao. There was enough, at least at first, to feed the kingdom, but little left over.
Meanwhile, Maya society was growing dangerously top heavy. Over time, elite polygamy and intermarriage among royal families swelled the ruling class. The lords demanded jade, shells, feathers from the exotic quetzal bird, fancy ceramics, and other expensive ceremonial accoutrements to affirm their status in the Maya cosmos. A king who could not meet the requirements of his relatives risked alienating them.
The traditional rivalry among states only made matters worse. The kuhul ajaw strove to outdo their neighbors, building bigger temples and more elegant palaces and staging more elaborate public pageants. All of this required more labor, which required larger populations and, perhaps, more wars to exact tribute in forced labor from fallen enemies. Overtaxed, the Maya political system began to falter.
The greatest rivalry of all helped propel the Classic Maya to their peak—and then tore their world apart. Beginning in the fifth century, the city-state of Tikal, probably bolstered by an alliance with the great Mexican highland state of Teotihuacan, expanded its influence, enlisting allies and vassal states in a swath southward through the Pasión River Valley to Copán in what is now Honduras. A century later a challenger arose: The northern city-state of Calakmul, in what is now the Mexican lowlands of Campeche, forged an alliance of city-states throughout the Petén, north to the Yucatán and east to what is now Belize. The two great alliances faced off in a rivalry that lasted more than 130 years.
This period marked the golden age of Classic Maya civilization. The kuhul ajaw were in full flower in these two great alliances, competing in art and monuments as well as in frequent but limited wars. Calakmul defeated Tikal in a major battle in 562 but destroyed neither the city nor its population. Eventually Tikal rebounded and defeated Calakmul, subsequently building many of its most spectacular monuments.
Simon Martin, with Nikolai Grube of the University of Bonn, compares the Tikal-Calakmul rivalry to the superpower struggle of the 20th century, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union competed to outdo each other in fields ranging from weaponry to space travel. With neither side ever able to gain the upper hand, the Cold War arguably brought stability, and so did the standoff in the Maya world. "There was a certain degree of destruction" because of the rivalry, says Guatemalan archaeologist Héctor Escobedo. "But there was also equilibrium."
IT DID NOT LAST. Martin suggests the balance may have been intrinsically unstable, like the competition among the city-states of ancient Greece, or the nervous grappling between North and South in the United States prior to the Civil War. Or perhaps an overstressed environment finally caught up with the proud Maya powers, bringing a new edge of desperation to their rivalry. Either way, the unraveling began at the small garrison state of Dos Pilas, near the Pasión River downstream of Cancuén.
In 630 Tikal, trying to reassert a presence along Pasión River trade routes increasingly dominated by Calakmul, expanded an existing outpost near two large springs—pilas, in Spanish. The site had little else to recommend it. Dos Pilas grew no crops and sold nothing. Scholars call it a "predator state" that depended on tribute from the surrounding countryside. War, for Dos Pilas, was not only a ritual to glorify kings and appease gods. War was what Dos Pilas did to survive.
The kingdom's history of violence and duplicity began when Tikal installed one of its princes, Balaj Chan Kawiil, as Dos Pilas's ruler in 635. The garrison slapped together a fancy-looking capital for the young prince, using carved facades to mask loose and unstable construction fill. But in 658 Calakmul overran Dos Pilas and drove Balaj Chan Kawiil into exile.
We know the next chapter thanks to a thunderstorm that toppled a tree at Dos Pilas six years ago, exposing a carved stairway hidden beneath its roots. Inscriptions on the stairway reveal that Balaj Chan Kawiil returned two years after his exile—but as a Calakmul surrogate. Dos Pilas's turncoat king helped Calakmul cement its control over the Pasión Valley during the next two decades. Then Calakmul delivered fateful news. Its rulers ordered Balaj Chan Kawiil to fight his brother in Tikal itself.
In 679 he attacked his native city. "Mountains of skulls were piled up, and blood flowed," the stairway records. Balaj Chan Kawiil triumphed, and his brother died in the battle. The victory brought Calakmul to apogee and transformed Dos Pilas into the overlord of the Petexbatún, the southwestern part of the Petén.
Tikal survived, rebuilt, and less than 20 years later attacked and defeated Calakmul. Stucco sculpture at Tikal's central acropolis depicts a Calakmul noble awaiting sacrifice. It was a defeat from which Calakmul never fully recovered, but Tikal itself was never the same after the wars finally concluded. "Even though Tikal wins in the end," says the University of Pennsylvania's Robert Sharer, "it's never in shape to control everything."
What happened next is not entirely clear. Calakmul's power was broken, yet its allies, including Dos Pilas, continued to battle Tikal in Calakmul's name. Dos Pilas consolidated its hegemony in the Petexbatún through alliances and war. Its rulers commissioned new monuments and built a second capital.
But in 761 Dos Pilas's luck ran out. Former allies and vassals conquered the city and sent its ruler into exile. Dos Pilas would never be resettled, and with its obliteration the Maya world crossed a divide. Instead of reestablishing order, wars would create greater disorder; instead of one ruler emerging triumphant from a decisive battle, each conflict simply created more pretenders. Victories, instead of inspiring new monuments and temples, were transient and, increasingly, unremarked. Defeats spurred desperate citizens to rip apart their ceremonial buildings, using the stones and fill to build redoubts in hopes of staving off future invaders. Cities no longer rebuilt and rebounded. They simply ceased to exist.
Smaller states tried to assert themselves in the spreading chaos, but none could. Instead, the warring states sought temporary advantage in a land of dwindling resources. The commoners probably hid, fled, or died.
FOR A TIME, fleeing nobles could find refuge in Cancuén, a quiet port at the headwaters of the Pasión River. Even as downriver cities sank into chaos during the eighth century, Cancuén prospered by trading luxury items and providing sumptuous lodgings for elite visitors. The architect of this golden age was King Taj Chan Ahk, who came to power in 757 at the age of 15. Cancuén had a long history as a strategic trading post, but Taj Chan Ahk transformed the city into a stunning ceremonial center. Its heart was a 270,000-square-foot (25,000 square meters), three-story royal palace with vaulted ceilings and 11 courtyards, made of solid limestone and elegantly placed on a riverside promontory. It was a perfect stage for a Maya god-king, and Taj Chan Ahk was master of the role, even as it was dying out elsewhere.
There is no evidence that Taj Chan Ahk ever fought a war or even won a battle. Instead he managed to dominate the upper Pasión Valley for nearly 40 years by coaxing advantage through patronage and alliances. An altar monument at Cancuén dated 790 shows him in action, engaged in a ceremonial ball game with an unknown noble, perhaps to celebrate a treaty or a state visit.
Taj Chan Ahk died in 795 and was succeeded by his son Kan Maax, who sought to trump his father by expanding the palace. But pomp and ritual—the old trappings of kingship—could no longer hold the Maya universe together. Within five years the spreading chaos had reached the gates of the city. In one terrible day its glory winked out, another light extinguished in the world of the Classic Maya.
Messages from Sirius","","","< class="'sastyle_link_moreinfo'" style="'white-space:nowrap;color:#012D6F;padding-right:0.3em;font-weight:normal'" href="'http://www.siteadvisor.com/sites/sirianrevelations.net?ref=" client_ver="FF_26.5_6176&locale=" premium="false&aff_id=" target="_blank">More info...","",'green','Messages from Sirius',1.0)" src="chrome://safe/content/green.gif" style="font-size: medium; height: 1em; position: absolute; z-index: 999;" border="0" hspace="5">... of the thousand-year-old royal ball court, the same court used by Taj Chan Ahk. ... Ahk used the symbolic games as political "photo ops" to mark treaties ...www.sirianrevelations.net/testi/mayan_
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Archaeologists Uncover Maya 'Masterpiece' In GuatemalaBy Sean Markey - National Geographic News.....4-24-4
Archaeologists working deep in Guatemala's rain forest under the protection of armed guards say they have unearthed one of the greatest Maya art masterpieces ever found.
The artifact - a 100-pound (45-kilogram) stone panel carved with images and hieroglyphics - depicts Taj Chan Ahk, the mighty 8th-century king of the ancient Maya city-state of Cancuen.
The panel was excavated in perfect condition from a royal ball court. Exquisitely carved in precise high relief, the 80-centimeter-wide (31.5-inch) stone depicts the Maya king seated on an earth symbol and throne with a jaguar skin, installing subordinate rulers in the nearby city-state of Machaquila.
Researchers say the panel's text confirms Ahk's status as one of the last, great kings of classic Maya civilization who controlled a vast territory in the Peten rain forest. Ahk grew and held his power through savvy politics and economic clout, rather than war, at a time when most other great Maya city-states were in their final decline, experts say.
"This panel is incredibly important," Arthur Demarest, a Vanderbilt University archaeologist and excavation co-leader, said in a satellite telephone interview from the dig site. "Every once in a while you have a beautiful, spectacular piece of art that is also profoundly historically important."
"It is ... the best piece of Maya art that has ever been found in an excavated context," he added. "It looks like it was made yesterday."
In a related development that sounds ripped from the pages of an Indiana Jones script, Demarest said he has received a number of death threats tied to an upcoming trial related to the looting of a 1,200-year-old stone altar from Cancuen in 2001.
Demarest helped undercover agents from the Guatemalan S.I.C. (the nation's equivalent to the F.B.I.) arrest the alleged thieves and recover the altar last October. The defendants' trial is set to begin May 20.
Last week, armed gunmen fired on the archaeologist's rain forest dig site. The gunmen fled after Demarest's security guards returned fire and gave chase. The archaeologist has hired six bodyguards, some Israeli-trained.
Meanwhile in a second discovery in Cancuen, archaeologists say they have uncovered a 500-pound (230-kilogram) stone altar from the stucco surface of the thousand-year-old royal ball court, the same court used by Taj Chan Ahk.
The discovery marks the first time researchers have excavated a stone altar from a Maya ball court in its original archaeological context. Such a find "has never happened in Maya archaeology," Demarest said. "These things have always turned up in [private] collections. They've always been looted."
The elaborately carved altar is the third, and final, marker from the royal ball court recovered over the past century. The first was found in 1905. The second marker is the same stolen by looters in 2001. The altars were used as goal posts.
All three depict Taj Chan Ahk in full royal regalia playing against the visiting ruler of a vassal state. Ahk used the symbolic games as political "photo ops" to mark treaties and stage-manage his grip on power, Demarest said.
The two new stone monuments will help archaeologists better understand the last 30 years of Maya civilization and its moment of collapse, experts say.
Five years ago little was known about Cancuen, an ancient port city on the Pasion River whose name means "Place of the Serpents."
The city-state's status as an economic powerhouse of the Maya empire started to emerge in 1999, when Demarest and a team of experts from Vanderbilt University (sponsored in part by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration) and the Guatemalan Ministry of Culture began to explore the city's ruins.
Their excavations soon uncovered the largest palace of the ancient Maya world found to date. The palace, constructed primarily in A.D. 770 during the reign of Taj Chan Ahk, sprawled over nearly a quarter-million square feet (23,000 square meters) and included 200 rooms with vaulted ceilings.
The royal residence was a "power-creating machine" cleverly laid out to inspire awe in visiting warrior-kings. The palace was used to convert rivals into vassals, Demarest said. "There were 11 courtyards. By the time you got to the foot of the king, you were ready to do anything for him," he said.
Under Taj Chan Ahk and earlier kings, Cancuen served as a principal gateway for trade between city-states of the volcanic southern highlands of Central America and the Peten rain forest lowlands to the north.
Strategically located on the Pasion River, the city-state brokered trade in the precious commodities of obsidian, jade, seashells, and stingray spines. Royal craftsmen used the materials to fashion intricate scepters, headdresses, pendants, and necklaces that were used by Maya kings to display and maintain their power.
Classic Maya civilization peaked between A.D. 250 and 900, a period six times longer than the reign of ancient Rome. During that time, the Maya built more cities than ancient Egypt.
What caused Maya civilization to collapse, however, remains a mystery. Experts believe a range of factors, from internecine warfare to severe drought, may have triggered the fall. But the true cause remains a mystery.
Stolen Mayan Altar Recovered , Looters Stole Ancient Relic From Royal ...","","","3.5 e-mails/week","Linked to green sites","1 pop-up","More info...","",'green','Stolen Mayan Altar Recovered , Looters Stole Ancient Relic From Royal ...',1.0)" src="chrome://safe/content/green.gif" style="font-size: medium; height: 1em; position: absolute; z-index: 999;" border="0" hspace="5">The rescue of the 600-pound artifact gives researchers vital ... altar, said in a statement that "Taj Chan Ahk was the greatest in Cancuen's long ...www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/10/30/
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Stolen Mayan Altar Recovered
Looters Stole Ancient Relic From Royal Ball Court In Cancuen
WASHINGTON, Oct. 30, 2003
(AP) An elaborately carved Mayan altar, more than 1,200 years old, was recovered after archaeologists turned detective and joined Guatemalan police to rescue it from looters.
The rescue of the 600-pound artifact gives researchers vital information on the closing years of the Mayan civilization, archaeologist Arthur Demarest of Vanderbilt University said Wednesday.
The altar was erected in the year 796 as a marker at the end of the royal ball court in the Mayan city of Cancuen, site of one of the largest royal palaces ever found. The altar from the other end of the court was found in 1915 and is in Guatemala's National Museum of Archaeology.
Demarest said looters found the altar, which is much more detailed than the other, after a rainstorm washed away dirt that covered it. They took it away and offered to sell it to collectors.
Demarest announced its recovery at a teleconference arranged by the National Geographic Society, which sponsors his research.
Demarest, who has worked with the local Maya for more than 20 years, said the elders of a village told him about the theft and he called the national police. After months of effort, the altar was found and the looters were arrested, he said.
It will probably be taken to the national museum, Demarest said, adding that copies of both altars will be made for display at the archaeological site to help the local economy by building up tourism.
"The importance of the altar is scientific and archaeological, and it happens also to be a masterpiece of Maya art," Demarest said. "It really talks about the end, the final days of this kingdom, and its greatest king, its last great king."
He said much is being learned as the text on the altar is deciphered, including that the last king of the city is buried nearby. Archaeologists will be looking for that burial site this year, he said.
A carving on the altar shows king Taj Chan Ahk Ah Kalomte playing ball with another king.
For the Maya, playing a game on ball courts was a way to finalize a treaty, "like North American Indians smoking a peace pipe or, in modern times, having a photo op to sign a treaty," Demarest explained.
At the time this altar was made, other Maya kingdoms were collapsing but this kingdom was thriving and appears to have taken over a large city nearby, Demarest said.
Federico Fahsen, who interprets the writing on the altar, said in a statement that "Taj Chan Ahk was the greatest in Cancuen's long dynasty of rulers, and his titles on the altar show his aspirations to take control of the whole region during these final decades of classic Maya civilization."
"His strategies allowed him to stay in power and even expand his authority at a time, about A.D. 800, when most of the other Maya kingdoms of the west were collapsing," Fahsen said.
Ancient Maya Masterpieces and Ball Court Discovered in Guatemala","","","< class="'sastyle_link_moreinfo'" style="'white-space:nowrap;color:#012D6F;padding-right:0.3em;font-weight:normal'" href="'http://www.siteadvisor.com/sites/culturekiosque.com?ref=" client_ver="FF_26.5_6176&locale=" premium="false&aff_id=" target="_blank">More info...","",'green','Ancient Maya Masterpieces and Ball Court Discovered in Guatemala',1.0)" src="chrome://safe/content/green.gif" style="font-size: medium; height: 1em; position: absolute; z-index: 999;" border="0" hspace="5">Archeologists discover ancient Mayan monuments covered with texts from the ... by Taj Chan Ahk, one of the last great Maya rulers, so the artifacts discovered ...www.culturekiosque.com/art/news/
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Archaeologists Discover Ancient Maya Masterpieces
While Excavating a Sacred Ball Court in Guatemala
GUATEMALA CITY, GUATEMALA, 5 May 2004—Important new stone monuments covered with historical texts dating from a period just before the collapse of the classic Maya civilization have been unearthed by archaeologists from Vanderbilt University and the Guatemalan Ministry of Culture who are excavating a thousand-year-old ball court with support from the National Geographic Society.
The discoveries were announced by Guatemala's Minister of Culture, Manuel Salazar Tezahuic, after a visit to the Cancuén Archaeological Project on 16 April. The minister, himself a Kaqchikel Maya, and U.S. Ambassador John Hamilton assisted the archaeologists in the excavation of a 500-pound altar stone.
The project, which is headed by Vanderbilt Ingram Professor Arthur A. Demarest, is excavating one of the largest and most elaborate Maya royal palaces yet discovered. The palace at Cancuén was constructed between A.D. 765 and 790 by Taj Chan Ahk, one of the last great Maya rulers, so the artifacts discovered at the site are providing valuable new information about the critical events that transpired in the last 30 years of the life of this ancient civilization
The new altar stone, which was unearthed by team member Paola Torres, is the third taken from the Cancuén ball court. The first altar stone from Cancuén was removed from the site in 1905 and is on display in Guatemala's National Museum of Archaeology, where it has long been considered one of that museum's greatest treasures.
The second altar stone was stolen unnoticed from the site in 2001 by a group of local gangsters who sold it to black marketers. Its remarkable recovery by Demarest and a team of undercover agents of the S.I.C. (Guatemala's F.B.I.) last fall made headlines around the world. The archaeologists have only recently discovered its original position in the ball court site.
All three altars portray the great king Taj playing against visiting rulers. The third monument has been moved to the National Museum of Archaeology in Guatemala City, where it is being cleaned and restored.
The minister also announced the discovery of a perfectly preserved 100-pound stone panel from the ball court. It is covered with beautiful images and hieroglyphics that portray ceremonies of the Maya kings. The panel, uncovered last week by Guatemalan archaeologist Antonieta Chajas, "is one of the greatest masterpieces of Maya art ever discovered in Guatemala," according to project epigrapher and hieroglyphic expert Federico Fahsen. "The images of the rulers and the historical text are deeply and finely carved in high relief and miraculously preserved."
Cancuén was strategically located at the head of navigation of the Pasión River, the principal highway of the Classic Maya world. From this capital, the kings of Cancuén controlled the trade between the volcanic southern highlands of Central America and the Petén jungle to the north, where the Maya city-states flourished between 500 B.C. and A.D. 850. The royal ball court, located near the city's river port entrance, was a ceremonial setting for ball games between the kings of the Cancuén dynasty and the rulers of other city-states.
Many of the cities in the Petén rain forest lie along the Pasión River route, and their kings needed the exotic goods from Cancuén for the headdresses, necklaces, pendants, and scepters that were the sacred symbols of their royal power and the central elements of the costumes for the lavish ceremonies they staged.
The newly discovered panel shows Taj Chan Ahk presiding over a ceremony in the royal plaza of his second capital seat, the city of Machaquila, 40 kilometers to the north. It depicts the king seated on a divine earth symbol and throne, installing into office a subordinate king and another official. The inscriptions date this event at the very end of the eight century A.D. According to Demarest, the panel confirms Fahsen's interpretation of the original altar stones that portray Taj Chan Ahk as a powerful king who dominated the Pasión River valley.
"At a time when most of the other great city-states of the Maya world were in decline or collapsing, Taj Chan Ahk expanded his kingdom through alliances, royal marriages, and clever politics," said Demarest. "His palace at Cancuen is one of the largest and most splendid in the Maya world, and he used it and his ball court to awe and entertain visiting kings and nobles
"In this particular ball court, the games and the monuments that portray them were really 'photo opportunities' celebrating the creation of alliances between the holy lord of Cancuén and vassal kings and nobles. The kings are portrayed in full royal regalia, with high headdresses, necklaces, and elaborate costumes - so it's pretty clear that these were not normal versions of the game but staged ceremonial and political events."
The Maya ball game could often be a religious or political event, rather than "sport" in the Western sense. The game was similar to soccer, but players could only use their hips, knees, and elbows, not their feet or hands, according to most interpretations based on Conquest-period descriptions of the game. "Taj Chan Ahk used his ball court and his royal palace to legitimize his sacred power and facilitate his Machiavellian diplomacy," Demarest said.
The sprawling palace at Cancuén is being excavated by a Vanderbilt and National Geographic team, led by project co-directors Tomas Barrientos and Michael Callaghan. The palace has more than 200 masonry rooms and 11 plazas, according to Barrientos, and its high walls were covered with elaborate, larger-than-life stucco figures portraying deities and deified kings of the dynasty. Restoration expert Rudy Larios is carefully consolidating and preserving hundreds of these striking sculptures. Meanwhile, Callaghan and his team are excavating tunnels into an earlier royal palace, buried beneath that of Taj Chan Ahk.
In addition to showcasing the archaeological work, the purpose of the visit by the minister and ambassador was to highlight the success of the Cancuén Regional Development Project sponsored by Counterpart International, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Vanderbilt University and National Geographic's sustainable tourism program. The project has gathered more than $6 million in international support to create programs enabling the people of some 30 Q'eqchi' Maya villages to participate in the excavations and develop community-designed guide, boat and inn services.
The Minister of Culture, in Maya ceremonies at several of the Q'eqchi' communities, announced that the "modelo Cancuén" would become the standard for ethical archaeology in Guatemala.
Mayan discoveries","","","8 red downloads","No e-mail received","Linked to green sites","More info...","",'red','Mayan discoveries',1.0)" src="chrome://safe/content/red.gif" style="font-size: medium; height: 1em; position: absolute; z-index: 999;" border="0" hspace="5">... to the royal palace filled with thousands of human bones and precious artifacts. ... images and hieroglyphics - depicts Taj Chan Ahk, the mighty 8th-century king ...pages.intnet.mu/cueboy/discovery/maya/
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- Latest Mayan discoveries
(Live Science - January 5, 2006)
Newly discovered hieroglyphs show that the Maya were writing at a complex level 150 years earlier than previously thought. The glyphs, which date to about 250 B.C., were found on preserved painted walls and plaster fragments in the pyramidal structure known as Las Pinturas, in San Bartolo, Guatemala. Las Pinturas also yielded the previously oldest samples of Mayan writing, dating back to 100 B.C.
Writing emerged in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and India as far back as 3,000 B.C. Yet the first full-blown text - a series of signs that are clearly telling a story- does not show up in the New World until about 400 to 300 B.C. They were left by the Zapotecs in the Oaxaca Valley south of central Mexico. Most of the early Maya writing comes from between A.D. 150 and 250.
This vertical column of ancient Mayan glyphs was painted on stone found in a Guatemalan pyramid complex dating back to between 200 B.C. and 300 B.C.
Because Zapotec writing emerged so much earlier, researchers have long believed that the Maya were influenced by it. The earliest single Mayan glyph - which could have stood for a person's name or might have been a sign on a calendar - dates to about 600 B.C. But it isn't considered writing. These new glyphs are much more complex, project leader William Saturno of the University of New Hampshire said.
"This is a full-blown and fully developed script," Saturno told LiveScience. "Which is not to say that the Maya invented writing and not the Zapotec, but it does lead us to question the origins and the complexities of these origins." One thing seems certain: The Mayan style was not influenced by the Zapotecs.
"It's not similar at all to Zapotec," Saturno said. "You have these roughly contemporary examples that are completely different, which implies a more complex history than simple derivation."
Despite being clearly developed written text, the newfound work cannot yet be read by scientists.
"Between 200 and 300 A.D. is when we become literate in Maya writing," Saturno said. "It's definitely writing, though, no question about that. Some of these signs are consistent with Maya writing for the next 1,000 years."
For example, glyph 7 is an early version of "AJAW," a symbol ubiquitously used with kings' names that means "lord, noble or ruler." Glyph 2 has vague pictorial qualities and may suggest a hand holding a brush or a sharp knifelike object. A common problem with dating Mayan writing is that it is often on stone, which scientists can't accurately date using radiocarbon dating. Instead, they must use stylistic changes to date materials.
However, Saturno and his team found these writings in a pyramid made in part with wood, which is carbon-based and can be dated with radiocarbon techniques.
"The way the Maya built pyramids is by building one layer on top of another," Saturno said. "We have [the building where the writing was found] sandwiched between two other buildings. We can get a date from the building itself, but also a range from the other two."
Taken together, these samples imply that the text was painted between 300 and 200 B.C. But it's likely that Mayan writing goes back a lot further, Saturno said.
"Given the grace, form, and consistent line-width of these symbols, it's not likely someone just picked up a brush and said 'I'm going to invent writing today,'" Saturno said. "This complexity shows it had been around for a while."
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(December 15, 2005)
Room attached to pyramid contains colorful art; royal burial site found
WASHINGTON - Archaeologist William Saturno said Tuesday he was awe-struck when he uncovered a Maya mural not seen for nearly two millennia. Discovered at the San Bartolo site in Guatemala, the mural covers the west wall of a room attached to a pyramid, Saturno said at a briefing.
In brilliant color, the mural tells the Maya story of creation, he said. It was painted around the year 100 B.C., but later covered when the room was filled in.
A detail from a sacred Maya mural at San Bartolo - the earliest known Maya painting, depicting the birth of the cosmos and the divine right of a king - shows the son of the corn god, patron of kings, floating with a pair of birds tied to his woven hunting basket, letting blood and offering a sacrificed turkey before one of five cosmic trees.
It could have been painted yesterday," Saturno said in a briefing organized by the National Geographic Society, which supported his work and will detail the finding in the January issue of its magazine. National Geographic called it the oldest preserved Maya mural.
"Before the excavation of the vividly painted mural, there was scant evidence of the existence of early Maya kings or of their use of elaborate art and writing to establish their right to rule," National Geographic said.
Saturno, of the University of New Hampshire, first reported discovery of the site in 2002 when he stopped to rest in the jungle, taking shelter in an old trench that turned out to be part of the ancient room.
Since then the west and north walls have been uncovered. The room's other walls had been demolished and used for fill, he said. The west wall was the centerpiece of the room, Saturno said. The mural includes four deities, which are variations of the same figure, the son of the corn god.
Guatemalan archaeologist Mónica Pellecer Alecio takes a green stone figurine from the oldest-known Maya royal tomb, dating from about 150 B.C., found at San Bartolo, an ancient Maya ceremonial site in Guatemala. Assisting her is San Bartolo project director William Saturno.
As Saturno explained it: The first deity stands in the water and offers a fish, establishing the watery underworld. The second stands on the ground and sacrifices a deer, establishing the land. The third floats in the air, offering a turkey, establishing the sky. The fourth stands in a field of flowers, the food of gods, establishing paradise.
Another section shows the corn god crowning himself king upon a wooden scaffold, and the final section shows a historic coronation of a Maya king. Some of the writing can be understood, Saturno said, but much of it is so old it is hard to decipher.
Nearby, archaeologists led by Guatemalan Monica Pellecer Alecio found the oldest-known Maya royal burial, from around 150 B.C. Excavating beneath a small pyramid, that team found a burial complex that included ceramic vessels and the bones of a man, with a jade plaque - the symbol of Maya royalty - on his chest.
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(National Geographic News - December 8, 2005)
The discovery was made earlier this year in the jungles of northern Guatemala at a site called Naachtun, some 55 miles (90 kilometers) north of the Maya city of Tikal.
The portrait, which is carved into a stone monument known as a stela, shows a woman's face with her hands upheld. It dates back to the fourth century A.D., suggesting that women held powerful positions early in Maya society either as queens or as deities.
"The individual depicted must have been exceptionally important to the people of Naachtun," said Kathryn Reese-Taylor, director of the University of Calgary team that made the discovery.
Who Was She?
Naachtun was founded between B.C. 50 and A.D. 150, but its period of greatest growth appears to have been between A.D. 150 and A.D. 400, the initial stages of what archaeologists call the Classic Maya period.
Martin Rangel, a member of the research team, discovered the stela protruding from a looter's trench in 2004, but the archaeologists decided to rebury it and properly excavate it this year.
Other images of queens have been found on stelae dating back to the early sixth century A.D. But this monument represents the earliest such monument.
The hieroglyph engraved over her head reads Ix Tzutz Nik, or "Lady Completion Flower," a name that shows up in several other artifacts from this period
"[It] is a wonderful and intriguing discovery," said David Freidel, a Maya expert at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.
The main figure is a disembodied head with two hands on each side holding the symbols known as "7 Black K'an" and "9 Ajaw," denoting supernatural locations. The head is in profile and looks to the viewer's left.
The woman wears an elaborate headdress with a reptilian creature as its main element and waterfowl coming off the top. It also features feathers and a sacrificial dish.
"I think this is a reference to a historical queen of Tikal and princess of Rio Azul, both very important kingdoms in the Early Classic period of the Maya lowlands," Freidel said.
But the woman pictured could have been a mythical figure, some archaeologists say. "Gods also wore their names in their headdresses in Maya art," Calgary's Reese-Taylor said. "It is equally plausible that this monument names not a historical figure but rather a female deity."
Or Ix Tzutz Nik could have been both a historical figure and a deity. The lines between the human and the divine were blurred in ancient Maya culture. Many monuments depict historical rulers as gods.
The stela measures two meters (about six feet) high and one meter (about three feet) wide. Its inscriptions have been seriously damaged, likely as a result of an attack against the city. Sometime between A.D. 550 and 650, however, the Maya reclaimed the monument and reburied it with great ceremony near the city's temples.
Researchers believe the burial was meant to honor the individual whose image was carved on the monument. Reburials are usually reserved for monuments that depict founders or important kings. An infant's bones were also found at the site.
"We always knew that royal women were important in Classic Maya society, but in Early Classic times they seemed to be more in the background," said Peter Mathews of La Trobe University in Australia, a member of the research team.
"Assuming our interpretation is correct, Lady Tzutz Nik must have been quite formidable," he said.
The Maya: Multimedia Specialists
The carving's focus on the head and the headdress alone is unusual, the archaeologists say. Most stelae images focus on entire human figures. The carving is also done in a unique form that borrows from many independent art styles.
"It really comes across as a sort of hybrid form that invokes a wide array of imagery," said Julia Guernsey, a professor of pre-Columbian art history at the University of Texas at Austin who studied the portrait.
Guernsey believes the stela could have formed a stylistic "bridge" between different types of monuments.
"This stylistic fluidity raises fascinating questions about the range of inspiration that artists of this period drew upon, the possibility that artists truly were multimedia specialists who applied their talents to many different types of monuments," she said.
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(Reuters - December 6, 2005)
Women may have played a more important part in Mayan culture and much earlier than archaeologists once thought, a new find suggests.
Researchers working in Guatemala have unearthed a monument with the earliest-known depiction of a woman of authority in ancient Mayan culture, says the Canadian leader of the international research team.
The 2 metre high limestone monument, called a stela, has a portrait of a female who could be either a ruler or a mythical goddess, says Associate Professor Kathryn Reese-Taylor, a University of Calgary archaeologist.
This 2 metre high limestone monument or stela depicts a powerful woman in Mayan society, perhaps an early politician or civic leader (Image: University of Calgary)
The stela may date from the late 4th century AD, making it as much as 200 years older than previously discovered monuments depicting powerful Mayan women, says Reese-Taylor, whose team includes Professor Peter Mathews, from La Trobe University in Australia.
"We have images of queens, who ruled singly and with their husbands and sons, depicted on stelae later in Maya history beginning in the early 6th century AD. But this stela is completely unique in style and likely dates to the 4th century AD," Reese-Taylor says.
"It's unique in that it shows a woman in a really early period in Maya history, a period when the city states were being founded and dynasties were being instituted."
Close to Tikal
Archaeologists found the stela, which normally describe events in the lives of kings, at the site of Naachtun, a city 90 kilometres north of the more famous Mayan city of Tikal. It was buried inside an ancient building, and some of the inscriptions had been hacked off, suggesting it had been a casualty in an invasion of the city, possibly by forces from Tikal at the end of the 5th century, she says.
"This was not unusual ... that they hack off or break stela. But one thing that was left on this stela was the name of the individual, and that is the name of a woman," Reese-Taylor says.
The name translates into Lady Partition Lord, she says. An infant was buried with the stela, the researchers say. Researchers do not suspect Mayan culture was matriarchal, but the newly unearthed stela shows that women played important roles in establishing the society, she says.
Next, the team will return to the site to make moulds of the monument and begin studying the imagery that accompanies the portrait, which includes a bird deity with serpentine wings.
"There's a lot of rich iconography that we need to interpret and that will give us clues of the position that she held, probably the political position of a founder of a dynasty. That would be my best guess right now," Reese-Taylor says.
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(National Geographic News - November 17, 2005)
Archaeologists have discovered what they believe was the gruesome scene of a royal massacre in the ancient city of Cancuén, once one of the richest cities in the Maya empire.
The bones of 31 executed and dismembered Maya nobles were found in a sacred reservoir at the entrance to the royal palace in Cancuén in the Petén rain forest of Guatemala.
Researchers also found a shallow grave nearby containing the skeletons of two people they believe were the king and queen. The bones of more than a dozen executed upper-class Maya were found at a third burial site north of the royal palace.
The apparent executions-along with the discovery of unfinished defensive walls and houses-suggest that the city was wiped out by an invading force around A.D. 800, a critical moment at the beginning of the mysterious collapse of the great Maya empire.
The remains of the last Cancuén king, known as Kan Maax, were discovered near a major massacre site in the ruins of the ancient Maya city in Guatemala.
Arthur Demarest, who led the research team that made the discovery, has studied the collapse of the Maya civilization for 20 years. He says the massacre site is "by far the most important thing" he has ever found.
"It's like a photograph of a single, very critical moment in time," Demarest, an anthropology professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, said by phone from Guatemala.
The Cancuén excavation was partly funded by the National Geographic Society. The discovery is the subject of Explorer: Last Days of the Maya, which airs on the National Geographic Channel on Sunday, November 27 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.
The wealthy Cancuén kingdom was strategically located at the start of the Pasión River, the greatest trade route of the ancient Maya world. Its royal palace covered an area equal to more than five football fields.
Demarest began exploring the site in 1996 and has been excavating there since 1999. In May this year the researchers were studying the area's water system when they made their gruesome discovery: a 90-square-yard (75-square-meter) reservoir near the entrance to the royal palace filled with thousands of human bones and precious artifacts. Because of the scale of the discovery, the archaeology team enlisted the help of the Forensic Anthropological Foundation of Guatemala.
The scientists found bones of 31 bodies in the grave. Forensic analysis determined that victims had been killed with spears and axes. Many of the bodies had been dismembered. The bones were dated to A.D. 800.
"The deposit was sealed in wet mud, and the preservation is extraordinary," Demarest said. "These are the best-looking bones I have ever seen. We could tell that these were not war wounds but that the people had been executed."
Precious jewelry found in the grave-including jades, jaguar fang necklaces, and coast shells-indicates that the victims were nobles, possibly from the royal palace. In a shallow grave 80 yards (73 meters) away, the researchers made another spectacular discovery: two people who appear to be the king and queen of Cancuén buried in full regalia.
Demarest says a necklace found on the king has an inscription that says in part, "Kan Maax. Holy Lord of Cancuén."
In the years preceding the massacre, warfare had spread across the western region of the ancient Maya world. The unrest seems to have reached Cancuén in A.D. 800. Unfinished construction around the city, including a system of hastily built stone and wooden palisade walls, suggests that the residents may have known that they were going to come under attack.
"The defense obviously failed," Demarest said. While commoners may have run away or been taken captive, nobles-men, women, and children-were lined up and executed. The bodies were then deposited with some ceremony in the sacred cistern at the palace entrance, the researchers speculate. There is no evidence that the city was conquered. Instead the assailants seem to have abandoned it after their attack.
"The massacre is an exceptionally dramatic example of the violence marking the end of royal court life and divine kingship in classic Maya civilzation," said David Freidel, a Maya expert at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.
At least one Maya expert declined to comment on the discovery, citing that the findings had not yet been published in an academic journal and had not been peer reviewed. Experts have fiercely debated the cause of the quick demise of Maya society, which once ranged from Mexico's Yucatán peninsula to Honduras. Some of the theories about the collapse include such factors as overpopulation, drought, political conflict, and loss of the royal court.
While the massacre discovery seems to suggest that warfare played an important role, Demarest believes there is no one "silver bullet" to explain the decline of the Maya culture.
"What we are seeing [with massacres like these] is the beginning of the end," he said. "That doesn't mean they caused the collapse. We're moving away from this idea that it had to be this one dramatic reason for the collapse."
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(National Geographic - May 5, 2004)
At the Mayan city of Cival, Guatemalan archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli was walking in a tunnel left by looters when, by sheer chance, he made a major discovery: a massive face mask of a sun god carved on the wall of the main temple pyramid.
The mask, 5 meters (16.5 feet) wide and 3 meters (10 feet) tall-was stunning. But what made it truly remarkable was its age, dating back to around 200 to 150 B.C., a millennium before what is considered the height of Maya civilization. The early years of Maya civilization, the so-called pre-classic period-from 2,000 B.C. to A.D. 250-has often been dismissed as primitive, an era lost in myth before the Maya's true rise to greatness.
Archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli is dwarfed by the enormous stucco face of a Maya deity, found at the Preclassic Maya site of Cival in Guatemala. Estrada-Belli and his team uncovered the second half of the mask in April 2004. His work is supported by National Geographic.
But new discoveries, like the mask Estrada-Belli found, reveal a society that flourished in the deep jungles of Guatemala long before the time of Jesus Christ. Its features-kings, complex iconography, elaborate palaces, and rituals-may have been just as dazzling as those of the classic Maya.
"We're pushing the beginning of Maya civilization far back into the pre-classic period," said Estrada-Belli, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, whose work is funded by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. "Everything is looking much more ancient," he said.
The new discoveries are described in a National Geographic TV special, Dawn of the Maya, which airs Wednesday, May 12, at 8 p.m. ET on PBS. Spanning more than two millennia, the world of the Maya evokes images of ancient pyramids soaring over the jungle, giant carved stones covered with hieroglyphics, and a sudden mysterious demise.
With awe-inspiring cities like Tikal and Chichén Itzá, the Classic Maya period, from A.D. 250 to 900, rivaled Egypt and Rome in its splendor and intellectual achievement. Until now, scant attention had been focused on the pre-classic period. However, the new research suggests this is when the elaborate Mayan rituals and ceremonial temples arose, and when their calendar, writing, and kingship emerged.
The sculpture found by Estrada-Belli in Cival has a complex iconography. It has an anthropomorphic face. Its nose and forehead are human, but two pinnacles on top of its eyebrow identifies the deity as a sun god.
"It's almost as if someone made this yesterday," Estrada-Belli says in the film. "It's incredible to imagine that we're touching this and we're looking at this just as people did over 2,000 years ago."
Only a week ago, Estrada-Belli found a second mask. He believes two pairs of the masks once flanked the stairway of the temple, which rises 33 meters (108 feet) above a central plaza. It may have provided the backdrop for elaborate rituals in which the king impersonated the gods of creation.
The pre-classic complex is like a sundial. "It had an important astronomical function," Estrada-Belli said. "It's no coincidence that the central axis of the main building and the plaza is oriented to sunrise at the equinox."
In June 2002 his team found an inscribed stone slab, known as a stela, dating to 300 B.C., inside the complex. It may be the earliest such carving ever found in the Maya lowlands.
In the plaza, the team also found a cross-shaped depression containing five smashed jars, an offering for water. Under the center jar were 120 pieces of jade, most of them polished. There were also five jade axes with their blades pointing upward, most likely part of a ritual associated with the Maya agricultural cycle and the maize god.
"We believe these offerings reflect the beginning of formal dynasties and the beginning of Maya state society, much earlier than anyone previously thought," Estrada-Belli said.
Using satellite technology, he has determined that Cival was twice as big as initially believed, and may have housed at least 10,000 people. It had an institution of kingship, and may have been the capital of a pre-classic kingdom or state.
"The size of Cival shows that the pre-classic period was an era of fully developed civilization, and it was not dominated by a single, major city, but rather a network of cities," Estrada-Belli said. "This changes our idea of the pre-classic period."
Myth of Creation
At the ancient city of San Bartolo, another team of archaeologists has found a mural over 2,000 years old that depicts in great detail the Maya myth of creation.
"In terms of pre-classic Maya, this is basically a Sistine Chapel," said Karl Taube, a Maya iconography expert at the University of California at Riverside.
The Maya version of creation centers around the maize god, who descended to the underworld where the lords of death killed him. Years later, his sons defeated the lords of death and resurrected the maize god. His return to the surface of the Earth marks the first day of the Maya world.
The early mural, depicting a version of these events, suggests that the Maya myth of creation originated in the pre-classic era. Meanwhile, Richard Hansen, another National Geographic Society grantee and archaeologist at the University of California in Los Angeles, is excavating the sprawling, pre-classic city of El Mirador, which contains the massive pyramid of Danta and is estimated to have housed approximately 100,000 people.
Hansen aims to find the kings from the dawn of Maya time. He is focusing on a small pyramid at El Mirador, which bears a magnificent engraving of a large jaguar paw. Hansen thinks it could be the burial place of the so-called "Jaguar King," one of 19 early Maya kings previously unknown to archaeologists.
"The person who constructed this building was not a simple chief living in a grass hut," Hansen said. "This was a king on the order of Ramses and Cheops."
By A.D. 250, the Maya pre-classic era came to an end. Hansen suspects that in constructing their great buildings, the early Maya exhausted the environment on which their farming depended, contributing to their downfall.
Estrada-Belli has found remnants of a defensive wall around Cival, indicating that the city had been under threat. He believes that the pre-classic cities belonged to strategic geopolitical alliances vying for power, just like the classic Maya cities of Tikal and Calakmul did centuries later.
Estrada-Belli said: "Cival was probably abandoned after a violent attack, probably by a larger power such as Tikal."
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(National Geographic - April 2004)
Archaeologists working deep in Guatemala's rain forest under the protection of armed guards say they have unearthed one of the greatest Maya art masterpieces ever found. The artifact - a 100-pound (45-kilogram) stone panel carved with images and hieroglyphics - depicts Taj Chan Ahk, the mighty 8th-century king of the ancient Maya city-state of Cancuén - excavation of royal mayan palace.
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(BBC - May 2003)
Archaeologists discover a previously unknown ancient Pre-Mayan civilisation in Central America that developed around 2,700 years ago and lasted for a thousand years.
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(New Scientist - 19:00 March 13, 2003)
The Mayan civilisation of Central America collapsed following a series of intense droughts, suggests the most detailed climatic study to date.
The sophisticated society of the Maya centred on large cities on the Yucatán peninsula, now part of Mexico. Their population peaked at 15 million in the 8th century, but the civilisation largely collapsed during the 9th century for reasons that have remained unclear to this day.
Now, researchers studying sediment cores drilled from the Cariaco Basin, off northern Venezuela, have identified three periods of intense drought that occurred at 810, 860 and 910AD. These dates correspond to the three phases of Mayan collapse, the scientists say.
Furthermore, the entire 9th century suffered below average rainfall, "so it was a dry period with three intense droughts", says Gerald Haug, from ETH in Zurich, Switzerland, who led the research. "The climate change must have been what pushed the Mayan society over the edge."
Experts on the Maya have greeted the new data cautiously. "Any explanation for decline is a complex one: over-population, environmental problems and economic factors all made them vulnerable," says Jeremy Sabloff, director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. "But there is growing evidence that climate played a role. Perhaps it was the straw that broke the camel's back."
Wet and dry
Haug and his colleagues identified the bands in the sediment cores that correspond to the annual wet and dry seasons. They then analysed the concentration of titanium in the sediment in great detail, taking measurements at intervals of 50 micrometres.
Titanium is an indicator of rainfall, explains Haug, because higher precipitation washes more of the metal from the land into the ocean floor sediments. The difference in concentration between the wet and dry season each year is as much as 30 per cent.
"We looked in detail at the period corresponding to 9thand 10thcenturies - taking 6000 measurements per 30 centimetres of sediment - and found three extreme minima, as well as a low background level of that lasted about 100 years," Haug told New Scientist.
Latest and greatest
But archaeologist Norman Hammond, at Boston University, is unconvinced that drought caused the downfall of the Maya. Referring to the northern Yucatán city of Chichén Itzá, he asks: "Why did the latest and greatest florescence of the Mayan series occur in the area that we know to be the driest?"
The Maya certainly had hydraulic expertise, Jeremy Sabloff points out, building canals, viaducts and reservoirs. Moreover, they had experienced and survived droughts before.
"The Maya thrived for 1500 years before these droughts, so it's clearly not climate alone that brought down the southern cities of the Yucatán peninsula," he says.
Journal reference: Science (vol 299, p 1731)
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(October 10, 2002 - Palenque)
Palenque site director Juan Antonio Ferrer announced a new discovery from just south of the Cross Group. A stone tablet with an elaborate scene and numerous hieroglyphs carved in relief was found on the side of a low platform in Temple XXI. It now joins the canon of historically vital and stunningly beautiful monuments from this Classic Maya site in Chiapas, Mexico. K'inich Ahkal Mo' Nahb' III himself is the left-side figure in the sculptured relief. A caption for the central figure, seated on a jaguar-skin covered throne, states that he is impersonating a deity (or deified ancestor) whose name ends in U "K'ix" Chan. This name appears in Palenque's royal genealogy with a supposed time of rulership dating to the Olmec era (he is said to have been born in 993 BC).
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(New Scientist - 14:42 September 19, 2002)
Translations of hieroglyphs on the staircase of a pyramid in Guatemala reveal details of a superpower struggle between two city-states at the peak of the Mayan civilisation.
The 1300-year old hieroglyphs support theories that the Mayan world was riven by battles between two major powers, rather than smaller-scale clashes between multiple rival dynasties.
"It's rare that you find a new monument and it fills in such a large blank spot about the history of a region," says Arthur Demarest, an anthropologist at Vanderbilt University, Tennessee, who has led research at Dos Pilas in northern Guatemala, where the staircase was found.
"In today's terms, Dos Pilas was the Somalia or Vietnam of the Maya world, used in a war that was actually between two superpowers," he told the magazine of the National Geographic Society, which part-funded the new research.
The staircase was revealed in October 2001, when Hurricane Iris uprooted a tree at the base of temple ruins at Dos Pilas. Demarest's colleague Federico Fahsen has just completed translations of the text.
Pools of blood
The staircase describes 60 eventful years in the life of Balaj Chan K'awiil, who in 635AD became ruler of Dos Pilas, aged four. At that time, the text recounts, K'awiil's older brother was one of two powerful kings at war with one another.
His brother, the king of Tikal in northern Guatemala, was battling the ruler of Calakmul, 97 kilometres further north in what is now Mexico. Dos Pilas is 113 kilometres northeast of Tikal.
While K'awiil was in his twenties, Calakmul forces invaded and conquered Dos Pilas. K'awiil switched his allegiance to Calakmul and waged war against his brother for a decade, until Tikal was sacked. His brother and other members of the nobility were taken to Dos Pilas to be executed.
The west section of the steps describes the killings, says Fahsen: "It says: 'Blood was pooled and the skulls of the people of the central place of Tikal were piled up.' The final glyphs describe the king of Dos Pilas 'doing a victory dance'."
Demarest thinks the Mayan civilisation was probably on the verge of forming a single empire about the time of the battles described on the staircase. But instead, the war between the two powers continued. "And then the Maya world broke up into regional powers, setting the stage for a period of intensive, petty warfare that finally led to the collapse of the Maya," he says.
However, the causes of the collapse of the civilisation by 900AD remain the subject of hot debate. David Stuart of Harvard University thinks it is still possible that a cataclysmic environmental event triggered its final demise.
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(May 2002 - San Francisco Gate)
For half a century, scholars have searched in vain for the source of the jade that the early civilizations of the Americas prized above all else and fashioned into precious objects of worship, trade and adornment. The searchers found some clues to the source of jadeite, as the precious rock is known, for the Olmecs and Mayas. But no lost mines came to light. Now, scientists exploring the wilds of Guatemala say they have found the mother lode -- a mountainous region roughly the size of Rhode Island strewn with huge jade boulders, other rocky treasures and signs of ancient mining. It was discovered after a hurricane tore through the landscape and exposed the veins of jade, some of which turned up in stores, arousing the curiosity of scientists.
The find includes large outcroppings of blue jade, the gemstone of the Olmecs, the mysterious people who created the first complex culture in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, the region that encompasses much of Mexico and Central America. It also includes an ancient mile-high road of stone that runs for miles through the densely forested region. The deposits rival the world's leading source of mined jade today, in Burma, the experts say. The implications for history, archaeology and anthropology are just starting to emerge. For one thing, the scientists say, the find suggests that the Olmecs, who flourished on the southern Gulf Coast of Mexico, exerted wide influence in the Guatemalan highlands as well. All told, they add, the Guatemalan lode was worked for millenniums, compared with centuries for the Burmese one. In part, the discovery is a result of the devastating storm that hit Central America in 1998, killing thousands of people and touching off floods and landslides that exposed old veins and washed jade into river beds. Local prospectors picked up the precious scraps, which found their way into Guatemalan jewelry shops and, eventually, the hands of astonished scientists.
Led by Seitz and local jade hunters, a team of scientists from the American Museum of Natural History, Rice University and UC Riverside scoured the forested ravines of the Guatemalan highlands for more than two years. In the end the scientists made a series of discoveries culminating in bus-size boulders of Olmec blue jade. The exact locations of the outcroppings are not being given, to protect them. Leading archaeologists in Guatemala, though not directly involved, are applauding the finds. Hector Escobedo of the Universidad del Valle called the jade discovery "one of the most significant" in decades of probing the Mayan past and said the new deposits probably accounted for "all of the sources for Mesoamerican jades."
He added that given Guatemala's lack of financial resources, "it is crucial to organize a cooperative effort with international scholars and institutions in order to protect and study the new jewel of our cultural heritage."
Early peoples of the Americas considered jade more valuable than gold and silver. The Olmecs, the great sculptors of the pre-Columbian era, carved jades into delicate human forms and scary masks. Maya kings and other royalty often went to their graves with jade suits, rings and necklaces. The living had their teeth inlaid with the colored gems.
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The ancient Maya may have dug caves with spiritual abandon. For more than 100 years, archaeologists have hacked through jungles in Mexico and Central America in a quest to uncover pyramids, temples, and other majestic ruins of Maya civilization. James E. Brady of California State University, Los Angeles appreciates the backbreaking work that goes into finding such monumental structures, but he has his sights set lower. As he's probed the ancient Maya's sacred landscape, he's come to realize that this group's belief system invested immense supernatural power in caves and the mountains that surround them.
Brady heads up a growing band of researchers who are piecing together this subterranean, spiritual perspective. In their view, a supernatural terrain permeated pre-Columbian religious life from central Mexico through much of Central America and still inspires faith in many native groups.
Caves occupy the focal point of this archaeological project. In initial research, Brady discovered that some of the largest Maya outposts of the Classic period, which lasted from A.D. 200 to A.D. 900, were strategically oriented on and around natural and humanmade caves. As entryways through sacred, living earth into an underworld of gods, mythical creatures, and ancestors, caves served as spiritual landmarks. In these dim chambers, rulers conducted ceremonies vital to maintaining their power.
New discoveries from before and during the Classic period indicate that caves had considerable spiritual standing in rural as well as urban areas and among common folk as well as rulers. In some locales, caves also show signs of having been visited regularly by religious pilgrims. For example, clues point to cave visits by Maya scribes, the artisans who recorded the royals' exploits. Cave supply responded to the intense spiritual demands, Brady says. Rather than rely on a limited supply of natural caves, the Maya created new caves in huge numbers. "Artificial caves were constructed according to fairly regular plans and should be considered a formal architectural type of the ancient Maya, just like their ball courts and pyramids," Brady contends. "I suspect there are thousands of these artificial caves that have yet to be discovered."
Artificial caves assume particular prominence in the researchers' latest fieldwork, which Brady and others described this March in Denver at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology. Maya farmers living far from the madding crowds of major cities excavated their own caves out of dirt or rock apparently to serve as the religious heart of their communities. In some areas, pits that represented caves were dug in houses for family-based rituals, according to Brady. Moreover, from about 1500 B.C. to A.D. 1400, rural Maya buried their dead in specially designated rock shelters and caves, often dug out of hills or mountains by the sweat of many brows. Among the Classic Maya and their non-Maya contemporaries in central Mexico, a tradition of cave burials may have prompted the construction of pyramids, as symbols of sacred mountains, encasing deceased royalty in cavelike tombs.
Around 1,000 years ago in central Mexico, the Chichimec people founded a town known as Acatzingo Viejo. In the center of the site, settlers excavated seven small caves out of a steep limestone slope. This cave array represented Chicomoztoc, seven mythical caverns from which Chichimec ancestors were believed to have first emerged, says Manuel Aguilar of Cal State, Los Angeles. The group of caves also put a spiritual stamp of approval on Acatzingo Viejo and affirmed the legitimacy of its new rulers, Aguilar proposes. He and his coworkers found stone altars, ceramic incense burners, and other evidence of past ritual activity in the six surviving caves at the Mexican site. Local residents told the researchers that the seventh cave had recently been destroyed to make room for a new road. The caves lie just below the remains of a ceremonial plaza that includes a small pyramid. Other central-Mexican sites pair artificial caves with pyramids, Aguilar notes. For example, there's an artificial cave beneath the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, where a separate civilization thrived at around the time of the Maya's Classic period. This pyramid contains stone drains that may have channeled rainwater into the chamber to intensify its connection to the spiritual underworld. Some archaeologists suspect that the drains simply collected water for a well. However, their impractical positioning directly under a pyramid betrays their spiritual significance, Aguilar argues.
Spanish documents from the 16th century and scientists' interviews of the area's current inhabitants reveal a longstanding regional belief that water originates in mountains and issues out of caves. Native groups in Mexico and Central America have long regarded caves with water sources as symbols of "the generative womb of the Earth" that gave birth to humanity, Aguilar says. An intricate replication of a water-bearing cave has been discovered at Muklebal Tzul, a 1,100-year-old Maya site in a mountainous region of southern Belize. In 1999, a team led by Keith M. Prufer of Southern Illinois University in Carbondale noticed a spot next to the settlement's ceremonial center where large amounts of earth had been cleared to create a flat expanse. On closer inspection, they uncovered what they regard as an artificial cave that descends beneath that area. The structure consists of a narrow, 50-foot-long diagonal tunnel leading down to an open area with a 7-gallon, plaster-lined basin for collecting water. An underground spring supplied water that fell into the basin from a small opening in the tunnel's side, creating an artificial waterfall. The small quantity of water yielded by such a major construction project argues against its use as a well, Prufer says.
"[This project] was intended to reproduce a water-bearing cave on a miniature scale, allowing the residents of the site to center their community over a feature with mythic and sacred qualities," Prufer holds.
Artificial caves had a domestic side as well, according to Brady. In the southern lowlands of Guatemala and Honduras, where natural caves are scarce, ancient Maya houses frequently contain large earthen pits known as chultuns. Separate chambers built into the sides of chultuns were big enough for a person to crawl into, and many include wall niches in which pottery and other items were placed. Although chultuns have attracted relatively little systematic research, the ancient Maya probably regarded them as household caves in which to conduct rituals, Brady asserts. Hundreds of such chultuns dot the residential landscape of major Classic-era sites such as Tikal in Guatemala.
Nearer to the gods
Contrary to traditional theories, complex Maya beliefs may have inspired poor folk in the hinterlands as much as they did the governing elite in Classic-era centers. Crucial evidence for this possibility comes from discoveries of rural Maya burials in rock shelters. These structures consist of stone walls erected around depressions in hills or mountains. In poor communities, rock shelters were used to bury the dead at the gate of mythical "creation caves," says David M. Glassman of Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos. In contrast, ancient Maya royalty were buried in tombs that symbolized caves and in some cases even contain artificial stalactites, Glassman asserts. Upon dying, Maya bigwigs thus gained direct access to the supernatural underworld that had issued their founding ancestors.
"All settlements, large and small, shared the religious ideology of the Maya elite, yet expressed and celebrated it in different ways and with different resources," Glassman contends.
In the Maya Mountains of southern Belize, he and his colleagues have excavated a rock shelter located just below the entrance to a natural cave. The shelter contains skeletal remains of more than 150 people, all lying in a flexed position facing the cave's entrance. Items placed in the graves include pottery, obsidian blades, and various types of rock. In the past few years, other researchers have found other rock-shelter cemeteries in the same region of Belize. Prufer's group discovered human skeletons in three natural rock shelters high in the Maya Mountains, not far from the ruins of Muklebal Tzul. Skeletal remnants of 13 individuals have been tallied so far. Pottery styles and radiocarbon dates indicate that these rock shelters were used as cemeteries as early as 300 B.C., several centuries before intensive settlement of the area.
Soil in each of the burial sites contains dense concentrations of shells from a freshwater snail eaten by the ancient Maya. Large numbers of these shells have also turned up at the entrances to 16 Maya caves that were used for ritual activities. Prufer says that the shells were associated with sacred concepts of water, fertility, birth, and death. Modern Maya groups continue to revere these snails. Several anthropologists have discovered offerings of snail shells recently left in niches at cave openings.
In 2001, Brady and his coworkers uncovered human graves in four of seven caves in a small, isolated, Guatemalan hill called Balam Na. The badly looted caves also yielded pottery and beads that date to times before the Classic period. When the researchers found the caves, pieces of crude stone walls lay at the entrances, indicating that these sacred sites had once been closed off. The topmost cave appears to have entombed high-ranking individuals. That arrangement reflects an attempt to protect their graves from pillaging by invading groups, says Cal State's Sergio Garza. The vulnerability of cave burials to theft may have encouraged the Classic-period tradition of placing royals in pyramid-covered tombs that symbolized caves within hills, Garza proposes.
Ancient-Maya cave activities may have taken other intriguing turns. For instance, caves on Cozumel, an island off the coast of southeast Mexico, exhibit signs of having regularly been visited by religious pilgrims, says Cal State's Shankari Petel. The focus of worship on the island was Ix Chel, the Maya goddess of the moon, childbirth, fertility, and medicine.
Accounts of 16th-century Spanish explorers described Cozumel as a destination for Maya pilgrims. However, archaeologists have shown little interest in probing for evidence of pilgrimages on the island, Petel says. They have portrayed Cozumel's caves variously as pottery dumps, rock quarries, burial sites, and places where people hid during times of social conflict. Remains of ritual activity, including incense burners, conch shells, and pottery, have been recovered in caves at two Classic-era settlements on Cozumel, according to Petel. Scattered masonry blocks in the caves were probably used to build walls near their entrances. Some of the caves contain cenotes, or openings to underground water sources, that the ancient Maya associated with Ix Chel.
Maya scribes, the artists who used a complex writing system to record the activities of the royalty, conducted their own pilgrimages to certain caves, proposes Andrea Stone, an art historian at the University of WisconsinMilwaukee. Cave paintings at Naj Tunich, a Classic-era city in Guatemala, contain numerous images of scribes, in what appear to be self-portraits. Accompanying text includes the scribes' names. Other pieces of Maya art, such as an elaborate painted vase found at Naj Tunich more than 20 years ago, contain scenes that scholars now say situate scribes among cave symbols.
Scribes portrayed themselves in distinctive costumes, Stone says. They wear cloth head wraps into which paintbrushes are tucked and quill pens are tied with knotted cords. Many scribes sport spiky hairdos that poke through their headgear. In the portraits, scribes often appear in or near open skeletal jaws, which symbolized caves. Pictorial symbols of stone, water, and death usually surround the scribes. On cave walls at Naj Tunich, scribes documented their own ritual pilgrimages to invigorate their ties to underworld gods and initiate novice practitioners, Stone theorizes. "The self-references scribes made in cave paintings are part of a record of their returning to the divine source of their craft, affirming their legitimacy, and supporting their social positions," she says.
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(March 22, 2002)
Archaeologist William Saturno travelled to northeastern Guatemala last year to explore Maya ruins and search for ancient carved monuments. In part to escape the broiling tropical sun, he slipped into a tunnel that had been dug by looters.
The tunnel led to a small building buried beneath a Maya pyramid. When Saturno beamed a flashlight at an interior wall, he was stunned at the sight before him: an ancient Maya mural in remarkably pristine condition.
Scholars say the mural, which dates from A.D. 100, is one of the most important finds in Maya archaeology in recent decades both for its artistic merit and because of the insight it will provide into the Preclassic period of the Maya.
Rare Work of Art
This detail from an ancient Maya mural found in northeastern Guatemala, dating from about A.D. 100, suggests a highly skillful artistic rendering that scholars say is surprisingly sophisticated for the Preclassic period of Maya civilization.(top)
A mural reconstruction rendering of exposed panel (as seen above) of the oldest known intact Maya mural, discovered by William Saturno. (bottom)
Photograph by William A. Saturno (top)
Drawing by Heather Hurst (bottom)
The mural adds a significant piece of evidence to a growing body of archaeological discoveries that is forcing archaeologists and art historians to change their earlier views of Preclassic Maya culture [see related sidebar].
The mural was found at a Maya ceremonial site called San Bartolo, in Guatemala's Petén lowlands. Petén was heavily occupied by Maya in the Preclassic period, which scholars date from about 2000 B.C. to A.D 250.
"This is an extraordinary find," said Stephen Houston, a professor at Brigham Young University who is an expert on Maya archaeology and writing. "The parts of the mural that are visible show a complex iconography and rich palette that we barely suspected for that period."
Only a six-foot-wide (1.8-meter) section of the mural is exposed on one wall of the room. But a team of experts who visited the site last June believe the painting extends around the entire room. The mural is unusually well preserved because it was covered with mud and then the room was sealed, said Saturno, a research associate at Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and a lecturer at the University of New Hampshire. Although the Maya are known for their highly decorative ceramics and architecture, few Maya murals have been discovered. For one thing, the moist tropical climate works against the preservation of such delicate artwork.
Archaeologists have found traces of other early Maya wall paintings notably at Tikal and Uaxactûn, both also in Guatemala. The San Bartolo mural, however, is far better preserved and more finely executed than those examples, according to Maya experts.
"We're not yet certain this mural is the absolute oldest, but it's certainly the oldest in this condition. For this early time period, there's really nothing comparable," said Saturno. David Freidel, a professor of archaeology at Southern Methodist University and an expert in Preclassic Maya culture, called the San Bartolo mural "a remarkably important discovery. This is a really beautiful work," he said. "What's going on in the mural, even from only the glimpse we have, it's clear it will provide significant knowledge of Maya religion and Maya rulership in a period at the beginning of Classical Maya civilization."
Saturno and David Stuart, a curator of Maya hieroglyphs at the Peabody museum and a senior lecturer in anthropology at Harvard, went to San Bartolo last June with art specialists and Guatemalan archaeologist Héctor Escobedo to assess the mural and develop a preliminary conservation plan. Looters in recent years had removed a large section of the wall below the mural, leaving parts of it with little support. San Bartolo, a site previously unknown to archaeologists, covers about 12 acres (5 hectares). Its ruins include a large complex built around an 80-foot-tall (24-meter) pyramid that encompasses at least six earlier phases of construction. The building in which the mural was found was completed in the most recent phase of construction.
Full-time guards have been posted at the site, and Saturno will return next month with a field team to continue excavation and restoration activities. Karl Taube, an archaeologist at the University of California-Riverside and an expert in ancient Mesoamerican history, religion, and art, said the part of the San Bartolo mural that's visible appears to show the dressing of the maize god. The deity—recognizable by his characteristic slanted eyes and flattened and elongated head—is surrounded by several other people. He gazes over his shoulder at two half-clothed maidens kneeling behind him.
"The scene," Taube said,"is part of a mythological story in which the maize god travels through the underworld and is eventually resurrected. Aspects of the corn god myth can be seen on many vases and other artwork from A.D. 600 to 800, he noted. It was very common during the Classic period because it plays into the Maya creation myth.The San Bartolo mural," he added,"is the first known depiction of this particular myth in narrative form. Until now," Saturno said, "examples of Maya artistry from about A.D 100. have been limited to ceramic pieces, stone monuments, and architectural sculptures, especially large stucco masks that adorned the facades of buildings. "Although we have individual artifacts, there [have been] few narratives or images of historical or mythological events," he said.
A Maya "Masterpiece"
Several Maya experts who have seen the San Bartolo painting or photos of it said it is unexpectedly sophisticated for the period in which it was painted, which casts new light on artistic achievement in Preclassic Maya civilization.
"It points to the highly cosmopolitan and sophisticated nature of Maya society and culture during the Late Preclassic," said Taube.
Norman Hammond, a professor of archaeology at Boston University who has excavated Preclassic Maya sites in Belize, called the San Bartolo mural "arguably the most significant find since Bonampak." The murals discovered at Bonampak, Mexico, in 1946 cover the walls and ceilings of three rooms with colorful depictions of Maya court ceremonies, battles, and daily life. They were painted about A.D. 790, not long before the Maya civilization collapsed in A.D. 900.
"Bonampak is the acme of Classic Maya mural painting, but the San Bartolo mural shows that this semi-naturalistic style was in existence half a millennium before," said Hammond.
Freidel said the mural "is a masterpiece of Maya art, regardless of what else has been found." For the paint to bond onto the plaster wall of the room discovered at San Bartolo, the artists had to work quickly and with great confidence while the plaster was still damp, he explained. "Sometimes archaeologists have been able to detect drip lines on Preclassic painted monumental masks, where the artist was unable to control the flow of paint," he said. "The San Bartolo mural was painted by a great master, with fine-line exquisite details all perfectly rendered."
The discovery of the mural has generated much excitement among Maya scholars, who say they are eager to find out what lies behind the obscured panels.
"There appear to be many more scenes and figures behind the dirt and fill of the chamber," said Houston, noting that the full significance of the mural will only become clear with fuller excavation. The discovery," he added, "is rather like finding a new Maya book, and all of us are drooling to see what's to come."
San Bartolo, in Guatemala's northeastern Petén province, was unknown to archaeologists until last year, when William Saturno discovered an ancient Maya mural at the site.Saturno went to Petén in March 2001 to track down and record inscriptions of Maya stelae carved monuments as part of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project, based at Harvard's Peabody Museum. He originally planned to visit ruins farther north, near the border with Mexico. That itinerary fell through when guides were unable to make the trip for lack of sufficient time. They suggested that Saturno visit San Bartolo, which local reports suggested might have previously undocumented stelae. The site was only about five hours away, the guides assured Saturno, insisting they could make the round-trip journey in a day.
"The journey to San Bartolo was neither short nor as easy as originally described," Saturno recalls dryly. "It took the party of six more than 21 hours to get there, travelling by vehicle and on foot. They arrived exhausted and without adequate food and water. "All we had was Cup-a-Soup instant mix, but no water," Saturno says, noting that the temperature was 90 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit (32 to 38 degrees Celsius) and he was carrying about 50 pounds (23 kilograms) of photo equipment.
There were no stelae at the site. But Saturno found something far more remarkable, which has made San Bartolo a significant archaeological site. The guides wandered off to forage for vines from which to extract resin, which they filtered through their shirts to provide drinking water. Saturno explored the central plaza of the ruins, where a cluster of three mounds faced a large pyramidal temple.
A series of tunnels ringing the tall structure indicated that looters had been active at the site. "They were probably looking for tombs to find Maya polychrome pottery to sell on the black market," Saturno says. "They weren't going to find any," he notes, because such vessels were produced mainly after A.D. 400, and later analysis suggested San Bartolo had already been abandoned by that time.
Becoming severely dehydrated and eager to escape the heat, Saturno wandered into a looters tunnel cut into one of the site's main pyramids. "Just past where the light enters," he says, "I could see the remains of buildings they had dug into."
He aimed a flashlight at the walls. "I started laughing," Saturno says. "There was this Maya mural, a very rare thing. The looters had cleared off a section and left it.
"I felt," he says, "like the luckiest man on the planet."
Rethinking the Preclassic Period
At its peak during the Classic period, Maya civilization consisted of city-states much like those of ancient Greece, which were governed by an elaborate system of kingship and social hierarchy. Rulers were thought to be descendents of the gods, which helped ensure the continuity and stability needed to develop a complex society, a successful system of trade, and significant cultural advancement.
The Preclassic period of Maya civilization has long been viewed as a loosely organized, largely agrarian society. That view is changing.
"In the last 25 years we have made important breakthroughs in our understanding of the Preclassic period," said Maya expert David Freidel. "It's now clear it can't be regarded as merely a precursor of the Classic period."
Evidence shows that in the Preclassic period, Maya settlements were well established in northern Guatemala, Belize, and parts of southern Mexico a total area about the size of modern-day New Mexico. Excavations at El Mirador in Petén in the late 1970s and early 1980s revealed that Preclassic Maya civilization was far more complex than previously suspected. A major metropolis from about 150 B.C. to A.D. 150, El Mirador had as many as 200 buildings and a population of tens of thousands.Despite important discoveries such as this, however, the picture remains sketchy. One major reason, according to Maya experts, is that Petén a thriving center of Preclassic Maya life is heavily forested and still relatively uncharted by archaeologists.
The Preclassic period "presents a frustrating paradox," said Stephen Houston, who has many years of experience running excavations in the Maya region. "It had immense cities and monumental architecture, yet little is known of its society or system of rulership. The San Bartolo mural," he added, "may resolve this paradox with a considerable body of well-preserved images and, we fervently hope, new hieroglyphic texts. From this we may learn more about how the Preclassic Maya linked religious belief to the organization of society."
William Saturno and David Stuart of Harvard University estimate that San Bartolo was active from 400 B.C. to A.D. 300 or 400—a time of major transition in Maya culture. "It is important not just for the art," Saturno said, "but for what it may tell us about a period of dramatic change leading up to the establishment of kingship and dynastic rule, the building of pyramids, the differentiation of social classes, and the florescence of a universal art style and hieroglyphic writing."
San Bartolo, he said, "opens a window on the past that we didn't have."
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(May 29, 2001 - Tegucigalpa, Honduras)
The jade-encrusted remains of a powerful Mayan king have been unearthed in Honduras by a Japanese archeologist in a key finding from the ancient and mysterious civilization, the tourism ministry said on Friday.The remains belong to one of the 16 rulers of the Mayan dynasty that ruled the city of Copan, in what is now Honduras, between 426 and 763 A.D., the ministry said.
Archeologist Seiichi Nakamura, who made the discovery, said the king may have served between the 6th and 10th regimes of the Copan dynasty.The tomb contained a skull, a femur and an ornamental breastplate and kneecap with jade inlays. It was dug up in August but was only recently confirmed to hold the remains of a Mayan king. The discovery means that the remains of eight of Mayan's 16 rulers of Myan have now been found.The burial site was located at a religious temple that lies among ruins stretching across some 214,000 square feet. Some 20 recoverable buildings, 36 skeletal remains, 10 religious offerings, 37 ceramic vessels and other objects were also found at the site.
The newly uncovered area is about 2 miles from the acropolis of Copan, where the Honduras government is constructing a highway.The Mayan culture sprung up in the region spanning southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras and is renowned for its imposing edifices, social organization, astrological advances and the existence of a calendar. Archeologists and scientists still do not fully understand the causes of the civilization's decline.The Mayan ruins in Honduras are among the impoverished nation's most visited tourist attractions.
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(May 26, 2001 - Yucatan)
Chac, a Mayan city in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, flourished hundreds of years earlier than previously believed, according to new evidence that also shows extensive outside influence on the community.
Chac is one of several Mayan cities in the northern Yucatan - a region increasingly popular with tourists - that were believed to have flourished between A.D. 800 and 1000.But new research, including radiocarbon dating, indicates that Chac existed as early as A.D. 300, growing to as many as 6,000 residents, Michael P. Smyth, an anthropology professor at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., said in a telephone interview.
Smyth, preparing to return for his seventh season of research in Mexico, said he also has uncovered carvings, pottery and other indications that the community was heavily influenced by the great city of Teotihuacan in central Mexico. While Teotihuacan had a large sphere of influence, that had not been thought to extend to the northern Yucatan until much later. At the time Chac was flourishing, wars in southern Mexico disrupted trade routes between that area, Guatemala and Teotihuacan, located near the site of present day Mexico City.
"With trade disrupted, Teotihuacan may have begun looking elsewhere for products it wanted to import and the Yucatan would be a likely area to go," said Smyth, "whose research is supported by the Washington-based National Geographic Society. Radiocarbon dating of objects found at the site indicates Chac's origins date from about A.D. 300, at least two centuries earlier than any other known settlement in the area," Smyth said.
He said Chac appears to have been abandoned and ritually destroyed in the late eighth century, when other sites in the Puuc hills region of the Yucatan underwent rapid growth and development. It is located near the ancient sites of Uxmal and Sayil. Smyth said that in exploring a 60-foot-tall pyramid, he discovered that two earlier pyramids lie beneath it. Numerous substructures have been discovered beneath other buildings excavated at the site. And he said buildings at the site incorporate elements from Teotihuacan into Mayan architecture. For example, there are many early serpent images in the Great Pyramid Plaza. Serpents are more reminiscent of architecture at Teotihuacan than the decorations of early Maya.
Smyth also reported finding 19 burial sites at Chac with pottery and mortuary patterns typical of Teotihuacan native. While the Teotihuacan culture dominated a large part of what is now Mexico, much remains to be learned about it, Smyth said. With as many as 200,000 people in A.D. 500, Teotihuacan was probably one of the four or five largest cities in the world, he said, but much of the language and culture of the people there remains a mystery.
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(Thursday, 25 January, 2001, 13:06 GMT)
The ruins of Ek Balam may have an important significance.
One hundred and fifty miles inland from the crowded beaches and throbbing bars of Cancun, Mexico, lies a recently discovered ancient Mayan city of great beauty and potentially huge archaeological significance. Since the discoveries at Ek Balam are so recent, they do not yet appear in any guide books. When I went to visit, I had the ruins to myself - an unheard of luxury in Mexico's better known Mayan cities, which are busy tourist attractions. The custodian's ledger showed that a grand total of eight people had visited that day.
Archaeologists began serious work at the site of Ek Balam, which means black tiger or jaguar in Mayan, just over two years ago. What they dug out from the encroaching jungle were huge, fully intact plaster sculptures unlike any others found in Mexico's ancient sites.
Ek Balam reached its peak of civilisation around 1000 AD. While it is not the largest Mayan city in Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, it has by far the most detailed and beautiful friezes. The most impressive is found on the side of the main pyramid, where an elaborate six metre high doorway known as the Gate of Hell is still fully intact. The entrance is actually depicted as the gaping jaws of a monster. Large sharp fangs surround the door. Above it are two huge eyes and a cross-legged god is perched on the nose. The face is covered in full size statues of the city's rulers and Mayan gods. In each of the eye sockets, a statue of a human figure is perched looking out over the city.
The Gate of Hell is still covered in original plaster-work, and is just as the Mayans must have seen it centuries ago.
Digs in the main pyramid have revealed elaborate friezes
It is thought that the rulers of Ek Balam threw their captured prisoners into the doorway which led to a 20-metre drop. At the bottom of the pit were spikes on which the poor captives were impaled and there they died. With its flashing monstrous eyes and huge teeth, it is still a fiercely imposing sight. The pyramid at Ek Balam is not fully intact, though from what is left of it, archaeologists estimate that it must have been some 30 metres high. This would make it one of the tallest in the Yucatan.The base is covered in well-preserved Mayan hieroglyphs which are still being deciphered. Much of Ek Balam is still to be excavated. The site is about a kilometre wide and less than one third of it has been recovered from the jungle growth.
Only last year there was a Mayan find in Guatemala. But recent work uncovered some other interesting treasures including a mysterious pair of small twin pyramids. These buildings were built with astrological precision in mind. The two pyramids are joined with a steep split down the middle. When the sun rises at the spring equinox on the 21 March, the rays fall directly through the schism. When it sets that night, the last rays of sunset fall back through the split in the other direction. Archaeologists are looking for funds in order to resume work at Ek Balam. They think there is still a lot to be discovered in the city of the black tiger.
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(November 13, 2000)
Last summer, an archaeologist (scientist who studies remains from past human life), Arthur Demarest, was hacking his way through a tangled jungle in Guatemala. Then the forest floor caved in beneath him. Demarest's plunge left him chest-high in a pit of hissing snakes--and directly on top of one of the largest ancient Mayan palaces ever discovered. "No one has ever found a palace this well preserved in a century," he says.
The royal residence covers an area greater than four football fields and consists of 170 high-ceilinged rooms and 11 spectacular courtyards. The virtually intact palace is part of the city of Cancuen (kahn-KWEN)--Mayan for "place of serpents."
The extraordinary ruin could overturn current theories about Mayan civilization, which dominated parts of Central America from 250 A.D. to 900 A.D.: Absent from the buried city are the trademark Mayan pyramids thought to have religious and military significance.
Unlike other Mayan cities, researchers now think Cancuen may have prospered without warfare or religion. Instead, the site teems with signs of wealth and commerce. Demarest's group has unearthed Mayan luxury goods like pyrite (fool's gold), obsidian (volcanic glass rock), and jade, a green mineral--all used to make jewelry. One female skeleton was even found in her grave with jade-filed teeth!
Demarest estimates it will take another decade to completely excavate (dig up) and partly restore the palace.
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Scientists in the Central American republic of Honduras have unearthed what they believe could be the remains of one of the rulers of the Mayan dynasty. The relics were found on Monday at a recently discovered archaeological site in the west of the country less than two miles from the ancient Mayan city of Copan.
This is the first major breakthrough in digging in the area, which was first come upon only two months ago when workmen were carrying out major road repairs nearby. The site, which measures around 20,000 square metres, is believed to be an extension to the mighty city of Copan, which until now has been the best known archaeological site in Honduras. The area contains evidence of 27 buildings, believed to be the houses of some of Copan's residents, as well as ten different tombs.
On top of one of the tombs, scientists discovered a cranium, femur and pectoral bones as well as a kneecap encrusted with jade, all of which are thought to belong to one of Copan's 16 known rulers. The Mayan civilisation is believed to have lasted 1000 years.
Archaeologists are convinced that the abundance of ceramics and other artefacts close by indicate the importance of the person or persons buried there. They believe the tomb was set in a courtyard used for ritual ceremonies to which ordinary Mayans would not have had access. Once the tomb is fully opened, they expect to find the remains of other members of royalty inside.
Another significant find was made in Guatemala recently. Relics found at the site come from the sixth or seventh century, but some of the ceramics near the grave could date back as far as 400 BC. The Mayan dynasty spread across the territory of four modern-day Central American nations as well as Mexico and lasted for more than 1000 years.
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(Saturday, 9 September, 2000, 01:32 GMT 02:32)
Archaeologists in Guatemala say they have found an ancient palace which is forcing scholars to reconsider their ideas about the Mayan civilisation, which was prevalent before the arrival of the Spanish in Central America.The archaeologists stumbled across the ruins while carrying out excavations at the ruins of a city in the northern highlands of Guatemala known as Can Cuen. The limestone building, which dates from the eighth century, has more than 170 rooms arranged around 11 courtyards.
Experts say the elaborate nature of the palace suggests it was actually built during a time of peace and relative economic stability when it had been thought that most cities in the area were at war with one another.
Archaeologists have known about Can Cuen for almost 100 years. Recently discovered references to Can Cuen's importance as a trading centre forced researchers to look more closely at the site. Archaeologist Arthur Demares, from the Vanderbilt University in the US, was leading the expedition. He said they had been at the site two weeks without realising the extent even of the main palace buried in the jungle. One day he was walking along the palace's highest level when he fell up to his armpits in vegetation that had filled a hidden courtyard.
"That's when I realised the entire hill was a three storey building, and we were walking along the top of the roof," Professor Demarest said.
Further excavations revealed that the palace is not only one of the largest and most elaborate residences of the ancient Mayan kings so far discovered but it is also one of the best preserved. Although the archaeological team says it will take them at least 10 years to excavate the entire city covering 13 sq km, it has already forced scholars to review their ideas about the ancient mines. One of Guatemala's foremost authorities on deciphering Mayan hieroglyphics, Frederico Fahsen, said that most Mayan kingdoms relied on religion and warfare for their power but it seems that Can Cuen kings thrived for more than 1,000 years on commerce alone using their wealth to forge alliances with neighbours.
"Mayan cities were in a constant state of war with their structures dedicated to the Gods in heaven. Now we've discovered something exactly the opposite," Mr Fahsen said.
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Workmen in Honduras carrying out reconstruction work in the wake of Hurricane Mitch have uncovered the remains of an ancient Indian culture.
"The site was inhabited by a pre-hispanic culture that has not yet been identified," said National Heritage spokesman, Gilberto Sanchez. "We found a main plaza, around which there are remains of various types of ancient ceramics," said Mr Sanchez.
Items discovered at the site included arrowheads, flints, volcanic rocks used to grind corn, tools used to make earthenware casks and pieces of coloured ceramic. The discovery was made as workmen began to construct a town called Nueva Morolica to replace a village about 10 km (six miles) to the north which was destroyed by Hurricane Mitch at the end of last year.
Rehousing plan in doubt
The government purchased the site from local ranchers, and was planning to relocate refugees from the old town. Those plans are now uncertain. Mr Sanchez said the government's Institute of Anthropology and History would survey the site this week and try to protect the remains. It would also decide if El Tejar should be declared an archaeological zone - a move that would oblige officials to find somewhere else to build Nueva Morolica.
This is the first time that remains of a civilisation pre-dating the 6th Century Spanish conquest have been found in southern Honduras. Western Honduras is home to the treasured Copan site, containing pyramids and numerous sculptures from the Mayan civilisation which also flourished across southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and El Salvador.
Mr Sanchez said he believed the artefacts discovered at Nueva Morolica were from the Lenca or Chorotega culture, from the pre-Columbian era - but this had yet to be confirmed.
The ancient Lencas were the fiercest local opponents of the Spanishconquest in the early 16th Century. Their 100,000 descendants are the most widespread Indian culture in modern Honduras.
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(January 7, 1999, EST 1728 GMT)
For the last six months in south Florida, an archeological dig has drawn the attention of scientists, history buffs and curious onlookers. Some call the find, in the shadow of modern Miami, the first of its kind in eastern North America, a unique prehistoric monument that could date back thousands of years.
Researchers, digging and sifting buckets of rocks and black dirt, have uncovered an unusual, intricately carved circle in the limestone bedrock.
"I was really struck by the symmetry of the circle. It's absolutely, at least to the eye, absolutely perfectly circular," says John Ricisak, field director for the excavation.
Scientists believe the Native American site, which some believe was used for ceremonies, dates back 500 to 2,000 years.
"Whoever was using this location was somebody who had clout. This probably was a council's house or a chief's house, somebody who was probably in control of this particular village," speculates Bobb Carr of the Miami-Dade Historical Division. Archeologist theorize Florida's Tequesta Indians created the site, unearthed accidentally by a developer who tore down a 50-year-old apartment complex. The dig location, coincidentally, is next to a barrel-chested statue of a Tequesta Indian who guards the mouth of the Miami River.
"The mouth of the Miami River would have been a preferred place to be if you were a prehistoric hunter and gatherer," Ricisak says.
An aerial view of the site reveals a circular shape
Unearthed so far have been stone tools, beads, shells and evidence of animal sacrifice. One of the carved holes in the circle faces directly east, toward Biscayne Bay, and is in the shape of an eye with a stone pupil.Speculation on the purpose of the circle has focused on the possibility it was a celestial calendar on the order of Stonehenge or perhaps evidence of a breakaway band of sophisticated Mayan Indians from Central America. The latter theory is based on the discovery of small axes made of basaltic stone -- a material not native to Florida but found in the Caribbean basin.Pottery shards date the site at least 2,000 years, but the prehistoric circle probably goes back to around 1100. Just before Christmas another clue surfaced: the complete remnants of a 5-foot shark.
"It suggests it was buried for a purpose. It was buried as an offering," Ricisak says.
Around the circle are holes of various shapes and sizes cut into solid bedrock. The directions of north, south, east and west appear to be marked on three of the four points by a cavity resembling an eye. Inside each, a stone suggests an iris.
An eye-shaped stone carved from solid bedrock
"If that's exactly what the creators intended, who can say, but it certainly doesn't take a lot of imagination to see that it's eye-shaped," says Ricisak.
After surviving hundreds or thousands of years, the site now faces a major threat. The developer intends to break ground for high-rise condominiums. Because archeologists don't have the $25 million to buy out the developer, nor does the developer appear interested in preserving the site, archeologists had to come up with another alternative. Scientists plan to move the dig, slice it up and take it to another location. There they can try to solve the mystery of the ancient circle in a modern city.
Correspondent Susan Candiotti contributed to this report.
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(New Scientist vol 138, page 12 - April 03, 1993)
A calendar that could unravel the history of the Maya Indians has been deciphered after meticulous study of four Mayan manuscripts. Franz Joseph Hochleitner, an archaeologist at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora in Brazil, says the calendar will allow him to date important events described in the documents. 'These manuscripts depict a lot of dynastic history but at the moment, without any dates, we can't say what is happening,' he says.
The Maya lived in the forests of what is now Guatemala, Honduras and southern Mexico. Their civilisation was one of the most advanced in the Americas and they recorded their history. But little is known of the Maya because only four of their manuscripts survived plundering by the conquistadors. They are kept in museums in Dresden, Paris, Madrid and the US.
Mayan hieroglyphics have proved particularly difficult to untangle. The Maya had a complex system of calendars, and parts of three calendars have been deciphered from some of the preserved manuscripts. Hochleitner has now found a fourth calendar which uses a system of hieroglyphics to represent dates and appears in all four manuscripts.
The key to recognising the new calendar was the discovery that a 'chuen figure', the head of a rain god, represents a period of time, and that all dates are connected with some astronomical event, such as an eclipse or particular positions of planets or comets. The chuen figure represents 'katuns' - periods of 20 years of 360 days - while dots and dashes represent years, months and days.
Hochleitner has worked out how Mayan dates relate to the modern calendar, and hence to astronomical events. The Maya timed their most important ceremonies to tie in with such events, the most important of which was the appearance of Venus. On this day, they held religious festivals with human sacrifices. Perfect accuracy was demanded from the astronomers who predicted the dates. Execution was the usual penalty for getting it wrong.
Brian Homewood, Rio de Janeiro
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