Diver exploring sunken Maya city in Lake Atitlán. INAH.

Researchers Explore Ancient Maya City That Sank Into a Sacred Lake

Based upon artifacts recovered from Lake Atitlán, it is known that the archaeological site dates from the Mayan Late Preclassic period (400 BC–250 AD).


Centuries ago, a complex Mayan city was established in the middle of a sacred lake called Lake Atitlán. Its builders erected stunning temples, plazas, houses, and stelae. Then, surprisingly, the water levels began to rise, and the city was retaken by nature, as the plethora of buildings vanished beneath the water. The site had remained forgotten for millennia.

Bud, despite the fact the ancient city disappeared a long time ago, conquered by rising water levels in the past, we can learn about its history by exploring it today. This is precisely what an international group of experts from the Mission of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Board (STAB) of the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage set out to do in March 2022.


Starting on March 14 and lasting until April 3, the exploration of the submerged city was led by the head of the Yucatan Peninsula Office of the INAH Subdirectorate of Underwater Archeology (SAS) Helena Barba Meinecke. The goal was simple, make the site visible through virtual and non-invasive technologies. To promote its conservation and respect for its sacred character for the region’s indigenous communities.

To achieve this, dives were carried out to georeference the archaeological context of the site, better understand data collected in previous years by Guatemalan archaeologists, as well as to create photogrammetric models, and prepare virtual tours that would bring the sunken ancient city closer to the community and external visitors.

“The mission made it possible to lay the groundwork for recommending the creation of a cultural center where people learn about and tour the site through digital reconstructions,” said Carlos Hernandez, also a member of STAB  and Mexico’s representative to the 2001 UNESCO Convention.

In addition to the technical component, the realization of the project was accompanied by anthropological efforts, in which members of the community of Santiago Atitlán participated in the daily activities of the mission.


Underwater archaeologists and specialists from Mexico, Belgium, France, Spain, Argentina, and the Guatemalan Ministry of Culture met periodically with Nicolás Zapalú Toj, who has the title of ‘Señor Cabecera‘, and with members of the community of Santiago Atitlan. As a result of this dialogue, permission was obtained from the ancestral authorities to carry out the studies and ceremonies dedicated to the ancestors who inhabited the lake and the submerged city.

“The representative of the Secretariat of the UNESCO 2001 Convention, UNESCO Guatemala, the Ministry of Culture of this country, the STAB, and the invited researchers committed ourselves to gather the necessary information to help reveal this submerged site, respecting the agreements with the community not to recover any archaeological piece, given the sacred nature of the lake and its remains”.

A sacred place

Based on previous archaeological work carried out by the Government of Guatemala, in which various ceramic and stone objects were recovered from Lake Atitlán, it is known that the archaeological site dates from the Mayan Late Preclassic period (400 BC–250 AD) and that it is submerged at a depth of between 12 and 20 meters. This year’s explorations made it possible to relocate and georeference buildings, stelae, and structures.

This resulted in a comprehensive planimetric map and remote sensing of a large part of the lake.

“With this planimetry, we can speak of a site that measures at least 200 by 300 meters,” said Helena Barba Meinecke, highlighting the emphasis given to the transfer of information and training for Guatemalan underwater archaeologists, who will be responsible for resuming the explorations and investigations in the lake.

During the recent exploration, the team collected silt samples from the lake to understand the site’s dynamics. In addition, the team studied the process of its subsidence over time. The hypothesis about the island’s collapse is that, since Lake Atitlán is the crater of a volcano that rises more than 1,500 meters above sea level, it could have been a natural event linked to volcanic activity that caused it to collapse.

The island collapsed from its bottom, raising the water level and forcing the inhabitants to flee. It should be noted that this archaeological site is preserved thanks to the inhabitants of Santiago Atitlán and the towns near the lake. In addition, illegal diving is prohibited by the Government of Guatemala.


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Source: INAH

Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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