Stumping New Archaeological Find Reveals Capital of an Ancient Maya Kingdom and Remnants of Pyramids

Remnants of pyramids, an ancient ball courts, crop fields and residential houses were found in the ruins of an ancient Maya Kingdom dating back to around 750 BC.

A striking discovery has been made in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Archeologists have discovered complex ancient Maya monuments, one of which bears the descriptions of important events such as rituals, battles. Among the monuments, archeologists have also found descriptions making reference to a mythical water snake, as well as the dance in honor of the rain god. The archeologists have also reported finding the remnants of ancient pyramids.

The massive discovery has its beginnings six years ago when in June of 2014, Whittaker Schroder, a student at the University of Pennsylvania, was driving through Chiapas looking for places to start archaeological excavations.

Towards the end of his stay in this area of ​​southern Mexico, Schroder ran into a man selling carnitas—literally meaning “little meats.”. Carnitas is a dish of Mexican cuisine originating from the state of Michoacán. Carnitas are made by braising or simmering pork in oil or preferably lard until tender—on the side of the road that greeted him, so he decided to stop.

Far from wanting to sell carnitas to the “gringo,” the man wanted to explain to the archeologist that a friend of his had discovered a peculiar ancient stone tablet, telling Schroder that he ought to maybe take a look at it.

 

The Pyramid of Chichen Itza. Shutterstock.
The Pyramid of Chichen Itza. Shutterstock.

 

The next day, Schroder and another graduate student, Jeffrey Dobereiner of Harvard, met the seller’s friend, a rancher, and confirmed the tablet’s authenticity.

This is how they later contacted two experts on the subject, the associate professor of archaeology at Brandeis University Charles Golden, and bioarchaeologist Andrew Scherer of Brown University, to coordinate the steps to follow.

The journey to finally excavate the site where the stone tablet was found was not easy. In fact, it took four years to negotiate permits to excavate on the property.

In Mexico, cultural heritage, such as that of Mayan sites are considered state property, so the rancher was concerned that his land would be confiscated by the government.

Golden and Scherer worked with him, and with government officials to ensure that this did not happen.

Excavating the capital of an ancient Maya Kingdom

Excavations at the site, called Lacanja Tzeltal, finally began in 2018, and to the surprise of archaeologists, they unearthed ruins of what was once thought to have been the capital of the kingdom of Sak Tz’i’, founded around 750 B.C. and inhabited for more than a millennium.

Archaeologists had been searching for the capital of the kingdom of Sak Tz’i’ since 1994 when references of the site were found in inscriptions in other Mayan excavation sites.

The capital of the kingdom of Sak Tz’i’ is also mentioned in sculptures housed in museums around the world. Sak Tz’i was not the most powerful kingdom of the Mayan kingdoms, and the remains that have been found are modest compared to Chichén Itzá or nearby Palenque.

A map of architectural groups and stream channels at Lacanjá Tzeltal, over photogrammetric DEM (made with DJI Phantom 4 Pro and AgiSoft Metashape v. 1.5.1; by C. Golden and A. K. Scherer).
A map of architectural groups and stream channels at Lacanjá Tzeltal, over photogrammetric DEM (made with DJI Phantom 4 Pro and AgiSoft Metashape v. 1.5.1; by C. Golden and A. K. Scherer).

Nonetheless, the discovery of its capital sheds valuable light on the knowledge of Mayan culture and politics.

Among the discoveries, which are now published in the Journal of Field Archeology, are several Mayan monuments, one of which has an important inscription describing rituals, battles, a mythical water snake, and the dance of a rain god.

The archeological mission also discovered the remnants of ancient pyramids, a royal palace, and a ball court.

Researchers are expected to continue mapping the ancient city using, among other tools, a technique called LiDAR with the use of a drone-mounted laser system to reveal architecture and topography, even under the dense jungle canopy.

The archeological discovery revealed, among other things, the day-to-day life of ancient Maya people more than 2,750 years ago.

People that lived in the city were tasked with harvesting a wide variety of crops and making pottery and stone tools. Golden and his colleagues have found the remains of what was probably the city market where these items were eventually sold.

The narrow ball court of the city was used for ceremonial games in which a solid rubber ball, which could weigh up to nine kilos, was carried from side to side by the players using their hips and shoulders. Inhabitants from all over the kingdom attended.

At the northeast end of the city are the ruins of a 45-foot-tall pyramid and various surrounding structures that served as elite residences and enclaves for religious rituals.

So far, dozens of structures have been found among the ruins of the site, despite the fact that many have been damaged by looters and have deteriorated due to a millennium of rains, forest fires, and the advance of lush vegetation.

The best-preserved artifact of the site is a 0.6 x 1.2-meter tablet. Its inscriptions tell stories about a mythical aquatic snake, described in a poetic couplet as “bright sky, bright earth,”; stone gods whose names are not mentioned, and the lives of dynastic rulers.

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