Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Archaeologists Unearth Ancient Maya Masterpieces While Excavating A Sacred Ball Court In Guatemala

Date:
May 5, 2004
Source:
Vanderbilt University
Summary:
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.

Guatemala’s Minister of Culture, Manuel Salazar Tezahuic, in the white hat, and U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala, John Hamilton, assisting archaeologists in the excavation of a 500-pound Maya altar stone.
Credit: Photo by Andrew Demarest

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – 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 on Friday, April 23 by Guatemala’s Minister of Culture, Manuel Salazar Tezahuic, after a visit to the Cancuén Archaeological Project on April 16. 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 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 Cajas, “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 Cancuen 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 ballgame 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 archeological 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.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Vanderbilt University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

Vanderbilt University. "Archaeologists Unearth Ancient Maya Masterpieces While Excavating A Sacred Ball Court In Guatemala." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 May 2004. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/05/040505070714.htm>.
Vanderbilt University. (2004, May 5). Archaeologists Unearth Ancient Maya Masterpieces While Excavating A Sacred Ball Court In Guatemala. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 23, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/05/040505070714.htm
Vanderbilt University. "Archaeologists Unearth Ancient Maya Masterpieces While Excavating A Sacred Ball Court In Guatemala." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/05/040505070714.htm (accessed September 23, 2014).

Share This



More Fossils & Ruins News

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Raw: Ice Age Wooly Mammoth Remains for Sale

Raw: Ice Age Wooly Mammoth Remains for Sale

AP (Sep. 23, 2014) — A rare, well-preserved skeleton of a woolly mammoth is going on sale at Summers Place Auctions hope the 11.5-foot tall, almost intact specimen will fetch between $245,000 to $409,000. (Sept. 23) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Dinosaur With Mysteriously Large Nose Discovered In Utah

Dinosaur With Mysteriously Large Nose Discovered In Utah

Newsy (Sep. 23, 2014) — Rhinorex condrupus had a nose so big it was dubbed "King Nose," but scientists aren't sure what purpose it served. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Iconic 'Easy Rider' Chopper Bike to Go on Auction Block

Iconic 'Easy Rider' Chopper Bike to Go on Auction Block

AFP (Sep. 19, 2014) — The iconic Harley-Davidson motorbike ridden by Peter Fonda in the 1969 classic "Easy Rider" is to go under the hammer in California, and auctioneers predict it will make at least $1 million. Duration: 01:09 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Chocolate Museum Opens in Brussels

Chocolate Museum Opens in Brussels

AFP (Sep. 19, 2014) — Considered a "national heritage" in Belgium, chocolate now has a new museum in Brussels. In a former chocolate factory, visitors to the permanent exhibition spaces, workshops and tastings can discover derivatives of the cocoa bean. Duration: 01:00 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
 
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:  

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories

 

Plants & Animals

Earth & Climate

Fossils & Ruins

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:  

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile iPhone Android Web
Follow Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins