Guatemalan sites yield Maya insights

Excavations at three sites in Guatemala’s Petén rain forest have revealed previously unknown facets of both the early and later stages of ancient Maya civilization.

JARRING FINDS. Francisco Estrada-Belli holds one of five jade axes found at the Preclassic-Maya site of Cival. Jade pebbles and pottery shards surround the axes. J. Bauer

Work at one extensive site, called Cival, indicates that during its heyday, from 500 B.C. to A.D. 100, the city housed perhaps 10,000 people and was ruled by kings who lived in an elaborate ceremonial center, says Francisco Estrada-Belli of Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

Artifacts from Cival’s main plaza include two huge stucco masks that portray Maya gods. A cache of jade pieces probably served as an offering to the gods. An inscribed stone slab shows a striding figure wearing a chest plate decorated with symbols of kingship. Estrada-Belli asserts that the finds support his hypothesis that Maya of the Preclassic period, which ran from about 2000 B.C. to A.D. 250, achieved cultural feats comparable to those of the ensuing Classic-Maya era.

At the Classic-era site of Waka, researchers exploring the main palace found a chamber containing the remains of an apparent female ruler, suggesting that queens as well as kings reigned over the city. Pottery near the woman’s body dates to between A.D. 650 and 750. A war helmet in the chamber resembles helmets usually associated with male Maya rulers, says David Freidel of Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Finally, images and writing on an altar stone discovered at Cancuén indicate that, around A.D. 790, the city’s king expanded his power through regional alliances and clever politics. At that time, most Classic-era Maya kingdoms were in decline or collapsing, according to Vanderbilt’s Arthur Demarest, who directs the Cancuén project.

The three research groups announced the findings separately through press releases.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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