Photo: USA TODAY/Alexandre Tokovinine Harvard University/Proyecto Arqueologico Holmul.
By Dan Vergano, USA TODAY
An international archaeology team on Wednesday reported the discovery of a "stunning" stucco wall sculpture, its colors intact, unearthed in Guatemala beneath a Maya pyramid.
Guatemalan antiquity officials announced the discovery of the stucco frieze, some 30 feet long and 6 feet tall, unearthed on the inside of a pyramid at the Maya city site of Holmul.
"It is one of the most fabulous things I have ever seen," says archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli of the Holmul Archaeological Project. "The preservation is wonderful because it was very carefully packed with dirt before they started building over it."
The frieze was on one side of a staircase tomb that was inside a pyramid built by the later rulers of the site. Painted red, with details in blue, yellow and green, it depicts three men wearing bird headdresses and jade jewels seated cross-legged over the head of a mountain spirit. It is likely a depiction of the crowning of a new ruler at the site around the year 590, according to Estrada-Belli, whose team's effort was supported by National Geographic Society grants. "We did not have the details of the ceremonies to install a new king as we have here, until now," he says.
The find comes as archaeologists are uncovering more details of the epic struggle between the two chief kingdoms of the ancient Maya world, one centered on the famed site of Tikal in Guatemala (best known to Star Wars fans as a rebel base setting), and the "Snake" Kaan kingdom centered on the site of Calakmul, located in modern-day Mexico. The struggle between these cities and their allies played out in dynastic battles, with losers ending up as sacrifices, at small city sites such as Holmul in the three centuries before the widespread abandonment of ancient Maya cities after 800 A.D.
At Holmul, an inscription dedicates the frieze to a powerful king in the nearby Snake kingdom, named "Ajwosaj Chan K'inich," who claims to have restored Holmul's rulers and gods to their rightful place in the ceremony it depicts. Essentially Holmul had switched sides against Tikal, the one-time pre-eminent power of the region, some 25 miles southwest of the site.
Dug into a stairway, the tomb within the discovered building yielded the skeleton of a man, his front teeth drilled and filled with jade beads, surrounded by pots depicting the nine gods of the Maya underworld as well as other icons."He was certainly a member of the ruling class," Estrada-Belli says.
Related news comes from another site associated with the struggle around Tikal, called El Perú-Waka', a city some 40 miles west of that site, where archaeologists report the discovery of a inscribed standing stone, or stela, from the year 564. The stela describes the installation of a new king at that site, a crowning overseen by a female ruler from the Snake Kingdom. The finding shows the noose of power constricting around Tikal in the 6th Century, suggests archaeologist Olivia Navarro-Farr of The College of Wooster (Ohio), a member of the discovery team.
University of Illinois archaeologist Lisa Lucero calls the inscriptions intriguing because "this is a period when kings were really beginning to express their might and see who would bend to their will."
Estrada-Belli says his team will return to Holmul next year to do more excavations around the tomb and check the preservation of the frieze, now covered over for safety. The discovery was actually made by starting from a trench excavated by would-be looters, he says, who dug in the wrong direction. "We made a fortunate turn," he says. "All my wishes were fulfilled."