Buried monument illuminates dark period of Mayan culture

Archaeologists tunneling beneath the main temple of the ancient Maya city of El Perú-Waka’ in northern Guatemala have discovered an intricately carved stone monument with hieroglyphic text detailing the exploits of a little-known sixth-century princess whose progeny prevailed in a bloody, back-and-forth struggle between two of the civilization’s most powerful royal dynasties.

“Great rulers took pleasure in describing adversity as a prelude to ultimate success,” said research director David Freidel, a professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. “Here the Snake queen, Lady Ikoom, prevailed in the end.”

Freidel, who is studying in Paris this summer, said the stone monument, known officially as El Perú Stela 44, offers a wealth of new information about a dark period in Maya history, including the names of two previously unknown Maya rulers and the political realities that shaped their legacies.

“The narrative of Stela 44 is full of twists and turns of the kind that are usually found in time of war but rarely detected in Precolumbian archaeology,” Freidel said.

“The information in the text provides a new chapter in the history of the ancient kingdom of Waka’ and its political relations with the most powerful kingdoms in the Classic period lowland Maya world.”

Carved stone monuments, such as Stela 44, have been unearthed in dozens of other important Maya ruins and each has made a critical contribution to the understanding of Maya culture.

Freidel says that his epigrapher, Stanley Guenter, who deciphered the text, believes that Stela 44 was originally dedicated about 1,450 years ago, in the calendar period ending in  564 A.D., by the Wak dynasty King Wa’oom Uch’ab Tzi’kin, a title that translates roughly as “He Who Stands Up the Offering of the Eagle.”

After standing exposed to the elements for more than 100 years, Stela 44 was moved by order of a later king and buried as an offering inside new construction that took place at the main El Perú-Waka’ temple about A.D. 700, probably as part of funeral rituals for a great queen entombed in the building at this time, the research team suggests.

El Perú-Waka’ is about 40 miles west of the famous Maya site of Tikal near the San Pedro Martir River in Laguna del Tigre National Park. In the Classic period, this royal city commanded major trade routes running north to south and east to west.

Freidel has directed research at this site in collaboration with Guatemalan and foreign archaeologists since 2003. Guatemalan archaeologist Griselda Perez discovered Stela 44 in this temple.

The project carries out research under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture and Sports of Guatemala and its Directorate for Cultural and Natural Patrimony, the Council for Protected Areas, and it is sponsored by the Foundation for the Cultural and Natural Patrimony and the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Early in March, Ms. Pérez was excavating a short tunnel along the centerline of the stairway of the temple in order to give access to other tunnels leading to a royal tomb discovered in 2012 when her excavators encountered Stela 44.

Once the texts along the side of the monument were cleared, archaeologist Francisco Castaneda took detailed photographs and sent these to Guenter for decipherment.

Guenter’s glyph analysis suggests that Stela 44 was commissioned by Wak dynasty King Wa’oom Uch’ab Tzi’kin to honor his father, King Chak Took Ich’aak (Red Spark Claw), who had died in A.D. 556. Stela 44’s description of this royal father-son duo marks the first time their names have been known to modern history.

A new queen, Lady Ikoom, also is featured in the text and she was important to the king who recovered this worn stela and used it again.

Researchers believe that Lady Ikoom was one of two Snake dynasty princesses sent into arranged marriages with the rulers of El Perú-Waka’ and another nearby Maya city as a means of cementing Snake control over this region of northern Guatemala.

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