Archaeologist Discusses New Maya Ruins Uncovered in Guatemala

The excavation in progress (Photo by Adolfo Coloch)
The excavation in progress (photo by Adolfo Coloch)

Television may lead us to believe archaeologists lead thrilling lives, crashing through ancient temples and uncovering dinosaur bones à la Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park. In reality, their work is much more quiet and meticulous. Nevertheless, each new discovery — such as the newly unearthed Maya ruins in northern Guatemala — is still exciting.

Timothy Pugh, one of the archeologists working at the site (Courtesy of Queens College)
Timothy Pugh, one of the archaeologists working at the site (image courtesy of Queens College)

According to Live Sciencea seven centuries-old council house has been discovered at Nixtun-Ch’ich’ in Petén by a team of archaeologists who had traveled to Guatemala on a National Science Foundation grant. The house was used by the Chakan Itza people during the Postclassic period between A.D. 1300 and 1500 as a gathering place for the powerful. It featured two parallel colonnaded halls decorated with sculpted parrots and turtles. Political meetings, worship and weddings would have been held in it.

Timothy Pugh, a member of this team and professor at Queens College in New York, told Hyperallergic that the discovery is important because it could help to explain how the Maya organized themselves politically after the collapse of the Classic period, when they broke up into smaller groups:

This particular hall is different from others as it has two halls standing side by side. We believe that these were the halls of two paired lords (the Maya called one the Ajaw Batab and the other the Batab) who ruled the Chakan Itza. These may be the first archaeological evidence of this pairing of Maya lords that was described by the Spanish when they conquered the area.

The excavation in progress (Photo by Adolfo Coloch)
The excavation in progress (photo by Adolfo Coloch)

He went on to say how for years, the Postclassic period (AD 930–1525) was largely ignored by archaeologists, since the Mayas of that time did not build massive temples or elaborate tombs. The result was that until the early 1970s, when archaeologists Prudence Rice and Don Rice began excavating the era’s remains, we knew very little about it.

A parrot head sculpture found on the site (Photo by Don Rice)
A parrot head sculpture found on the site (photo by Don Rice)

Objects found within the structure include incense burners shaped like a seedling Ceiba, Guatemala’s modern-day national tree, which symbolized the central world tree connecting the underworld to the heavens. Serving as the base of one incense burner is the creator and sky-god Itzamna, the “shaman of the gods.” Pugh also explained the reptile and bird imagery found at the site:

Altar turtles represent ordered time and space (as opposed to primordial chaos). The Maya did not separate time and space as we do … They are also linked to blood sacrifice. The parrot—well, is it a parrot or a macaw? I don’t know. If it is a macaw then it may be related to a mythological figure called 7 macaw. He was a primordial poser. He pretended to be the sun at the beginning of time. He was essentially a lesson in how not to behave (he pretended to be what he was not and he was far too powerful). So the hero twins killed him so the ordered earth could emerge. So, what if he is a parrot? He could be related to one of the batabs and the serpent with the other.

As important as this discovery might be, it would have been slightly more exciting had the Mayas not destroyed the structure some time after 1500. A ritual tied up in their calendar, the Mayas routinely moved their seat of power after a certain length of time, tearing down its altars and covering what remained with dirt. If they did succeed in building another council house before the Spanish explorers conquered the region, though, it means another fascinating discovery may still be out there.

Ceramic incense burner (Photo by Don Rice)
Ceramic incense burner (Photo by Don Rice)
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