The remote Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in Southern Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula was once home to a powerful Maya kingdom. It ruled the region for 12 centuries until about 800 CE, after which its inhabitants mysteriously disappeared. Visit the UNESCO-protected jungle today to find more than 100 stelae and nearly 7,000 structures hidden beneath the lush trees. So many ruins remain, in fact, that archaeologists are still discovering them.
Last week, the research center of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts announced that an archaeological expedition led by Ivan Sprajc has uncovered the remains of two Maya cities, Lagunita and Tamchen. Slowly, the blueprint of a vast civilization is materializing. In 2013, Sprajc’s team found the only other city, Chactún, in the nearly 1,900-square-mile area.
The existence of Lagunita was already known, though. In the 1970s, an American archaeologist named Eric Von Euw documented the city in a number of sketches, but the site was lost for four decades after he failed to record its exact location.
“We found the site with the aid of aerial photographs,” Sprajc explained in a press release, “but were able to identify it with Lagunita only after we saw the facade and the monuments and compared them with Von Euw’s drawings…”
At Lagunita, Sprajc and his team found palatial ruins surrounding four main plazas. Other surviving structures include a ball court, a 65-foot-high temple pyramid, three altars, a number of reliefs, and 10 stelae — one engraved on November 29, 711 CE by a Maya lord who ruled 80 years but whose name is now too faded to read. The site’s most extraordinary find was a zoomorphic doorway resembling a monster’s open jaws — a cosmological symbol of life’s origins.
Octavio Esparza, the project epigrapher, said that the large number of monuments in Lagunita means that it “must have been the seat of a relatively powerful polity, though the nature of its relationship with the larger Chactún, lying some 10 km to the north, remains unclear.”
Six miles northeast of Lagunita lies Tamchen, Sprajc’s other great discovery. Its name, which translates to “deep well” in the Yucatec Maya language, honors more than 30 surviving chultuns — deep underground chambers for collecting rainwater. Settled between 300 BCE and 250 CE, the city was inhabited at the same time as Lagunita. It has the same plazas and buildings, as well as the hilltop ruins of three temples arranged around a courtyard.
Both sites pose challenges to future Maya research, as many irregularities crop up in Lagunita and Tamchen. For one, pyramid temples and monuments with inscriptions are rare in the Rio Bec region, but they’re plentiful in these cities. Secondly, though abandoned around 1000 CE, a few of the stelae were modified sometime after. Several Postclassic structures (built between the 10th and early 16th century) were also found, as well as many other peculiar elements.
The press release states that these oddities reflect “continuities and ruptures in cultural traditions,” though their meanings remain mysterious. Archaeologists hope that the largely untouched region to the north might possess similar characteristics that would help decode them.