Unearthing a Maya civilization that 'punched above its weight'

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Unearthing a Maya civilization that 'punched above its weight'
Jacinto Gomez Sanchez, a cattle rancher, with some of the Maya artifacts recovered from the Sak Tz’i’ site in Chiapas, Mexico, June 14, 2022. Before the pandemic, the long-sought ruins of Sak Tz’i’, a small but influential Maya civilization, were discovered on a cattle farm in Mexico, but it wasn’t until this summer that archaeologists returned to excavate the site. Meghan Dhaliwal/The New York Times.

by Franz Lidz and Meghan Dhaliwal

CHIAPAS.- On a bright, buggy summer morning, Charles Golden, an anthropologist at Brandeis University, slashed through the knee-high grass of a cattle ranch deep in the Valle de Santo Domingo, a sparsely populated region of thick brush and almost impenetrable jungle. Only the raucous half-roar, half-bark of howler monkeys pierced the ceaseless mating call of cicadas. “We’re coming to what’s left of the Sak Tz’i’ dynasty,” Golden said.

Golden approached a barbed wire fence enclosing a pasture, then limboed under it and surveyed the vista beyond: the crumbling ruins of Sak Tz’i’, a Maya settlement at least 2,500 years old. Spread across 100 acres of tangled vines and lumpy earth were reminders of lost grandeur: giant heaps of rock and rubble that had once been temples, plazas, reception halls and a towering, terraced palace.

Directly ahead were the remains of a complex of platforms that had formed the acropolis. In its prime, it was dominated by a 45-foot-high pyramid in which members of the royal family might have been entombed. Where the pyramid and several elite residences once stood were toppled walls of cut stone. Golden noted that the entrance to the pyramid had probably featured a line of free-standing relief sculptures, called stelae, most of which were now buried in the debris or had been hacked off and carried away by thieves.

To the southeast he noted an alley filled with scree — it was a timeworn ball court, 350 feet long and 16 feet wide with sloping sides. The game, a religious event symbolizing regeneration, required players to keep a solid rubber ball aloft using only their hips and shoulders. Nearby, amid what had been a cluster of ceremonial centers, was a jumble of stones where commoners would have gathered for public observances and kings would have held court. Golden pointed to the former courtyard, now a jigsaw mound. “From this place,” he said, “the Sak Tz’i’ rulers sought to command their subjects — successfully or not — and engaged with the politics of a landscape over which multiple kingdoms struggled for control.”

Small and scrappy, Sak Tz’i’ — White Dog, in the language of ancient Mayan inscriptions — was the sometime ally, sometime vassal, sometime foe of several of the largest and most powerful regional players, including Piedras Negras in what is now Guatemala and Bonampak, Palenque, Toniná and Yaxchilán in present-day Chiapas. The dynasty flourished during the Classic period of Maya culture, from A.D. 250 to 900, when the civilization counted its greatest achievements in architecture, engineering, astronomy and mathematics.

For reasons still unclear, Sak Tz’i’ and hundreds of other settlements were abandoned and entire regions were left deserted in the ninth century. Although descendants still live in the area, the vagaries of nature buckled temple walls, tomb robbers disassembled pyramids, and a jungle canopy concealed plazas and causeways. Sak Tz’i’ was effectively erased from memory.

Scholars began searching for evidence of the realm only in 1994, when epigraphers reading a stela — found a century earlier in Guatemala — realized that a glyph described a Sak Tz’i’ king’s capture in A.D. 628.

Three summers ago, a team of researchers and local work crews led by Golden and Andrew Scherer, a bioarchaeologist at Brown University, explored the pasture and discovered the remains of dozens of stone stelae, cooking tools and the corpse of a middle-aged woman who had died at least 2,500 years earlier. Radiocarbon dating indicated that the site, which the researchers named Lacanjá Tzeltal after the nearby modern community, was most likely colonized by 750 B.C. and occupied until the end of the Classic period. Perhaps most remarkably, Golden and Scherer established that the cattle ranch had been a — if not the — capital of the Sak Tz’i’ dynasty.

Simon Martin, a curator at the Penn Museum of the University of Pennsylvania who was not involved in the project, said that the evidence the two researchers and their colleagues provided made a strong case that Lacanjá Tzeltal was the real Sak Tz’i’ or at least a dynasty seat for part of its history.

“The discarded carcasses of looted monuments at this site match some of those previously attached to Sak Tz’i’,” he said, “while the discovery of a new monument commissioned by a Sak Tz’i’ ruler is equally telling.”

The Carnitas Vendor

Golden, 50, and Scherer, 46, have collaborated in the backwaters of historical Mesoamerica since the late 1990s. They were the first archaeologists to document newly discovered systems of fortifications at the Late Classic Maya sites of Tecolote, in 2003, and Oso Negro, in 2005, in Guatemala.

“The division of labor really comes down to our areas of expertise,” said Golden, who organizes geographic data, mapping and remote sensing with drones. Scherer analyzes human bones and anything to do with diet, isotopes and burials.

Tall, trim and droll, Golden was born in Chicago, and as a youth he was captivated by the artifacts in the Oriental Institute Museum. “I was terrified of the mummies, I couldn’t even be in the same room with them,” he said. “But I was also dazzled by pieces of the Ishtar Gate from Babylon and the other relics from Mesopotamia. It was stunning to see actual fragments from places I had heard about in the Bible.”

Golden studied archaeology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, but the most important lesson he learned, he said, was as a summer intern at a dig in Belize in 1993. Digging a test pit, he pulled from the ground a small, ridged tube. “I was sure that it was a decorative pre-Columbian bead,” he said. Grinning proudly, he showed it to his supervisor, who turned it over in his hands and said: “Someone must have dropped this at lunch. It’s Kraft macaroni and cheese.” The would-be Louis Leakey slunk back to his pit, much the wiser.

Scherer is shorter and stockier, with a ponytail and a beard that dusts his chin with gray. He grew up in central Minnesota and caught the archaeology bug in college — Hamline University in St. Paul — doing a field study at a 2,000-year-old Native American encampment. The course was jointly led by Ojibwe elders, who taught him how to knap flint, tan hides and build wigwams.

Both researchers were drawn to Maya culture, the only one in the ancient Americas with a written history dating to the first millennium. “We know the names of the kings and queens who governed the places we study, who were their enemies and their allies, when they went to war, when they were born and died,” Scherer said.

Scherer and Golden were tipped off to the existence of the Lacanjá Tzeltal ruins by one of their former research assistants. In 2014, a University of Pennsylvania grad student named Whittaker Schroder was scouting out archaeological digs near the Guatemalan border for a dissertation topic. While driving through the tiny rainforest town of Nuevo Taniperla, Schroder, now a postdoctoral associate at the University of Florida, passed a roadside carnitas stand. The vendor tried to flag him down, but Schroder, a vegetarian, kept going.

Not long after, he drove by the stand. Again the vendor tried to get his attention. This time Schroder stopped. “The vendor said he had a friend with a stone that he wanted an archaeologist to look at,” he recalled. “I asked him to elaborate, and he explained that the stone had a carving with the Maya calendar and other glyphs.”

That evening, a friend of the vendor showed Schroder a cellphone photo that, although grainy, clearly displayed a small wall panel illustrated with hieroglyphics. In one corner was a dancing figure in ceremonial headdress, wielding an ax in his right hand and a bludgeon in his left. Jacinto Gómez Sánchez, a cattle rancher who lived 25 miles away, had unearthed the limestone slab on his property many years before.

Schroder contacted Golden and Scherer. “We frequently get requests to look at stone figurines and sculptures in private collections,” Scherer said. “While the vases and other ceramic objects are almost invariably ancient, the stone sculptures are usually modern objects crafted for tourists. So when someone says, ‘Come see my pre-Columbian sculpture,’ we tend to assume we’re going to look at a souvenir knockoff.”

To the great surprise of both Mayanists, the photo that was texted to them showed a full-size monument bearing glyphs of the Sak Tz’i’ dynasty. It took them another four years to negotiate permission to excavate on the property. In 2019, the research team flew drones and planes over the site that were equipped with a sensing tool called LIDAR, which could see through the forest canopy to visualize the land and archaeology beneath. The researchers estimated that at its peak, around A.D. 750, the settlement had as many 1,000 inhabitants.

In June this year, after a two-year delay because of the coronavirus, Golden, Scherer and their team returned to the site. Much of the work was preventive maintenance. With the stone walls of the acropolis in danger of collapse, the Mexican anthropologist Fernando Godos and a local crew were enlisted to stabilize the crumbling masonry.

Remnants of low walls encircle parts of the excavation site, especially near the palace, which is unusual for the region’s bygone kingdoms; typically such bulwarks were built on the outskirts. One aim of the next season of research is to determine whether the walls were hastily built in the dynasty’s final days, as Scherer believes, or if they were part of the original construction, or at least modification, of the Classic period site center. Defense seems to have been the overarching concern at Lacanjá Tzeltal, a densely packed stronghold hemmed in by arroyos and steep riverbanks. The stone barricades presumably reinforced wooden palisades.

A Vanished Dynasty

The Maya, with their staggeringly precise calendars, sophisticated hieroglyphs, highly productive agricultural system and ability to predict celestial phenomena such as eclipses, were arguably the most enlightened culture of the New World. They built sumptuous settlements without the aid of the wheel, metal tools or beasts of burden.

“The Maya were truly the Greeks of the ancient Americas,” Martin said. “They built an advanced civilization despite, or perhaps even because of, profound political divisions — with well over a hundred competing kingdoms.”

Maya society extended beyond modern borders, north from Guatemala into the Yucatán Peninsula, east into Belize and south through the western extremities of El Salvador and Honduras. Never politically unified, the Maya of the Classic period were a hodgepodge of city-states.

“You’ve got massive kingdoms in the central lowlands, like Tikal and Calakmul — the United States and Soviet Union of their time,” Scherer said. “Our team deals with much smaller realms involved in their own sort of political alliances that break down and turn into conflicts at a really tiny, localized scale.” Inscriptions on the monuments of those settlements often trace the history of civilization to a universal flood. The Long Count calendar kept track of the days since the mythical starting date of the Maya creation, Aug. 11, 3114 B.C.

The landscape of the ancient Maya is stippled with ruins whose names are unknown to scholars and whose hieroglyphic inscriptions mention scores of places the locations of which are now lost. “Sak Tz’i’ fell into the latter category, and the dogged pursuit of its identity has engaged scholars for some three decades,” Martin said. “Why? Because Sak Tz’i’ was the most important of the remaining ‘homeless’ political actors.”

The most famous mention of the society, aside from stone inscriptions found in museums and private collections, appeared in lintels over doorways at Bonampak, in which Sak Tz’i’ captives are depicted defeated and humiliated.

The references to Sak Tz’i’ helped narrow down its location in eastern Chiapas but still left hundreds of square miles within which it could lie hidden. A 2003 paper in the journal Latin American Antiquity triangulated the settlement’s geographical coordinates, but the computer model was just that — a model that required confirmation.

There were false starts. Plan de Ayutla in Chiapas, a magnificent site rediscovered during the mid-1990s, was more or less in the right spot and contained an impressive collection of temples and the region’s largest ball court. The scraps of Mayan text at Plan de Ayutla provided no name, but the site seemed a likely contender for Sak Tz’i’. “Unfortunately, there has never been any glyphic evidence to link Plan de Ayutla to the Sak Tz’i’ kingdom,” Golden said.

Out to Pasture

Gómez, 46, is sturdy and cheerful, with silver in his smile and, when necessary, has a resolute stare. He lives on his cattle ranch with his wife, four children and pet spider monkey, Pancho. His grandfather helped found the village of Lacanjá Tzeltal in 1962.

Gómez recalls frolicking through the Sak Tz’i’ rubble as a child. His father and grandfather instilled in him the need to protect the monuments and sculptures on the property. “They remind me of my heritage,” Gómez said. A decade ago, when looters threatened to sneak in at night to steal relics, he decided to consult archaeologists about the wall panel, and enlisted the carnitas dealer as a go-between.

In June, Gómez showed Scherer around the off-site facility in which the most treasured relics were stored. He pointed out tools, clay pots, sling stones, grinding stones, a stucco jaguar head. When he displayed a handsomely carved flint spear point, Scherer beamed with familiarity.

In 2019, while excavating the ball court, Scherer unearthed a stone altar. Beneath it he found the spear point, obsidian blades, spiny oyster shells and fragments of greenstone. In Maya cosmology, he explained, flint connoted warfare and the sun or sky; obsidian, darkness and sacrifice. Oyster shells and greenstone were equated with life, vitality and solar rebirth in the sea.

Although the altar was badly eroded, Golden created a 3D model and showed that its glyph depicted two bound, prostrated captives and the pincers of a monstrous centipede — a motif the Maya used to mark a subterranean or underworld scene.

The gem of the recovered antiquities was the 2-by-4-foot wall panel, recently dated to A.D. 775, that had set the excavation in motion. A translation of the inscription by Stephen Houston, an anthropologist at Brown University, revealed tales of battles, rituals, a legendary flood and a fantastical water serpent described in poetic couplets as “shiny sky, shiny earth.”

Scherer said that although other Maya settlements also had mythic accounts of creation, the Lacanjá Tzeltal tablet’s story was unique to the site and could be an allegory for its construction. “The stories touch on the community’s relationship to the surrounding natural environment,” he said. “The area is thick with streams and waterfalls and frequently floods.”

The glyphs also highlight the lives of dynastic rulers such as the delightfully named K’ab Kante’, including when each one died, how they were memorialized and under what circumstances their successors came to the throne. In one glyph, the Sak Tz’i’ ruler appears as the dancing Yopaat, a divinity associated with violent tropical storms. The ax in his right hand is a lightning bolt, the snake-footed deity K’awiil; in his left he carries a “manopla,” a stone club used in ritual combat. The missing panel is presumed to have featured a prisoner of war, kneeling in supplication to Yopaat.

Martin called the findings of Golden and Scherer a major advance in our understanding of Classic period Maya politics and culture. “Such discoveries restore history to now lifeless ruins and, metaphorically at least, repopulate them with long-dead rulers, nobles, warriors, artisans, merchants, farmers and the whole social matrix of ancient Maya society,” he said.

Scott Hutson, an archaeologist at the University of Kentucky who was not involved in the research, noted that before the location of Sak Tz’i’ was pinned down, “archaeologists knew that its rulers engaged in high-stakes diplomacy, sometimes resulting in warfare with powerful neighbors.” The maps by Golden and Scherer, he added, “bring a concreteness and poignancy to this narrative, showing that the site was smaller than most of its competitors and in a sense punched above its weight.”

At Lacanjá Tzeltal, Golden stood astride a stone heap under an excavation tent and conjured up the heyday of the Sak Tz’i’ kingdom. Dust in the air caught the afternoon sunlight, and the silence of the site seemed to echo. Searching for the lost settlement, Golden said, had been like assembling a map of medieval Europe from historical documents and not knowing where Burgundy should go. “Essentially, we’ve located Burgundy,” he said. “It’s that critical a piece of the puzzle.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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