Archaeologists Unearth Stone Monument Detailing 'Dark Period' In Maya History
July 18, 2013

Archaeologists Unearth Stone Monument Detailing ‘Dark Period’ In Maya History

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

Archaeologists have uncovered a "dark period" in Mayan history while tunneling beneath the main temple of El Peru-Waka', an ancient Maya city in northern Guatemala, according to cultural officials in that country.

The discovery, an elaborately carved monument with hieroglyphic text, details the exploits of a little-known sixth-century princess whose descendants prevailed during a long-lived, often bloody struggle between two powerful royal dynasties of the period.

David Freidel, PhD, a professor of anthropology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL), said "great rulers took pleasure in describing adversity as a prelude to ultimate success." In this case, Lady Ikoom, known as the Snake queen, "prevailed in the end."


The stone monument is officially known as El Peru Stela 44 and offers a wealth of information about the period's history, including the names of two previously unknown Maya rulers and the political struggles that shaped their dynasties, explained Freidel.

"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."

Stela 44 is not the only stone monument of its kind unearthed in Maya ruins. Each of the ones before has also told the tale of ancient dynasties and have each played an important role in the understanding of ancient Mayan culture.

According to Stanley Guenter, who deciphered the ancient text, Stela 44 was originally dedicated about 1,450 years ago, in the calendar period ending in AD 564, by the Wak dynasty King Wa'oom Uch'ab Tzi'kin. That title roughly translates as "He Who Stands Up the Offering of the Eagle."

After the monument was exposed to the elements for more than a century, Stela 44 was moved under the orders of a later king and buried as an offering inside new construction that took place at the main temple in El Peru Waka' in AD 700. It is believed that that offering was part of funeral rituals for a great queen entombed in the building at the time.

Freidel has directed research at the temple since 2003 and has worked in collaboration with Guatemalan and foreign archaeologists. Juan Carlos Perez Calderon is the current co-director of the project and Olivia Navarro Farr, an assistant professor at the College of Wooster in Ohio, is co-principal investigator and supervisor of the temple work, known as Structure M13-1. Griselda Perez, a Guatemalan archaeologist is credited with the discovery of Stela 44.

The discovery of Stela 44 was possible due to excavation of a short tunnel along the centerline of the stairway of the main temple in order to give access to other tunnels leading to a royal tomb discovered in 2012.

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


The analysis of the glyphs suggests Stela 44 was commissioned by King Wa'oom Uch'ab Tzi'kin in honor of his father, King Chak Took Ich'aak (translated as Red Spark Claw), who had died in AD 556. This is the first time these names have been spoken in modern history, making them new to the science, according to the researchers.

The Snake queen, Lady Ikoom, who is also featured in the text, was an important figure, as her name was used by a later king who recovered the stela.

Researchers assume that Lady Ikoom was one of two Snake dynasty princesses sent into arranged marriages with the rulers of El Peru Waka' and another nearby Maya city as a means of maintaining control over the region.

Lady Ikoom was a predecessor of one of the greatest queens of the Classic Maya civilization, the seventh-century Maya Holy Snake Lord, Lady Kaloomte K'abel, who ruled El Peru Waka for more than 20 years with her husband King K'inich Bahlam II. Carrying the title "Kaloomte," meaning "Supreme Warrior," Lady Ikoom held a higher rank than her husband and was the military governor for the Wak kingdom.

King K'inich Bahlam II brought Stela 44 to the main city in AD 700 to be buried as an offering, most likely as part of a funeral ritual for queen Kaloomte K'abel.

The discovery of Stela 44 follows another prominent discovery made last year, when Stela 43 was uncovered, which had been built into the walls of the city temple. This stela was dedicated by King K'inich Bahlam II in AD 702. Lady Ikoom graces the front of the monument celebrating an event in AD 574. She was likely an ancestor of the king.

Lady Kaloomte K'abel's tomb was discovered at the temple in 2012 by Freidel and his colleagues. Stela 44 was located near the tomb of K'abel. It had been placed under the plaster floor of the plaza in front of the old temple and then buried under the treads of the stairway of the new temple.


Stela 44 is quite eroded from the century of exposure before being buried. But archaeologists were able to observe a king standing face forward cradling a sacred bundle in his arms. There exist two other stelae at this site with such a pose, Stela 23 (from AD 524) and Stela 22 (from AD 554). These stelae were likely raised by King Chak Took Ich'aak. The naming is derived from two powerful kings of Tikal and it is likely that this king of Waka was named after them, suggest the researchers.

The text describes the accession of the son of Chak Took Ich'aak, Wa'oom Uch'ab Tzi'kin, in AD 556 as witnessed by Lady Ikoom, who was most likely his mother. Her titles, Sak Wayis (White Spirit) and K'uhul Chatan Winik (Holy Chatan Person,) are strongly associated with the powerful Snake or Kan kings who ruled territories to the north of El Peru Waka', making it very likely that Lady Ikoom was a Snake princess, argues Guenter.

"We infer that sometime in the course of his reign King Chak Took Ich'aak changed sides and became a Snake dynasty vassal," Freidel said. "But then, when he died and his son and heir came to power, he did so under the auspices of a foreign king who, Guenter argues from details, is the reigning king of Tikal. So Tikal had reasserted command of Waka' and somehow Queen Ikoom survived this imposition."

"Then, in a dramatic shift in the tides of war, that same Tikal King, Wak Chan K'awiil, was defeated and sacrificed by the Snake king in AD 562. Finally, two years after that major reversal, the new king and his mother raised Stela 44, giving the whole story as outlined above," explained Freidel.

The tales of political intrigue and bloodshed found in Stela 44 are just a few of the many dramatic stories of Classic Maya history that have been deciphered. Freidel plans to continue studying Stela 44 in hopes of uncovering more clues about ancient Mayan history. While the text is only partially preserved, it clearly reveals an important piece of the El Peru Waka' history, Freidel concluded.