Stunning Wall Structure Unearthed In Maya City Of Holmul
August 8, 2013

Stunning Wall Structure Unearthed In Maya City Of Holmul

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

A team of archaeologists on Wednesday reported the discovery of an enormous structure unearthed in Guatemala beneath an ancient Maya pyramid. The stucco wall structure, called a frieze, is nearly 30 feet long and more than 6 feet tall and depicts human figures in a mythological setting, suggesting they may be sacred, idolized rulers.

The frieze was discovered in July in the buried foundations of the Maya pyramid in the ancient city of Holmul. The discovery came while archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli and colleagues were excavating a tunnel previously left open by looters. Belli noted the looters came very close to uncovering it themselves, but thankfully hadn't seen it.

Belli, who is associated with Tulane University, Boston University, and the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), said this is one of the best preserved examples of its kind.

"It is one of the most fabulous things I have ever seen," he said. "The preservation is wonderful because it was very carefully packed with dirt before they started building over it."

Belli, who is also a National Geographic Explorer, noted that the sculpture is about "95 percent preserved." Belli's Holmul excavation was also supported by the National Geographic Society-Waitt Grants Program.

Marcello Canuto, another Maya archaeologist on the research team from Tulane University in New Orleans, agreed that the frieze was "amazingly and beautifully preserved." He added that archaeologists often "dream of finding things this well preserved, and Francisco did it."

Despite being buried for so long and fading of most of the colors, some traces of red, blue, green and yellow paint can still be seen on the frieze. Canuto explained to Ker Than of National Geographic that the vivid colors give "an idea of how intricate and ornate these sites" were during the time of Mayan rule, adding they "must have been a feast for the eyes when they were inhabited."

Archaeologists believe that most large Maya temples such as this one had similar designs and colors, according to David Stuart, a Maya hieroglyph expert at the University of Texas, Austin. "But not all temples were so carefully buried and preserved like this," he added.

The archaeology team explain that this section of the temple at Holmul dates back to around 590 AD, which corresponds to the Maya classical era, a period that saw a power struggle between two major dynasties: Tikal and Kaanul.

These two great powers of the time competed for natural resources and control of other, smaller Maya city-states. Before the discovery of this spectacular stucco wall structure, it was unclear which dynasty Holmul was ruled by. An inscription found on the frieze reveals that the temple was commissioned by Ajwosaj, a ruler in the neighboring city-stat of Naranjo, which has been previously discovered to be part of the Kaanul dynasty.

This discovery now confirms that Holmul was "under the influence of the Kaanul dynasty," Canuto said.

Canuto and colleagues discovered and deciphered a series of hieroglyphics at another Maya city last year that had similarities to the Holmul site. That city-state, called La Corona, also owed its allegiance to the Kaanul kingdom.

Discoveries such as these at La Corona and Holmul help scientists reveal how smaller city-states were important systems on the much larger geopolitical stage.

"We're now beginning to appreciate how all these hierarchical levels of sites were involved in a larger political game that put them on [the side of either Tikal or Kaanul]," Canuto explained.

But why was Holmul, a minor city of between 10,000 and 20,000 people, so important to the Tikal and Kaanul dynasties?

To answer that question, Belli points to previous research, which had shown that Holmul occupied a strategic position for both dynasties. The city was located along the east-west route between the Tikal capital city and the coast. It also lay along the north-south route between Kaanul's capital city of Dzibanche and the Guatemalan highlands that did not pass through Tikal territory.

Precious resources -- such as basalt, obsidian and jade -- were abundant in the Guatemalan highlands and were highly coveted by both kingdoms. "A [Maya] king without jade was no king at all," Canuto noted.

By controlling Holmul in the east and La Corona in the west, the Kaanul kingdom had an unrestricted route to the Guatemalan highland riches without going through the capital of rival Tikal.

Belli said the frieze will remain buried in Holmul because it is just too big to move. "We're very concerned about its present condition, so we had to re-bury the entrance tunnel to keep the humidity and climate around it stable."

"We're going to try to preserve it and create a stable environment around it so people can eventually visit it," explained Belli.

While Belli, Canuto and colleagues wrap up their work at the Holmul site, another recent discovery has garnered much attention.

David Freidel, PhD, professor of anthropology with Washington University in St. Louis, led a team of archaeologists who unearthed an elaborately carved monument at El-Peru Waka' in northern Guatemala. This discovery detailed a "dark period" in Maya history when two dynasties were embroiled in a bloody struggle for power.

The monument, known as El Peru Stela 44, offered researchers a wealth of information on several rulers of the time, including the Snake Queen Lady Ikoom.

As for Holmul, Belli said his team will return next year to do more excavation work around the tomb and check on the preservation status of the frieze.


Images Below: (LEFT) Archaeologist Anya Shetler cleans an inscription below an ancient stucco frieze recently unearthed in the buried Maya city of Holmul. (RIGHT) An ancestral deity holds a sign in both hands that reads naaah waaj, or "first tamale"--a reference to a sacred food offering--in this view of the south side of the frieze. Credit: Photographs courtesy of Francisco Estrada-Belli