An ancient Maya city reveals its secrets to solve one of history’s biggest enigmas

The discovery – the burning of a long-dead king’s skeleton and sacred funerary regalia – reveals new secrets

David Keys
Wednesday 24 April 2024 18:28 BST
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Related video: Ancient Mayan Discovery Links Them to Mysterious Ancient Mesoamerican Civilization
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A remarkable archaeological discovery is shedding a new light on one of history’s biggest enigmas – the collapse of central America’s ancient Maya civilisation.

This new discovery – the ritual destruction of the symbolic icons of a deposed royal dynasty – is helping to reveal the complexity of that decline.

Together with historical data from transcribed Maya hieroglyphic texts from other sites, the discovery, at Ucanal in northern Guatemala, provides a unique glimpse of the political instability that seems to have fundamentally changed Maya history.

Maya royalty: probable conquerors burned the kingdom’s sacred regalia, including a jade death mask much like this one
Maya royalty: probable conquerors burned the kingdom’s sacred regalia, including a jade death mask much like this one (Bernard DuPont)

Archaeologists believe that the new discovery – the burning of a long-dead king’s skeleton and sacred funerary regalia – represents a new political system’s deliberate desecration of a Maya kingdom’s former royal rulers. It’s one of the most graphic examples of ancient geopolitical strife ever found in the Maya world – and is among the most significant Central American archaeological discoveries of recent years.

The Maya kingdoms

The Maya civilisation consisted of dozens of often competing kingdoms. Although the new political system (and the desecration event) at Ucanal seems to have given that particular kingdom a temporary new lease of life, it was almost certainly part of more widespread geopolitical instability which ultimately contributed to fundamental changes in much of the Maya civilisation as a whole.

A grass-covered mound in Ucanal that conceals a major pyramid, which has yet to be properly excavated
A grass-covered mound in Ucanal that conceals a major pyramid, which has yet to be properly excavated (Proyecto Arqueológico Ucanal)

That civilisation was at its most vibrant between around 600AD and around 800AD. But, by 900AD, the glory days were over across much of the Maya world. Part of that ninth-century decline may have been an invasion by a people from the western edge of the Maya civilisation. Some scholars have argued that Ucanal may have been taken over by those foreigners by the 820s – and the recently discovered desecration evidence shows the extreme lengths to which the new rulers went in order to destroy the spiritual power (and probably remaining political prestige) of the dynasty they had just deposed.

The Ucanal evidence suggests that the new rulers removed royal skeletons (and sacred funerary regalia of iconic former Ucanal kings) by breaking into their pyramid tomb or tombs. It’s likely that they then took those skeletons (and sacred royal regalia) and publicly burned them in one of the city’s great ceremonial plazas. The destroyed material was then used as building material to help the new regime construct an imposing new temple pyramid, symbolising the dawn of a new political era.

Maya royalty: an image of a ninth-century Maya ruler (a king of the city state of Machaquila in what is now Guatemala) gives some idea of what the probable conqueror of Ucanal must have looked like
Maya royalty: an image of a ninth-century Maya ruler (a king of the city state of Machaquila in what is now Guatemala) gives some idea of what the probable conqueror of Ucanal must have looked like ( Wikimedia Commons)

Significantly, the deliberately-destroyed sacred regalia included what had been a Ucanal king’s once-spectacular jade death mask, a royal crown (part of which had also been made of jade), a series of spectacular, high-status jade pendants and other personal adornments, obsidian (volcanic glass) blades – and garments or necklaces made of more than 10,000 marine shell beads.

The public burning of the deposed dynasty’s royal skeletons and regalia was very thorough – involving temperatures of over 800C which resulted in the fragmentation of the skeletons and the sacred regalia items.

“This discovery is very significant because it gives us an insight into an important moment in time when the Maya world was experiencing political, economic and social changes” said one of the key archaeologists who excavated the site, professor Christina Halperin of the University of Montreal.

“The public burning and desecration of the skeletons of former Maya royalty represents a genuinely revolutionary pivot point which contributed to the beginning of a new era of political rule among the Maya”, she explained.

Papmalil

The foreign ruler who seems to have taken over Ucanal (and probably several other Maya kingdoms) was a military strongman called Papmalil (a non-Maya name) who, according to the title he gave himself, did not regard himself as a traditional Maya ruler, let alone as a traditional king of Ucanal, but as a military and political overlord, controlling a much larger territory. Indeed the title he bore (Ochk’in Kaloomte, probably meaning “supreme warrior of the west”) had previously been associated with the rulers of a great central Mexican empire (that of Teotihuacan) which had flourished around two centuries earlier, more than 500 miles to the west.

The events in Ucanal, and the many other changes that marked the decline of classic Maya civilisation throughout much of Central America, had complex causes which almost certainly included climatic crises (especially droughts), overpopulation, political disunity, economic and trade problems and possibly also epidemics and societal instability as well as invasions and wars.

However, as a people, the Maya and much of their ancient culture continued – and indeed have survived to the present day. It was only the great Maya megacities (some with populations between 30,000 and 180,000) and their spectacular pyramid-building traditions that declined (first, by around 900AD in the south of the Maya world – and then, by around 1400AD, further north).

Archaeological investigators at Ucanal have so far discovered substantial numbers of important artefacts – including this beautifully carved monolith that may date to 879AD
Archaeological investigators at Ucanal have so far discovered substantial numbers of important artefacts – including this beautifully carved monolith that may date to 879AD ( Proyecto Arqueológico Ucanal)

The Maya were then hit by the Spanish conquest. Although that conquest started in 1523, it took at least 170 years to complete. But the Maya themselves are still a vibrant culture today - with six million people in five Central American countries still speaking Maya languages and many still engaging in traditional Maya craft work and agriculture – and conducting Maya rituals with links to ancient Maya practices.

The discovery of the desecration of the kings at Ucanal is being published this month by the UK-based international archaeology journal, Antiquity.

The full archaeological report can be read online.

Ongoing archaeological investigations have revealed that ancient Maya Ucanal was a 10-square-mile metropolis with a three-square-mile monumental urban core. So far archaeologists have mapped over 2,297 buildings, 65 of which were major monumental complexes (including over 14 pyramids).

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