Ancient Maya kingdom discovered in... a rancher's backyard

Ancient Maya kingdom discovered in… a rancher’s backyard

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Ancient Maya kingdom discovered in… a rancher’s backyard

Archaeologists may have finally discovered the capital city of Sak Tz’i ‘, a Maya kingdom that is referenced in sculptures and inscriptions from around the ancient Maya world, after searching for more than a quarter-century.

But archaeologists were not the ones who made the discovery. Near Lacanja Tzeltal, a village in Chiapas, Mexico, a local man discovered a 2 by 4-foot (0.6 by 1.2 metres) tablet.

A drawing (left) and a digital 3D model (right) of a stone slab found at the newly discovered kingdom.

The inscriptions of the tablet are a treasure trove of myths, poetry and history that reflect the traditional Maya tradition of weaving myth and reality together.

According to a news release from Brandeis University in Massachusetts, various parts of the tablet contain inscriptions that recount a mythical water serpent, various unnamed gods, a mythical flood and accounts of the births, lives, and battles of ancient rulers.

Sak Tz’i’ sat on what’s now the border between Mexico and Guatemala, and it probably wasn’t an especially powerful kingdom, Charles Golden, an associate professor of anthropology at Brandeis University, said in the statement.

Despite being surrounded by stronger neighbors, evidence suggests that the kingdom’s capital city was occupied for more than a millennium after being settled in 750 B.C. The kingdom’s longevity may be due to the fortifications that surrounded its capital city.

The researchers found evidence that the city was protected by a stream with a steep ravine on one side and defensive masonry walls on the other.

The team members added that the kingdom may have benefitted from forming strategic peace deals with its more powerful neighbors.

Even though this kingdom never achieved great power, “Sak Tz’i’ was a formidable enemy and an important ally to those greater kingdoms, as evidenced by the frequency by which it appears in texts at those sites,” the researchers wrote in the study, published online in December 2019 in the Journal of Field Archaeology.

That said, the kingdom experienced conflict, both with its neighbors and from nature, the archaeological record suggests. For instance, there’s a figure of a dancing ruler carved into the bottom of the tablet.

This ruler is dressed like the god Yopaat, who is associated with violent tropical storms. The figure holds a lightning-bolt ax in his right hand and a stone weapon used in ritual combat in his left hand.

What’s more, the researchers found another sculpture at the site that appears to tell of a fire that destroyed part of the city during a violent conflict with one of its neighbors.

Since excavation began in the summer of 2018, the researchers have identified several structures that offer insight into political, religious and commercial life in the kingdom. These include the remains of pyramids, a royal palace and a ball court.

One of the capital’s most striking features, the ruins of a pyramid that once stood 45 feet (14 m) tall, is surrounded by structures that might have served as houses for elites and religious rituals, the researchers said.

The pyramid also has a number of stelae (carved stone slabs) around it, including one showing the soles of nobles’ feet facing outward toward the viewer, “an unusual depiction otherwise featured only on a few Maya vases,” the researchers wrote in the study.

University of Pennsylvania student Whittaker Schroder (left) and Brown University bioarchaeologist Andrew Scherer (right) excavate the remains of the Maya ball court.

In addition, the researchers uncovered a 1.5-acre (0.6 hectares) courtyard called the Plaza Muk’ul Ton, or Monuments Plaza, where people gathered for religious and political ceremonies.

The discovery marks a major step forward in the study of the ancient Maya world. The researchers hope further analysis of the site’s architecture and detailed inscriptions will offer new insight into the politics, economy, rituals and warfare of the Maya civilization’s western regions.

Going forward, the archaeologists plan to use lidar — or light detection and ranging — a tool that uses lasers and can be mounted on an airplane or drone to discover architecture and topography hidden under the dense jungle canopy.

The team is especially interested in how kingdoms such as Sak Tz’i’ managed to survive for so long, despite apparently never becoming as powerful as rival kingdoms in the region.

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P. Natasha Covers Classical Archaeology news and has been with Histecho since 2017. She has a Master's degree in MA Archaeology from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program. A California native, she also holds a Bachelor of science in molecular biology and a Master of Science in biology from the University of California, San Diego.

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