In the rainforests of Guatemala, a team of archaeologists are trying to excavate ruins dating back to the Maya Empire. But while searching for a forgotten stairway, they stumble across a far more fascinating find. It’s a stone tablet that was carved some 1,600 years ago. And what the object depicts gives the group some incredible insights into one of history’s most mysterious civilizations.
The Maya Empire was a complex, far-reaching civilization that existed throughout central America long before European settlers crossed the Atlantic Ocean. First emerging in around 2,000 BC, the Maya peoples thrived across what is now Belize and Guatemala; they also extended into parts of Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador.
Known for their advanced grasp of architecture, art, astronomy and mathematics, the Maya peoples also began raising elaborate temples and settlements across their empire. And after approximately 250 AD, much of their civilization was centered around powerful city-states connected by politics and trade. However, the outbreak of war in the 800s began to destabilize the region.
Eventually, weakened by in-fighting and decimated by the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, the Maya Empire fell. For around 3,500 years, though, this fascinating civilization held sway over vast swathes of central America. And yet much about the Maya peoples remains a mystery to this day.
Then, in 2008 the La Corona Regional Archaeological Project set out to shed some light on a particular corner of the Maya Empire located in the rainforest of northern Guatemala’s Petén region. The site was once home to a Maya court residence subsequently named “La Corona” – or “the crown” in Spanish.
Now although La Corona wasn’t rediscovered until 1996, experts had suspected its existence since the 1960s. During that period, relics stolen from other Maya sites were found to contain references to a mysterious city. The area was then dubbed “Site Q,” and the location of the settlement was the subject of much debate among scholars and explorers alike.
However, when two environmentalists stumbled across some undiscovered ruins in the Guatemalan jungle, some began to suspect that this settlement could be the source of the looted relics. And finally, in 2005 a Yale professor discovered proof that La Corona and Site Q were one and the same.
Three years after that revelation came to light, the La Corona Regional Archaeological Project began excavating the area. Overseen by Marcello A. Canuto of the Middle American Research Institute at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, and Tomás Barrientos of the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, the project takes a multi-disciplinary approach to archaeological study of the region and has made some fascinating discoveries over the years.
In 2012, for example, archaeologists at La Corona recovered a dozen risers that would have been part of a stairway. And they were decorated in a relief design featuring a number of different scenes. What’s more, researchers were able to locate another ten artifacts nearby.
Apparently, these latter risers had initially been stolen from the ruins at La Corona. Yet the looters were thought to have abandoned them when they realized that their designs were too faded for the objects to have any value on the black market. Their loss was history’s gain, though, as experts soon realized that the risers held vital information about the Maya civilization.
When translated, the hieroglyphs on one panel were found to contain a reference to the infamous ending of the Maya calendar – an event that continues to spawn countless legends and conspiracy theories to this day. In fact, it was only the second time that a specific mention of this supposedly cataclysmic occasion had been unearthed.
Then, in 2015 Luke Auld-Thomas, a graduate student at Tulane University, decided to join the excavations in an area known as El Achiotal, some 12 miles east of La Corona. Originally, he had hoped to locate a stairway in one of the site’s oldest structures – thought to date from between 800 BC and 250 AD. However, what Auld-Thomas and the team ended up finding was far more impressive.
While excavating the ruins in search of the staircase, a worker alerted Auld-Thomas and his colleagues to an unusual find. Apparently, the excavator had discovered a stela – a type of stone monument found throughout the Maya Empire. And when the archaeologists took a closer look, they were stunned by what they saw.
“We gasped and looked in. And there’s the face of a king just staring straight out at us,” Auld-Thomas told National Geographic in 2015. “It had been very carefully placed by the ancient Maya so that it was looking out [of] a doorway – like a museum piece in a display case.”
But there was more to unearth. There were actually two parts of the stela, and these were seemingly portions of a larger whole. As a result, it was concluded that these fragments must have been moved to El Achiotal from another location. Afterwards, in any case, the pieces of the stela had been placed at a form of shrine. And there they had been venerated with gifts of rocks, ceramics and human bone.
Furthermore, one of the stela parts depicts a man bearing what is known as a serpent bar; and this bar in turn indicated that he was some kind of leader. But who could this man have been? In an attempt to solve the riddle, David Stuart, an epigrapher from the University of Texas, got to work on decoding the hieroglyphs that accompany the image.
Eventually, Stuart was able to determine that the stela had been created to mark the 40th anniversary of the rule of a vassal lord known as an ajaw. Moreover, he concluded that the event had occurred on November 22, 418 AD – four decades after the warrior king Siyaj K’ahk had ushered in a new era for the Maya Empire.
According to historians, Siyaj K’ahk arrived in the region in 378 AD. And it seems that he then took over the city-state of Tikal and picked new leaders who were sympathetic to his cause. So, could this stela have been erected to mark 40 years since the appointment of one of these vassal lords? Perhaps. But that’s not all.
Remarkably, archaeologists at El Achiotal also discovered evidence that the stela pieces had been venerated even after the site was abandoned – at a time when the area was overseen by Calakmul, an enemy state to Tikal. So, with the two powers locked in what some have deemed a form of “Cold War,” was the worship of a Tikal lord in Calakmul lands an act of rebellion from within the Maya Empire?
For Auld-Thomas, though, the secrets of El Achiotal are only just beginning to reveal themselves. “You always have more questions than answers when you come away from these things, so I’m definitely eager to get back to the site,” he explained to National Geographic. In fact, the archaeologist planned to return to the area the following year – although the results of his expedition have yet to be revealed.