WASHINGTON, D.C., 6 May 2004—New finds at
a little-known, 2,000-year-old Maya site in Guatemala indicate it was one of
the earliest and largest cities of the Preclassic Maya, a kingdom brimming with
sophistication rarely associated with the period.
Two monumental carved
masks and elaborate jade ritual objects found in recent excavations of the
city's central plaza — as well as high-tech mapping of the site —
indicate to archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli that this Preclassic site
known as Cival, dating to about 150 B.C., was no backwater.
Cival was one of the largest cities of the Preclassic Maya, maybe housing
10,000 people at its peak," said Estrada-Belli, who is leading the research. He
believes Cival could have surpassed nearby Holmul, which rose to prominence
nearly a thousand years later in the Classic Maya period. The work of
Estrada-Belli, assistant professor at Vanderbilt University, is supported by
Cival also was designed to help the Preclassic Maya
measure time. "It had an important astronomical function," Estrada-Belli said.
"It's not coincidence that the central axis of the main buildings and the plaza
is oriented to sunrise at the equinox." .
Using satellite imaging to
spot possible archaeological sites, then following up on the ground with GPS
technology, Estrada-Belli and his team have determined that Cival's ceremonial
center spanned a half mile of Guatemala's Petén region, twice the
initial estimate of Cival's discoverer, explorer Ian Graham. Cival is now known
to have five pyramids, one of them some 100 feet (30 meters) tall.
Cival's apparent sophistication provides new evidence that the Maya of
the Preclassic period (about 2000 B.C. to A.D. 250) had a culture similar to
that of the Classic Maya who followed. "'Preclassic' is a misnomer,"
Estrada-Belli said. "Preclassic Maya societies already had many features that
have been attributed to the Classic period — kings, complex iconography,
elaborate palaces and burials.".
Francisco Estrada-Belli peers through a window into
a Maya temple and discovers a wall painted red more
than 2,000 years ago.
The temple, once occupied by a Maya king, is in the hub of a city that dates to
Photo credit: Kenneth Garrett/National Geographic Archaeologist
Photo courtesy of National Geographic Society.
The most spectacular find at Cival so far turned up
in a dank looter's tunnel in the kingdom's main pyramid. While inspecting the
tunnel, Estrada-Belli reached into a fissure in the wall, and his hand met a
piece of carved stucco. Later, when he excavated in from the pyramid's other
side, he found himself peering at half of the well-preserved giant face of a
Maya deity, a mythical ancestor and protector of Maya rulers.
The 15- by
9-foot stucco mask had an anthropomorphic face. The one eye visible to the
archaeologists was L-shaped and the mouth squared, with snake's fangs in its
center. "The mask's preservation is astounding," he said. "It's almost as if
someone made this yesterday." Excavations this April revealed a second,
apparently identical, mask on the other side of a set of stairs. Its eyes
appear to be adorned with corn husks, suggesting the Maya maize deity. Ceramics
associated with the mask date it to about 150 B.C. Estrada-Belli believes two
pairs of these masks flanked the pyramid stairway that led to the temple room,
providing a backdrop for elaborate rituals in which the king impersonated the
gods of creation.
Estrada-Belli is dwarfed by the enormous stucco face of a Maya deity,
at the Preclassic Maya site of Cival in Guatemala.
Photo credit: Bruce
Photo courtesy of National Geographic Society.
Several seasons of excavation have enabled
Estrada-Belli and his team to determine that downtown Cival was one of the
largest Maya cities of the time. The pyramid is now known to be part of a large
complex surrounding a central plaza. In front of a long building on the
complex's eastern edge, the archaeologists discovered a stela, or inscribed
stone slab, dating to 300 B.C., perhaps the earliest such carving ever found in
the Maya lowlands.
The excavations reveal that the plaza was the scene
of offerings to the Maya gods. In a recess in the plaza the team found a red
bowl, two spondylus shells, a jade tube and a hematite fragment. Behind the
recess was a cross-shaped depression containing five smashed jars, one on each
arm of the cross and one in the center. Under the center jar were 120 pieces of
jade, most of them round, polished green and blue jade pebbles. Five jade axes,
placed with their blades pointing upwards, lay nearby.
Francisco Estrada-Belli holds one of five jade axes
found in an offering at the Preclassic Maya site of Cival in Guatemala.
Jade pebbles suround the axes on the table, as do fragments of jars that
signified water to the Maya
Photo credit: Jeremy Bauer
Photo courtesy of
National Geographic Society.
The offerings are some of the earliest examples of public
rituals associated with accession to power among the Preclassic Maya. Based on
the cross's orientation to sunrise, Estrada-Belli believes the offerings are
part of solar rituals associated with the Maya agricultural cycle. The jars
signify water, he says, and may date to 500 B.C. The jade pieces probably
symbolize maize, the axes represent sprouting maize plants. Kings in both the
Preclassic and Classic eras were believed to embody the maize god on
Rituals at Cival may have taken place as outside struggles for
power swirled around them, Estrada-Belli said. Remains of a defensive wall that
encircled the city indicate to him that Cival had been under threat. "Cival
probably was abandoned after a violent attack, probably by a larger power such
as Tikal," he said.
Maya scholars such as Estrada-Belli view Cival and
other Preclassic cities as having belonged to strategic geopolitical alliances,
each vying for ultimate power in the manner of the Classic Maya cities of Tikal
and Calakmul that came later. Several Preclassic centers — including El
Mirador, Cerros and Becan — faded around the same time as Cival, he said,
possibly all vanquished by a stronger power center.
Francisco Estrada-Belli's finds at Cival will be shown
for the first time in a new National Geographic Special, "Dawn of the Maya",
that premieres on 12 May 2004 on PBS in the United States (check local