Long-Sought Maya City Found in Guatemala

Abram Katz
for National Geographic News
September 29, 2005
An archaeologist seeking refuge from hungry mosquitoes in the Guatemalan rain forest has solved the 45-year-old mystery of the location of Site Q. The ancient city has been the source of exquisite, looted Mayan hieroglyphs that started to appear around the world in the 1960s.

The discovery promises to fill gaps in Maya history and clarify the complex political and social roles of rival city states during a period of war and strife in 7th-century Central America.

A Yale University archaeologist and three graduate students from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, identified Site Q as La Corona, a small cluster of ruins in the remote Petén region of northern Guatemala. Their expedition was supported by the National Geographic Society, the El Peru-Waka' Archeological Project, and local guides.

Marcello A. Canuto, assistant professor of anthropology at Yale, was poking around the site while waiting for his global positioning system device to work.

He followed a looter's trench into a cavity. There, he found a 3-foot-by-1.5-foot (0.9-meter-by-0.5-meter) limestone panel of about 140 Maya hieroglyphs in the gloom of a small chamber.

"I found the hieroglyphic panels in situ. It was an amazing chance find," he said.

The translated text of the La Corona tablet is consistent with the writings on the other Site Q pieces, the archaeologist said.

The stones are also geologic matches, and an initial examination of the pieces suggests that one scribe may have produced many of them, Canuto said.

In 1997 an expedition headed by Ian Graham of Harvard University and David Stuart, now at the University of Texas at Austin, found evidence at La Corona that lead them to first suggest that La Corona was Site Q. Canuto's finding now provides incontrovertible evidence.

"This discovery helps resolve one of the longest and widest hunts for a Maya city" in the annals of Maya archaeology, he said.

Looted Artifacts

However, the puzzle may not be fully solved.

David A. Freidel, professor of anthropology at Southern Methodist University, and co-director of the El Peru-Waka' project, said there might be a second center in the vicinity of La Corona that contains additional Site Q materials.

One of the Site Q monuments, the "Dallas panel," was apparently cut from a throne room, but no such room is apparent yet at La Corona, Freidel said.

Looters inadvertently launched the search for Site Q in the 1960s when they began to strip and sell pieces of Maya sculpture. Peter Matthews, then a graduate student at Yale University, cataloged 30 such objects in museums and private collections.

The expert in ancient scripts and writing noticed that the pieces shared certain features. He hypothesized that the pieces came from a common site, which he nicknamed Site Q.

Then years of complex detective work began. Locations and place names had to be matched and compared to known events.

The texts of Site Q made repeated references to a place called kan, or "snake head." Archaeologists came to associate "snake head" with Calakmul, a massive Maya city with 6,000 structures and hundreds of monuments.

For a while, it was thought that Site Q, kan, and Calakmul were all the same place.

However, Calakmul's stone was so badly eroded that even most looters passed up the pieces. The Site Q sculptures were made on a different and harder type of limestone, which ruled out Calakmul.

In addition, the Maya who lived at Site Q had been recording the goings on at Calakmul, suggesting that Site Q and Calakmul were allies.

Regional War

At the time, Calakmul, in what is now Campeche, Mexico, was an archrival of Tikal, another large Maya city in the Petén region of present-day Guatemala. Calakmul forged alliances with smaller cities, such as Dos Pilas, El Peru, La Corona, and others, to surround and control Tikal.

La Corona and El Peru lay strategically near the San Pedro Martir River. In the A.D. 670s, Tikal apparently launched a two-pronged attack on the cities, hoping to gain access to territory to the west and to disrupt Calakmul's lucrative trade route to the southern highlands.

The leaders of La Corona fled and were eventually reinstated after Calakmul defeated Tikal.

The Site Q pieces refer to places and events that coincide with what to the Classic Maya was an extraordinary regional war.

"There was doubt of Site Q, and we proved it existed. It is most likely La Corona," Canuto said. The finding reveals the importance of La Corona and provides a historical record of Calakmul, whose epigraphic (ancient scripts) records disintegrated.

Freidel, the SMU anthropologist, said texts from Site Q show that its inhabitants were vassals of kan. The texts also contain evidence that the Site Q ruler had to flee to Calakmul.

Further work on El Peru-Waka' and other sites in the western Petén could confirm the events recorded at Site Q, he said.

"It's very exciting to me to participate in an opening up of the only pre-Columbian culture in which we can discuss real people and real places. This is the real ancient history of the Maya," Freidel said.

Canuto, the Yale archaeologist, said the Maya are fascinating because they had no contact with Europe or Asia and developed the only literate culture in Central America. "They had great cities, monumental art, complex social and economic systems, and an intricate social hierarchy," he said.

The Site Q panel is now safely in Guatemala City, and La Corona is under the protection of Guatemalan officials.

Archaeologists plan to return to La Corona next year.

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