WASHINGTON—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.
“I think 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 National Geographic.
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.”
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.
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.
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 Earth.
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.
Excavation of the tunnel that led to the ancient mask was led by Guatemalan archaeologist Angel Castillo; Vanderbilt University graduate students Molly Morgan and Jeremy Bauer excavated the jade offering. Project sponsors include Vanderbilt University, the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, the Ahau Foundation, ARB, Interco Tire, PIAA and Warn Industries.
National Geographic’s Committee for Research and Exploration funds Estrada-Belli’s research at Cival as part of National Geographic’s continuing commitment to research on the Maya civilization. Its Committee for Research and Exploration has made more than 200 grants totaling $3.6 million for Maya research.
NOTE: 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 May 12 on PBS (check local listings).
The May 2004 issue of National Geographic magazine features another new find from the Maya Preclassic period in an article titled “Place of the Standing Stones.”