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The Meaning of Words: New Evidence of Ancient Maya History

Figure 1. Lithograph of Stela at Copan, Published in 1844 by Frederick Catherwood in Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan.

The ancient Maya culture flourished in Mesoamerica.  At the height of their splendor there’s an overwhelming rise in architectural construction, the type of buildings that pay homage to their rulers and their ancestors. Archaeologists call this phenomenon the Classic Maya Period, a time between 200 and 900 A.D. Within these centuries, archaeologists have found evidence that city-states expressed their power by creating unique architectural centers that in many ways were meant to replicate their cosmology.  Perhaps the most important social act for a new king was to establish their relationship with the founder of the lineage and they did so by sponsoring magnificent works of art.

Our fascination with the Maya is credited to John Lloyd Stephens, a New York Lawyer who travelled to the Yucatan and Central America in the 1840s, and Frederick Catherwood, an Englishman whose mission was to visually document the journey, a talent that has inspired many of us in becoming archaeologists.

Along with multi-leveled stepped pyramids, ball courts, plazas and freestanding monuments called Stelae, the Maya also literally told the stories of their parents, ancestors, founders, foes, captured enemies and military alliances.  Maya writing is a unique feature of this culture that along with the perfection of their calendar has intrigued and mystified the world. Their texts are expressions of a ruling class, however, the question remains, are we reading history, political propaganda or both?

 

New Hieroglyphic Stairway Found

Figure 2. The Hieroglyphic Stairway at the Guzmán group at El Palmar in Campeche Mexico. Photo by Kenichiro Tsukamoto.

 

It is not often that a young archaeologist stumbles upon a spectacular find.  Kenichiro Tsukamoto, a young Japanese archaeologist and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Arizona, has found a “mountain” of texts in a recently discovered hieroglyphic stairway at the site of El Palmar in Campeche, Mexico.  Funded in part by the National Geographic Society/ Waitt Grants Program, Kenichiro and his co-director Javier Lopez-Camacho have been focusing on retrieving ancient history by exploring and preserving the Guzmán hieroglyphic stairway at El Palmar.  It is not an easy task since the recovery of these texts includes the important work of conservation efforts by their team who includes: Luz Evelia Campaña, Octavio Esparza, Hirokazu Kotegawa, and Vania Pérez.  The exciting team of archaeologists, epigraphers and conservators together with the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico [INAH] are studying, preserving and protecting this unique cultural patrimony.

Typically, hieroglyphic stairways are part of the central or core elements of the elite ruling class, however, this was not the case at El Palmar because the building was located on the outskirts of the site, away from the center.  The location of the stairway perplexed Javier: “For me, the discovery of the hieroglyphic stairway at El Palmar was a great surprise.  When Kenichiro notified me of the architectural group away from the central zone, I assumed that it would be similar to El Resbalon in Quintana Roo, where Post-Classic inhabitants reused the abandoned city, taking apart the hieroglyphic stairway and using the carved blocks for new constructions, placing them out of order in other parts of the city”.

 

Figure 3. Project epigrapher, Octavio Esparza, is deciphering Maya glyphs. Photo by Kenichiro Tsukamoto

 

What Javier is referring to is yet another complex part of ancient Maya history.  After the Classic period, there is a regional hiatus in writing, commemorative dates and construction.  This initially led to the notion of the Maya “Collapse”.  A term that has created more confusion than clarification since it implies the disappearance of a culture, but the Maya people never disappeared, and the term rather addresses a dissolution of government and society.  Although we still don’t know much about the causes of the “collapse”, the following Post-Classic period, dated between 900-1200 A.D., was a time of major change.  Many of the cities that were abandoned at the end of the Classic were re-occupied.  Old palaces and sacred temples were used by newcomers, in many cases, they would re-utilize carved stones in new constructions, adding more confusion to modern archaeologists trying to “read” texts taken out of their original context.

The uniqueness of the Guzmán stairway is that it lies in the periphery of the main architectural group, since most hieroglyphic stairways have been found at the heart of major Classic Maya cities. Furthermore these stairways are associated with monumental structures surrounding huge plazas, but the Guzmán stairway was discovered in the smallest architectural group of the ancient city.  It clearly was not a Post-Classic building and so we are looking at a new type of Maya sacred space, one that has not been previously documented and which may shed light into their history.  At present, there are only about 20 other centers with hieroglyphic stairways in the Maya region, most of them have suffered changes through time, re-occupation, re-use of materials, and are difficult to read.  In this regard the Guzmán group is not only unique, but also important in revealing new information on Maya society.

 

Figure 4. The fragmented block represents an emblem glyph of Kaan (Snake) dynasty at Calakmul, one of the most powerful Ancient Maya dynasties. Photo by Kenichiro Tsukamoto.

 

How was the Guzman Hieroglyphic Stairway Discovered?

A local informant discovered the Guzmán hieroglyphic stairway. Kenichiro recalls that “During the 2009 fieldwork season at the Main Group, one of our local workers, Mr. Gudiel Guzmán, told me that he had found two small carved stones while conducting slash and burn agriculture on his private land. Octavio, the project epigrapher, and I visited Mr. Guzmán´s land together. After a careful evaluation of these blocks, we realized that these were pieces of a hieroglyphic stairway”.

Despite the fact that most of the hieroglyphic stairway was still covered with debris and soil, Kenichiro and his team realized the stairway remnants were close to the surface, making these remarkable inscriptions highly vulnerable to looting. Therefore, a salvage excavation was extremely urgent.

 

Figure 5. Project archaeologist, Luz Evelia, is carefully excavating a fragile stone with a soft bamboo skewer. Photo by Kenichiro Tsukamoto.

 

“In the following 2010-11 field season, our project focus changed from the main group to the exploration and rescue of the Guzmán hieroglyphic stairway. The National Geographic Society, the American Philosophical Society, the University of Arizona, the Campeche INAH Center, and the National School of Anthropology and History, Mexico [ENAH], supported our project, under a permit provided by the National Institute of Anthropology and History [INAH]” Kenichiro said in a recent interview.

The excavation project that was soon to follow was no easy task.  It required experienced archaeologists like Luz Evelia, whose previous works at the Sites of Dzibanche and Becán was essential to the success of the research.  Their first task was to remove the overgrown jungle from the stairway and then to carefully excavate the monument without causing any damage to the fragile texts.  Loosing a block could mean erasing part of history.  What many don’t realize is that after the blocks are documented they need to be cared for by a team of conservators.  At El Palmar, the conservation team included: Yareli Jáidar Benavides, from the National Coordination of Conservation of Cultural Heritage (CNCPC) of INAH, Diana Arano Recio and Leticia Jiménez Hernández from the Campeche INAH Center.  It was the Institutional collaboration from the Director of the Campeche INAH Center, Lirio Guadalupe Suarez that provided the staff, lab, time and effort in preserving this spectacular find.

What We Know So Far

Much more time is needed to decipher the hieroglyphic stairway. However, so far the data recovered and the texts suggest a very intriguing story.  The pyramidal structure that holds the stairway was built between the 7th and 8th Centuries A.D. and a few decades after its construction a total of 90 blocks containing Maya glyphs were added, creating a stairway of six steps leading to a temple on top of the pyramid.

Octavio has partially deciphered the stairway inscriptions that commemorate an event dated probably to September 13, A.D. 726 [9.14.15.0.0 11 Ajaw 18 Sak], and provide a list of successive El Palmar rulers. Of the most exciting finds was that the hieroglyphic stairway commemorated the visit of rulers from two major Classic Maya capitals: Calakmul and Copán. “Octavio´s decipherment suggests that Calakmul, Copán, and El Palmar were allies in the period just before Calakmul was defeated by Tikal [A.D. 736] and Copán by Quirigua” Kenichiro said in an interview.

Apart from the importance of the hieroglyphic stairway, a few deposits were found that included a concentration of broken vessels purposely deposited on a heavily burned plaster floor in the main temple, presumable a ritual activity.  Furthermore, a burial containing one individual and two polychrome vessels were also found during the excavation.  The individual is an adult male whose front teeth contained incrusted small circular jade inlays, a sign of high status among the Maya.  Jessica Cerezo-Román, the project physical anthropologist, will conduct osteological analysis to provide more information on this enigmatic person.

 

Figure 6. One of the polychrome vessels recovered by Kenichiro and his team is a cylinder vase with a painted decoration representing a fire ritual scene with two rulers seated on benches and their servants standing in front of them. Between the two rulers are painted animal-like flames and glyphs. Photo by Hirokazu Kotegawa..

 

A bit on Maya Writing:

The ancient Maya perfected their writing system during the Classic period [200-900 A.D.], a feature that sets them apart from their contemporaries.  The first breakthrough in understanding the structure of their writing came through epigrapher Tatiana Proskouriakoff who found their symbols [word-pictures] were a complete set of phonetic signs, types of ideographs that had meaning by themselves, yet when used with other elements, were simply part of a sound that had phonetic significance and made reference to the physical world.

The Maya combined a particular consonant with one of five vowels, therefore, when a Maya artist wanted to describe the art of writing [tz’ib’ in Maya], the scribe would select from different signs to convey the sounds.  However, the signs alone can have a completely different meaning.  For example:

 

Figure 7. Maya glyphs combine to create the glyph for "writing."

The word tz’ib’ means writing, however, b’i by itself means road. The glyph for b’i incorporates a symbol of a footprint, alluding to what a person leaves on the road,  a reference to the real world.  Read phonetically, however, the inclusion of tz’i plus the b’i meant the act of writing.

 

The Archaeological Significance of the Discovery

Archaeologists like Kenichiro and his team study specific scientific questions about cultures rather than focus on finding spectacular sites or artifacts. But unexpected discoveries sometimes change lives.

“In my career as a Maya archaeologist, I realized that there was very little chance of discovering a hieroglyphic stairway.  While over five thousand Maya archaeological sites have been reported, only about 20 hieroglyphic stairways have been uncovered until now. Furthermore, few of them have survived from looting or natural transformations. When we found two blocks of the stairway, I was too skeptical to accept our incredible discovery. However, once Octavio and I confirmed that most blocks of the Guzmán hieroglyphic stairway were preserved in their original positions and there were over 130 glyphs, I felt that my archaeological life would change” Kenichiro told us in an interview.

A Multidisciplinary Approach

The El Palmar Archaeological Project in collaboration with the University of Arizona, ENAH, INAH, and the Campeche INAH center, will continue further research. The international and multidisciplinary team has plans to conduct one or two more field seasons at the Guzmán group in order to better understand the social role of this small architectural group at El Palmar. Likewise, in collaboration with the National Coordination of Conservation of Cultural Heritage (CNCP) of INAH and the Campeche INAH Center, they plan to continue the restoration of hieroglyphic blocks. Moreover, they will analyze all materials recovered from this excavation, carry out C14 dating, conduct petrographic analysis, and spatial analysis through Geographic Information System [GIS]. In additional to these efforts, Dr. Jose Luis Ruvalcaba from the Institute of Physics, National Autonomous University of Mexico, is conducting the provenience analysis of obsidians through Pronton Induced X-ray Emission which will allow us to better understand the relationship between El Palmar, Tikal, and Copán.  Furthermore, biologist Serafin Sanchez from the laboratory of soil and sediment at ENAH, is studying the room and associated activities of the hieroglyphic stairway through the chemical analysis of the plaster floor.

The El Palmar Archaeological Project could not have carried out this research without the help of INAH, especially Dr. Nelly Margarita Robles, President of Archaeological Council; Salvador Guilliem Arroyo, National Archaeological Coordinator;  Lilia Rivero Weber and Rogelio Chong, Director and sub-Director of the Natinoal Coordination of Conservation of Cultural Heritage [CNCPC-INAH], repectively, and Roberto García Moll and Laura Pescador Cantón.

Kenichiro’s further work at the Guzman group may hold many clues to the final days of the Classic Maya period, specifically to the fragmentation of the society, government, alliances and warfare.  We look forward to the decipherment of the hieroglyphic stairway and to the preservation and protection of this enigmatic Maya site and its history.  To learn more about the Maya and Mesoamerican cultures, please visit the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies.

 

Maya Photos and More

See a photo gallery of truly awesome Maya sites and intriguing artifacts.

Test your knowledge with our Maya quiz.

Explore an interactive map of National Geographic Society-funded research on the ancient Maya.

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. PSchull
    Oxford
    August 5, 2012, 2:15 pm

    Not so great: why aren’t we informed what TZ’I means? If it meant mind or something along that notion, then “mind road” would be a quasi-obvious (although not to 21st century people who are–however many degrees they may have–quasi-illiterate) representation of the concept “WRITING.”

  2. Norbey ul
    colombia
    January 26, 2012, 10:32 am

    muy bien por los reportajes

  3. Lucien Alexandre Marion
    Canada (Gatineau Qc)
    October 13, 2011, 6:37 pm

    This is “extraordinaire”… The hieroglyphic stairway…+ others…
    Messages left that way by such Ancient Civilization that, if we can discover their full true meanings, those messages can revolutionized, if permitted to express myself this way, yes, it can revolutionize our knowledge and open doors for the Future for Humanity. There must be an interrelations with the Secrets of the Pyramids of Egypt and the Sphinx and even Stonehenge and others most ancient and extraordinary places as such a on our Planet. And I am talking even under the Seas or buried under its bed… .This article is more than very interesting and also very mysterious about the Maya Civilization especially in a sense about their hieroglyphic meanings concerning this mystical message of maybe a new form of understanding in between Human beings or a form of a sort of a New Age, coming and starting on Dec 21st 2012 at the end of their calendar …Thank you- Merci for such beautiful and educative article. A little treasure for Human Sciences adepts and for others searching…Thanks again

  4. Ragavan
    Puducherry, India.
    June 16, 2011, 1:04 pm

    thnx for d information frnd……..I’ve heard a lot about mayan civilization nd I luv to hear it a lot! ur information is very useful……nd I luv it!
    once again thnx frnd!

  5. Claudia Guajardo-Yeo
    Toronto, Canada
    May 16, 2011, 1:13 am

    Thank you so much for such a thorough and informative news article! It’s really great and much appreciated to have the context and background explained about this discovery.
    Thanks again!

  6. [...] Geographic has an amazing article today about the evolution of our understanding of Maya [...]

  7. [...] El Palmar in Campeche Mexico: It is not often that a young archaeologist stumbles upon a spectacular find. Kenichiro Tsukamoto, a young Japanese archaeologist and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Arizona, has found a “mountain” of texts in a recently discovered hieroglyphic stairway at the site of El Palmar in Campeche, Mexico. Funded in part by the National Geographic Society/ Waitt Grants Program, Kenichiro and his co-director Javier Lopez-Camacho have been focusing on retrieving ancient history by exploring and preserving the Guzmán hieroglyphic stairway at El Palmar. It is not an easy task since the recovery of these texts includes the important work of conservation efforts by their team who includes: Luz Evelia Campaña, Octavio Esparza, Hirokazu Kotegawa, and Vania Pérez. The exciting team of archaeologists, epigraphers and conservators together with the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico [INAH] are studying, preserving and protecting this unique cultural patrimony… [...]

  8. [...] Fonti: INAH, National Geographic. [...]

  9. Mario Salvador
    Philippines
    May 3, 2011, 8:32 pm

    Interesting and amazing find! Another contribution to “world heritage”. To complement to this find, I would love to introduce my New Paleolithic Arts and artifacts with sample pictures in my with facebook account, thanks, Mario Salvador

  10. [...] excavating in a El Palmar Archaeological Zone in southeast Campeche, Mexico, have unclosed a stairway engraved with Maya hieroglyphic inscriptions. Out of a thousands of famous Maya archaeological sites, usually 20 of them are hieroglyphic [...]

  11. [...] excavating in the El Palmar Archaeological Zone in southeast Campeche, Mexico, have uncovered a stairway engraved with Maya hieroglyphic inscriptions. Out of the thousands of known Maya archaeological sites, only 20 of them are hieroglyphic [...]

  12. [...] excavating in a El Palmar Archaeological Zone in southeast Campeche, Mexico, have unclosed a stairway engraved with Maya hieroglyphic inscriptions. Out of a thousands of famous Maya archaeological sites, usually 20 of them are hieroglyphic [...]

  13. José Córdova
    Chile
    May 2, 2011, 9:54 pm

    I have discovered something about the figure 2. If you look carefully, it seems like a writter mashine. Count each square of every row, you can see that the number of squares are exactly the same as the keyboard of the writter and also in the top of the structure, you can see the place where you put the sheet and where you write on.

    Isn`t amazing!

  14. portia
    philippines
    May 2, 2011, 6:09 am

    oh my goodness…………….
    this is something we can be proud of …..

  15. Stanley Piper
    Gilford, N.H.
    April 30, 2011, 11:27 am

    I,m always amazed at the extent of the Maya history and as I am a sculptor, it is very intriuging to see the quality of their work, the details are really something considering what tools were available.

  16. [...] A stairway lonesome in Maya hieroglyphics has been unclosed in Campeche, Mexico. [...]

  17. [...] A stairway covered in Maya hieroglyphics has been uncovered in Campeche, Mexico. [...]

  18. [...] Maya specialists are still working on the decipherment of the text. You can learn more about where they are in their research (as well as a bit about Maya text) in this National Geographic Article. [...]

  19. The Mayanist
    Maya Lands
    April 27, 2011, 2:21 pm

    All people interested in Maya Culture are also invited to visit http://www.themayanist.org

    Regards!

  20. [...] rare staircase engraved with hieroglyphic texts has been unearthed on the outskirts of the Classic Maya site of El Palmar. Such staircases are usually parts of monumental structures in the centers of Maya cities; this [...]

  21. Tecpaocelotl
    Aztlan
    April 26, 2011, 11:07 pm

    Great article. Will there be a follow up article?

  22. Belynda Díaz
    Campeche
    April 26, 2011, 6:22 pm

    Excelente nota Fabio, como todas tus publicaciones. Interesante proyecto que nos demuestra que no todo está dicho aún. Felicidades a investigadores!! Una estrella más en Campeche!!

  23. [...] –  see full article “The Meaning of Words: New Evidence of Ancient Maya History“ var addthis_pub="mesoamerica"; var addthis_options = 'favorites, bobrdobr, digg, delicious, [...]

  24. [...] 26, 2011 by David Stuart A new hieroglyphic stairway has been found at El Palmar, Campeche, Mexico, during investigations by archaeologists Kenichiro [...]