Yale Bulletin and Calendar

October 7, 2005|Volume 34, Number 5















Archaeologist Marcello Canuto uncovered the Site Q panel on the last day of the expedition in Guatemala.

Archaeologist's discovery may be final
clue to location of long-lost Maya city

A Yale archaeologist was part of a team of scientists that recently found evidence confirming the location of a long-speculated Maya city known as Site Q.

Forty years ago, the antiquities market was flooded with intricately carved monuments of apparent Classic Maya origin. Many were purchased for private and museum collections despite the lack of provenance. The most famous of these was acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago and is known as the "Ballcourt Panel" because it depicts two royal figures playing the Maya ball game.

In the 1970s, Yale graduate student Peter Mathews noticed a similarity between the inscriptions and marble limestone shared by the "Ballcourt Panel" and a number of other, undocumented Mayan monuments. He also noted that they appeared to have been physically connected at one time, and might have come from a single source, Site Q -- an abbreviation of the Spanish "¿que?"

Over the years, many ancient Maya sites were proposed as the possible location of Site Q. In 1996, Ian Graham and David Stuart of Harvard's Peabody Museum were working on a site in Guatemala that they had named "La Corona" when they noticed hieroglyphic text there that mentioned a king named "Red Turkey," the same king depicted on the Art Institute panel. When testing indicated that the stone came from the same quarry as a Site Q panel at the Hudson Museum in Maine, Stuart concluded that La Corona was Site Q.

This past April, on a week-long mission to Guatemala, a team of scientists including Marcello Canuto, assistant professor of anthropology at Yale, revisited La Corona. While there, they discovered further evidence that La Corona was Site Q when they found an in-situ panel carved with over 140 hieroglyphs identical to the previously looted Site Q monuments.

"Marcello discovered precisely the kind of well-preserved miniature monument Graham originally said would convince him that La Corona and Site Q were one and the same," says David Freidel of Southern Methodist University (SMU), co-director of the Waka' Archeological Project with Hector Escobedo of San Carlos University.

La Corona is situated in the northwestern portion of the Guatemalan lowlands, known as the Peten. It is in an area currently under considerable threat from squatters who are destroying the tropical forest for farmland and pasture. In 2003, man-made fires devastated much of the region's forest, including vegetation around and within La Corona. The remaining jungle in the area is crisscrossed with paths cut by land speculators.

It was because of the threat of damage to the site that the Waka' Archaeological Project organized the recent exploratory mission. In addition to Canuto, the expedition consisted of the mapping team of Damien Marken and Lia Tsesmeli and epigrapher Stanley Guenter, all of SMU. Logistics for the expedition were managed by Roan McNabb of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Salvador Lopez, head of the department of Monumentos Prehispánicos of the Guatemalan Instituto de Antropologia e Historia.

While Marken and Tsesmeli mapped the central plaza of La Corona and its associated structures, Canuto explored the other small sites in the vicinity, and Guenter examined the hieroglyphic monuments.

On the first day of exploration, a couple of small carved tablets, each bearing a single hieroglyph, were found among looters' debris on structures surrounding the central plaza. Several pieces of stucco decoration were also found, indicating that the ruined structures surrounding the central plaza of La Corona were once brilliantly decorated with life-size human figures modeled in stucco.

The most remarkable find of the expedition, says Canuto, was the discovery of La Corona Panel 1, a perfectly preserved monument bearing more than 140 hieroglyphs still covered by their original red paint.

Canuto found the monument on the expedition's last full day at the site. He was using a Global Positioning System (GPS) unit to record the exact location of various mounds at the site's periphery, and the extensive tree cover was interfering with the satellite signals. Leaving the GPS unit on a nearby rock to connect with the satellites, he took the opportunity to explore inside a nearby looters' trench.

At the furthest point within the hole, he noticed a stone that appeared to have markings. As he looked closer, he says, he was startled to see a finely sculpted hieroglyphic panel. He leapt back, slamming his head into a wall.

The Mayan panel was found in La Corona in Guatemala.

"I was stunned into silence," he says. "I could not believe what I was seeing. In fact, I had to look several times to make sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing.

"I almost immediately began thinking of what needed to be done and how much time we had to do it," says Canuto. "It was only later, while further cleaning the monument with Guenter, that I began to appreciate the excitement of the day."

Knowing it was a rare and valuable find, he says, he raced out to find Guenter, an expert in reading the hieroglyphs. Together Canuto, Guenter and Marken exposed and cleared the monument, which consisted of two separate panels with a single, long hieroglyphic text and a central scene of two lords facing each other, engaged in a "scattering" ceremony.

According to Canuto, the perfectly preserved hieroglyphic panel disclosed dates of the Classic Maya period, A.D. 200-900, a time during which the Maya civilization developed powerful city-states throughout the Yucatan peninsula. The inscriptions help to fill in details of a 30-year gap in the history of the region and point to changes in the political alliances, he says.

Since the monument was at extreme risk of being looted, says Canuto, the panels were excavated and taken to Guatemala City, where La Corona Panel 1 would be safe and available for further study.

"La Corona Panel 1 is of utmost importance," says Canuto. "Not only does the panel refer to two well-known Site Q kings, the text is carved in a style virtually identical to the 'Ballcourt Panel.' In fact, the carving is so similar that it is very likely that the same sculptor carved the two monuments."

The figural scene on La Corona Panel 1 is carved in the same style as another looted Site Q panel, which also features two individuals engaged in this type of ceremony. In the latter panel, however, they are a man and a woman, rather than two lords, explains Canuto. Given this find, he says, it now seems likely that at least these two Site Q panels came from La Corona.

"The discovery of La Corona Panel 1 will help us bring attention to this important site," says Canuto. "However, the process of looting destroyed the archaeological context that connects the monuments to the structures in which they were found. Further excavations at La Corona are quite likely to uncover more information that will allow us to pinpoint exactly from which parts of the site the Site Q monuments were looted."

According to Freidel, "The discovery also reinforces the existence of a 'royal road,' a strategic overland route that links the Maya capital to its vassal kingdoms in the southern lowlands. For this reason, the forested enclave of Laguna del Tigre should receive serious consideration as a World Heritage Region."

The findings of the panel were presented to the scientific community at the XIX Symposium of Archaeological Investigations in Guatemala in July, and the panel was presented publicly at a press conference in Guatemala City on Sept. 13 attended by Manuel de Jesus Salazar, minister of culture and sports; Hector Escobedo, co-director of the El Peru-Waka project; and Canuto.

Unfortunately, note Canuto and his colleagues, La Corona continues to be a site under threat of deforestation and looting. WCS workers studying macaw populations in and around La Corona report continued intrusions from and confrontations with invaders who are becoming increasingly brazen.

La Corona is a site under siege and unless it is vigorously defended in the next few years much of the surviving evidence may well be lost, says Canuto, who recently returned to Guatemala for further study there.

-- By Janet Rettig Emanuel


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