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Hieroglyphic panel discovered at La Corona's Palace, El Petén, Guatemala

Discovery of Hidden Mayan Stela and Panels Give Hints to the Importance of History in the Preclassical Period


Archaeologists working for the La Corona Regional Archaeological Project who discovered the ‘end-date’ of the Maya calendar in 2012, have now discovered a Mayan stela dating back to the 5 th century AD at El Achiotal in Western Petén, Guatemala. The team has been investigating this site, along with another at La Corona, since 2010. Both sites were previously damaged by looters. The archaeologists announced their recent discoveries at a press conference in Guatemala City.

“We knew that this site played a significant role in the early history of the Classic lowland Maya” stated Tomás Barrientos, director of the Department of Archaeology at Universidad del Valle de Guatemala who co-directed the project, during the press conference. “In fact, our excavations this year focused on an important building in the central plaza of the site.”

Barrientos added that although the building was heavily damaged by ancient looters, the stela itself was well preserved because the Maya had placed it in an enclosed shrine sometime after it had been broken.

The stela discovered at El Achiotal, Guatemala

The stela discovered at El Achiotal, Guatemala (Ministerio de Cultura y Deporte de Guatemala )

David Stuart, an epigrapher (a person who studies written inscriptions) of the University of Texas at Austin has pinpointed the date of the stela as 22 November, 418 AD. This was a period of great political upheaval in the Maya territory, primarily because a warrior-king from Teotihuacan, by the name of Siyaj K’ahk, had arrived in the area in 378 AD and established a new political order. The king at El Achiotal came to power shortly afterwards.

The stela features a number of individual accolades but also records the reign and accomplishments of El Achiotal’s king, placing them in a wider historical context. Evidence from other Maya sites led the team to conclude that this stela related to a specific time in Maya history when a foreign power established itself in the Maya lowlands.

“This stela portrays an early king during one of the more poorly understood periods of ancient Maya history” Marcello Canuto, director of Tulane University’s Middle American Research Institute and co-director of the excavations at El Achiotal, explained to Past Horizons.

The main period of occupation at El Achiotal appears to have been between 400 BC and 550 AD, the Late Pre-Classic and Early Classic periods, or perhaps earlier during the Middle Pre-Classic (800-400 BC). Initial investigations of the site revealed murals depicting a royal dynasty bearing insignia not found anywhere else in the Petén lowlands. These representations also suggest connections with the Olmec civilization of the Gulf Coast.

Two more hieroglyphic panels were discovered by the team at La Corona in an almost pristine state. They even have traces of the original red paint. The panels were discovered during  excavations of La Corona’s palace. They had escaped the looting because they had been placed on a bench in a corner of the palace. However, originally they had been installed at some other location, possibly a temple.

La Corona was discovered in 1996 and was identified as ‘Site Q’, a location that had long been referred to by looted Maya reliefs, such as one preserved in the Chicago Art Institute. Research at the site has focused on the relationship between La Corona and another kingdom called Calakmul.

Temple I, Calakmul, Guatemala

Temple I, Calakmul, Guatemala (Wikimedia Commons)

The panels convey information relating to a king's accession to power. Which involved travel, costume, dancing, the invocation of gods, and reverence for the ancestors.

“The fact that the stela and these panels were preserved by the ancient Maya themselves long after they were first carved adds a new wrinkle to our interpretation of how much the ancient Maya valued and strove to preserve their own history” Canuto asserted at the press conference.

Featured Image: Hieroglyphic panel discovered at La Corona's Palace, El Petén, Guatemala (Marcello Canuto)

By Robin Whitlock

Robin Whitlock's picture

Robin Whitlock

Robin Whitlock is a British freelance journalist with numerous interests, particularly archaeology and the history of the ancient world, an interest that developed in childhood. He has numerous published magazine articles to his credit on a variety of subjects, including... Read More

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