Archaeologists Excavate Huge 1,500-Year-Old Palace in Maya City of Kabah
During excavations at the site of the Maya city of Kabah in southeastern Mexico, archaeologists unearthed the ruins of an expansive but previously unknown palace, which was located in a recently excavated residential area.
While the palace would have been an awe-inspiring structure when it was fully intact, what is most notable about it is the characteristics it shares with sixth century ruins from the Maya civilization found in the northern Guatemalan department of Petén. The similarities suggest that migration from the Maya lands of northern Central America to southern Mexico 1,500 years ago or earlier may explain how the city of Kabah came to exist in the first place.
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Internal Migration and the Growth of the Maya Civilization
The archaeological zone of Kabah is located in the Puuc region of Yucatán state, approximately 60 miles (100 kilometers) south of the modern city of Merida. Current digging at this pre-Hispanic site is being carried out in conjunction with the ongoing Maya Train infrastructure project, under the supervision of the Mexican government’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH).
The North building of the Yax Kan group, during the restoration process. ( INAH)
The palace was an unexpected discovery, one that came about because of another surprising find that occurred a short time earlier. Recent excavations at Kabah revealed the presence of two sets of residential buildings in one sprawling housing complex. This was an historic discovery, since it was the first time any such structures had ever been unearthed at Kabah.
But as digging continued, the INAH archaeologists eventually uncovered the remains of the Maya palace adjacent to the residential buildings, which only added to the importance of the discovery.
According to an INAH press release , the rectangular palace was 85 feet (26 meters) long and featured “a main façade composed of a portico with eight pilasters and nine openings. This structure was decorated with motifs of feathers, beads and birds carved into its architecture; Likewise, its staircase has vestiges of a stucco figurehead, which covered up to nine meters in length.”
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General arial view of the Petén Palace. ( INAH)
The director of site excavations, Lourdes Toscano Hernandez, told the international news agency EFE that more than 24,000 fragments of various ceramic vessels had been recovered at the housing complex site, and that these vessels had come from both the local Puuc region and from Petén in Guatemala. He confirmed that the newly discovered palace also possessed characteristics that linked it to cultural trends and architectural practices that were popular in Petén between the years 250 and 500 AD. Not so coincidently, this is right about the time the Maya settlement at Kabah was formed.
“We propose that an important migration from that site founded Kabah,” Hernandez stated, pointing to the design and decoration of the palace as evidence for this assertion.
In recognition of Kabah’s connection with the Maya of Guatemala, the INAH archaeologists have named the freshly unearthed structure the Petenero Palace.
As notable as the palace is, it is far from the only large and impressive building in Kabah. Previous excavations at the site have revealed the presence of many other grand Maya palaces and temples dedicated to the Maya god of rain, Chaac. Its most famous palace, the Codz Poop or Palace of the Masks, is decorated with hundreds of masks of this long-nosed deity.
Unearthing the City of the Strong or Powerful Hand
In the language of the Maya people, the word ‘Kabah’ means “Lord of the Strong or Powerful Hand.”
While the city in its final form may have been settled by migrants from El Petén, as the characteristics of the newly discovered palace suggest, artifacts unearthed during the Kabah excavations show that the site was initially occupied around 400 BC. Archaeologists believe the early settlers would have consisted of a small community of hunter-gatherers, who didn’t construct any of the monumental buildings that have been excavated at the site.
The site was occupied continuously from 400 BC on. The earliest palaces and temples constructed in Kabah have been dated to around 400 AD, and it is certainly possible that Petenero Palace was built around this date as well.
General view of Kabah, from the Arch, including the two restored buildings in Promeza. ( INAH)
Based on what has been recovered at Kabah, it seems the city was at its most prosperous between the years 750 and 900 AD, or in the latter part of the Maya Classic Period when the Maya civilization as a whole was at its peak. But as was the case elsewhere, around 950 or so it appears the city’s ruling elites, and presumably its middle-class functionaries as well, abandoned the city, leaving behind mostly the poor inhabitants who continued to occupy the site for a few more centuries. This was part of a larger civilizational collapse that marked the end of Maya domination in Mesoamerica.
At the time when Kabah was founded, the Maya were in the process of expanding their empire, and they had both the means and the motivation to form new settlements in lightly populated areas. The site of ancient Kabah is approximately 300 miles (500 kilometers) to the north of Petén, so if indeed the city’s founders came from there, it is clear they were willing to travel quite far to find the perfect spot to build their new city.
Top image: General aerial view of the East Group at Kabal. Source: INAH
By Nathan Falde