Thursday, 8 August 2013

Maya Pyramid Decorated With Rare Polychrome-Painted Stucco Frieze

Maya Pyramid Decorated With Rare
Polychrome-Painted Stucco Frieze
Aug. 7, 2013 — A Maya pyramid
beautifully decorated with a rare
polychrome-painted stucco frieze was
unearthed in July 2013 at the site of
Holmul, a Classic Maya city in
northeastern Peten region of
Guatemala. The find came as
archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli's
team excavated in a tunnel left open
by looters. The stucco relief stands
along the exterior of a multi-roomed
rectangular building, measuring 8m in
length and 2m in height. Much of the
building still remains encased under
the rubble of a later 20m-high
structure. The carving is painted in
red, with details in blue, green and
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"This is a unique find. It is a
beautiful work of art and it tells us so
much about the function and
meaning of the building, which was
what we were looking for," says
Estrada-Belli. The carving depicts
human figures in a mythological
setting, suggesting these may be
deified rulers. The team had hoped
to find clues to the function of this
building, since the unearthing of an
undisturbed tomb last year. The
burial contained an individual
accompanied by 28 ceramic vessels
and a wooden funerary mask.
An inscription below the figures tells
us that this edifice was
commissioned by the ruler of
Naranjo, a powerful kingdom to the
south of Holmul. In the dedication,
king "Ajwosaj Chan K'inich" claims to
have restored the local ruling line
and patron deities. The images and
glyphic text on the frieze also provide
information about political actors in
the Maya Lowlands well beyond this
small kingdom. "One of the glyphs
describes Ajwosaj as 'vassal of the
Kanul king,' suggesting a much wider
network of influences was being felt
at Holmul. When this building was
erected, Kanul kings were already on
their way to controlling much of the
lowlands, except Tikal of course,"
added Estrada-Belli.
The text places the building in the
decade of the 590s, according to Alex
Tokovinine, a Harvard University
Maya epigrapher associated with the
project. who has deciphered the text.
"Ajwosaj was one of the greatest
rulers of Naranjo. The new inscription
provides the first glimpse of the
remarkable extent of Ajwosaj's
political and religious authority. It
also reveals how a new order was
literally imprinted on a broader
landscape of local gods and
ancestors," says Tokovinine.
During the Early Classic period (A. D.
300-550) the Tikal kings had
established new dynasties and far-
reaching alliances with kingdoms
throughout the Maya Lowlands,
perhaps thanks to a connection with
Mesoamerica's greatest state,
Teotihuacan. Tikal suffered a defeat
in the year 562 by the Kanul "Snake"
kingdom, which, for the following 180
years, would come to dominate most
other Lowland kingdoms. An
inscription at Naranjo indicates that
Kanul king K'altuun Hix had overseen
the accession of Ajwosaj, as early as
the year 545.
The relief depicts three human
figures wearing elaborate bird
headdresses and jade jewels seated
cross-legged over the head of a
mountain spirit known as a witz
("mountain"). A cartouche on the
headdress contains glyphs identifying
each individual by name. The central
figure's name is the only readable
one: Och Chan Yopaat , meaning "The
Storm God enters the sky. " Two
feathered serpents emerge from the
mountain spirit below the main
character and form an arch with their
bodies. Under each of them is a
seated figure of an aged god holding
a sign that reads "First tamale. " In
front of the serpents' mouths are the
two additional human figures, also
seated on mountain spirit heads.
A band of about 30 incised glyphs
adorns the bottom of the frieze. The
legible parts mention the actions of
Naranjo king Ajwosaj, who put the
king's house in order," put Och Chan
Yopaat (the central figure in the
frieze) in order, and put several local
patron gods in order.
The tomb associated with the
building was found in a cavity dug
into the stairway leading up to the
building. The skeleton of an adult
male and his ceramic offering were
preserved by large limestone slabs
that kept the tomb free of debris. His
incisor and canine teeth has been
drilled and filled with jade beads. The
decayed remains of a wooden mask,
perhaps originally worn as a pectoral,
were found on his chest. With it were
two miniature flower-shaped ear
The number of vessels in the tomb as
well as their iconography bore clear
references to the nine lords of the
underworld as well as to the aged
sun god of the underworld. There
were two sets of nine polychrome-
painted bowls decorated with the
water lily motif, each made by a
different artist. There were also nine
red-painted plates and one spouted
tripod plate decorated with the image
of the god of the underworld
emerging from a shell. Because of
the unusually high number of vessels
and the jade dental decorations,
Estrada-Belli believes this individual
may have been a member of the
ruling class at Holmul; he had
planned this year's excavation to
search for more clues about the man
and the period in which he had lived.
The team hopes to return to the area
in 2014 to continue exploring and to
preserve this building. This year's
investigation was endorsed by
Guatemala's Ministry of Culture with
funding from Guatemala's PACUNAM
foundation and the U. S. -based
Alphawood Foundation with
additional support from Boston
University, National Geographic
Society/Waitt Grants Program, and
private donors.
Francisco Estrada-Belli
Francisco Estrada-Belli is an Italian-
Guatemalan archaeologist affiliated
with Boston University and the
American Museum of Natural History,
who is currently teaching at Tulane
University. He received a Ph. D.
degree from Boston University in
1998. Since 2000 he has directed the
Holmul Archaeological Project, a
multi-disciplinary investigation of
early Maya culture in Guatemala. He
is author of numerous scholarly
articles on the Maya including the
recent book "The First Maya
Civilization. Ritual and Power before
the Classic period. "He is a National
Geographic explorer, having received
13 research grants from the National
Geographic Society, and a Fellow of
the Society of Antiquaries of London.
He is co-founder of the Maya
Archaeology Initiative, a nonprofit for
heritage preservation and education
in the Maya Biosphere of Guatemala.
For more information, see National
Geographic's news story at: http://

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