In Search of the Lost Empire of the Maya

August 13, 2016

The ancient city of Holmul isn’t much to look at. To the casual observer it’s just a series of steep, forested hills in the middle of the jungle in northern Guatemala, near the Mexican border. The jungle here in the Petén Basin is thick and warm but drier than you might expect. And silent, except for the drum of cicadas and the occasional calls of howler monkeys.

Take a closer look, and you may notice that most of these hills are arranged in massive rings, like travelers huddled around a fire on a cold night. An even closer look reveals that parts of the hills are made of cut stone, and some have tunnels carved into their sides. In fact they’re not hills at all but ancient pyramids, left to decay after the collapse of the Maya civilization a millennium ago.

The site was a thriving settlement during the Classic Maya period (A.D. 250-900), a time when writing and culture flourished throughout what is today Central America and southern Mexico. But it also was a time of political upheaval: Two warring city-states were locked in perennial conflict, grappling for supremacy. For a brief period one of those city-states prevailed and became the closest thing to an empire in Maya history. It was ruled by the Snake kings of the Kaanul dynasty, which until just a few decades ago no one even knew existed. Thanks to sites around this city-state, including Holmul, archaeologists are now piecing together the story of the Snake kings.

Holmul isn’t a big, famous site like nearby Tikal, and it was mostly ignored by archaeologists until 2000, when Francisco Estrada-Belli arrived. An Italian-born Guatemalan, he’s ruggedly handsome with scruffy hair and a relaxed demeanor. He wasn’t looking for anything fancy, such as Classic-era written tablets or ornate burials—just some insight into the roots of the Maya. One of the first things he found was a building a few miles from what appeared to be Holmul’s central cluster of pyramids. In it were the remnants of a mural portraying soldiers on a pilgrimage to a faraway place.

Oddly, parts of the mural had been destroyed, apparently by the Maya themselves, as if they’d wanted to erase the history it depicted. Hoping to understand why, Estrada-Belli tunneled into several nearby pyramids. Ancient Mesoamericans built their pyramids in stages, one on top of the other, like Russian nesting dolls. When the people of Holmul added a new layer, they preserved the one beneath, which has allowed researchers to tunnel in and see previous structures almost exactly as they were left.

In 2013 Estrada-Belli and his team worked their way into one of the larger pyramids, tracing an ancient staircase to the entrance of a ceremonial building. Climbing up through a hole in the floor, they discovered a 26-foot-long frieze, marvelously preserved, above the entrance to an ancient tomb.

Stucco friezes are very rare and fragile. This one depicted three men, including a Holmul king, rising from the mouths of strange monsters flanked by underworld creatures, entwined by two giant, feathered serpents. The artwork was iconic and strikingly vibrant.

As Estrada-Belli gazed at the frieze, he noticed a series of carvings at the bottom. Kneeling down, he saw a ribbon of characters, or glyphs, listing the kings of Holmul. Near the center was a glyph that he knew at once was the most electrifying discovery of his career: a grinning snake.

“Among the various glyphs, I saw the [name of the] Kaanul,” he says. “Before this we were anonymous; Holmul was anonymous. And then, all of a sudden, we were in the middle of the most exciting part of Maya history.”

The story of the discovery of the Kaanul, or Snakes, and their effort to create an empire begins in Tikal, the city of their most hated enemy. Just as Tikal dominated the Maya lowlands for centuries, it has dominated Maya archaeology since the 1950s. The sprawling city once had a population approaching 60,000, and its elegant buildings surely dazzled visitors in A.D. 750, much as they do tourists today.

It also had hundreds of beautifully carved tombstone-like blocks called stelae. Using the inscriptions on them, scientists reconstructed Tikal’s history until its fall in the ninth century. But there was an odd gap—roughly from 560 to 690—when no stelae were carved and little else was built. Baffled by this 130-year break, archaeologists called it the Tikal hiatus and chalked it up as a mystery of the ancient Maya.

Archaeologists began filling in the gap in the 1960s, when they noticed an odd glyph scattered around various Classic sites—a snake head with a clownish grin and surrounded by markings associated with royalty. In 1973 archaeologist Joyce Marcus recognized it as an emblem glyph—words for a city and ruling title that served as a sort of coat of arms. She wondered if it could be related to the Tikal hiatus. What if some unknown warriors had conquered the city? If they had, where would such a force have come from, and wouldn’t archaeologists be familiar with it?

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