Mayan Frieze Discovered in Guatemala


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The AP reports that Guatemalan archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli of Tulane University's Anthropology department has discovered a wonderful site in northern Guatemala: a beautiful frieze that dates to the Mayan classical era. Although it was found in July, the Guatemalan government released the information on Wednesday.

The artifact, a high-relief stucco, is about 26 ft tall by 6 ft wide, and features three characters wearing jade, quetzal feathers, and sitting on monster heads. At the base of the structure is an inscription composed of roughly 30 glyphs. NBC News reports Alex Tokovinine, a Harvard specialist in Mayan writing and the expert who translated the glyphs, who spoke about the inscription.

The building and its frieze were built sometime near 590 AD, and the inscription refers to a transition of power from Tikal to Kaanul, a political representative who came from the Snake Lords to establish control, and the religious past of a group of Mayan people who were believed to have had only one allegiance.

David Freide, an anthropologist from Washington University in St. Louis, said that "The new frieze is important... Estrada-Belli discovered evidence that the conquest of Tikal was celebrated in the Holmul zone. Eventually this eastern corridor was commanded by the Snake kings, but because they used Caracol to reconquer Naranjo after its king went back to the Tikal side in the early 7th century, those two vassals of the Snakes became deadly enemies."

Estrada-Belli said that "This is an extraordinary finding that occurs only once in the life of an archaeologist... [The frieze is] a great work of art that also gives us a lot of information on the role and significance of the building, which was the focus of our research." The archaeologists discovered the artifact while exploring a Mayan pyramid in an area with many other features. They were following a looter's tunnel when they discovered it, and Estrada-Belli said they were close, but did not notice the frieze.

National Geographic says that the temple was very carefully buried, and that the frieze is beautifully preserved, with tinges of primary colors as well as green still present. The archaeologists believe this particular area fell under the influence of the kingdom of Kaanul.

The nearby city where the frieze is located, Holmul, is believed by Estrada-Belli to have occupied a strategic location for the Mayans, who at the time were divided into two spheres of influence: the kingdoms of Kaanul and Tikal. Holmul's eastern location corresponds with the valuable minerals trade that sustained the Mayan people, and Kaanul would have been capable of retrieving valuable jade and obsidian without interacting with its enemies.

The frieze will be preserved and a stable environment created so that the curious can visit it one day. Unfortunately, the concerns about humidity were real enough that the archaeologists completely buried their original entrance tunnel in an effort to maintain environmental stability.

Main image courtesy goes to Proyecto Arqueologico Holmul