Maya Shrine Reveals Arrival of ‘New World Order’

Fragments of an ancient stone monument reveal new insights on “Cold War” in the Maya Empire.

By Kristin Romey, National Geographic  

A stunning and unexpected discovery in Guatemala is providing researchers with important new information on the fierce rivalry between two Maya superpowers that raged during the apex of the empire some 1500 years ago. (Discover the top 10 Maya Secrets.)

The find of a broken stone monument at the site of El Achiotal in Guatemala’s western Petén may depict a local vassal lord, or ajaw, installed by Siyaj K’ahk’ ("Fire Is Born"), a warrior-ruler from far-off Teotihuacán, near modern Mexico City. (Who built Teotihuacan?)

Siyaj K'ahk's forces arrived in the Maya lowlands in 378 A.D., deposing the rulers of the great city-state of Tikal and establishing a new political order across the Maya empire whose legacy remains a topic of debateamong modern scholars.

The La Corona Regional Archaeological Project, co-directed by Marcello Canuto, director of Tulane’s Middle American Research Institute, and Tomás Barrientos, director of the Department of Archaeology at Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, announced the discovery at a recent press conference in Guatemala City.


A Very Unexpected Find

National Geographic Young Explorer and Tulane graduate student Luke Auld-Thomas thought he would spend the 2015 excavation season at El Achiotal investigating one of the site’s earliest buildings, constructed sometime in the Middle or Late Preclassic period (800 B.C – 250 A.D) as Maya city-states were emerging in Guatemala’s Petén region.

"We were looking for a stairway and digging test units," Auld-Thomas recalls, "when an excavator working on a unit backed out of the hole he had dug and told us he found what looked like a stela."

Stelae are carved stone monuments that are considered a trademark of the later Classic Period (250-950 A.D.).  

"We gasped and looked in, and there's the face of a king just staring straight out at us," says Auld-Thomas. "It had been very carefully placed by the ancient Maya so that it was looking out a doorway, like a museum piece in a display case."

"We never expected to find a stela at El Achiotal," says Canuto, who began research there in 2009 with a National Geographic Society/Waitt grant and considered it primarily a Late Preclassic (400 B.C. – 250 A.D.) site.

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