Archaeologists excavating the site of Lacanja Tzeltal in Mexico have discovered the ruins of the capital of a kingdom known from Classic period Maya inscriptions as Sak Tz’i’ (White Dog). Among their findings is a trove of Maya monuments, one of which has an important inscription describing rituals, battles, a mythical water serpent and the dance of a rain god.
The archaeological site of Lacanja Tzeltal is located in what is today the state of Chiapas in southeastern Mexico. It was likely first settled by 750 BCE and then occupied for over 1,000 years.
Sak Tz’i’ was by no means the most powerful of the Maya kingdoms, and its remnants are modest compared to the more well-known sites of Chichen Itza and nearby Palenque.
“Finding Sak Tz’i’ is still a major advance in our understanding of ancient Maya politics and culture,” said Dr. Charles Golden, an anthropological archaeologist at Brandeis University.
The residents of Sak Tz’i’ lived in the countryside harvesting a wide variety of crops and making pottery and stone tools.
The archaeologists found the remnants of what was likely the city’s marketplace where these goods were brought to be sold.
The kingdom’s residents also came to the city to attend ceremonial ball games in which players kept a solid rubber ball, sometimes as heavy as twenty pounds, bouncing back and forth across a narrow playing field using their hips and shoulders.
On the northeastern end of the city are the ruins of a 45-foot (13.7 m) high pyramid and several surrounding structures that served as elite residences and sites for religious rituals.
The center of religious and political activity was the Plaza Muk’ul Ton (Monuments Plaza), a 1.5-acre (0.6 ha) courtyard where the people gathered for ceremonies. A staircase leads from the plaza to a towering platform, where temples and reception halls were arrayed and members of the royal family once held court and might have been buried.
Sak Tz’i’ had the misfortune of being surrounded on all sides by more powerful states. For the inhabitants of the capital and countryside, this meant the perpetual threat of warfare and violent interruptions of daily life.
The researchers found evidence that the capital was surrounded on one side by steep-walled streams. On the other side, masonry walls were built to keep out invaders.
These fortifications weren’t always effective. Inscriptions on one monument tell of a time when at least a portion of the city was set ablaze during a conflict with neighboring kingdoms.
Ultimately, the survival of Sak Tz’i’ may have depended as much on its ability to make peace with its neighbors — and even play them off of each other — as its military strength.
“This is one of the reasons Sak Tz’i’ holds so much interest for researchers,” Dr. Golden said.
“Little is known about how mid-size Maya realms maneuvered and managed to persist in the face of constant hostilities from more powerful kingdoms.”
So far, dozens of sculptures have been found among the ruins at the Sak Tz’i’ site, though many have been damaged by looters or degraded over the millennia by rain, forest fires and lush tropical vegetation.
The best-preserved sculpture is a 2- by 4-foot (0.6 x 1.2 m) tablet. Its inscriptions tell stories about a mythical water serpent, described in poetic couplets as ‘shiny sky, shiny earth,’ and several elderly, stony gods whose names aren’t given. There are also accounts of the lives of dynastic rulers.
Another inscription tells of a mythic flood, while others list what are probably historic dates for the births and battles of various rulers, including a king named K’ab Kante’.
This intertwining of myth and reality is typical of Maya inscriptions and had special meaning for ancient scribes and readers.
At the bottom of the tablet is a dancing royal figure. The Maya believed royalty could become one with or even transform into a god. In this case, the ruler is dressed as the rain god connected to violent tropical storms, Yopaat.
In his right hand, he carries an axe that is the lightning bolt of the storm, which has a deified aspect named K’awiil. In his left hand, the figure carries a ‘manopla,’ a stone gauntlet or bludgeon used in ritual combat.
The team’s paper was published in the Journal of Field Archaeology.
Charles Golden et al. 2020. Centering the Classic Maya Kingdom of Sak Tz’i’. Journal of Field Archaeology 45 (2): 67-85; doi: 10.1080/00934690.2019.1684748
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