Giant Carving Reveals New Info on Ancient Maya Wars

PHOTO: An archeologist cleans an inscription below a high-relief stucco sculpture recently discovered in the Mayan city of Holmul in the northern province of Peten, Guatemala. The frieze datas back to the 6th Century AD.

Archaeologists in Guatemala have announced the discovery of a "spectacular" 1,400-year-old carving that depicts Mayan leaders and mythological figures.

The frieze, which is eight meters wide and 2 meters tall, was found underground at the base of a pyramid in the ancient city of Holmul, near the Guatemala-Belize border.

The carving depicts three noblemen who wear quetzal feathers and sit atop mythological monsters. It is thought to represent the crowning of a new king around the year 590 AD.

Francisco Estrada Bell, the archaeologist in charge of the excavation, said that his team stumbled upon the frieze as they dug into a tunnel that had been left open by looters. He said the looters had come close to this ancient masterpiece, but probably did not see it.

The carving is already helping archaeologists to piece together the history of Guatemala's Mayan city-states and the bloody wars they fought against each other.

An inscription on the frieze reveals that the ancient city of Holmul, was allied to the kingdom of Kaanul, in the late sixth century AD, Estrada Bell said.

That's significant because at the time, Kaanul was engaged in a full-blown war against Tikal for control of Guatemala's Peten region.

Tikal, with its tall pyramids jutting from the jungle, is now one of Guatemala's main tourist attractions and even starred in a scene from the original Star Wars movie.

But let's get back to our history lesson:

In a recent article about the archeological find, National Geographic points out that Holmul --the city where the giant frieze was found-- was a key prize for Tikal and Kaanul, thanks to its strategic location.

For Tikal, controlling Holmul guaranteed access to Central America's Caribbean coast. For Kaanul, control over Holmul secured an easy route to Guatemala's highlands, where the Maya could obtain valuable resources like jade, obsidian and basalt.

So the Mayas were fighting over trade routes and mineral resources... just like African strongmen fight for diamonds in the Congo nowadays, or just like the U.S. fights for oil -- sorry, national security -- in the Middle East?

It seems human nature hasn't changed much over the past 14 centuries.

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