It is not often that a young archaeologist stumbles upon a spectacular find. Kenichiro Tsukamoto, a young Japanese archaeologist and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Arizona, has found a “mountain” of texts in a recently discovered hieroglyphic stairway at the site of El Palmar in Campeche, Mexico. Funded in part by the National Geographic Society/ Waitt Grants Program, Kenichiro and his co-director Javier Lopez-Camacho have been focusing on retrieving ancient history by exploring and preserving the Guzmán hieroglyphic stairway at El Palmar. It is not an easy task since the recovery of these texts includes the important work of conservation efforts by their team who includes: Luz Evelia Campaña, Octavio Esparza, Hirokazu Kotegawa, and Vania Pérez. The exciting team of archaeologists, epigraphers and conservators together with the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico [INAH] are studying, preserving and protecting this unique cultural patrimony.
Typically, hieroglyphic stairways are part of the central or core elements of the elite ruling class, however, this was not the case at El Palmar because the building was located on the outskirts of the site, away from the center. The location of the stairway perplexed Javier: “For me, the discovery of the hieroglyphic stairway at El Palmar was a great surprise. When Kenichiro notified me of the architectural group away from the central zone, I assumed that it would be similar to El Resbalon in Quintana Roo, where Post-Classic inhabitants reused the abandoned city, taking apart the hieroglyphic stairway and using the carved blocks for new constructions, placing them out of order in other parts of the city”.
What Javier is referring to is yet another complex part of ancient Maya history. After the Classic period, there is a regional hiatus in writing, commemorative dates and construction. This initially led to the notion of the Maya “Collapse”. A term that has created more confusion than clarification since it implies the disappearance of a culture, but the Maya people never disappeared, and the term rather addresses a dissolution of government and society. Although we still don’t know much about the causes of the “collapse”, the following Post-Classic period, dated between 900-1200 A.D., was a time of major change. Many of the cities that were abandoned at the end of the Classic were re-occupied. Old palaces and sacred temples were used by newcomers, in many cases, they would re-utilize carved stones in new constructions, adding more confusion to modern archaeologists trying to “read” texts taken out of their original context.
The uniqueness of the Guzmán stairway is that it lies in the periphery of the main architectural group, since most hieroglyphic stairways have been found at the heart of major Classic Maya cities. Furthermore these stairways are associated with monumental structures surrounding huge plazas, but the Guzmán stairway was discovered in the smallest architectural group of the ancient city. It clearly was not a Post-Classic building and so we are looking at a new type of Maya sacred space, one that has not been previously documented and which may shed light into their history. At present, there are only about 20 other centers with hieroglyphic stairways in the Maya region, most of them have suffered changes through time, re-occupation, re-use of materials, and are difficult to read. In this regard the Guzmán group is not only unique, but also important in revealing new information on Maya society.
How was the Guzman Hieroglyphic Stairway Discovered?
A local informant discovered the Guzmán hieroglyphic stairway. Kenichiro recalls that “During the 2009 fieldwork season at the Main Group, one of our local workers, Mr. Gudiel Guzmán, told me that he had found two small carved stones while conducting slash and burn agriculture on his private land. Octavio, the project epigrapher, and I visited Mr. Guzmán´s land together. After a careful evaluation of these blocks, we realized that these were pieces of a hieroglyphic stairway”.
Despite the fact that most of the hieroglyphic stairway was still covered with debris and soil, Kenichiro and his team realized the stairway remnants were close to the surface, making these remarkable inscriptions highly vulnerable to looting. Therefore, a salvage excavation was extremely urgent.
“In the following 2010-11 field season, our project focus changed from the main group to the exploration and rescue of the Guzmán hieroglyphic stairway. The National Geographic Society, the American Philosophical Society, the University of Arizona, the Campeche INAH Center, and the National School of Anthropology and History, Mexico [ENAH], supported our project, under a permit provided by the National Institute of Anthropology and History [INAH]” Kenichiro said in a recent interview.
The excavation project that was soon to follow was no easy task. It required experienced archaeologists like Luz Evelia, whose previous works at the Sites of Dzibanche and Becán was essential to the success of the research. Their first task was to remove the overgrown jungle from the stairway and then to carefully excavate the monument without causing any damage to the fragile texts. Loosing a block could mean erasing part of history. What many don’t realize is that after the blocks are documented they need to be cared for by a team of conservators. At El Palmar, the conservation team included: Yareli Jáidar Benavides, from the National Coordination of Conservation of Cultural Heritage (CNCPC) of INAH, Diana Arano Recio and Leticia Jiménez Hernández from the Campeche INAH Center. It was the Institutional collaboration from the Director of the Campeche INAH Center, Lirio Guadalupe Suarez that provided the staff, lab, time and effort in preserving this spectacular find.
What We Know So Far
Much more time is needed to decipher the hieroglyphic stairway. However, so far the data recovered and the texts suggest a very intriguing story. The pyramidal structure that holds the stairway was built between the 7th and 8th Centuries A.D. and a few decades after its construction a total of 90 blocks containing Maya glyphs were added, creating a stairway of six steps leading to a temple on top of the pyramid.
Octavio has partially deciphered the stairway inscriptions that commemorate an event dated probably to September 13, A.D. 726 [188.8.131.52.0 11 Ajaw 18 Sak], and provide a list of successive El Palmar rulers. Of the most exciting finds was that the hieroglyphic stairway commemorated the visit of rulers from two major Classic Maya capitals: Calakmul and Copán. “Octavio´s decipherment suggests that Calakmul, Copán, and El Palmar were allies in the period just before Calakmul was defeated by Tikal [A.D. 736] and Copán by Quirigua” Kenichiro said in an interview.
Apart from the importance of the hieroglyphic stairway, a few deposits were found that included a concentration of broken vessels purposely deposited on a heavily burned plaster floor in the main temple, presumable a ritual activity. Furthermore, a burial containing one individual and two polychrome vessels were also found during the excavation. The individual is an adult male whose front teeth contained incrusted small circular jade inlays, a sign of high status among the Maya. Jessica Cerezo-Román, the project physical anthropologist, will conduct osteological analysis to provide more information on this enigmatic person.