Archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli is dwarfed by the enormous stucco face of a Maya deity, found at the Preclassic Maya site of Cival in Guatemala. Estrada-Belli and his team uncovered the second half of the mask in April 2004.
by David F. Salisbury
Two monumental fang-toothed masks, elaborate jade ritual objects and a
stone monolith engraved with the portrait of a king found in the
2,500-year-old ruins of a neglected archaeological site deep in the
Guatemalan jungle are shedding new light on the early development of
the Maya civilization in Central America.
These discoveries were made by Francisco Estrada-Belli, assistant
professor of archeology at Vanderbilt, at a site called Cival in the
Petén region of northern Guatemala, about 20 miles east of the
well-known ruins of Tikal and were announced by the National Geographic
Society, which funds his research. Estrada-Belli is featured in a
National Geographic special “Dawn of the Maya” that premiered on PBS
Archaeologists generally divide the Maya civilization into three main
time periods: Preclassic from about 2000 B.C. to A.D. 250; Classic from
A.D. 250 to A.D. 900; and Postclassic from A.D. 900 to A.D. 1521.
During the Preclassic period, the Maya are characterized as having an
unsophisticated, farming culture organized into tribes and headed by
chieftains. The classic period is dated from the advent of Maya writing
and is characterized by the development of priest-kings who presided
over city-states with hundreds of thousands of inhabitants. During this
time the total Maya population may have topped one million. Internecine
warfare among the city states finally led to the civilization’s
collapse. Although certain power centers like Chichén Itzá survived the
collapse, Maya cities were in general decline when the Spanish arrived
and ultimately brought the native civilization to a violent end.
The discoveries at Cival indicate that the Maya had developed the
sophisticated culture and many of the features, including priest-kings
and city-states, attributed to the Classic period at least 500 years
earlier than previously thought. “We are witnessing the development of
dynastic rituals at an unexpectedly early date,” said Estrada-Belli.
One of the most convincing pieces of evidence is the discovery of a
stone monolith, or stela, at Cival bearing the portrait of a king. Such
stelae are fairly common during the Classic period, but Estrada-Belli’s
team has dated the pillar to at least 300 B.C., making it the first
monolith of the type that has been discovered in the Preclassic.
The development of priest-kings was important because they used their
god-like powers to build major metropolises, control the large
populations that inhabited them and commission large construction
projects, including pyramids and large stone temple complexes. So the
evidence for the early development of the priest-king system goes
hand-in-hand with Estrada-Belli’s determination that Cival was much
larger than previously thought.
Cival is located deep in the tropical rainforest, making it difficult
to get to and to study. When Harvard archaeologist Ian Graham first
mapped the site in the 1980s, the jungle concealed all but a few of the
largest stone buildings and pyramids so he categorized it as a minor
Estrada-Belli, however, was able to get a more accurate survey of the
site using satellite imagery. The aerial images revealed that the ruins
sprawl over an area of four square miles and gave the archaeologists
exact coordinates for individual structures that they have been able to
locate using GPS navigation technology. These techniques have allowed
them to determine that the city originally had five pyramids and three
large plazas and to estimate that at its height in 150 B.C. the city
supported a population of about 10,000.
Satellite navigation also allowed the archaeologists to determine that
the city’s central, ceremonial complex had an important astronomical
orientation. The central axis of the main plaza points directly at the
location on the eastern horizon where the sun rises at the equinox.
Lines drawn from the western pyramid to two of the other buildings also
line up with sunrise at winter and summer solstice.
The city was abandoned in mysterious circumstances shortly after A.D.
100 and never reoccupied. That means the older structures and artifacts
are much easier for the archaeologists to find and study. Because the
Maya had a habit of putting new buildings directly on top of older
structures, Preclassic remains are few and far between at sites like
Homul and Tikal that were occupied during the Classic period.
The El Mirador site, also in Guatemala, is a Preclassic site similar to
Cival, but even bigger. El Mirador boasts of a pyramid that rivals in
size those in Egypt and once held an estimated population of 100,000.
Excavations there have also found evidence of a highly developed
“In the past El Mirador has been largely dismissed as an anomaly,” said
Estrada-Belli. “But, when combined with what we have found at Cival, it
seems clear that an entire network of city-states existed at this time
and they were probably competing with each other in the same way that
the city-states did during the Classic and Postclassic periods.” In
fact, the label of “preclassic” may turn out to be a misnomer for the
period of 500 B.C. to 200 A.D., he adds.
Cival has yielded other indications of a sophisticated hierarchy and
complex religious practices comparable to those practiced during the
Classic Maya period, Estrada-Belli reports. At the foot of one of the
pyramids, the archaeologists found a depression in the shape of a cross
that contained five smashed jars, one in each arm and one in the
center. Under the central jar, they found 120 pieces of jade: Most were
polished round pebbles, but five were jade axes, which may date back to
Because the Maya believed that their kings embodied the maize god on
Earth, the archaeologists consider this one of the earliest examples of
public rituals associated with accession of power in the Maya world.
“These appear to be part of a solar ritual associated with the Maya
agricultural cycle,” said Estrada-Belli. “The jars are an offering of
water. The green and blue jade symbolize maize, or corn. The upright
jade axes symbolize sprouting maize plants. This is a cosmic offering.
The cruciform is the shape of the Maya cosmos.”
Most recently, Estrada-Belli and his students have discovered a pair of
monumental stucco masks of Maya deities that they think originally
flanked a staircase on one of the pyramids. The masks are giant 15- by
9-foot faces and are in a remarkable state of preservation. “It’s
almost as if someone made this yesterday,” he said.
The masks’ eyes are L-shaped, their eyes are adorned with corn husks,
suggesting the Maya maize deity, the ears are marked with four dots and
the squared-off mouth has snake’s fangs in its center. Ceramics
associated with the masks date them to about 150 B.C. Because the
pyramid has a second level, According to Estrada-Belli, there is room
for a second pair of masks that he hopes to also unearth.
In addition to their striking appearance, the giant masks have
important archaeological significance. Not only do they have a number
of features common in Maya sculpture, but they also have some features
that are also found on jade sculptures carved by the Olmecs, who lived
from about 1300 B.C. to 400 B.C. in the Eastern Lowlands of Mexico. The
Olmecs also made cruciform offerings similar to those found at Cival.
The traditional view is that the Olmec developed a number of
sophisticated cultural practices, including mathematics, astronomy,
writing, irrigated agricultural and kingship, which the Maya borrowed
from them. These practices are thought to have spread first to the Maya
who lived in the temperate highlands region of Guatemala and then
filtered down to the lowland Maya.
But Cival casts new doubt on this theory. “It looks as if these
cultural practices were being developed in parallel in lowland cities
like Cival at the same time as they were in the highlands and coastal
regions,” said Estrada-Belli. “It is also looking more likely that the
cultural exchange between the Maya and Olmec was a two-way street. It
didn’t just go one way.”
The team also found what may be an important clue to the final fate of
Cival. They have found a defensive wall that was constructed hastily.
According to Estrada-Belli, the six-foot-high wall appears to have been
“a desperate attempt to close off the inner core of the site.” This
suggests that Cival met the same fate as many other Maya city-states:
conquest by a more powerful neighbor.
For more information, please visit the Exploration web site at http://exploration.vanderbilt.edu/news/features/maya_origins/news_maya_origins.htm.