It all started with a dead body. A body with teeth of jade.
Last year, Francisco Estrada-Belli led a team deep in the jungle of the Péten region of Guatemala to the Holmul ruins, a Classic Maya city that was once home to 10,000 people. There, they felt and scraped their way through unlit tunnels dug long ago by looters. Finally, after weeks of digging in withering heat and humidity, they came upon something that made the hardships worth the effort: a previously undisturbed tomb beneath a pyramid staircase.
Inside was the skeleton of an adult male, with two teeth drilled and inlaid with jade, “a distinction of status among Maya elite,” says Estrada-Belli (GRS’98), a College of Arts & Sciences research assistant professor of archaeology, who is teaching this semester at Tulane University. The body was buried with a wooden funerary mask and 28 decorated ceramic vessels. Estrada-Belli says the number of vessels and the jade dental decorations suggest that the person was a member of Holmul’s ruling class.
Returning this summer to investigate the building’s function, the team unearthed a wall carving that reveals a saga about changes in power among battling Maya groups. The mural, says Estrada-Belli, is in near-perfect condition, making it an extremely rare find.
“It’s really the same odds as winning the lottery,” he says. “The glyphs that we found intrigue us because they describe the relationships between the Maya kingdoms at the time. This is a time we didn’t know very well, so it’s a real plus to find something like this.”
The frieze, on the upper part of a wall, is 26 feet wide and nearly 7 feet tall. Painted in red, with bits of blue, green, and yellow, it depicts three human figures wearing elaborate bird headdresses and jade jewels seated cross-legged over the head of a mountain spirit known as a witz. Two feathered serpents slink below. The mythological setting suggests to archaeologists that these may be deified rulers.
Glyphs on the middle figure’s headdress read: “Och Chan Yopaat,” which means “The Storm God enters the sky.” An inscription below the figures reveals that the edifice was commissioned by the ruler of Naranjo, a powerful kingdom to the south of Holmul. The images and glyphic text, such as one that claims that king Ajwosaj Chan K’inich restored the local ruling line and patron deities, offer important new information about the area’s political rivalries.
Alex Tokovinine, a Harvard University Maya epigrapher, who translated the glyphs, says the inscription gives archaeologists the first glimpse of the extent of the king’s political and religious authority. “It also reveals how a new order was literally imprinted on a broader landscape of local gods and ancestors,” he says.
Holmul, first explored a century ago by Harvard archaeologist Raymond Merwin, was the site of many battles between the people of Tikal and Kanul. During the Early Classic period (AD 300-550), the Tikal kings established new dynasties and far-reaching alliances with kingdoms throughout the Maya Lowlands, all of which were lost in 562 to the Kanul “Snake” kingdom, which would rule the lowlands for the next two centuries. One of the inscriptions at Naranjo indicates that Kanul king K’altuun Hix had overseen Ajwosaj’s accession as early as 545.
The work of Estrada-Belli’s team was endorsed by Guatemala’s Ministry of Culture and supported by the Pacunam Foundation, the Alphawood Foundation, National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants Program, Boston University, and private donors.
Back in the United States, through his work as president and cofounder of the heritage preservation and education nonprofit Maya Archaeology Initiative, Estrada-Belli is raising funds to repair the frieze’s delicate stucco. He is also the principal investigator on a $78,000 National Science Foundation–funded study of whether climate change was a primary cause for the decline of the Maya civilization throughout the Holmul region.
As a Guatemalan raised in Italy, Estrada-Belli (right) fondly remembers visiting Maya ruins with his parents as a child. “For me this is like a dream come true,” he says. “When you look at Maya, you are seeing one of the most important civilizations in the world. Sometimes you can learn about why a civilization ended by looking at its beginning. There is still so much we don’t know, but every year we make a huge step forward.”
The team hopes to return next summer to continue to investigate and work on the preservation of the site.