University of Texas at Austin Professor David Stuart a part of team that uncovers major Maya find

image of maya altarpiece

A team of archaeologists working at the Classic Maya site of La Corona, located in jungle forest of the Petén in northern Guatemala, has discovered a nearly 1,500-year-old carved altar. This monument, the oldest found to date at the site, presents new evidence for how a powerful kingdom—known as Kaanul dynasty—began its two-century domination of much of the lowland Maya region. This significant discovery was made public on Sept. 12, 2018 at the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Guatemala City, where the altar is currently on display. 

"In pre-Hispanic times, each Maya city had its own patron gods, and this altar shows the La Corona ruler conjuring them," says Art History Professor David Stuart, an expert in epigraphy and director of the Mesoamerica Center of the University of Texas at Austin. He adds: “The project had previously identified three La Corona patron gods in a text dating to the seventh century AD, so it was surprising to find a reference to two of these from a century before.”

The project was led by Marcello A. Canuto, director of the Middle American Research Institute at Tulane University and co-director of the La Corona Regional Archaeological Project (PRALC); Tomás Barrientos Q., director of the Center for Archaeological and Anthropological Research at the University of the Valley of Guatemala, alongside Guatemalan archaeologists Maria Antonieta Cajas and Alejandro González.

"The discovery of this altar allows us to identify an entirely new king of La Corona who apparently had close political ties with the capital of the Kaanul kingdom, Dzibanche, and with the nearby city of El Perú-Waka," said Canuto.

Composed of limestone, the altar is 1.46 m long and 1.20 m wide. Its deep-relief carving displays the image of a king sitting in profile looking to the left. He carries in his arms a double-headed serpent effigy; out of each serpent’s mouth emerges the head of one of La Corona’s patron gods. The carved image is accompanied by a column of hieroglyphs that record the end of a half-katun period ( in the Long Count Maya calendar, corresponding to May 12, 544 AD. The text also identifies the king as Chak Took Ich'aak, a pivotal figure in Kaanul’s expansion in this region. "It is important to note that 20 years after invoking the ancestral gods of La Corona, this same king and his son are identified as rulers of the nearby and larger city of El Perú-Waka after Kaanul has taken it over," says Canuto. "As ruler in one city and then the other, it seems that through him, the Kaanul dynasty expanded its dominion in this area,” adds Stuart.

The new altar indicates that the same ruler who ruled La Corona in the middle of the sixth century was later promoted to king of the larger and more important city of El Perú-Waka’ as part of the political expansion of the Kaanul dynasty. "This new altar confirms the importance that La Corona acquires in the geopolitical strategy of the Kaanul kings, which eventually resulted in the conquest of its main rival, the city of Tikal, in AD 562", said Barrientos.

The discovery of the new altar, its relocation to Guatemala City, and its exhibition in the Museum was accomplished mainly with funds of the International Technical Assistance Program of the Department of the Interior of the Government of the United States of North America (DOI-ITAP). This program has fundamentally improved conditions for sustained governability in the Maya Biosphere Reserve which, in turn, promotes the ability to conduct further research in this area of Guatemala replete with uniquely important cultural and natural heritage. In addition, this discovery was made thanks to the support from the Directorate of Cultural and Natural Heritage of the Guatemalan Ministry of Culture and Sports as well as the Alphawood, Hitz and Fundación Patrimonio Cultural and Natural Maya (Pacunam) foundations.

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