The victorious warriors of Tikal swarmed up the front of the acropolis at Waka’ and into the hastily abandoned palace gallery. Inside, they looted precious bundles of cloth and jewels, and smashed brightly painted stucco figures of gods, queens, and kings, throwing the shattered fragments down to companions. Some cut away the exquisite carved steps at the base of the stairway leading up to the palace and flung the blocks onto the plaza. Such desecration was aimed at killing the living building and driving out the spirit of rulership that had brought it into being half a century earlier.
Within the gallery, the rampaging warriors found a royal tomb that perhaps held King K’inich Bahlam II (whose name translates as Radiant Jaguar). He had ceremonially danced on the acropolis steps when the building was new, in a costume sprouting gleaming plumes of green feathers. The Tikal invaders pitched the bones in the tomb out onto the plaza and carried away his jewels. Afterwards, the survivors from Waka’ would bury the palace gallery itself in an attempt to preserve the memory of what it had been in its glory.
Fifty years after the Tikal onslaught, the last king of Waka’, Aj Yax Chow Pat (He of the New Battle Helmet) returned to the buried gallery. By digging down into its rooms and conducting fire ceremonies and sacrifices, Aj Yax Chow Pat hoped to entice the soul of King K’inich Bahlam II back into the building. A stone altar was created, depicting K’inich Bahlam II but renaming him Tum Yohl Akh (Covered is the Heart of the Cosmic Turtle). The turtle that inspired this new name was the place of resurrection for the first king of the Maya world, the Maize God, and remained visible in the night sky. There, the great Three Stars – known to us as Orion’s Belt – marked the back of the turtle.
While Aj Yax Chow Pat needed fire ceremonies to summon back King K’inich Bahlam II’s soul, another old ruler’s presence still lingered in the palace. Hidden in the rock and earth was an ancient ancestor whose tomb had been exposed when the acropolis was first cut back to build the palace gallery. This early burial, perhaps of King Te’ Chan Ahk (Sky Turtle), survived the Tikal attack unscathed. Aj Yax Chow Pat visited him, too, digging down from the acropolis slope to make sure that his white stone breath soul container was intact and his spirit alive.
This is the story that emerges from our scientific investigations at an ancient Maya city in the Guatemalan jungle, as we seek to weave the threads of the past into coherent patterns. Today, the former city site is known as El Perú-Waka’, but the Maya inhabitants called it simply Waka’, which means ‘Centipede Water’. This name reflects the city’s status as the royal capital of a ruling family known as the Centipede dynasty. What follows is our account of excavations at the palace of Waka’ over the course of many years. This work started with the rediscovery of the palace gallery in 2005, and eventually led us to two royal tombs. Along the way we gleaned major new insights into the life and afterlife of the palace that King K’inich Bahlam II built on the acropolis at Waka’.
The ‘Classic’ period of the Maya civilisation spans the centuries from AD 300 to 900. It was a time when people carved, painted, and etched beautiful glyphic texts over an 80,000km2 area of rainforest lowlands in northern Guatemala and adjacent parts of Mexico and Belize. These writings were anchored into a calendar counting days, making these Maya scribes true lords of time. Since the 1970s, epigraphers have broken the code of these texts, giving the world its first taste of pre-Columbian ancient history. Although the names of the ruling elite may still sound strange and unfamiliar to us, just as ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian names did in the early decades after their script was deciphered, reading the deeds of these Maya kings and queens allows their humanity to shine forth once more.
Today, our role as archaeologists in the eastern Laguna del Tigre National Park is to defend a luminous wilderness of high canopy rainforest against looters and a variety of modern invaders intent on destroying this archaeological and ecological treasure. The park covers 3,000km2, making it the largest in Guatemala. Our scientific research at Waka’ calls attention to the desperate need to protect its precious cultural heritage. In the course of research over 14 years and counting, we and our team of K’ekchi’ Maya excavators from the town of Paso Caballos have had the privilege of witnessing and documenting the unfolding history of a courageous and resourceful ancient citadel community, one whose leaders – both women and men – played strategic roles in the history of Maya civilisation.
It was oil prospectors in the 1960s who first called the site El Perú. Their legacy is also felt in the form of a road that was driven up the steep escarpment protecting the south-western flank of the ancient city, opening it to looters who set to work on the surviving stonework. One such monument was a stela raised by the powerful 7th-century king K’inich Bahlam II (Radiant Jaguar). This ornate slab was commissioned for the great calendar jubilee in AD 692, a date alluding to the lucky numbers 9 and 13 in Maya calculation, and proudly proclaimed the city’s name. We discovered the carcass of this monument, cut in such a way in the 1960s that the carving could be sheared off in tile-sized blocks. The priceless portrait that adorned it is now in Texas. We believe the stela originally stood in front of the palace, because a beautiful long masonry gallery running along the eastern front of the palace acropolis was also commissioned by King K’inich Bahlam II and his queen, Kaloomte’ K’abel.
It is the portrait of Queen Kaloomte’ K’abel that is the grandest of the royal pair on the jubilee stela, for she ruled Waka’ on behalf of the Great Spirit: the emperor of the Maya, Yuknoom Ch’een, who was lord of Kaanul and very probably her father. In AD 679, Yuknoom Ch’een had completed a centuries-long campaign by the Kaanul regime to conquer the heartland of the Maya world. When he died in 686, Kaloomte’ K’abel and her husband acknowledged her brother and the imperial successor, Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’, on their stelae and also on the carved and inscribed bottom stair treads of their gallery addition to the palace acropolis. The steep western rear retaining wall of the acropolis stood majestically above the stone homes of the prosperous lower neighbourhoods, no doubt presenting an impressive sight to visitors arriving at the port on the San Juan River far below.
Maya royal palaces are normally made up of many individual stone structures that served a variety of functions, including reception throne rooms, domestic quarters, guest quarters, temples, shrines, arsenals, guard rooms, kitchens, craft workshops, and so forth. These masonry buildings were often roofed with corbel arches of stone and contained raised interior platforms for sitting and sleeping. The buildings are usually arranged around patio courtyards where much of the routine activity making up daily life in the Maya world took place. When royal courts wished to refurbish a palace, they would sometimes bury the old buildings beneath platforms and raise new structures on top. Over time this raised the level of the main palace rooms and created acropolises, often with a grand staircase or impressive gallery along their front side. We were certain when we started fieldwork in 2003 that the Waka’ palace acropolis was composed of layers of earlier buildings.
In 2005 and 2006, archaeologists David Lee and Laura Gamez excavated a broad stairway leading from the plaza in front of the palace acropolis to the main courtyard on its summit. David Lee discovered that this stairway, built c.AD 800 (near the end of Waka’s dynastic regime), included reused carved stair treads depicting two earlier kings playing a ritual ballgame. These figures were recognisable as K’inich Bahlam II and his overlord Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ of Kaanul. Early forays into the site in the 1970s and 1980s by Ian Graham of Harvard had inventoried all the visible stone monuments, including steps from a hieroglyphic stairway in the vicinity of the palace acropolis. In 2004, epigrapher Stanley Guenter and bioarchaeologist Jennifer Piehl excavated a stairway structure next to the palace that incorporated reused carved steps, so we knew that in all probability the last king of Waka’ had gathered these stair treads from the palace acropolis and reset them. We found one carved step with the title ‘Holy Kaanul Lord, Lady Supreme Warrior’ on the slope of the acropolis. This is surely a reference to Queen K’abel that had been torn from a stairway.
It was in 2005 that David Lee also discovered the palace gallery buried underneath the final stairway leading up the acropolis slope. Inside a buried room, he discovered fragments of modelled and painted stucco depicting gods and people. These must have come from an elaborate façade that once ornamented the roof area of the palace gallery. At the time, we already suspected that the palace gallery was destroyed by enemies and not just built over, but it would take three more seasons of work, culminating in the discoveries of June 2017, to confirm it was destroyed – probably by warriors from the Maya city of Tikal – in c.AD 743. In 2006, David Lee and Laura Gamez revealed an elaborate and dense deposit of ceramic drums, feasting vessels, and the blackened residue of fire rituals in a second buried gallery room. David hoped to return to finish the work, but took a different career path. There matters rested for a decade until Griselda Pérez Robles, a master in archaeological conservation and our project field-lab supervisor, renewed the investigations.
Griselda excavated down through the collapsed stones of the corbel arch of the gallery to define the drum deposit better. There, she discovered that many more fragments of stucco from the roof façade had been carefully placed on top of the fire-ritual remnants and broken pottery forming the drum deposit. In 2017, we decided to set these two rooms within their wider context, so Griselda opened a trench across the entire slope of the palace acropolis. This exposed a section of the original stairway associated with the palace gallery – allowing us to determine whether the ornate blocks forming the original stairway had indeed been torn out – and also the front wall and roof of the gallery. Our trench revealed that the original steps had indeed been removed, confirming that this hieroglyphic stairway had been desecrated. The masonry blocks of the sloping mansard roof covering the gallery were in place, but the stucco was entirely gone, while the fine masonry veneer sheathing the front wall had been robbed out.
Fire and feasting
Griselda and her Maya workers proceeded to excavate the central gallery room and the ritual deposit within it. In the process, she discovered that this room had been re-entered around AD 800, by people who had tunnelled down through the acropolis slope. Once inside, these visitors had cleared out the dirt and rocks in the parts of the room where its vault remained intact, before conducting feasting, sacrifices, and fire ceremonies. Afterwards, they placed layers of broken façade stucco on the residue of their rituals and then departed to rebury the room. These reverential final visitors were probably courtiers of the last king of the Centipede dynasty: Aj Yax Chow Pat. Among the remarkable traces of their rituals was a fine stone armature of a god mask from the roof, which was carefully placed on a small pile of stones in the middle of the room.
As Griselda and her team worked in the central and north parts of this long gallery room, Juan Carlos Pérez, an expert in tunnel excavations, stabilised the rubble at its south end. He gradually developed a theory that the extraordinary re-entry staged c.AD 800 was undertaken to find and worship an interred ruler in his tomb. Juan had been on the team led by the distinguished Honduran archaeologist Ricardo Agurcia, which discovered the tomb of the second dynastic king of Copán – the famous Maya royal city in western Honduras – and he was well acquainted with the fire rituals that often accompany the initial burial of, and later visits to, a divine ruler. David Freidel came onto the site in late May while excavation of the room was under way. He saw amazing royal feasting wares being discovered – including a beautiful painted plate with what appears to be the image of the Waka’ tutelary god Akan as a Monkey Scribe – and as project co-director he agreed: look for the ruler’s tomb.
‘Bringing in fire’, as the epigrapher David Stuart first described it 20 years ago, was an important way for descendants of great rulers to make tangible their memories of them as they re-entered tombs to let blood in penance, to paint bones with red cinnabar, and to take bones as sacred relics. Examining the fire rituals in the front room of the palace gallery revealed layers of tramped broken sherds created by repeated breaking and scattering. The 9th-century visitors had also created an improvised altar out of veneer blocks, which was positioned against the threshold of a blocked-up doorway into a back room. In front of the altar lay two narrow graves holding sacrificial victims.
After documenting these features, Griselda, Juan, and Damaris Menéndez (a master in prehistoric art and specialist in lithics and shell) excavated a test pit to see if a tomb lay underneath. It did not. Next, they followed the black deposits created by the fire rituals through the blocked doorway into the back room. There, they immediately encountered a plastered and well-preserved stairway leading to the open roof area of the palace gallery. This important feature allowed the rulers who performed in the palace gallery to undertake a symbolic journey. First, they would metaphorically travel into the underworld – as represented by the back room – before being ‘resurrected’ via the staircase into the upper world and heavens, in this case the stage-like open surface of the flat roof. Maya rulers first began making such allegorical journeys from the world of gods and ancestors up to the world of the living in the 1st millennium BC. Going back into tombs was another way to perform this magical feat.
At the foot of these stairs, Griselda and Juan encountered two blocking walls forming a narrow corner. They examined both walls, and behind the northern one they discovered an ancient tunnel that led north and had been sealed in antiquity. At the end of the tunnel, they found a tomb chamber. Apart from fallen debris, the space was entirely empty. This was surprising. We have found four re-entered royal tombs in the course of our research, and in each case later visitors either avoided moving offerings and bones around or carefully rearranged them after taking relics. This is the first time we have discovered a tomb that had been completely cleaned out, and we suspect it presents a case of desecration rather than reverence. We know that Kaloomte’ K’abel died sometime between AD 702 and 711 and was buried by her husband King K’inich Bahlam II inside the city temple, so it is likely in our view that this empty tomb behind the palace gallery was once the resting place of K’inich Bahlam II himself, buried by his successor in AD 728.
The empty tomb was in itself an intriguing discovery, not least because the masons had used a pre-existing length of fine masonry wall to create its northern side. This architectural stratigraphy pointed to an entirely unknown building buried inside the palace acropolis. Was it a grander tomb for which the empty tomb was just an antechamber? Juan and Damaris excavated to the west to define this new building and found the point where it cornered to the north again. The scale of the structure indicated it was a sizeable platform, which could be dated to the Early Classic period, centuries before the palace gallery was built. When the platform was buried, an infant sacrifice had been left as an offering. Griselda and her team of expert excavators then cut through the wall of the empty tomb to make sure it was not another tomb chamber, and to see what other buried buildings might be inside. Beyond, they found a long shaft, which led down from the surface slope and cut through an even earlier platform: it was clearly an ancient re-entry tunnel, providing access to a royal tomb.
Sure enough, opening the ancient tunnel shaft allowed Griselda and Juan to peer into the western end of a crude masonry tomb chamber. Within lay the bones of a deceased ruler, with his skull pointing to the east, and over 22 offering vessels. Ceramicist Keith Eppich and Griselda date these vessels to the early part of the 4th century AD, making this the earliest royal tomb in the north-western Petén region of Guatemala. Such a date means that the remains could belong to King Te’ Chan Ahk, who was ruling in AD 317. Originally, mourners had wrapped the body in textiles, and impressions of the cloth could still be seen on the earth beside the skeleton. Both cloth and flesh had disintegrated by the time the first visitors re-entered the tomb. One of the later rulers who descended to this tomb had painted the bones bright red with cinnabar. It also turned out that the long shaft was not the only re-entry point, and access via the eastern end of the tomb had caused some collapse of the corbel-vaulted roof. Because that eastern entry was closer to the level of the palace gallery, we deduce that King K’inich Bahlam II and K’abel discovered this early platform during construction work – or already knew about it from recorded history – and re-entered this tomb from the east.
After long days of meticulous excavation and recording in the tomb, Griselda and Damaris finally exposed the head of the ruler. According to bioarchaeologist Erin Patterson and Juan, who examined the bones in situ, he was a man in his early 30s with spina bifida and other health problems. The teeth of the king gleamed with inset jade discs, while he wore a necklace of Spondylus shells and a shell crocodile. Among the Maya, the Ceiba or crocodile tree – with its teeth-like trunk spikes – was another symbol of resurrection. A further shell had been fashioned into a white curved plaque, which was all that remained of a woven cloth royal crown. Fragments of the king’s skull overlay the back of a jade belt mask. This beautiful artefact had been hollowed out like a grinding stone, itself an allusion to the preparation of the flesh of the Maize God to bring food to his people. After careful recording, it was Griselda who gently lifted the mask and turned it over. As she did so, the deceased ruler peered at her through finely etched eyes, his soul meeting a Guatemalan descendant for the first time in 14 centuries.
It was a remarkable moment, and one that marked the culmination of more than two months of continuous investigation without a break. During that period, the team lived next to the palace acropolis, guarding the tomb once it had been discovered. Looking back now, it seems fitting that our team was called by an ancient Maya king and led into the heart of his world so that we could witness the precious memory of his legacy. The experience is truly emblematic of the power of the heritage we work so hard to protect.