The stucco head of the young maize god has been uncovered during conservation work at the Maya site of Palenque in Mexico. A team from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), led by archaeologist Arnoldo González Cruz and conservator Haydeé Orea Magañan in a project supported by the USA’s Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, found the head among a mound of ceramic fragments when clearing the space between two structures at the site’s palace complex.
It was sculpted in stucco around a limestone base and is thought to have been the focal point of an offering displayed at a pond whose sides were also covered with stucco. A watery environment like this would have enabled the deity to access the underworld. González Cruz said, ‘The discovery of the deposit allows us to understand how the ancient Maya of Palenque constantly revived the mythical passage of the birth, death, and resurrection of the maize god’.
The team believe that the refined 45cm-long head of the youthful god, depicted with delicate features, was ‘originally conceived as a beheaded figure’. The mythical decapitation of the god – and his rebirth in the spring – reflects the treatment of corn, which is decapitated when harvested. Based on the style of plate that was found with the sculpture, it has been dated to the Late Classic Period (AD 700-850).
Rituals at the pond may have started before this, however, with it possibly being used as a water mirror to observe the night’s sky from the reign of K’inich Janaab’ Pakal I (615-683), before being shut down later, possibly in the reign of Khkal Mo’ Nahb’ III (721-736). As well as the head, ceramic fragments, and plate, archaeologists found animal bones – some cooked, some with toothmarks, hinting at their consumption as part of a ritual – shells, fragments of obsidian arrowheads and anthropomorphic figures, seeds, and beads. These finds seem to be an offering, which was then sealed with a limestone slab, with the mound of sherds and stucco head placed on top, before covering it all with loose soil and three small walls, preserving the maize god’s head until its recent discovery and removal for conservation.