September 19, 2002
Maya Carvings Tell of 2 Superpowers
hen a hurricane ripped through the jungle of northern Guatemala a year ago, an uprooted tree at the base of temple ruins at Dos Pilas exposed stones bearing one of the longest texts of Maya hieroglyphs ever found.
Part of a grand staircase leading up the side of a pyramid, the inscribed stones recorded the triumphs and defeats of one city caught in the middle of protracted warfare between two superpowers — the city-states of Tikal and Calakmul — that split much of the Maya civilization some 1,500 years ago.
The text is expected to cast light on the clashes of arms at the zenith of the classic Maya culture, which embraced much of central America and southern Mexico, and perhaps the causes of its eventual collapse, more than two centuries later.
The translations of the Dos Pilas glyphs have just been completed by Federico Fahsen, a Guatemalan specialist in Maya writing, and were announced yesterday by Vanderbilt University and the National Geographic Society, which supported the research. The discovery will also be described in the October issue of National Geographic.
Archaeologists and other Maya scholars said the hieroglyphic stairs revealed the largely unknown story of 60 years in the life of a Dos Pilas ruler, Balaj Chan K'awiil. It is at times a grisly account of flowing blood and piles of skulls after a battle was over and the vanquished were sacrificed. The ruler found himself at times on one side, then another, and must have been both clever and fortunate to have survived to a ripe age, some scholars said.
Of particular importance, some scholars said, the Dos Pilas glyphs supported an emerging consensus that local and dynastic rivalries were not mainly responsible for most battles, as once supposed. Instead, much of the Maya world in those years was apparently in an almost constant state of belligerence between Tikal and Calakmul and their respective blocs of allies.
One of the largest cities in Maya history, Tikal, then known as Mutul, was in what is now northern Guatemala, but had a much wider sphere of influence in the Maya world. Calakmul, known as the "snake kingdom," was about 60 miles farther north, in Mexico. The glyphs provide new evidence that Dos Pilas was established as a military outpost by Tikal, about 70 miles to the northeast of Dos Pilas, and was never a major city or independent power.
"It now appears that Dos Pilas was a pawn in a much bigger battle," said Dr. Arthur Demarest of Vanderbilt's Institute of Mesoamerican Archaeology, who organized the new glyph research. "In today's terms, Dos Pilas was the Vietnam of the Maya world, used in a war that was actually between two superpowers."
A leading Maya scholar, Dr. David Webster of Pennsylvania State University, said that although he had not yet studied the staircase glyphs, "they sound like a very exciting find." He is the author of "The Fall of the Ancient Maya," published earlier this year by Thames & Hudson.
Ever since scholars learned to decipher more and more Maya glyphs, beginning in the 1970's, they have realized that the classical Maya elite were using their advanced writing system to record narratives of their rulers, wars and celebrations. Scribes usually carved the texts on soft stones, which were then displayed as monuments in the city center or in tombs. Not having metal, they carved with pieces of hard rock.
Before the hurricane last year, only eight steps at the base of the pyramid were known, and their inscriptions were limited. The story of war and Dos Pilas came alive when Mr. Fahsen — who is based in Guatemala City and is also an adjunct professor of archaeology at Vanderbilt — began translating the 10 other steps, those cleared by the storm.
The steps in the center section described the first 23 years of the life of Balaj Chan K'waiil, the ruler. The glyphs even tell when he was born: Oct. 15, 625, as it would be on the modern calendar. He was brought from Tikal as a 4-year-old, and ascended to the throne of Dos Pilas in 635.
Mr. Fahsen said the glyphs revealed that Balaj Chan K'awiil became a great warrior and for many years was loyal to Tikal, the dominant city ruled by his brother. The texts give no hint that the two brothers were enemies, as once thought by scholars.
The stairway's east section tells the next chapter in the story. When the king was in his 20's, the other superpower, Calakmul, attacked and defeated Dos Pilas.
This was a major surprise. Mr. Fahsen said it had not previously been established that Calakmul actually invaded and defeated Dos Pilas. Although the young king fled the city, it seems that he returned and was installed on the Dos Pilas throne as a "puppet king," controlled by Calakmul. Given the customs of the time, it was probably that or death.
Now the king displayed his loyalty to Calakmul by undertaking a decade-long war — a kind of "proxy war," Dr. Demarest said, like some conflicts in the cold war — against Tikal. Balaj Chan K'awiil's forces sacked Tikal and captured its ruler, his own brother, to be sacrificed. This part of the story is laid out on the west section of the staircase, and the details are graphic.
The inscriptions on the steps report that after the Dos Pilas victory over Tikal, "Blood flowed and skulls of the 13 peoples of the Tikal place were piled up."
Then the glyphs record that late in his life, the Dos Pilas king did a "victory dance" with Calakmul's king, his ally. The inscription on that final step ended with a domestic note, the ruler recording the name of his wife, Ix Itzan Ajaw, and their child, his heir.
Dr. Demarest and other scholars said the translations supported a concept advanced by two Maya scholars, Dr. Simon Martin of University College, London, and Dr. Nikolai Grube of the University of Bonn. They contend that the turmoil of the seventh and eighth centuries resulted from the contest between the Tikal and Calakmul superpowers, along with their blocs of allied city-states, for complete dominance.
"This didn't happen," Dr. Demarest said. "Instead, the giant war went back and forth. After Tikal was sacked, it eventually roared back and crushed Calakmul. And then the Maya world just broke up into regional powers, setting the stage for a period of intensive, petty warfare that finally led to the collapse of the Maya."
Dos Pilas itself was abandoned in 760.