Brandeis anthropologist Dr. Charles Golden and his colleague Dr. Andrew Scherer recently got the opportunity to unearth a significant Maya settlement in the Valle de Santo Domingo of Mexico, according to a New York Times article. This settlement they believe to be ruins of Sak Tz’i, which is a Mayan settlement that is at least 2500 years old.
They found what remained of an acropolis and a ball court where a religious event of symbolic regeneration was played. Many of the temples and pyramids were disassembled by robbers, and the thick jungle covered much of the site. This effectively erased Sak Tz’i from memory. However, with this uncovering, Golden was finding more than ever.
The New York Times article discusses how Golden and his colleagues found dozens of stone stelae, cooking tools, and even the corpse of a middle-aged woman. Their radiocarbon dating listed the site as likely colonized in 750 B.C. and was probably occupied until the end of the Classic period. After combining everything they had found, Golden and Scherer established that this site was a capital if not the capital of the Sak Tz’i dynasty, which they named Lacanjá Tzeltal. A curator at the Penn Museum of the University of Pennsylvania named Dr. Simon Martin took the evidence from the researchers and agreed that the site likely had great significance to the dynasty.
The discovery was not done by Golden and Scherer. Whittaker Schroder, one of their former research assistants, was looking at archaeological sites for his dissertation topic when a vendor flagged him down to look at something. He was shown a picture of a wall panel with hieroglyphics and proceeded to contact Golden and Scherer. At first both of them were skeptical. “We frequently get requests to look at stone figurines and sculptures in private collections,” Scherer said. “While the vases and other ceramic objects are almost invariably ancient, the stone sculptures are usually modern objects crafted for tourists. So when someone says, ‘Come see my pre-Columbian sculpture,’ we tend to assume we’re going to look at a souvenir knockoff.”
They were surprised to see a full-size monument with glyphs of the Sak Tz’i dynasty. It took them another four years after this to obtain permission to excavate the area, according to the New York Times article. In 2019, they were finally able to fly drones and planes with the sensing tool LIDAR over the site. LIDAR allowed them to see through the canopy and visualize the site. With this information, they were able to estimate that the settlement had as many as 1000 inhabitants at its peak.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, their excavation was halted for two years. When they finally returned to the site, most of the work was focused on preserving the structures. According to the New York Times article, the stone walls of the acropolis were especially in danger of collapsing, Golden and his team had to seek out a local crew to help reinforce the structure. Their observations of the surrounding structures indicated the defense was very important to Lacanjá Tzeltal. The strongholds in the arroyos and riverbanks were densely packed as the stone barricades were reinforced by wooden palisades.
Another notable discovery was a stone altar and what surrounded it. The researchers found spear points, obsidian blades, spiny oyster shells and fragments of greenstone. Each of these objects symbolizes something special in Maya cosmology. Golden was able to reconstruct the altar through a 3-D model and showed how its glyph depicted two bound captives and the pincers of a centipede, which signified the underworld.
Martin said that Golden and Scherer’s findings were a major advancement in our understanding of Maya culture and politics, according to the New York Times article. He went on to say, “Such discoveries restore history to now lifeless ruins and, metaphorically at least, repopulate them with long-dead rulers, nobles, warriors, artisans, merchants, farmers and the whole social matrix of ancient Maya society.”