Photographs by Sarah Sage/Waka' Archaeological Project.

June 18, 2005. The Guatemalan Ministry of Culture and Sports has announced new finds made by the Waka' Archaeological Project at the site of El Peru (map). In April of this year, two separate burials were discovered containing the remains of three women and seven painted ceramic vessels from the Early Classic period.

David Freidel of Southern Methodist University and Hector Escobedo of the University of San Carlos in Guatemala direct the archaeological operations at the site, which they refer to as Waka', a rendering of its ancient name.

On April 18, SMU graduate student Michelle Rich, working together with Jennifer C. Piehl of Tulane, lifted a flat stone at the bottom of an excavation pit under a shrine midway up the face of a pyramid, to reveal intact ceramics and two female skeletons within a small stone vaulted chamber. It had taken six days to penetrate the tomb without collapsing the roof. In the course of the excavations, the archaeological team had encountered another burial, that of a female of advanced age who was also interred with handsome pottery dating to about AD 350.

The two females who shared a tomb, one of whom was pregnant, were both twenty-five to thirty-five years of age and apparently in good health at time of death. The condition of their teeth is said to indicate an elite diet rich in meat and fruit rather than maize. Apparently the women were buried at the same time in the small chamber, one on top of the other.

In a newspaper account, Dr. Freidel stated that the two women almost certainly died as sacrifices in the context of a royal ritual (John Wilford Noble, "Maya Tomb Tells Tale of Two Women, Elite but Doomed," New York Times, June 14, 2005). He speculated that they had been sacrificed in dedication ceremonies for the stairway shrine or for a royal accession.

Freidel explained to the New York Times that two nude women are often depicted in paintings on Maya ceramics assisting in the resurrection of the maize god.

"The stacking of the two women underscores the fact that they are to be regarded as pair," Freidel is quoted as saying. "I infer that these two sacrificed women symbolize this pair of helpers of the maize god."

In his online Notes from the Field for April 18, Freidel speculates on the reason behind the possible sacrifices:

A painted lid on one of the vessels provided a clue: a master had fashioned three red medallions, each ornamented with a long-beaked mask of the source of royal power, the Magic Bird. The knots at the back of the masks showed that they were royal crowns such as kings had worn for more than five centuries by the time this tomb was built.

According to the New York Times report, Freidel noted that

royal crowns in the style of the ones at Waka have been found decorating artifacts uncovered at Tikal. The grave goods were placed in tombs holding the remains of the royal household, who appeared to have suffered similar fates as sacrifices.

As reported in the New York times, the symbolism of the ceramics suggests to Freidel that the two women in the tomb at El Peru were either members of a royal family or royal court attendants.

In an e-mail message to the New York Times science reporter, Freidel said that the newly discovered plates and bowls ranked "with the best we have from the Early Classic period of Maya civilization and demonstrates that Waka was a mainstream player."

Further reflections on the site's ancient significance were conveyed by Freidel in correspondence with Mesoweb:

Waka is an exciting site for long-term research because the royal court there especially flourished when the kings and queens were allied with the great regional powers of the day: Teotihuacan and Tikal in the Early Classic, Calakmul in the Late Classic. I am beginning to envision Maya hegemonic ambition as less a matter of commanding swaths of territory, as the traditional geographic models display, and more a matter of controlling the key routes of commerce and transport between strategic capitals. Certainly in the time of the Calakmul expansion in the seventh century, Waka held open the overland road linking that city to its vassals in the Petexbatun and elsewhere. Waka really was a crossroads of conquerors, I think.

The Waka Archaeological Project was in the news a year ago, when another richly appointed tomb was discovered; see the Mesoweb Report. According to an SMU press release at that time, the Project

is attempting to combine scientific research of the ancient Maya past of Guatemala with conservation and development in an effort to save a vital section of tropical rainforest in the Department of Petén.

The Waka' Archaeological Project, which began research at the site (located approximately 60 km west of the famous Maya site of Tikal) in 2002, is part of an alliance of government and non-government agencies trying to halt a cycle of destruction in Guatemala's largest national park, Laguna del Tigre.

The ancient Maya center, known from ancient Maya inscriptions as Waka', and known today as El Perú, was once an important economic and political center of the Maya world and formed one corner of a triangle of major sites that also included Calakmul (Mexico) to the north, and Tikal to the west. The site, composed of 672 monumental structures and untold numbers of small house structures, sits atop an escarpment six kilometers north of the San Pedro Mártir River. Oil prospectors discovered the site in the 1960's. Harvard researcher Ian Graham recorded the site's monuments in the early 1970's but did not carry out any excavations. The SMU Project is the first research project to undertake scientific excavations at Waka'.

The Laguna del Tigre National Park is Central America's largest nature preserve. Several endangered species have taken refuge in the park, including the Scarlet Macaw, for which the park is one of the last remaining habitat zones. Cattle ranching and other forms of invasion are encroaching on the park, however, and these illegal activities that frequently involve slash and burn agriculture and clearing for pastureland, threaten the park's future. Last year, 100,000 acres of the park burned, threatening both the wildlife and cultural history of the park area.

The Waka' project, together with the Government of Guatemala through the General Direction of the Cultural and Natural Patrimony and the National Council for Protected Areas, the Wildlife Conservation Society (NGO), and ProPetén (NGO), is trying to save 230,000 acres of the park from deforestation. These organizations have formed the K'ante'el Alliance initiative in an effort to protect the natural and cultural resources of this area. K'ante'el (Cahn-tay-elle) means "precious forest" in Maya and refers to the mystical place where the Maya Maize God was reborn and where the Maya believe their civilization began. The goal of the alliance is the preservation of the park and the development of alternative sources of income for local communities that emphasize conservation of the park's rich natural and cultural resources.

"This is an initiative that can position archaeology, not only as scientific research, but as a useful activity for the community and the country in which we work," Escobedo says. "Researching the site and learning its secrets are the first steps toward making a meaningful contribution to Petén, and to Guatemala as a whole."

That first step is the archaeological research of the site that is being conducted by a team of 20 Guatemalan, American and Canadian archaeologists under the direction of Freidel and Escobedo.

The site was inhabited as early as 500 BC, but reached its peak between AD 400 and AD 800. At its height, the city may have been an economically and strategically important center, and home to tens of thousands of people. Over a period of 700 years, 22 kings ruled at Waka'.

"We know a great deal about the ancient inhabitants of this site from their monuments." Freidel says, "The more than 40 carved monuments, or stelae, at the site chronicle the activities of the site's rulers, including their rise to power, their conquests in war and their deaths."

The inscriptions are only one piece of the puzzle, however, and excavation-based research serves to both test and supplement the historical record.

The project's excavations have focused on a number of important areas of the site, looking into the past activities at locations of both ritual and residential activity. The large ceremonial complex in the southeast portion of the site center is one such focus, where evidence of extensive termination ritual may provide clues to the events at the end of the site's life. At this location, SMU graduate student Olivia Farr found that dozens of complete ceramic vessels, vessel fragments, and human remains lay scattered on the surface in front of the building.

"This kind of termination is an act of desecration and speaks to a violent event in the site's history," Freidel says.

Excavations have also delved into the activity at residential compounds, and at the main palace complex of the site, where at one time the rulers of Waka' presided over the sprawling ancient city. The palace served as a place of residence, politics, trade and governance, but evidence from this season also indicates that the palace served another function, that of a burial site. In one structure of the palace complex, while conducting excavations to collect stratigraphic ceramic samples, Canadian archaeologist and SMU graduate student David Lee discovered a royal burial chamber. The burial contained remains identified by project bioarchaeologist Jennifer Piehl, as that of a female ruler or queen and over 2,400 artifacts.

"It is an important discovery," Lee says, "An important piece of the much larger puzzle of the lives and deaths of the people we regard as the rulers of this site."

The individual was interred in a vaulted burial chamber that was built inside the shell of an existing building atop the palace acropolis. A preliminary analysis of the 23 complete vessels found in the chamber suggests a Late Classic burial date, estimated between AD 650 and AD 750. The interment, which contained artifacts of greenstone, shell and obsidian, provides significant information about the importance of this person during her life. The individual's royal status was identified by the presence of greenstone plaques that form a war helmet and by the presence of a carved royal jewel, or "huunal," that may have once been a part of this headdress.

"This helmet is consistent with a kind we associate with the title ‘Kaloomte', or ‘supreme warlord'," Freidel says. "A title generally associated with male rulers and important warriors."

Recent studies have shown that this is not always the case, however, and on one of the site's monuments, a queen is mentioned in hieroglyphic inscriptions as bearing the title of "Kaloomte". The woman buried in the chamber also had stingray spines placed on her body in the pelvic region. Stingray spines are bloodletting implements that are depicted being used to let blood from the genitalia of Maya kings.

"That this female ruler had these implements supports the idea that in ancient Maya culture, gender roles were sometimes blended," Lee says.

Once more detailed analysis is complete, researchers hope it will help shed light on the lives of the kings and queens of Waka'. While the individual in the burial chamber is not named in hieroglyphs, chemical and radiocarbon analysis of remains inside the burial will help place this individual with the site's history.

The project's 10 different research operations are focusing not only on the substantive hieroglyphic record at the site, or on new archaeological discoveries. The project also has undertaken an important conservation effort at the site. Looting over the years since the site was discovered has resulted in significant damage to both ancient structures and monuments. Starting in 2003, the Waka' Project has begun stabilizing, restoring and reassembling the buildings and monuments of Waka' disturbed in the centuries since the site's abandonment in the 9th century.

"One of our most ambitious projects has been the stabilization of an 18-meter temple pyramid that was structurally undermined by looting," Freidel says.

Under the consecutive direction of Guatemalan archaeologists Juan Carlos Pérez (2003) and Horacio Martínez (2004), a team of masons has worked to consolidate this ancient structure so that scientific excavations can proceed. Additionally, Guatemalan specialists Hugo Martínez and Efrain Peralta have systematically reassembled the fragments of broken stelae, and then copied them using latex molds to create fiberglass replicas. These efforts are part of a commitment not only to retrieve information from the remains of this once great city, but also to restore and rescue its ancient treasures.

"We see it as our obligation," Escobedo says. "Not only to retrieve the archaeological information that this site has to offer, but to preserve it for future generations."

The research of the Waka' Archaeological Project is attempting to reconstruct the history, and the story, of this ancient city. Once an important center of political, social and economic activity, the site of Waka' is once again at a strategically important crossroads, central to the efforts of the K'ante'el Alliance to save this important site, and the national park it resides in, from destruction.

"The future of this area," Freidel says, "will depend on our ability to do what the Maya did here: establish a stable system for managing this area, protect it from threats as they may come and establish an economy that will see it survive into the future."

The future in this case, however, is that of the natural environment, the wildlife and the communities of hardworking people that currently reside in this area. Research, development, conservation and tourism are only some of the areas in which the K'ante'el Alliance is looking to ensure the future of the site of Waka'. The work undertaken by the project to date is an important first step in achieving that goal and of preserving Waka' and Laguna del Tigre for the future.