By Dan Vergano
An international archaeology team on Wednesday reported the discovery of a "stunning" stucco wall sculpture, its colors intact, unearthed in Guatemala beneath a Maya pyramid.
Guatemalan antiquity officials announced the discovery of the stucco frieze, 30 feet long and 6 feet tall, found on the inside of a pyramid at the Maya city site of Holmul.
"It is one of the most fabulous things I have ever seen," says archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli of the Holmul Archaeological Project. "The preservation is wonderful because it was very carefully packed with dirt before they started building over it."
The frieze was on one side of a tomb inside a pyramid built by the later rulers of the site. Painted red, with details in blue, yellow and green, it depicts three men, wearing bird headdresses and jade jewels, seated cross-legged over the head of a mountain spirit. It is likely a depiction of the crowning of a new ruler at the site around the year A.D. 590, according to Estrada-Belli, whose team's effort was supported by National Geographic Society grants.
The find comes as archaeologists are uncovering more details of the epic struggle between the two chief kingdoms of the ancient Maya world, one centered on the famed site of Tikal in Guatemala (best known to Star Wars fans as a rebel base setting in that movie), and the "Snake" Kaan kingdom centered on the site of Calakmul, located in modern-day Mexico. The struggle between these cities and their allies played out in epic battles, with losers becoming sacrifices, at small-city sites such as Holmul in the three centuries before the widespread abandonment of ancient Maya cities after A.D. 800.
At Holmul, an inscription dedicates the frieze to a powerful Snake king, Ajwosaj Chan K'inich, who claims to have restored Holmul's rulers and gods to their rightful place in the ceremony depicted. Essentially, Holmul had switched sides against Tikal, the onetime pre-eminent regional power, 25 miles away.
Dug into a stairway, the tomb within the discovered building yielded the skeleton of a man, his front teeth drilled and filled with jade beads, surrounded by pots depicting the nine gods of the Maya underworld and other icons. "He was certainly a member of the ruling class," Estrada-Belli says.
University of Illinois archaeologist Lisa Lucero calls the inscriptions intriguing because "this is a period when kings were really beginning to express their might and see who would bend to their will."
Estrada-Belli says his team will return to Holmul next year for more excavations. The discovery was made by starting from a trench excavated by would-be looters, he says, who dug in the wrong direction. "We made a fortunate turn," he says. "All my wishes were fulfilled."
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