Archaeological "gold mine" illuminates connection between king and sun god.
Some 1,600 years ago, the Temple of the Night Sun was a blood-red beacon visible for miles and adorned with giant masks of the Maya sun god as a shark, blood drinker, and jaguar.
Long since lost to the Guatemalan jungle, the temple is finally showing its faces to archaeologists, and revealing new clues about the rivalrous kingdoms of the Maya.
Unlike the relatively centralized Aztec and Inca empires, the Maya civilization—which spanned much of what are now Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico’s Yucatán region (Maya map)—was a loose aggregation of city-states. (Read about the rise and fall of the Maya in National Geographic magazine.)
"This has been a growing awareness to us since the 1990s, when it became clear that a few kingdoms were more important than others," said Brown University archaeologist Stephen Houston, who announced the discovery of the new temple Thursday.
El Zotz, in what’s now Guatemala, was one of the smaller kingdoms, but one apparently bent on making an big impression.
By 2010 archaeologists working on a hilltop near the ancient city center had discovered 45-foot-tall (13-meter-tall) Diablo Pyramid, Atop it they found a royal palace and a tomb, believed to hold the city’s first ruler, who lived around A.D. 350 to 400.
Around the same time, Houston and a colleague spotted the first hints of the Temple of the Night Sun, behind the royal tomb on Diablo Pyramid. Only recently, though, have excavations uncovered the unprecedented artworks under centuries of overgrowth.
The sides of the temple are decorated with 5-foot-tall (1.5-meter-tall) stucco masks showing the face of the sun god changing as he traverses the sky over the course of a day.
One mask is sharklike, likely a reference to the sun rising from the Caribbean in the east, Houston said.
The noonday sun is depicted as an ancient being with crossed eyes who drank blood, and a final series of masks resemble the local jaguars, which awake from their jungle slumbers at dusk.
In Maya culture the sun is closely associated with new beginnings and the sun god with kingship, Houston explained. So the presence of solar visages on a temple next to a royal tomb may signify that the person buried inside was the founder of a dynasty—El Zotz’s first king.
It’s an example of "how the sun itself would have been grafted onto the identity of kings and the dynasties that would follow them," he said in a press statement.
Maya archaeologist David Freidel added, "Houston’s hypothesis is likely correct that the building was dedicated to the sun as a deity closely linked to rulership. The Diablo Pyramid will certainly advance our knowledge of Early Classic Maya religion and ritual practice."
Houston’s team also found hints that the Maya, who added new layers to the temple over generations, regarded the building as a living being. For example, the noses and mouths of the masks in older, deeper layers of the temple were systematically disfigured.
"This is actually quite common in Maya culture," Houston told National Geographic News. "It’s very hard to find any Mayan depiction of the king that doesn’t have its eyes mutilated or its nose hacked ... but ’mutilation’ is not the appropriate term to describe it. I see it as more of a deactivation.
"It’s as if they’re turning the masks off in preparation for replicating them in subsequent layers ... It’s not an act of disrespect. It’s quite the opposite."
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