Epigrapher Stanley Guenter on Maya archaeology's missing city
This past April, as epigrapher Stanley Guenter of Southern Methodist University cleaned an inscribed panel found by archaeologist Marcello Canuto of Yale University at the site of La Corona, in northern Guatemala, he knew they were about to put to rest one of the great mysteries of Maya archaeology: Where is Site Q? A subject of discussion in these pages for nearly a decade ("The Search for Site Q" September/October 1997), Site Q was the name assigned to an unknown city from which some 30 monuments had been looted and sold to museums and private collectors in the 1970s. Guenter recently spoke to Archaeology about the discovery.
What were you doing at La Corona this year?
This was actually my second time to the site. I went there in 2002 on another expedition to see if it was worth doing a project there. Back then, it was completely overgrown with jungle. We went in the rainy season, and I absolutely hated the trip. I was just covered in bug bites. So I wasn't actually too keen on going back. I figured we probably weren't going to find anything else there and that it was just going to be miserable.
Well, luckily this time we went during the dry season and we had people already there clearing out the undergrowth, so it was much more comfortable. We were there for six days. On our second-to-last day, I had just come back from looking at a monument that was already known when Marcello Canuto came up to me and said, "Stan, I'm gonna make your day."
He'd been taking GPS points on a number of pyramids in the eastern part of the site so we could check them against our map. He had had trouble with his GPS unit and just set it on the side of a looters' trench and decided to nose around. And that's when he noticed the carved stone.
David Stuart of the University of Texas has suggested for some time that La Corona is Site Q. When did you know that this panel was conclusive proof?
As soon as I saw it, I knew this was quite a spectacular find. As we cleaned it, we could tell that the style of the glyphs was indeed the same style that we had from the Site Q pieces. The reason why people hadn't accepted that La Corona was definitely Site Q was the fact that there were no Site Q-style monuments found there. Site Q-style monuments are beautifully preserved small panels. The monuments archaeologists have found at La Corona were badly weathered, and they were large--altars and a stela. But even before we had the panel completely cleaned, it was quite clear that this was the last missing piece. I don't think anyone would hesitate now to say that La Corona is Site Q.
So the panel was just sitting in the open in a looters' trench. How do you explain how something so valuable was missed?
It's actually quite amazing. The looters had dug in, but they must have given up only a few inches away from the panel. Then, through the years--this looting probably went on in the 1960s--erosion had cleared off a lot of the remaining dirt. That's why when Marcello went into the looters' trench he saw the panel. It was complete luck that the looters had given up just before they reached it.
What does the panel depict?
The panel itself is part of the dedication ceremonies for the structure in which it was found. The dedication was conducted in October of 677 by a king called K'inich Yook. He is portrayed on the panel along with a lord from Calakmul. They're facing each other, carrying out a ceremony where they're scattering incense.
Apart from that, the panel goes into some religious information, talking about the god who was being worshiped in that temple. And it mentions a 658 event when K'inich Yook's father carried out a similar dedication. He dedicated three panels to three different gods. These are all new gods we've never heard of before. Before we had this panel, we didn't know any of the patron gods of La Corona. Now we have four of them.
What was it like to be part of such an important find?
It was certainly a wonderful confirmation of all the years of training I've had. Because of the preservation of the monument, which is spectacular, we could read all the glyphs as soon as they came out of the ground.
We were working in the dry season, yet that afternoon we had a nice thunderstorm come through. Everyone else went running back to camp, and as the rain was pouring down I was still cleaning off the glyphs. Lo and behold, the glyphs I was cleaning off were the names of the Maya rain gods.
© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America