Archaeology Magazine Archive

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(Courtesy Richard Hansen)

While investigating the water collection system at the city of El Mirador in northern Guatemala's Petén rain forest, a team of archaeologists led by Richard Hansen of Idaho State University uncovered a sculptural panel with one of the earliest depictions of the Maya creation story, the Popol Vuh. "It was like finding the Mona Lisa in the sewage system," says Hansen. The plaster panel dates to approximately 200 B.C. and depicts the mythical hero twins, Hunaphu and Xbalanque, swimming into the underworld to retrieve the decapitated head of their father. The sculpture dates to the same period as some of the earliest artwork to depict the Popol Vuh, the murals at San Bartolo and a stela at Nakbe, two other nearby cities. Parts of the decorative panel extend beyond Hansen's excavation trench, so uncovering the rest of it will have to wait until next field season. In the meantime, the archaeologists have installed a climate-controlled shelter over the area to ensure the plaster remains intact.

The sculpture decorates the wall of a channel that was meant to funnel rainwater through the central administrative area of the city. According to Hansen, every roof and plaza in the city was designed to guide rainwater into reservoirs. While a rain forest may not seem like a place where drought would be a problem, the Mirador Basin gets very little rain from January through May, which would have made it difficult to maintain a large urban population. "Water collection may have been one of the factors that led to the centralization of authority," says Hansen. "Once that centralization was established, it gave them a leaping jump start ahead of everybody else in the Maya lowlands." That advantage may have led to El Mirador becoming the first Maya kingdom and to a rich ideology that held the Popol Vuh at its heart.

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