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Mission to La Corona Volume 50 Number 5, September/October 1997
by Ian Graham

[image] Graham and team members study field records at La Corona. (James D. Nations) [LARGER IMAGE]

The existence of an unknown Maya site has long been suspected on the basis of 25 relief sculptures, in various museums and private collections, which appear to have come from the same site. But the site's location has remained an enigma--hence its name, Site Q, for the Spanish "¿qué?" for "which?" References in their texts to rulers from Calakmul suggest that the sculptures may have come from northwestern Petén. In February 1996, guided by Carlos Catalán, an erstwhile jaguar hunter and looter who had seen the error of his ways and become an apostle of eco-tourism, a friend of mine named Santiago Billy found a site in this area while engaged in a Conservation International campaign to protect the few remaining scarlet macaws. At his request, Tom Sever, a NASA archaeologist, studied satellite images of the area and saw what looked like causeways. Sever visited the site in July 1996, with Billy, Jim Nations of Conservation International, and remote-sensing specialist Dan Lee, and found the causeway-like features; determining whether they are manmade will require excavation.

In mid-May, David Stuart, who assists me in running the Maya Corpus Program, and I went to Guatemala to investigate the site. We drove 40 miles from the town of Flores to Carmelita, a settlement founded by chicleros, who gather sap for chewing gum. From there, we set off down a narrow track with a local guide. More than five hours later, we made camp, and the next morning walked for three hours to a chiclero campsite called Lo Veremos.

The ruins are nearby. The main plaza is about half the size of a football field, and flanked by two tall structures and an impressive acropolis, but there is little else, save scattered mounds toward the southeast. These structures end in a north-south row of five small temple-mounds, shoulder-to-shoulder. Since their appearance reminded our guide of a crown, we adopted La Corona as the name of the site. Everywhere are vast looters' trenches. Usually, broken pots rejected as unsalable lie nearby, but here, oddly, there is nothing.

The west side of the plaza is bounded by a long, low mound. At the foot of its stairway, looters left a number of carved tablets, much smaller than the Site Q tablets and badly eroded. In front of the stairway lie two fragments of an altar; most of the other fragments are nearby, and David was able to reassemble much of the altar. It carries a partly legible inscription, one of the longest on any Maya altar, which may document a political alliance between La Corona and another site. A second altar celebrates the twentieth anniversary of a Calakmul king's accession on May 1, A.D. 636. A third one shows ballplayers, though there is no ballcourt at La Corona. An incomplete stela quite far from the plaza caused the greatest excitement. As David studied the inscription, he uttered a cry of delight on finding a name that can tentatively be read as Great or Red Turkey--a name found in only one other inscription, on a Site Q panel in the Art Institute of Chicago. For the first time, a Site Q personage can be linked to a known site.

In the course of our 12-day visit, David drew all the inscriptions, while I took many pictures of them and mapped the site with compass and tape. Our expedition was highly rewarding, although I doubt that La Corona is the source of the Site Q panels, since the sculpture remaining there does not match the style of those panels.

I once hoped that we would be able to determine the source of the Site Q panels by finding the carcasses (as we call them) from which the sculptures had been sawn, but now I believe they were taken intact to a place like Carmelita before being cut up: When I inspected the backs of several Site Q panels, I saw the marks of a power tool, and looters do not bring generators with them to a ruin.

One day we may find the eroded brethren of some of the pristine Site Q tablets, which probably owe their preservation to rubble that fell over them. There is a good chance that others in the set were unprotected and spurned by looters as too weathered or fragmentary. We are getting closer to Site Q. The search will go on.

Ian Graham is director of the Maya Corpus Program at Harvard's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

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© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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