Fri. Apr 10th, 2020

Sak Tz’i ’, the small Mayan kingdom that survived protected by its powerful neighbors

The first clues were found in 1994, but it wasn’t until June 2014 that investigators found the exact point where they had to dig. And it was not thanks to an archaeologist. It was a street food vendor who offered the specialists the key they were looking for.

It turns out that this merchant who sold carnitas along a road had a friend, a rancher who lived in the small town of Lacanjá Tzetzal, in the state Chiapas (in the southeast of Mexico), who claimed to have found a one-meter-long tablet that spoke of a little mayan kingdom lost.


A street food vendor gave archaeologists the ultimate clue they were looking for

After a quarter of a century of research, the experts of the Brandeis University have finally discovered what appears to be the capital of Sak Tz’i ’ in the backyard of a farm, as detailed by the professor of anthropology Charles Golden and his colleagues in a study published in the journal Journal of Field Archeology

The international team that has been excavating the site since 2018 has found a real treasure of Mayan monuments with remains of pyramids, a royal palace or a field to play Tlachtli (the well-known Mesoamerican ball sport) in the meadow where the cows grazed ( to which they had to watch daily so that they did not step on or dirty the work area).

A map of the location of the remains of the ancient capital of Sak Tz'i '

A map of the location of the remains of the ancient capital of Sak Tz’i ‘
(Brandeis University)

Historians took advantage of all these years to detect that this state, whose main city was founded around 750 BC and was occupied for more than 1,000 years, was also mentioned in Mayan sculptures from the Classic period (250-900 AD) exposed in museums around the world, although it was not known exactly where he was.

The important inscription on the tablet – which describes rituals, battles, a mythical water snake and the dance of a rain god – was not, however, the most prominent element. Above all, the place where it had appeared was capital. “Sak Tz’i ’was not the most powerful of the Mayan kingdoms, and its remains are modest compared to the best-known sites of Chichén Itzá and nearby Palenque. But this finding is an outstanding advance. It is like trying to build a map of medieval Europe from historical documents and reading about a place called France. Essentially, we have located France, ”says Golden.


The inscription on the tablet was important, although the highlight was the place where it had been found.

Studying the site was not an easy task. Archeologists took five years to obtain authorization to excavate the property. The Lacanjá Tzetzal rancher feared that, following Mexican cultural heritage laws, the government would confiscate the ranch. We had to negotiate with state officials to get a commitment that this would not happen.

The Sak Tz’i ’kingdom (which means White Dog) was“ relatively small ”, straddling what is now the border between Mexico and Guatemala. The people lived in the countryside harvesting a wide variety of crops and making pottery and stone tools. Archaeologists even found evidence of what was probably the city market where these products were sold.

Archaeologists working in the meadow behind the cow farm

Archaeologists working in the meadow behind the cow farm
(Brandeis University)

At the northeast corner of the city are the ruins of a pyramid about 14 meters high and various surrounding structures that served as elite residences and sites for religious rituals. The center of this sacred activity, and also of politics, was the Muk’ul Ton Square (or Monument Square), a 6,000-square-meter courtyard where people gathered for ceremonies.

A staircase led from the plaza to a very high platform where the temples and reception rooms were arranged where members of the royal family could have had their court and even be buried there.


In the northeast corner of the city are the ruins of a pyramid about 14 meters high

“The little kingdom had the misfortune to be surrounded on all sides by more powerful states. For the inhabitants of the capital and the countryside, this meant the perpetual threat of war and the violent interruptions of their daily lives ”, the researchers point out. Hence, the city had high walls to ward off invaders. These fortifications, however, were not always effective as some inscriptions indicate that at least part of the city “burned down during a conflict with neighboring kingdoms.”

The appeal of Sak Tz’i ’is that its survival probably depended on the peace accords it reached with neighboring powers, in addition to its military ability to deal with them if necessary. “This is one of the reasons this research has so much, as it is well known about how the middle Mayan kingdoms maneuvered and managed to persist in the face of constant hostilities from more powerful kingdoms,” Charles Golden said in a statement.


The appeal of Sak Tz’i ’is that its survival probably depended on the peace accords

Field work has led to the unearthing of dozens of sculptures, although many are degraded and damaged by years and years of looting, forest fires or rains that have affected the region. The most well-preserved evidence remains the breeder’s tablet.

In this text, in addition to the references to the mythical serpent, described in verse as “bright sky, bright earth”, several ancient gods of whom the name is not given are pointed out, and accounts of the life of dynastic rulers appear. There is also talk of a flood and even a king named K’ab Kante destaca stands out.

At the bottom of the tablet is a dancing royal figure. The Mayans believed that royalty could become a god. In this case, the ruler is dressed as the rain god Yopaat, connected with violent tropical storms. In his right hand he carries an ax that is the thunderbolt. In his left hand, the figure wears a stone gauntlet or club used in ritual combat.

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