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Aguateca On Assignment

Aguateca On Assignment

Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

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By Takeshi Inomata Photographs by Kenneth Garrett

Under enemy attack, a Maya king and his courtiers fled their city, leaving astonishing pieces of their lives behind.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Engulfed by humidity and mosquitoes, our international team of archaeologists recently uncovered a fortified upper-class enclave abandoned around A.D. 800. Fire—presumably set by still unidentified attackers—had ravaged almost every building. This was the heart of Aguateca, a political center of several thousand Maya in the rain forest of what is now Guatemala.

Beginning about A.D. 700, a powerful Maya dynasty made Aguateca and Dos Pilas its twin capitals. But as battles for control of the area escalated (see Geographica, National Geographic, October 2002), the dynasty hunkered down at Aguateca, probably because of its protected site at the top of an escarpment.

Eventually the enemy pressed in. The royal family packed up and fled the palace. Loyal courtiers stayed on in defense but finally dropped everything and ran—or were captured—their possessions largely left in place.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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Flashback to 1894 when Anne Cary Maudslay, wife of English archaeologist Alfred Maudslay, took in the view of an eighth-century Maya stela at a site southeast of Aguateca.

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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Today when we see an upright carved stone monument showing an armed warrior, we are usually looking at a memorial to someone fallen in battle.

Not so in the ancient Maya world, where freestanding carved monoliths, or stelae, some rising over 26 feet (eight meters) in height, were produced by skilled artisans under orders from the local king to record his latest victory over an enemy.

The ruler's portrait conveyed the power of his office via symbols, most noticeably in his headdress and the scepter or weapon that he held. His battle prowess was emphasized in his armor, often including a belt that might have skulls or shrunken heads dangling from it, the trophies of his latest conquest. Maya glyphic writing, covering all other stela surfaces, detailed his birth, lineage, accession to the throne, and recent accomplishments vanquishing rivals. Depending on the length of his reign, a monarch might have had multiple stelae erected at several sites under his rule, ensuring that he would be legendary in his own time.

Limestone, which is relatively soft after quarrying and hardens over time, was the most available resource in Mesoamerica and was usually used to create stelae. Carvers used jadeite or obsidian axes and chisels. Maya scholars believe that the stelae were painted, which no doubt maximized the visual impact on the sovereign's subjects.

—Nancie Majkowski

Did You Know?

Related Links
Aguateca Archaeological Project
Visit this site for a closer look at dozens of artifacts uncovered at Aguateca, as well as photographs of Takeshi Inomata's team at work in the field and in the restoration laboratory.

Annenberg Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting
This study module, entitled "Why Do Civilizations Fall?", helps students understand how archaeologists who study ancient Maya sites address this question.

Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies
An introduction to Maya hieroglyphic writing is offered here, as well as a link to an online dictionary with phonetic transcriptions.

Canadian Museum of Civilization
The "Mysteries of the Maya" feature contains details of Maya culture and still photographs from the IMAX feature film of the same name.


Inomata, Takeshi, and others. "Domestic and Political Lives of Classic Maya Elites: The Excavation of Rapidly Abandoned Structures at Aguateca, Guatemala," Latin American Antiquity (vol. 13, no. 3, 2002), 305-30.

Inomata, Takeshi, and Stephen Houston, eds. Royal Courts of the Ancient Maya, 2 vols. Westview Press, 2001.

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens. Thames and Hudson, 2000.

Miller, Mary Ellen, and Karl Taube. The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion. Thames and Hudson, 1993.

Schele, Linda, and Mary Ellen Miller. The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. Kimbell Art Museum, 1986.

Sharer, Robert J. Daily Life in Maya Civilization. Greenwood Press, 1996.

Sharer, Robert J. The Ancient Maya, 5th ed. Stanford University Press, 1994.


NGS Resources
Stuart, George E. "Yucatan's Mysterious Hill Cities," National Geographic (April 2002), 54-69.

"Ancient Mesoamerica," National Geographic (December 1997), map supplement.

O'Neill, Thomas. "Yucatan Peninsula: Maya Heart, Modern Face," National Geographic (August 1996), 108-13.

Stuart, George E. Lost Kingdoms of the Maya, National Geographic Books, 1993.

Stuart, George E. "Maya Heartland Under Siege," National Geographic (November 1992), 94-107. 

"The Ancient Maya World," National Geographic (October 1989), map supplement.

Garrett, Wilbur E. "La Ruta Maya," National Geographic (October 1989), 424-79.

Diamanti, Joyce. "Mexican Pastimes: Exploring Yucatán," National Geographic Traveler (Autumn 1985), 72-83.

Stuart, George E. "Maya Art Discovered in Cave," National Geographic (August 1981), 220-35.


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