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Who Knew?Royal Maya City

Research and Exploration

Royal City of the Maya

Why go back to a Maya city that was first excavated in the 1930s, a site made famous when the Maya hieroglyphic code was cracked there two decades later? "We went to Piedras Negras because it had almost become a 'lost city' again," says archaeologist and glyph expert Stephen Houston. "Archaeology has changed enormously, and new questions are being asked about Maya urban life." Remote Piedras Negras, set beside the Usumacinta River, rose from a small village, thrived for some 400 years, and then collapsed. Houston, of Brigham Young University, has worked six years on the site to find out why.

Before he could get to the Maya, he had to get past the Marxists. Delicate negotiations were required to persuade the guerrillas to leave their hideout so that Houston's team, including co-director Héctor Escobedo of Guatemala's Universidad del Valle, could set up camp. When they finally began excavating in 1997, they found that the guerrilla presence had, unintentionally, protected the site: "It's hard to loot a tomb with a machine gun pointed at you."

The wait was worth it; the city had new riches to bestow. Using the site's carved stelae, which bear rulers' names and the years of their reigns, Houston was able to date many of the objects he unearthed, in turn clarifying the history of dynasties and the city.

About A.D. 400, Maya kings began building pyramids and plazas at Piedras Negras to symbolize their link to the gods and legitimize their rule. The population grew to 5,000. Then, in A.D. 800, invaders captured the king. Piedras Negras "limped along for a few decades," says Houston, "but once the king was gone, the city had no purpose." Palaces were subdivided, ritual sweat baths filled with trash. Soon the people abandoned it altogether. The fate of Piedras Negras strongly suggests that Classic Maya culture collapsed not from drought or overpopulation, Houston says, but from the loss of the royal court and the erosion of public faith in the hierarchy. The things the residents of Piedras Negras left behind continue to tell their story. Stephen Houston is listening.

—Margaret G. Zackowitz

Web Links

Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies
Discover Piedras Negras through the words of Stephen Houston after his 1999 field season, sponsored by an organization that funds similar research throughout Mesoamerica, one of the world's cradles of civilization. Other Maya research reports are also available at this site.

Science Museum of Minnesota
Take a photo tour of key Maya sites on the Yucatán Peninsula, and see modern Maya weavers display their craft.

Maya Astronomy
The Maya were masters of astronomy and mathematics. Discover some of their secrets through this quick Web lesson.

Read about the latest finds at Maya sites throughout Mesoamerica, and take a video tour of some of the ancient cities.

Free World Map

Houston, Stephen, and others. "Among the River Kings: Archaeological Research at Piedras Negras, Guatemala, 1999." Mexicon (February 2000), 8-17.

Houston, Stephen, and others. "Between Mountains and Sea: Investigations at Piedras Negras, Guatemala, 1998." Mexicon (February 1999), 10-17.

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

Miller, Mary, and Karl Taube. The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya. Thames and Hudson, 1993.

Sharer, Robert. The Ancient Maya. Stanford University Press, 1994.


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