Mayan Frieze Reveals Power Struggle In Ancient Empire

Hidden for centuries inside a pyramid in the Guatemalan jungle, archaeologists recently uncovered an enormous frieze that reveals the power of the Mayan empire and its ornate, artistic talent.

The 26-foot by nearly seven-foot frieze was discovered last month at a dig in the north east Petén region of the country, at the Holmul archaeological site. Depicting human figures in a mythological setting and featuring brightly colored paintings, the artwork depicts a battle of superpowers and suggests that the Mayans may have deified their rulers.

Archaeologists excavating the site believe that the frieze depicts a struggle for power between the kings of Kaanul - the Snake Kingdom - and the kings of Tikal.

Found in the 65 foot high, rectangular pyramid built in northern Guatemala sometime during the sixth century, the frieze has been touted as one of the best preserved pieces of Mayan art to ever be discovered.

"It's 95 percent preserved. There's only one corner that's not well preserved because it's too close to the surface, but the rest of it isn't missing any parts," said Francisco Estrada-Belli, who is affiliated with Tulane University, Boston University, and the American Museum of Natural History, according to National Geographic.

The research is being funded by the National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants Program.

It is thought that the frieze dates back to around 590 A.D. when the Kaanul and Tikal kingdoms were at war with one another over control of resources and smaller Mayan city-states. Before the discover of the frieze, it was not known who the Mayans at Holmul paid allegiance to, but after studying the artwork archaeologists discovered that the Molmul Mayans were vassals of Kaanul.

"We're now beginning to appreciate how all these hierarchical levels of sites were involved in a larger political game that put them on [the side of either Tikal or Kaanul]," said Marcello Canuto, the director of the Middle American Research Institute at Tulane University in New Orleans.

Previous studies by archaeologists found that Holmul was of strategic importance to both Mayan kingdoms because it lay on the east-west route between Kaanul's capital of Dzibanche and Tikal’s capital of the same name as well as along the north-south route that led to resource-rich northern highlands of Guatemala. The highlands contained large deposits of basalt, obsidian and the prized jade.

"A [Maya] king without jade was no king at all," Canuto said.

While there are fears of tome raiders, the frieze will remain in place at Homul as it is too large to move.

"We're going to try to preserve it and create a stable environment around it so people can eventually visit it," Estrada-Belli said. "We're very concerned about its present condition, so we had to re-bury the entrance tunnel to keep the humidity and climate around it stable."

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