Lago Petén Itzá (Guatemala)

Discovery of several hundred artefacts in the holy lake of the Maya

Ancient Origins, 11 February, 2019 – by Ed Whelan

Divers Find Hundreds of Ritual Offerings in Lake Sacred to the Maya

Drivers from the ‘Underwater Archaeological Expedition to Guatemala’ project.          

Source: Magdalena Krzemień & Mateusz Popek .

The civilization of the Maya is one of the most fascinating of the many that flourished in ancient Mesoamerica and it has just been announced that a joint Polish and Guatemalan team have retrieved a stack of objects from this culture’s golden age from a lake. Their finds are offering new insights into the great Classical Maya era.

The discoveries were made in the remote Petén Itzá lake, in north-central Guatemala, which surrounds an island called Flores that was once the site of the great Maya city of Nojpeten. The artifacts were recovered by a team of Polish divers from the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, who examined the bed of the body of water. The team made the finds some 480 feet (160 meters) beneath the surface. Their discoveries were made over the summer but they were not initially publicized so that looters would not be attracted to the lake.

500 objects found at the bottom of the lake

The leader of the archaeologist team, Magdalena Krzemień, told a news agency that “we have discovered more than half a thousand relics, including objects sunk during religious rituals,” reports the Science in Poland website. The divers had expected to find remains from a great battle that took place between the Spanish and the Maya. Instead they found items that date from an earlier historical period.

They found a treasure trove littered on the bed of the lake. The divers found grisly skull-shaped incense burners, shells, and ceremonial bowls. It is believed that the shells that were found, which were imported from the Caribbean, were used as ritual musical instrument. One important discovery was that of an obsidian knife and such blades were often used in human sacrifices in ancient Mesoamerica. According to First News they also found “various monuments detailing ritual ceremonies that took place in the ancient Mayan capital, Nojpeten.”

The group was hoping to find evidence of the ‘great battle’ between the Maya and their Spanish conquerors. However, these relics are around 1000 years older. ( Magdalena Krzemień & Mateusz Popek )

Knives used in sacrifices

Some of the ceremonial bowls were set on top of each other and there were fragments of obsidian and charcoal in them. It was in one of these stacks of bowls that the knife made from volcanic rock was found. It was deliberately left in the bowl and this indicates that it was used in some form of sacrifice, possibly even a human sacrifice. The Maya often used these knives to cut the heart out of living victims in a way very reminiscent of the Aztecs.

The archaeologists found an obsidian blade measuring almost 20 cm which they believe was 'clearly associated with ritual and sacrifice.' ( Magdalena Krzemień & Mateusz Popek )

Experts are not surprised at finding so many important relics discarded at the bottom of a lake. Bodies of water held a great religious significance for the Maya as they considered them gateways to the underworld. Moreover, water was also associated with the powerful God of Rain, Chaak , who was the deity of fertility. The artifacts could have been sacrificial gifts to this god who was very important in the Maya pantheon.

Earthenware effigy urn (an incense burner) of Chaac, 12th-14th century. ( Public Domain )

All of the relics and sacrificial items were in good condition. This was initially a mystery to the team, and they were baffled as to how these fragile artifacts were not broken. It is believed that the items were deliberately placed on the bed of the lake in some way. They reasoned that it was unlikely that they were deposited there by divers and were probably lowered onto the bed by means of nets.

According to the First News website the finds all date back to the Classical Maya period from “150 BC - 250 AD to 600 - 800 AD.” This era is often seen as the zenith of the Maya before their civilization collapsed in around 1000 AD. However, they did enjoy a renaissance before and even after the coming of the Spanish Conquistadors .

Water had a special symbolic meaning for the Mayan people, as they believed it was the medium through which the dead journeyed to the underworld. ( Magdalena Krzemień & Mateusz Popek )

The fall of Nojpeten

The treasure trove was found near the island-city of Nojpeten, which for many centuries was very important in the region. It was the last bastion of the Maya with its inhabitants defying the Conquistadors for almost two-hundred years and it did not fall to the Spanish until the 1690s. It was only taken by the Europeans after a brutal battle on the lake. The Spanish used ships armed with cannons to destroy the city and this effectively ended the last independent Maya state.

The recovered items offer new insights into the religious and cultural beliefs of the Maya during their heyday. The divers are continuing their investigations and they hope to find more sacrificial items from other periods. In particular they hope to find more artifacts from the battle on the lake that resulted in the conquest of the last independent Maya in Central America.

The drivers are excited at their discoveries and believe there are more treasures waiting to be discovered deeper in the lake bed. ( Magdalena Krzemień & Mateusz Popek )

PAP - Science in Poland, Febr. 1, 2019, by Szymon Zdziebłowski

Guatemala/ Polish archaeologists discovered several hundred artefacts in the holy lake of the Maya

Fragment of a face-shaped ceramic censer, evidence of religious rituals in the form of ceramic vessels - in total, Polish archaeologists discovered several hundred artefacts during underwater research in the lake Petén Itzá near the ancient Mayan capital Nojpetén in Guatemala.

Nojpetén was the capital city of the last of the ancient Maya groups that resisted the attacks of European conquerors for almost 200 years after their arrival in Central America. It was located on today`s Flores Island in the southern part of the vast Petén Itza Lake in Guatemala. This area was one of the places where Polish underwater archaeologists carried out research in August and September 2018. They reported their results in January.

"We have discovered more than 500 artefacts near the ancient Mayan capital, including objects sunk during religious rituals" - says the Polish team leader, archaeologist from the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Magdalena Krzemień.

The place where the rituals took place was located north of the island, as evidenced by numerous finds. In one place, scientists saw three bowls placed one inside another. The top bowl contained fragments of burned wood and obsidian - glassy volcanic rock. The bowls rested on larger three-leg vessels. In one of them, archaeologists discovered an almost 20 cm long obsidian blade. "Its presence is clearly associated with ritual and sacrifice" - the researcher emphasises.

Krzemień believes that the discovery was made exactly in the place where the vessels had been originally deposited. They were partially buried under the bottom, so even the currents could not move them.

"It is a mystery how the Mayans were able to deposit the offering so that the vessels did not scatter over a larger surface. We suspect that they were dropped to the bottom in a net" - says underwater archaeologist Mateusz Popek from the Institute of Archeology, Nicolaus Copernicus University.

A bit further was a partly destroyed fragment of a censer shaped like a human head. The project leader says that very similar items have been discovered in onshore Maya temples.

"During some of the ceremonies the censers were deliberately broken. That was probably the case here" - she adds.

The researcher says that the lakes were an important element of the Maya`s holy landscape, because water had a special symbolic meaning for the members of this civilization - it was perceived as a medium, through which the dead would pass to the underworld.

Water reservoirs were also perceived as places closely related to Chaak - a rain god, responsible for rainfall, and consequently also crops. "That is why a large number of various kinds of sacrificial gifts ended up in water reservoirs over the centuries" - adds the project leader.

Archaeologists have determined the age of finds. They believe that the studied area was a place of worship from the Proto-Classic period (150 BC - 250 BC) to the late Classic period (600 - 800 BC).

The Maya resisted the conquistadors for a very long time. Nojpetén - the last independent fortress of the Maya - was captured in 1697 after a great battle. The Spaniards attacked the island on ships, from which they shot their weapons at the Maya.

Archaeologists also hoped to discover numerous items associated with this crucial moment during their research. The final battle between the residents of the capital city and the Spaniards took place on the west side of the island. While diving in this area, the Polish archaeologists only found a part of a mace, blunt weapon consisting of a heavy head on the end of a handle. They recovered a well-preserved stone head.

A little further north, in the area of the El Hospital island, archaeologists discovered of a large shell from the Caribbean Sea on the bottom, which indicates that the Maya had contacts with the inhabitants of the Caribbean Coast. "Such a shell could be used as a music instrument. It could also be connected to the elites or the symbolic sphere, because objects of this type were associated with births, rituals of maturation, sacrificial offerings, war, the underworld and death" - Krzemień says.

The project leader emphasizes that all artefacts were located on the surface of the lake bed - they did not even have to be excavated. "Considering the number of objects we discovered on the surface, we would probably find even more during excavations. Therefore, we plan to continue our research" - informs Krzemień.

 Archaeology, Febr. 1, 2019

Maya Artifacts Recovered from Guatemala’s Lake Petén Itzá

KRAKÓW, POLAND—Science in Poland reports that teams of Guatemalan and Polish researchers recovered several hundred Maya artifacts from Lake Petén Itzá, where the Classic period Maya capital of Nojpetén was located on Flores Island. Polish team leader Magdalena Krzemień of Jagiellonian University suggested some of the artifacts had been used in religious rituals to the north of the island, perhaps to honor Chaak, a rain god. For example, divers found three stacked bowls that had been placed on larger three-legged vessels, one of which held a nearly eight-inch-long obsidian blade. “Its presence is clearly associated with ritual and sacrifice,” Krzemień said. The top bowl in the stack held fragments of burned wood and obsidian. “It is a mystery how the Mayans were able to deposit the offering so that the vessels did not scatter over a larger surface,” added underwater archaeologist Mateusz Popek of Nicolaus Copernicus University. “We suspect that they were dropped to the bottom in a net.” The main sponsors of the expedition are Sebastian Lambert and Iga Snopek.