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Central America: Mayan altars, sculpture discovered in Guatemala

A team of archaeologists in Guatemala has discovered a council house dating back about 700 years with altars, incense burners and sculpted images of animals.

Mayan altars, sculpture discovered in Guatemala
The Maya council house had two altars, each of which originally had a sculpted turtle on it. 
When a cycle of time ended the Chakan Itza (the Maya people who lived here) destroyed the
 altars and covered the council house with a layer of dirt. The Chakan Itza then would 
have moved their seat of power to a new location. This may have taken place
 about 500 years ago [Credit: Timothy Pugh]

Located at the site of Nixtun-Ch'ich' in Petén,Guatemala,the house has "two colonnaded halls constructed side by side. The halls were decorated with sculpted [reptile], parrot and turtle imagery," writes Timothy Pugh, a professor at Queens College in New York, in a summary of a talk he recently gave at the Society for American Archaeology annual meeting in Austin, Texas.

A Mayan group called the Chakan Itza would have used this council house as aplace to hold meetings, worship gods, make alliances and officiate marriage ceremonies.

"Basically almost every political and religious ritual would have been held there," Pugh told Live Science in an interview. The leaders who gathered there would have held power in the community and perhaps the broader region. Among the artifacts is an incense burner showing the head of Itzamna, who was the "shaman of the gods," Pugh said.

Mayan altars, sculpture discovered in Guatemala
A team of researchers working at the site of Nixtun-Ch'ich' in Petén, Guatamela, 
have discovered a Maya council house dating back about 700 years. Their 
discoveries include sculpted works of art, including this incense 
burner showing the head of Itzamna, a deity who was the 
shaman of the Mayan gods [Credit: Don Rice]

The reptile and parrot sculptures once adorned the walls of the hallways, while two altars each had a sculpted turtle on them, Pugh said. Among the incense burners are examples that appear to be shaped like a seedling ceiba tree, which held importance to the Maya and today is the national tree of Guatemala.

Center of a community

The council house at Nixtun-Ch'ich', about 50 by 50 meters (164 by 164 feet), would have been part of a flourishing settlement. Archaeologists in previous expeditions found a giant ball court at the site, the second largest from the Mayan world, Pugh said. The largest Mayan ball court is at Chichen Itza, a city the Chaken Itza believed their ancestors had migrated from, Pugh said.

The council house appears to have been in use between about A.D. 1300 and 1500, Pugh said, adding that it could have been in use for some time after 1500. Around that time, Pugh believes, the Chakan Itza decided to destroy the council house and move the seat of power — something they would likely do on a regular basis.

"The Maya paid close attention to time and calendars," Pugh said. "After a certain cycle of time they would move the ruling seat to a new location."

Mayan altars, sculpture discovered in Guatemala

Mayan altars, sculpture discovered in Guatemala
This sculpted images of a reptile (either a snake or crocodile) and a parrot would 
have adorned the hallways of the 700-year-old Mayan council house. It would
 have been attached to the walls [Credit: Don Rice]

In order to destroy the council house, "they basically conducted a ritual that cancelled out the power of this space," Pugh said. "They destroyed the altars and they covered the building" with a large amount of dirt, he said.

A living legacy

The Spanish would conquer the Peténregion of Guatemala by the end of the 17th century. The Itza people suffered many casualties from the conquest and European diseases to which they lacked immunity.

However the Itza, along with other Mayan people, persevered and continue to live on today. Many of the Itza now speak Spanish, although the Itza language is still spoken by a small number of individuals.

Author: Owen Jarus | Source: LiveScience [June 10, 2014]