Archaeological "gold mine" illuminates connection between king and sun god.

Some 1,600 years ago, the Temple of the Night Sun was a blood-red beacon visible for miles and adorned with giant masks of the Maya sun god as a shark, blood drinker, and jaguar.

Long since lost to the Guatemalan jungle, the temple is finally showing its faces to archaeologists, and revealing new clues about the rivalrous kingdoms of the Maya.

Unlike the relatively centralized Aztec and Inca empires, the Maya civilization—which spanned much of what are now Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico's Yucat√°n region —was a loose aggregation of city-states.

"This has been a growing awareness to us since the 1990s, when it became clear that a few kingdoms were more important than others," said Brown University archaeologist Stephen Houston, who announced the discovery of the new temple Thursday.

El Zotz, in what's now Guatemala, was one of the smaller kingdoms, but one apparently bent on making an big impression.

By 2010 archaeologists working on a hilltop near the ancient city center had discovered 45-foot-tall (13-meter-tall) Diablo Pyramid, Atop it they found a royal palace and a tomb, believed to hold the city's first ruler, who lived around A.D. 350 to 400.

Around the same time, Houston and a colleague spotted the first hints of the Temple of the Night Sun, behind the royal tomb on Diablo Pyramid. Only recently, though, have excavations uncovered the unprecedented artworks under centuries of overgrowth.

A mask depicts a sun god in the guise of a shark

Solar Power

The sides of the temple are decorated with 5-foot-tall (1.5-meter-tall) stucco masks showing the face of the sun god changing as he traverses the sky over the course of a day.

One mask is sharklike, likely a reference to the sun rising from the Caribbean in the east, Houston said.

The noonday sun is depicted as an ancient being with crossed eyes who drank blood, and a final series of masks resemble the local jaguars, which awake from their jungle slumbers at dusk.

In Maya culture the sun is closely associated with new beginnings and the sun god with kingship, Houston explained. So the presence of solar visages on a temple next to a royal tomb may signify that the person buried inside was the founder of a dynasty—El Zotz's first king.

It's an example of "how the sun itself would have been grafted onto the identity of kings and the dynasties that would follow them," he said in a press statement.

Maya archaeologist David Freidel added, "Houston's hypothesis is likely correct that the building was dedicated to the sun as a deity closely linked to rulership. The Diablo Pyramid will certainly advance our knowledge of Early Classic Maya religion and ritual practice."

Houston's team also found hints that the Maya, who added new layers to the temple over generations, regarded the building as a living being. For example, the noses and mouths of the masks in older, deeper layers of the temple were systematically disfigured.

"This is actually quite common in Maya culture," Houston told National Geographic News. "It's very hard to find any Mayan depiction of the king that doesn't have its eyes mutilated or its nose hacked ... but 'mutilation' is not the appropriate term to describe it. I see it as more of a deactivation.

"It's as if they're turning the masks off in preparation for replicating them in subsequent layers ... It's not an act of disrespect. It's quite the opposite."

"Gold Mine of Information"

Maya scholar Simon Martin said the masks on the newfound El Zotz temple are "completely unique" and valuable, because they could help verify theories about Maya portrayals of the sun god.

"We have images of the sun god at different stages ... but we've never found anything that puts it all together," said Martin, of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, who was not involved in the project.

"We've had to assemble [the sequence] from bits and pieces of information and just trust that we got it right. This could be an opportunity to see the whole thing stage by stage."

The temple is also wonderfully well preserved, Martin added, making it a "real gold mine of information."

"We've seen a few places where whole buildings have been preserved," he said. "But normally what happens is [the Maya] smashed up a building and then built on top of it, so when you dig into a building you don't find very much of their decoration."

By contrast, Maya workers at El Zotz went to great pains to preserve the original temple structure, going so far as padding it with earth and small rocks before building on top of it.

Facing Out

Archaeologist Karl Taube points out the craftsmanship of the masks. "They're three-dimensional. The faces push out of the side of the facade. You don't really see that very often ... because if they project too much they fall off. But here they were able to pull it off.

"With the play of light on these things, the faces would have been extremely dramatic," said Taube, of the University of California, Riverside (UCR),who also was not involved in the project.

Project leader Houston added that the masks' color—crimson, according to paint traces—would have also helped them stand out. "With that bright red pigment, it would have had a particularly marked effect at dawn and at the setting of the sun," Houston said.

Blazing red and perched on high, the Temple of the Night Sun was meant "to see and to be seen," Houston said.

Importantly, it would have been noticeable from Tikal, a larger, older, and more powerful kingdom that El Zotz may or may not have been on friendly terms with.

"We tend to think of kings being completely autonomous, but for the Maya, a sacred king was often part of a hierarchy of kings," the Penn Museum's Martin said.

"So the people at El Zotz at times may have been heavily under the influence of Tikal, and when powers were weak at Tikal, they may have been completely independent or may have linked themselves with more powerful kings somewhere else."

"A Lot More Discoveries" to Come?

Despite the obvious care that was taken to construct and preserve the newfound temple, it wasn't used for long. Evidence at the site suggests the building was abandoned sometime in the fifth century, for reasons unknown.

"It's like they just dropped their tools and left" in the middle of once again expanding the temple, Houston said. "I think what you're looking at is the death of a dynasty."

The answer to this mystery and others could become evident as more of the Temple of the Night Sun is uncovered.

"Only 30 percent of this facade has been exposed," UCR's Taube said. "I think there're going to be a lot more discoveries and a broader understanding of what this building actually shows in the future."

VIDEO Archaeologist Stephen Houston on the Temple Find

Responses to ""Dramatic" New Maya Temple Found, Covered With Giant Faces (Video)"

  1. Anonymous says:

    Were any present day Mayan people consulted? This felt kinda strange to have all these Americans and others speaking to the significance and interpretation and not one Maya. Very weird for this day and age!

  2. Anonymous says:

    I wd agree with consulting Mayans today. Common sense, really. As I read the article, I doubted several interpretations. Amazing discovery, please respect the Mayan ppl past and present, whose souls may dwell there also.

  3. Anonymous says:

    They generally don't bother asking, which is why they get so much wrong (ex.2012 "scare"). There's really no reason not to ask since there are still 100% Maya all over Guatemala. Maybe the archaeologists don't speak K'iche?

  4. Emma B. cc says:

    Interesting it's always been the Americans to invade. It's just the way they are been like that since they came along and "discovered" America. Natives were here first juss they got curious just like now. Interesting read sun god. There's sun dances that native Americans do. Wonder if that links up

  5. clovisnj says:

    Americans have the money to do the research and excavations. They cannot take home the artifacts unless Guatemala approves them to leave. There wasn't an American invasion!

  6. Lobva says:

    Maya were Native American, and are. All tribes in the Americas had a common influence. In this day and age, we are taught that our ancients were ignorant and less civilized because of their religious beliefs and use of symbolism. The Mexica (Aztec) had connections to tribes such as the Navajo, Hopi, etc., and are actually all called collectively, the Uto-azteca tribes.

  7. Anonymous says:

    True academics were not responsible for the '2012 scare' that was started with calculations that were not based on solid math. Terence McKenna's work heavily influenced the entire Mayan end of time vision, and even he thought it just meant the end of a aeon, and a potential quantum leap for mankind. Mayans of this day and age know only a limited amount of their own history, because of all the literature burning done once the monks set up shop and started burning texts like the Popol Vuh. Any scholar worth his salt is going to understand the ancestral connection, and I dare say, there are probably plenty of native Mayan scholars involved in some fashion. I'm sure we'll see as they uncover more.

  8. Anonymous says:

    History lesson: It was not "Americans" that "invaded" North America. They were people that apparently walked here from Asia. Much later, Europeans came in boats. Look up Christopher Columbus... or read up on the stories about Icelanders visiting...... or Vikings....

  9. The links between the vast differences that separated the thousands of tribal identities that engulfed both the continents was to say the least incredible !The Original Peoples of both South and North America from the Inuit in the frozen polar regions of the northern hinterlands to my Mothers peoples the Algonquin of the 5 Sacred Fires People .
    To their enemy neighbors the Iroquois 6 Nations through to the Ohio Siouan and Shawnee then across to the mysterious city builders the Caddo and the Florida Timucua across to the Mayan the vanished Olmec and Aztec across the many more mysterious peoples to the great builders the Inca this place we call the Americas was and is not and never was inhabited by Indians for Indians have always been in India and even they come from the Pashtun to the Dravidians so please realize that North and South America has always been inhabited by the First Nations Peoples under a thousand banners languages cultures architecture and histories !
    Though the Mayan were of a culture back then that inherited the vast cult of the builders and their organically refined architectural anomalies were more of an architecture of the sacred and were measured in astronomical measurements that cried out to their fierce Gods for the blessings of the earth their vastness and cities had already decimated the fragile soils of the Lowland areas they mostly inhabited and when the Spaniards arrived their white skin spoke volumes to the Tribes about their ancient oral and carved histories which i feel were the only reasons the first explorers were not immediately given as flesh offerings to their ravenous Gods and Priests though i can only surmise Mee-Gwetch

  10. thbutler says:

    The book, "When Rocks Cry Out" tells you where these "Maya" civilizations came from. I am that author. Maya scholars have known the truth of these origins since I first shared it with them, beginning in 1997. They know; but they are not going to tell you. I also gave National Geographic the ancient writings that revealed that tomb beneath the second room of the Bonampak murals. Yes, I still have those emails where I shared that discovery with them in June, 2008. How dishonest of them to then publish that Mexican archaeologists "discovered" that tomb while doing sonar scans for conservation work. There is a world shattering history of the Maya, Aztec and Inca that you have not heard. It's not MY history; I found those ancient writings, and simply brought them back. Hopefully, these so-called scholars will begin sharing those with you, while they use them.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Unfortunately, most of the present day Mayans have been brain washed by the catholic church and do not know their past, their history or their ancients.

  12. we are all just people...who cares anymore of nationality...lets just all try enjoy each other and build new histories and new sculptures and new gardens of wonder together...we are all relatives....we all must eat and drink and work and dance and celebrate to be happy and content

  13. I so agree with Clownin around. All My Relations. Peace love & light to all. Strive to arrive.

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