Newly found hieroglyphics contain clues to breakdown of Maya civilization

Text written during a period of instability gives an eyewitness account of Maya warfare

Excavations at Baking Pot, Belize, with team members Claire Ebert of Northern Arizona University, Julie Hoggarth, Ph.D., of Baylor University, and Sean Carr. Photo: Courtesy
Left, fragments of the Komkom Vase showing the A.D. 812 Long Count calendar date. Right, a digitized image of the Komkom vase. Photos: Courtesy

A vase found at an ancient royal palace in Belize has hieroglyphics that reveal clues to the Maya empire’s collapse.

Its texts were written during a period of instability, providing an eyewitness account of Maya society at war.

The shattered vessel — found amid artifacts associated with the abandonment of the royal palace complex at the Maya site of Baking Pot — was discovered in excavations directed by Julie Hoggarth, assistant professor of anthropology in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences.

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When Hoggarth stumbled upon the first fragment, she spotted the emblem hieroglyph for “Yaxha,” an ancient Maya city and ceremonial center in Guatemala.

She took a cellphone photo and sent it to Christophe Helmke of the University of Copenhagen, archaeologist and scholar of Classic Maya hieroglyphic scripts.

“He emailed from Copenhagen within an hour,” Hoggarth said. “He said, ‘This is really important. Find more.’”

The story on the Komkom vase focuses on the warfare that was taking place during the period. The vase is providing a peek into the propaganda that was being sold to society at the time, according to Baylor .

The Maya were one of the most important of all the pre-Columbian civilizations.

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The team pieced together 82 vase fragments, eventually assembling what they believe to be about 60 percent of the original. It measured about nine inches in length and, in its entirety, would have been made up of an unusually long 202 hieroglyphic blocks.

After deciphering the text, Hoggarth and colleagues realized it provided an unusual insight into a period where there is little remaining written information. Hoggarth and her colleagues now published details of the vase in a book, “A Reading of the Komkom Vase Discovered at Baking Pot, Belize.” Co-authors include Helmke, and Jaime Awe, from Northern Arizona University.

At the time the vase was created, the Maya civilization had started to collapse. Cities had already been abandoned and by around 900 AD, the Mayan people had stopped building monuments. Multiple factors likely combined, resulting in a breakdown of the political system.

“Population growth at the end of the Classic period also meant that the Maya were clearing more of the landscape to grow food, which may have contributed—in some cases—to environmental degradation,” Hoggarth told Newsweek. “On top of all of this was a series of severe droughts that date to the mid-to-late ninth century (around AD 820-900) that likely impacted agricultural production. Since Maya divine kings were considered intermediaries with the gods, you can imagine how if they did not bring the rains that their legitimacy could have been diminished and the populace likely voted with their feet and left those cities.”

“We know that the Classic Maya did not typically write about mundane topics,” Hoggarth said. The Maya normally focused on political histories, including births, deaths, ascensions, alliances and rituals. Few mention droughts or trade problems, which in retrospect, are relevant topics to any researcher seeking insight into Maya civilization.

The text on the vase provides information on the royal owner. While he is not named directly, it says his father is Sak Witzil Baah, the King of Komkom, and his mother is a royal from the kingdom of Naranjo. This suggests the owner was a later king of Komkom.

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The story provides information about a series of martial actions led by the king. It says that in July, 799 AD, he “axed the middle of the Yaxa’ cave.” The cave, Hoggarth said, probably refers to the polity or settlement of Yaxha. “The text goes on to describe how the king of Yaxha, K’inich Lakamtuun, now powerless, fled from the city to a place ‘where mosquitos/flies abound.’ The text later describes how the owner of the vase performed a ‘frog-like turtle dance’ to celebrate the victory over Yaxha.”

All history is recorded by the victors, so it is hard to distinguish between political propaganda and fact. Still, the text is valuable.

“One interesting aspect of the Komkom Vase is that many of the events that are described on the vase are also detailed in written texts on carved monuments from the site of Naranjo,” Hoggarth said. “In those accounts, it is the rulers of Naranjo who led the martial attacks on Yaxha. Naranjo was a larger and a more powerful kingdom than Komkom, but the parentage statement describes the mother of the owner of the Komkom Vase with a royal title from that site, so there were clearly political and marriage alliances between the two kingdoms.

“The accounts in the Komkom Vase make it appear that the owner of the vase, assumed to be the King of Komkom, led the attacks against Yaxha. So, you can see here how easily historical accounts can be slightly changed as a form of political propaganda to enhance the reputation of the protagonist of the story.”

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“One minute they are painting beautiful texts in the Classic tradition, and the next, collapse,” said Elizabeth Graham, professor of Mesoamerican Archaeology at the UCL Institute of Archaeology, U.K.

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