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Mayan discovery points to sophisticated society

The enormous stucco face of a Mayan deity in Cival dwarfs archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli.
Vanderbilt University

(CNN) -- Excavations at a little-known Mayan ruin in Guatemala indicate it was once one of the largest and most sophisticated cities in the preclassic Mayan world.

Archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli of Vanderbilt University and colleagues have been conducting research excavations at the site, called Cival, since 2000, with support from the National Geographic Society.

They said the city thrived from about 500 B.C. to 100 A.D., when it was apparently sacked by invaders and then abandoned.

"We were extremely fortunate to have found a completely preserved preclassic city that is not buried by later construction, giving us the rare opportunity to fully explore its architecture, and the monuments, and the burials," Estrada-Belli said Tuesday in a conference call with reporters.

Among the items of interest uncovered so far are two large stucco masks associated with the Mayan corn deity.

The masks were found in a trench inside a large pyramid, and probably flanked a stairway leading to a temple chamber where kings acted out sacred rituals. The researchers expect to find two more like them as their dig progresses.

In the same complex of buildings, the scientists found caches of ritual artifacts including jars, shells, and jade tubes, pebbles and axes. The scientists think the artifacts probably were offerings to the gods, part of religious rituals associated with the sun and the agricultural cycle.

"What's also most remarkable about the offerings in the Cival plaza is that they are related to the main axis of the site, which is directed toward the rising sun," Estrada-Belli said. "And this shows that the plaza was for public rituals celebrating the recreation of cosmological order in the beginning of the cycle of maize, as well as the accession of Mayan rulers."

Additionally, they found an inscribed stone slab, or stela, that features an early carving of a Mayan king. Such slabs were quite common in later Mayan cities, but this particular stela is one of the earliest of its type found in what is now Guatemala.

Estrada-Belli used satellite imaging to study the site, and determined that its "ceremonial center," essentially the downtown area, was nearly twice the size previously thought. At its peak, Cival was likely home to 10,000 people.

Mayan civilization reached its "classic" era between 1,750 and 1,100 years ago, and then entered a period of slow decline.

The Mayan civilization ended abruptly when Spaniards arrived in the New World in the 16th century, though their descendants still live across Central America.

Archeological studies of such famous ruins as Palenque, Tikal, Calakmul and Chichen Itza show the Mayan culture to have been quite advanced, with a calendar, writing, organized religion, a powerful monarchy, and a sophisticated knowledge and understanding of astronomy.

Until recently, most of the research done into the older, "preclassic" era focused on a site called El Mirador, which is also in Guatemala and at its height had perhaps 100,000 residents.

Now, it appears the artifacts found in Cival may offer new insights into how the Mayan culture formed and matured, and how the deities and creation myths fostered by its rulers shaped the civilization.

"Ultimately, I think this information will be of tremendous help to understand the early development and the unexpected complexity of the preclassic Mayan kingship," Estrada-Belli said.

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