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El Zotz Masks Yield Insights into Maya Beliefs

August 5, 2012
Diablo Pyramid, north side

A tracing of an image found at the El Zotz archaeological site in Guatemala depicts the Maya sun god. “The stuccos provide unprecedented insight into how the Maya conceived of the heavens,” said archaeologist Stephen Houston, “how they thought of the sun, and how the sun itself would have been grafted onto the identity of kings and the dynasties that would follow them.” Credit: Stephen Houston

Graduate students Sarah Newman, Nicholas Carter, Yeny Gutiérrez, and Boris Beltrán, working with and led by Prof. Stephen Houston, made a new discovery at the Maya archaeological site in El Zotz, Guatemala. The ornately decorated structure is topped by a temple covered in a series of masks depicting different phases of the sun, as well as deeply modeled and vibrantly painted stucco throughout.

The team began uncovering the temple, called the Temple of the Night Sun, in 2009. Dating to about 350 to 400 A.D., the temple sits just behind the previously discovered royal tomb, atop the Diablo Pyramid. The structure was likely built after the tomb to venerate the leader buried there.

Another finding indicates that the Maya saw the building as a living being rather than just simply a physical structure. At one point, possibly when the Maya were preparing to add new construction to the existing building, the nose and mouths of the masks, as well as identifying glyphs on the forehead diadems, were systematically mutilated, according to Houston, as a way to deactivate the building.

Read more of Courtney Coelho's article about the Mayan discovery.