In the hieroglyphic records they left behind, the rulers of the Classic Period Maya city known as Tamarindito bragged about their exalted status as “divine lords” chosen by the gods to rule over their people. But as a new archaeological study has revealed, these supposedly divine beings initially ruled over a group of subjects that would have numbered a few dozen at the most.
Maya Kings Sometimes Exaggerated their Greatness
It seems the first rulers of the powerful “Foliated Scroll” dynasty of the southcentral Maya lowlands were in charge of what more closely resembled a cult of true believers than an actual kingdom. Despite their belief in their own greatness, it took them several generations to recruit enough followers to turn their personal fiefdom into an influential political entity.
Incense burner from Guatemala with a representation of an Early Classic Maya ruler. ( Public Domain )
This discovery is new and unexpected, emerging from the work of a team of researchers led by Vanderbilt University archaeologist and epigrapher Markus Eberl, who is an expert on the sociopolitical structures of the Classic Period Maya people. The researchers have just published the results of their eye-opening study in the journal Latin American Antiquity , as they report the results of archaeological recovery operations that explored about 80 percent of the Tamarindito site.
The team began its excavations at the ancient Maya capital in 2009. Under the authority of the Tamarindito Archaeological Project (TAP), they made a total of seven separate excursions to the site over the course of 13 years, searching for ruins and artifacts that would reveal the truth about the ancient city’s settlement and subsequent history.
“The Petexbatun Regional Archaeological Project (PRAP) and the Tamarindito Archaeological Project (TAP) investigated Tamarindito extensively,” the study authors wrote in their Latin American Antiquity article, referencing their own surveys plus continuing work at the site under the auspices of PRAP. “Findings suggest that earlier models fail to fully explain the site’s emergence. Instead, we propose a centuries-long process of subjectification during which Foliated Scroll rulers built their authority while non-elites subjectified themselves slowly.”
Remnants of a pyramid that was part of a ceremonial center built around the time of the founding of Tamarindito. ( M. Eberl )
The Foliated Scroll Dynasty
The Foliated Scroll dynasty ruled a large swath of Maya territory in what is now Guatemala in the mid-to-late first millennium AD. It started its would-be kingdom right at the beginning of the Classic Period, which in the Petexbatun region didn’t start until around the year 350 AD. This was the time when new settlers first arrived in the area, in search of good-quality soils suitable for agricultural activity.
The first kings of this fledgling dynasty founded the royal capital of Tamarindito in approximately 400 AD, the scientists involved in this new study say. At this point, however, their capital would have been a tiny hamlet rather than a city, comprised of a small royal court and a pair of residential clusters reserved for commoners.
The royal Maya capital of Tamarindito in the Petexbatun region; the emblem glyph of the Foliated Scroll dynasty is shown between Arroyo de Piedra and Tamarindito. Insets: ( upper left ), Tamarindito’s location in the Maya Lowlands; ( lower left ), schematic site map identifying known residential groups and those investigated by PRAP and TAP. (Eberl, M., Gronemeyer, S. & C.M. Vela González/Latin American Antiquity/ CC BY 4.0 )
Build the Kingdom First, and the Subjects will Come—Maybe
The leaders of the Foliated Scroll dynasty reached the height of their authority in the mid-Classic era. Previously, it had been assumed that they were simply building on the hegemony they’d enjoyed all along.
“Classic Maya rulers presented themselves as divine pivots ,” the study authors explained. “People revolved around them, drawn in and guided by their authority. The hieroglyphic texts present fully formed and unchanging royal personas.”
Royal art and writing at Tamarindito and other Classic Maya sites certainly suggested that all Maya kings wielded absolute power, right from the beginning of their ascensions. But the archaeological record suggests the kings who served at Tamarindito didn’t have things so easy.
Carving of a Maya king at the palace of the archaeological site of Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico . (Loes Kieboom / Adobe Stock) The kings who served at Tamarindito didn’t have things as easy as some other Maya kings.
According to Eberl and his colleagues, the early Maya rulers of Tamarindito were essentially blustering self-promoters with big ambitions who commanded the loyalty of only a small band of followers. Their path to significant authority and influence was a long one.
“In the case of Tamarindito, Maya rulers had to legitimize their authority and build power, likely negotiating with and convincing non-elites [to become subjects].” Eberl told Science News .
Eberl estimates that it took approximately 150 years, or to around the year 550, before enough people chose to live in Tamarindito to allow it to function as a true capital city of a small kingdom or empire.
From this point on the Foliated Scroll rulers moved quickly to expand their authority, founding a smaller second capital and a handful of other settlements in the territory of what is now northern Guatemala. They reached the height of their political power between the years 550 and 800, finally gaining the type of mastery their ancestors had sought when they’d founded Tamarindito centuries earlier.
Aguateca Maya temple plaza, located in Guatemala’s Petexbatun Basin. (Sébastian Homberger / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
A Case Study in Maya Kingdom Construction
The hieroglyphics that proclaim the divine heritage of the Foliated Scroll rulers were first discovered in 1958, when excavations uncovered the initial ruins of Tamarindito. As explorations at the site continued it became clear that the city had been built by the Foliated Scroll kings themselves, and that no previous town or village had ever existed at that site. This made Tamarindito an excellent case study to determine how Maya rulers would have constructed a power center and a kingdom from the ground up.
What excavations revealed is that the builders of Tamarindito had big plans, right from the beginning. They started out by constructing a ceremonial complex that included a pyramid, a royal palace, and an expansive plaza on top of a 230-foot (70-meter) high hill. It would have taken between 23 and 31 laborers about 25 years to complete this construction project, the researchers estimate.
In its initial form, the plaza would have been large enough to host approximately 1,650 gatherers. But it was finished long before the city would have had the population necessary to fill it.
Tamarindito’s Plaza A and its surrounding area. Insets: ( upper left ), Stela 5 ( lower right ), Stela 3. (Eberl, M., Gronemeyer, S. & C.M. Vela González/Latin American Antiquity/ CC BY 4.0 )
Later, when people did start arriving in significant numbers, the size of the plaza was actually expanded to meet the sudden demand for space. Once the plaza was enlarged, it would have been suitable for regional ceremonial events that would have attracted people from other nearby settlements.
The first mass housing projects found during excavations dated to between the years 600 and 850. This suggests it may have taken 200 years or more before Tamarindito attracted enough people to turn its founders’ grand ambitions into something approaching reality.
Even when it was at its most developed, the city of Tamarindito would have had a population numbering only a few thousand. This is small by comparison to other urban complexes that were built by the Maya in northern Guatemala during the Classic Period. But, given the challenges that Foliated Scroll rulers faced in trying to build their kingdom from scratch, it is perhaps not surprising that they chose not to press their luck by continuing to expand endlessly.
Top Image: Panel 3 from Cancuen, Guatemala, representing Maya king T’ah ‘ak’ Cha’an. Source: CC BY-SA 2.5
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