Research Spotlight: 3-D map confirms ancient Mayan structures at ‘Head of Stone’ site

Brigitte Kovacevich at Holtun, 'Head of Stone,' in GuatemalaArchaeologists have made the first three-dimensional topographical map of ancient monumental buildings long buried under centuries of jungle at the Maya site “Head of Stone” in Guatemala.

The map puts into 3-D perspective the location and size of Head of Stone’s many buildings and architectural patterns, which are typical of Maya sites: 70-foot-tall “triadic pyramid,” an astronomical observatory, a ritual ball court, numerous plazas and also residential mounds that would have been the homes of elites and commoners, according to SMU archaeologist Brigitte Kovacevich.

The buildings date from 800 B.C. to 900 A.D., says Kovacevich, an expert in Meso-American cultures in the Department of Anthropology of SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. She is co-leader of an international scientific team that has been granted permission by the Guatemalan government to work the site, which has never before been excavated.

The ancient Maya culture at its peak during the Classic period has been well-documented by archaeologists studying the civilization’s large urban centers, such as Tikal, which was one of the most powerful and long-lasting of the Maya kingdoms.

In contrast, “Head of Stone,” called “Holtun” in Maya, is a modest site from the Pre-Classic period, 600 B.C. to 250 A.D., she says. The small city had no more than 2,000 people at its peak. Situated about 35 kilometers south of Tikal, “Head of Stone” in its heyday preceded the celebrated vast city-states and kingship culture for which the Maya are known.

Holtun’s structures – more than 100 of them – now are overgrown with a thin layer of centuries-old jungle foliage and soil. The site is about one kilometer long and half a kilometer wide, or almost three-quarters of a mile long and one-third of a mile wide. The large mounds protruding here and there from the jungle floor signal to archaeologists the familiar building arrangements customary at a Maya site, Kovacevich says.

As with most Maya sites, looters have tunneled into many of the important structures. Kovacevich and her colleagues will dig more tunnels to further explore the buildings with the help of Guatemalan experts skilled at working Maya sites.

The 3-D mapping has confirmed an “E Group,” a key Maya architectural structure. Holtun’s “E Group” dates from 600 B.C. to 600 A.D. and consists of stair-step pyramids and elongated buildings that likely served as astronomical observatories central to Maya rituals. A stepped pyramid to the west of a long narrow building directly oriented north-south served as the observational structure and was related to veneration of sacred ancestors, Kovacevich says.

Adjacent to the “E Group” are four structures that face one another around a central patio. The pattern usually indicates a residential group, where cooking and food processing were carried out on the patio, Kovacevich says.

“The closeness of the residential structure to the “E Group” suggests these were very early elites, and possibly kings,” she says. “Kingship was just being established during this period.”

A triadic pyramid dating from 300 B.C. to 300 A.D. sits at the north end of the site. As is typical at Maya sites, three pyramids about 10 feet tall sit atop a high platform that rises about 60 feet from the jungle floor, Kovacevich says. One of the pyramids faces south, flanked on either side by the other two, which face inward around a central patio. The platform sits atop – and obscures – an earlier sub-structure platform, buried underground and decorated with monumental masks that are visible from the looters’ tunnels.

During the Classic period, kings were typically buried in Maya pyramids. During the Pre-Classic period, however, that isn’t the case and they were typically buried in their residence. It’s possible an early king of Holtun was buried in one of the residential structures, Kovacevich says.

“Ancestors are buried beneath the floor and kept very close and venerated,” she says. “The more ancestors a residence has, the more times the family redoes their floor, making a new floor, and so their mound gets higher and higher. A person with more ties, more ancestors, has more status.”

Written by Margaret Allen

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