By Marc Zender and Joel Skidmore

Updated April 23, 2004

Also see New Discoveries at Cancuen.

October 30, 2003. The National Geographic Society and Vanderbilt University announced today that an elaborately carved Maya altar from the Guatemalan site of Cancuen had been recovered from looters (map). The full story is available on the National Geographic website (be sure and read the sidebar recounting the colorful details of the looting and recovery):

Ancient Maya Altar Rescued

The new altar (actually a ballcourt marker) sheds substantial light on the last years of the reign of Tajal Chan Ahk, Cancuen's most celebrated king. Ruling between A.D. 757 and some point after 799, he commissioned most of Cancuen's known monuments and no doubt built a substantial portion of its impressive Late Classic palace, itself the subject of recent excavations by the Cancuen Archaeological Project of Vanderbilt University and the IDAEH, Guatemala, directed by Arthur Demarest.

According to a displaced block from Cancuen's looted and time-ravaged hieroglyphic stairway, now in the collections of the National Museum of Guatemala City, Tajal Chan Ahk was born in 742. While his link to previous rulers of the site is unfortunately unknown, recent reconstructions of the hieroglyphic stairway and the discovery of new monuments at Cancuen demonstrate that he acceded to power in 757 (Fahsen, Demarest and Luin 2003:711-12).

Further events in the hieroglyphic record are more ritual than historical. The Cancuen Looted Panel, an all-glyphic tablet now on display in the Museum of Coban, records that "he conjured K'awiil" (utzakaw k'awiil) (M3-N4), a lightning god with strong ties to the ruling lines of Classic cities, in a ceremony which took place in 767.

Cancuen Stela 2, discovered by Sylanus Morley in 1915 (Morley 1937-38:Vol. 5, plates 17e, f), depicts the king trampling a hapless captive but only records his supervision of the all-important period-ending ceremonies in 790. As Stanley Guenter has noted, the Coban panel provides what is currently our latest reference to Tajal Chan Ahk, informing us that he oversaw a pilgrimage to the tomb of an earlier king of the polity in 799 (Guenter, A Reading of the Cancuén Looted Panel). Guenter has also drawn attention to the important consideration that Tajal Chan Ahk here carries both the Cancuen and Machaquila emblem glyphs, indicating that he claimed suzerainty over both of these kingdoms by at least A.D. 799.

The new ballcourt marker reveals important dimensions of the political developments leading to the eventual annexation of the Machaquila kingdom by Cancuen. Two elaborately-attired ballplayers (named in associated three-glyph captions) square off before a large ball as a ten-glyph main text provides the larger sociohistorical context for the event. (See photo on National Geographic website.) As noted in the National Geographic article by Federico Fahsen, epigrapher for the Cancuen Archaeological Project, the marker was apparently a late 8th-century commission of Tajal Chan Ahk. The precise date of the marker's dedication is unfortunately eroded and therefore remains uncertain (Stephen Houston, personal communication), though Fahsen favors a placement at 9.18.5.5.19 6 Cauac 12 Cumku (January 796).

The key event concerns the patwani or "formation" of this marker at the behest of Tajal Chan Ahk (David Stuart, personal communication), here carrying both the Cancuen Emblem Glyph and an enigmatic title (Aj Chak Ju'te' or "He of Chak Ju'te'") shared with other Late Classic Petexbatun kings, as well as at least one late king of Tikal. Most intriguingly, Tajal Chan Ahk is said to have been assisted in his dedicatory act by two sublords, and it is apparently they (rather than he) who are depicted on the marker. The first is named as the captor of a lord from the otherwise unknown polity of Saak Te'. More interestingly, the second is named as the captor of Chak-?-B'ahlam, the contemporary king of Machaquila.

That Tajal Chan Ahk gave these allies or vassals such prominence on the new ballcourt marker helps establish a traditional enmity between the Cancuen and Machaquila kingdoms, and in turn assists scholars in narrowing the window during which Cancuen claims to have annexed its neighbor. Since the king of Machaquila had already been captured at this time (surely within a few years at the outside of 795, the date recorded on Ballcourt Marker 1), it is possible that this expansion of the Cancuen kingdom took place as much as five years before the 799 date recorded on the Cancuen Panel.

The new ballcourt marker is also remarkable for its strong formal and textual similarities to Cancuen Ballcourt Marker 1, found only a few meters away from the new marker by Sylvanus Morley in 1915, and long housed in the National Museum of Guatemala City. As Morley recognized, this text records a ballgame that took place in association with the period-ending ceremonies on 9.18.5.0.0 4 Ahau 13 Ceh (September 795). Here, the protagonists are Tajal Chan Ahk and K'an Maax.

Given the close juxtaposition of these two ballgame scenes in time, coupled with the long-noted importance of the ballgame in Classic alliance-building (Martin and Grube 2000:110), it would seem that the ballcourt texts of Tajal Chan Ahk reveal something of the political strategies that would eventually lead to his domination of Machaquila and other Petexbatun clients.

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