"Dramatic" New Maya Temple Found, Covered With Giant Faces

Archaeological "gold mine" illuminates connection between king and sun god.

Some 1,600 years ago, the Temple of the Night Sun was a blood-red beacon visible for miles and adorned with giant masks of the Maya sun god as a shark, blood drinker, and jaguar.

Long since lost to the Guatemalan jungle, the temple is finally showing its faces to archaeologists, and revealing new clues about the rivalrous kingdoms of the Maya.

Unlike the relatively centralized Aztec and Inca empires, the Maya civilization—which spanned much of what are now Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico's Yucatán region (Maya map)—was a loose aggregation of city-states. (Read about the rise and fall of the Maya in National Geographic magazine.)

"This has been a growing awareness to us since the 1990s, when it became clear that a few kingdoms were more important than others," said Brown University archaeologist Stephen Houston, who announced the discovery of the new temple Thursday.

El Zotz, in what's now Guatemala, was one of the smaller kingdoms, but one apparently bent on making a big impression.

By 2010 archaeologists working on a hilltop near the ancient city center had discovered 45-foot-tall (13-meter-tall) Diablo Pyramid. Atop it they found a royal palace and a tomb, believed to hold the city's first ruler, who lived around A.D. 350 to 400.

Around the same time, Houston and a colleague spotted the first hints of the Temple of the Night Sun, behind the royal tomb on Diablo Pyramid. Only recently, though, have excavations uncovered the unprecedented artworks under centuries of overgrowth.

Maya scholar Simon Martin said the masks on the newfound El Zotz temple are "completely unique" and valuable, because they could help verify theories about Maya portrayals of the sun god.

"We have images of the sun god at different stages ... but we've never found anything that puts it all together," said Martin, of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, who was not involved in the project.

"We've had to assemble [the sequence] from bits and pieces of information and just trust that we got it right. This could be an opportunity to see the whole thing stage by stage."

The temple is also wonderfully well preserved, Martin added, making it a "real gold mine of information."

"We've seen a few places where whole buildings have been preserved," he said. "But normally what happens is [the Maya] smashed up a building and then built on top of it, so when you dig into a building you don't find very much of their decoration."

By contrast, Maya workers at El Zotz went to great pains to preserve the original temple structure, going so far as padding it with earth and small rocks before building on top of it.

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