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The lost capital of an ancient Mayan kingdom found in Chiapas

Remains of buildings from the ancient lost capital of a Mayan kingdom have been located on land owned by a Mexican rancher in southeastern Mexico.

Its discoverers believe that the archaeological site, called Lacanja Tzeltal for the nearby modern community, was the capital of the Sak Tz’i ‘kingdom, located in what is now the state of Chiapas in southeastern Mexico. It was probably first founded around 750 BC and then occupied for over 1,000 years.

Associate Professor of Archeology at Brandeis University Charles Golden, in collaboration with bioarchaeologist Andrew Scherer of Brown University and a team of researchers from Mexico, Canada, and the United States, began excavating the site in June 2018.

Among their findings, published in the Journal of Field Archeology, is a treasure trove of Mayan monuments, one of which has an important inscription describing rituals, battles, a mythical water snake, and the dance of a rain god. They have also found remains of pyramids, a royal palace, and a ball court.

Scholars have been searching for evidence of Sak Tz’i ‘since 1994 when they identified references to inscriptions found at other Mayan excavation sites. The kingdom is also mentioned in sculptures housed in museums around the world.

Sak Tz’i ‘was not exactly the most powerful of the Mayan kingdoms, and its remains are modest compared to the best-known sites of Chichén Itzá and nearby Palenque.

But Golden says that finding Sak Tz’i ‘remains an important advance in our understanding of ancient Mayan politics and culture. He likened it to trying to put together a map of medieval Europe from historical documents and reading about a place called France. Essentially, Golden and his team have located France. “It is a big piece of the puzzle,” Golden said in a statement.


The kingdom was relatively small, straddling what is now the Mexican-Guatemalan border. It was unknown why it was called Sak Tz’i ‘, which means white dog.

Commoners lived in the fields harvesting a wide variety of crops and making pottery and stone tools. Golden and his colleagues found the remains of what was probably the city market where these products were sold.

Residents of the kingdom also came to town to attend ceremonial ball games in which players held a solid rubber ball, sometimes as heavy as nine kilos, bouncing from side to side on a narrow playing field using their hips and shoulders.

At the northeast corner of the city are the ruins of a 45-foot-tall pyramid and various surrounding structures that served as elite residences and sites for religious rituals.

The center of religious and political activity was the ‘Plaza Muk’ul Ton’, or Plaza of Monuments, a courtyard where people gathered for ceremonies. A staircase leads from the plaza to a towering platform, where the temples and reception halls were arranged and members of the royal family gathered the court and may have been buried.

Sak Tz’i ‘had the misfortune to be surrounded on all sides by more powerful states. For the inhabitants of the capital and the countryside, this meant the perpetual threat of war and the violent interruptions of daily life.

Golden and his collaborators have found evidence that the capital was surrounded on one side by steep-walled streams. On the other side, masonry walls were built to ward off the invaders.

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