Deep in the dense Guatemalan jungle, archaeologists have come across a veritable jewel of their trade. An 1600-year old Mayan temple, almost in mint condition, going by the of name Temple of the Night Sun, beautifully or frighting decorated, as you prefer, with giant masks of the Maya sun god.
The find was made at the El Zotz site. El Zots was the center of one of the many Mayan kingdoms. While the Inca and Aztec civilizations were centralized under a common rule, the Mayans were divided into city-states, some very powerful, other less, much like ancient Greece. The Mayan civilizations was at its height between 250 and 900 AD.
A blood-red beacon
In 2010, archaeologists came across the tallest structure at El Zots, 45-foot-tall (13-meter-tall) Diablo Pyramid, located on a hilltop in the former center of the ancient city. It was behind this pyramid that scientists at Brown University first sighted the Temple of the Night Sun, and after a long period of excavations which reveled its exquisiteness the site was finally publicized.
The massive decorative masks, called stucco masks, are as tall as 5-feet, each depicting the phases of the sun as it moves east to west. Thus a shark head as the sun rises from the ocean, a crossed eyes figure who drank blood at noon, and the locally worshiped jaguar, which awakens at dusk to hunt in the jungle’s darkness. More than half the temple is still to be excavated, co-project leader Thomas Garrison of the University of Southern California told a press conference Wednesday at Guatemala City’s National Palace of Culture.
The whole temple was painted in a blood-red layer, which would have made the temple stand out for miles in its vicinity. In the morning and dusk light, it would’ve probably been a sight to remember.
“The sun was a key element of Maya rulership,” lead archeologist Stephen Houstonexplained in announcing the discovery by the joint Guatemalan and American team that has been excavating the El Zotz site since 2006.“It’s something that rises every day and penetrates into all nooks and crannies, just as royal power presumably would,” said Houston, a professor at Brown University, Rhode Island.“This building is one that celebrates this close linkage between the king and this most powerful and dominant of celestial presences.”
Curiously enough, the noses and mouths of the masks in older, deeper layers of the temple were chopped off, leaving the masks disfigured. This is because the Mayans believed the masks to be alive.
“This is actually quite common in Maya culture,” said Houston for National Geographic News. “It’s very hard to find any Mayan depiction of the king that doesn’t have its eyes mutilated or its nose hacked … but ‘mutilation’ is not the appropriate term to describe it. I see it as more of a deactivation.”
Up until now, only 30% of the temple has been excavated and a lot more is expected to surface in the coming years.