The king had been sitting in darkness for more than 1,400 years. Half of his finely carved face was missing when the archaeologists found him, but his elaborate headdress and badges of rank were still whole. He stared, one-eyed, into the dim tunnel the visitors had excavated inside one of the largest monuments in the ancient Maya city of Holmul, located in what is now northeastern Guatemala. Hieroglyphs near the figure spelled out his name: Och Chan Yopaat, or “Storm God Enters the Sky.”

The king is the central figure in a recently discovered sculptural panel that is electrifying archaeologists who study the Maya civilization. Francisco Estrada-Belli of Boston University had been excavating the monument—a rectangular pyramid with a flat top where ceremonies were performed—to glean insights into the politics at play during a particularly tumultuous period of Maya history. Inside the pyramid are the remnants of all the buildings from centuries past that had previously stood on the same spot before bigger temples were constructed on top of them. Estrada-Belli and his team were tunneling through the nested structures, investigating what was left of those earlier monuments, when they hit the base of a staircase. In the summer of 2013 they followed the stairs up the front of a 30-foot-tall temple that had somehow escaped demolition. The magnificent frieze—an expanse of intricately worked plaster 26 feet long by seven feet high—decorated the top of the temple.

The frieze is more than just an adornment, however. It is a historical document—one that is helping archaeologists understand how Maya states functioned in a time of upheaval. At the time the frieze was made, around a.d. 590, Holmul lay at the center of a conflict that many scholars believe defined Maya history for more than 1,000 years: the war between the kingdoms of Tikal and Kaanul. Experts think the king depicted on the frieze was the founder of the dynasty that ruled Holmul during this pivotal time. If they are right, the discovery could help answer long-standing questions about Maya governance.

Written in Stucco
The reason for the long-running war has been lost to time, but many scholars think it had to do with access to wealth. The overlords of Tikal and Kaanul most likely fought to control the trade routes for goods such as obsidian for making tools and weapons, jade for making sacred objects, and cacao beans that were used both as currency and as the main ingredient in a chocolate beverage that was consumed during religious rituals. Holmul was probably just one city among dozens or hundreds that made up the web of trade partners that funneled the economic prosperity of the region toward the capital city of whichever kingdom it was allied to at a given time. It is becoming an especially important city to archaeologists, however, because of the rich stores of information preserved in its ruins—both about the site itself and about the politics of the time.

Analysis of the temple and its spectacular frieze is still under way. But already Estrada-Belli and his colleagues have begun to unravel the story it tells of Holmul at a crucial time in the city's history. One way Maya rulers used their vast accumulation of riches was to build monuments to please the gods and the spirits of important ancestors who made their prosperity possible and to ensure their continued benevolence. The Holmul temple appears to have served exactly this purpose: glyphs on the sides of the structure identify it as a “royal lineage house”—a temple for worshipping the ancestors of the ruling family.

To decode the symbol-rich frieze itself, Estrada-Belli enlisted the help of Karl Taube, an expert in Maya iconography at the University of California, Riverside. The king at the center is seated atop a mythological mountain deity called Witz, Taube observes. Caves on mountainsides were passages to the underworld and the source of wind and rain. On the frieze, the king sits above a cleft in the mountaintop, and two feathered serpents representing the wind emerge from the corners of Witz's mouth. “I think what they are labeling here is the king, juxtaposed with a sacred place, possibly a place of origin,” Taube offers, noting that “the cleft is a place where ancestors emerge” from the underworld. The Maya believed that the part of the world that is underground and underwater was the home of the dead, as well as many sinister supernatural beings. Caves were passages between the underworld and the world of the living.

Figures representing death and the night flank the king. According to Taube, they are jaguar gods of the underworld. Because jaguars are nocturnal predators, different Maya groups attached a variety of meanings to them. Jaguars represent the sun at night, when it was believed that the sun traveled through the land of the dead. Interestingly, whereas kings in Maya artwork are usually shown making offerings to gods, this frieze depicts the jaguar gods making offerings to the king. Why this relationship is reversed is not apparent, except that it makes Och Chan Yopaat and, by extension, the ruling family seem important.

A band of glyphs at the bottom of the frieze adds an intriguing wrinkle to this tale of self-glorification, however. According to Harvard University epigraphist Alexandre Tokovinine, who translated the ancient writing, it states that the temple was commissioned by the king of a larger and more powerful neighboring city called Naranjo. The inscription identifies the king of Naranjo as the individual who restored the ruling dynasty of Holmul. But the inscription also states that the king of Naranjo was a vassal, or subordinate ruler, to the Kaanul overlord. Thus, as much as the images on the frieze glorify the Holmul king's place in the cosmos, the glyphs reveal that Holmul was actually at the bottom of a three-tiered hierarchy. The king of Holmul was a vassal of Naranjo's ruler, who was, in turn, a vassal of the Kaanul overlord. “It shows that Maya kingdoms were all linked,” Estrada-Belli says. “We didn't know how Holmul fit into the grand scheme of Maya geopolitics until this inscription provided all that information.”

War Springs Eternal
The details of the frieze add to a growing body of evidence that contradicts the traditional view of the ancient Maya as peaceful people. Between 1995 and 2000 Simon Martin of the University of Pennsylvania and Nikolai Grube of the University of Bonn in Germany deciphered and mapped the power relationships recorded on monuments across the Maya realm—from southern Mexico to northern Honduras. Their work showed that warfare had been frequent and that each city had its place in a rigid hierarchy. Although the individual kings appeared to be independent, all were subordinate to either the Tikal or Kaanul dynasties. “These appear to be Maya superpowers that basically had a hegemonic rule over all of the other Maya kingdoms,” Estrada-Belli explains.

“The question during [this time period] was, ‘Who's going to be the major player?’” Martin remarks. Until the mid-500s, Tikal seemed to have the upper hand. A strong relationship with the powerful city-state of Teotihuacán in central Mexico seems to have helped Tikal expand its influence east across the Yucatán Peninsula and the Petén region of northern Guatemala. The city of Teotihuacán collapsed sometime around 550, and in 562 Tikal suffered a devastating military defeat, after which no major construction took place inside that city for more than 130 years. During that time the Kaanul rulers began to expand their influence across the region. One of the cities the Kaanul dynasty brought under its control during this period was Holmul.

According to Estrada-Belli, the fact that the Holmul dynasty had to be “put in order,” as the glyphs on the frieze say, suggests that Tikal had previously conquered Holmul, probably sometime in the fifth century a.d., and had thrown its ruling family out of power. When the Kaanul kingdom reconquered the city, it restored the original ruling family to power. Tokovinine has a different interpretation. He suspects the rulers of Naranjo may have switched their allegiance from Tikal to Kaanul and brought Holmul with them. Either way, Holmul's strategically important location between the Kaanul capital to the north and the city of Tikal to the west would have made it a valuable acquisition.

Yet even though the Holmul king was subordinate to the Kaanul overlord, in some ways he may have been free to do his own thing. Unlike empires such as those of the Romans or Egyptians, which directly governed their conquered territories, the Maya superpowers preferred to let local authorities continue to rule while exacting payment from them. Says Martin: “They were interested in establishing dominance relationships. They were almost certainly interested in gaining tribute, but they were not very interested in [establishing] garrisons or in expanding their own territory. In that sense, it is a very decentralized picture.”

Superpower or Empire?
The decentralized nature of Maya government lies at the center of a debate about whether the Tikal or Kaanul states were superpowers or empires. According to Martin, the geographical areas they controlled were too small—the entire Maya region was only about the size of New Mexico—and the control they exerted over subordinate kingdoms was too unstable to consider these Maya states to be on a par with the empires of Europe, Africa and Asia. Martin prefers to use the term “superpower” for the smaller and relatively unstable Maya states. Estrada-Belli disagrees. He believes that as monuments such as the Holmul frieze clarify the power relationships between cities, it is becoming easier to say that the Maya had empires. “It's time to shift the paradigm,” he insists. “The Maya look more like this culture that was at one time ruled by one king—for example, the Kaanul in this period. So they are very much like some of the great civilizations of the old world.”

Determining whether Kaanul and Tikal were superpowers or empires is an important part of understanding how these Maya states functioned, day to day—and why they so often went to war. Under both scenarios, Holmul would most likely have paid some kind of tribute to Naranjo, and, in turn, Naranjo would have paid tribute to the Kaanul lord. But what, if anything, Holmul might have received in exchange is not clear from the archaeological evidence.

“There's going to be some sweetness,” Martin opines. He speculates that the elites of Holmul would have received exotic gifts and would have been invited to feast and perform ceremonies at the Kaanul capital as a way to induce them to cooperate with Kaanul ambitions.

David Freidel of Washington University in St. Louis takes a different view of the relationship. He thinks that the tribute the Kaanul rulers demanded from their subordinate kingdoms created a largely one-sided economic relationship. “The flow of resources, including trade goods and warriors to fight the unending wars, all went toward the capitals of the two superpowers,” he argues. “There's no doubt that it was exploitative.”

Freidel, who co-directs excavations at another Kaanul vassal city, believes that in many respects Maya states were similar to those in other parts of the world that made monuments to glorify their leaders—the pyramids of Egypt, for instance, or Rome's triumphal arches. “They loved the aesthetics of power,” he notes. “All civilizations have this. This frieze is a prime example of it, and they buried it because it was beautiful, and they wanted to kind of have it alive and remembered.” The Holmul frieze may have been buried to avoid angering the gods and ancestors it was meant to honor as a larger monument was built over the top of it. The rulers of Holmul could thus continue building grandiose new monuments while still, in a way, having the old ones.

Freidel says that he accepts most of Martin and Grube's interpretations of the new frieze, but as archaeologists learn more about the history of Maya states, they look increasingly like empires. Resolution of the debate may come from continued excavation of Holmul's buried temple, among other sites. Estrada-Belli plans to extend the tunnel around the rest of the building. He also intends to investigate two newly discovered rooms inside the temple and to continue uncovering the temple's exterior walls. As large as the frieze is, it covers only the top part of one side of the building. There could be far more artwork decorating the rest of the monument that may provide greater insight into how Holmul fared during the shifting fortunes of the centuries-long battle between these ancient states.