Nakum – the town of Polish Mayanists

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Scientists from the Institute of Archaeology of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków are introducing Mayology into Polish science by discovering the secrets of the ancient town of Nakum.

Archaeologists from the Jagiellonian University are the only Polish research team that has been conducting excavation works in the territories of Maya culture since 2006. They are investigating the ancient town of Nakum located in Guatemala (Central America). Their findings enable us to claim that this was one of the major urban centers in a difficult moment of crisis and collapse of Maya culture, at the end of the so-called Classic period (about 9th-10th centuries A.D.). The works of Polish scientists also shed new light on the problem of origins of the Maya culture in the lowland areas of Yucatán.

Dancing maize god

Research, focusing on two areas of the town – northern and southern parts – has brought extremely interesting results as early as in the first excavation season. "Inside a small pyramid (marked with the number 15), we discovered an intact royal tomb containing plenty of objects. We found there a jade pectoral (breastplate – a type of jewelry made from valuable material – editor's note) with a hieroglyphic inscription mentioning the name of a previously unknown Maya lord and a vessel with the depiction of the dancing maize god (one of the major Maya deities). The tomb is dated to around the 7th or 8th century A.D.," says Jarosław Źrałka, PhD, from the Institute of Archaeology of the Jagiellonian University. "Below the tomb chamber we have found another burial located in a stone crypt and several hundred years older than the first of the above-mentioned tombs. Our discoveries in Pyramid No. 15 may point to the fact that it performed the function of a royal mausoleum, where members of the ruling royal dynasty were buried."

In the neighboring Pyramid No. 14, scientists from Kraków discovered two very interesting features. One of them is a relief (frieze) depicting two humans looking at a divine creature between them. This is probably a representation of an important mythological scene. It is one of the oldest depictions of this type in the region. The second one is an ingeniously built water drain which was likely to discharge water outside from the upper levels of the structure during rituals connected with the cult of water. The age has been determined by analyzing samples of obtained materials, e.g., using the radiocarbon dating method.

Censer with the depiction of the Sun god


Stones speak

In the last few years, Polish archaeologists focused their research works on the northern part of the town, where they discovered two previously unknown stone blocks covered with reliefs and inscriptions. The first one is a fragment of a stone altar or of a slab called a stela, with a depiction of a walking human being – maybe a ruler, dated to between the 3rd century B.C. and the 1st century A.D. This has been the first monument of this kind, in such an archaic style, found in Nakum so far. Next to it, another stela was found, depicting two humans facing each other, dated to the very end of the Classic Maya civilization (9th century A.D.). This monument most likely depicts one of the last rulers of Nakum accompanied by a high ranking official, which may be proof of the beginnings of decentralization of royal power in this region.

Research work in the northern and southern parts of the city proved that Nakum continued to develop during the fall of the neighboring major centers, and that it witnessed an intense cultural and demographic development, which was probably connected with its location near the river that was an important trade and communication route connecting it to other regions of Maya culture.

Looking for traces of the first Maya

During the last two seasons, archaeologists focused particularly on excavation works with the goal of determining the precise origins of Nakum and to explain when and by whom it was settled and constructed. In the northern part of town, the team from Kraków found traces of very developed settlements and even remains of structures connected with the first Maya, who settled in Nakum and in other adjacent areas after 1000 B.C. The architectural relics discovered by the Polish team include, among others, a complex dated 700–500 B.C., which was not only a symbol of power of the earliest elites of Nakum, but also a place where important astronomic observations connected with the path of the Sun were conducted. The results of ongoing research conducted in Nakum shed new light on the problem of the origins of the Maya culture in the lowlands of Guatemala and Yucatán, which still remains one of the major puzzles in the archaeology of pre-Columbian America. It still remains unclear, though, from which direction the first settlers arrived and how exactly this area was colonized at the beginning of the 1st millennium B.C. Was it colonized by communities speaking only the Mayan languages or was one of ethnical substrates of this movement the population from the highlands of the Mexican state Chiapas that did not use the Mayan language? The works of Polish archaeologists may answer this and other important research questions.

In the coming years, the scientists plan to focus on the elaboration of the results of previous field studies by performing a detailed analysis of all artifacts discovered in Nakum and publishing a monograph presenting the results of research, consisting of several volumes. In April 2014, Polish archaeologists made another important discovery, finding an extremely well-equipped royal tomb in the so-called Pyramid X, located in the northern part of Nakum. The team, supervised by Jarosław Żrałka, PhD, and Wiesław Koszkul, MA, will soon present details related to this major discovery through the media.

In Poland, Mayology is still a relatively young discipline. This is proven for example by the fact that the only academic unit conducting independent excavation works in the territory of the Maya is the team from the Institute of Archaeology of the Jagiellonian University, whose studies are "a significant contribution to global achievements of Mayology" – as we can read on the website

Research team: Wiesław Koszkul, MA; Bogumił Pilarski, MA; Katarzyna Radnicka, MA; Magdalena Rusek, MA; Jarosław Źrałka, PhD