Newly Discovered Maya Temple a “Gold Mine” of Information for Precolumbian Scholars

The Maya sun god as shark-man—one of his several guises on a newfound monument in Guatemala.

Deep in the heart of the Guatemalan jungle, archaeologists have unearthed an important Maya temple thought to be at least 1,600 years old. Distinguished by giant masked faces depicting the sun god, the “Temple of the Night Sun” at El Zotz holds great potential for helping researchers further their understanding of Early Classic Maya religious practices.

Project leader Stephen Houston of Brown University explains that since Maya culture closely linked the sun god with kingship and the sun with new beginnings, the temple’s emphasis on the sun suggests that the individual buried inside was El Zotz’s first king. Furthermore, the Maya considered the structure itself to be a living being, which propelled them to continuously add new layers to its exterior. Systematic mutilation of the masks’ noses, mouths, and eyes, Houston believes, can also be thought of as “deactivation” of those features: “It’s as if they’re turning the masks off in preparation for replicating them in subsequent layers … It’s not an act of disrespect. It’s quite the opposite.”

This discovery is newly relevant to the University of Chicago art history department, since Fall 2012 marks the welcoming of Assistant Professor Claudia Brittenham, who will instruct students in Precolumbian art. In preparation for her arrival, student catalogers and scanners at the Visual Resources Center have been hard at work digitizing images for Professor Brittenham’s classes and research. Be on the lookout for an abundance of new images relating to Precolumbian art set to be uploaded to LUNA by the end of the summer!

–Emilia Mickevicius

Via National Geographic.