June 17, 2024

Archaeologists Find Mayan City in ‘Void Zone’ on Yucatan Map

Armed with machetes and chainsaws, scrambling through fallen trees and going through dense scrub, the archaeologists cleared a path down rocky paths.

Eventually, they reached their destination in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula: a hidden city where pyramids and palaces rose above the crowds more than 1,000 years ago, with a ball court and terrace now buried and overgrown.

Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History they praised their work late last month, saying they had discovered an ancient Mayan city in “a vast area unknown to archaeology.”

“These stories about ‘cities lost in the jungle’ – often these things are quite small or spun by journalists,” said Simon Martin, a political anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania who was not involved in the work. “But this is much closer to the real deal.”

The team of archaeologists who discovered the ruins named them Ocomtún, using the Yucatec Maya word for the stone columns found around the ancient city.

The Mexican institute described the site, in Campeche State, as once a major center of Maya life. During at least part of the Classic Maya period – around 250 to 900 AD – it was a well-populated area. Today it is part of a large ecological preserve where vines and tropical trees cover boots and tires, and fresh water slides through the porous limestone terrain.

“I’m often asked why nobody came there, and I say, ‘Well, probably because you have to be a little nuts to go there,'” said Ivan Sprajc, the survey’s lead archaeologist and a professor at a research center in Slovenia. ZRC SAZU. “It’s not an easy job.”

Lidar, a technology that uses airborne lasers to break through dense vegetation and reveal the ancient structures and human-altered landscapes below, has revolutionized the work over the past decade. But in the end, it still comes down to arduous treks.

“Sprajc is doing exactly the right thing; using lidar as a survey tool but not interpreting the results without telling the truth,” said Rosemary Joyce, an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

She said in an email that any newly documented site is unlikely to “materially change historical narratives,” but that such work could help researchers “see more diversity in the ways in which different Maya communities met during the Classic period.”

And it’s still “unusual to find a site this big that nobody knows about,” said Scott Hutson, an archaeologist at the University of Kentucky.

For years archaeologists relied on help from the Mayan descendants to identify and excavate the ancient sites they knew. But because this part of Campeche has been preserved for many years, Dr. Hutson said, “there are no archaeologists walking through this area at all.”

Dr. asked Martin called the region an “empty area” on the archaeologists’ maps.

Dr Sprajc, 67, said the trip to Ocomtun took about a month and a half, “relatively short” compared to the usual two months or more. The trip was made during the dry season, which could be scary — but no less good than the long treks in the rainy season.

Surrounded by wetlands, Ocomtun includes pyramids, plazas, elite residences and “strange” structure complexes arranged almost in concentric circles, said Dr. Spray. “We don’t know anything about that from the rest of the Maya lowlands,” he said.

The largest documented structure in Ocomtun was a pyramid about 50 feet high, which Dr. Sprajc said would be a temple. It and several other structures stood on a large rectangular platform, raised about 30 feet from the ground and with sides more than 250 feet long.

“Just by its scale, its location, it must be a significant site,” said Charles Golden, an anthropologist at Brandeis University. He said excavations could help answer many questions about who lived there and their relationship with other Maya cities and settlements.

People seemed to leave Ocomtun around the same time they did other Maya cities, from about 800 to 1000 AD, a decline researchers attribute to factors such as drought and political strife.

Those conflicts may have been hinted at on the site. Although most of the structures were undecorated the team found, upside down, block with hieroglyphics that seems to have come from another Mayan settlement.

Sometimes such monuments “were taken as spoils of war from other sites, and this appears to have happened in this case,” Dr Sprajc said.

Dr Joyce said that the images of the block’s conquest were typical, “so perhaps we have evidence here that Ocomtún was part of the great wars that went around the great powers” of the Maya world.

​​​​The team also found several agricultural platforms, which the archaeologists call a sign of the extensive Maya modifications to make the difficult environment more bountiful for people. Using hydraulics, water conservation and capture, and landscape engineering such as terraces, the Maya managed to live in “areas that are not welcome today,” said Dr. Martin.

For modern groups passing through, water must be put into trucks. Dr. Sprajc said that even after his team carved out about 37 miles of drivable trail to Ocomtun, it still took five to 10 hours to reach the site because the terrain was so difficult to traverse.

Such trips require huge expenditure, both for the fieldwork and before anyone goes into the forest. Lidar scans alone can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Dr Sprajc found funding not only from his own institutionbut also four Slovenian companies and two American charities: the publisher Rokus Klett publishing housethe rail service Adria’s vanthe credit company Credit company in Ljubljanathe tourism body Al Ars LongaThe Ken & Julie Jones Charitable Foundation and the Milwaukee Audubon Society.

Other researchers may seek the funding, permits and supplies needed to excavate Ocomtun now, but Dr. Sprajc among them. He said he was busy planning a new trip, next March or April, taking in another part of the Yucatan where lidar imagery has turned up ahead.

Fellow scientists, impressed by Ocomtún’s work, are looking forward to what may come next for his team.

“This shows that in places like Campeche, which on the one hand are quite close to places like Cancún and heavy tourist sites, there are still these places that no one has seriously documented,” said Dr. Golden, Brandeis anthropologist. “That’s always exciting that these places still have secrets to give.”

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