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Lost King of the Maya

Altun Ha
Altun Ha's magnificent Temple of the Sun God.
Map of the Maya World
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Altun Ha
Found on the outskirts of the Maya area, Altun Ha, which means "rockstone pond" in Yucatec Maya, is known for the fabulous jade that has turned up there. Dating to A.D. 550-600, the Temple of the Green Tomb earned its name after archeologists discovered nearly 300 jade objects sequestered within it. (The temple also contained a smashed codex or Maya book, whose paper had disintegrated but whose painted stucco surface remained in fragments.) The finest jade piece turned up in the Temple of the Masonry Altars, at over 58 feet the tallest structure at the site. In 1968, while archeologists excavated a tomb within the temple, they found a large, full-rounded sculpted head of Kinich Ahau, the sun god. Weighing almost ten pounds, it was the largest Maya carved jade object found until that time.

Sayil features elegant Puuc-style architecture.

A classic example of Puuc architecture (see the Uxmal entry), Sayil was established in the eighth century A.D. Before that time, few Maya apparently lived in the region, probably because they had no efficient way to access the water table, which lies at least 200 feet below ground there. Only when local Maya learned to store water by digging chultunes, or small underground cisterns, were they able to expand their numbers significantly in the region. Each Sayil household had at least one chultune—a fact that has helped archeologists determine that by the ninth century, Sayil boasted about 17,000 urban and suburban residents. The site today features a platform for stelae, a ball-court, and a number of palaces, including the magnificent Three-Storey Palace with its rounded columns.

Uaxactún lies just 16 miles from Tikal, its rival city in ancient Maya times.
Uaxactún, which means "eight-stone" in Yucatec Maya and is named for the earliest stela found there (dated to A.D. 328), is one of the most intensively studied Maya sites. The ceramic sequence that came out of early work there provided the basis for the entire Maya lowland chronology. One of the most notable series of buildings at the site is that formed by Structures E-1, E-2, and E-3, which are aligned north-south and form an astronomical observatory, the first found in the Maya world. From a observation point on a nearby pyramid, the early Maya could watch the sun rise behind these buildings and mark the summer and winter solstices (the longest and shortest days of the year) as well as the vernal and autumnal equinoxes (when day and night are of equal length).

Stela 10 at Seibal.

Spanish for "place of the ceiba tree," Seibal had a checkered history. First inhabited in the Middle Preclassic Period around 800 B.C., the city grew until about the time of Christ, when it began a long decline. It was apparently abandoned between roughly A.D. 500 and 690, when it was reoccupied. In 735, Ruler 3 from the Maya city known today as Dos Pilas, captured the ruler of Seibal, Yich'ak Balam, and his city, leading to about 60 years of foreign rule. Around 830, a non-Classic Maya group settled in Seibal, which witnessed its greatest florescence over the next century, its population reaching about 10,000. The city was permanently abandoned in 930 and not rediscovered until about 1890. Today, it is noted for its beautiful carved stelae sculpted from high-quality limestone.

Ball-court A-III (center) and the Hieroglyphic Stairway (covered by awning) at Copán.
The first description of Copán appeared in a letter to Philip II, king of Spain, dated March 8, 1576. Since then, innumerable archeologists, tourists, and other visitors have descended on this spectacular Mayan city in northern Honduras. Among a plethora of renowned buildings, stelae, and other artifacts, arguably the most famous is the Hieroglyphic Stairway. The longest text in Precolumbian America, the stairway provides a history of Copán written in stone. Each of 2,200 blocks that form the risers of more than 70 steps bears carved glyphs that record the history of the 16-ruler Copán dynasty formed by Yax K'uk Mo'. The site's stelae, carved in greenish andesite in strikingly high relief, are equally fascinating. One of the most renowned, Altar Q, shows Yax K'uk Mo' passing the baton of office to Yax Pac, the 16th and last great ruler of Copán. (For more on Copán, see Tour Copán with David Stuart and Incidents of Travel.)

A lightly inhabited valley spreads out below the ruins of Toniná.

The wave of mysterious abandonment that swept through Classic Maya cities ends at this remote city in Chiapas, Mexico. The wave seems to have begun along the Usumacinta River. The last recorded date at Bonampak is 792, at Piedras Negras 795, at Palenque 799, and at Yaxchilán 808. The wave then moved east into the heart of Maya civilization in the Petén region of what is today modern Guatemala and south into Honduras. Quiriguá fell silent in 810, Copán in 822, Caracol in 859, and Tikal in 889. The very last Classic Maya date—909—appears at Toniná. Strangely, no record of impending doom appears anywhere in Maya iconography. Scholars have advanced many possible causes of the collapse—among them plague, famine, earthquake, invasion, and peasant revolt—but the enigma remains.

Map of the Maya World | Incidents of Travel
Tour Copán with David Stuart | Reading Maya Hieroglyphs
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