National Geographic : 2016 Sep
82 national geographic • September 2016 the city? If they had, where would such a force have come from, and wouldn’t archaeologists be familiar with it? The jungles of the Petén are hot and parched in the dry season and nearly impassable in the wet season. They’re infested with poisonous plants and insects and menaced by armed drug runners. Nevertheless Marcus explored them for months, visiting ruins and collecting photos of glyphs. Everywhere she went, she saw refer- ences to the grinning snake, especially around the ancient city of Calakmul, in what’s now Mexico, near its southern border. “These satellite sites were mentioning this city in the center. So in that way it was kind of like a black hole,” Marcus says. “It was the hub of a network of sites around it that were equi- distant from Calakmul.” When she got to Calakmul, whose two cen- tral pyramids were easily visible from the air, she was amazed by its size—roughly 50,000 people once lived there. Stelae were strewn everywhere, but most of them were blank. The limestone was so soft that centuries of erosion had wiped them clean. She found only two snake glyphs in the city. The mystery of the snakes prompted a young British researcher, Simon Martin, to assemble all the information he could about the snake glyphs from Calakmul and smaller sites. He used hints of battles and political intrigue from around the Maya world to form a picture of the Snakes and their dynasty. “ We only really know about Tikal from Tikal. Whereas in Calakmul’s case, we know about them from everybody else,” Martin says. “It just sort of coalesced out of the mist. Little by little the significance of all these random appearances began to point in the same direction.” Eventually Martin and archaeologist Nikolai Grube published a book called Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens, which described the intertwining histories of the kingdoms of the ancient Maya world. At the center of that world, for one shining century, were the Snakes. Like Marcus, Martin says the Snake kingdom was a n Society Grant Your National Geographic Society membership helped fund recent excavations at Holmul and La Corona, Guatemala.