National Geographic : 2016 Sep
Lost empire of the maya 95 betrayed his Snake allies on the battlefield. Oth- ers say Claw of Fire, middle-aged and suffering from a painful spinal disease, didn’t inspire con- fidence in his troops. Perhaps the stars simply weren’t aligned. The Snakes were routed. A few years later, his rule in tatters, Claw of Fire died and took with him the dreams of a Snake empire. Most archaeologists say the Snakes never recov- ered but continued to wield influence. In 711 the Snakes’ strongest ally, Naranjo, declared it was still loyal to the Snakes, and 10 years later another Snake princess showed up at Saknikte. But by mid-century the Snakes had lost their bite. A Calakmul neighbor even erected a ste- la celebrating the return of the Bat kings that shows a warrior stomping on a snake. For the next century Tikal punished the city-states that had helped the Snakes—Waka, Caracol, Naranjo, and Holmul. The people of Saknikte, known as lovers not fighters, invited a Tikal princess to marry one of their nobles in 791. Yet Tikal would never attain the power reached by the Snakes, and by the mid-800s the Classic Maya were in collapse. Whether because of overpopulation, instability, or prolonged drought, the Classic cities fell into chaos and eventually were abandoned. Could the Snakes have prevented the col- lapse? What would have happened if Claw of Fire had beaten Tikal in 695? “I think the collapse could have been avoid- ed,” says archaeologist David Freidel, who leads the excavations in Waka. “The failure to unite the central area of the Maya world under one government was a major factor in the descent into anarchy, endemic warfare, and vulnerability to drought.” Someday we may have the answer. Forty years ago the Snake kings were a rumor. Twenty years ago they were viewed merely as the mas- ters of Calakmul. Today we know they ruled the largest and most powerful Maya kingdom ever. Such is the maddeningly slow work of archaeology. Through glimpses and snippets, experts try to cobble together a coherent pic- ture of the past. And often the experts disagree. Ramón Carrasco, an archaeologist who oversees the Calakmul site, says the Snakes never lived in Dzibanché and never declined from glory. He’s worked alongside Simon Martin and other researchers and seen the same evidence, yet he’s come to different conclusions. And so archaeologists keep looking for clues. In 1996 Carrasco was excavating Calakmul’s largest structure, a graceful pyramid dating to before 300 B.C. Near the top, as he carefully cleaned and pulled up stones, he discovered the remains of a body. And below that, a chamber. “ We lifted the lid, and we could see down,” says Carrasco, a distinguished-looking man with a gravelly voice from too many cigarettes. “ We saw some bones and offerings and a lot of dust. It was like seeing the dust of time.” It took nine months to safely dig into the tomb and excavate it. When Carrasco finally got in, he knew that he’d found a powerful king. The body had been wrapped in a fine shawl and covered with beads. The king was not alone—a young woman and a child had been sacrificed and laid in a nearby chamber. The king ’s body, Carrasco says, “was covered with mud and dust. You could see some jade beads, but you couldn’t see the mask.” So he pulled out a brush and began gently cleaning it. “The first thing I saw was an eye—looking at me from the past.” The eye was from a beautiful jade mask meant to honor the king in the afterlife. Lat- er analysis showed that he was a portly man, perhaps even fat, with hardened ligaments in his spine. His tomb was elegantly ornamented. Nearby sat a headdress of jade, the center of which had once held the paw of a jaguar. Next to that was a ceramic dish with a grinning snake head and the inscription “Claw of Fire’s plate.” j Fly over the ancient ruins of Calakmul and listen to an archaeologist describe what it’s like to unearth a Maya death mask. Watch the video at ngm.com/Sep2016.