National Geographic : 2016 Sep
Lost empire of the maya 91 for trade to the west, a prime target for an ambitious young power. The Snakes were led then by a king named Scroll Serpent who, like his predecessors, invaded using proxies and allies. Palenque’s queen, Heart of the Windy Place, defended her city against the Snake onslaught but surrendered on April 21, 599. Such expansionist impulses were rare among the Classic Maya, who often are described as quarrelsome and disjointed, focused on their territories without larger ambitions. The Snakes were different. “The attack on Palenque was part of a larger plan,” says Guillermo Bernal, an epigraphist at the National Autonomous University of Mex- ico. “I don’t think the reasons were material in nature—they were ideological. The Kaanul envisioned creating an empire.” The idea of empire building is controver- sial among Maya archaeologists. For many the concept is culturally and geographically implausible. Still, looking at the Snakes, it’s hard not to see a pattern of expansion. They made allies of the biggest cities to the east, conquered those to the south, and traded with people to the north. Palenque represented the edge of the Maya world to the west. Yet without horses and standing armies, how could they hold it? Influencing such a far-flung region, perhaps as large as the U.S. state of Kentucky, required a kind of organization never before seen among the Maya. It also required a new seat of power, one closer to the jade-rich cities in the south. Dzibanché was almost 100 miles from Calak- mul, an impressive distance for people on foot in thick jungle. There are no records of the move to the new capital of Calakmul, but in 635 the Snakes erected a monument declaring them- selves the masters of the city, having displaced a dynasty there known as the Bats. Within a year the greatest of the Snake rul- ers—perhaps the greatest Maya king ever—took the throne. His name was Yuknoom Cheen II, or Shaker of Cities, as he is sometimes called. Sky Witness and Scroll Serpent had been adept con- querors, but Yuknoom Cheen was a true king. Like Cyrus in Persia or Augustus in Rome, he deftly played one city against another—bribing some, threatening others—while consolidating his hold on the Maya lowlands unlike any Maya king before or after. And he kept up this political balancing act for 50 years. THE BEST WAY TO UNDERSTAND a king can be to meet his servant. Similarly, the best way to understand an empire is often to look at a client city. Perhaps the most interesting servant to the Snakes was a small, otherwise unremarkable city called Saknikte. In a sense, archaeologists discovered the site twice. By the early 1970s they’d come across a series of stone panels circulating on the black market. Gorgeously crafted with intricate texts, the panels had been looted by thieves and sold abroad with no way to trace their origin. Sprin- kled among them were glyphs of a grinning snake. Archaeologists named the unknown place where the looters had found them Site Q. Site Q became a sort of Ark of the Covenant for archaeologists such as Marcello Canuto. One hot afternoon in April 2005 he accompanied re- searchers mapping a site nicknamed La Corona in the Petén jungle. Looking for ceramics to help date the site, he walked into a looter’s trench that sliced into a pyramid and saw a wallet-size patch of exposed carved stone on the wall. “I could see some squiggles on the rock,” Canuto says. “I sort of jumped back. ‘ Whoa, did I just see what I think I just saw?’ Then I looked again, and I could see more than just squiggles—it was script.” Under layers of dirt and vegetation were the finest, most elegant carvings he’d ever seen in the field. “As soon as we cleared it off, we said, ‘This is Site Q.’ ” Canuto has been there ever since. Saknikte, the site’s Maya name, seems to have had a special status in the Snake kingdom. Its princes went to Calakmul for education, and three of them wed- ded Snake princesses. Unlike the martial city of Waka just to the south, Saknikte didn’t fight many battles. Its kings had peaceful names that translate roughly as Sunny Dog, White Worm, and Red Turkey. Panels tell of nobles drinking alcohol and playing flutes.