Community-Researcher Collaboration Reveals Ancient Maya Capital in Backyard

A recent excavation located the first physical evidence of the capital of the Maya kingdom of Sak Tz’i’, founded in 750 B.C.

Researchers excavate an altar
Researchers excavate an altar in the capital of the Maya kingdom of Sak Tz'i'. Brown University

In 1994, Western archaeologists began a fervent search for the ancient Maya kingdom of Sak Tz’i’ (Mayan for “white dog”). Situated near the border of what is now Mexico and Guatemala, the empire hosted a trim population of between 5,000 and 10,000 for around one thousand years—and likely contained a treasure trove of artifacts that could offer a glimpse into the lives of its long-gone residents.

Researchers faced just one problem: Though the kingdom was described in detail in sculptures and inscriptions, no confirmed physical evidence of Sak Tz’i’ remained.

Now, thanks to the keen eyes of a Mexican cattle rancher, this scientific search appears to have finally come to a close, reports Grant Currin for Live Science. After discovering a large, inscribed tablet in his backyard, the rancher contacted a team of archaeologists to investigate its origins. The ensuing excavation, which began in 2018, revealed the site of a long-lost city that served as the capital of Sak Tz’i’—now newly detailed in the Journal of Field Archaeology.

“We have known about the existence of Sak Tz’i’ for decades now,” says study author Andrew Scherer, an anthropologist at Brown University, in a statement. “Finally locating the polity capital allows us to better understand how this kingdom fit into the geopolitics of the western Maya area, which included a series of kingdoms entangled in a complex web of enmities and alliances.”

Sak Tz'i' tablet
A drawing (left) and 3-D model (right) of a tablet found at the site of the capital of the Maya kingdom of Sak Tz'i' Brown University / Brandeis University

Compared with its neighbors, Sak Tz’i’—which was likely settled around 750 B.C.—doesn’t appear to have been a particularly big or powerful city-state, study author Charles Golden, an anthropologist at Brandeis University, tells CNN’s David Williams. Based on the team’s findings, its most crowded region was just a third of a mile long by a quarter of a mile wide.

In fact, the empire may have gained repute by being a sort of schoolyard runt: In the inscriptions, the residents of Sak Tz’i’ are getting “beat up by all these superpowers: Their rulers are taken captive, they’re fighting wars,” according to Golden. But they held their own, too, “negotiating alliances with those superpowers at the same time.”

Working alongside a grazing herd of cows, the researchers uncovered several Maya monuments, as well as the remnants of a royal palace, a ball court and several pyramids and houses. To protect itself, Sak Tz’i’ was heavily fortified at its borders, surrounded with steep-walled streams and other defensive structures. Perhaps most revealing of all are the inscriptions on the tablet, which weave together mythology, poetry and history, referencing gods, a mythical water serpent and several ancient rulers.

More artifacts were perhaps once strewn throughout the property, Golden tells CNN. But looters likely raided the site in the 1960s, damaging and pilfering its contents. In the years since, archaeologists have labored to win back the trust of the community of Lacanja Tzeltal, where the recent excavation began, as well as the Mexican government.

“Descendants of the Maya still live here in Lacanja Tzeltal, and in fact, Tzeltal is the variety of Mayan language that is spoken there,” says Scherer in the statement. “Every facet of our research is done with an eye toward collaboration with indigenous communities here.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.