Bejukal (Guatemala):Ancient Maya king had a luxury pleasure palace outside the city he ruled

Traci Watson

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636137188812447982 bejucal salvage pic(Photo: Photo by T. Garrison; courtesy of PAEZ.)

On a secluded hilltop in the Guatemalan jungle, archaeologists have discovered a rural pleasure palace enjoyed by Maya kings more than a thousand years ago.

The lofty site included not only an apparent luxury residence but also two pyramids, one of them more than 30 feet high. Inscriptions on stone monuments link the complex to a Maya king the researchers call Great Fish-Dog Turtle, who ruled his kingdom from a city five miles away.

Its discoverers say this is the first known country resort belonging to Maya royalty. Archaeologists have found other Maya rural retreats, but none of them show the same clear signs of having been a playground of kings. Though the spot may have had other functions, it would have enticed monarchs with good hunting and possibly a more refreshing climate than the capital below.

Lying in a hammock in your courtyard on a mountaintop, being fanned by servants, perhaps is more pleasant at certain times of year than life in your (city) palace,” says Susan Toby Evans of Pennsylvania State University, who wasn’t involved in the discovery.

But the site, known as Bejucal, was not always about relaxation. Long before it was a place to get away from it all, it was a sacred center dotted with temples, the researchers report in the Journal of Field Archaeology. At one temple, a sacrificed baby was buried, a Maya ritual for consecrating a holy space, says Thomas Garrison of the University of Southern California, who led the Bejucal excavations.

Over centuries, a grand palace complex took shape atop the temples. In the end, Bejucal included two courtyards, each bordered by a pyramid and residential rooms. The ruins of one palace held bits of ceramic painted with colorful designs associated with royalty, objects fit for a king’s household.

Perhaps the greatest mystery is a massive stone tomb, built between 350 and 450 AD beneath the bigger of the two pyramids. Two stone stelae, or monuments, stood outside the tomb, though they’ve  since been removed for safekeeping. Mayan hieroglyphics on one stela refer to a ruler who took the throne of a kingdom called El Zotz in 381. That ruler, the researchers say, was Great Fish-Dog Turtle. Near the tomb was a sacred offering – seashells, bits of jade, a headless bird. Clearly someone important had been buried there, perhaps a king’s son, perhaps Great Fish-Dog Turtle himself.

Unfortunately the tomb’s occupant will probably never be identified. Looters long ago rampaged through the tomb, which would’ve “been full of the treasures of the kingdom,” says Stephen Houston of Brown University, who also investigated Bejucal. “The looting here is of an intensity I’ve not seen elsewhere, which must’ve meant they were finding things.”

The interpretation of the site as a royal retreat is plausible, Gyles Iannone of Canada’s Trent University, who wasn’t part of the research, says via email. The Maya transformed other ceremonial sites into pragmatic facilities, such as farms, so Bejucal’s transformation isn’t totally surprising, he says, but he’d like more evidence that Bejucal was a pleasure palace.

Excavating at Bejucal is arduous and risky. Some of the ruins are so riddled with looters’ tunnels that they are too dangerous to explore. Those very tunnels allowed the researchers to examine the many layers of history at the site, but the researchers would’ve much rather had an intact site.

The looting of the tomb “is particularly distressing,” Garrison says via email. “Now we cannot ever confirm who was actually buried there. Was it the guy on the stelae? Was it a guy at all, or instead a queen? This will never be known.”