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Wednesday, May 12, 2004


City dates to ‘Dawn of the Maya’

Community School grad part of Mayan artifact discoveries

Express Staff Writer

Nina Neivens, a 1998 Community School graduate, has experienced deep changes in her life since she left the Wood River Valley. One experience is changing the way archaeologists look at the history of Maya civilization.

Nina Neivens

Last sumer, Neivens joined a dig in the jungle of the Yucatán Peninsula headed by Vanderbilt University assistant professor Francisco Estrada-Belli. The project is a comprehensive survey of a Preclassic Maya city called Cival.

And, last week, Neivens and Estrada-Belli were in Washington, D.C., to prepare the National Geographic Society for an announcement about late breaking discoveries in the region of Guatemala near the border with Belize.

Discovery of two massive carved masks and intricate jade ritual objects have changed the way archaeologists view one of the earliest and largest cities of the Preclassic period.

The sophistication of the artifacts show that the older society may have surpassed nearby Holmul, a more famous Maya city, which rose to prominence nearly a thousand years later in the Classic Maya period, Estrada-Belli said in a press release.

Neivans works alongside Estrada-Belli, her finance, at the site of the 2,000-year-old city. She said that although the ancient city was once home to as many as 10,000 people, accommodations for today’s the scientists are primitive and the site is remote.

"The project is expensive because it is hard to get to," Neivens said in a telephone interview last week. Currently, there are only a handful of archaeologists and workers managing the site, which stretches in a six-kilometer circle from the center of the former city.

Archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli is dwarfed by the enormous stucco face of a Maya deity, found at the Preclassic Maya site of Cival in Guatemala. Estrada-Belli and his team uncovered the second half of the mask in April 2004. Photo by Bruce Smith

Scholars are excited about the discoveries in part because of how well preserved they are, Neivens said.

In a hole in the wall of a tunnel to the kingdom’s main pyramid, Estrada-Belli found a piece of carved stucco, which revealed upon excavation the well-preserved face of a Maya deity, a mythical ancestor and protector of Maya rulers.

"The mask’s preservation is astounding," Estrada-Belli said. "It’s almost as if someone made this yesterday."

Excavations in April revealed a second, apparently identical, mask on the other side of a set of stairs. The eyes appear to be adorned with corn husks, suggesting the Maya maize deity. Ceramics associated with the mask date it to about 150 B.C. Estrada-Belli believes two pairs of these masks flanked the pyramid stairway that led to the temple room, providing a backdrop for rituals in which the king impersonated the gods of creation.

Excavation of the site that began in 2000 has enabled Estrada-Belli and his team to determine that downtown Cival was one of the largest Maya cities of the period. This year the crew has been working since March, stretching the fieldwork out longer than usual, Neivens said. The pyramid is now known to be part of a large complex surrounding a central plaza. In front of a long building on the complex’s eastern edge, the archaeologists discovered a stela, or inscribed stone slab, dating to 300 B.C. It is perhaps the earliest such carving ever found in the Maya lowlands.

Archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli holds one of five jade axes found in an offering at the Preclassic Maya site of Cival in Guatemala. Jade pebbles surround the axes on the table, as do fragments of jars that signified water to the Maya. Photo by Jeremy Bauer

Excavations reveal that the plaza was the scene of offerings to the Maya gods. In a recess in the plaza the team found a red bowl, two spondylus shells, a jade tube and a hematite fragment. Behind the recess was a cross-shaped depression containing five smashed jars, one on each arm of the cross and one in the center. Under the center jar were 120 pieces of jade, most of them round, polished green and blue jade pebbles. Five jade axes, placed with their blades pointing upward, lay nearby.

The offerings are some of the earliest examples of public rituals associated with accession to power among the Preclassic Maya. Based on the cross’s orientation to sunrise, Estrada-Belli believes the offerings are part of solar rituals associated with the Maya agricultural cycle. The jars signify water, he says, and may date to 500 B.C. The jade pieces probably symbolize maize, the axes represent sprouting maize plants. Kings in both the Preclassic and Classic eras were believed to embody the maize god on Earth.

Rituals at Cival may have taken place as outside struggles for power swirled around them, Estrada-Belli said. Remains of a defensive wall that encircled the city indicate to him that Cival had been under threat. "Cival probably was abandoned after a violent attack, probably by a larger power such as Tikal," he said.

Maya scholars such as Estrada-Belli view Cival and other Preclassic cities as having belonged to strategic geopolitical alliances, each vying for ultimate power in the manner of the Classic Maya cities of Tikal and Calakmul that came later. Several Preclassic centers — including El Mirador, Cerros and Becan — faded around the same time as Cival, he said, possibly all vanquished by a stronger power center.

"Now it is very quiet there," Neivans said. "We had major culture shock getting back to the U.S. this time."

Although the pace of life for the archaeologists is slow, archaeological work is not without excitement, she added. A Fer de lance, an extremely poisonous snake, bit one worker. A race on rough roads got the antivenin to the victim in the nick of time and he survived.

Cival was also designed to help the Preclassic Maya measure time. "It had an important astronomical function," Estrada-Belli said. "It’s not coincidence that the central axis of the main buildings and the plaza is oriented to sunrise at the equinox."

Using satellite imaging to spot possible archaeological sites, then following up on the ground with GPS technology, Estrada-Belli and his team determined that Cival’s ceremonial center spanned a half mile of Guatemala’s Petén region, twice the initial estimate of Cival’s discoverer, explorer Ian Graham. Cival is now known to have five pyramids, one of them about 100 feet tall.

Nina’s mother, Mary Neivens, a Maya archaeologist herself, recently visited the young couple in the Yucatán. She said her daughter originally didn’t show much interest in archaeology until she went into the field as a student from Barnard College in New York.

"She called me and said ‘Mom I’ve found my passion.’"

For Neivens and Estrada-Belli there are certainly more discoveries ahead. Neivans will begin her doctoral study this fall at Tulane University in New Orleans. The couple is planning to be married in the historic city of Antigua, Guatemala later this year in an ancient 15th century Catholic church.


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