A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Letter from Guatemala
Beneath Guatemala’s modern capital lies the record of the rise and fall of an ancient city
Walk into any archaeologist’s laboratory and you’re likely to see bags of broken pottery. Walk into Bárbara Arroyo’s laboratory in a warehouse on the edge of the ruins of Kaminaljuyú in Guatemala City and you’ll find bags containing millions of pottery sherds, stacked almost to the ceiling. Millions more sit in the vaults of the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology a few miles away. Outside Arroyo’s laboratory, she and her team have dumped thousands upon thousands more ancient ceramic scraps into a large hole. “They can’t take any more at the museum,” she says with a shrug, gesturing out a window at the overflowing pit.
Long before archaeologists came to this area, visitors who had seen ancient Kaminaljuyú’s pyramids and platforms wondered what it had once been. In 1893, the British explorers Alfred and Anne Maudslay saw the city’s overgrown mounds—they mapped about 110 of them—and wrote that it must have been a “a fair-sized town” in the distant past but was now “a mere ghost town…without history or name.” In 1936, American archaeologists Edwin Shook and Alfred Kidder were amazed by the site’s “massive public buildings.” They counted more than 200 ancient structures and found that Kaminaljuyú, which means “hills of the dead” in the Mayan language K’iche’, stood at the center of an urban agglomeration that included some 35 more Maya settlements in the immediate vicinity.
Yet what most struck Shook and Kidder, and what continues to impress archaeologists today, was the sheer quantity of ceramics they saw. The people of Kaminaljuyú made pots on an industrial scale. Excavating one burial mound, Shook and Kidder counted 7,000 sherds per cubic foot of soil and estimated that the whole mound contained the “astounding total” of 15 million fragments—the remains of some 500,000 once-intact ceramic vessels. Millions of pots were intentionally and systematically smashed by the ancient city’s own residents, or by invaders. The uncounted sherds throughout the site, excavated by Arroyo and earlier archaeologists, are physical evidence of both the city’s huge population and its turbulent history of collapse and revival.
Built alongside an ancient lake, Kaminaljuyú was once the most populous Maya city in the southern highlands. The lake dried up centuries ago, and all that’s visible of the ancient metropolis today are the grassy hills and overgrown pyramids of the Kaminaljuyú Archaeological Park, which Arroyo directs, along with a few other ancient mounds scattered around Guatemala City’s western barrios. Some of those ruins are no more than half-eroded humps, hemmed in by cinder block houses and parking lots. Others, such as the multilayered complex known as the Acropolis, where Arroyo is currently excavating, hold the remains of centuries of Maya history. “Underneath the modern city is another city that lived and died in the time of the Maya,” says Arroyo. “Not many people are aware of this, but it’s all there.
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