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Autobiography of a Maya Ambassador

A grand monument and a humble burial chronicle the changing fortunes of a career diplomat

By Eric A. Powell

July/August 2021

Maya Ambassador ProcessionOn the night of June 24, A.D. 726, a Maya official named Ajpach’ Waal reached the pinnacle of his career. On that day, he was granted an audience with the thirteenth king of Copán, known to scholars today as 18 Rabbit, but to his subjects as Waxaklajuun Ub’aah K’awiil. Situated in a mountain valley in what is today western Honduras, Copán was one of the great Maya city-states. Even now its central plaza is covered with stelas, some standing more than 30 feet tall, which are carved with hieroglyphs that record the deeds of Copán’s kings. A six-story staircase leading to a ritual platform at the city’s center is composed of blocks carved in the shape of hieroglyphs that describe the city’s history. 18 Rabbit was responsible for building the staircase’s lower half, which he dedicated in his father’s honor.

 

It is possible the king received Ajpach’ Waal atop this staircase, just as he might have received his royal courtiers or other subjects. But Ajpach’ Waal was different from the officials and most of the other people 18 Rabbit encountered on a daily basis. He wasn’t from anywhere close to Copán, which lay on the far eastern edge of the Maya world. Ajpach’ Waal’s home was the city of El Palmar, a 200-mile journey to Copán over rugged terrain. Why he had made such a long and arduous trip, which probably took at least a month on foot, isn’t entirely clear. But given the dangers involved in this trek, which took him across mountains and through the territory of other Maya city-states, it is likely he was on an important mission.

 

What happened when Ajpach’ Waal spoke with 18 Rabbit was not recorded, but the journey and the meeting were momentous enough to have been memorialized on a monument unlike any other yet found from the ancient Maya world. On September 14, just shy of three months after his audience with Copán’s king, Ajpach’ Waal dedicated his own nine-foot-tall hieroglyphic staircase, which was attached to a temple at El Palmar. First discovered by University of California, Riverside, archaeologist Kenichiro Tsukamoto and his team in 2009, the staircase is composed of blocks carved with hieroglyphs that celebrate Ajpach’ Waal’s lineage, his journey to Copán, and his relationship to the king of El Palmar as well as to the ruler of the mighty city of Calakmul, some 30 miles to the west. It also references Ajpach’ Waal’s official title of lakam, or “bannerman,” an obscure term that Mayanists have speculated about since it was deciphered three decades ago. “We’ve never seen something monumental built to celebrate a lakam,” says Tsukamoto. “We weren’t even certain what role lakam played in the Maya world.”

 

Maya Ambassador MapThe discoveries of this staircase and the nearby burial of a man in his 50s who in all likelihood is Ajpach’ Waal himself are giving archaeologists a chance to write the biography of a lakam who lived during a time dominated by extraordinary political events in which he may have participated directly. While exploring Ajpach’ Waal’s life history, Tsukamoto and his colleagues have found that the tale told by his elaborate hieroglyphic staircase and the reality laid bare by what are likely his skeletal remains are, in fact, quite different and speak to the tumultuous times in which this lakam lived and died.

 

After their rediscovery in the nineteenth century, Maya hieroglyphs long resisted decipherment. Only in the 1980s were epigraphers able to begin accurately reading large numbers of Maya hieroglyphs, many of which record historical events. This breakthrough allowed Mayanists to partially reconstruct the political history of the Classic Maya city-states that thrived from around A.D. 250 to 900. A picture emerged of dozens of separate, often competing, kingdoms that formed constantly shifting alliances. The kings of the two largest cities, Calakmul and Tikal, clashed in a series of wars. These two superstates drew much of the rest of the Maya world into their long-running dispute.