archaeology
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A City Beneath a City

Under the streets of Guatemala’s bustling capital lies another, much older city: the Maya metropolis of Kaminaljuyú. A small sample of the ancient city’s mounds and plazas can be seen today in an “archaeological park” on Guatemala City’s north side. Since the 1930s, archaeologists have excavated pyramids, staircases, hundreds of ceremonial stone markers known as steles, and millions of ceramic sherds—all testament to a big town that waxed and waned over 1,500 years of history. Here are some scenes from the rediscovery of Kaminaljuyú.

  • Graduate student Jorge Méndez records freshly excavated pottery sherds at the excavation’s on-site laboratory. Most were deliberately smashed in antiquity—hinting at abrupt cultural or political change. (Roger Atwood)
  • Mudbrick staircases and ramps were part of the architecture of a sprawling ceremonial complex known today as the Acropolis. Built in successive phases over at least eight centuries, the complex still has a trickling spring at its base, suggesting water was part of its now-lost liturgy. (Roger Atwood)
  • Bárbara Arroyo, lead archaeologist at Kaminaljuyú, inspects a ceremonial stone marker known as a stele. Carved with human and animal forms reflecting shifting artistic tastes, the volcanic boulder seems to have been worked and reworked over centuries. (Roger Atwood)
  • A two-piece incense burner—the upper torso lifts off—would have been used in ceremonies in which shamans divined messages from smoke.  It sits in storage at Guatemala’s National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography. (Roger Atwood)
  • Spaniards built an aqueduct in the 1700s atop the remains of a 2,000-year-old Maya aqueduct, itself a three-long-mile mound that snakes today through Guatemala City.  Remains of the ancient Maya structure, today a grassy incline, can be seen at left. (Roger Atwood)
  • The Kaminaljuyú Archaeological Park preserves less than 10 percent of the ancient city from modern sprawl. (Roger Atwood)
  • The archaeological park’s verdant, overgrown hillocks are all that remain visible of the ancient city’s structures.  Today they’re popular with picnickers and worshippers. (Roger Atwood)

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