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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Glyphs Paint Picture of Maya World

When a hurricane ripped through the jungle of northern Guatemala a year ago, an uprooted tree at the base of temple ruins at Dos Pilas exposed stones bearing one of the longest texts of Maya hieroglyphs ever found.

Part of a grand staircase leading up the side of a pyramid, the inscribed stones recorded the triumphs and defeats of a city caught in the middle of protracted warfare between two superpowers -- the city-states of Tikal and Calakmul -- that split much of the Maya civilization some 1,500 years ago.

The text is expected to cast light on the clash of arms at the zenith of the classic Maya culture, which embraced much of Central America and southern Mexico, and perhaps the causes of its eventual collapse, more than two centuries later.

The translations of the Dos Pilas glyphs have just been completed by Federico Fahsen, a Guatemalan specialist in Maya writing, and were announced Wednesday by Vanderbilt University and the National Geographic Society, which supported the research. The discovery will also be described in the October issue of National Geographic.

Archaeologists and other Maya scholars said the hieroglyphic stairs revealed the largely unknown story of 60 years in the life of a Dos Pilas ruler, Balaj Chan K'awiil. It is at times a grisly account of flowing blood and piles of skulls left after a battle was over and the vanquished were sacrificed. The ruler found himself at times on one side, then another, and must have been both clever and fortunate to have survived to old age, some scholars said.

Of particular importance, some scholars said, the Dos Pilas glyphs supported an emerging consensus that local and dynastic rivalries were not mainly responsible for most battles, as once supposed. One of the largest Mayan cities, Tikal, was in what is now northern Guatemala, but had a much wider sphere of influence in the Maya world. Calakmul, was about 60 miles farther north, in Mexico. The glyphs provide new evidence that Dos Pilas was established as a military outpost by Tikal, about 70 miles to the northeast of Dos Pilas, and was never a major city or independent power.

"It now appears that Dos Pilas was a pawn in a much bigger battle,'' said Arthur Demarest of Vanderbilt's Institute of Mesoamerican Archaeology, who organized the new glyph research. "In today's terms, Dos Pilas was the Vietnam of the Maya world, used in a war that was actually between two superpowers.''

A leading Maya scholar, David Webster of Pennsylvania State University, said that although he had not yet studied the staircase glyphs, "they sound like a very exciting find.'' He is the author of "The Fall of the Ancient Maya,'' published earlier this year by Thames & Hudson.

Ever since scholars learned to decipher more and more Maya glyphs, beginning in the 1970s, they have realized that the classical Maya elite were using their advanced writing system to record narratives of their rulers, wars and celebrations. Scribes usually carved the texts on soft stones, which were then displayed as monuments in the city center or in tombs. Not having metal, they carved with pieces of hard rock.

Before the hurricane last year, only eight steps at the base of the pyramid were known, and their inscriptions were limited. The story of war and Dos Pilas came alive when Fahsen -- who is based in Guatemala City and is also an adjunct professor of archaeology at Vanderbilt -- began translating the 10 other steps, those cleared by the storm.