Symbols of early Maya kingship at Cival, Petén, Guatemala

Francisco Estrada-Belli, Jeremy Bauer, Molly Morgan & Angel Chavez

Figure 1
Figure 1. Giant Stucco mask adorning the western facade of a sub-structure of Str. 1 in Triadic Group 1, Cival. Scale bar is 2m long.

Excavations carried out in the summer of 2003 at Cival, a Preclassic Maya centre in north-eastern Guatemala, uncovered monumental sculpture and elaborate offerings that shed new light on the earliest beginnings of Maya dynastic symbolism.

Initial exploration in 2002 revealed massive Preclassic ceremonial architecture at the site and a carved stela stylistically Preclassic in date (Estrada-Belli et al. 2003).

A tunnel excavated in the eastern Structure 1 of Triadic Group 1 penetrated the stairway of a Preclassic pyramid of about AD 100. An earlier pyramid found under the rubble of the later structure, was adorned with a giant stucco mask (c. 5m wide and 3m high) apparently preserved in striking detail, although only the proper left side is visible (Figure 1, 2). The carving depicts an anthropomorphic face with an L-shaped eye, an eyebrow with U-motif, and merlons above the eye. There is a squared mouth with a single fang, a short nose, a cross-shaped motif on the cheek, a rectangular ear flare with dots at the four corners and a U-motif in the centre. Above the flare is a knot and scroll, while an unusual motif dangles below it. Ceramics associated with this sculpture date its disuse to the middle of the Late Preclassic period between 150 BC and AD 50.

Figure 2
Figure 2. Drawing of stucco mask in Str. 1 sub by Angel Chavez

The marked similarities between this carving and the lower terrace masks on Str. 5C-2nd at Cerros, Belize support its identification as the anthropomorphic mask of a Sun God (Freidel & Schele 1988). Its location on the south side of the upper terrace of the pyramid suggests that additional masks may be located on a lower terrace and on the corresponding northern side of the stairway. On the top of this pyramid is a substantially preserved masonry building partially exposed in a looters' trench, which will be explored in future excavations.

Figure 3
Figure 3. Late Preclassic stela cut and associated cache of pottery, jade, shell and hematite in front of Str. 7, Cival.

Excavation on the centreline of the eastern platform of Cival's E-group (Str. 7 - directly west of the triadic group) in connection with the location of the Preclassic Stela 2, revealed a cut in a plaster floor with stone bracing and dimensions large enough to accommodate a stela (Figure 3). At the bottom of this cut was a cache containing a Sierra Red bowl, two Spondylus shells, a jade tube, a carved shell and a fragment of hematite. The Late Preclassic date of this feature is consistent with epigrapher Nikolai Grube's initial stylistic dating of Stela 2 at ca. 300-200 BC (Estrada-Belli et al. 2003) confirming this monument as the earliest-known carved stela-portrait of a Lowland Maya king.

Figure 4
Figure 4. Cruciform offering of five smashed jars and 120 jade pieces in front of Str. 7 contained in the central depression beneath the central jar.

Stratigraphically earlier and in this same E-W centreline location, a large cardinally oriented cruciform cut into bedrock was detected (Figure 4, 5). In this, four large jars were found smashed, one in each of the four cardinally oriented arms with a fifth smashed jar in the centre.

Five plain jade celts (c. 25 cm long) found upright beneath the central jar also conformed to a cruciform pattern. The central and western jades were of rare blue jade while all others were green. A scatter of 115 green and blue jade pebbles surrounded the celts.

The jars are diagnostic of the Middle Preclassic period (800-500 BC) and may date to about 500 BC. The content and shape of this cache closely approximates an early Middle Preclassic cache from Seibal (Smith 1982: 245) and other jade caches from the Olmec region (Lowe 1989). Structural and material similarities also link this cache to the Nohmul and Cerros Late Preclassic jade-mask caches as well as the Protoclassic Pomona ear flare and associated figurines which are believed to be elaborate cruciform Maya cosmograms (Hammond 1987; Justeson et al. 1986).

Figure 5
Figure 5. Reconstructed cruciform offering with five jars, five upright jade celts and 115 jade pebbles under central jar. Drawing by Joel Zovar.

The new Cival deposit of jars and jade may involve water symbolism. The upright celts symbolize sprouting Maize plants (Taube pers. comm.; Schele 1992). However,in the similar deposit of jades at Seibal, Petén, the centerpiece was a jade blood-letting implement suggesting the association of such patterned jade caches with rituals of auto-sacrifice (Smith 1982; Stuart 1988). Also, a round post hole was found cut into the surface of the fill covering the cache. Schele (1992) suggests a symbolic link between jades/sprouting maize plants and a central world tree or axis mundi, in Maya and Olmec ideology. Moreover the structural similarity of this cache with the Late Preclassic Maya cruciform caches mentioned above suggests that the Sun-God and quadripartite order-based symbolism which is common of Classic period dynastic accession imagery appeared in the Maya Lowlands as early as the Middle Preclassic Period (800-400 BC).

The placement of the cruciform cache on the centreline of the eastern platform of what may be an astronomical "E-Group" oriented with the equinoctial sunrise, reinforces the idea that this deposit resulted from a solar ritual associated with the Maya agricultural cycle. The cache itself may help date the first use of this eastern structure as a public ceremonial complex to the Middle Preclassic (800-400 BC). Furthermore, the placement of the cache and the Triadic Group described above on the same site centerline clearly links the symbolism of the patterned cache with that of the later monumental sculpture adorning the Triadic pyramid, a massive and public elaboration of the Sun-God motif used to proclaim secular power.

In sum, the early date of this cache, its multifaceted symbolism, the associated Preclassic stela portrait and the architectural context in which they are all found identify these features as some of the earliest examples of public rituals associated with accession to power among the Preclassic Maya.


We wish to thank Vanderbilt University, the National Geographic Society, the Ahau Foundation, FAMSI, Interco Tire, ARB and Trailmaster, for funding the 2003 research, and IDAEH, of the Ministerio de Cultura y Deportes for granting permission to work. We also thank Norman Hammond, Clemency Coggins, and Karl Taube for their suggestions and Marco and Inma Gross and the many individuals who contributed to the success of this research.


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  • Francisco Estrada-Belli, Jeremy Bauer & Molly Morgan
    Vanderbilt University, Department of Anthropology, Box 306050 Station B, Nashville, TN 37235, USA
  • Angel Chavez
    Universidad de San Carlos, Guatemala, Centro Universitario de Petén, Flores, Petén, Guatemala