Two Early Classic Maya murals: new texts and images in Maya and
Teotihuacan style from La Sufricaya, Petén, Guatemala

Francisco Estrada-Belli, Alexandre Tokovinine, Jennifer Foley,
Heather Hurst, Gene A. Ware, David Stuart & Nikolai Grube

Figure 1
Figure 1. Map of La Sufricaya and locator map of Guatemala (F. Estrada-Belli).
Click to enlarge.

The 2005 excavations at La Sufricaya, an Early Classic period (AD 300-600) site in the periphery of the Maya city of Holmul, Petén, Guatemala, unearthed two mural paintings that shed more light on the long-debated relationship between the Lowland Maya and the populous urban centre of Teotihuacan in Central Mexico (Figure 1). The ceremonial core of La Sufricaya includes a ball-court, two 5m high funerary temples and a 3m high basal platform (131 x 118 metres) supporting a group of buildings atop a raised courtyard (Group 1, Figure 2). Excavations in this 11 metre high, 50 x 50 metre-wide acropolis and nearby structures have confirmed that the site centre public buildings were occupied in the Early Classic period roughly from AD 350 to 500. Investigations in Structure 1, the tallest ruin in Group 1, revealed a series of at least 16 individual free-standing masonry buildings.

Figure 2
Figure 2. Sub 13, 14, 10 and Room 1, the earliest buildings in the Structure 1 complex (Schematic plan F. Estrada-Belli and J. Foley).
Click to enlarge.

Figure 3
Figure 3. Enhanced photo of Mural 7, Structure 1-Sub 13 (F. Estrada-Belli).
Click to enlarge.

Several lines of evidence at the site suggest a mixing of Maya and Teotihuacan cultural symbols including Teotihucan iconography on Maya-style vessels, green obsidian imported from Central Mexico, and Maya re-interpretations of the Central Mexican tablero on the structure's upper friezes. In Structure 1's Room 1 and Room 2, murals depict Maya and Teotihuacan-style figures engaged in public rituals (Estrada-Belli 2001; Tomasic & Estrada-Belli 2002; Estrada-Belli 2002; Estrada-Belli & Foley 2004). The 2005 findings help clarify the function of the building complex and the nature of the foreign links.

Mural 9 was found on the inner eastern wall of room Sub 13, one of the oldest in this complex. It occupies a 1 x 2.5 metre area near the floor (Figure 3). Two figures are painted in broad outline strokes facing one another and three (largely eroded) columns of hieroglyphs are in the space between them. On the right is a cross-legged old man wearing a large jade-bead necklace and pectoral, a yax head jewel and gesturing forward. On the left, mirroring his posture, is a cross-legged figure with a bird head or mask. The old man is identified with the Classic Maya deity Itzamnaaj (God D), the heavenly creator and king of gods, associated with the institution of kingship, scribes, priests and wisdom. The bird-headed character remains unidentified. Images on Maya ceramics often depict God D conversing with bird messengers. The inscription between these figures is unfortunately largely eroded but the legible part seems to record speech of one of the two characters and refers to an obscure mythological story: ...ahnel ... wits, ochi ... naahb' '[as for him] he left to the mountain of ..., he entered the lake of...'.

Figure 4
Figure 4. Tracing of figure incised on Mural 9 (F. Estrada-Belli).

Prior to the burial of the building, in c. AD 500, graffiti were made on this wall. A cross-hatched woven mat pop motif was incised over the central inscription and a small human figure was sketched over the left arm of God D. This figure stands facing left, wearing a feather headdress similar to the drum-shaped headdress and eye-goggles worn by Teotihuacan figures on La Sufricaya mural 1 (cf. Estrada-Belli 2001: Figure 4). He also wears feathers on his back. His left hand is lowered in front of his abdomen where six arrows seem to converge. This carving may depict one of the last occupants of the building. All depictions of foreign warriors at La Sufricaya are in non-threatening postures (Estrada-Belli 2001: Figure 3).

Mural 7 is a painted text in a central room of the same complex (Sub 10), on an upper 1x1 metre area of the west wall. It is laid out in five columns of six hieroglyphic blocks each. The style is consistent with the Early Classic dating provided by the text and archaeological materials. It is composed of three main clauses. The first begins with a dedication event expressed in a Calendar Round date of 11 Kib', 14 Mak (January 15, AD 379), the day of the 9-day week and the name of the lunar month. The following two clauses are introduced by distance numbers and conclude with Calendar Round dates.

Figure 5
Figure 5. Drawing of Mural 9 (H. Hurst).
Click to enlarge.

The eroded first clause recalls an event involving a 'stone' in or near a 'three-temple house' by a lord holding the titles mam ('revered') and chak tok wayaab' ('red-cloud diviner'). The second clause relates that this happened 16 days, six months and 1 year after the 'binding of the stone' on the period ending day 1 Ajaw 8 Ch'en (October 21, AD 376). The third clause relates that the same event happened four days and one year after 'the K'awil (God of lightning) arrived to Mutal' (Tikal) on the day 16 Mak, 11 Eb' (January 16, AD 378). Two illegible blocks conclude the text. The last glyph includes the logogram K'AHK' (fire) and the syllable ya, elements which could be part of the name of the well-known Early Classic character Siyaj K'ahk.

The inscription raises several epigraphic, chronological, and historical issues. First, the reversed Calendar Round date 11 Eb' 16 Mak is one day off for the eastern Petén calendrical style and one day off in relation to the distance number in the second clause. On the other hand, the 1 Ajaw 8 Ch'en date corresponds to the period ending (October 21, AD 376). It is likely that the discrepancy is due to a way of counting the beginning of days from the sunset, a custom foreign to the Classic Maya. Secondly, the first distance number leads to a Calendar Round date that occurred 320 days after the period ending of 1 Ajaw 8 Ch'en. It is likely that the incongruence was intentional: for unknown reasons the period ending and its ritual commemoration occurred separately with a delay of 320 days.

Finally, in the third clause the scribe implies that the same ceremony was also scheduled to celebrate the anniversary of a historical event: the arrival at Tikal of the K'awil, the lightning god, royal symbol of rulers, and the epithet of a warlord from Teotihuacan named Sihyaj K'ahk'. This historical event is unique in being directly mentioned on inscriptions at two other places, Uaxactun and Tikal, and indirectly at El Peru. It has been suggested that this was a watershed moment in the history of the Classic Maya in which, because of Teotihuacan intrusions, new kings were installed at Tikal, Uaxactun, Rio Azul, El Peru, El Zapote and Bejucal, certain new rituals and images were introduced, and a new order was established in the Maya Lowlands (Coggins 1975, 1979; Martin & Grube 2000; Stuart 2000). Other scholars propose a less hegemonic role of Teotihuacan in its relationship with the Maya (Braswell 2002; Laporte & Fialko 1990; Schele & Freidel 1990). The new text, iconography, and materials from La Sufricaya provide important new clues on both sides of this controversy. While the debate remains open, the available evidence seems to indicate that 1) La Sufricaya was a short-lived location in which a group of high-ranking elites displayed a blend of Maya and Teotihuacan cultural symbols to exert their authority; 2) the La Sufricaya nobles were in contact with Tikal and exalted the significance of the arrival of an important Teotihuacan figure there.


Investigations began in 2001 under the aegis of the Vanderbilt University Holmul Archaeological Project by a multidisciplinary team of US and Guatemalan archaeologists, surveyors, conservators, and imaging engineers directed by F. Estrada-Belli, with funding from Vanderbilt University, The National Geographic Society, FAMSI, Harvard University, and Peter and Alexandra Harrison; donations in kind by Toyota, Yamaha, ARB, Interco, PIAA, and private individuals; and with permission by the Guatemalan Instituto de Antropología e Historia.


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  • Francisco Estrada-Belli
    Vanderbilt University, Department of Anthropology, Box 6050 Station B, Nashville, TN 37235, USA (Email:
  • Alexandre Tokovinine
    Harvard University, Department of Anthropology, 11 Divinity Ave. Cambridge, MA 02168, USA (Email:
  • Jennifer Foley
    Vanderbilt University, Department of Anthropology, Box 6050 Station B, Nashville, TN 37235, USA (Email:
  • Heather Hurst
    Yale University, Department of Anthropology, 51 Hillhouse Avenue, P.O. Box 208277, New Haven, Connecticut 06520-8277, USA (Email:
  • Gene A. Ware
    Brigham Young University, Department of Anthropology, 800 SWKT, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT 84602-5522, USA (Email:
  • David Stuart
    University of Texas, Austin, Department of Art and Art History, TX 78712, USA (Email:
  • Nikolai Grube
    Institut für Altamerikanistik und Ethnologie, Universität Bonn, Römerstr. 164, 53117 Bonn, Germany (Email: