Q&A with Francisco Estrada Belli
By National Geographic Society
Published: June 9, 2004
F rancisco Estrada-Belli, assistant professor of Mesoamerican archaeology at Vanderbilt University, discusses the large mask of a Maya deity on the facade of a pyramid that he discovered last summer at the Preclassic Maya city of Cival. Excavations this spring have revealed more of the curious face as well as a second mask.
How did you find the first mask?
I discovered it by sheer chance several years ago when I was in a tunnel excavation left by looters. I put my hand in a fissure inside the tunnel and felt a piece of carving, which I felt might be a snake or a mustache on a mask. Only two years later were we able to mount an expedition to excavate to the spot from the other side of the pyramid, and in May-June 2003 we discovered the large monumental mask of a deity.
What do the masks look like?
This deity, 5 meters wide and 3 meters tall, has a very complex iconography. It has an anthropomorphic face. Its nose and forehead are human, but it has stylized eyes and eyebrows. The eyes are L-shaped and adorned with corn husks, and the eyebrow has a diagonal motif with a U sign and two pinnacles on top of the brow. This year's excavations have shown that the face's single incisor is made up of two fangs. The masks may represent a maize god. A similar mask was found in Belize by David Freidel in the '70s and has been identified as a Preclassic sculpture of a solar deity. Ours date to around 200 B.C -150 B.C.
How do you believe the masks fit into the structure of the building?
I think the masks could have framed the central part of a stairway that was used for important ritual purposes by the Preclassic Maya kings. We have found two masks, and I think we'll find more, possibly four. We are continuing our excavations in the pyramid (or temple).
The pyramid that houses the masks is 13 meters high and is elevated on a 20-meter-high platform, therefore rising 33 meters above a plaza located in front of the pyramid and other buildings.
The pyramid is at the eastern end of the complex. We have also found a long building at the eastern end of the plaza, in front of the pyramid that contains the masks. These structures' eastern location is important as they have a view of the eastern horizon, and I think sunrise was an important backdrop for rituals performed on the plaza.
What other discoveries have you made at the site?
In front of the long eastern building, we found a stela in June 2002, which might be the earliest structure ever discovered in the Maya lowlands, dating to 300 B.C. We found a recess in the plaza where the stela, or stone slab, could have originally been located. The recess contained a bowl, two seashells, a jade tube and a fragment of hematite. In addition, behind the recess we found, in June 2003, another depression in the rock, at the foot of the pyramid. The depression is in the shape of a cross or cruciform. We found five smashed jars in the cruciform, one on each arm of the cruciform and one in the center. Under the central jar we found 120 pieces of jade. Most are round, polished, green and blue jade pebbles, but five are jade axes, 25 cm long. They were placed with their blades pointing upwards.
What is the symbolism of the jars and jade?
They appear to be part of a solar ritual associated with the Maya agricultural cycle. The jars are an offering for water. The green and blue jade symbolize maize, or corn. The upright jade axes symbolize sprouting maize plants. This is a cosmic offering. A cruciform is the shape of the Maya cosmos, with the Maya world-tree or maize plant at the center of the cross-shaped opening into the natural rock. The maize god/world-tree and the sun god are sometimes conflated in a single figure with which Classic Maya kings identified themselves.
What do you believe is the significance of the Cival site as a whole?
I think the site is one of the earliest and largest cities of the Preclassic Maya. Its entire ceremonial complex has an important astronomical connotation. It's not coincidence that the central axis of the main buildings and the plaza is oriented to sunrise at the equinox. Their location of 87 degrees east of north corresponds to sunrise on March 25, just four days after the equinox.
The astronomical complex, the offerings and the mask are related to the institution of kingship rather than religion. Cival is large enough to be the capital of a Preclassic kingdom or state. It may have been home to at least 10,000 people and it could be one of the earliest kingdoms in the Maya lowlands.
More and more evidence is being uncovered that the Preclassic era was one of well-developed states, just as complex as the states in the Classic Maya period. We have found symbols and iconography that mirror the symbolism of kings of the later Classic Maya period.
For more background read Estrada-Belli's annual field reports for the last four years
posted in the reports section on the Homul website (Adobe Acrobat reader needed).