Sixteen hundred years ago, the inhabitants of the powerful ancient Maya kingdom of Tikal looked to the west and saw red. On a hilltop, in their direct line of sight, stood the Temple of the Night Sun. This temple, covered in fourteen five-foot tall stucco masks of the Maya sun god and painted blood red, glowed in the light of the setting sun.
This summer, a team of archaeologists led by Professor of Anthropology Stephen Houston uncovered and documented these stucco masks.
The Temple of the Night Sun was built at Diablo Pyramid, a hilltop site in present-day Guatemala. It established the lineage of a new dynasty of rulers in a small kingdom in the valley below, known as El Zotz. During the second half of the fourth century, the site served as both an ancestral shrine and a royal palace.
"The Maya lived with their ancestors, they lived with their dead," Houston said.
Over the course of a century, the temple was constructed above and slightly behind the tomb of the dynastic founder, and both structures were later encased in a large pyramid.
This stucco composition on the exterior of the temple is the first complete depiction of the progression of the sun through the sky. Most of the masks represent the Maya sun god as a shark, an old god or a jaguar. The shark is associated with the dawn, while the old god is associated with the highest point of the sun. The jaguar, whose nocturnal behavior represents the setting of the sun, is the most common mask.
Houston's team first began excavating Diablo Pyramid in 2009 as a training project for his graduate students. Within a year, they followed looters' tunnels and stumbled upon the royal tomb of the local dynastic founder. They also discovered hints of the stucco masks from the exterior of the Temple of the Night Sun, which the team returned to this summer.
The proximity of the temple to the tomb served both political and theological purposes.
"The idea is not only to fix this local dynasty in this landscape, but also to establish this much more audacious connection to one of the most important deities of Maya thought, which would be that of the sun god," Houston said. This dual purpose may reveal the origins of the common depiction of the king as a sun god at later Maya sites.
"It's fascinating in that it can give us a historical glimpse into the progression of something we've sort of always taken for granted, that Maya kings were sun gods," said Marc Zender, a visiting assistant professor at Tulane University who specializes in Mesoamerican writing and languages. Zender is not associated with excavations at El Zotz or Diablo Pyramid.
Only about one-third of the temple's exterior is actually exposed. Most of the masks are still deeply buried, safely protected from rain and sunlight. To minimize further exposure to the harsh Guatemalan climate, site exploration was done using tunnels. Houston and his team partnered with the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies at the University of Arkansas to transform hundreds of photographs taken in the tunnels into three-dimensional renderings of the stucco masks.
This innovative visual processing technique "allows us to see the mask as if all of the overburden, all of the later construction were stripped away," Houston said.
These renderings reveal that the masks are extremely well-preserved, thanks to the careful burial of the original temple beneath subsequent construction phases. For the ancient Mayas, "the whole history of that location is important, so rather than tearing down the building and starting from scratch on top of it, it's important to keep the whole history of what happened there encased in a later building," said Sarah Newman, graduate student at Brown in anthropology who accompanied Houston to the site for several years.
These stucco masks also add to our growing knowledge of the interactions between ancient Maya kingdoms in this region. Located only 32 kilometers apart, the Temple of Night Sun was clearly visible from Tikal. But the nature of the relationship between El Zotz and Tikal remains uncertain.
As archaeologists working at El Zotz and other locations, "we all try to figure out how these sites interacted and what sort of political and social systems they had in place," Newman said. "All the research that we do at each individual site is going towards building a bigger, more concrete picture."