A Dynasty Born in Fire

Features May 21, 2024

How an upstart Maya king forged a new social order amid chaos
Maya Guatemala Ucanal Excavation
(Courtesy Proyecto Arqueológico Ucanal)
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A singular event took place at the beginning of the ninth century A.D. that must have stunned the residents of the Maya city of Ucanal, capital of the K’anwitznal Kingdom, in northern Guatemala’s Petén region. Their new ruler, Papmalil, presided over a sensational public ceremony during which the bones of four of his predecessors, which had been removed from their tombs inside one of the city’s pyramids, were placed on a pyre. As Ucanal’s citizens looked on, the flames reached nearly 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, scorching and warping bone and shattering some of the precious objects that had also been taken from the tombs. The roar of the flames must have been thunderous, especially when punctuated by the sharp pops of exploding stone. Families that had been loyal to Ucanal’s earlier dynasties were doubtless concerned for their future. Those who supported Papmalil likely rejoiced. Perhaps a musician accompanied the ceremony by playing the flute.

While the precise details of how the ceremony unfolded are unknown—the event is not described in any text or recorded on any monument—the recent discovery of the burned bones and broken objects has provided evidence of what archaeologist Christina Halperin of the University of Montreal identifies as a tipping point in the K’anwitznal Kingdom’s history. “This event marked the symbolic and literal destruction of an earlier K’anwitznal dynastic line,” Halperin says. “It’s so rare in the archaeological record to see a moment of fissure like this, where people immediately understand that they’re doing away with a previous historical moment and entering into a changed political system.”

At the beginning of the Terminal Classic period (ca. A.D. 810–1000), many of the great kingdoms of the southern Maya lowlands—among them Tikal, Palenque, and Calakmul—were being abandoned or collapsing. For many years, scholars have assumed that most, if not all, the other kingdoms across the Maya world must have also been in steep decline. But by committing what must have been seen as a brazen act of desecration, Papmalil staked his claim to a different future for his kingdom amid the chaos. Halperin and her team, who have been excavating at Ucanal for the past decade, are now revealing that far from collapsing, K’anwitznal entered a new era of prosperity. “The fire-burning event isn’t a bookend to Maya history,” Halperin says, “but a pivot point around which the kingdom reinvented itself and Ucanal went on to flourish. Some dynasties were collapsing, but some were doing new things, too.”

The K’anwitznal Kingdom is mentioned in texts dating from the Early Classic period (ca. A.D. 250–550), but scholars do not know when it was founded. Ucanal was located on the Mopan River, which flowed by numerous Maya settlements, allowing its leaders a degree of control over trade and the opportunity to create alliances with other peoples in the Maya sphere. But until Papmalil announced himself in the plaza, K’anwitznal was a relatively small kingdom subject to the whims of the region’s leading power players: first the mighty rulers of Tikal, then Lady Six Sky of Naranjo (see “Jungle Realm of the Snake Queens”), and finally Lady Six Sky’s son K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Chahk, the king of Naranjo, who conquered Ucanal in A.D. 698 and set up a new king there in A.D. 713. “K’anwitznal wasn’t some Podunk dynasty, but it wasn’t until the Terminal Classic that it became an independent power,” says Halperin. “And then they became kingmakers.”

At that point, Ucanal extended over about 10 square miles. Its urban core of about three square miles, which was likely home to around 10,000 people, was filled with large open plazas, palaces, stepped altars, carved and uncarved stone stelas, and at least 14 temples built on lofty platforms. It was at the top of one of these temples that Halperin’s team discovered the remnants of Papmalil’s ceremony.

Between levels of the structure corresponding to multiple renovations, archaeologist Marta Perea of the University of San Carlos of Guatemala unearthed the burned and broken human bones and nearly 1,500 fragments of ornaments made of various valuable materials. “As we extracted the first stones, artifacts such as obsidian blades and greenstone beads appeared,” says Perea. “On the penultimate floor of the structure, we found the remains of the bones mixed with parts of more than one thousand ornamental belongings.”

The bones represent the remains of at least four people, all adults, including a man between 21 and 35 years old; another adult, probably a male; an older man between 40 and 60 years old; and one adult whose sex could not be determined. Radiocarbon dating showed that the people had died as much as 100 years before the fire event. All the bones are fragmented, but not all of them exhibit fire damage. Perea is uncertain why this is the case. “This depends on several factors, such as the environment in which the process of burning was carried out, whether it was in a closed or open space, and the temperature and length of time that the bone was subjected to fire,” she says.

Along with the skeletal remains, Perea dug up fragments of jade beads, plaques, mosaics, obsidian blades, and more than 10,000 marine shell beads. All these items are commonly found in royal graves and are strong evidence that the four people whose bones were burned were former K’anwitznal royalty. There were pendants fashioned from mammal teeth with punched holes that resemble those on necklaces worn by Maya rulers, alongside pieces of pottery, pyrite, and slate. Perea also identified traces of cinnabar, or mercury sulfide, on some objects, a substance that was reserved for royal burials. One extraordinary find was a set of greenstone pieces that Halperin recognized as a fragmented funerary mask by the shiny black obsidian spheres that once formed its pupils. “Discovering artifacts in such significant quantities was a meticulous job,” Perea says. “It was so exciting to see the belongings worthy of such high-ranking people among the ashes.” Yet no effort had been made in antiquity to save or protect the objects or the bones when they were mixed with construction fill and shunted under heavy blocks taken from an earlier building. Reusing those stones was not a simple act of recycling, but, says Halperin, a rejection of the past clearly intended to bury the symbols of a previous regime.

Papmalil was in power by A.D. 817, and during his time as king, he set the K’anwitznal Kingdom on an entirely new path. His origins, however, remain unknown. “Papmalil has been a mysterious character and people haven’t really known what to do with him,” says epigrapher Simon Martin of the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Museum. The name Papmalil is otherwise unknown in the region, which may indicate that he came from afar, perhaps from the Gulf Coast to the west. Upon his ascension, Papmalil assumed the title ochk’in kaloomte’, or kaloomte’ of the west, a title that, beginning in the Early Classic period, was employed primarily for the most powerful overlords. “Kaloomte’ is used for the upper strata of kings, the type of king who has other kings as his vassals,” says Martin. It provides additional evidence that Papmalil may have been a foreigner to the region, as kaloomte’ had previously been ascribed to rulers of the great city of Teotihuacan in Mexico. The Teotihuacanos were not Maya, but they had a strong influence on the Maya in the Petén region during the Early Classic period. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that Papmalil was from the west,” says Martin, “but rather that he is following in the tradition of Teotihuacan’s rulers and claiming that heritage, whether he came from there or not.” Virtually the only places the title is used after what Martin calls the “early ninth-century crisis,” other than Ucanal, are Ceibal and Nakum. These two kingdoms also survived the period after A.D. 810 when the old political order was disintegrating in the major Maya power centers. “For the rest of the century, people at these sites were hanging on and even coming to the fore,” Martin says, noting that at the time, rulers of formerly potent kingdoms were now subject to Ceibal. In a show of deference, the kings of Calakmul and Tikal even came to Ceibal in A.D. 849 to witness a ceremony performed by Ceibal’s overlord. “It’s quite clear,” says Martin, “that Ceibal’s ruler is king of the roost.”

The same can be said for Papmalil. He was a regional power player of comparable stature who compelled the Naranjo king to visit his court in A.D. 820. Only decades before Papmalil’s ascension, the K’anwitznal king Xub Chahk had been depicted on an altar tied up as a captive of the king of the Maya city of Caracol. Yet in A.D. 820, Papmalil appears on two altars found in Caracol exchanging gifts with its ruler K’inich Yukbil Yopaat. The text on one altar specifies that the K’anwitznal ruler “supervised” the event. “These ceremonies took place at Ucanal and that’s a big clue as to who holds the upper hand,” Martin says “Papmalil has a more elevated title than the king of Caracol and clearly outranks him.”

In 2019, Halperin and her team discovered a stela at Ucanal that provides evidence of both the K’anwitznal rulers’ reach and their openness to new customs. It likely dates to A.D. 879 and its carved surface features a K’anwitznal ruler carrying weapons such as an atlatl, or spear thrower, and long darts, which were used by warriors from central Mexico. “The K’anwitznal ruler wanted to demonstrate connections with cultural entities that lay far afield,” Halperin says. She has found that this even extended to modes of food preparation. In the Terminal Classic period, residents of Ucanal began to toast food for festive events on comals, or griddles typical of central Mexico, and to grind corn using manos and metates imported from the highlands of Guatemala.

Papmalil became a novel kind of ruler both for the K’anwitznal Kingdom and for the entire region. He and his successors focused not only on building monumental royal palaces and temples, but also concentrated on creating public works and infrastructure. At the start of his reign, Papmalil constructed a new ball court. Later royals renovated the court, evidence of the kingdom’s continued prosperity. Papmalil and his successors also built several large canals, each measuring more than 1,000 feet long and 20 feet wide. “These water features are so big that I always assumed they were constructed earlier,” Halperin says. “But when we excavated them, the pottery showed that they were undoubtedly built during the Terminal Classic.” The canals directly benefited Ucanal’s residents by preventing flooding. “They aren’t really for elite people, who live high up, they’re there so people can stay in their homes,” Halperin says. “A lot of data speaks to episodes of drought and its role in the collapse of the Maya world, but we tend to forget that massive rains are also a problem during periods of climate change. You need infrastructure to move the water away and to protect people from severe weather events like hurricanes.”

Beginning with Papmalil, K’anwitznal kings pursued a more egalitarian governing style than had previous rulers. Perhaps as a result, there seems to have been less social inequality in the kingdom than in earlier eras. Halperin and her team have excavated 20 houses across Ucanal dating to this period and found that the stone walls and vaulted stone roofs used in elite houses of previous eras were replaced by wooden houses with thatched roofs for all classes. Halperin has found that even when rulers did build new temples, they were constructed of stepped masonry platforms with perishable wooden architecture atop them. “These materials and processes are often associated with a loss of splendor,” says Halperin, “but I think they were part of an active architectural revisionism, one that remade history by reworking the old and reorienting toward a new social and political order.”

Halperin’s team has uncovered evidence that during the Terminal Classic period Ucanal’s middle-class households had access to coveted items such as marine shells and pottery imported from more than 50 miles away, goods that previously would have been reserved for high-status residents. “We see a leveling out of social distinction at this time,” she says, “and also more evidence that things were not collapsing.” A jade head weighing more than five pounds that Halperin and her team recently excavated is further evidence of Ucanal’s prosperity.

During the upcoming field season, Halperin plans to excavate a long rectangular building lined with benches that may be a council house where heads of different lineages or representatives from different areas of the kingdom gathered for discussion and consensus building. “This structure is visible from the public plaza so everyone can see what you are doing in there,” Halperin says. “It’s very transparent.”

Papmalil could not have foretold the K’anwitznal Kingdom’s future success as he performed the striking display at the start of his reign, but he clearly intended to mark his ascension with a forceful rejection of the past. “It’s always very difficult to pinpoint a moment that speaks to a big shift like this,” says Halperin, “especially one that is so contrary to the narrative of everything collapsing.” The approach to governing that Papmalil initiated served K’anwitznal well for a century, until the kingdom, too, disappeared. “I think this aspect of reworking and transitioning is very important,” Halperin says. “Maybe there was discontent with monarchical regimes and K’anwitznal wanted to erase some social distinctions. We can’t look at this as a passive unfolding of a system but rather as an example of agency and desire.

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