PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — The National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded Brown University archaeologist Stephen Houston $125,000 to continue study and excavations of the ancient Maya kingdom of El Zotz, Guatemala.
Located in northern Guatemala, El Zotz flourished during 500 to 600 A.D. Positioned at the intersection of two major Maya trade routes, the city seems to have arisen suddenly out of political entrepreneurship, when nearby Tikal fell into decline.
Though Tikal is a major Maya tourism site, El Zotz, a 40-minute walk to the west, is virtually unexplored, said Houston, the Dupee Family Professor of Social Science.
“We’re learning what happens when a giant stumbles, what happens on the edges of an empire when the empire goes into a nosedive,” Houston said. “The key is the inverse relationship with Tikal. We know from inscriptions that El Zotz had close bonds to Tikal’s enemies, and that it was not a good place to farm, earn your keep, hunt. The settlement may have had purely a political motivation.”
In addition to revealing insights on political dominance and the Maya collapse, El Zotz has architectural significance. At this site, Houston said, the Mayans first experimented with certain forms of pyramid. A wooden lintel survives to this day, engraved with images and decipherable writing.
El Zotz also sheds light on the religious beliefs of the day, Houston said. “Inscriptions on pots show new types of cult or emphasis on a supernatural being connected to the dream states of kings: dreams as the essences of the soul. There’s a lot of tantalizing material that poses fascinating questions about the role of El Zotz in the development of classic Maya civilization.”
Houston has already mapped the site. The grant funds enable Houston to travel to El Zotz in May with three Brown graduate students, four or five Guatemalan archeologists and two dozen laborers for the first of three excavations.
The NEH award gives Brown a foothold in Mesoamerican archaeology, Houston said, and will provide research opportunities for incoming graduate students.
“As we develop Old World archeology at the Joukowsky Institute under Sue Alcock, the NEH award lets us explore the New World as well,” said Houston, also director of anthropology graduate studies. “It affirms that Brown is a key place for global archaeology.”