Originally posted September 19, 2002

Recently discovered additions to the hieroglyphic stairways of Dos Pilas, Guatemala, have added substantially to our understanding of Maya history, as reported today in a front-page article in the New York Times. The find was also discussed in the science section of today's Washington Post and in an online press release by National Geographic.

A complete report on the discovery by Guatemalan epigrapher Federico Fahsen was posted on the Web earlier this week.

Four hieroglyphic stairways were already known from Dos Pilas, a site near Lake Petexbatun and the vital Pasión River drainage in Guatemala. A tree uprooted by last year's hurricane is said to have revealed a new central section of Hieroglyphic Stairway 2. Shortly thereafter, archaeologists from Guatemala's Institute of Anthropology and History, acting on a hunch, uncovered further stairs from the east and west sides of the same monument.

The single most important fact revealed by the new inscriptions is that the king of Calakmul attacked Dos Pilas. This unexpected piece of information has a dramatic impact on our understanding of one of the most vivid chapters in the political history recorded by the ancient Maya.

It was already known from Hieroglyphic Stairway 4 and the extant portions of Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 that B'alaj Chan K'awiil of Dos Pilas was the vassal of the king of Calakmul and that both Calakmul and Dos Pilas had warred against Nuun Ujol Chaak, the king of Tikal. This together with the fact that rulers of Dos Pilas and Tikal identified themselves with the same "emblem glyph" led scholars to deduce that Dos Pilas was founded by a breakaway faction of Tikal nobility under the auspices of Calakmul during the turbulent era following Calakmul's defeat of Tikal in AD 562.

That Calakmul was intially antagonistic to Dos Pilas and that B'alaj Chan K'awiil only swore fealty to Tikal's enemy at some point after the founding of Dos Pilas materially affects our understanding of the circumstances surrounding that foundation. As Fahsen conjectures,

The possibility that the Dos Pilas polity was deliberately founded as a safe haven for the Tikal royal lineage since the defeat of 562 or because [of] the family need to secure a sourthern flank in the region is very strong since Tikal's interest in the southwest Petén was strong during that time (online report).

The picture remains clouded, however, as the new inscriptions also record the death of a Tikal lord in what may be a belligerent action by B'alaj Chan K'awiil against Tikal several years before the Calakmul attack on Dos Pilas.

The report in the New York Times correctly situates Dos Pilas in the context of the epic struggle for dominance between the "superpowers" Tikal and Calakmul and their subordinate city-states, a conceptual model first advanced by Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube. The National Geographic press release is somewhat misleading in this regard.

Martin and Grube (2000:42-43, 56-7) have viewed Dos Pilas in the context of the struggle between Tikal and Calakmul, based on the previously known evidence. In general, their model is supported by hierarchical relationship expressions in the inscriptions. For instance, the ruler of a given site is described as being the yajaw (literally "his lord") of the ruler of another, superordinate site. This very expression describes B'alaj Chan K'awiil's relationship to the king of Calakmul on Dos Pilas Hieroglyphic Stairway 4, as was known long before the discovery of the latest inscriptions.