Hieroglyphic Text on Royal Vase Reveals Clues About Mystery Collapse of Ancient Maya Civilization

Maya vase 2
The Komkom vase, pieced together. Baylor University

Scientists have discovered a vase at an ancient royal palace in Belize with hieroglyphic text that gives an insight into the mysterious collapse of the Maya civilization. The stories on the vase relate to its owner—a King of Komkom—and a series of martial actions relating to him, including a "frog-like turtle dance" he performed after a military victory.

The vase, which dates to around 800 AD, was found in the Maya archaeological complex of Baking Pot by researchers led by Julie Hoggarth, assistant professor of anthropology at Texas' Baylor University. She noticed one of the pieces had a hieroglyph referring to Yaxha, a Maya ceremonial center in Guatemala.

The vessel had been smashed into bits, so the team had to piece the 82 fragments they found together—eventually assembling what they believe to be about 60 percent of the original. It measured about nine inches in length and, in its entirety, would have been made up of 202 hieroglyphic blocks—unusually long for Pre-Columbian texts found in Belize.

After deciphering the text, Hoggarth and colleagues realized it provided an unusual insight into a period where there is little remaining written information. Hoggarth and her colleagues now published details of the vase in a book, A Reading of the Komkom Vase Discovered at Baking Pot, Belize. Co-authors include Christophe Helmke, from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and Jaime Awe, from Northern Arizona University.

At the time the vase was created, the Maya civilization had started to collapse. Cities were abandoned and by around 900 AD, they had stopped building monuments. Reasons for this are unclear, although experts believe multiple factors likely combined, resulting in a breakdown of the political system.

"Population growth at the end of the Classic period also meant that the Maya were clearing more of the landscape to grow food, which may have contributed—in some cases—to environmental degradation," Hoggarth told Newsweek. "On top of all of this was a series of severe droughts that date to the mid-to-late ninth century (around AD 820-900) that likely impacted agricultural production. Since Maya divine kings were considered intermediaries with the gods, you can imagine how if they did not bring the rains that their legitimacy could have been diminished and the populace likely voted with their feet and left those cities."

The story on the Komkom vase focuses on the warfare that was taking place during the period—providing a peek into the propaganda that was being sold to society at the time. "We know that the Classic Maya did not typically write about mundane topics," Hoggarth said, adding that they normally focused on political histories, including births, deaths, ascensions, alliances and rituals. Few mention droughts or trade problems. "The unique aspect of the Komkom Vase is that it was written during this period of instability, and gives a perspective by the Maya themselves of the escalation of warfare during this time."

The text on the vase provides information on the royal owner. While he is not named directly, it says his father is Sak Witzil Baah, the King of Komkom, and his mother is a royal from the kingdom of Naranjo. This suggests the owner was a later king of Komkom.

The story provides information about a series of martial actions led by the king. It says that in July, 799 AD, he "axed the middle of the Yaxa' cave." The cave, Hoggarth said, probably refers to the polity or settlement of Yaxha. "The text goes on to describe how the king of Yaxha, K'inich Lakamtuun, now powerless, fled from the city to a place 'where mosquitos/flies abound.' The text later describes how the owner of the vase performed a 'frog-like turtle dance' to celebrate the victory over Yaxha."

She said it is hard to distinguish between political propaganda and fact—as with all written sources, history is recorded by the victors. "One interesting aspect of the Komkom Vase is that many of the events that are described on the vase are also detailed in written texts on carved monuments from the site of Naranjo," Hoggarth said. "In those accounts, it is the rulers of Naranjo who led the martial attacks on Yaxha. Naranjo was a larger and a more powerful kingdom than Komkom, but the parentage statement describes the mother of the owner of the Komkom Vase with a royal title from that site, so there were clearly political and marriage alliances between the two kingdoms.

"The accounts in the Komkom Vase make it appear that the owner of the vase, assumed to be the King of Komkom, led the attacks against Yaxha. So, you can see here how easily historical accounts can be slightly changed as a form of political propaganda to enhance the reputation of the protagonist of the story."

Maya vase
A fragment of the Komkom Vase. Baylor University

Elizabeth Graham, Professor of Mesoamerican Archaeology at the UCL Institute of Archaeology, U.K, who was not involved in the research, said the length of the text and the dating—at the time of the Maya collapse—means it provides an interesting insight into the period: "One 'minute' they are painting beautiful texts in the Classic tradition, and the next, collapse," she told Newsweek.

"Much more can be learned from the vase," Graham continued. "Translation of clauses in the text are aided by the fact that the same events or titles are recorded at other sites—in the case of the Komkom vase these sites are Naranjo, Tikal, and Yaxha."

Hoggarth is now looking to develop a precise chronology in order to reconstruct the breakdown of political systems and the abandonment of Maya centers. At the moment, she is using radiocarbon dating to find out when royal palaces were abandoned and when ceremonial centers stopped being used. Her team is also looking at how the collapse corresponds to the severe droughts recorded at this time.

"In the past, archaeologists have noted how the timing of political and demographic changes broadly correlate with these climatic changes," she said. "However, until recently we have been limited by imprecise chronologies based on ceramic phases that typically span several hundred years. This poor temporal resolution has made it difficult to identify clear relationships between drought and societal impacts. High-precision radiocarbon chronologies are now allowing us to identify the timing of political and demographic changes at finer time scales."

This article has been updated to include more details on the researchers involved.