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Modern technology reveals old secrets about the great, white Maya road


Did a powerful queen of Coba, one of the greatest cities of the ancient Maya world, build the longest Maya road to invade a smaller, isolated neighbor and gain a foothold against the emerging Chichen Itza empire?

Modern technology reveals old secrets about the great, white Maya road
Built at the turn of the 7th century, the white plaster-coated road that began 100 kilometers to the east
 in Coba ends at Yaxuna's ancient downtown, in the center of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula
[Credit: Traci Ardren & Dominique Meyer/University of Miami]
The question has long intrigued Traci Ardren, archaeologist and University of Miami professor of anthropology. Now, she and fellow scholars may be a step closer to an answer, after conducting the first lidar study of the 100-kilometer stone highway that connected the ancient cities of Coba and Yaxuna on the Yucatan Peninsula 13 centuries ago.

Once used mainly by meteorologists to study clouds, lidar--short for "light detection and ranging"--technology is revolutionizing archaeology by enabling archaeologists to detect, measure, and map structures hidden beneath dense vegetation that, in some cases, has grown for centuries, engulfing entire cities. Often deployed from low-flying aircraft, lidar instruments fire rapid pulses of laser light at a surface, and then measure the amount of time it takes for each pulse to bounce back. The differences in the times and wavelengths of the bounce are then used to create digital 3D maps of hidden surface structures.


The lidar study, which Ardren and fellow researchers with the Proyecto de Interaccion del Centro de Yucatan (PIPCY) conducted in 2014 and 2017 of Sacbe 1--or White Road 1, as the white plaster-coated thoroughfare was called--may shed light on the intentions of Lady K'awiil Ajaw, the warrior queen who Ardren believes commissioned its construction at the turn of the 7th century.

In an analysis of the lidar study, recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the researchers identified more than 8,000 tree-shrouded structures of varying sizes along the sacbe--with enough total volume to fill approximately 2,900 Olympic swimming pools. The study also confirmed that the road, which measures about 26 feet across, is not a straight line, as has been assumed since Carnegie Institute of Washington archaeologists mapped its entire length in the 1930s, with little more than a measuring tape and a compass.

Modern technology reveals old secrets about the great, white Maya road
This lidar map of downtown Yaxuna reveals many ancient houses, platforms, palaces and pyramids that
are hidden by vegetation [Credit: Traci Ardren & Dominique Meyer/University of Miami]
Rather, the elevated road veered to incorporate preexisting towns and cities between Coba, which known for its carved monuments depicting bellicose rulers standing over bound captives, controlled the eastern Yucatan, and Yaxuna--a smaller, older, city in the middle of the peninsula. Yet, the isolated Yaxuna (pronounced Ya-shoo-na) still managed to build a pyramid nearly three times bigger and centuries before Chichen Itza's more famous Castillo, about 15 miles away.

"The lidar really allowed us to understand the road in much greater detail. It helped us identify many new towns and cities along the road--new to us, but preexisting the road," Ardren said. "We also now know the road is not straight, which suggests that it was built to incorporate these preexisting settlements, and that has interesting geo-political implications. This road was not just connecting Coba and Yaxuna; it connected thousands of people who lived in the intermediary region."


It was partly Yaxuna's proximity to Chichen Itza, Mexico's most famous Maya ruin which flourished after Yaxuna and Coba waned, that led Ardren and other PIPCY researchers to theorize that K'awiil Ajaw built the road to invade Yaxuna and gain a foothold in the middle of the peninsula. Coba's ruler for several decades beginning in 640 A.D., she is depicted in stone carvings trampling over her bound captives.

"I personally think the rise of Chichen Itza and its allies motivated the road," Ardren said. "It was built just before 700, at the end of the Classic Period, when Coba is making a big push to expand. It's trying to hold on to its power, so with the rise of Chichen Itza, it needed a stronghold in the center of the peninsula. The road is one of the last-gasp efforts of Coba to maintain its power. And we believe it may have been one of the accomplishments of K'awiil Ajaw, who is documented as having conducted wars of territorial expansion."

Modern technology reveals old secrets about the great, white Maya road
A drawing of a carving found on a stone monument in Coba depicts
 the warrior queen who may have built the great, white road to
 expand her domain [Credit: University of Miami]
To test their theory, Ardren, an expert on gender in ancient Maya society who edited the 2002 book "Ancient Maya Women," and fellow PIPCY scholars received funding from the National Science Foundation to excavate ancient household clusters along the great white road. Their goal is to determine the degree of similarities between the household goods in Coba and Yaxuna before and after the road was built. The thinking, Ardren said, is that after the road linked the two cities, the goods found in Yaxuna would show increasing similarities to Coba's.


So far, the researchers have excavated household clusters on the edge of both Coba and Yaxuna, and they plan to begin a third dig this summer, at a spot informed by the lidar study. It sits between the two ancient Maya cities, on the great, white road that Ardren says would have glowed brightly even in the dark of night.

As she noted, the road was as much an engineering marvel as the monumental pyramids the Maya erected across southern Mexico, Guatemala, northern Belize and western Honduras. Although built over undulating terrain, the road was flat, with the uneven ground filled in with huge limestone boulders, and the surface coated with bright, white plaster. Essentially the same formula the Romans used for concrete in the third century B.C., the plaster was made by burning limestone and adding lime and water to the mixture.

"It would have been a beacon through the dense green of cornfields and fruit trees," Ardren said. "All the jungle we see today wasn't there in the past because the Maya cleared these areas. They needed wood to build their homes. And now that we know the area was densely occupied, we know they needed a lot of wood. Because they also needed it to burn limestone''--and build the longest road in the Maya world 13 centuries ago.

Author: Maya Bell | Source: University of Miami [February 24, 2020]

TANN

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1 comment :

  1. What percentage of the people who actually constructed the road were female? Any news on that yet?

    ReplyDelete


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