The discovery of pristine stone tablets bearing 140 hieroglyphs that record 30 years of Maya history may have solved a mystery that has puzzled archeologists for nearly half a century -- the location of an elusive city long known only as Site Q.
Looted artifacts from Site Q -- an abbreviation of the Spanish "¿que?" or "which?" -- are in museum and private collections around the world, but their source has long been a topic of debate.
The two new tablets, discovered by archeologist Marcello A. Canuto of Yale University, may finally lay the debate to rest, proving that Site Q is an ancient royal village called La Corona in the northwest Peten region of Guatemala.
La Corona has been suspected to be Site Q since its discovery 10 years ago, but the tablets provide what Canuto called "incontrovertible" proof.
"This discovery concludes one of the longest and widest hunts for a Maya city in the history of the discipline," Canuto said.
The tablets indicate La Corona lay on a royal road constructed by the Maya empire ruled by the city of Calakmul in what is now Mexico to ferry troops and supplies north and south. It may have been the site of epic battles in the 7th and 8th centuries between Calakmul and the nearby Maya city of Tikal.
"We are able to really look for the first time at a major strategic overland road in the middle of this dramatic struggle for imperial power," said archeologist David Freidel of Southern Methodist University, who has been excavating at the nearby site of Waka, in El Peru, Guatemala. "We're opening up a new chapter of this history."
The saga of Site Q began more than 40 years ago when the antiquities market was flooded with many exquisitely carved monuments of apparent Maya origin. Because of their similar style and shared subject matter, Australian archeologist Peter Mathews suggested they all came from a previously unknown location, which he called Site Q.
The artifacts were characterized by the presence of a serpent's head, which initially led researchers to believe that Site Q was the home of the Kan, or "Snake," state. Subsequent studies, however, showed that the Snake dynasty was centered in Calakmul and that Site Q was a Kan dependency too weak to have its own symbol.
Ten years ago, Harvard archeologists David Stuart and Ian Graham discovered the ancient city of La Corona in an isolated region about 13 miles north of El Peru-Waka. They concluded it was Site Q, said Stuart, now at the University of Texas, but there were still a few doubters.
"This is one more piece of evidence that it is Site Q," Stuart said. "It's nice to see that confirmation, but we had confirmation before from other sources."
The tablets do, however, "fill in the details of the history of La Corona," he added.
Canuto stumbled across the tablets in a trench dug by looters in La Corona on the last day of his team's expedition in April. He was taking global positioning system measurements to locate more precisely the structures in the city for future excavation.
During one reading in front of a temple known as Structure 5, he hung the GPS device on a branch and entered the trench, which cut into the center of the structure. When his eyes became acclimated, he said, he "noticed two large flat stones." On closer inspection, he "realized they were covered in hieroglyphics."
The tablets are dated Oct. 25, 677, the date of the dedication of the temple in which they were found.
The hieroglyphs are carved in a style virtually identical to that of at least one other Site Q artifact. In fact, Canuto said, both sets of artifacts may have had the same sculptor.
The panels tell the story of two previously known Site Q kings, K'inich Yook and Chak Naahb' Kaan. Among other things, the panel tells how K'inich Yook was forced to remove his seat of government from La Corona to Calakmul about 50 miles northeast, apparently under pressure from the forces of Tikal.
With help from Calakmul, however, he was able to beat back the Tikal army and retake his city.
The tablets have been transported to Guatemala City for their safety, and the announcement of their find was delayed until this month to allow the team time to arrange protection for the site.
La Corona is in the Laguna del Tigre National Park, which has been widely burned by illegal developers and farmers to create farmland.
There is now some military presence at the site, as well as a contingent of forest management personnel, Freidel said.
But, he added, "it is very hard to send people out into very isolated places when there are armed thugs being paid to intimidate and capture people who are challenging their effort to take over the parks."