Stela! Steeeeeeeela! (Can’t you hear me yella?)
Well, okay, Maya stelae are possibly less immediately dramatic than either Tennessee Williams or the Simpsons. And sure, it’s a different word with a different pronunciation. But the stone monuments in our Meso-American gallery might be my favorite part of walking into the archives in the morning. There’s something about Stela 14 from Piedras Negras that takes my breath away.
Piedras Negras is a Maya site in Guatemala particularly noted for the beautifully sculpted stelae and hieroglyphic inscriptions it has yielded. The site, located in the northwestern corner of the Department of Petén, Guatemala, along the Usumacinta River, which forms in this area the border between Guatemala and Mexico, was discovered in 1894 by a Mexican lumber man, and brought to the attention of Teobert Maler, a pioneer archaeologist and explorer of the Ancient Maya. Maler visited the site in 1895 and 1899 under the auspices of the Peabody Museum of Harvard University, but conducted no excavations.
Between 1931 and 1939 the University of Pennsylvania Museum conducted extensive excavations at this site. J. Alden Mason, Curator of the American Section, went to Guatemala in 1930 to select the site and obtain an excavation permit that would allow for the removal on loan to the Museum of half of the monumental sculpture uncovered by the expedition. Mason’s visit also served to make renewed arrangements with Robert J. Burkitt, who was also excavating in Guatemala for the Museum at this time. In December of the same year Mason visited the site again as a member of the Museum’s aerial survey of Petén and Yucatan.
The work of the first two seasons concentrated heavily on building a road to the site through the jungle and the removal of a number of monumental stone stelae and other sculpture, half of which were sent to Guatemala City and the other half to the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Included among these was Lintel 3, dated ca. 750 AD, still considered to be among the most beautiful specimens of Maya sculpture, and Stela 14, shown above, credited with giving Tatiana Proskouriakoff the inspiration for her decipherment of Maya hieroglyphics. The second season produced a new map of the site but also saw part of the camp catch on fire, resulting in the loss of part of the photographic record.
Under Satterthwaite’s direction, the focus of the excavations shifted from the more glamorous task of bringing carved monuments to the exhibition galleries of the museum to purely archaeological questions, such as uncovering architectural remains, establishing building sequences, and stratigraphy. Satterthwaite concentrated heavily on the architecture of the city, excavating a total of eleven temples and seventeen palaces, as well as two ball courts and a number of sweathouses.
Most of the monuments borrowed from Guatemala were returned to the country of origin in January, 1947, after an extension to the original loan. Only Stela 14 and one leg from Altar 4 remain on display in the Museum’s Mesoamerican Gallery today.
A number of publications have resulted from the findings at Piedras Negras, but Satterthwaite never finished all the reports he intended to produce. So, intrepid scholars and students, make a name for yourselves by diving into our heretofore unpublished Piedras Negras records!