5 Feet Tall Maya Stucco Masks Discovered in Walls of Ancient Pyramid

Posted on July 20, 2012

A team of archaeologists, led by Brown University's Stephen Houston, has uncovered a pyramid, which is part of the Maya archaeological site at El Zotz, Guatemala. The ornately decorated structure is topped by a temple covered in a series of large five-feet tall masks depicting different phases of the sun. The team began uncovering the temple, called the Temple of the Night Sun, in 2009. Dating to about 350 to 400 A.D., the temple sits just behind the previously discovered royal tomb, atop the Diablo Pyramid. The researchers say the structure was likely built after the tomb to venerate the leader buried there.

Houston says, "The Diablo Pyramid is one of the most ambitiously decorated buildings in ancient America. The stuccos provide unprecedented insight into how the Maya conceived of the heavens, how they thought of the sun, and how the sun itself would have been grafted onto the identity of kings and the dynasties that would follow them."

Houston says the team is still in the beginning stages of the temple's excavation, with more than 70% still to be uncovered. The Maya later built additional levels on top of the original structure, which helped preserve the stuccos, but also makes excavation more difficult. While excavating the tomb in 2009, Houston and his team discovered a small portion of the carvings peeking out from looter's tunnels that had been dug several decades earlier. The archaeologists have only been able to clear narrow tunnels around the building to get a look at the masks and other carvings.

The stucco masks on the walls of the temple appear to depict several celestial beings, including the sun, which the Maya thought of as a god (K'inich Ajaw). Standing 5 feet tall, several of the masks illustrate different phases of the sun as it moves from east to west in the sky over the course of the day. One mask displays fish-like characteristics, a representation of the rising sun on the horizon, which the Maya associated with the Caribbean to the east.

The researchers say the Maya thought the masks were alive. Take a look: