stela 5 metropolitan museum of art
altar 4 west froup teoberto maler
stela 7 teoberto maler
PIEDRAS NEGRAS-Peten, Guatemala
Piedras Negras, “Black Stones”, is an important Maya archaeological zone dating back to the Preclassic (1000 BCE-250 CE). It is located along the Usumacinta River and is placed on a high embankment which commanded a strategic view of the river, and controlled the trade flowing in both directions. The site is within a dense tropical forest which is a parcel of the Sierra del Lacadon National Park. The original name for the site has been deciphered as Yo’kib “Entrance”. It lies 24 miles/40 kms downstream from the great city/state of Yaxchilan now in Chiapas, Mexico. The Usumacinta River forms the boundary between Guatemala and Mexico.
The population reached its peak in the Late Classic (600-900 CE) and has been estimated at 2,500 inhabitants, and controlled an area containing some 50,000 people. Most of the structures at the site date to this era. The core area is comprised of three main groups of complexes situated around central plazas. There are two ball courts within the site. Numerous carved stelae and altars were found throughout the site. Unfortunately, many of the circular altars have been allowed to erode in the unforgiving tropical environment with the loss of valuable historical information.
Piedras Negras is most easily accessible by boat down the Usumacinta River from the border town of Frontera Corozal in Mexico. This is an hours long trip that passes through some beautiful scenery. The rapids are well-handled by the experienced boatmen. Frontera Corozal is reached by the main highway, Highway 307, southeast from Palenque. This area of Mexico is a bit remote. Check security conditions before leaving either Palenque or San Cristobal de las Casas to reach Frontera Corozal. Make sure you take your passport as Piedras Negras is in Guatemala, and you must first check in at the military checkpoint a bit further downstream before entering the site.
An overland route from the Mexican town of Tenosique is an alternative for the adventurous. This gravel/dirt road eventually leads to the border community of Corregidora Ortiz, and may require a four-wheel drive vehicle. From there it is a 5-6 hour hike through the jungle to the ruins. There are no camp facilities available at the ruins. This route is best used during the dry season, March-May. Have fun.
HOURS: Guided tours only
ENTRANCE FEE: Included in the tour fee
GUIDES: Can be obtained in Frontera Corazal
SERVICES: Bathrooms only-bring water and snacks
ON-SITE MUSEUM: No
ACCOMODATIONS: Food and lodging can be found in Frontera Corozal
GPS: 17d 10’ 0” N, 91d 15’45” W
MISC: Bring your passport
HISTORY AND EXPLORATION
Piedras Negras was an important regional city/state during the entire Classic Period. The site shows early signs of settlement from the Middle Preclassic (800-300 BCE). It reached its apogee in influence and architecture in the Late Classic (600-900 CE). By the beginning of the 9th century it began a rapid decline and eventual abandonment.
Piedras Negras was the second largest site in the Usumacinta River Basin after Yaxchilan with whom at times it was allied with, and at other times in conflict with for control of the important river trade route. The history of these relations and conflicts with the surrounding sites are recorded on the numerous stelae and panels found within the site. One interesting inscription recently discovered mentions an otherwise unknown/missing king of the Yaxchilan dynasty, and names him as Yopaat Bahlam who reigned c.747 CE.
Iconography on some of the stelae and panels display Teotihuacan features, and most likely indicate some sort of Central Mexican influence at the site. Many of the stelae at the site display an innovative technique featuring the king or a palace scene depicted within a niche giving the characters a more pronounced appearance. There is a long recorded dynastic succession that began around 297 CE with Ruler Kan Ahk I, and terminates with King Kin’ich Yat Ahk II in 808 CE. Some of the king’s reigns are described below.
Altar 1, commissioned by K’inich Yo’nal Ahk II in 188.8.131.52.0 8 Ahaw 8 Wo- March 16, 692 CE, commemorates the founder of the site, Ruler Kan Ahk I, in 297 CE.
Ruler C, who reigned 514-553 CE, is shown on Panel 12 and Stelae 29 (539 CE) and 30 (534 CE). Panel 12 depicts a throne room scene with three vassal Lords kneeling before him. They have been identified as being from Yaxchilan, Santa Elana and a site identified by David Stuart as Lakamtuun. They are shown with their hands tied, a visual representation to show their subservience to Ruler C.
There is a break in the historical record after this king that may have been caused by the defeat of Piedras Negras by Pomona around 560 CE.
K’inich Yo’nal Ahk I ruled 603-639 CE. His accession is noted on Stela 25, and is known to have defeated Palenque in 628 CE, capturing a Palenque Lord named Ch’ok Balum and a lord from Sak Tz'i' named K'ab Chan Te'. At this point Piedras Negras may have been aligned with, or subordinate to, the great city/state of Calakmul whose arch-enemy was also Palenque. He was succeeded by his son, Itzam Kan Ahk.
Itzam Kan Ahk (ruled 639-686 CE) is best known for the creation of the stunning Panel 2 which shows him standing before vassal lords from Yaxchilan, Bonampak, and Lacanha performing a “Helmet Grasping” ritual. (see end of text for image)
K’inich Yat Ahk, who reigned 781-808 CE, is the last known king of Piedras Negras. The beautiful Throne 1 was commissioned by him in 785 CE. He is portrayed on Stela 12 with Lord Parrot Chaak from a nearby site known as La Mar. The text describes a victory over Pomona. He was decisively defeated by K’inich Tatb’u Skull IV, King of Yaxchilan in 808 CE. His beautiful throne was smashed, stelae and monuments defaced, and structures burned. Piedras Negras never recovered from this total defeat, and was completely abandoned by the start of the 10th century.
Piedras Negras was first reported on by the Frenchman Ludovic Chambon in 1889, though the site was known to mahogany loggers operating in the area at least by the early 1880’s. It was visited by Teobert Maler and photographed in the 1890’s. He was followed by Sylvanus Morley and Herbert Spinden in 1914 when the first documentations of the stelae took place. J. Alden Mason and the University of Pennsylvania conducted extensive excavations during the period 1931-37, with Linton Satterthwaite joining him in 1939. Tatiana Proskouriakoff researched the site in the 1960’s, and it was here that she made her significant interpretations of the glyphic texts, and deduced for the first time that many were historical records of the lives of the rulers. She is interred at the top level of temple structure J-26 in Group F overlooking the Usumacinta River. Stephan Houston and Hector Escobedo undertook extensive excavation, stabilization, and restoration of structures from 1997-2004.
In 2021, two masterpieces of Maya art, Throne 1 and Lintel 3 were sent to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, US, for professional restoration work. They are due to be returned in October, 2022.
There are three main groups and several other smaller groups situated around several plazas. The site is oriented along a very general southwest to northeast axis about 35 degrees east of North. There are numerous stelae (carved stone monuments) and large, circular altar stones located throughout the site with beautiful carved scenes and glyphic inscriptions. They are in found in groups related to individual rulers, and located in front of/upon specific structures.
The site is entered from the river up a steep embankment into the South Plaza Group, where the early rulers were centered. At the river bank a large natural limestone outcrop features a rock sculpture having a carved design bearing the site name. The entire area is heavily overgrown in dense tropical rainforest, and the structural groups are reached along winding paths.
The South Group contains two groups centered around the South Plaza and the South Court, with the South Court having the most important structures. Numerous stelae and lintels corresponding to early rulers are located here. On the southwest side of the court are Structures R-3 (31 feet/9.5 meters in height) and R-4 (45 feet/14 meters in height), two pyramidal structures seated atop a shared platform. They each have a central stairway that leads up to a single chamber temple. Excavations on this platform have revealed substructure foundations from the Middle Preclassic. Structures R-9 and R-10 are on the southeast side of the plaza. They are individual pyramidal structures crowned with temples accessed via central stairways. On the northwest plaza side is Structure R-5, a pyramidal structure containing a single temple accessed between twin columns and reaches a height of 42 feet/13 meters from the plaza floor. The northeast side of the plaza contains several structures, including a ball court, Structure R-11a/b, and was most likely an elite residential area.
Behind the South Group and to the northwest is the East Plaza Group. Fronting the plaza are two large pyramids, Structure O-12 and Structure O-13. Structure O-13 is the largest, single structure by volume at the site and resides on the northeast side of the plaza. It rises up several levels with a plaza-facing, central stairway to a height of 51.5 feet/15.8 meters. Entry into a gallery is between 4 or 5 columns. At the rear of the gallery is a two-chambered temple. Several stelae are located in front of this structure and numerous caches of eccentric flints and other objects have been recovered from beneath the temple floor. Structure O-12, with a height of 55.5 feet/17 meters, is located on the southeast side of the plaza. It is a pyramidal structure set on a platform base. A single chamber is entered through two columns.
A 4-chamber steam bath, Structure P-7 is located in the northeast section. Altars 3-5 are situated within the plaza. A monumental stairway of about 130 feet/40 meters in length, and 29.5 feet/ 9.1 meters in height on the southwest side of the plaza leads up to the West Group.
The West Group houses the most important complexes and structures at the site which face onto a grand plaza. A complex known as the Acropolis is located along the entire southwest side of this plaza, and is identified as a civic and residential center. Many of the structures here were roofed with stone vaults.
The Acropolis has three plaza facing structures accessed by their own stairways. The pyramidal structure, StructureJ-4 is on the north side of the complex. It is reached by a central stairway that leads up to a platform terrace that once exhibited several stelae. The pyramid then rises up to a multi-chambered temple reaching a total height of 91 feet/28 meters above the plaza below.
Just to the south of Structure J-4 is a broad central stairway about 98 feet/30 meters in width that leads up about 35 feet/10.7 meters to a range-type structure, Structure J-2. This structure has several entrances between piers that leads into two parallel galleries. This structure could have served as an elaborate, formal entryway into Courtyard 1.
Courtyard 1 is an open square area with multi-chambered palace type structures, Structures J5-7, that ring the courtyard. Structure J-6 is noted for the very finely carved Throne 1, a beautiful example of Maya craftsmanship. This structure was most likely the royal throne room of the last king, K’inich Yat Ahk II. The structure backs onto Courtyard 2 which is at a higher elevation of about 32.6 feet/10 meters. Located here are Structures J9-12, and of a palace type construction. Adjacent to Courtyard 2, and again, about 27 feet/8.2 meters higher, is a group of structures, Structures J18-21 that ring Courtyard 3. Behind this courtyard are several structures including Structure J-23 which is at the highest point of the site. In front of this structure is where the famous archaeologist Tatiana Proskouriakoff is buried. This space offers a magnificent and peaceful view down to the Usumacinta River.
Returning to the West Plaza, Structure J-3 is to the west of Structure J-2. This pyramid compliments pyramid J-4 on the opposite side of J-2. The pyramid, like pyramid J-4 rises to a total height of 91 feet/28 meters. The remains of a small summit stairway suggest the possibility that a temple chamber once existed. Several stelae and a panel are associated with this structure.
Structure N-1 is located on the southwestern end of the plaza adjacent to pyramid J-3. This structure has been described as a monumental, multi-chambered steam bath.
On the northwest side of the plaza is a ball court, Ballcourt K-6a/b of standard design with what appears to be open-ended end zones. Sealing off the north side of the plaza is a pyramidal structure, Structure K-5.
Structure K-5 is a pyramid exhibiting a central stairway. It rises up four tiers to a summit platform that once housed a multichambered temple. A mask is seen today on the east side of the stairway. A number of stelae have been found associated with this structure, and record historical information from the site’s later rulers.
There are other smaller groups of structures and residential areas throughout the site. There is even the rusted carcass of an early tractor that was used to clear the site during the 1930’s excavation project. During this excavation it was reported that one of the round altars slipped off a barge and was lost in the river before it could be removed to a museum. It’s still waiting to be rediscovered.
updated may 2022
stela 12 1901 maler/peabody harvard
stela 14 teoberto maler
west group site plan latin american studies
panel 6 rafael gomez
site map wells/terry
stela 36 teoberto maler
structure k-5 latin american studies
altar 3 1901 teoberto maler
panel 15 fernando franacilci
panel 4 luis adrian rojas y.
throne 1 structure J-6 ministry of culture and sports
panel 2 latin american studies
stela 1 1901 teoberto maler
structure P-7 teoberto maler
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stela 25 teoberto maler
structure K-5 latin american studies
stela 1 c.1901 teobert maler
stela 35 teoberto maler
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