Archeological Site Naranjo Sa’aal
Permanent Delegation of Guatemala to UNESCO
Department of Peten, Municipality of Melchor de Mencos
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Naranjo Sa’aal was an ancient kingdom of the Mayan culture. It was the second largest regional Mayan kingdom in the Peten region, after Tikal with a wide territorial extension of approximately 150 km². The cultural occupation began approximately in the year 500 B.C. and was abandoned in 850 A.D. It was governed by a solid dynasty of 44 kings who made it the regional capital of a strategic Confederation that included other important Mayan kingdoms located in Belize, Campeche, Mexico, and in the Northeast and Southeast regions of the Petén department in Guatemala. Naranjo Sa’aal exercised a strong domain in what was known as a political, geographical and cultural border, influencing its economy and ritual life. The outstanding conquering Queen Ix Wak Chan Lem, Señora Seis Cielo (Lady Six Sky), who ruled Naranjo Sa’aal between 682 and 741 A.D., was the protagonist of said regional political transcendence.
The cultural landscape of the monumental epicenter of Naranjo Sa’aal stands out for its nine Acropolis erected on natural hills, also known as Triadic Complexes, since they were crowned by three temples or sanctuaries. These Complexes are associated with the practice of a Mayan cult related to the Creator Gods who placed the three stones that sustained the sacred fire of life, as has been verified in archaeological, epigraphic, iconographic and ethnographic studies.
The cult of creation was maintained throughout the thirteen centuries of the city’s history, where important architectural complexes were developed that include two ball courts, a solar astronomical observatory and two Acropolises that contain the palatial residences of the royal family. The architectural ensembles are interconnected by causeways that refer to a cruciform pattern; it has reservoirs and hydraulic canals, as well as large plazas delimited by imposing pyramidal temples decorated with sculptural monuments, where ten enormous masks stand out, representing important deities.
The original Mayan name of the city is Sa’aal, which translates as Corn or Maize Atole (a pre-Hispanic corn flour beverage). This according to the emblem glyph, which was also part of the name of its ancient kings represented in a broad sculptural tradition with more of sixty monuments accompanied by historical and mythological hieroglyphic texts.
Naranjo Sa’aal was the seat of a craft school that produced exquisite, finely decorated polychrome vessels, and that in the seventh to tenth centuries A.D. It developed mythological themes, among which those related to the cult of the mythological Maya maize god stand out.
According to evident designs in architectural stuccoes, public ritual events were held in the city especially focused on deities related to corn, the original plant with which, true men were created, that is, men made of maize or corn. This according to the Mayan cosmovision and the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Mayans discovered in the seventeenth century. Naranjo Sa’aal functioned as a sanctuary city that was the object of regional pilgrimage.
Justification of Outstanding Universal Value
Located in the department of Petén, in Guatemala, Naranjo Sa’aal is the Mayan kingdom best known historically because of its important information embodied in the hieroglyphic texts of its 50 stelae, altars and architectural monuments. This information makes up a historical library that is also relevant to other Mayan kingdoms related to their 44 kings known until today.
Thanks to the texts of Naranjo Sa’aal, it has been possible to learn about historical aspects of other Mayan cities, such as political alliances, wars, births and marriages related to allied kings. The texts also allow us to determine that Naranjo Sa’aal since its foundation in 500 B.C. was initially a regional headquarters where ritual and mythological events related to the cult of the creation of the world were celebrated and commemorated. Later, from the Early Classic period (250 A.D.)
Naranjo Sa’aal became a regional capital established through strategic alliances that integrated other important Mayan kingdoms located in Belize, Campeche (Mexico) and in the Northeast and Southeast regions of the department of Petén in Guatemala. In the final part of the Late Classic period, Naranjo Sa’aal stood out for the expansive militaristic interests of its dynasty, which exercised a strong centralized domain over the Mayan kingdoms located in the eastern region of Belize and the eastern region of Petén. Establishing in this way a political, geographical and cultural border, impacting on the economy and especially on the ritual life of its allied and dependent states.
The outstanding conquering Queen Ix Wak Chan Lem Ahau, Señora Seis Cielo (Lady Six Sky), who intermittently ruled Naranjo Sa’aal between 682 and 741 A.D. was the figure that propitiated this period of militaristic expansion of regional political significance. Another relevant aspect of Naranjo Sa’aal is the unique characteristics of its natural landscape consisting of natural hills, springs and natural caves that allowed its founders to adapt them within an urban cosmological concept that, through the architectural design of buildings and plazas, allowed establishing a sacred city where the event of the creation of the world and men by the creator deities was ritually commemorated, as it has been confirmed today in the Popol Vuh, considered the sacred book of the Mayan.
As evidence of the design of the city as a sacred setting related to the creation myth, the following architectural complexes can be seen today: In the monumental epicenter of Naranjo Sa’aal, its nine Acropolis or Triadic Complexes stand out, erected on natural hills, which are distributed in the North, East, South and West of the city. These Acropolis since the foundation of the city in the Preclassic period 500 B.C. formed a cruciform format within the monumental area. The Triadic Complexes present a pattern that contains three temples or sanctuaries that refer to the three stones of the sacred fire of life that the creator gods used. Likewise, the Triadic Complexes are associated with caves and cavities within the limestone rock that are a representation of the underworld; the Triadic are also related to the deity Witz corresponding to the Sacred Hill of creation.
Other evidence of the design of the city as a sacred setting related to the myth of creation is the design of the Central Plaza that forms an Astronomical Complex, where the daily and annual transit of the sun was commemorated, centered on the Temple of the Hieroglyphic Stairway B-18. The building was built from the Preclassic period with a cruciform format related to the four directions of the world and whose temple included nine rooms, probably related to the nine levels of the underworld. This format of buildings is known by the name of Yax Te (Sacred Tree), a representation of the Ceiba tree, considered by the Mayans as the world axis that connected the sky and the underworld with the earth. Archaeological references, related to the type of ceremonial activities carried out in this building, are found in the narrative of stelae 24 erected by Queen Ix Wak Chan Lem Ahau, Señora Seis Cielo (Lady Six Sky).
In this stelae she made a representation of the Ixmukané moon goddess and the existence in the central precinct of a relief that shows the creator goddess Ixmukané in association with a corn plant from which the sacred drink sprouts. This is the atole from which she created the men of maize or true men, as referred to in the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Mayans. Likewise, also in the iconographic composition, six panels are associated with designs in quadrants that are related to the Tzolkin, a sacred calendar of 260 days that the current Mayans continue to use for divinatory and ceremonial purposes. This iconographic composition related to the creation of the men of maize is clearly in accordance with the name of the city Sa’aal which means Atol of Maize, and which is clearly an indisputable reference to the main commemorative ritual function of the city: the creation of maize men.
All the aforementioned references have been verified in archaeological, epigraphic, iconographic and ethnographic studies. The cult of creation in the city of Naranjo Sa’aal was maintained continuously for thirteen centuries, making the city a center of worship and regional pilgrimage. In the course of its urban, cultural, ritual and pilgrimage center history, the city developed complementary architectural complexes that include two ball game courts, a solar astronomical observatory and two Acropolises that make up the Royal Palace Complexes where the royal family lived.
The architectural ensembles are interconnected by causeways that refer to a cruciform pattern. Likewise, reservoirs and hydraulic channels were built, as well as large plazas delimited by imposing pyramidal temples decorated with sculptural monuments where ten enormous masks stand out representing important deities. The original Mayan name of the capital Sa’aal translates as Corn or Maize Atole according to the emblem glyph that was also part of the name of its ancient kings represented in a wide sculptural tradition with more than sixty monuments accompanied by historical and mythological hieroglyphic texts.
Naranjo Sa’aal was the seat of an artisan school that produced exquisite, finely decorated polychrome vessels. Between the seventh and tenth centuries A.D. this school developed mythological themes, among which those related to the cult of the Maize God stand out. According to evident designs in architectural stuccoes, public ritual events were held in the city, especially focused on deities related to corn, the original plant with which, according to the Mayan worldview, true men were created. Naranjo Sa’aal functioned as a sanctuary city that was the subject of regional pilgrimage.
Criterion (ii): Naranjo Sa’aal is an exceptional example of the tangible manifestation of the Mayan cosmovision embodied in the large-scale urban planning and design of a pre-Hispanic city adapted to the natural landscape. Which has been present since its foundation in 500 B.C. until its abandonment in 850 A.D., and which is manifested in its nine Triadic Complexes, strategically located to create a cosmological map or K’in kunx, which represents the four directions of the universe as a protective element around the urban core. The cult of creation associated with the Triadic Complexes was complemented by their relationship with natural caves, ravines and springs found in the city.
Criterion (iv): In the center of the city of Naranjo Sa’aal, the pyramidal temple of the Hieroglyphic Staircase stands out. The temple contains nine rooms, supported by a base of thirteen terraces, which is accessed by stairs located on its four facades. The design of the building represents a cosmogram, which refers to the four directions of the world, to the central point (axis mundi), and which is a representation of the Ceiba tree (Ceiba pentandra), the sacred tree of the Mayans (Yax Te).
In the central precinct of the temple there is tangible artistic evidence of the theme of creation, evident in a female figure associated with an ear of corn, from which a sacred liquid (atol or atole) sprouts, which, according to the Mayan mythology narrated in the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Maya, can be interpreted as a representation of the Goddess Ixmukané. She was the mother of the maize god, who prepared nine corn drinks with which the men of maize were formed.
As a complement to the cosmological ritual theme, there are also carvings in low relief on the stucco floor, six cruciform panels with quadrants, which according to the narrative of the Popol Vuh are related to the act of divination that the Goddess Ixmukané performed using grains of corn and red beans, prior to the moment of creation. The boards are related to the Tzolkin, or 260-day Mayan ritual calendar.
The name of the city Sa’aal (maize atole) is a clear reference to this creation event that must have included the ritual consumption of the maize or corn atole (a drink based on corn flour), an activity that is still in force among contemporary Mayan populations. Naranjo Sa’aal is destined to be one of the most relevant sacred sites for the conservation and continuity of the spirituality of the Mayan populations of the Guatemala-Belize border region.
Criterion (vi): The architectural, sculptural and pictorial evidence obtained in Naranjo Sa’aal refers to the important ritual function of the city, particularly dedicated to commemorating events of the Mayan cosmovision, especially related to the creation and worship of deities associated with maize (corn). Such archaeological evidence validates the antiquity of the mythological narrative described in the Popol Vuh, indicating that much of the Mayan cosmovision remained intact after the Spanish conquest in the fifteenth century A.D.
In the historical hieroglyphic texts of some of the Naranjo Sa’aal monuments, references are made to kings who acted as deities and to the adaptation of buildings within the cultural landscape. On Stela 24 in A.D. 682, Queen Ix Wak Chan Lem, Señora Seis Cielo (Lady Six Sky) is shown personifying the Goddess Ixmukané, the mother of the Maize God (Hun Hunapu / Hun Nal), and also the creator of the men of maize, for which she stood at dawn on top of the main temple.
Likewise, on Stelae 46 and 48, the kings of Naranjo Sa’aal performed on the courts for the Ball Game, the drama related to the sacrifice and resurrection of the Maize God. In Naranjo Sa’aal, fine ceramic vessels were produced that represent and synthesize part of the Popol Vuh narratives related to creation, the underworld environment known as Xibalbá, and the death and resurrection of the Maize God.
Naranjo Sa’aal is an exceptional pre-Hispanic cultural heritage that validates part of the classic Mayan mythology described in the Popol Vuh, it also testifies and strengthens the identity and values of the spirituality of the living Mayan communities of Guatemala, Belize, Mexico and Honduras that they do not forget their origins and ancestral history. In Guatemala, contemporary Mayan groups still preserve and practice their ancestral religious beliefs. The discovery of the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Mayans in the eighteenth century, and the various publications that have been made on its mythical and historical content, have allowed ethnologists, ethnographers and archaeologists to have an explanatory source to compare and interpret complex aspects of the Mayan cosmovision. Which are present in codices, mural art, and vessels decorated with mythological, historical and ritual scenes, accompanied by hieroglyphic texts that are increasingly deciphered with greater certainty.
Statements of authenticity and/or integrity
Since 2000, the Institute of Anthropology and History (IDAEH) of the Ministry of Culture and Sports has carried out archaeological documentation and conservation work in fourteen temples and palaces in the monumental epicenter. In addition, there is an extensive bibliography of more than fifty publications produced by researchers since 1930. All this research has allowed establishing a consistent cultural, historical and dynastic sequence that makes an adequate correlation between the Mayan hieroglyphic texts present in the sculptures and ceramic vessels, with the construction periods of the buildings that are now valued as iconic examples of Mayan architecture. In the conservation interventions, local materials have been used with artisanal techniques similar to those used by the ancient Mayans, a situation that does not compromise the authenticity of the monuments.
Naranjo Sa’aal, is one of the most important ancient capitals of the Mayan culture, with a cultural occupation starting approximately in 500 B.C. and being abandoned in 850 A.D. The archaeological site, previously identified by local chewing gum collectors, was unveiled in 1905 under the name “Naranjo” by Teobert Maler of the Peabody Museum. Teobert Maler carried out the first excavations at the Hieroglyphic Stairway Temple and revealed the importance of its imposing buildings and sculptures. One of the consequences of Maler’s report was the beginning of the depredation process of the Hieroglyphic Stairway of Naranjo Sa’aal, which is currently scattered in several museums in Europe and the United States.
Later, Sylvanus Morley of the Carnegie Institution made the first schematic plan of a portion of the Naranjo Sa’aal epicenter. His main objective was to show the location of the main stelae and altars that he photographed and of which he made some partial drawings, in order to establish the oldest dates of the city. This fact caught the attention of pre-Hispanic art collectors, thus initiating a stage of theft of the most important sculptural monuments of Naranjo Sa’aal.
In the middle of the twentieth century, the explorer Ian Graham of the Harvard Peabody Museum, made a more formal and complete schematic plan of the monumental epicenter, as well as a photographic catalog of its monuments with detailed drawings. His main objective was to produce material accessible to scholars of Mayan epigraphy. Graham suggested to the Guatemalan authorities of the IDAEH, proceed to rescue and preserve in a safe place the monuments of Naranjo Sa’aal that were still in situ.
As a consequence of the decipherment of the hieroglyphic texts of Naranjo Sa’aal and the identification of its main kings at the end of the twentieth century, there was a wave of looting and looting of the main temples with the aim of robbing the tombs of the kings.
Due to the damage caused by looters in the major buildings of the monumental epicenter, since 2002 the Institute of Anthropology and History of the Ministry of Culture and Sports, with funds from the German Cooperation, began an intense work of documentation and stabilization of the monumental buildings damaged. The main objective of this project was the rescue and enhancement of the site.
As of 2003, through Decree 55-2003, it became an integral part of the Yaxha-Nakum- Naranjo National Park (378 km²), located in the Mayan Biosphere Reserve, which belongs to the UNESCO Man and Biosphere program. This park is administered jointly with the National Council of Protected Areas. Later, in 2005 and 2006, with funds provided by the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies (FAMSI), the documentation of existing damages in the residential periphery began, which at that time was threatened by incursions by timber traffickers.
In 2006, Naranjo Sa’aal was included in the Watch List of the 100 most important archaeological sites in the world to be preserved, by the New York-based organization World Monuments Fund (WMF). Important sites such as Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and China’s Lost City were also included in this list. Through this type of cooperation and partnership, the first funds were earmarked for the emerging conservation of the Hieroglyphic Stairway Temple (B-18).
Likewise, resources were provided for the preparation of a feasibility study that involved making a diagnosis of the conditions of the most important damaged buildings as well as their conservation needs and strategies.
Between 2009 and 2010, the World Monuments Fund, with funds from the Embassy of the United States, completed the restoration work in the sector of the nine precincts of the Temple of the Hieroglyphic Stairway. Following up on what was programmed in the Feasibility Study, the Institute of Anthropology and History, through the Department of Conservation and Rescue of Archaeological and Pre-Hispanic Sites (DECORSIAP, by its acronym in Spanish) proceeded to comply with was established on the study. Nowadays, the currently urban epicenter Naranjo Sa’aal has fourteen restored monumental buildings that are considered iconic to demonstrate the historical value and ritual function that allow Naranjo Sa’aal to obtain the World Heritage status.
As a protection measure to conserve the integrity of the site, there is a permanent maintenance program for the monuments, made up with trained staff in the use of the appropriate techniques for stucco conservation, vegetation management, and the application of patches on affected surfaces. Likewise, there is a large permanent surveillance group that monitors the physical conditions of monuments and tourist infrastructure of the site. This includes the maintenance of plazas and tourist service areas, such as parking, rest areas, restrooms, signs, as well as access to upper parts of buildings.
Unlike other Mayan monumental sites in the department of Petén, which have been restored and enabled for tourist visits, in the case of Naranjo Sa’aal, the following factors are appreciated that favor its integrity:
- The architectural conservation process carried out in fourteen monumental buildings has been consensual and has respected the use of local materials, following craft procedures similar to those used by the pre- Hispanic Mayans.
- There is a permanent maintenance program for the restored monuments, made up of personnel trained in the use of the appropriate techniques for stucco conservation, vegetation management and the application of patches on affected surfaces.
- There is no excess of tourist visits.
- There is no visual pollution caused by inadequate tourist infrastructure. Vernacular architectural designs and materials have been used in tourist facilities such as restrooms, rest areas, and parking.
- There is a large permanent vigilance group that monitors the physical conditions of the site, and maintains plazas and tourist service areas.
Comparison with other similar properties
The kingdom Naranjo Sa’aal stands out within the northeastern region of Petén which exercised a specific domain between the Holmul and Mopan Rivers basins. It was the second largest Mayan regional kingdom in Petén, after Tikal, with a wide territorial extension of approximately 150 km², although its regional political influence encompassed no less than 2,800 km² that include places like Holmul, Yaxha, Dos Pilas, Ucanal, Sacul (in Peten), as well as Caracol, Xunantunich, Buena Vista, El Pilar (in Belize) and Calakmul and Coba (in Campeche and Quintana Roo, Mexico).
The city of Naranjo Sa’aal, whose Mayan name identified in its emblem glyph means maize atole, is a perfect example of the function that the city had with the commemoration of myths and rites related to the origin of the men of maize, as narrated in the Popol Vuh. The city is characterized by having a large-scale urban planning with a layout based on the Mayan cosmovision, integrated into its natural environment that refers to a sacred topography. The investigations carried out on the site since the year 2000 have made it possible to obtain archaeological cultural evidence in the fields of architecture, sculpture, epigraphy and iconography, among others, which refer to and validate mythological events related to creation, also narrated in the Popol Vuh.
This situation constitutes a unique and exceptional example in which the content and meaning of a Mayan intangible cultural heritage is represented and demonstrated at the archaeological level in a remarkable way in a site corresponding to a category of tangible cultural heritage. Naranjo Sa’aal stands out for its urban planning in its cosmovision, it managed to integrate in a remarkable way the adaptation of its nine Triadic Complexes to the natural landscape, creating a unique strategic special distribution, that refer to the practice of a cult related to the creator gods, who placed the three stones that sustained the fire of life, which refers to a cosmological map, or K’in Kunx, which represents the four directions of the world.
In the northeast of the Petén, other sites are known that erected triadic complexes, although without developing a strategic program based on a cosmological map. The archaeological sites of Yaxhá, Uaxactún and Tikal for example, came to build a single triadic complex near their astronomical complexes because in their religious manifestations the concept of the triadic set was not relevant.
In Naranjo Sa’aal the level of roots and political stability throughout thirteen centuries demonstrates in its nine Triadic Complexes a continuity and development of religious worship based on mythological and ritual activities related to creation and the underworld, which resulted in a sanctuary city that must have been a center of pilgrimage that carried all the economic and political activities that are associated with them. The number of Triadic Complexes that Naranjo Sa’aal erected, demonstrates the importance of its cult of creation, which contrast with Tikal that developed its own ceremonial manifestations embodied in its twin pyramidal complexes. The position of the radial temple of the Hieroglyphic Stairway (B-18) within the cosmogonic map that represents the city of Naranjo Sa’aal, expresses the four directions of the world and functioned as the center or meeting point between the sun and the earth, that refers to the axis mundi, as well as the sacred tree, the Ceiba or Yax Te. Such relevance caused the rulers to place the Hieroglyphic Stairway, which in return led to a possible model that was later emulated in other Mayan sites.
Based on historical texts present in the sculptural pictorial tradition Naranjo Sa’aal, the existence of a sequence of 44 kings belonging to a single dynasty faithful to the same socio-political and religious concept has been established, which contributed to converting it into a sacred regional capital. In contrast, in the case of Tikal, its historical political rival, its inscriptions record the lives of at least 33 rulers divided in two dynasties.