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February-May 2003Interactive Dig at Waka'
The wife of Waka' king K'inich Balam was an ix kolomte, empress or female war lord. Her stela celebrates the accession of Yich' aak K'ak'--possibly her brother--in A.D. 682.

All photos courtesy of the Proyecto Arqueológico Waka'. Click on images for larger versions.

Interactive Digs

by David Freidel

A Puzzle in the Petén

Greetings from Waka', a Maya site in northern Guatemala, where we'll be working for the next three months. Our joint American-Guatemalan investigation, the Proyecto Arqueológico Waka', will explore the site's role in the struggle for domination between the Maya superpowers Tikal, to the east, and Calakmul, to the northeast.

We know the site was called Waka' from a glyphic text ascribed to king K'inich Balam, a name that can be translated as Sun Faced Jaguar. K'inich Balam, who ruled from the late seventh to the early eighth centuries, was married to a powerful royal princess from Calakmul, capital of the royal dynasty of Kan, the snake people. The marriage of the princess, Lady T'abi, forged a military alliance between the Kan lord, Yuknom Cheen the Great, and K'inich Balam. She was called "war lord," the highest title in ancient Maya royal texts. Waka' was strategic to the great king of Calakmul because Yuknom Cheen was trying to gather many Maya kingdoms into a larger state. After Yuknom Cheen died, his successor--probably the brother of Lady T'abi--was defeated and likely sacrificed by the king of Tikal around A.D. 732. A decade later, the successor of K'inich Balam met a similar fate at the hands of a Tikal king.

Before these events, Waka', located on what could have been an east-west route for the cacao bean and cotton textile trade, seems to have been a vassal to Tikal for several centuries. How then did K'inich Balam become subservient to Calakmul, the enemy of Tikal? Maybe Yuknom Cheen made him an offer he couldn't refuse: marry my daughter and be a great noble in my alliance, or die a miserable death as a sacrifice. It seems likely that when Tikal finally defeated Waka', they wrecked it in revenge for K'inich Balam's betrayal.

As archaeologists, we want to know what really took place at Waka'. Before the dig, we need to map all the buildings in their current ruined state and the site's surface contours and inventory damage done by looters digging holes in the buildings and the carved stone monuments shattered by ancient enemies and chopped up to be sold by modern plunderers. Then we'll excavate various areas--the royal palaces, the temple precinct, and homes of nobles and ordinary people--to find out what happened at Waka'. Join us as we look for evidence of historical events known from glyphic texts from Tikal and Waka'.

Field Notes

Beyond the Trenches

Waka' facts

  • The name Waka' means "stood-up [thing] water" in ancient Mayan, perhaps a reference to the reservoir in the center of the site. We might call it "Fort Watertown."
  • No one knows why modern oil prospectors, looters, and indigenous farmers call it El Perú, but that's what the site is called on current maps.
  • Waka' was inhabited as early as 500 B.C., but reached its peak between A.D 400 and 800.
  • The city is a compact area of about one kilometer square on a high escarpment, about 300 feet above the surrounding countryside, with some 672 buildings.

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