Join in saving the Maya heritage

3D scan image of Holmul Frieze by A. Tokovinine

Image from 3D scan data by Alexandre Tokovinine, Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Peabody Museum at Harvard University

December 16, 2015

Dear Friends,

It has been a great year and we are extremely proud of what Maya Archaeology Initiative, together with our partners, has accomplished in 2015. On behalf of the MAI team we want to thank you for your support, share with you our successes, and ask that you consider a another contribution to pave the way for our work in 2016.

Here are some of the highlights of 2015:

  • Completed a second season of conservation in the Holmul Frieze and associated substructures.
  • Secured access to Holmul frieze which is now tourism-ready.
  • Conserved recently excavated ceramic vases from Holmul in preparation  for exhibits in Guatemala and aborad.
  • Began conservation of objects from Cival housed in the National Museum in Guatemala City.
  • Mapped new sites around Holmul and Cival subverting prior notions that underestimated early Maya settlement organization.
  • Partnered with the National Geographic Society to support  the park rangers at El Mirador-Rio Azul Park with new uniforms.
  • Maintained a team of 8 park rangers at Holmul and Cival, which are among the richest troves of Maya history and endangered wildlife.

In the year ahead we are planning an even more aggressive schedule of projects, all aimed at preservation of Maya culture, conservation of our precious rainforest biosphere, and educational programs to support opportunities for future generations in Guatemala.

Will you help us? Donations to MAI are fully tax-decuctible. Any amount is welcome, and it is easy: just visit the store and donation area on our website at or mail a check to

Maya Archaeology Initiative
2977 Ygnacio Valley Road
Walnut Creek, CA 94598

You will receive a thank you letter and receipt for tax purposes.


Thank you and we look forward to another great year!

Best Wishes,

Francisco & Clay



3D model of Building A, Group II, Holmul

Virtual model based on excavation profiles and plans relating to Building A’s Palace structure phase (ca. 558-593 CE, lower structure) and Frieze structure phase ( ca. 593 CE) upper structure) with underlying associated tomb believed to be Tzhab Chaan Yopaat’s (ca. 593 CE) who is depicted in the central section of the frieze. A later phase (the final phase) covering this edifice is not shown. Created in SketchUp program by Francisco Estrada-Belli. Copyright Holmul Archaeological Project. You may see a high-resolution model of the Frieze from 3D scan data here

Building A, Group II, Holmul
by franciscoeb
on Sketchfab

A virtual reality model of the Holmul Frieze

3D scan data and model by A. Tokovinine, Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.

Building A-sub, Group II, Holmul
by Alexandre Tokovinine
on Sketchfab

Upper frieze of Building A of Group II, Holmul, discovered in 2013 by the Holmul Archaeological Project for more info see here
to help protect it with a donation click here

Oldest known image of Chahk found in the Holmul region


Other finds from Holmul 2013 unveiled

New maginificent find at Holmul


Archaeologist Any Shetler during the discovery of the frieze

GUATEMALA CITY— A Maya pyramid beautifully decorated with a rare polychrome- painted stucco frieze was unearthed in July 2013 at the site of Holmul, a Classic Maya city in northeastern Peten region of Guatemala.  The find came as archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli’s team excavated in a tunnel left open by looters.  The stucco relief stands along the exterior of a multi-roomed rectangular building, measuring 8m in length and 2m in height. Much of the building still remains encased under the rubble of a later 20m-high structure. The carving is painted in red, with details in blue, green and yellow.

“This is a unique find. It is a beautiful work of art and it tells us so much about the function and meaning of the building, which was what we were looking for,” says Estrada-Belli. The carving depicts human figures in a mythological setting, suggesting these may be deified rulers.  The team had hoped to find clues to the function of this building, since the unearthing of an undisturbed tomb last year.  The burial contained an individual accompanied by 28 ceramic vessels and a wooden funerary mask.


An inscription below the figures tells us that this edifice was commissioned by the ruler of Naranjo, a powerful kingdom to the south of Holmul. In the dedication, king “Ajwosaj Chan K’inich” claims to have restored the local ruling line and patron deities. The images and glyphic text on the frieze also provide information about political actors in the Maya Lowlands well beyond this small kingdom.   “One of the glyphs describes Ajwosaj as ‘vassal of the Kanul king,’ suggesting a much wider network of influences was being felt at Holmul. When this building was erected, Kanul kings were already on their way to controlling much of the lowlands, except Tikal of course,” added Estrada-Belli.


The text places the building in the decade of the 590s, according to Alex Tokovinine, a Harvard University Maya epigrapher associated with the project. who has deciphered the text. “Ajwosaj was one of the greatest rulers of Naranjo. The new inscription provides the first glimpse of the remarkable extent of Ajwosaj’s political and religious authority. It also reveals how a new order was literally imprinted on a broader landscape of local gods and ancestors,” says Tokovinine.


During the Early Classic period (A.D. 300-550) the Tikal kings had established new dynasties and far-reaching alliances with kingdoms throughout the Maya Lowlands, perhaps thanks to a connection with Mesoamerica’s greatest state, Teotihuacan.  Tikal suffered a defeat in the year 562 by the Kanul “Snake” kingdom, which, for the following 180 years, would come to dominate most other Lowland kingdoms.  An inscription at Naranjo indicates that Kanul king K’altuun Hix had overseen the accession of Ajwosaj, as early as the year 545.


The relief depicts three human figures wearing elaborate bird headdresses and jade jewels seated cross-legged over the head of a mountain spirit known as a witz (“mountain”). A cartouche on the headdress contains glyphs identifying each individual by name. The central figure’s name is the only readable one: Och Chan Yopaat, meaning “The Storm God enters the sky.” Two feathered serpents emerge from the mountain spirit below the main character and form an arch with their bodies. Under each of them is a seated figure of an aged god holding a sign that reads “First tamale.” In front of the serpents’ mouths are the two additional human figures, also seated on mountain spirit heads.


Name Glyph of Ajwosaj (Foto: F. Estrada-Belli)

Name Glyph of Ajwosaj (Foto: F. Estrada-Belli)

A band of about 30 incised glyphs adorns the bottom of the frieze. The legible parts mention K’inich Tajal Chaak, a local ruler, a series of predecessors, his parents and his grandfather, Naranjo’s king Ajwosaj, noting his (Tajal’s) subordination to the Kaan Kingdom. This statement opens a pandora’s box on the relationships of kingdoms around Tikal at a time in which Tikal had just suffered a defeat from Kaan.


The tomb associated with the building was found in a cavity dug into the stairway leading up to the building.  The skeleton of an adult male and his ceramic offering were preserved by large limestone slabs that kept the tomb free of debris.  His incisor and canine teeth has been drilled and filled with jade beads.  The decayed remains of a wooden mask, perhaps originally worn as a pectoral, were found on his chest.  With it were two miniature flower-shaped ear spools.


The number of vessels in the tomb as well as their iconography bore clear references to the nine lords of the underworld as well as to the aged sun god of the underworld.  There were two sets of nine polychrome-painted bowls decorated with the water lily motif, each made by a different artist.  There were also nine red-painted plates and one spouted tripod plate decorated with the image of the god of the underworld emerging from a shell.  Because of the unusually high number of vessels and the jade dental decorations, Estrada-Belli believes this individual may have been a member of the ruling class at Holmul, possibly even one of the rulers depicted in the frieze; he had planned this year’s excavation to search for more clues about the man and the period in which he had lived.

holmul_build_A  The team hopes to return to the area in 2014 to continue exploring and to preserve this building. This year’s investigation was endorsed by Guatemala’s Ministry of Culture with funding from Guatemala’s PACUNAM foundation, the US Department of the Interior, Global Heritage Fund and the U.S.-based Alphawood Foundation with additional support from Boston University, National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants Program, and private donors.