Piedras Negras, Guatemala

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Piedras Negras, Guatemala

Piedras Negras, Guatemala, is a Mayan archaeological site located in the northwestern Petén, on the banks of the Usumacinta River. It is the largest archaeological site in the Sierra del Lacandón National Park, which constitutes 202,865 hectares of the Maya Biosphere Reserve. The earliest permanent occupation of Piedras Negras dates to approximately 500 bce. The number of inhabitants grew slowly until a ruling dynasty was established, by about 450 ce. Explosive population growth and building followed, and the city quickly grew to house many thousands of people. Piedras Negras reached its apogee in the mid-eighth century ce, when it was at the heart of a kingdom that vied for regional supremacy with nearby centers including Yaxchilán, Palenque, Tonina, and Pomona.

Most of the architecture visible at Piedras Negras today dates to the seventh and eighth centuries ce. Several large plazas are dominated by numerous masonry pyramid-temples, enormous sweatbaths. The Acropolis, a multitiered complex of palace buildings and pyramids, towers over all. These palaces served as the residence and court of the rulers of Piedras Negras from approximately 600 to 800 ce. In 808 ce the last known ruler of Piedras Negras was killed by his rivals upstream at the dynastic center of Yaxchilán, and the site was largely abandoned by the end of the ninth century ce.

French traveler Ludovic Chambon was the first modern visitor to identify the site in print in 1892, naming it after a nearby logging camp. However, it was the explorer and photographer Teobert Maler who brought the site to the attention of other scholars and a wider public. From 1931 to 1939 the University of Pennsylvania Museum supported an archaeological project at Piedras Negras, directed by Linton Satterthwaite Jr. A member of Satterthwaite's research team, Tatiana Proskouriak-off, used hieroglyphic evidence from Piedras Negras to demonstrate for the first time that inscribed Maya monuments contained historical data. A subsequent archaeological project, directed by Stephen Houston and Héctor Escobedo, ran from 1997 to 2000, and again in 2004. In the twenty-first century the site is being developed for ecotourism.

See alsoMaya, The; Mayan Alphabet and Orthography; Mayan Epigraphy; Mayan Ethnohistory.


Houston, Stephen D., et al. "The Moral Community: Maya Settlement Transformation at Piedras Negras, Guatemala." In The Social Construction of Ancient Cities, edited by Monica L. Smith. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2003.

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. Crónica de los reyes y reinas mayas. Mexico: Planeta, 2002.

Sharer, Robert J. The Ancient Maya, 6th ed. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006.

Weeks, John M, Jane A. Hill, and Charles W. Golden, eds. Piedras Negras Archaeology: 1931–1939. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2005.

                                 Charles Golden

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