On May 21, 697, according to Mayan hieroglyphs, the city of Bahlam Jol “burned for the second time.”
But, like much of Mayan writing and history, the record remained mysterious to modern Maya researchers. Where was Bahlam Jol? What exactly were the Mayans describing with the hieroglyph that is translated as “burn”? There are many kinds of burning.
A team of researchers that began their work with a study of lake sediments in Guatemala has found that Bahlam Jol is the Mayan name of ruins that archaeologists call Witzna in northern Guatemala, and they concluded that the fire was devastating.
They reported Monday in the journal Nature Human Behaviour that the burning of Bahlam Jol was an example of total war, including ordinary city residents as targets, and not the more rule-bound conflict that focused on taking important prisoners that was thought to be the dominant form of warfare at that time in their history.
“This fire was massive,” said David Wahl, a geographer with the United States Geological Survey and one of the authors. Dr. Wahl, who works to reconstruct the impact of humans on the climate and environment in ancient times, said that a thick layer of charcoal in sediments of a lake near the city indicated the intensity and scale of the conflagration. “It was unlike anything I’ve seen in the 20 years I’ve been doing this.”
Dr. Wahl and his colleagues argue that their findings represent a challenge to the prevailing notion of the nature of Mayan warfare before 800, when more extreme violence accompanied the collapse of what is called Classic Maya civilization.
Other archaeologists praised the research but said that the dominant view of Mayan warfare is more complex and that there are other examples of extreme violence at different periods in Mayan history.
Nonetheless, said David Freidel, a professor of archaeology at Washington University in St. Louis, the new research is “elegant and persuasive” in the way it marries written records to environmental and archaeological evidence. He said that the central finding of the paper is solidly established.
Dr. Freidel, who specializes in Mayan archaeology and was not involved in the new study, said it clearly showed that ordinary people had been targeted in the city. “The burning of Witzna shows that total war existed,” he said.
But he noted that there had been other cases of extreme violence, including massive destruction in Tikal, during a period from 100-250.
Dr. Wahl, who has done work on the ancient Mayans for about 20 years, said the new research was serendipitous. He had identified a lake in Guatemala near the Witzna site that looked like a good research target.
It was. In lakes, he said, the rate of sediment accumulation varies greatly, so that one centimeter (about four-tenths of an inch) of a drilled lake bed core could represent the passage of anywhere from a decade to several centuries. But in the lake near Witzna, sediment had been deposited so rapidly that a centimeter represented less than a decade, perhaps close to one year. That meant it was an extraordinarily detailed record that could be tied closely to dates and records.
In the cores he drilled, he found a layer of charcoal three centimeters thick (about 1.2 inches), with chunks of charcoal almost a half inch on a side. Another author on the paper, Lysanna Anderson, a specialist in evidence of ancient fires, studied the layer. They concluded that it indicated a massive fire and had been deposited very quickly — all at once it seemed, although some might have been from runoff a season after the burning.
In addition, other chemical indications of human activity dropped off rapidly right after the event, he said, indicating that the human population itself had suddenly decreased. The fire had happened, they judged, between 690 and 700.
The next piece of evidence came from Francisco Estrada-Belli, an archaeologist at Tulane University, and another author, who was excavating Witzna. Along with widespread destruction of buildings, he found a stone column, or stela, that identified the city with the name the Mayans gave it, Bahlam Jol.
Alexandre Tokovinine, the fourth author, a specialist in Mayan writing at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, searched records of Mayan texts for the city name, and found that in the nearby city of Naranjo, a stone column, specified when the city had burned for the second time.
The word or hieroglyph for “burned” the authors write is “puluuy,” which they now think means the kind of conflagration that happened at Bahlam Jol.
As far as he knows, Dr. Wahl said, using environmental data to tie together evidence from the written record and excavation is unique in Mayan studies.
If it is the first, it probably won’t be the last. Of the group’s multidisciplinary approach, Dr. Freidel said, “This is how we should do it.”