They discover a stucco head more than 1,300 years old in Palenque

The stucco head of a young corn god. Photo: Palenque Archaeological Project-INAH

By: Susana D. Zamorano

The finding of the first three-dimensional representation of the corn deity, in the archaeological zone of Palenque, Chiapas, a piece that is more than 1,300 years old, was announced this Tuesday by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH).

The archaeologist Arnoldo González Cruz, who directed the work that discovered the stucco head, pointed out to La Jornada that the importance of this news lies in the fact that it’s about a unique object, because in the Maya area the figure of the corn god has generally appeared only represented in mural painting, in scenes painted on ceramic vessels and plates or also etched on this type of object.

An interdisciplinary team co-directed by González Cruz and the restorer Haydeé Orea Magaña worked during the 2021 season on the “Architectural Conservation and Decorative Finishes on the Palace” project. They were in charge of the site’s architectural conservation, a project financed by the INAH in conjunction with the US Embassy through its State Department Ambassadors’ Fund for Cultural Preservation.

The specialist recalled that when working on some local structures that presented conservation problems, “we were fortunate to find this sculpture, this stucco head,” located inside a receptacle made up of three walls.

During the exploration of the south facade of House B of The Palace, the experts found a pond, inside of which was the stucco head and below it a burnt ritual deposit, “where the Mayas carried out a closing event of what we later confirmed is a pond with a highly sophisticated drainage system,” the archaeologist Carlos Varela Scherrer explained in a video released by the INAH.

According to information from the institute, the nose and semi-open mouth of the divinity emerged from under a layer of loose dirt and, as the exploration progressed, it was found that the sculpture is the axis of a rich offering that was placed on a pond of stucco floor and walls –of almost one meter wide by three meters long, approximately–, to emulate the entry of this god to the underworld, in an aquatic environment.

Inside a semi-square receptacle –made up of three walls– and under a layer of loose earth, the nose and semi-open mouth of the Maya Divinity emerged. Photo: Palenque Archaeological Project-INAH

Graceful characteristics

Archaeologists detail that the stucco head –with a maximum length and width of 45 and 16 centimeters, respectively, and 22 centimeters high– had an east-west orientation, which would symbolize the birth of the corn plant with the first rays of sun.

“The sculpture, which must have been modeled around a limestone support, has graceful characteristics: the chin is sharp, pronounced and split; the lips are thin and project outwards, the lower one slightly downwards, showing the upper incisors. The cheekbones are fine and rounded; the eyes, elongated and slender. From the wide, long, flattened and rectangular forehead, a wide and pronounced nose is born,” added Varela, who together with Wenceslao Urbina Cruz assisted as field chiefs.

The fragments of a tripod plate on which the sculpture was placed are another significant thing, since it “was originally conceived as a severed head,” Such an idea emerges upon contrasting the iconography of the young corn god in other pieces and documents, such as a series of plates of the Late Classic period (600-850 AC), a vessel of the Tikal region, of the Early Classic period (150-600 AC), and representations in the Dresden and Madrid codices, in which this deity or characters linked with it appear with their heads cut off.

The head of the young corn god cabeza was found inside a kind of box, where it remained hidden for around 1, 300 years in a humid environment, so it was found very fragmented and had to undergo a gradual drying process to prevent the piece from further deterioration, as a consequence of the drastic change of environment. When the piece is in suitable condition, we can start its restoration in charge of specialists from the National Coordination of Conservation of Cultural Heritage of the INAH.

“The sculpture was extracted in a block in order to be able to transport it to the workshop without suffering losses. There, it was dried little by little in a humid chamber, so that the mud that covered it would not dry violently. The layers of soil that were on its surface were removed little by little with wooden swabs, lightly moistening the soil with water and ethyl alcohol. Most of the soil was removed in order to expose the now clean stucco surface, and later the treatments will be joined with ceramic adhesive,” González Cruz said in the interview; he added that they expect to finish the restoration in November.

Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque, Chiapas

González Cruz said that: “the discovery of the deposit permits us to start to know how the ancient Mayas of Palenque constantly revived the mythical passage about the birth, the death and the resurrection of the corn deity.”

He reiterated that finding the piece in a pond is very important because it places the deity in an aquatic environment, such as we see it stamped on ceramic plates and vessels, which archaeologically proves that there is a consistency in the iconographic scenes present on these objects.

This head is added to the 1952 findings in Pakal’s tomb by the archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier, as well as the one found in 2018 by Arnoldo González in the same area of the south facade of Casa B in the Palenque Palace.

Due to the ceramic type of the tripod plate that accompanied the head of the “young tonsured corn god” –a description that alludes to the divinity’s haircut, reminiscent of mature corn–, the archaeological context has been dated to the Late Classic period (700-850 AC).

A limestone slab with a small perforation was placed on top of the offering, but not before “sacrificing” the tripod plate, in other words, it was broken almost in half and a portion with one of its supports was placed in the hole of the slab. Then came a semicircular bed of flowerpots and small stone spirits on which the head of the deity rested, which was supported laterally with the same materials, specified the archaeologist, who also discovered the female burial of the so-called Red Queen in 1994, in Palenque, one of the most beautiful archaeological sites in Chiapas.


Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada, Wednesday, June 1, 2022, and Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee

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