A New Maya Stela from la Milpa, Belize

By Hammond, Norman | Antiquity, June 2001 | Go to article overview

A New Maya Stela from la Milpa, Belize


Hammond, Norman, Antiquity


When J. Eric S. Thompson first explored the site of La Milpa in March 1938, he recorded a line of stelae along the eastern margin of the Great Plaza in front of Structures 1-5 (Hammond 1991; Tourtellot et al. 1993: figure 2). He numbered them from Stela 1 at the north end of the line, progressively southwards to Stela 12, in front of Structure 3. Since then, several further monuments have been found (Stelae 13-18 in the site core, and Stela 19 at the La Milpa East minor centre, 3.5 km out: Tourtellot et al. 2000). It has also been shown that some of those he recorded are both fragmentary and also no longer in their original locations, especially Stelae 1-6, repositioned in front of the largest pyramid, Structure 1, arguably in the 16th century (Hammond & Bobo 1994).

Stela 20 was uncovered in March 2000, after carved fragments had been reported eroding out of a looters' spoil heap in front of Structure 1. The spoil came from a deep trench and tunnel driven east into the heart of the Late Classic pyramid c. 1979, in search of tombs within; the looters had penetrated a two-roomed vaulted building (Structure 199) butted on to the west front of the pyramid, and behind that several prior phases of temple construction.

Four conjoining fragments of Stela 20 were rapidly found close together, but further excavation yielded no more. It seems clear that the fragments were not on the pre-looting surface in 1938, since Thompson would certainly have seen them, only 2 m from Stelae 4 and 5; also, they were in too good a condition to have lain on the surface for more than a millennium. They seem likely to have been discovered by the looters early in their excavations, probably still in one piece until moved.

While the precise position of Stela 20 in relation to Structure 1 will never be known, its location below the upper layer of white limestone and marl looters' spoil suggests that it was found and discarded before their trench started to penetrate the solid construction fill of the pyramid. The small vaulted Structure 199 could have housed Stela 20, although this could not, from the relative dates of building and monument, have been its original locus.

The four fragments together show the upper part (minus the top of the headdress) of a human figure facing to viewer's right (FIGURES 1-2); the front face covers 115x95 cm, and the remains of a few glyphs survive on the right-hand edge of the slab (not shown, and not decipherable). The face has been deliberately pecked away, a not uncommon Classic Maya practice probably intended to release any dangerous power the stela held from having been venerated (although mundane reasons, including internal revolt and invasion, have also been canvassed for such mutilation). The person was presumably a ruler of La Milpa or its suzerain.

[ILLUSTRATIONS OMITTED]

The smashed face is framed by an elaborate headdress in the form of a monstrous rodent mask, behind (and formerly above) which rises a panache of quetzal feathers, supported on a back-rack, the slats of which can be seen below the right forearm. A small human face, broken off just below eye-level and adorned with nosebeads and a flanged earflare, sits in the headdress, facing backwards.

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