REPORT: The Lost City of Tzendales
These days it might seem easy to dismiss the idea of “lost cities” as a thing of the past, or as a romanticized notion from a by-gone era in Maya archaeology and exploration. After all, most significant sites are pretty well-known by now, even if not fully explored and mapped by archaeologists. But a few unknown places and remains are still “out there” awaiting discovery, as this year’s announcement about the site of Chactun dramatically demonstrates.
Another intriguing case involves a Maya ruin called Tzendales, located somewhere in the remote forests of the Selva Lacandona of Chiapas, Mexico. As far as I’m aware no one knows its exact location, yet the site was visited in 1905 by the Harvard anthropologist Alfred Tozzer when he was doing ethnographic fieldwork among the Lacandon Maya of the area. Tozzer paid a brief visit to the ruins and noted the presence of large buildings, one bearing a sizable roof-comb. Inside a vaulted chamber he came upon a well-preserved panel or stela bearing the portrait of a Maya king. No outsider ever returned to the ruins after Tozzer’s first visit, so at least from the vantage point of archaeological research Tzendales remains a true “lost city.”
An excellent article on the mystery of Tzendales was written a few years ago by the Mexican author Carlos Tello Díaz. I recall meeting Carlos when he stopped by our offices at the Peabody Museum at Harvard at the time he was researching in the archives and looking over Tozzer’s original field notes. We chatted about the remarkable case of Tzendales, and our mutual amazement that how no one yet knew its location even a century after Tozzer’s visit. Carlos ended up going to the Chiapas rain forest in 2000 and found the abandoned lumber camp where Tozzer stayed before and after his foray to the ruins. But still Tzendales itself remained elusive in the surrounding jungle.
The Tzendales stela. This drawing was published by Herbert Spinden in his 1913 A Study of Maya Art, based on Tozzer’s original field sketches.
What of the stela? Thanks to the accuracy of Tozzer’s old sketch we can make out a good deal about its inscription. The text first runs down the long vertical column then up to the two glyphs above the headdress. It all begins with the Calendar Round date 7 Imix 13 Zip and later on cites the period ending 8 Ahau 8 Uo (126.96.36.199.0). A Distance number of 16.19 bridges the two dates, giving us a firm anchor for both in the Long Count:
9.12.19. 1. 1 7 Imix 14 Zip 16.19 9.13. 0. 0. 0 8 Ahau 8 Uo
The first episode refers to the dedication or ritual refurbishment of a tomb for a local ruler named K’ahk’ Witz’(?) K’awiil (a name that is very similar to that of Ruler 12 of Copan, by the way). The portrait is probably of this same local ruler, or just perhaps of the living king who oversaw the dedicatory ceremonies for his deceased ancestor. An emblem glyph (court title) in the thirteenth block is intriguing but unrecognizable.
Roughly translated, the text reads:
“At the day’s darkening, on Seven Imix (G3, F) the thirteenth of Chakat,
the fire enters into the eht(?) naah, which is the name of his burial (at?) Juuntz’i’nal,
of the k’atun lord K’ahk’ Witz’ K’awiil, the ? Lord.
It is nineteen and sixteen-score days before
Eight Ajaw the eighth of Ik’at, (when) the thirteenth k’atun will occur,
that it happens.”
No one can say for sure if the Tzendales stela or panel even still exists; it’s just possible that it still lies in the deep forest where Tozzer left it over a century ago.