Stela! Steeeeeeeela! (Can’t you hear me yella?)

You’re puttin’ me through Hella!

Well, okay, Maya stelae are possibly less immediately dramatic than either Tennessee Williams or the Simpsons. And sure, it’s a different word with a different pronunciation. But the stone monuments in our Meso-American gallery might be my favorite part of walking into the archives in the morning. There’s something about Stela 14 from Piedras Negras that takes my breath away.

Stela 14 in the Meso-American gallery at the Penn Museum. Penn Museum image #160510.

Stela 14 in the Meso-American gallery at the Penn Museum. Penn Museum image #160510.

Piedras Negras is a Maya site in Guatemala particularly noted for the beautifully sculpted stelae and hieroglyphic inscriptions it has yielded. The site, located in the northwestern corner of the Department of Petén, Guatemala, along the Usumacinta River, which forms in this area the border between Guatemala and Mexico, was discovered in 1894 by a Mexican lumber man, and brought to the attention of Teobert Maler, a pioneer archaeologist and explorer of the Ancient Maya. Maler visited the site in 1895 and 1899 under the auspices of the Peabody Museum of Harvard University, but conducted no excavations.

The Acropolis at Piedras Negras.  Pencil and watercolor drawing by Tatiana Proskouriakoff, 1939. Penn Mueum image #176732

A reconstruction of the acropolis at Piedras Negras. Pencil and watercolor drawing by Tatiana Proskouriakoff, 1939. Penn Mueum image #176732

Between 1931 and 1939 the University of Pennsylvania Museum conducted extensive excavations at this site. J. Alden Mason, Curator of the American Section, went to Guatemala in 1930 to select the site and obtain an excavation permit that would allow for the removal on loan to the Museum of half of the monumental sculpture uncovered by the expedition. Mason’s visit also served to make renewed arrangements with Robert J. Burkitt, who was also excavating in Guatemala for the Museum at this time. In December of the same year Mason visited the site again as a member of the Museum’s aerial survey of Petén and Yucatan.

Stela 14 from Piedras Negras, in situ circa 1935. Penn Museum image #15543.

Stela 14 from Piedras Negras, in situ circa 1935. Penn Museum image #15543.

The work of the first two seasons concentrated heavily on building a road to the site through the jungle and the removal of a number of monumental stone stelae and other sculpture, half of which were sent to Guatemala City and the other half to the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Included among these was Lintel 3, dated ca. 750 AD, still considered to be among the most beautiful specimens of Maya sculpture, and Stela 14, shown above, credited with giving Tatiana Proskouriakoff the inspiration for her decipherment of Maya hieroglyphics. The second season produced a new map of the site but also saw part of the camp catch on fire, resulting in the loss of part of the photographic record.

Workers moving Altar 1, Piedras Negras, Guatemala, 1931.  Photograph by Linton Satterthwaite. Penn Museum image #15658.

Workers moving Altar 1, Piedras Negras, Guatemala, 1931. Photograph by Linton Satterthwaite. Penn Museum image #15658.

Under Satterthwaite’s direction, the focus of the excavations shifted from the more glamorous task of bringing carved monuments to the exhibition galleries of the museum to purely archaeological questions, such as uncovering architectural remains, establishing building sequences, and stratigraphy. Satterthwaite concentrated heavily on the architecture of the city, excavating a total of eleven temples and seventeen palaces, as well as two ball courts and a number of sweathouses.

Most of the monuments borrowed from Guatemala were returned to the country of origin in January, 1947, after an extension to the original loan. Only Stela 14 and one leg from Altar 4 remain on display in the Museum’s Mesoamerican Gallery today.

Workmen moving stelae from Piedras Negras into the museum, 1933. Penn Museum image #175936.

Workmen moving stelae from Piedras Negras into the museum, 1933. Penn Museum image #175936.

Moving stelae from Piedras Negras into the museum, outside view, 1933. Penn Museum image #175937.

Moving stelae from Piedras Negras into the museum, outside view, 1933. Penn Museum image #175937.

A number of publications have resulted from the findings at Piedras Negras, but Satterthwaite never finished all the reports he intended to produce. So, intrepid scholars and students, make a name for yourselves by diving into our heretofore unpublished Piedras Negras records!

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  • http://www.travelwitholga.com Olga Stavrakis

    That is the way of the museum. I had not realized that Satterthwaite was also guilty of not writing up the previous material. Seems like Penn has never been good about the ethics of reporting the work done. Certainly Tikal was left with no reports of any consquence except a couple of poorly written issues.

    They also republished the Settlement Survey (or so they said) leaving out the main part of the dissertation and only including the maps without the argument. Typical nonesense. It was also done without my permission (I, as the widow of Dennis E. Puleston hold the copyright to his dissertation) and without even the courtesy of informing me that they were doing it. Plus, the preface, attributed to Denny, was slightly altered without any notes and still published under his name.

    The dissertation is available in full on his website http://www.puleston.org and the rest of his publications will be soon. The site is still in the design faze so disregard the colors etc. If you have things to contribute, reminiscences or unpublished comments or papers, please sent them on to us.

    I am working on the Tikal Memoir so anyone who has information to contribute is most welcome.
    Thanks, Olga