American Section Research at the Penn Museum

Calakmul was the largest city of Classic Maya civilization and one of the dominant powers in the complex geopolitics of this culture period.


Calakmul lies in a 7,230-km2 biosphere reserve in the state of Campeche, in south-eastern Mexico.


Calakmul was inhabited for about 1,500 years, but the hieroglyphic inscriptions are largely a feature of the “Classic period" that extended from 300 to 900 CE.


  • Ramón Carrasco Vargas, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia
  • Simon Martin, Penn Museum

Project Overview

The decipherment of Maya hieroglyphs—which began in the 1950s but was only properly realized in the 1990s—has decisively changed our understanding of a Native American civilization. The great ruins distributed over parts of Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador and the whole of Guatemala and Belize, have had many interpretations thrust upon them by outsiders, both diligent scholars and irredeemable fantasists. Today, however, we are presented with the rare privilege of reading a culture in its own words.

What is emerging is a new historical archaeology in which excavators and epigraphers are forging fresh relationships in the search for a more detailed picture of how ancient Maya society functioned. This is no more apparent than in the field of politics and political organization, where cities long abandoned to the rainforest are regaining their histories and their place in the greater narrative of the ancient New World. A prime example is the site of Calakmul, which now lies in the Mexican state of Campeche in the midst of a 7,230 km2 biosphere reserve. First reported in 1931, its modern name is a Mayan term meaning “two adjacent hills," a reference to the two massive pyramids at its core. The remarkable size of the city—it is now known to cover some 30 km2—and its profusion of monuments immediately signalled its significance, but understanding its one-time role could ultimately only come from connecting it to the inscriptional record.

During the 1990s mounting evidence indicated that a single kingdom, called Kan “Snake," had a disproportionate influence in the ancient Maya world. It was the most frequently mentioned across the region and, more importantly, these references often told of the political subjection it placed over fellow kingdoms. Indeed, it lay at the center of a web of military, diplomatic, and marital relations between individual kings lasting over 130 years. Although Calakmul was first suggested as the capital of the “Snake" polity in the early 1970s, proof of this was very hard to come by. In large measure this was due to the heavily eroded condition of the standing monuments at the site. The tropical environment is a harsh one, and centuries of exposure to heavy rains and the periodic fall of great trees have taken their toll on the weak local limestone. Thus, despite the record number of stelae at the site—some 116 or more—very few are now in legible condition. The looting of the city in the 1960s, when the better-preserved carvings were carved into sections and removed, only made matters worse.

New excavations at the site, of broader scope and longer duration than any conducted before, offered the ideal opportunity to resolve Calakmul’s place in the political landscape. The Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) —the government agency responsible for archaeology in Mexico—began work in 1993, and the epigraphic sub-project was initiated the following year. The latter was designed to study both the standing monuments and newly uncovered texts that, having long been buried, offered better prospects of preservation. The "Snake" kingdom attribution was soon confirmed by fresh finds, and the emphasis could move to other issues. The on-going work at Calakmul seeks to penetrate deeper layers of social and political structure, both for its local significance and as part of wider synthetic history for the ancient Maya.


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