Thrones at Piedras Negras

By: L. S., Jr.

Originally Published in 1937

View PDF

THE seventh Piedras Negras Expedition worked at the ruins of this ancient Maya city from March 22nd to July 4th, 1937. The staff consisted of Linton Satterthwaite, Jr., Field Director, Francis M. Cresson, Jr., assistant archaeologist, Margaret C. Satterthwaite, Assistant, Tatiana Proskouriakoff, architect, and Don Victor M. Pinelo, Guatemalan Government Inspector. In the following article Mr. Satterthwaite discusses the season’s work.

ALMOST everywhere in the Maya country the ancient religious centers called cities were dominated by two general types of buildings-temples and so-called palaces. Temples may be recognized variously, but especially by their frequent placement on great high terraced pyramids. Closely associated with the temple structures are the palaces-buildings which are usually much longer, with more rooms and different ground plans. Above all they are often placed around small courts with easy access from one to another. The use of these buildings is very important to Maya archaeology, since they are numerous and apparently universal in Central America. The most common guess makes them the homes of the priests-hence the name “palace”-but there has been no certain evidence. A possible clue is the presence in these buildings of masonry benches of various forms at many sites. One scholar sees these as beds, and so confirms the residential hypothesis.

Drawn of Structure R-3 restored, showing a stepped pyramid with stairs leading to the top
Figure 1. Structure R-3, partly restored. The walls of the temple are shown as if cut off horizontally near the floor. The solid black thus shows the plan.

About half the energies of the seventh Piedras Negras Expedition were devoted to further excavation in the palaces. There seemed to be a unique chance to learn something of the function of palace benches, and so of the buildings themselves. From Dr. Mason’s famous Lintel 3 we knew that carved stone tables with ornamental back screens were used as thrones; from 1932 digging we knew one of these was in a palace; later we found another, and learned that the legs and back screen could be made of rough stones and mortar instead of being carved from single slabs. In 1936 we found two solid masonry benches with ornamental back screens. On the evidence of Throne 1 and the scene of Lintel 3 the screens surely indicated that solid benches could be made for throne use. The screens formed a link with the table type illustrated in use by the Maya themselves on the lintel. The problem was two-fold. To what extent were the palaces devoted to throne rooms? Was there another type of bench used for something else, which might correspond to the screenless benches at other sites?

View of a stone masonry bench in a crumbling room
Plate VIII –Masonry bench in Palace J-11. One end is partly across an outer doorway through which we are looking. Probably a throne.
Image Number: 37101

The season’s palace work completed or nearly completed excavation of the five units of Court 2 on the Acropolis, and brought a palace in the South Group incompletely into the picture. Using the screen as a throne identifier, six of these ceremonial seats were added to the list. On a seventh the screen had probably been destroyed, making eleven throne rooms in seven palaces. Accordingly one important palace function, in the latest period at least, was to house audience chambers for a considerable number of dignitaries, and to this extent at least they were public buildings, more like courthouses than anything else in our own architecture. They must have served other purposes as well, for four palaces lacked the thrones entirely.

Eating and sleeping are the tests of domestic use. No evidence of cooking fires has occurred in any palace, and it could scarcely have been missed, nor are there nearby buildings which might have been separate kitchens. There remains the question of benches as beds. Only one bench turned up surely without the throne-indicating rear screen. This bench is of the same height and general proportions as the thrones, and is in the same palace as two of them. We therefore believe it should be added to the throne list. Plate VIII shows this bench through the ruins of an outer doorway. As a bed it would be not only hard, but draughty in a country where nights are damp and chilly-one end of the sleeper would be practically outdoors. There were no holes for fastening curtains across the door. The throne identification is important as it is a link with the palace benches of other sites, where the back screen was not used.

The probability that numerous somewhat different palace benches at other sites were thrones is enhanced by the wide variation in detail and in placement of the Piedras Negras series. Only two are exactly alike.

View of a stone throne with a slab leaning against it in a room with stone walls
Plate VIII — A table-type throne, largely destroyed, as found in a room of Structure J-11. Note the large fragment of the table top or seat. It leans against a bench which still supports the rear of the great slab from which it has been broken. To the front are the stumps of two slab legs which supported the front of the seat.
Image Number: 37092

The throne illustrated in Plate VIII, left, shows a new combination of known elements: slab legs and seat but masonry back screen. Most of the broken seat and legs are missing and were certainly not left in the room, a circumstance which proves the throne was intentionally destroyed before the heavy roof collapsed, probably at the time the building was abandoned. Curiously enough the three table thrones, in which the seat is formed by a great stone slab, are the only ones singled out for intentional destruction. Enough pieces of Throne 1, now in the Museum, were left to show that it was elaborately carved with astronomical inscriptions. The missing or largely missing seat-slabs of the other two are the only parts of other known thrones which may have been carved. If they were carved also a reasonable explanation of the selective destruction can be offered. Perhaps tightly organized priestly rule, indicated by the number of thrones, eventually provoked rebellion. In a state of successful revolt what would be more natural than a peasant destruction of inscriptions? Reading and writing were undoubtedly the prized possessions of the upper caste only, the glyphs a symbol and means of power which an astute revolutionary would wish to destroy. The thrones themselves were merely fancy seats. The hieroglyphs carried magic, good or bad in accordance with the point of view.

The officials who sat in these throne rooms may have been priests. In the temples the priest usually functioned as the servant of the Gods, burning incense around the altar, the center of interest. Here he himself was the center of interest, perhaps as a civil or religious administrator. Only two of the thrones are so placed that more than a few persons could gather in a court or plaza in front of the rooms containing them. Nor are all the thrones centered behind a doorway. Many of them could have functioned in no larger a gathering than that depicted on Lintel 3. Precisely what went on at the necessarily small gatherings in these throne rooms must be learned from the customs of modern Indians and the writings of conquest times. We can be sure that at them organized authority, priestly or civil, perhaps both, made itself felt. Only thus can be explained the elaborate provisions for the dignity of such a considerable number of officials.

Systematic examination of temple pyramids and lower temple platforms produced several new design elements, enlarged the evidence of architectural influences from the central region and gave us some very interesting stratifications. A very small crudely formed unsculptured stela, buried in early foundations, indicates a humble beginning for the stone art which finally flowered in the monuments to be seen in our Maya Hall. Potsherds recovered add greatly to our knowledge of late period ceramics and late period trade.

View of a stone throne cleaned up and pieces added, a man standing next to it
Plate VIII — The same throne with the seat fragment and one recovered piece of a leg placed in original positions. They fit like broken pieces of a pot. No other pieces had been left in the room. Note the ornamental back screen, damaged but slightly.
Image Number: 37097

Part of a small vessel is shown in Figures 2 and 3, photographed and drawn, because it may turn out to be very important, as apparently insignificant things do in archaeology. If one turns the photograph upside down he should be able to make out a conventionalized face, such as a child might construct. Three circlets form eyes and mouth, and two parallel lines form the nose. This is the name-sign or hieroglyph of the Maya day “Ahau,” lord and it is very common both on the carved monuments of the ancient cities and in the three surviving Maya manuscripts, two of which are supposed to have been painted long after the cities of the south fell into decay. According to Dr. Herman Beyer of Tulane University, whose contributions to the study of glyphs are voluminous and of the greatest importance, the style of drawing this face changed. The two nose lines formerly met at the top, forming a triangle. He says they did not take the parallel position seen here until several centuries after the last Piedras Negras and other southern monuments were carved.

Our glyph is one of dozens of pots left in confusion immediately on a palace floor. This particular building lacked the more or less permanent masonry roof, and must have fallen to ruin soon after abandonment, burying the vessels as found. The pots therefore could not have been left by later Indians making new use of the deserted halls of a long abandoned ruin. If Dr. Beyer’s thesis is correct apparently we must conclude that Piedras Negras was occupied a very long time after the erection of dated monuments ceased, possibly as late as the thirteenth century. This is too much to base on two examples of one glyph which might conceivably result from one individual’s whim. Nevertheless they place a healthy strain either on the Beyer glyph-style sequence or on orthodox opinions as to when the southern centers fell into disuse.

L. S., Jr.

Note: For earlier published data concerning thrones al Piedras Negras see the Museum Bulletin, Vol. 3 No. 1, Vol. 4 No. 4, Vol. 6 Nos. 1, 4, 5.

A fragment of a bowl with hieroglyphs on it
Figure 2. Small fragment of a bowl with painted “Ahau” faces. To see the face, invert the page and look at the large oval hieroglph.
Drawing of a fragment with hieroglyphs on it
Figure 3. Drawing of the “Ahau” design. The eyes are two small circles, the nose is formed by two parallel lines On the Piedras Negras monuments this nose was a triangle.

Cite This Article

Jr., L. S.,. "Thrones at Piedras Negras." Museum Bulletin VII, no. 1 (November, 1937): 18-23. Accessed July 15, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

Report problems and issues to