Archaeologists in Mexico’s ancient Maya city of Oxkintok have unearthed a striking headless statue. Measuring approximately 5 feet 5 inches (1.68 meters), the life-size limestone statue was uncovered during excavations along the route of the country’s ambitious Maya rail project.
The announcement was made at a press conference by Diego Prieto Hernández, the general director of the country’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). The press conference was a status update on what is the largest archaeological investigation being carried on in the southeast of the country in tandem with the construction of the 1,550 kilometer (963 miles) intercity railway rail route.
Warrior or God of Fertility?
The archeological zone of Oxkintok, where the statue was found, is in the state of Yucatan and lies about 55 kilometers (34 miles) south of the city of Merida. The statue has temporarily been nicknamed “Yum keeb”, the Maya god of fertility. But the identification is very tentative and pending further investigation. Apart from its head, the statue is also missing hands, lower legs and feet.
The front view of the statue. ( INAH)
Archaeologist Luis Pantoja Díaz has been quoted by the Mexico News Daily as explaining to a media team visiting the area, “He was found lying on his back and represents the human figure. We see the marked pectorals, the middle part that could be the hanging belly and the part of the member.” He added that the figure also had well-delineated buttocks and some lines on the back, outlining shoulder blades.
According to the Mexico News Daily , some local newspapers have used terms such as falo (phallus) and miembro (member) in describing the details of the statue, in keeping with its provisional naming as Yum keeb the god of fertilidad (fertility). Others, on the contrary, have preferred to call attention to Diego Prieto’s statement that the statue’s missing head denotes that it “surely represents a warrior who was a prisoner in combat”.
Pantoja Diaz stressed, however, that at this stage it is difficult to say anything with certainty about the specific function of the statue that was discovered near a hieroglyphic-embellished staircase that was being cleaned and restored. He added that it isn’t even 100 per cent beyond doubt that the statue represents a male figure.
Part of the Maya site of Oxkintok. (Gary Todd/ CC0)
A Sacrificial Figure
While only further investigations will offer better clarity about the statue’s identification, archaeologists feel that the statue was possibly used as an offering to the gods . According to the Heritage Daily , warfare between Maya cities , like in other cultures, largely occurred in the quest for political control or acquisition of new territories and resources.
But another purpose may have been to capture victims for human sacrifice to legitimize a ruler or to cow rivals into giving tribute. It was the high-status prisoners that mostly landed up at the sacrificial altar, the low status ones escaping that fate to be put to slave labor.
The ‘Ancient Labyrinth’ or ‘Tzat Tun Tzat’ at Oxkintok. (Adamcastforth/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Maya City of Oxkintok
Oxkintok is located in the Puuc region on the north-western tip of the Yucatán Peninsula . It is in a mountainous region that is covered by a thick undergrowth that possibly hides many archaeological treasures.
Human activity in Oxkintok first dates from the Mesoamerican Late Pre-Classic period and there is evidence for continued habitation until the Late Post-Classic period. It became an important city during Late Classic period (AD 250 to 900) when large pyramids were constructed, and the city was decorated with intricate iconography and hieroglyphics. It served as the capital of the region before the emergence of Uxmal.
Around AD 1500, human activity at the site seems to have ceased, although there is no evidence of famine or warfare to account for its abandonment.
Archaeological Discoveries along the Maya Train Route
The Maya train has been divided into seven sections, of which the INAH has finished excavating Sections 1-3 and 5, and will soon complete its work in Section 4. Sections 6 and 7 are being prospected still.
The work has uncovered a wealth of archaeological finds, about which Diego Prieto is reported by the Mexican News Daily to have said, “We have uncovered information that will nourish the knowledge of the Mesoamerican Maya world for at least the next two decades. This work will undoubtedly impact the study of Maya cultures … over many, many years.”
Map of some of the main historic sites dotted along the new train route. ( INAH)
So far, finds on the train route include 31,306 structures, 1,541 ceramics and chiseled stones, 463 sets of bones, 1,040 natural features such as caves, 708,428 ceramic figures and fragments (from sections 1-4) and 576 pieces in the process of analysis.
The headless (warrior?) statue is one of the INAH’s most intriguing recent finds along the route. While clearly representing a human figure, everything else about it is still shrouded in mystery. Though seemingly possessed of male genitals, archaeologists are not willing to commit to its gender.
If indeed the statue has a male member, does it represent “Yum keeb” the Maya god of fertility or is its missing head indication that it was made in the image of a victim of human sacrifice? And was it presented to the gods in lieu of a flesh-and-blood sacrifice? All these are questions that detailed investigations may be able to provide answers to.
Top image: The life-size headless Maya statue being extracted from the ground at Oxkintok Source: INAH
By Sahir Pandey