On May 21, 697, according to Mayan hieroglyphs, the city of Bahlam Jol “burned for the second time.”
But, like much of Mayan writing and history, the record remained mysterious to modern Maya researchers. Where was Bahlam Jol? What exactly were the Mayans describing with the hieroglyph that is translated as “burn”? There are many kinds of burning.
A team of researchers that began their work with a study of lake sediments in Guatemala has found that Bahlam Jol is the Mayan name of ruins that archaeologists call Witzna in northern Guatemala, and they concluded that the fire was devastating.
They reported Monday in the journal Nature Human Behaviour that the burning of Bahlam Jol was an example of total war, including ordinary city residents as targets, and not the more rule-bound conflict that focused on taking important prisoners that was thought to be the dominant form of warfare at that time in their history.
“This fire was massive,” said David Wahl, a geographer with the U.S. Geological Survey and one of the authors. Wahl, who works to reconstruct the effect of humans on the climate and environment in ancient times, said that a thick layer of charcoal in sediments of a lake near the city indicated the intensity and scale of the conflagration. “It was unlike anything I’ve seen in the 20 years I’ve been doing this.”
Wahl and his colleagues argue that their findings represent a challenge to the prevailing notion of the nature of Mayan warfare before A.D. 800, when more extreme violence accompanied the collapse of what is called Classic Maya civilization.
Nonetheless, said David Freidel, a professor of archaeology at Washington University in St. Louis, the new research is “elegant and persuasive” in the way it marries written records to environmental and archaeological evidence. He said that the central finding of the paper is solidly established.
Wahl, who has done work on the ancient Mayans for about 20 years, said the new research was serendipitous. He had identified a lake in Guatemala near the Witzna site that looked like a good research target.
It was. In lakes, he said, the rate of sediment accumulation varies greatly, so that 1 centimeter (about four-tenths of 1 inch) of a drilled lake bed core could represent the passage of anywhere from a decade to several centuries. But in the lake near Witzna, sediment had been deposited so rapidly that 1 centimeter represented less than a decade, perhaps close to one year. That meant it was an extraordinarily detailed record that could be tied closely to dates and records.
In the cores he drilled, he found a layer of charcoal 3 centimeters thick (about 1.2 inches), with chunks of charcoal almost a half-inch on a side. Another author on the paper, Lysanna Anderson, a specialist in evidence of ancient fires, studied the layer. They concluded that it indicated a massive fire and had been deposited very quickly — all at once it seemed, although some might have been from runoff a season after the burning.
In addition, other chemical indications of human activity dropped off rapidly right after the event, he said, indicating that the human population itself had suddenly decreased. The fire had happened, they judged, between 690 and 700.
The next piece of evidence came from Francisco Estrada-Belli, an archaeologist at Tulane University, and another author, who was excavating Witzna. Along with widespread destruction of buildings, he found a stone column, or stela, that identified the city with the name the Mayans gave it, Bahlam Jol.