Archaeologists explore submerged Maya city

Archaeologists from INAH are conducting a study of a submerged Maya city in Lake Atitlán, Guatemala.

During the Late Preclassic (400 BC to AD 250), the Maya established a major settlement within the lake on an islet, consisting of temples, plazas and domestic housing.

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The lake is volcanic in origin, filling an enormous caldera formed by an eruption 84,000 years ago. It is theorised that a natural event linked to volcanic activity caused a drop in the lakebed, resulting in the city becoming submerged at a depth of between 12 and 20 metres.

The peoples living around the lake was predominantly the Tz’utujil and Kaqchikel. During the Spanish conquest, the Kaqchikel initially allied themselves with the invaders to defeat their historic enemies, the Tz’utujil and K’iche’ Maya, but were themselves conquered and subdued when they refused to pay tribute to the Spanish.

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Lake Atitlan – Image Credit : Shutterstock

Several Maya archaeological sites have been found at the lake, including Sambaj, which is located approximately 16.7 metres below the current lake level and Chiutinamit, which was discovered by local fishermen.

A team of archaeologists led by Helena Barba Meinecke from the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia have been documenting the city ruins in order to understand the processes of subsidence and the scale of the settlement for future preservation.

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Already the study has managed to locate several new buildings, stelae and ceramics, allowing the researchers to geofence the structures and start to construct a planimetric map of the city.

Helena Barba Meinecke said: “With this planimetric map we can determine that the site measures at least 200 by 300 metres.”

A project titled “Underwater archaeology in the Lake Atitlán. Sambaj 2003 Guatemala” was approved by the Government of Guatemala in cooperation with Fundación Albenga and the Lake Museum in Atitlán. “The mission made it possible to lay the groundwork for recommending the creation of a cultural centre, where people can tour the site through a digital reconstruction” said a member of STAB and Mexico’s representative to the 2001 UNESCO Convention.


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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.

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