An ancient Maya city has been discovered in Campeche, on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. A team of researchers, led by archaeologist Ivan Ṡprajc, located a monumental site within the Balamkú ecological reserve. They have named it Ocomtún (“stone column”, in Yucatec Maya), for the numerous cylindrical stone columns scattered throughout the ancient settlement.
The location of the ancient Mayan city is the result of the first field season of the project “Expanding the archaeological panorama of the Mayan Central Lowlands”, approved by the Council of Archaeology of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), of the Ministry of Culture of the Mexican Government, and coordinated by the expert of the Research Center of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts.
The initiative seeks to expand the knowledge of an extensive area practically unknown to archaeology. It occupies the central part of the state of Campeche, bordering to the south with the Escárcega-Chetumal highway, to the east with the northern sector of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve and to the north with the Chenes region: 3,000 uninhabited square kilometers, covered by medium-sized jungle.
The site served as an important regional during the Classic period.Ivan Ṡprajc, lead archeologist
During May and mid-June 2023, the team focused on the northern end of that area, that is, in the northwestern part of the territory belonging to the municipality of Calakmul, in Balamkú, subject to ecological conservation, where aerial images of the terrain seemed likely the presence of archaeological remains.
The National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping, from the University of Houston, United States, carried out an airborne laser scanning (LiDAR) of that surface, whose resulting images were of great help for the project, also integrated by the specialist in Maya epigraphy, Octavio Esparza Olguín, the geodesist Aleš Marsetič, the teacher Atasta Flores Esquivel, the archaeologists Quintín Hernández Gómez and Vitan Vujanović, as well as several workers from nearby communities.
Ṡprajc noted that in the LiDAR data numerous concentrations of pre-Hispanic structures were recognized which, as revealed by field inspections, share some characteristics as well as having peculiarities that contrast with what is known from other parts of the Maya area.
“The biggest surprise turned out to be the site located on a ‘peninsula’ of high ground, surrounded by extensive wetlands,” Ṡprajc said. “Its monumental core covers more than 50 hectares and features several large buildings, including several pyramidal structures more than 15 meters high.
The numerous cylindrical columns found, he says, must have been part of the entrances to the upper rooms of the buildings. Near Ocomtún are the sites of the Chenes region, more than 30 kilometers to the northeast: Nadzcaan, 36 kilometers to the southeast, and Chactún, 50 kilometers to the southeast, reported a decade ago by this same project.
“The site served as an important regional during the Classic period (250-1000 A.D.),” Ṡprajc said. “The most common ceramic types we collected on the surface and in some test pits are from the Late Classic (600-800 A.D.); however, analyses of samples of this material will provide us with more reliable data on occupation sequences.”
Ṡprajc highlighted the southeast of the nucleus, conformed by three plazas dominated by imposing buildings and surrounded by several patio groups: “between the two major plazas extends a complex composed of several low and elongated structures, arranged almost in concentric circles; a ball game is also included.”
A causeway connects the southeast complex with the northwest part, where the most voluminous construction of the site is located. He adds that it is an acropolis of rectangular plan, whose sides measure 80 meters and its height is about 10 meters, and in its northern part there is a pyramid that rises 25 meters above the natural terrain.
Ṡprajc maintains that Ocomtún suffered alterations in the late Classic period (800-1000 A.D.), as can be deduced from the worship places in the center of patios and small squares, with constructive elements that were extracted from the surrounding buildings, “reflection of ideological and population changes in times of crisis that, finally, by the 10th century, led to the collapse of the complex sociopolitical organization and the drastic demographic decrease in the Mayan Central Lowlands.”
Structures were also explored in the area extending to the La Rigueña River, with similar characteristics to Ocomtún: stairways, monolithic columns and absence of monuments with inscriptions. Likewise, several assemblages of unknown use were found, similar to the one located in the southeast complex of Ocomtún, “which in some cases include the ball game, and in others, central altars. It is possible that they are markets or spaces for community rituals, but only future research will shed light on the functions of these assemblages, which represent a regional peculiarity.”