Polish archeologists to research last Mayan bastion in Guatemala

Relics of the last capital of the pre-Columbian Maya civilisation, Tayasal, situated on lake Peten Itza - the last bastion of defence against the European conquerors - are to be researched by Polish underwater archeologists.

Tayasal was the capital of the last group of ancient Maya, who resisted the European settlers for almost 200 years after their arrival in South America. It was situated in a peninsula on the expansive lake Peten Itza in modern-day Guatemala.

Research will start in August. One of its aims is to collect artefacts from a great battle that occurred in 1697 as a result of which the Maya's last independent fortress fell.

"The Spanish, in order to conquer the city, released several galleys onto the waters of the lake, from which they attacked the Maya with both projectiles and firearms. Under the surface of the lake are almost certainly many artefacts, thanks to which it will be possible to reconstruct in detail that final battle, of great importance to Mesoamerican history," explained Magdalena Krzemień, the head of the Polish research team and an archeologist from the Jagiellonian University in Kraków (southern Poland).

Polish divers are also interested in Mayan ceremonies. There are opportunities to learn about them because sites of the ancient cult were situated within today's reservoirs.

"Water, a sacred element of the Maya landscape, had great symbolic significance for members of that civilisation - it was seen as a medium through which the dead travelled to the underworld," Krzemień observed. The water reservoirs were also seen as places closely connected with Chaac - the god of rain, on whom the rainfall, and consequently the harvest, depended.

"No wonder the Maya paid him special attention, giving him many gifts," Krzemień continued. "According to their belief, Chaac lived in grottoes, both dry ones and those flooded with water. Hence, over the centuries, a great many sacrificial gifts have found their way into the water reservoirs."

The Polish research is innovative because it is the only underwater project of its type in that part of Guatemala and one of only a few in the whole country. In previous decades, divers from the USA and France have dived in the lake seeking artefacts. Each time they have found numerous specimens, including ceramic vessels. However, the scope of their work was limited and the lake extends over almost 100 square kilometres.

The scientists are also trying to verify a popular legend according to which the Maya carved the horse of the famous conquistador Hernan Cortes from stone. It is said to be resting in the lake.