Grad student uncovers colossal ancient Maya mask in Yucatán

Incredibly, Ucanha's 4th-century rarity survived centuries natural elements as well as looters

The archaeological discovery was made in 2017 by Yale graduate student Jacob Welch. Photo: INAH
The archaeological discovery was made in 2017 by Yale graduate student Jacob Welch. Photo: INAH

A rare and giant stucco mask left by a long-gone Maya community was found at the archaeological site of Ucanha in the municipality of Cansahcab. 

Researchers have dated the mask to the 4th century and note that it is reminiscent of similar decorative elements found in other archaeological sites in Yucatán such as Acanche and Izamal. 

According to archaeologists working for Mexico’s Institute of History and Anthropology, the mask was first discovered in 2017. It is not unusual for archaeological finds to go unreported until resources have been mustered to ensure their protection from bad actors such as looters. 

The discovery is reported to have been made by Jacob Welch, a graduate student at Yale University. The team responsible for uncovering the mask has been made up of Mexican and American researchers, laborers and other students.

In a press release, authorities point out that preliminary research regarding the state of conservation of the mask began in 2018, with actual excavation being started in 2019.

Though relatively few archaeological elements such as the mask at Ucanha have managed to survive into the 21st century, in the distant past they would have been a common sight for the ancient Maya, who used such elements to adorn the facades of grand structures.

Archaeologists and workers protect the now excavated mask from the elements using tarps and a tent. Photo: INAH
Archaeologists and workers protect the now excavated mask from the elements using tarps and a tent. Photo: INAH

The survival of archaeological remains through large spans of time largely comes down to luck.

Erosión, roots, soil and looters represent dangers to the survival of such features, especially those made from less resistant materials such as stucco.   

Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway.