2023’s Most Amazing Archaeological Discoveries in Mexico’s Maya World

This was an extraordinary year when it came to archaeology in Mexico’s Maya world. One of the most publicized developments for visitors to the region was the restoration and opening of Chichén Viejo, a long off-limits area of Chichén Itzá.

Once through the massive oval archway at the entrance to Chichén Viejo, a vast plaza chock-full of fascinating structures suddenly comes into view. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Chichén Viejo is remarkable for many reasons, including stunning stone reliefs, the blending of architectural styles like Puuc and the Classical Toltec, as well as its unusual circular turtle platform. 

One of the most eye-catching structures is a circular altar with a turtle’s head on each side, one facing to the west and another to the east, sporting a solar medallion. 

In April, the discovery of a stone disk referred to as a “Mayan scoreboard” at Chichén Itzá made waves across the world. The discovery is important, but much of the coverage is incorrect or, at the very least, incomplete.

The stone disk found at Chichén Itzá’s Casa Colorada is being photographed extensively for preservation purposes. Photo: INAH

The stone disk was discovered by INAH archaeologist Lizbeth Beatriz Mendicuti Pérez. The find is significant for several reasons, including that it contains the first legible glyphs found at Chichén Itzá in just over 11 years.

The confusion over its uses as some kind of scoreboard likely stemmed from a translation error. The word marcador in INAH’s Spanish-language press release can mean “scorekeeper.” But the word can also be used to make reference to a particular location, as in “X marks the spot.”

But Chichén Itzá was far from alone when it came to the opening of sprawling new sections to include. At Uxmal, a vast plaza known as El Palomar. was opened to the public in late 2023.

El Palomar’s Grand Temple and its surrounding structures feature all the hallmarks of a great Puuc-style plaza, including cylindrical adornments, and mosaics, as well as one of the largest decorative crests in the Maya world. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But the improvements to Uxmal do not stop at El Palomar, as several structures have received a good deal of TLC and now look more impressive than ever.

The southern facade of Uxmal’s Nunnery was photographed through the walls of Uxmal’s Temple of the Turtles. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine. 

The ancient city of Ek Balam has also revealed many secrets in 2023, perhaps most notably a stucco representation of a snake painted with red paint on stucco. The “u” shape formed by the serpent is notable as it may reference Xibalba, the Maya underworld, and/or the serpentine foot of the deity known as K’awiil.

The Maya decorated their temples with intricately painted on stucco, but only a relatively small amount of these ancient artworks survive to this day. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Meaning “black jaguar” in Mayan, Ek Balam was founded sometime in the 3rd century B.C. and was continuously inhabited through the 11th century C.E. The site was first excavated in the late 1980s and was first opened to the public in the late 1990s.

The most striking feature of the Acropolis is a specific section of its stucco facade, depicting an open-jawed “monster of the earth” accompanied by what appear to be winged human figures. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

A couple of miles outside the archaeological site of Palenque in Chiapas, a tomb was recently discovered just over 13 feet underground and also contained several objects, including ceramic vessels and obsidian. It is made of slabs of limestone and likely has inscriptions that could reveal details about its occupant.

The remains of a Maya noble were discovered near the archaeological site of Palenque in September. Photo: Courtesy

The presence of obsidian is especially notable, as it was most likely imported at a considerable cost from what today are the highlands of Guatemala. 

In antiquity, Palenque was known as Lakamha, meaning “big water.” The site was first settled in the 3rd century BC but did not reach its peak until the rule of K’inich Janaab Pakal, more commonly known as Pakal the Great.

Lord Upakal K’inich, who reigned during the turbulent 8th century CE. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

In early 2023, archaeologists from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) announced the discovery of Chaltun Ha, hidden beneath thick vegetation in the jungles of Campeche. 

Surveying and restoration work at Chaltun Ha has just begun, but the discoveries already uncovered will keep archaeologists busy for years. Photo: Courtesy

The city is estimated to have been inhabited from around 800 to 1000 AD and boasts several impressive structures, including a large central plaza and palatial complex, as well as several pyramidal structures and ball courts. 

Given its proximity to the Maya site known as Moral de Reforma, just across state lines in Campeche, the two cities likely had close relations, peaceful or not. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Another impressive discovery was the discovery of the Maya city of Ocomtún. The ancient metropolis is believed to have been inhabited from around 700 to 1000 AD and is thought to have been an important center for trade and commerce.

Research at Ocomtún has barely begun, which means that it will likely not open to the public for several years. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

It is notable that Ocomtún was discovered in the Balamkú reserve, near the ancient city of the same name, just across the highway to the exit to the grand city of Calakmul

Because Structures I and 2 are built on such a backward incline, their summit is not even visible from their base. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Because so many other fascinating discoveries (big and small) were made in 2023 across Mesoamerica, it would take hundreds of pages even to begin to do them all justice.

Keep up with our ongoing Archaeology Monday feature to stay abreast of archaeological developments in this fascinating part of the world. 

Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
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.
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