Archaeology at Waka'

Freidel and Escobedo, DirectorsIlluminating Mesoamerica's ancient past is our primary research objective. Through the development of responsible and sustainable tourism, the archaeology of the ancient Maya opens our eyes to the complex and fascinating achievements of this great civilization of the Americas, and to the rich traditions of contemporary Maya society. Since the initiation of our research program in 2003, the Waka' Archaeological Research Project has contributed significantly to our understanding of the Maya past. This page highlights some of that work. The Waka' Archaeological Research Project is a scientific collaboration between the Waka' Research Foundation, Washington University of St. Louis, and the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala. Untouched since 1971 when Ian Graham of Harvard University conducted the first scientific survey of the site, the Waka' Archaeological Research Project represents the first detailed scientific excavation of Waka'.

Called El Perú on existing maps, the site's ancient name is Waka'. Covering approximately one square kilometer, Waka' is a dense ruined city center of approximately 900 pyramids, palaces, plazas and elite households. More than 40 carved stone stelae (slabs of stone or wood with inscriptions) and altars at Waka', tell of kings and queens who ruled the site for four centuries. The kings and queens of Waka' were allies and vassals to some of the most important capitals of ancient Mesoamerica, including Teotihuacán, Tikal and Calakmul and commanded a key trade route along the San Pedro River linking the Petén Maya to distant markets in Mexico. Their wealth and power is demonstrated by the artifacts found in beautifully appointed tombs.

Monkey Scribes with Jade InlayThe important historical record of the city, combined with recent archaeological discoveries, have established Waka' as an important Maya capital and promising tourism venue and bring world attention to the site, and the park as well. The long-term, open-ended presence of archaeologists and other scientists at the site help ensure protection from looting, deforestation and illegal activities. The site's large, permanent camp is used all year by archaeological staff, project workers, visitors, tourists, government and local security forces and members of collaborating agencies. This the first stage of a sequence of transformations that will see the site emerge as a developed Maya site existing under intact rain forest canopy, in an effectively protected natural habitat.

Recent Discoveries

El Perú-Waka´s royal family commanded key trade routes along the San Pedro River linking the Perú Maya to distant markets in Central Mexico and the Yucatan. The research teams of the El Perú-Waka´ Project have begun to recover their legacy. In any given season, as many as 10 research teams work in across the site´s urban core, while our survey teams work their way out into the periphery of the site, seeking to find the limits of this vast city. As the first archaeologists to excavate the site, we have been extremely fortunate in our discoveries. In the three seasons since 2004, we have discovered five important, and beautifully appointed tombs.


Jade Artifacts

A Maya Queen

In 2004 David Lee discovered the tomb of a Late Classic queen (circa A.D. 700-750) within the northwest palace complex. The queen wore a masterpiece jade royal jewel and a war helmet of jade plaques. These artifacts, combined with the riches the Maya placed with her, suggest that this woman was an important and powerful ruler. Subsequent discoveries in 2005 and 2006, including beautifully preserved and inscribed panels portraying the ballgame lead us to hypothesize that this is may the tomb of a woman from Calakmul, one of two mentioned in the site´s ancient inscriptions.


Polychrome Lid

Royal Offerings

In 2005, an Early Classic (circa A.D. 250-300) royal tomb was discovered by Michelle Rich within the main pyramid group located in the southeastern area of the site core. The tomb contained the remains of two royal females, one of whom was pregnant. These finds demonstrate the wealth and power of El Perú-Waka´. David Freidel hypothesized that these women, were in fact, offerings to the ruler, whose tomb lay beneath or behind this first interment. Subsequent excavations by Rich and Varinia Matute in 2006 did indeed uncover another tomb, but one not directly associated with the 2005 discovery.


Two Great Kings

Olmec Figurine Rich found yet another tomb, this time of a royal male, during the 2006 season. Most notable among his many grave offerings was a set beautiful ceramic figurines that depict a royal court that includes dwarves, scribes, men, and women. At his head was a figurine of jade, clearly Olmec in form and style.

2006 also saw the discovery of an important ruler´s tomb near the heart of the site. While tunneling into the site´s central pyramid, Guatemalan archaeologists Héctor Escobedo and Juan Carlos Melendez discovered an early shrine structure, carefully preserved and interred within the pyramid. Beneath its floor lay a vaulted chamber holding the remains of an Late Classic king. Surrounded by finery, devoted attendants laid this ruler´s remains and grave goods out in the pattern of the tree at the center of the world.


Making Sense of it All

Field work always proceeds more quickly than laboratory analysis. Due to the tremendous success of our first four seasons of excavation, directors made the decision to scale back field excavations and concentrate on laboratory analysis. The 2007 and 2008 field programs have, therefore, focused on survey, reconnaissance, and test excavations conducted by Damien Marken of Southern Methodist University.
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Lab Work

Ancient Waka': Archaeology and Royal History

To date, our investigations identify the earliest occupation of the Waka' in the Late Preclassic period, dating to between 300 BCE and 200 CE, though presently we do not have a comprehensive picture of the nature of occupation at Waka'. Since a canon of Maya architectural tradition in the practice of building directly over previous occupations, much of the early city will be buried directly under later monuments. For this reason the earliest occupation of the site remains tentative, and will undoubtedly develop over the next few years of investigation.

Maya Polychrome LidBy the Early Classic, the site was a bustling city, the seat of a royal dynasty that erected monuments celebrating its acheivements. Of particular note, one such monument, Stela 15 includes one of only two portraits of Si'yak K'ak, a military leader famous in Maya inscriptions, and theorized to be a general from the Central Mexican City of Teotihuacan. Incriptions on Waka' stelae and on monuments from other sites indicae that Si'yak K'ak arrived at Waka', and just eight days later arrived at Tikal where he is believed to have been instrumental in the removal on one royal regime, and the installation of another.

In the Late Classic period (AD600-900) Tikal and Calakmul, two great rival capitals, struggled for control of the Maya lowlands. The city of Waka' commanded the strategic San Pedro Martir River, a major canoe trade route in and out of Petén, and also an overland north-south route linking the interior of the Yucatan peninsula to Petén. Waka's epigraphic history indicates that the city fell under the hegemony of Calakmul until the end of the 7th century when Tikal captured and sacrificed the king of Calakmul, Yuknoom Yich'ak K'ak. Tikal records the defeat of Waka' in AD743, and for the next thirty years, Waka' fell under the control of Tikal until that city was itself defeated by Calakmul. Waka' lords once again gave their allegiance to Calakmul remaining under their control until the end of the site's dynasty.   » back to top

Publications and Bibliography

Since the inception of the El Perú-Waka' Archaeological Research Project in 2003 the project has completed and published extensive annual reports for the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (IDAEH). These reports document and summarize the archaeological investigations carried out at the site. In addition, the site is the source of research for seven PhD dissertations (all in progress) and the subject of a number of articles, book chapters, and conference papers. Check back soon for a complete bibliography of these publications.   » back to top


Consolidated ArchitectureWhen Project members made initial visits to the site in 2001 they were able to observe first hand the serious impact of looting as reported by Ian Graham for the Harvard Inscriptions Project. The most severely damaged was Structure M12-32. Eighteen meters high and twenty-five meters on each side at the base, this funerary pyramid had been so extensively looted that it stood on the verge of catastrophic collapse. Looters, working with impunity in the 1950's and 60's not only cut up and removed the majority of the well-preserved monuments, but dug holes all over the site. At the M12-32 pyramid a 19-meter lateral trench extended almost to the core of the structure, where the looters' efforts to expand the chamber resulted in a slowly progressing conical internal collapse. At the same time, probably seeking a tomb within the summit sanctuary building, looters opened a honeycomb of alcoves in the top five meters of the structure compromising the structural integrity of the building.

From 2003 to 2006 under the direction of Dr. Héctor Escobedo, Guatemalan archaeologists Juan Carlos Pérez (2003-2004), Horacio Martínez (2004), and Juan Carlos Meléndez (2005-2006) initiated an emergency stabilization program to mitigate the damage to the structure. In 2003 and 2004, under the supervision of Pérez and Martínez, workers constructed masonry piers to support the refilling of the conically collapsing terminus of the looters' trench. Pérez also supervised the construction of a Maya style masonry vault the length of the 19-meter trench. In 2005 and 2006 work turned to the summit seeking to fill and stabilize the network of looters' trenches, including a 7.5 x 5 meter trench at the base of the summit temple that was on the verge of collapse.  » back to top

Notes from the Field

During our regular field seasons, our “Notes from the Field” will keep you updated on up-to-the-minute developments on our work. We will post comments from our research team members, and, when possible, answer your email questions.   » back to top

Teaching Burial Excavation

Contact Us

Waka Research Foundation
18 S. Central Avenue
St. Louis, MO, 63105