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New Mayan discovery at an ancient site in Mexico is another clue into their past

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The Mayan city of Chichen Itza in Mexico is one of the most popular ancient sites in the world. It's seen countless visitors over the years, and yet it still holds some exciting surprises. Archaeologists there recently uncovered a stone disk etched with two figures playing a popular Mesoamerican ball game. At more than a thousand pounds, it's massive, and at more than a thousand years old, it's a bit mysterious. For more on this discovery, let's talk to David Stuart. He is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and an expert in Mayan culture. And he's helping decipher the hieroglyphs carved into the stone. David, welcome to the show.

DAVID STUART: Hi, Scott. How are you?

DETROW: I'm good. I mean, I've been looking at some of the pictures of the stone. It looks pretty worn down, which makes sense, but the carvings are still pretty distinct. What are you seeing when you look at it?

STUART: You know, as you say, it's a little bit eroded. And, yeah, we do expect that for something that's over a thousand years old or so. But there are some cool details. One of the things that really stands out to me is it actually has an inscription. It has a date. It has some - probably some names and things like that. And these are little, valuable parts of history.

DETROW: Do we know what it says?

STUART: Well, this stone is of a certain kind that the ancient Maya carved for their ball courts for these ceremonial ball games. And we have similar examples from other places. And so the inscription no doubt talks about the dedication of one of these ball courts. Now, there is a really interesting thing about this inscription, which is because of its date, which means it's rather late in Maya history, from about the year 1000. It's in a funny font...

DETROW: Right.

STUART: ...You might say. It's in a style that makes it a bit hard for us to read.

DETROW: Interesting.

STUART: And so I wish I could just read it off to you and tell you exactly what it says, but it's really important to see that there's something we can still kind of work on and try to crack. I think there's a lot of work still to be done.

DETROW: So I saw this disc described as - you know, some articles about it described it almost like a first down marker in football today. Others said it was more like a goalpost. Do you have a sense of how this was used in the game? And can you tell us what we know about this game based on other digs?

STUART: Yeah. So this - we think it was used perhaps for measurement purposes, an actual marker in a ball court. We're not exactly sure where it was set originally, so it's a little hard to say. But one of the things that's a real head-scratcher for us is actually how the game was played. We don't know really anything about the actual rules and performance of the game itself except from some scraps of information from, you know, the time the Spanish arrived in Mexico. They saw the game being played and gave us a few clues about it. But the Maya had their own way of doing it. You know, it was clearly a really important kind of game for politics, for kind of religious performances and things like that. They integrated the game into a lot of this pageantry that they had.

DETROW: You spend so much time studying this. There are so many unknowns. If you could magically learn one thing about the civilization, what would it be to help unlock all the things that you're trying to figure out through findings?

STUART: Well, that's a great question. You know, when we read their ancient history, we're reading their voice from that time. Right? And we're reading, really, about the kings and the queens and the 1%...

DETROW: Yeah.

STUART: ...You might say, of Maya society. I wish we could learn more from the wider spectrum of society. I wish they had written down more about the whole kind of makeup of their politics and society.

DETROW: That's David Stuart, professor at the University of Texas and an expert in Mayan culture. Thank you so much.

STUART: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUANECO Y SU COMBO'S "CABALLITO NOCTURNO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gus Contreras
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.