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Site name: Piedras-Negras Site volume and author reference
Location and Access
Principal Investigations
Notes on the Ruins
References Cited
 

LOCATION AND ACCESS Piedras Negras lies on the Rio Usumacinta in the remote northwest area of the Department of Peten, Guatemala. The river here winds its way in a general northwest direction toward the plains of Tabasco, cutting a narrow valley through the hilly and broken karstic landscape. The ruins are nestled among several rocky hills overlooking the Usumacinta, where blackened limestone outcroppings along the riverbank lend the site its name. Approximately forty kilometers upstream, to the southeast and on the opposite bank, are the extensive ruins of Yaxchilan.

Travel to Piedras Negras has always been difficult, given its isolated location and the nearby stretches of the river that are often made impassable by rapids. The principal and most reliable route of access to the ruins is a longused trail running from the Mexican border to the north. The trail was originally opened in the late 1800s by laborers from Tenosique, Mexico, to provide access to various lumber camps, or monterias, located along the river. It originally extended as far as the encampment opposite El Cayo (Desempefio), some ten kilometers south of Piedras Negras. The trail to Piedras Negras has remained a customary means of access for archaeologists, looters, and adventurous tourists up to the present day.

If opting for this route, one may drive from Tenosique on good gravel and dirt roads southward to the border community of Corregidora Ortiz, where a Mexican military checkpoint monitors the comings and goings of visitors into the site (as of 1999 Guatemala had no official presence on this border). Here the drivable road ends, and one must then leave vehicles and continue on foot, crossing the border into Guatemala. During the dry season (generally March through the end of May), the hike from this point into Piedras Negras takes about five or six hours. The forested trail follows a northwest-southeast direction along a generally flat valley that roughly parallels the Rio Usumacinta. Approximately eleven kilometers from the border, the trail comes close to the river at El Porvenir, once the site of a rnonteria encampment, and there passes several small mounds. The route continues for a few kilometers over somewhat more difficult terrain and enters Piedras Negras at the West Group Plaza, in front of Structure K-S.

Here it is still possible to see the rusting remains of a 1930s vintage tractor that was driven to the ruins along the same trail (amazing as it now seems) by the University of Pennsylvania project.

Access to Piedras Negras by river is also possible, but again not easy. Assuming that the rapids above are passable, large wooden lanchas with outboard motors and experienced pilots can make the trip from various locales upstream, such as Bethel in Guatemala or Frontera Corozal, in Mexico. Private tour groups and rafting outfitters have at times made scheduled trips along the Usumacinta, usually stopping to camp at Piedras Negras.

Archaeological remains in the vicinity of Piedras Negras include EI Porvenir, just mentioned, and the site of EI Cayo to the south. The latter evidently had close political connections to Piedras Negras in ancient times. The poorly known centers of Budsilha and La Mar, first documented by Teobert Maler over a century ago (Maler 1903, pp. 89-96), are located in Mexico to the west, near the Rio Budsilha, which empties into the Usumacinta over impressive waterfalls about ten kilometers downstream from Piedras Negras. The surrounding Guatemalan territory remains virtually unknown to archaeologists but reportedly includes several significant ruins.

 

PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATlONS AT THE SITE Considering Teobert Maler's mention of the "road" linking Tenosique and EI Cayo and passing by Piedras Negras (Maler 1901, pp. 40-42), the ruins were surely known to many of the lumber workers who traveled along the river in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Morley (1938, p. 1) credits the discovery of the ruins to one Emiliano Palma of Tenosique, who operated monterias at various points on the Usumacinta in the 1880s and 90s. Sr. Palma had earlier recalled to Morley that he had established a camp at Piedras Negras in 1894 (ibid.), at which time the ruins were discovered. However, Sr. Palma’s recollections were certainly mistaken, for by 1894 the site had already been known and visited for several years, and a lumber camp had been in operation at Piedras Negras as early as 1889, if not before.

A very early mention of Piedras Negras might appear in Juan Galindo's 1833 report on the Usumacinta and Pasi6n rivers. Galindo related secondhand information about the river system and noted the existence of "extraordinary and extensive ruins" on the left bank of the river, very likely a reference to Yaxchilan (CMHI, p. 3:8). He then went on to mention that "somewhat lower down the stream there is a remarkable monumental stone, with characters" (Galindo 1833, p. 60). This hopelessly vague description could refer to any number of archaeological sites below Yaxchilan, but it is tempting to connect it with the conspicuous "Roea de los Sacrifieios" (Rock Sculpture 1) documented by Maler at Piedras Negras (1901, p. 42), carved onto a slab of jutting limestone at the river's edge and visible to any river traveler attracted to the adjacent beach. It is difficult to think of any other "remarkable monumental stone, with characters" downstream from Yaxchilan.

Visitors to the ruins before the 1880s certainly included Lacandon Maya, who until a few decades ago lived in small isolated groups on the Guatemalan side of the Rio Usumacinta. Their ritual activity at the ruins seems indicated by Maler's note of finding near Stela 21 "numerous shards of incense vessels, dishes and bowls of every kind" (Maler 1901, p. 64). A complete Lacandon "god pot" is illustrated in Butler's (1935) initial report on Piedras Negras ceramics ..

The first published mention of the ruins is by Louis Chambon (1892, pp. 119-122), a French tourist who stopped at Tenosique in 1889 on his way to Palenque. There Chambon was told of large ruins surrounding the small monteria called Piedras Negras, operated by men from Tenosique, and he arrived there a few days later accompanied by a guide. His published account includes only a short description of the ruins, but included is an unmistakable description of Altar 4 and its sculptured supports and Rock Sculpture 1.

 

Evidently Teobert Maler was completely ignorant of Chambon's visit when he made his way to Piedras Negras in the summer of 1895, after having been told of the ruins by Don Transito Mejenes, a lumber agent at EI Cayo. His initial visit was kept to a few hours due to lack of men and supplies, but he soon returned that summer for a fifteen-day stay, during which time he examined Stelae 1 through 8. Under the auspices of the Peabody Museum, Maler resumed work at Piedras Negras in 1899, staying long enough to expose numerous more monuments and conduct limited excavations. Over the course of these two extended visits in 1895 and 1899, he discovered and photographed most of the extant monumental sculpture, including Stelae 1 through 36, and "Lintels" (Panels) 1 and 2 from Structure 0-13. His excellent photographs of the monuments were published with a description of the site (Maler 1901) and remain an invaluable record, given the later destruction of many sculptures.

Charles P. Bowditch, who funded Maler's expeditions for the Peabody Musuem, quickly published a commentary on the dates recorded in the Piedras Negras inscriptions (Bowditch 1901). His speculations on the significance of the dates on the back of Stela 3 (ibid., p. 13) are remarkable anticipations of the historical interpretations presented decades later by Proskouriakoff (1960).

Few if any visitors made their way to Piedras Negras in the decade or so after Maler's final season of work in 1899. In 1914, a young Sylvanus Morley of the Carnegie Institution of Washington arrived at the ruins to study the inscriptions. He returned with Oliver Ricketson in 1921 for a more systematic study and survey, at which time Stela 40 was found. The results of Morley's work on dating the monuments were published in volume 3 of his great multivolume series, The Inscriptions of Peten (Morley 1938).

In 1930 J. Alden Mason, then curator of the American Section of the University Museum at the University of Pennsylvania, visited Piedras Negras to ascertain the feasibility of conducting excavations and removing several of the well-preserved monuments from the site. Once approved by the Guatemalan authorities, work began by the museum in 1931 on the widening of the well-traversed path from Corregidora Ortiz to permit transport of the large stelae (Danien 2001). The first three field seasons, wholly financed by the museum's patron Eldridge R. Johnston, were largely devoted to the search for monuments. Several of the sculptures removed from the ruins, including the beautiful Stelae 12 and 40, were exhibited in Philadelphia for many years before their return to Guatemala City.

Linton Satterthwaite oversaw most of the excavations that lasted through to 1937 and then for a final season in 1939. Numerous structures were excavated in these years, and several new stelae and panels (what Maler called "lintels") came to light. The University of Pennsylvania project produced an excellent map of the ruins, surveyed by Fred Parris, which remains the basis of the one published here in the Corpus, with only slight modifications. The results of the University Museum's project were published in a series of reports mostly focusing on architectural remains (Satterthwaite 1943; Coe 1959).

During the final 1939 season, a young Harvard undergraduate named William S. Godfrey, Jr., joined the Piedras Negras project in order to research the monuments in preparation for his senior honors thesis (Godfrey 1940). His unpublished study includes several valuable observations on the locations and formal variations of the stelae, as well as a few of his own photographs of monuments since damaged or lost.

Another member of the Penn crew was a young artist named Tatiana Proskouriakoff, beginning a long and productive career that would see her grow into one of the foremost authorities on Maya art and hieroglyphic writing. In 1960, over twenty years after her fieldwork at Piedras Negras, Proskouriakoff published her now famous article on the "pattern of dates" on Piedras Negras stelae (Proskouriakoff 1960), wherein she convincingly demonstrated that dynastic history was recorded in Maya texts. The hieroglyphic texts of the site will forever be associated with her name.

It is high irony that within a few years of Proskouriakoff's contribution, looters from Tenosique attacked many of the monuments of Piedras Negras with saws. In the early 1960s stelae were damaged and sawn pieces were pilfered, evidently passing through Tenosique on their way to the private and public collections in Mexico, the United States, and Europe. The scarred remains of many stelae still rest at the ruins, but the whereabouts of many sculptures originally documented by Maler are unknown to this day.

In early 1975, Jeffrey Miller, a graduate student at Yale University, spent several days at Piedras Negras cleaning and photographing the sculpture remaining at the site in preparation for a doctoral thesis on the inscriptions. Miller's sudden death just weeks thereafter left the project unfinished, but his numerous photographs of the monuments, now archived at Yale University, remain an important and valuable record.

Piedras Negras received little more attention from researchers until 1997, when excavations and surveys began anew under the auspices of the Proyecto Arqueol6gico Piedras Negras, directed by Stephen D. Houston and Hector L. Escobedo (Houston, Escobedo, Child, et a1. 2000; Houston, Escobedo, Forsyth, et a1. 1998; Houston, Escobedo, Hardin, et a1. 1999; Houston, Escobedo, Terry, et a1. 2000). These excavations produced new inscriptions that will be published in later fascicles of the Corpus.

The authors of this volume each made separate visits to ruins. Ian Graham made visits in 1974 and 1975, during which he photographed and made field sketches of the sculpture. David Stuart later made two visits to the ruins, first as a panting tourist on a brief look in 1983 and again for a lengthier stay in 1998, enjoying the hospitality of the archaeological project then in its second season.

 

NOTES ON THE RUINS: The best and most detailed description of the ruins remains that by Satterthwaite, included by Morley in The Inscriptions of Peten (Morley 1938, pp. 5-25) and presented later by Satterthwaite himself (1943). Here we add a few words about the ruins as they pertain to the settings and locations of the sculpture and inscriptions.

Piedras Negras is an extensive site dominated by two principal architectural complexes known as the South Group and West Group but with smaller structures densely scattered around them. An East Group was designated by the University Museum project, but this really is no more than an extensive and very open plaza situated between the South and West Groups and overlooked at its northern side by the largest single building found in the ruins, Structure 0-13. These main architectural groups are bounded to the northwest and southeast by small natural valleys that, though usually dry, sometimes carry water during periods of great rain or even flood when the river rises to its highest levels in the wet season. The small beach formed where the southern barranca meets the river is the natural landing for river traffic floating downstream, and it was certainly a significant point of access in ancient times as well. Here the Rock Sculpture 1 (RSc.1) was carved on a natural outcropping of limestone overlooking the beach. Viewing the map, one might imagine an ancient access route running up this valley and heading left through a fairly well-defined "avenue" located behind and to the east of the South Group, and ending at the East Group Plaza next to Structure 0-12. Similarly, the wider northern valley, also accessible by the river, appears to have been a route used to approach the main site in ancient times. A saddle just to the northeast of Structure J-4 and the acropolis provided a natural means of access, arriving at the West Group Plaza in front of Structure K-5.

Judging by the dated stelae, the South Group is the earlier of the two architectural complexes, constructed above the river and close to the beach at river's edge. The numerous monuments aligned in front of the buildings date to a time both before and during the reigns of the first two rulers identified by Proskouriakoff (1960). The square-shaped courtyard at the center of the South Group is open on its northern corner, allowing access into the broad East Group Plaza and thence up to the West Group Plaza, below the acropolis. The West Group includes the imposing Structures J-3 and J-4, which rise up above monuments belonging to the reigns of Rulers 3 and 4, respectively. The intermediate East Group, with 0-12 and 0-13, is the setting for most of the later stelae dating during the reigns of Rulers 5, 6, and 7. Aside from the pyramids and acropolis, Piedras Negras has two ball courts, one in the West Group Plaza before Structure K-5 and another, probably Early Classic in date, just to the north of the South Group. Both ball courts were decorated with sculptures that will be presented in the Corpus. Large sweatbaths are unusually numerous at Piedras Negras, but evidently none were associated with any hieroglyphic inscription that survives.

The stelae are distributed in fairly well-defined groups that correspond to the reigns of individual rulers, as Proskouriakoff demonstrated in her nowfamous paper (Proskouriakoff 1960). Thus the eight stelae placed before Structure J-4 all date to the reign of the third known ruler, and those before Structure J-2 to the time of his successor, Ruler 4. Rather than being erected directly in plazas, stelae at Piedras Negras were generally placed on terraces or platforms in front of pyramids. A few important monuments also appear to have been erected near the summits of pyramids such as Structures R-5 and 0-13.
The sculptured panels of Piedras Negras are distinctive in their size and presentation. Maler had mistakenly called these square or rectangular stones "lintels," no doubt influenced in this by the great number of carved door lintels he found at nearby Yaxchilan. However, all monuments of this type were generally found near the summits of pyramids or on stairways, in settings that strongly suggest they were used as facings on outset platforms. Proskouriakoff (1946) showed such a likely placement for Panel 7 on the upper staircase of Structure K-5.

A few Piedras Negras stelae seem to have been inlayed with small adornments, possibly of shell, jade, or obsidian. As Godfrey observed (1940, p. 32), drilled holes in the serpent headdress and collar on Stela 26 correspond to the places where protruding teeth might be expected, and carved slots flanking the ruler's head probably held some type of ear ornaments attached to the stone. The portrait on Stela 36 exhibits a large hole where an ear ornament would be expected. Many monuments also show deep holes in the center of circular earflares, which originally must have served as sockets for protruding tubes, possibly of jade. The inlay of jewelry on stone monuments is rare in Maya art but is also known on monuments at Tonina (CMHI, p. 6:126).

NOMENCLATURE: Monument designations were formalized by the University Museum project, but a few minor modifications of the old scheme are now necessary. As noted above, "Panel" will now be used to designate a number of sculptures mistakenly called "lintels" by Maler and later writers. The old category "Miscellaneous Stone Sculptures," including panel and throne fragments as well as practice carvings (Satterthwaite 1965), now will be called "Miscellaneous."

It is necessary to introduce into the Corpus a new category of monument called "Rock Sculpture" (abbreviated as RSc.) in order to include inscriptions carved on natural stone outcroppings or cliff faces. Two such sculptures are known from Piedras Negras, and others will be published in future Corpus volumes devoted to Calakmul, the cave at Loltun, and San Diego.

NOTES ON THE MAP Our map is a copy of the third and final version of the impressive survey made by Fred Parris, Tatiana Proskouriakoff, and others in the 1930s and published by Satterthwaite in 1943. The area covered has been reduced somewhat, omitting the northernmost squares labeled A through D and Z. Architectural details such as pyramid terraces have been omitted for the sake of visual clarity, and the original University of Pennsylvania map should be consulted for this information. The lettered squares of the Penn grid system are also not drawn, although small perpendicular lines at the edges of the map indicate the placement of the dividing lines. The map does retain errors by Parris recently revealed by the more exact surveys by the Proyecto Arqueol6gico Piedras Negras. Their corrected map will be prepared and published at some future date, but the Parris version used here is generally accurate in its presentation of monument locations and their architectural settings. Only one significant monument, Rock Sculpture 2 (Morley's "Inscribed Cliff"), lies outside the coverage area of the map.

 

REGISTER OF INSCRlPTlONS:
Stelae 1-18, 22-23, 25-27, 29-40, 43, 46
Altars 1-4
Thrones 1-4
Panels (formerly "Lintels") 1-10, 12-16 Ball-court Sculptures 1-4
Rock Sculptures 1, 2
Miscellaneous

 

NOTES:
1. Stelae 19-21, 24, 28, 41-42, and 44 bear no remains of sculpture, if ever carved.
2. Stela 45 will be designated Ball-court Sculpture 3.
3. Lintel 11 appears in fact to be the lower part of Stela 29 and will be published as such.
4. Miscellaneous Sculptured Stone 10 will be designated Ball-court Sculpture 4.
5. Maler (1901, p. 64) published an inscribed rectangular "support for an altar," which he encountered in Ciudad del Carmen and described as having been removed by loggers from Piedras Negras at some time before his visit. Nothing in the inscription confirms a Piedras Negras affiliation, although it may be a stela fragment. It will be presented under the Miscellaneous category.

 

REFERENCES CITED:

BOWDITCH, CHARLES P. 1901 Notes on the Report of Teobert Maler, in Memoirs of the Peabody Musem, vol. II, no. 1. 111e University Press, Cambridge, MA.

BUTLER, MARY 1935 Piedras Negras Preliminary Papers, Number 4: Piedras Negras Pottery. University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

COE, WILLIAM R. 1959 Piedras Negras Archaeology: Artifacts, Caches and Burials. University Museum Monograph, no. 18. University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

CHAMBON, LOUIS 1892 Un Gascon au Mexique. Paris.

DANIEN, EUN 2001 "Chicken Soup and Canvas Bags: Advice for the Field." Expedition, vol. 43, no. 3, pp. 41-45.

GALINDO, JUAN 1833 "A Description of the River Usumacinta, in Guatemala." Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, vol. 3, pp. 59-64. London.

GODFREY, WILLIAM S., JR. 1940 The Stelae of Piedras Negras. Undergraduate honors thesis, Department of Anthropology, Harvard University.

HOUSTON, STEPHEN, HECTOR ESCOBEDO, MARK CHILD, CHARLES GOLDEN, RICHARD TERRY, and DAVID WEBSTER 2000 "In the Land of the Turtle Lords: Archaeological Investigations at Piedras Negras, Guatemala." Mexican, vol. 22, no. 5, pp. 97-110.

 

SITE VOLUME REFERENCE:

SITE VOL/Part Monument Side Page Pub.year Notes Peobody Number
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Map 5 2003
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Map of Ruins 8 2003
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 1 back 18 2003 2004.15.6.19.1
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 1 left side 19 2003 2004.15.6.19.2
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 1 right side 20 2003 2004.15.6.19.3
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 2 front 21 2003 2004.15.6.19.4
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 2 left side 22 2003 2004.15.6.19.5
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 2 right side 22 2003 2004.15.6.19.6
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 2 top 23 2003 2004.15.6.19.7
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 3 back 26 2003 2004.15.6.19.8
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 3 left side 27 2003 2004.15.6.19.9
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 3 right side 28 2003 2004.15.6.19.10
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 4 front 30 2003 2004.15.6.19.11
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 4 left side 31 2003 2004.15.6.19.12
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 4 right side 31 2003 2004.15.6.19.13
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 5 front 33 2003 2004.15.6.19.14
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 5 left side 35 2003 2004.15.6.19.15
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 6 front 36 2003 drawing missing
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 6 details of front 37 2003 2004.15.6.19.17
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 6 left side 38 2003 2004.15.6.19.18
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 6 right side 38 2003 2004.15.6.19.19
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 7 front 39 2003 2004.15.6.19.20
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 7 left side 40 2003 2004.15.6.19.21
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 7 top 41 2003 one piece 2004.15.6.19.22
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 7 right side, oblique 42 2003
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 8 front 44 2003 2004.15.6.19.23
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 8 left side 46 2003 2004.15.6.19.24
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 8 details of front 47 2003 drawing missing
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 8 details of front 47 2003 drawing missing
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 8 right side 48 2003 2004.15.6.19.27
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 8 details 49 2003 2004.15.6.19.28
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 9 front 51 2003 2004.15.6.19.29
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 9 left side 52 2003 2004.15.6.19.30
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 9 right side 52 2003 2004.15.6.19.31
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 10 front 54 2003 2004.15.6.19.32
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 10 left side 55 2003 2004.15.6.19.33
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 10 right side 55 2003 2004.15.6.19.34
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 11 front 57 2003 2004.15.6.19.35
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 11 left side 59 2003 2004.15.6.19.36
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 11 right side 59 2003 2004.15.6.19.37
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 12 front 61 2003 2004.15.6.19.38
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 12 right side 62 2003 drawing missing
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 12 left side 62 2003 2004.15.6.19.40
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 Stela 12 details of glyphs on front 63 2003 2004.15.6.19.41

AUTHOR REFERENCE:

SITE (by Vol) VOL/Part Author(s)
PIEDRAS NEGRAS 9.1 David Stuart and Ian Graham, Vol 9.1 2003
1