On May 21, 697, according to Mayan hieroglyphs, Bahlam Jol “burned for the second time.”
But the record remained mysterious. Where was Bahlam Jol? What exactly were the Mayans describing?
A team of researchers found that Bahlam Jol is the Mayan name of ruins that archaeologists call Witzna in northern Guatemala. They reported in the journal Nature Human Behaviour that the burning of Bahlam Jol was an example of total war, including ordinary city residents as targets, and not the more rule-bound conflict that focused on taking important prisoners that was thought to be the dominant form of warfare at that time.
“This fire was massive,” said David Wahl, a geographer with the U.S. Geological Survey and one of the authors. Wahl said that a thick layer of charcoal in sediments of a lake near the city indicated the fire’s intensity and scale. “It was unlike anything I’ve seen in the 20 years I’ve been doing this.”
Wahl and his colleagues argue that their findings represent a challenge to the prevailing notion of the nature of Mayan warfare before A.D. 800, when more extreme violence accompanied the collapse of what is called Classic Maya civilization.
Other archaeologists praised the research but said that the dominant view of Mayan warfare is more complex. Nonetheless, said David Freidel, a professor of archaeology at Washington University in St. Louis, the research is “elegant and persuasive” in the way it marries written records to environmental and archaeological evidence.
Wahl said he had identified a lake in Guatemala near the Witzna site that looked like a good research target.
It was. In lakes, he said, the rate of sediment accumulation varies greatly, so that 1 centimeter of a drilled lake bed core could represent the passage of anywhere from a decade to several centuries. But in the lake near Witzna, sediment had been deposited so rapidly that 1 centimeter represented less than a decade, perhaps close to one year. That meant it was an extraordinarily detailed record that could be tied closely to dates and records.
In the cores he drilled, he found a layer of charcoal about 1.2 inches thick. Another author on the paper, Lysanna Anderson, a specialist in evidence of ancient fires, studied the layer. They concluded that it indicated a massive fire and had been deposited very quickly.
And other chemical indications of human activity dropped off rapidly, he said, indicating that the population itself had suddenly decreased. The fire had happened, they judged, between 690 and 700.
The next piece of evidence came from Francisco Estrada-Belli, an archaeologist at Tulane University, and another author, who was excavating Witzna. Along with widespread destruction of buildings, he found a stone column that identified the city with the name the Mayans gave it, Bahlam Jol.
Alexandre Tokovinine, the fourth author, a specialist in Mayan writing at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, searched records of Mayan texts for the city name, and found that in the nearby city of Naranjo, a stone column specified when the city had burned for the second time.