Lost and Found: The Mystery of Guatemala’s Site Q

Mayan glyphs. Photo © Al Argueta.
Mayan glyphs. Photo © Al Argueta.

For much of the 20th century, looters worked Petén’s remote sites undisturbed, raiding tombs and extracting precious artifacts before archaeologists had a chance to study and document them. At the height of the looting, in the 1960s, archaeologists marveled at a series of magnificent glyphs making their way into a number of private collections and museums from an unknown site. Archaeologists dubbed the pieces’ origin “Site Q” and the search to find the mysterious producer of the wonderful glyphs was on.

The glyphs made repeated references to a place deciphered as kan, or “snake head,” which was eventually deduced to be Calakmul, and recorded several events in its history. It was once thought that this might be Site Q, but the badly eroded stelae at Calakmul were not of the same high-quality limestone.

The identity of Site Q would remain a mystery for more than four decades. The mystery first began to unravel in 1997 when an expedition headed by Ian Graham of Harvard University and David Stuart, now at the University of Texas at Austin, found evidence at remote La Corona leading them to suggest the possibility that it was Site Q. Then, in 2005, a 1 by 0.5 meter limestone panel containing 144 hieroglyphs was unearthed when an anthropologist working at the site followed a looter’s trench into a small chamber.

Marcello A. Canuto, of Yale University, made the amazing discovery, which matches the Site Q pieces geologically. The translated text of the La Corona glyph panel, meanwhile, is consistent with the writings on the other Site Q pieces.

Although archaeologists are satisfied with finally putting to rest one of the longest-running searches for a lost Mayan city, they still have some unanswered questions. Among the Site Q glyph panels in private collections is one known as the “Dallas panel,” which archaeologists believe was cut from a throne room. No such room has yet been found at La Corona.

Related Travel Guide