Along the banks of the Usumacinta River, just beyond the Mexico-Guatemala border, is a Maya site in ruins known today as Piedras Negras. However, a thousand years ago, locals would have called it “Yokib”, a Maya name that possibly means “entrance”. Yokib was a strong city during the Classic Period, frequently at war with its neighbor Yaxchilan.
Piedras Negras is often overlooked by tour companies due to the difficulty- and sometimes the danger- of getting to the site. It does not boast tall pyramids like Tikal, or spectacular burials like Palenque. However, this site played a crucial role in the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphic writing. Tatiana Proskouriakoff here made important breakthroughs in her study of Mayan writing and was able to unlock the script found on the stone monuments of Piedras Negras. Before Proskouriakoff’s breakthrough, most people believed that Maya texts dealt mostly with astronomical or mythical topics. Her discovery showed that the texts really spoke about the histories of kings that ruled at Piedras Negras during the Classic Period in Mesoamerica.
The stone monuments of Piedras Negras were key to Proskouriakoff’s work, and for good reason. Piedras Negras has a large collection of stelae, or upright stone monuments, portraying a long line of rulers throughout the site’s history. Some of these stelae are truly unique. Some monuments, for example, carved during the reign of Ruler 3 and his wife, known as Lady K’atun, are very family-centered. Stela 3 shows Lady K’atun seated on a throne, with her young daughter leaning against her with her elbow resting on her mother’s knee. These tender family scenes are rare in this time in the Maya world, but are a peculiar facet of this ruler’s reign.
A wall panel shows what a day in the royal court might have looked like. Panel 3 is damaged and eroded in some places, but still shows clearly a king seated upon his throne, leaning forward toward the people surrounding him, who are identified by the surrounding text as rulers of lower status and other guests.
Other finds shed light on the scenes depicted in these monumental carvings. Throne 1 found at Piedras Negras is carved in exactly the same style as the throne we see in Stela 3. Decorated with rich text and imagery, it brings to life elements of the Maya court that we would otherwise have to imagine from other carvings and paintings.
Piedras Negras, though not given the prestige of many other Maya sites today, was undoubtedly an important player in Maya history. From Panel 3 we can see that the court received many visitors from other sites in the region, and Stela 3 shows that the site had its own unique artistic flair.
For more information about Piedras Negras, check out the sources below.
The Monuments of Piedras Negras, Flora Simmons Clancy
Engaging Ancient Maya Sculpture at Piedras Negras, Guatemala, Megan E. O’Neil
Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens, Simon Martin and Nicolai Grube
The Ancient Maya, Robert Sharer and Loa Traxler