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Jan. 28, 2003


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xxxDALLAS (SMU) -- SMU anthropology professor David Freidel is beginning a three-year study of a site that played a critical role in the geopolitical history of the ancient Maya.

The site currently is known as El Peru, but was called Waka' by the ancient Maya. It is located in the southern lowlands of the Yucatan Peninsula in Peten, Guatemala. Waka' was believed to have been inhabited as early as 500 B.C., but reached its peak between A.D 400 and A.D. 800. At its height, the city may have been the strategic nerve center for a population of more than 100,000 people.

Waka' played an important role in the political and military history of the Mayan world because of its interactions with the dominant Mayan cities of Tikal and Calakmul. Deciphers of Maya glyphs believe, for example, that in A.D. 378 Tikal was conquered by warriors from Teotihuacan in central Mexico. The Teotihuacan general is believed to have stayed at Waka' eight days before he arrived at Tikal, suggesting a possible alliance between Teotihuacan and Waka'.

In the mid A.D. 600s, King Yuknom Chen of Calakmul surrounded Tikal with enemies and turned Waka' to his side by marrying his daughter to the King of Waka'. Tikal later defeated Calakmul in A.D. 731 and then fought a war with Waca' in A.D. 743. Scholars believe that Tikal destroyed Waka' as revenge for betraying it.

Of the site's 38 known monuments, only two remain intact. One is now held by the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, and the other is at the Cleveland Art Museum. The other 36 monuments remain smashed at the site. Freidel and a team of international researchers will be studying these monuments as well as the 672 buildings at the site to try and learn more about what really happened at Waka' in A.D. 743.

The team will spend Feb. 1 -- May 20 in the field, during which time photos and reports will be posted online by Archaeology magazine at

Waka', which sits on top of an escarpment about 6 km north of the San Pedro Martir River, was discovered by oil prospectors in the 1960s, and then quickly looted. Harvard researcher Ian Graham recorded the site's monuments in the early 1970s, but the site has not been researched since.

Freidel's 17-member research team includes five graduate students from SMU who are writing dissertations on Waka' and eight Guatemalan archaeologists. Among the team members is Stanley Guenter, a doctoral student at SMU who is one of the premier deciphers of Mayan glyphs.

The upcoming three-month expedition is the beginning of a three-year research project at Waka', which has been funded by private sources. Freidel said he hopes the project will help advance the careers of the Guatemalan archaeologists and show the local residents that the site should be preserved as an ecotourism destination.

Freidel, a University Distinguished Professor at SMU, has been researching Maya archaeological sites since 1971. He directed work at Cerros, Belize, from 1974-1982 and at Yaxuna, Mexico, from 1986-1996. He is the co-author of three books on the ancient Maya: Cozumel: Late Maya Settlement Patterns (1984), A Forest of Kings (1990) and Maya Cosmos (1993). His fourth book, FlintShield, will be published later this year.