On Tuesday, November 7, archaeologists in the eastern Yucatán Peninsula unearthed a well-preserved Maya warrior statue head adorned with a serpentine headdress amidst construction for the Maya Train, according to a report from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). Measuring approximately 13 inches tall and 11 inches wide, the artifact was found during the excavation of a wall in Maudslay’s Temple 6, a site named after the British archaeologist Alfred Maudslay within the Casa Colorada complex in the Maya city of Chichén Itzá. The complex is one of four buildings surrounding the main plaza of the ancient site.
In their report, INAH researchers noted that despite slight cracks, the artifact is still “in a good state of conservation.” They estimate that the object may date back to the earliest years of Chichén Itzá, founded around 455 CE. In 1988, UNESCO designated the ancient city as a World Heritage Site.
Resembling the face of a Maya warrior, the stone statue head features a helmet decorated with carvings resembling a feathered snake, whose open jaws create a window for the warrior’s face. Archaeologists Miguel Salazar Gamboa and Maria Elodia Acevedo Chin, who were part of the team that discovered the object, told Hyperallergic that the sculpture was most likely part of a larger structure depicting a full human body.
Feathered serpent deities are common figures among several Indigenous Mesoamerican religions, including those of the Olmec and the Aztec civilizations. The figure depicted by the unearthed sculpture is known as K’uk’ulkan, who annually descends from the sky on the spring equinox to reenergize the landscape with water and sun in Yucatán Maya culture.
The discovery of the statue head was made through the Program for the Improvement of Archaeological Zones (Promeza), which is currently heading the construction of the Maya Train — a 1,500-kilometer (~932-mile) railway that will traverse the Yucatán Peninsula and run through five states to connect various tourist destinations and archaeological sites. Construction for the project began in 2019, and sections of the railway are expected to open on December 15 while the entirety of the route is slated to be completed next year.
Gamboa and Chin told Hyperallergic that the railway’s excavations have allowed archaeologists to directly work with university students and local residents of towns including Pisté, Xkalakob, Kaua, Yaxunah, and Xkopteil to recover these heritage sites, cultural objects, and individual burial sites. INAH General Director Diego Prieto Hernández reported on November 9 that throughout the railway’s construction, archaeologists have recovered more than a million pottery fragments, over 57,000 building structures, nearly 2,000 personal artifacts, 660 human burials, and 2,252 natural structures linked with human settlements. Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has also said that the project will revitalize the economy in the country’s southeast.
However, the construction of the Maya Train has been met with opposition from many Indigenous communities of the region who have been threatened with displacement. Other scholars have warned of potential damage to the region’s archaeological sites. Scientists and lawyers have also warned of environmental damage, specifically to the peninsula’s Calakmul Biosphere Reserve — a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to Mexico’s largest forest reserve as well as nearly 24,000 Indigenous residents.