REPORT: The Lost City of Tzendales

Alfred M. Tozzer during his 1905 fieldwork with the Lacandon Maya
Alfred M. Tozzer during his 1905 fieldwork with the Lacandon Maya

These days it might seem easy to dismiss the idea of “lost cities” as a thing of the past, or as a romanticized notion from a by-gone era in Maya archaeology and exploration. After all, most significant sites are pretty well-known by now, even if not fully explored and mapped by archaeologists. But a few unknown places and remains are still “out there” awaiting discovery, as this year’s announcement about the site of Chactun dramatically demonstrates.

Another intriguing case involves a Maya ruin called Tzendales, located somewhere in the remote forests of the Selva Lacandona of Chiapas, Mexico. As far as I’m aware no one knows its exact location, yet the site was visited in 1905 by the Harvard anthropologist Alfred Tozzer when he was doing ethnographic fieldwork among the Lacandon Maya of the area. Tozzer paid a brief visit to the ruins and noted the presence of large buildings, one bearing a sizable roof-comb. Inside a vaulted chamber he came upon a well-preserved panel or stela bearing the portrait of a Maya king. No outsider ever returned to the ruins after Tozzer’s first visit, so at least from the vantage point of archaeological research Tzendales remains a true “lost city.”

An excellent article on the mystery of Tzendales was written a few years ago by the Mexican author Carlos Tello Díaz. I recall meeting Carlos when he stopped by our offices at the Peabody Museum at Harvard at the time he was researching in the archives and looking over Tozzer’s original field notes. We chatted about the remarkable case of Tzendales, and our mutual amazement that how no one yet knew its location even a century after Tozzer’s visit. Carlos ended up going to the Chiapas rain forest in 2000 and found the abandoned lumber camp where Tozzer stayed before and after his foray to the ruins. But still Tzendales itself remained elusive in the surrounding jungle.

The Tzendales stela. This drawing was published by Herbert Spinden in 1913, based on Tozzer's original field sketches.
The Tzendales stela. This drawing was published by Herbert Spinden in his 1913 A Study of Maya Art, based on Tozzer’s original field sketches.

What of the stela? Thanks to the accuracy of Tozzer’s old sketch we can make out a good deal about its inscription. The text first runs down the long vertical column then up to the two glyphs above the headdress. It all begins with the Calendar Round date 7 Imix 13 Zip and later on cites the period ending 8 Ahau 8 Uo ( A Distance number of 16.19 bridges the two dates, giving us a firm anchor for both in the Long Count:

9.12.19. 1. 1  7 Imix 14 Zip
9.13. 0. 0. 0  8 Ahau 8 Uo

The first episode refers to the dedication or ritual refurbishment of a tomb for a local ruler named K’ahk’ Witz'(?) K’awiil (a name that is very similar to that of Ruler 12 of Copan, by the way). The portrait is probably of this same local ruler, or just perhaps of the living king who oversaw the dedicatory ceremonies for his deceased ancestor. An emblem glyph (court title) in the thirteenth block is intriguing but unrecognizable.

Roughly translated, the text reads:

“At the day’s darkening, on Seven Imix (G3, F) the thirteenth of Chakat,
the fire enters into the eht(?) naah, which is the name of his burial (at?) Juuntz’i’nal,
of the k’atun lord K’ahk’ Witz’ K’awiil, the ? Lord.
It is nineteen and sixteen-score days before
Eight Ajaw the eighth of Ik’at, (when) the thirteenth k’atun will occur,
that it happens.”

No one can say for sure if the Tzendales stela or panel even still exists; it’s just possible that it still lies in the deep forest where Tozzer left it over a century ago.

5 thoughts on “REPORT: The Lost City of Tzendales

  1. jesse simms June 20, 2013 / 2:57 AM

    just curious what the mayan would read on a5: OCH-?-ya/wa? also on a8, any idea why there is a 3 in front of what appears to be u-MUK-il. thanks!

    • David Stuart June 20, 2013 / 2:27 PM

      The block at A5 looks to be OCH-chi-K’AHK’ (och k’ahk’, “fire enters”) using the agave head variant of the chi syllable. And those three dots are probably not a number – I suspect they are little graphic embellishments on the U- prefix itself, as found in some other examples. It’s hard to be certain, though, and only seeing the real text would resolve it.

  2. mayer June 20, 2013 / 6:41 AM

    Dear David,

    I was looking for the site for many years and tried to contact people who might know the place.
    Tovalin, INAH,,who worked at nearby sites, did not know where it is. The Tozzer detail drawings of
    every glyph of the monument are still at Harvard. They are not the entire drawing as published by
    Spinden. No part of the monument seems to be in private or public collections.

    An important site to rediscover.



  3. David Stuart June 20, 2013 / 2:30 PM

    Hello Karl, and thanks for your comment. I have copies of the original Tozzer drawings, which Spinden clearly fixed and cleaned-up for his own publication (Spinden, by the way, was one of Tozzer’s first students at Harvard, along with Morley).

  4. Thomas June 20, 2013 / 6:21 PM

    Regarding the iconography, the Tozzer’s drawing gives very nice details of the king’s clothings and ornaments. Especially the sceptre, the “shield” and the headdress, giving detailed images of K’awil, Chak, and Hu’unal (?) on the shield.
    It’s really a pity this site and this stela remains unknown.