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Inscription relating to the reign of king Itzamnaaj K'awil, 784-810.

Naranjo is an ancient city of the Maya civilization in the Petén Basin region of the central Maya lowlands, in the present-day department of Petén, Guatemala west of the border with Belize and it is the northernmost of the three sites that form the Cultural Triangle with Yaxha and Nakum.

The city lies along the Mopan and Holmul rivers. Naranjo was the capital of the most powerful Classic Maya kingdom of Saal. The divine owner of the city, its patron, and the founder of the dynasty was a deity with a yet-undeciphered name, nicknamed "Black Square-Nosed Beastie" (possibly read as Ik' Miin)


  • Etymology 1
  • Expansion, Catastrophe, and a New Beginning 2
    • New stucco frieze discovered (2013) 2.1
  • Known rulers 3
  • Layout of Site 4
  • Maya and Olmec Art 5
  • Discovery of Naranjo 6
  • References and sources 7
  • External links 8


"Naranjo" in Spanish language means "Orange Tree." The emblem glyph of the polity is rendered as Sa'aal, thought to mean "the place where maize gruel abounds." Another ancient Classic Maya language name associated with the city site is Maxam. Wak Kab'nal or Wakabnal could be an alternative place name, but it is not specifically linked to the site but rather its lords.[1]

Expansion, Catastrophe, and a New Beginning

The history of Saal includes several major disturbances in the dynastic rule when allegiances and identities of local kings were subject to change. Nothing is known about the Early Classic history of Naranjo. The sites of La Sufricaya and Holmul to the north of Naranjo were involved in the establishment of the new political order in Peten after the arrival of Siyaj K’ahk' in AD 378. It is plausible to assume that Naranjo might also be under the sway of Siyaj K'ahk's hegemony and later Mutal (Tikal) rulers. If there were any monuments from that time, they were destroyed and/or cached.

There was a sudden outburst of inscribed monuments in the reign of Aj Wosal Chan K'inich (AD 546–615) who acceded to the throne as a vassal of another Maya ‘superpower’ – Kanal (Calakmul and Dzibanche) – about the time when it expanded its political influence at the expense of Mutal. However, within the next three generations of rulers, Saal did not prove to be a faithful vassal and was subject to attacks by Kanal and its major vassal, K'antu' (Caracol). It seems that one of such attacks resulted in a complete interruption of the royal line of Naranjo about A.D. 680.

This catastrophe occasioned the establishment of a new Naranjo dynasty by Calakmul. This dominant kingdom orchestrated a marriage between a daughter of the Dos Pilas ruler B'alaj Chan K'awiil- at the time a client state of Calakmul whose rulers were claimants to the throne of Tikal - and an unidentified nobleman, possibly of local Naranjo origin. The woman from the Dos Pilas dynastic lineage, called (Ix) Wak Chanil Ajaw ("(Lady) Six Sky"), arrived in Naranjo on August 27, 682 AD. As the queen of Naranjo, Wak Chanil conquered several cities in the surrounding area. One of the most important cities she conquered was Ucanal. Her control over this city gave Naranjo the power to challenge Calakmul's vassal state, Caracol, to its east.

Wak Chanil is the only woman with real power depicted on contemporaneous monuments. Nonetheless, her netted jade skirt and spondylus shell belt are typical of the principal Maya maize god (as is often the case with queen-consorts), rather than of a more warlike deity. She is depicted on stelas 24, 28, 29, and at least one more which is not as legible. Because of her clear distinction and ties to Tikal and Dos Pilas lineages, Wak Chanil becomes an important example for understanding the role of women as mothers, wives, and rulers during the Late Classic.

Wak Chanil is presumed to be the mother of the next-recorded Naranjo ruler, K'ak' Tiliw Chan Chaak who acceded in 693, although no known inscription explicitly establishes this relationship. Located north of Structure A-21, stela 5 depicts an event with the young King in a frontal position facing to his right. In his left hand is a fan. To the left kneels a small figure that is facing upward towards K'ak' Tiliw Chan Chaak. Given that K'ak' Tiliw Chan Chaak was five years old when he acceded, it is most likely that his mother Lady Six Sky was de facto ruler of the Saal/Naranjo polity for some time, ruling in his name through the young king's childhood.

Wak Chanil died in 741, fifteen years after taking over Naranjo in her own right. Her death was recorded in hieroglyphics, on a bench, by her half brother’s son at Dos Pilas. It seems that at that time the kingdom reached the peak of its influence that extended from Lake Yaxha to Western Belize (west-east) and from Holmul to Ucanal (north-south). However, as the power of Calakmul waned, rulers of Saal had to confront a resurgent Mutal and that confrontation ended in a complete defeat of Saal in AD 744. However, Naranjo once again rose as major regional power in the last quarter of the eighth century AD. Eventually, the kingdom fell in the mid-ninth century AD. for reasons that are not yet understood

New stucco frieze discovered (2013)

In 2013, a building from about 600 AD was found at nearby Holmul with a giant stucco frieze showing a central ruler and two flanking ones in repose. The frieze is very well preserved. Below it runs a long inscription from which it appears that the construction was commissioned by king Ajwosaj (Aj Wosal) of Naranjo. At the time, Naranjo was subordinated to the Kaanul dynasty of Dzibanche and Calakmul.[2]

Known rulers

Name [3] Ruled Alternative Names
Naatz Chan Ahk c. 400
??? c. 475 Stela 41 Ruler
K'inich Tajal Chaak c. 510
Aj Wosal 5 May 546 – c. 615 Ruler I, Double Comb, 35th Ruler in the line
??? c. 615 – 631 36th Ruler in the line
??? c. 680 37th Ruler in the line
Lady Six Sky 27 August 682 – 28 May 693 Lady Wac Chanil Ahau, Lady of Dos Pilas, Lady of Tikal
K'ak Tiliw Chan Chaak 28 May 693 – c. 730 Ruler II, Smoking Squirrel, Scroll Squirrel, Butz' Tiliw, Smoke Squirrel, 38th Ruler in the line
Yax Mayuy Chan Chaak c. 740 – 4 February 744
K'ak' Yipiiy Chan Chaak 15 August 746 – c. 750 Smoking New Squirrel, Smoking Bak'tun
K'ak' Ukalaw Chan 8 November 755 – c. 780 Ruler IIIa, Smoking Batab, Smoking Axe, Axe Blade
Bat K'awiil c. 780
Itzamnaaj K'awiil 4 February 784 – c. 810 Ruler IIIb, Shield God K
Waaklajuun Ub'aah K'awiil 24 June 814 – c. 820 Ruler IIIc, 18 Rabbit, 18 JOG

Layout of Site

The regal-ceremonial core of Naranjo was known to seat its rulers and houses their gods. This site is about 1 km² and includes over 112 structures grouped in six triadic complexes. The triadic acropolis is an architectural compound dominated by Structure C-9. Structure C-9 is a massive mound located in the easternmost area of the core part of Naranjo. The largest triadic acropolis in the city, C-9’s main pyramid is the tallest building at Naranjo. Because it occupies the top of a natural hill with a cave located inside, it is a perfect place to be categorized as a ‘sacred mountain’.

The rest of Naranjo is monumental architectural site accompanied by several pyramids including one with a hieroglyphic staircase. Upright columns made from basalt stone can be found and they are carved with inscriptions chronicling Naranjo’s history in great detail. These inscriptions show the people’s pride in their culture and their desire to share it with generations to come. Forty-five carved, inscribed, and sculptured monuments are a key component to this site as well. One of the largest groups of surviving sculptures originating from the site includes a series of nine limestone tablets that formed part of a stairway. Multiple plazas are located on the site and the central plaza has two distinctive construction phases dating to the Mayan Pre Classic and Classic periods. The reason behind the construction gap is because Naranjo experienced three non-sequential period of architectural activity. Each period lasted between forty and fifty years. During the gaps of non-architectural activity, no monuments were being built. The twenty-seven monuments that have been recovered at Naranjo are the plainest monuments reported to date. This includes plain stelas and alters. It is a possibility that the monument complexes were used for calendrical purpose, rather than honoring or related to lineages. Because of this, only certain monuments had altars. Two ‘palace’ compounds, one E-Group and two ball courts were also found.

Maya and Olmec Art

Maya and Olmec art share similar features that link two cultures artistically. A head marked by a partly open mouth with thickened lips is the classic showing of a "baby face". These faces appear on a number of Maya stelae at Naranjo as ornaments attached to belts of the character depicted. One belt ornament on stela 14 at Naranjo shows slanting eyes, a broad nose with flaring nostrils, the outline of the open mouth and the thickened lips with a small pendicle in the center of the upper lip. The shape of the ornament is a common characteristic of Olmec heads from Mexico. Although some of the styles differ and vary between some Olmec and Maya faces, their similarities allows archeologists to connect Olmec style with Maya time.

Discovery of Naranjo

The site was rediscovered by Teoberto Maler in 1905. He spent 3 months exploring, mapping, and photographing the site. A series of inscribed stone slabs from a hieroglyphic stairway were excavated by Maler and are now part of the British Museum's collection.[4] In the 1910s further investigations of the site were made by Sylvanus G. Morley and Oliver Ricketson. Naranjo was one of the earliest sites to suffer from large-scale looting, as sculptures were illegally removed for sale to collectors. By the 1920s, many of the ancient sculptures had already disappeared. The problem worsened during the 1960s, when many of the site's large sculptures were smashed into fragments by looters in order to remove and sell the fragments. Some of the city's monuments are known today only from photographs taken by the early explorers; even when the looted monuments are subsequently brought back into circulation, their uncertain provenance makes it very difficult for them to be placed in an appropriate context.

European and North American collectors continued to support the removal of artifacts from the site, the problem intensifying during and after the Guatemalan civil war of the 1960s and 1970s. It is claimed that the military governments of the time were complicit. Even now, archaeologists excavating the site are from time to time forced to abandon their work because of the lawless activities of the well armed looters.

References and sources

  1. ^ Tokovinine, Alexandre; and Vilma Fialko. 2007. 'Stela 45 of Naranjo and the Early Classic Lords of Sa'aal". The PARI Journal, VolumeVII, No.4, Spring 2007.
  2. ^ Giant Maya Carvings Found in Guatemala. AUGUST 07, 2013,
  3. ^ Martin, Simon; and Nikolai Grube. 2000. "Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya", Thames & Hudson, London and New York. ISBN 0-500-05103-8
  4. ^ British Museum Collection
  • Lothrop, S. K. 1941 "A Chronological Link Between Maya and Olmeca Art". American Anthropologist, 43(3):419-421.
  • Morley, Sylvanus G. 1909 "The Inscriptions of Naranjo, Northern Guatemala". American Anthropologist, 11(4):543-562.
  • Rice, Don S., Prudence M. 1980 "The Northeast Peten Revisited" in American Antiquity. 45(3):432-454.
  • "El Naranjo" Guatemala-Cradle of the Mayan Civilization, 28 Jan. 2011 Web. 29 Apr. 2012
  • "Naranjo, Central highlands." Guatemala-Cradle of the Mayan Civilization, 28 Jan. 2011 Web. 29 Apr. 2012

External links

  • Description and Photo Galleries

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