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Tue Jul 28, 2020, 02:35 AM

Did a Seventh-Century Warrior Queen Build the Maya's Longest Road?

Dubbed the “white road” in honor of its limestone paving, the 62-mile path is an engineering marvel on par with Maya pyramids

Built at the turn of the seventh century, the white plaster-coated road begins in Cobá and ends 62 miles west, at Yaxuná's ancient downtown in the center of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. (Courtesy of Traci Ardren and Dominique Meyer / University of Miami)

By Theresa Machemer
MARCH 6, 2020

When Lady K’awiil Ajaw, warrior queen of the Maya city of Cobá, needed to show her strength against the growing power of Chichen Itza, she took decisive action, building the then-longest road in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula and pav her army to counter the enemy’s influence by seizing the distant city of Yaxuná—or so a new analysis published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports suggests.

The study, led by researchers from the University of Miami and the Proyecto de Interaccion del Centro de Yucatan (PIPCY), shows that the 62-mile path is not a straight line as previously assumed, but a winding path that swerves through several smaller settlements. Because the road was raised, the researchers were able to spot it using LiDAR (light detection and ranging) technology, which measures the texture of a landscape based on how long it takes light to reflect back—like echolocation, but with lasers. Built around 700 A.D., the sacbe, or “white road,” derived its name from a limestone plaster paving that, thanks to the reflection of ambient light, would have been visible even at night.

“We tend to interpret [such projects] as activities which sort of proclaim the power of one polity, or at least, the alliance of some nature between the two polities,” university of Miami archaeologist Traci Ardren tells Live Science’s Tom Metcalfe.

By conquering Yaxuná, K’awiil Ajaw may have been trying to establish clear, strong ownership at the center of the peninsula. Adds Ardren, “Cobá represents a very traditional classic Mayan city in the form of a dynastic family, which holds all the power and is centered on one place.”


A drawing of a carving found on a stone monument in Cobá depicts warrior queen Lady K'awiil Ajaw. (Courtesy of Traci Ardren and Dominique Meyer / University of Miami)

. . .

In the statement, Ardren calls the massive road an engineering marvel on par with Maya pyramids. Paved over uneven ground that had to be cleared of boulders and vegetation, it was covered in white plaster made with a recipe similar to Roman concrete.


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Modern technology reveals old secrets about the great, white Maya road
Built at the turn of the 7th century, the white plaster-coated road that began 100 kilometers to the east in Cobá ends at Yaxuná's ancient downtown, in the center of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Photos and drawing courtesy of Traci Ardren and Dominique Meyer/University of Miami

By Maya Bell

Using lidar technology to peer through thick vegetation, researchers are learning more about the longest road from ancient Maya civilization.

Did a powerful queen of Cobá, one of the greatest cities of the ancient Maya world, build the longest Maya road to invade a smaller, isolated neighbor and gain a foothold against the emerging Chichén Itzá empire?

The question has long intrigued Traci Ardren, archaeologist and University of Miami professor of anthropology. Now, she and fellow scholars may be a step closer to an answer, after conducting the first lidar study of the 100-kilometer stone highway that connected the ancient cities of Cobá and Yaxuná on the Yucatan Peninsula 13 centuries ago.

Once used mainly by meteorologists to study clouds, lidar—short for “light detection and ranging”—technology is revolutionizing archaeology by enabling archaeologists to detect, measure, and map structures hidden beneath dense vegetation that, in some cases, has grown for centuries, engulfing entire cities. Often deployed from low-flying aircraft, lidar instruments fire rapid pulses of laser light at a surface, and then measure the amount of time it takes for each pulse to bounce back. The differences in the times and wavelengths of the bounce are then used to create digital 3D maps of hidden surface structures.

The lidar study, which Ardren and fellow researchers with the Proyecto de Interaccion del Centro de Yucatan (PIPCY) conducted in 2014 and 2017 of Sacbe 1—or White Road 1, as the white plaster-coated thoroughfare was called—may shed light on the intentions of Lady K’awiil Ajaw, the warrior queen who Ardren believes commissioned its construction at the turn of the 7th century.


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