Archaeologists have discovered a 700-year-old council house, a space dedicated to political and religious purposes, in the ancient site of Nixtun-Ch’ich’ in Petén, Guatemala. The house is a square about 164 feet by 164 feet. The interior has two collonaded halls that were once decorated with animal sculptures — the carved heads of a reptile (snake or crocodile) and a parrot were found in the home — built next to each other, and two altars.
“Basically almost every political and religious ritual would have been held there,” [Queens College professor Timothy] Pugh told Live Science in an interview. The leaders who gathered there would have held power in the community and perhaps the broader region. Among the artifacts is an incense burner showing the head of Itzamna, who was the “shaman of the gods,” Pugh said.
The house was devoted to its role between 1300 and 1500, after which it was deliberately destroyed by the Chakan Itza and the seat of power moved. This was part of the process of transition from one calendar period to the next. The ritual required that the altars be demolished and the house covered with a thin layer of ceremonial dirt representing burial.
The city of Nixtun-Ch’ich’ was a thriving metropolis when the council house was built. Its importance was confirmed by the discovery of a vast Mayan ball court, the second largest ever found. The first largest is at Chichen Itza in Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula. The Chakan Itza people claimed the Chichen Itza builders as their ancestors (hence the name), that they had migrated from what is today Mexico and settled in Guatemala.
They only had a few centuries to enjoy their new surroundings. In the 17th century, the Spanish conquered Petén, bringing death from war and disease to the Chakan Itza who were close to extermination. There are still Itza people today, but their language is almost extinct. Only a handful of surviving people still speak it. The rest speak Spanish.