LOS ANGELES -- The oldest and largest architectural sculpture yet discovered from the Mayan civilization has been found by a University of California at Los Angeles archaeologist in the Guatemalan site called Nakbe.
The massive head of the bird-god Itzam-Ye was sculpted on the side of one of the first pyramids built in Nakbe and later mysteriously hidden from view by a stone-and-earth terrace. The head is 34 feet wide by 16 feet high and carved from stone and covered with painted stucco.
It dates from around 300 B.C., "about 200 years earlier than most of the other known examples of similar sculptures," UCLA archaeologist Richard Hansen said. "This work dates from an era in Maya development which we had not thought could have produced such a sophisticated construction."
Nakbe lies in the dense tropical forest of northern Guatemala. Although archaeologists had long suspected that ruins lay at Nakbe, the forests prevented excavations until 1989, when Mr. Hansen reported the discovery of a large city.
The monument, one of the first large examples of religious sculpture, reinforces the growing idea "that religion was the final major catalyst to propel the ancient Mayan culture into a full-blown civilization," he said.
But John Graham, an archaeologist at the University of California at Berkeley, argued that archaeologists "place too much stress on religious interpretations" of things they do not fully understand. He suggested that the bird figure may be the totem of a ruling family rather than a god.
The buildings constructed during the first 300 years at Nakbe did not have "monumental architecture," Mr. Hansen said. Pyramids were small and had a single summit, like those at other sites in Guatemala.
But about 300 B.C., he said, "there was a massive transformation of Mayan society. They started constructing huge pyramids . . . with three summits." It was on the side of one of the first of these new pyramids that he found the sculpture of Itzam-Ye, which is also known as the Principal Bird Deity.
His team had no idea the mask was there, Mr. Hansen said. They were excavating through a terrace so they could learn how to stabilize the pyramid for future generations.
"When we came across this snout, it was obvious something was there," he said. "With a minimal amount of excavation, we revealed this entire elaborate facade." Much of the original coloring was still there, he said. "It's mostly green, with a lot of red and black lines painted on it."