Archaeologist and National Geographic grantee Francisco Estrada-Belli has settled at the crossroads of exploration and preservation, working with the aid of GIS and remote sensing in Guatemala. He currently studies early Lowland Maya civilization in the ancient Maya city of Holmul. In 2010 he founded the Maya Archaeological Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving Maya heritage in Guatemalan schools. Here, Estrada-Belli poses beside a carving of the rain god Chak, a significant find in the world of Preclassic Maya archaeology.

“In this photo I am looking with a bit of stupor at this wonderful carving of the rain god Chak. It once adorned the front of a Maya pyramid at the site of Dos Aguadas, in northeastern Peten, Guatemala. It was deeply buried by later pyramids, and the only way we had been able to find it was by digging a deep tunnel through the rubble left by looters. I was very surprised to see this carving because it was not the image of a Maya god I was expecting.

“Most Preclassic Maya pyramid carvings we know of (a handful, for sure) are decorated with images of the sun god in human or birdlike form. This is a completely different example and adds an important new element to our understanding of Maya religion and the meaning associated with pyramids. It appears that this pyramid and site was an important place of worship of the rain god, dating to the first century B.C.E. It is my goal now to find more of these images so we have a fuller picture of which gods the Maya worshiped in their pyramids as they developed their fascinating culture.

“This is an amazing find for us Maya archaeologists, because it shows that we have much more to learn about Maya religion and culture, especially in regard to the early periods. For me, it was an incredible stroke of luck, because the carving was perfectly preserved and full of details that I am now studying. As a final and personal note, I think it is a neat coincidence that I should find an image of the rain god. In my decadelong work in this remote part of the Maya jungle, I had to work through many difficult rainy seasons, including a few severe floods. In 2002, I was actually struck by lightning, but by some miracle survived with no permanent damage (that I know of). So, I am very happy to see good old Chak up close and say thank you.”