In a pocket of the Guatemala highlands sits the heart of the Classic Maya Civilization, the high water mark for the ancient Mesoamericans, a land to this day held largely by the descendants of the once great peoples. It is Lake Atitlan, only a few hours drive from Guatemala City, but the comparisons between the two areas couldn’t be more stark. While Guatemala City, or Guatemala to the locals, has paved over its past, chipping away at the historical markers that once comprised the now sprawling city, the people surrounding Lake Atitlan would prefer to hold onto their history, to celebrate it and nurture it from the corruptions of the outside world.
This is the area, Santiago specifically, that held off the government during the Guatemalan Civil War. These people were shelled to no end but they held their ground and pushed back the military, preserving their land and their heritage. It’s this stubborn pride in their history that has allowed them to keep secrets for so long. But no one can keep a secret forever and a light is finally being shined on Lake Atitlan, or, more accurately, under Lake Atitlan.
Sometime in the 1980’s, a local diving aficionado named Roberto Samayoa discovered something fascinating beneath the lake. It was the remnants of a lost city, complete with structural foundations, ritual spaces and even still-standing monuments. He had always heard of a temple beneath the lake, a point of contact with the afterlife buried beneath a hundred feet of water, but he always passed it off as a legend rooted in fantasy. But when Samayoa first hovered over the remnants of walls, foundations, and even ancient stele, still erect after so long beneath the waters, he knew that these legends were based on historical truth. He named this lost world Samabaj
Samayoa began recording his findings with pictures and videos of the lake floor. He also pulled pottery from the site and the carvings and style seemed to suggest a Pre-Classic time period. He took his evidence to the Guatemalan Ministry of Culture and History, but the evidence wasn’t quite enough to convince them that the lake bed was a bona fide ancient site. He knew that to fully convince the Guatemalan government he would have to undertake a well-researched, thoroughly mapped archaeological survey of his new discovery. The first step was to register a name for the site. It would now become known as Samabaj.
The Lead Archeologist on the brand new Samabaj Project would be Sonia Medrano, a native Guatemalan based in Guatemala City. Medrano met with Roberto and dove down onto Samabaj and with one look she knew there was something of note beneath the lake. Sonia and Roberto called on the Scripps Institute to conduct a rough bathymetric map of the area. With this new data, Medrano was able to pin point the approximate locations of the structures on Samabaj, giving her a starting point for launching a complete survey and mapping of Samabaj. What her and her team would undertake would become the basis for the first ever underwater archeological survey conducted in Guatemala.
The survey has deemed Samabaj to be a Pre-Classic site, specifically a Terminal Pre-Classic site, between the dates of 500 BC and 200 AD. It appears to have operated primarily as a ritual site – the focal point of the island is a topographic high-point with a large open plaza. This plaza is flanked on either side by stele and alters, and behind one of the monuments is the foundation of what is more than likely a pyramid—as its base is far too large to be a residential structure.
To get a complete look at the exact locations of every structure on Samabaj, the project would need to call in the full force of modern technology—side scan sonar. Side scan sonar works by sending sound waves through the water and it returning to the device as echoes. The only problem with sonar is that it’s normally towed behind a boat to simply discover new artifacts, not actually map a site. But the Samabaj Project would try something completely new: fixed sonar mapping. The sonar was attached to the side of a boat and then several passes were completed over the entirety of the site, running east-west and north-south orientations, giving Medrano and her team a pin-point acute map of the city beneath the waters.
The implications of this underwater site are still being debated. It’s ceremonial function is undeniable and it would have more than likely been a place of pilgrimage for the Maya within the Atitlan area. One has to believe that the sinking of a ritual site such as Samabaj would have had resonating effects throughout the highlands, making the underwater city a key site in the Mayan landscape. The only way to get a clear picture of just how magnificent this island site would have been is to go to Atitlan and look across the waters and imagine a holy site in the middle of this water. Then imagine it gone the next day. This kind of catastrophic change must have stayed with these people for a long, long time.