Archaeologists uncover Mayan arena

Medicine & Science

April 26, 2004|By Thomas H. Maugh II | Thomas H. Maugh II,LOS ANGELES TIMES

A magnificent stone panel just unearthed from a royal ball court in the late-Maya capital of Cancuen shows that the Pasion River kingdom was thriving even as other Maya capitals were disintegrating in the last stages of the ancient civilization.

The slab, which shows Cancuen's King Taj Chan Ahk extending his power by installing a subordinate king in the nearby city of Machaquila, "is one of the greatest masterpieces of Maya art ever discovered in Guatemala," according to epigrapher Federico Fahsen. "The images of the rulers and the historical text are deeply and finely carved in high relief and miraculously preserved."

The discovery of the panel and a third altar from the ball court was announced Friday by Guatemala's Minister of Culture, Manuel Salazar Tezahuic, himself a Kaqchikel Maya.

The discoveries by a team led by Vanderbilt University archaeologist Arthur Demarest with support from the National Geographic Society are the latest in the excavation of the largest and most elaborate Maya royal palace yet discovered. Its kings ruled most of the Maya cities along the Pasion River in the Peten rainforest and scholars hope the excavations will reveal new information about what led to the collapse of the powerful civilization.

Cancuen is at the beginning of the navigable waters of the Pasion and accumulated its wealth by controlling the shipment of jade, exotic feathers and other valuable goods. While other Maya kings developed power by warfare, Cancuen's influence was based on control of strategic resources and alliances with other kingdoms.

The limestone palace was constructed between 765 and 790 by king Taj and, unlike other Maya palaces, was constructed all at once rather than being gradually enlarged over decades. Also unlike other palaces, whose exteriors were adorned with artworks, all of its sculptures and statuary were on the inside for viewing only by visiting kings and nobles.

The palace features three ball courts, but the archeologists have so far concentrated on one of them, which seems to have been used solely on ceremonial occasions. "It is the only completely intact ball court ever discovered, with everything all found in place," Demarest said.

Looters stole one of the three stone altars last year, but Demarest led a successful effort with Guatemalan authorities to retrieve it.

Demarest said the bulk of the city has been exceptionally well preserved, shielded from tomb robbers and the vagaries of nature by dense forest. The site does not have a pyramid or other traditional signs of Maya power, so archeologists and looters had assumed there was not much there and left it alone.

The palace has more than 200 masonry rooms and 11 interior plazas, according to Tomas Barrientos of the Universidad del Valle in Guatemala City, one of the co-leaders of the expedition. Its high walls were covered with elaborate larger-than-life stucco figures portraying deities and deified kings of the dynasty. Many of the sculptures have fallen off the walls and been covered by rubble, which protected them from further damage.

The visit to Cancuen by the culture minister and by U.S. Ambassador John R. Hamilton was designed to highlight the success of the Cancuen Regional Development Project, a $6 million effort to create programs enabling the people of 30 Q'eqchi' Maya villages near Cancuen to participate in the archaeological excavations and develop a tourist industry run by the indigenous peoples.

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