Archaeologists Unearth a Maya "Masterpiece"

Distributed by New York Times Special Features 

Archaeologists deep in Guatemala's rain forest under protection by armed guards say they have unearthed a Maya masterpiece—a massive stone panel intricately carved with images and hieroglyphics depicting Taj Chan Ahk, 8th-century king of the Maya city-state of Cancuen.

The panel—100 pounds and 31.5 inches wide—was excavated in perfect condition from a royal ball court. It shows the Maya king seated on an earth symbol and throne with a jaguar skin, installing rulers in the nearby city-state of Machaquila.

Researchers say that the panel text confirms Ahk's status as one of the last great kings of classic Maya civilization. Ahk controlled a vast territory in the Peten rain forest. He maintained his power through savvy politics and economic clout, rather than war, at a time when most other great Maya city-states were in decline.

"This panel is incredibly important," Arthur Demarest, a Vanderbilt University archaeologist and excavation co-leader, says in a satellite telephone interview from the dig site. "Every once in a while you have a beautiful, spectacular piece of art that is also profoundly historically important."

"It is … the best piece of Maya art that has ever been found in an excavated context," he adds. "It looks like it was made yesterday."

In a related development that seems worthy of an "Indiana Jones" script, Demarest says he has received a number of death threats tied to a trial related to the looting of a 1,200-year-old stone altar from Cancuen in 2001.

Last October, Demarest helped undercover agents from the Guatemalan S.I.C. (equivalent to the F.B.I.) arrest the alleged thieves and recover the altar. The trial is next month.

Last week, armed gunmen fired on the archaeologist's rain forest dig site. The gunmen fled after Demarest's security guards returned fire and gave chase. The archaeologist has hired six bodyguards, some Israeli-trained.

Meanwhile, also in Cancuen, the archaeologists have unearthed a 500-pound stone altar from the stucco surface of the 1,000-year-old royal ball court, the same one used by Ahk.

The discovery marks the first time researchers have excavated a stone altar from a Maya ball court in its original archaeological context. Such a find "has never happened in Maya archaeology," Demarest says. "These things have always turned up in (private) collections. They've always been looted."

The altar is the third, and final, marker from the royal ball court recovered over the past century. The first was found in 1905. The second is the one that the looters stole in 2001.

The altars were used as goal posts. All three show Ahk in full royal regalia playing against the visiting ruler of a vassal state. Ahk used the symbolic games as political "photo ops" to mark treaties and stage-manage his grip on power, Demarest says. The two new stone monuments will help archaeologists understand the last 30 years of Maya civilization and its moment of collapse.

Cancuen is an ancient port city on the Pasion River whose name means "Place of the Serpents." Five years ago, Demarest and other Vanderbilt experts, sponsored by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration and the Guatemalan Ministry of Culture, began to explore the city's ruins.

Their excavations soon uncovered the largest ancient Maya palace ever found. The palace, built by Akh mainly during the eighth century, sprawled over nearly 250,000 square feet and had 200 rooms with vaulted ceilings.

The palace was a "power-creating machine" laid out to inspire awe in visiting warrior-kings and convert rivals into vassals. "There were 11 courtyards," Demarest explains. "By the time you got to the foot of the king, you were ready to do anything for him."

Under Ahk and earlier kings, Cancuen served as a principal gateway for trade between city-states of the volcanic southern highlands of Central America and the Peten rain forest lowlands to the north, brokering trade in precious commodities like obsidian, jade, seashells and stingray spines. With these materials, craftsmen fashioned scepters, headdresses, pendants and necklaces to display royal power.

Experts theorize about factors that may have led Maya civilization to collapse, from internecine warfare to drought. The true cause remains a mystery.

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