From: Rohit Khare (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: Fri Sep 08 2000 - 16:12:06 PDT
Splendid Maya Palace Is Found Hidden in Jungle
By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD
In a remote jungle of Guatemala, among the remains of a little-known ancient
city with a name meaning Place of Serpents, archaeologists have uncovered
one of the largest and most splendid palaces of Maya kings ever discovered.
Its 170 high-ceiling rooms were built around 11 courtyards and spread over
an area greater than two football fields.
"No one has found anything like this since the turn of the last century,"
Dr. Arthur A. Demarest, an archaeologist at Vanderbilt University in
Nashville and leader of the discovery team, said yesterday in describing the
palace, which dates from the eighth century A.D. "What is most incredible
about this site is that most of the palace is buried virtually intact."
Dr. Demarest said that in size and preservation the palace, at Cancuén,
rivaled the buildings at the central acropolis in Tikal, one of the grandest
seats of Mayan power in Guatemala. Earlier expeditions had either overlooked
or underestimated the size and grandeur of the palace and the city around
it, a prosperous center of commerce and crafts at the head of navigation on
the Pasión River.
The discovery and the first excavations at Cancuén were made this summer by
archaeologists led by Dr. Demarest and Dr. Tomás Barrientos of the
Universidád del Valle in Guatemala. The expedition is sponsored by the
Guatemalan Institute of Anthropology and History, the National Geographic
Society and Vanderbilt.
"It's an extraordinarily important find," said Dr. David Freidel, a Maya
studies specialist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, who has no
connection to the work. "It's been a long time since a major palace complex
has come to light. A scientific investigation of the ruins should help us
understand political life in the late classic period of the Maya."
The Maya civilization was at the peak of its power in Central America and
Mexico from 250 to 900, known as the classic period. The king who completed
the palace - inscriptions give his name as Tah ak Chaan - ruled Cancuén for
about 50 years, beginning in 740.
By this time, Dr. Freidel said, the focus of Mayan political life and state
ceremony had shifted from the grand outdoor plazas to the palaces, which
means that the buildings' art and architecture may reflect the changing
relationships of powerful rulers, nobles and allies.
Even a preliminary study of the site and its inscribed monuments has already
produced one surprise: there is no evidence that the city's rulers engaged
in any major wars with neighbors. Nor is there any sign of pyramids, the
typically spectacular bases for temples and manifestations of the religious
roots of a city's power.
The absence of pyramid temples was the main reason previous archaeologists
largely passed by the ruins and failed to investigate the true size of the
These discoveries alone may cause scholars to reconsider some of their ideas
about the Maya civilization, Dr. Demarest said. Here was a city that
appeared to prosper for hundreds of years without warfare or the usual
display of religion as sources of the power of Maya kings, particularly
toward the end of their dominance.
"I have a book in press that I'll have to revise," Dr. Demarest remarked.
Unlike other Maya cities, Cancuén appeared to use its strategic position at
the foot of the highlands, a source of jade, obsidian and other valuable
commodities, to become a commercial power throughout the lowlands. Dr.
Demarest said the city must have been larger, richer and more powerful than
anyone had expected. Its rulers appeared to have been single-mindedly
dedicated to commerce.
Some of the first excavations of residences disclosed that the city had a
relatively wealthy middle class and many workshops for artisans producing
elite goods for trade far and wide.
Jade is everywhere at the site, Dr. Demarest said. A young middle- class
woman was found in her grave with 10 jade inlaid teeth. Workmen were buried
with fine ceramic figurines with beautiful headdresses. At a workshop lay a
35-pound chunk of jade, which artisans had been slicing for pieces to
Other excavations turned up large amounts of pyrite, commonly known as
fool's gold. Thin sheets of it were being used in making mirrors, one of the
more prized possessions of the elite.
All this might never have been uncovered if Dr. Demarest had not literally
fallen into the discovery of the palace.
After a decade of excavations at Dos Pilas and other sites in northern
Guatemala, where he found ample evidence of a highly militaristic city-
state called Petexbatún, Dr. Demarest decided last year to visit Cancuén to
follow up a lead. Members of his team had found records of a marriage
alliance between a Dos Pilas prince and a Cancuén princess. She then came to
Dos Pilas to live in her own small palace.
Seeing the architecture and crafts of Cancuén, Dr. Demarest said, "It looks
as if the princess brought her own artisans, because the stonework on her
palace is just like that at Cancuén and far superior to anything in the
Then the archaeologists looked more closely at the ruins of what turned out
to be the royal palace. "To the untrained eye, the palace looks just like a
great, jungle-covered hill," Dr. Demarest said.
While walking along the ruin's highest level, Dr. Demarest fell up to his
armpits into vegetation filling one of the courtyards. "That's when I
realized the entire hill was a three- story building and we were walking on
top of the roof," he said.
So far, archaeologists have only dug test holes into the palace ruins,
enough to estimate the dimensions of the building. The walls are built of
solid limestone. They enclose a densely packed labyrinth of rooms with
20-foot-high corbel-arched ceilings. The team's leaders estimate it will
take at least 10 years to excavate and partly restore the palace.
They are making plans to deploy a larger team of researchers and excavators
at the site next February, at the end of the rainy season. The region is
free of civil war now, Dr. Demarest said, but the government of Guatemala
has little presence there, and it is still a virtually lawless place.
Dr. Demarest said the expedition has mobilized and trained the people of the
nearest village, El Zapote, to stand guard over the new-found palace.
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