FW: [hbe-l] Splendid Maya Palace Is Found Hidden in Jungle
FW: [hbe-l] Splendid Maya Palace Is Found Hidden in Jungle
From: Jesse S. Cook III [mailto:jesse_cook@...]
Sent: Friday, September 08, 2000 2:35 PM
Subject: Fw: [hbe-l] Splendid Maya Palace Is Found Hidden in Jungle
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From: Premise Checker <checker@...>
Date: Fri, 8 Sep 2000 11:38:29 -0400 (EDT)
September 8, 2000
Splendid Maya Palace Is Found Hidden in Jungle
By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD
New York Times
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
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
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
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 palace.
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
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 manufacture ornaments.
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 Petexbatún region."
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
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
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