In Guatemalan Jungle, A Mayan Wall Street?
By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
The palace is three stories high, covers an area the size of six football
fields, and lay nearly intact for centuries beneath the dense vegetation
of central Guatemala's
Peten rain forest.
In a major discovery, archaeologists working at the site at Cancuen
yesterday announced that they had found the remains of an enormous Mayan
trading center that
flourished at the apogee of the Mayan civilization in the eighth century A.D., and whose size rivals the central acropolis at the famous ruins of Tikal.
"This site is very important because it changes some of the perspective
on Mayan states," said Vanderbilt University archaeologist Arthur Demarest,
leader of the
Like other scholars, he said he believed that "the basis of royal power
among the Maya was religion and warfare." But Cancuen "has no temples,
no defense, no
evidence of warfare, no evidence of important wars," Demarest said. Instead, hieroglyphs at the site suggest that the business of Cancuen was business, and that the
city prospered by making political alliances "on a Machiavellian scale."
In expeditions sponsored by Guatemala's Institute of Anthropology and
History, the National Geographic Society and Vanderbilt, Demarest determined
the scope of
the site last spring. His team subsequently mapped a labyrinthine three-story limestone building measuring 240 yards by 153 yards and containing 170 rooms built
around 11 courtyards.
Outside the palace, buildings housed the bureaucrats and artisans who
managed a thriving trade in natural resources from Guatemala's central
ornaments and jewelry, obsidian for knives and chopping tools and pyrite. Cancuen lies at the foot of the highlands, on a small natural harbor precisely where the
Pasion River becomes navigable.
Cancuen was a rich city, even for workers, Demarest said. Common graves
found in caves in the hills surrounding the palace contained finely painted
jewelry and utensils. The skeleton of one woman showed ornamental jade inlays in 10 of her teeth.
Mayan civilization may have begun as early as 2500 B.C., but it was
not until 3,000 years ago that large numbers of people began to settle
in the jungle lowlands of
what today is Central America, including all of Belize, most of Guatemala, large areas of Mexico and pieces of El Salvador and Honduras.
The Mayan "classic period" lasted from 250 A.D. to 900 A.D., when for
as yet unknown reasons, the population in jungle areas declined. The Maya
periodically thrived, however, until the Spanish invasion in the 16th century.
The Maya are known for their architecture at elaborate sites such as
Tikal, Chichen Itza and Copan, but the region--rain-sodden, overgrown and
beset for decades
by guerrilla war--is difficult to explore, and "I think there are a good number of sites that have not come to the notice of archaeologists," said Maya specialist Wendy
Ashmore, an archaeologist at the University of California at Riverside.
Cancuen was discovered in 1905 and visited in the 1960s by a group of
Harvard graduate students who mapped "5 percent of the site," Demarest
said. He added
that the vegetation is almost impassable, and the site is filled with snakes. In the K'ekchi language spoken in the area, Cancuen means "place of serpents."
The prevailing view among scholars was that Cancuen was a "minor site,"
an opinion shared by Demarest until the day this spring when he was walking
he thought was a stone platform built over landfill and suddenly fell up to his armpits in tropical vines and muck, Demarest said.
"I realized I was in the middle of a courtyard," he said. And unlike
most Mayan ruins, the surrounding walls were built of solid limestone and
were largely intact, as
were the roofs and ceilings. Beneath the palace were the ruins of at least three older buildings, he said.
Demarest described the palace as a maze-like structure containing dozens
of small rooms with vaulted ceilings 20 feet high. The rooms were clustered
compact courtyards, suggesting that they may have been intended to house large numbers of high-ranking visitors, perhaps in town to negotiate business deals, he
The jungle reclaimed the palace once it was abandoned, but the vegetation
preserved and disguised the building rather than destroying it, Demarest
said. Over time
the trees and brush that swelled the courtyards also served to shore up the inner walls.
The walls themselves, made of solid limestone, did not collapse, but
reinforced each other even as the jungle encroached. And outside the palace
the Mayan kings
had paved two square kilometers of jungle with cobblestones, which kept local farmers from trying to plant there once Cancuen had been abandoned.
Demarest said the team has barely begun excavating the site, and next
year will enter the palace. "I'm going to have to excavate and restore
at the same time,"
Demarest said, otherwise "the rooms will fall on you" as vegetation and other supporting debris is removed.
But if Cancuen was intact, it was not undisturbed. Demarest said Guatemalan
researchers involved in the dig have been able to track down monuments,
other carved stones that have been stolen from the site over the years. The inscriptions describe a powerful kingdom ruled by a dynasty that governed peacefully for
centuries by aligning itself bloodlessly to city states ranging from Teotihuacan, in what is now Mexico, to Tikal. "There is a different base of power here," Demarest
said. "This is totally different from the other great Mayan sites."
A Mayan Discovery
A structure in Guatemala previously identified as a minor palace has
now been determined to be one of the largest and most elaborate residences
of ancient Mayan
kings ever discovered. The palace had more than 170 rooms built around 11 courtyards.