Magnificent 1,300 Year Old Mayan Palace Found!  
Splendid Maya Palace Is Found Hidden in Jungle

September 8, 2000 - 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 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 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 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 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.

(c) 2000 The New York Times

Maya Palace Emerges From Guatemalan Jungle
By Lisa Krause, National Geographic

September 8, 2000 - After more than 1,000 years, Guatemala's thick rain forest has yielded an invaluable treasure: a well-preserved Maya palace, one of the largest and most elaborate ever discovered.

The sprawling, three-story limestone palace sits in the middle of an ancient city known as Cancuén, which means "place of serpents." So far, archaeologists have counted more than 170 rooms arranged around 11 courtyards. The entire complex is about the same size as the central acropolis at Tikal, one of the most famous and well-preserved Maya sites known.

"No one has found anything like this since the turn of the century," says Arthur Demarest, an archaeologist from Vanderbilt University who is leading the Cancuén expedition with Tomas Barrientos from the Universidad del Valle in Guatemala. The expedition is sponsored by Vanderbilt University, Guatemala's Institute of Anthropology and Archaeology, and the National Geographic Society.


Cancuén was known to archaeologists as a minor site as early as 1905. In the 1960s a team of researchers from Harvard University identified the palace, but underestimated its size because of the thick layer of vegetation.

The dense rain forest concealed the palace so well that Demarest did not realize what his team had stumbled upon until two weeks into the excavation, when he fell up to his armpits in what he thought was a snake's nest. Demarest remained frozen in place for about 30 minutes, not wanting to disturb any snakes. "That's when I realized I had fallen into the third story of the palace — that each of the limestone platforms we had been investigating was a buried architectural site," he says.

One of the reasons Cancuén remained undiscovered — and unlooted — for so long is that it is located in a relatively remote corner of Guatemala, where few Maya temples have been found. Traditionally, temples have pointed archaeologists to Mayan cities and towns.

Puzzled initially by the lack of temples, Demarst looked to Maya history and geography to realize that Cancuén's location, within walking distance of some of the region's highland mountains, provided a natural witz, a sacred hill that Mayans in lowland settlements recreated with man-made temples. Demarest found signs of religious ceremonies and burials very close to Cancuén in the area's natural cave-filled limestone towers.

The remarkable preservation of Cancuén is due in part to its limestone construction, which is less susceptible to collapse than other Maya building materials such as mud and concrete. The labyrinth-like construction of the palace filled with vegetation, which disguised and protected the site for more than 1,000 years.


Studies by epigrapher Federico Fahsen of many of the glyphs that cover monuments at Cancuén suggest that Cancuén's rulers relied on trade and alliances with other Maya centers — rather than war — to maintain their long-standing political power.

Demarest suggests that Cancuén's location on the Pasion River, at the point where it first becomes navigable, was important in its role as a center for suppliers of raw materials from the highlands. Artisans at Cancuén crafted the materials into jade ornaments, pyrite mirrors, obsidian blades, and quetzal-feather headdresses to sell to cities in the lowlands. Workshops filled with tools to produce such items have been found surrounding the palace.

All of these items were important symbols of power for Maya kings, says Demarest. Pyrite mirrors were especially important to priests, who used them to light fires.

Fahsen's work has revealed a long history of political alliances struck between Cancuén and other Maya centers. It is possible, says Demarest, that the many rooms in the palace were designed to impress visiting royalty from cities with which Cancuén had made alliances.

That Cancuén dedicated itself to commerce and alliances suggests a radically different view of the culture than tradition has held. Scholars have long thought that war and religion governed Maya civilization, yet no trace of military defense has been found at Cancuén. "This discovery will cause many scholars, including myself, to rethink their views of war and religious ceremony in the Maya empire," Demarest says.


After realizing the enormity of his discovery, Demarest invited conservator Rudy Larios to tour the site and help plan for the eventual restoration of Cancuén as an historical site. Larios has been instrumental in conserving other Maya sites like Tikal and Copan.

In addition, Demarest has initiated a development program to involve the community in the restoration and protection of the site. He hopes that the local Kekchi Maya, who are guarding the site during the rainy season, will become the guides when and if the site opens to the public.

It may be a long time before eco-tourists can travel to Cancuén to view the palace complex, however. Demarest says he planned to spend just two years at Cancuén, but when Larios saw the scope of the project he "put his hand on my shoulder and said 'You're going to be here for a very long time.'"

(c) 2000 National Geographic Society

Links to Related Sites: The Mayan Ruins Page | Las Estelas - Diario de Yucatán | Maya of Guatemala
Scientists Uncover Mayan Marketplace
By WILL WEISSERT Associated Press Writer

SEPTEMBER 08 2000 - GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — Scientists and looters ignored the ruin for nearly a century because it appeared devoid of temples and burial sites that might yield valuable treasures and artifacts.

They had no idea what they were missing.

Underneath the jungle curtain of mud and dense foliage was a sprawling lost city called "Cancuén,'' (can-ku-win), one of the most important commercial centers of the Mayan world for more than 1,200 years.

Cancuén has been rediscovered by Guatemalan and American scientists working deep in the country's northern jungles. They believe it will take 10 years to fully unearth the city, which dates to 400 B.C.

It is buttressed by a 270,000-square-foot Mayan palace. With three floors — each 66 feet high — and 170 rooms, it is among the most grandiose Mayan structures ever discovered, the National Geographic Society announced Friday.

The society is a chief sponsor of the Cancuén excavation project.

"We started off working with what we thought was a small palace, part of a small Mayan settlement,'' said Arthur Demerest, a Vanderbilt University archaeologist and head of the Cancuén project. "What we found was a palace 20 times as large as we were expecting and an important Mayan marketplace that had been forgotten for almost 100 years.''

Built in the shadow of the hulking palace, the 5-square-mile city featured a crowded rectangular layout of heavy stone walls, 11 spacious stone-tiled patios and buildings with cubbyhole-like rooms and thick, multileveled roofs.

While Demerest said scientists aren't sure how many Mayan merchants traded in Cancuén, the city is thought to have attracted thousands from nearby highland settlements, including the sprawling, majestic city of Tikal, 85 miles to the northeast.

Cancuén, an ancient Maya word meaning "Place of the Serpent,'' became a key trading post because of the sprawling River Passion in what is known today as southern Peten, Guatemala's northernmost province, Demerest said.

First discovered in 1905 by Austrian explorer Tobert Maler, scientists and looters ignored the site for years.

"A city that was built only for commercial purposes and not for religious ones seemed uninteresting to a lot of academics and worthless to a lot of looters,'' Demerest said, adding that the city is now overrun with such jungle-dwelling animals as howler monkeys.

Cancuén lacked the breathtaking temples that dominate Tikal and other Mayan sites because its inhabitants worshipped and buried their dead in surrounding highland areas.

"All of the fantastic temples you see at other sites are an effort to copy the altitude of the highlands that surrounded Cancuén,'' said Demerest, who said that being close to the heavens was the cornerstone of Mayan religious practices. "In Cancuén they had the real thing.''

Though work at the site has been suspended until next spring because of the rainy season, scientists have already recovered dozens of artifacts in nearby mountain caves.

Cancuén remained shrouded by jungle until 1967, when a group of Harvard graduate students returned to the city for less than a week and brought back crude sketches of what they thought was waiting to be discovered there.

Demerest and scientists from Guatemala's City's Valley University were drawn back to the area in April because hieroglyphics inscribed in artifacts recovered in Tikal and Dos Pilas, the ancient Maya's largest commercial center, made reference to a marketplace called Cancuén and its powerful fourth-century B.C. ruler, Tah Chan Wi, or "Celestial Fire.''

Frederico Fahsen, the foremost Guatemalan authority on deciphering Mayan hieroglyphics and the Cancuén project's co-director, said the Cancuén ruler married his daughter to the king of Dos Pilas, 55 miles to the northeast, to establish relationships with surrounding settlements rather than go to war with them.

"Mayan cities have been in constant war, with their constructions dedicated to the gods and the heavens,'' Fahsen said. "Here we have exactly the opposite.''

Stone Panel Discovery Tells of Maya Wars
By Russ Oates, National Geographic

A 3,000-pound stone panel that chronicles in unusual detail the tumultuous reign of a Maya king 13 centuries ago has been unearthed at the base of a pyramid upon which it once rested, towering above the jungles of what is now Guatemala.

Funded in part by the National Geographic Society, Stephen Houston, a professor of anthropology at Brigham Young University, and Hector Escobedo of Guatemala's Universidad Del Valle, found the panel in the ancient Maya city of Piedras Negras.

It had been lying unnoticed face downward, probably since it was toppled during the collapse of the Maya region around A.D. 800 and slid down the steps of the pyramid, the tomb of the king.

"This panel is the most important find of sculpture from the area in over 65 years," Houston said Friday. It is one of the largest hieroglyphic panels ever found in the Maya area.

The panel relates the life of Itzamk'anahk K'in Ajaw and his 47-year reign over Piedras Negras, what Houston said is the longest known reign at the site. According to the panel, the king assumed power in A.D. 639 and ruled until his death in 686. The unusual part is the king's age when he began his rule.

"He came to the throne when only 13 years old—rather like Louis XIV," Houston said. "Much like that French king, he reigned for an exceptionally long time."


The panel relates that the first 25 years of the king's reign were peaceful. But a battle in 664 initiated a tumultuous period for the people of Piedras Negras. In the next five years, two more battles occurred. As expected, much of the panel is devoted to these confrontations.

"One presumes that the scene, which shows bound, moaning captives, beautifully rendered in a way that is less clear with the stiff representation of the king, comes at the end of this series of battles," Houston said of the panel. "The captives were apparently kept around as hostages, but it is at this time—the image shown on the carving—that they are most likely going to be sacrificed."

Apparently, the king survived the arduous period, because it wasn't until 17 years after the last battle that he was buried in the pyramid erected in his honor. It was the king's son, Yo'nalahk, who had the memorial built, Houston said.


Consistent with others at the site, the pyramid was built in two phases. Through the use of inscriptions on the panel, it is the believed the first portion of the pyramid was erected at the time of the king's burial in 686. Houston said the second stage coincided with a ritual re-entry into the tomb in 706.

The panel nearly went unnoticed. For years, the site was inaccessible because of conflict within Guatemala. The area was finally opened in 1997, but the panel remained well hidden—lying face down. Its situation caused it to be mistaken for another stela, or inscribed upright stone, something it has proven not to be.

"The panel is significant because of its unusually long inscription, which is five to ten times longer than most other texts," Houston said. "It is an unusually full historical account, a powerful reflection of the warlike society record of wars in pre-Columbian America."

(c) 2000 National Geographic Society.

Visit eXoNews for more recent news!

Paperback books by Rich La Bonté - Free e-previews!