for National Geographic News
An extensive archaeological excavation has unearthed a lost city that is believed to be one of the crowning jewels in the ancient civilization of the Maya.
For six years, researchers have deciphered hieroglyphics and scrutinized palaces in Guatemala's remote Piedras Negras, near the Mexican border. The study shows a city that began as an agricultural center as early as 400 B.C. and disintegrated under royal power struggles around 1,400 years later, around the same time the entire Mayan civilization began to collapse.
"We were able to basically write the biography of a city," said Stephen Houston, an archaeologist at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and one of the lead researchers. "It's a persuasive narrative about how a city grew, how it thrived, and how it died."
Houston's research was partially funded with a grant from the National Geographic Society Committee for Research and Exploration.
The cause of the sudden demise of the great Maya society, which once ranged from Mexico's Yucatán peninsula to Honduras, is fiercely debated by Maya experts. This latest research suggests the culture collapsed not from drought, as some experts believe, but from the loss of the royal court.
"The city came to a catastrophic end in about 800 A.D. when the last known king of the site was taken captive by a neighboring kingdom," Houston said. "Once the king and his royal court are gone, the city's reason for existence no longer seems to be there."
Loggers that came to harvest tropical hardwood discovered Piedras Negras in the 1880s. In the 1930s, archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia began studying the site, but World War II interrupted the research, and for almost 60 years no archaeologist went back.
Continuing the excavations took on added urgency after the Mexican government announced plans to build a dam that would flood part of the site, which is situated along the Usumacinta River.
But before Houston and his team could return to Piedras Negras, they first had to convince Marxist guerrillas, who used the site as a hideout in Guatemala's long-running civil war, to leave. They also had to decide how to reach the site: a five-hour hike through the bush from Mexico or a nine-hour boat ride down some hair-raising Guatemalan rapidsno easy feat for a team bringing in 120 workers.
When the archaeologists finally began their work in 1997, they were amazed at how well-preserved the site was. Still, to the untrained eye, it didn't look like much. While some architecture is still standing, most is in ruins.
"Walking around, a person may not realize he's on a major archaeological site," said Houston.
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