From Looters, Ancient Maya Altar Rescued

John Roach
for National Geographic News
October 30, 2003

An elaborate, 600-pound (270-kilogram) stone altar stolen from an ancient Maya ball court in Guatemala has been recovered, the National Geographic Society and Vanderbilt University announced Thursday.

Professional archaeologists, Guatemalan undercover agents, and local Maya villagers collaborated to recover the altar from a ring of looters and drug runners attempting to sell it in the lucrative antiquities market.

"This represents a rare and important victory and the prize is really a masterpiece of Mayan art," said Arthur Demarest, an archaeologist with Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, who leads the Cancuén Archaeological Project and was instrumental in the altar's recovery.

The altar pictures Taj Chan Ahk Ah Kalomte, the greatest of Cancuén's long dynasty of rulers, playing the sacred ball game with a king from a neighboring village. It was set into the ball court in A.D. 796 as a marker or goal post for later games.

The ball game was as much ritual as sport and was played to celebrate state visits and conclude royal alliances, according to Demarest.

Another altar from the ball court was unearthed in 1915 and is currently on display at Guatemala's National Museum of Archaeology, where it is considered the museum's greatest treasure.

"This one is better in terms of importance of the text and costumes and preservation and everything else," said Demarest. "As a work of art it has great importance. Scientifically, it is much more important. It really talks about the end, the final days, of this kingdom."

Cancuén is an ancient Maya mercantile port city located at the head of the Pasión River in the remote, southwestern region of the Petén rain forest. Demarest said the palace at Cancuén was one of the largest in the Maya world.

The site was first discovered by archaeologists in 1915 and was revisited in 1967. Then, due to Cancuén's remoteness and civil conflict, the site was abandoned until Demarest and colleagues began major excavations in 1996.

While archaeologists have been unearthing the site since 1996, until nine months ago they didn't know the recently recovered altar ever existed.

Recovering Loot

Continued on Next Page >>


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