Archaeologists Uncover Maya "Masterpiece" in Guatemala

Sean Markey
National Geographic News
April 23, 2004

Archaeologists working deep in Guatemala's rain forest under the protection of armed guards say they have unearthed one of the greatest Maya art masterpieces ever found.

The artifact—a 100-pound (45-kilogram) stone panel carved with images and hieroglyphics—depicts Taj Chan Ahk, the mighty 8th-century king of the ancient Maya city-state of Cancuén.

The panel was excavated in perfect condition from a royal ball court. Exquisitely carved in precise high relief, the 80-centimeter-wide (31.5-inch) stone depicts the Maya king seated on an earth symbol and throne with a jaguar skin, installing subordinate rulers in the nearby city-state of Machaquila.

Researchers say the panel's text confirms Ahk's status as one of the last, great kings of classic Maya civilization who controlled a vast territory in the Petén rain forest. Ahk grew and held his power through savvy politics and economic clout, rather than war, at a time when most other great Maya city-states were in their final decline, experts say.

"This panel is incredibly important," Arthur Demarest, a Vanderbilt University archaeologist and excavation co-leader, said in a satellite telephone interview from the dig site. "Every once in a while you have a beautiful, spectacular piece of art that is also profoundly historically important."

"It is … the best piece of Maya art that has ever been found in an excavated context," he added. "It looks like it was made yesterday."

Death Threats

In a related development that sounds ripped from the pages of an Indiana Jones script, Demarest said he has received a number of death threats tied to an upcoming trial related to the looting of a 1,200-year-old stone altar from Cancuén in 2001.

Demarest helped undercover agents from the Guatemalan S.I.C. (the nation's equivalent to the F.B.I.) arrest the alleged thieves and recover the altar last October. The defendants' trial is set to begin May 20.

Last week, armed gunmen fired on the archaeologist's rain forest dig site. The gunmen fled after Demarest's security guards returned fire and gave chase. The archaeologist has hired six bodyguards, some Israeli-trained.

Second Monument

Meanwhile in a second discovery in Cancuén, archaeologists say they have uncovered a 500-pound (230-kilogram) stone altar from the stucco surface of the thousand-year-old royal ball court, the same court used by Taj Chan Ahk.

Continued on Next Page >>


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