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Priceless Maya Stone Vessel Looted in Guatemala

Sean Markey
for National Geographic News
May 5, 2006
 
Just days after the rare discovery of an untouched royal Maya tomb in Guatemala comes news of plundered Maya treasure in that same Central American country.

Looters have stolen a rare and exquisitely carved 1,500-year-old stone box from a cave near the city of Cancuén, experts told the National Geographic Society this week. (National Geographic News is part of the National Geography Society.)

Archaeologists expressed dismay that the artifact was stolen, saying the theft was most likely to benefit a collector in the United States or Europe.

"This is one of the most impressive finds from the Early Classic" period of the Maya Indian civilization (A.D. 250 to 600), said Brent Woodfill, the archaeologist who discovered the theft two weeks ago.

"It's very rare that you find … really important and beautiful artifacts actually in situ"—preserved in their original setting as they were last used.

Local and national authorities in Guatemala are investigating the crime. Interpol, the international police organization based in Lyon, France, has been alerted to the theft, Woodfill says.

A graduate student with Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, Woodfill believes the artifact might still be recovered.

(Related: "The Dawn of Maya Gods and Kings" from National Geographic magazine.)

Exceptional Artifact

Carved from volcanic rock and covered in intricate hieroglyphs, the vessel is only the fourth of its kind to emerge from the so-called Maya rain forest of Central America.

Dating to A.D. 480 to 550, the box is a rare example of lowland Maya art from the murky Early Classic period, Woodfill says.

Symbolic figures and characters—including the god of the underworld, a scribe, and another artisan—adorn four sides of the box.

The lid bears the box's finest carvings, depicting the Early Classic Maya maize god and moon rabbit. One symbolic character refers to the box as his house.

The artifact measures roughly 15 inches by 9 inches by 6 inches (38 centimeters by 22 centimeters by 14 centimeters).

When the vessel was first discovered last year, it contained the leg bone of a tapir, a medium-size mammal related to both the horse and the rhinoceros.

(Watch video of tapirs in action.)

The bone may have been placed inside the box centuries after the artifact was made, Woodfill said.

More striking is Guatemalan hieroglyph expert Federico Fahsen's interpretation of the symbols on the box. He suggests that they indicate that the stone vessel may have originally contained a Maya codex, or ancient book.

"We were able to get a lot of information out of it before the box was stolen," Woodfill said. "We have good drawings and photos."

"Dream" Cave

The stone box was discovered over a year ago by local landowner Leonidas Javier.

Javier found a cave entrance along a stream close to a deep pool near a 26-foot-tall (8-meter-tall) waterfall.

The cave and stream sat directly in the path of one of the two main Maya trade routes. The Maya used these pathways to transport precious goods—such as jade, obsidian, pyrite, and quetzal feathers—from highland to lowland city-states.

Inside the 80-foot-long (25-meter-long) cave were 27 clay pots and the stone box.

Probably a shrine for traveling merchants, the cave was likely seen as a portal to the underworld. The artifacts discovered inside would have been left as offerings to Maya gods and ancestors.

Javier notified the head of the Guatemalan Department of Pre-Hispanic Monuments, which contacted Woodfill, the archaeologist.

Javier and Woodfill investigated the site, and Woodfill later returned with Guatemalan archaeologist Mirza Monterroso.

"This was the kind of cave that most archaeologists dream of coming to, which is a really important cave that hasn't been looted," Woodfill said.

"Every other place that I work is filled with looters' pits, and everything's been moved around."

Javier, the landowner, had wanted to remove the objects for safekeeping, but was rebuffed by Guatemalan authorities.

The officials ruled that the artifacts would remain in the cave until the government formally registered the site.

Stolen Artifacts

Woodfill and Javier returned to the cave last month with a government official to register the site and its artifacts.

It was then that they discovered that looters had slipped past the cave's gated entrance and stolen the priceless stone box and eight clay pots. The artifact was stolen sometime between late March 2005 and two weeks ago, Woodfill says.

"The landowner was actually in the process of building a museum to house the stone box," Woodfill said. "It's sad."

Tennessee-based photographer Stephen Alvarez photographed the cave and stone box nearly a year ago for a future National Geographic magazine article.

The photographer said it was "gut-wrenching" to learn that the box had been stolen.

"This is an extraordinary thing," Alvarez said.

"I've seen a lot of Maya artifacts, and I've seen a lot of Maya artifacts underground. I've never seen anything like this before."

Alvarez added that "my first thought was, Thank God we have good pictures of it and that Brent [Woodfill] has good drawings and [experts] can actually do a translation of it and maybe have some idea of what it meant."

"But to loose something like this—it's just sort of incalculable, because there's nothing like it.

"Pots get looted all the time, really beautiful pots. That's too bad. But there are a lot of Maya pots. There's nothing like this," Alvarez said.

(See some of Alvarez's photos of the Maya underworld from National Geographic magazine.)

Woodfill says its possible the artifact may still be recovered.

In October 2003 Guatemalan undercover agents seized a stolen Maya altar—considered a masterpiece of Maya art—from looters. (See "From Looters, Ancient Maya Altar Rescued.")

The panel had originally been excavated from a Maya ball court by a team led by Vanderbilt University archaeologist Arthur Demarest, a National Geographic Society grantee.

"I know that oftentimes looters, when they're working on the local level, get about 50 quetzals [the Guatemalan currency] a day," Woodfill said.

"They're working for five or ten dollars a day to find all these things that end up selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars."

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