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

Looters snatch Maya relics such as the altar long before archaeologists have a chance to study them. The treasures are sold in the lucrative international antiquities market where they fetch thousands of dollars.

The lost treasures mean lost information on the Maya, according to Robert Sharer, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia who specializes in Maya civilization.

"Since far more sites have been destroyed by looting than scientifically excavated, we have already lost a huge amount of unique information that could have given us a far better understanding of Maya civilization. Now we will never know what has already been destroyed," he said.

Cancuén project archaeologists had postponed excavation of the royal ball game court until 2005. The altar, they now know, was looted in October 2001 after it was exposed by heavy rains.

"It is heartbreaking to witness all the destruction that's been going on over the last 20 years or so," said Stephen Houston, an archaeologist at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, who specializes in Maya writing. "The general issue is how do we control it?"

Vanderbilt University, the National Geographic Society, and the humanitarian organization Counterpoint International point to their collaborative sustainable tourism and development project in Cancuén as a working solution.

The project helps local villagers near Mayan ruins reap the economic benefits of these archaeological discoveries, giving them a stake in preserving the ancient sites.

While working in Cancuén, Demarest and his colleagues developed the trust of local residents. In February, they came to Demarest with news that a woman had been beaten by a gang looking for the altar.

The visit set in motion an investigation by Cancuén project members, Guatemala's Ministry of Culture, and the Ecological and Cultural Patrimony Division of Guatemala's equivalent of the FBI, which ultimately led to the altar's recovery and arrest of the looters. (See sidebar)

"These arrests will set an example for the looters and dealers that Guatemala takes the defense of its ancient Maya heritage seriously," said Claudia Gonzales Herrera, Guatemala's assistant attorney general for national patrimony, in a statement.

David Freidel, an archaeologist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, said the ability to gain the trust of the local villagers, as Demarest did at Cancuén, is vital to for the long term protection of these ancient Mayan sites and thatDemarest's success bodes well for the future.

"It shows the possibility that archaeologists and local people and government officials together can make headway against the catastrophic destruction of Petén," he said.

Cancuén's End

For Demarest, the story of the altar's looting and recovery is miraculous, for the altar holds clues to the end of the Cancuén kingdom that would have otherwise never been known.

According to Federico Fahsen, the Cancuén project epigrapher who is interpreting the inscriptions on the altar, King Taj Chan Ahk Ah Kalomte aspired to take control of the whole region during the final decades of Classic Maya civilization.

The king used his wealth to construct Cancuén's giant palace with the finest masonry and decorate it with life-sized stucco structures. He also dedicated ball courts and many monuments and used those settings to host feasts, rituals, and ball games in order to ally himself with kings of other centers who had greater military power.

"This king was manipulating politics to expand his kingdom," said Demarest. The strategy allowed him to stay in power and expand his authority at a time when most other Maya kingdoms were collapsing.

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