Archaeologists Uncover Maya "Masterpiece" in Guatemala

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The discovery marks the first time researchers have excavated a stone altar from a Maya ball court in its original archaeological context. Such a find "has never happened in Maya archaeology," Demarest said. "These things have always turned up in [private] collections. They've always been looted."

The elaborately carved altar is the third, and final, marker from the royal ball court recovered over the past century. The first was found in 1905. The second marker is the same stolen by looters in 2001. The altars were used as goal posts.

All three depict Taj Chan Ahk in full royal regalia playing against the visiting ruler of a vassal state. Ahk used the symbolic games as political "photo ops" to mark treaties and stage-manage his grip on power, Demarest said.

The two new stone monuments will help archaeologists better understand the last 30 years of Maya civilization and its moment of collapse, experts say.

Cancuén Excavation

Five years ago little was known about Cancuén, an ancient port city on the Pasión River whose name means "Place of the Serpents."

The city-state's status as an economic powerhouse of the Maya empire started to emerge in 1999, when Demarest and a team of experts from Vanderbilt University (sponsored in part by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration) and the Guatemalan Ministry of Culture began to explore the city's ruins.

Their excavations soon uncovered the largest palace of the ancient Maya world found to date. The palace, constructed primarily in A.D. 770 during the reign of Taj Chan Ahk, sprawled over nearly a quarter-million square feet (23,000 square meters) and included 200 rooms with vaulted ceilings.

The royal residence was a "power-creating machine" cleverly laid out to inspire awe in visiting warrior-kings. The palace was used to convert rivals into vassals, Demarest said. "There were 11 courtyards. By the time you got to the foot of the king, you were ready to do anything for him," he said.

Under Taj Chan Ahk and earlier kings, Cancuén served as a principal gateway for trade between city-states of the volcanic southern highlands of Central America and the Petén rain forest lowlands to the north.

Strategically located on the Pasión River, the city-state brokered trade in the precious commodities of obsidian, jade, seashells, and stingray spines. Royal craftsmen used the materials to fashion intricate scepters, headdresses, pendants, and necklaces that were used by Maya kings to display and maintain their power.

Enduring Mystery

Classic Maya civilization peaked between A.D. 250 and 900, a period six times longer than the reign of ancient Rome. During that time, the Maya built more cities than ancient Egypt.

What caused Maya civilization to collapse, however, remains a mystery. Experts believe a range of factors, from internecine warfare to severe drought, may have triggered the fall. But the true cause remains a mystery.

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