Priceless Maya Stone Vessel Looted in Guatemala

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.

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