Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Ancient Maya stone altar recovered in Guatemala

11.11.2003


Unparalleled investigation leads to looters’ haven and arrests



An unprecedented collaboration of archeologists, Maya villagers and Guatemalan authorities has resulted in the recovery of a magnificent Maya altar stone that was carved in 796 AD and sheds new light on the collapse of the classic Maya civilization. In addition to the altar’s archeological importance, its recovery illustrates the value of working with indigenous peoples to restore ancient ruins. Archaeologist Arthur Demarest of Vanderbilt University, who helped recover the altar from the looters’ hideout, said the relic is one of the finest Maya altars known and provides important clues about one of the wealthiest Maya kingdoms.

The great altar was placed in 796 A.D. as a marker at the end of the royal ball court of Cancuén, the site of one of the largest royal palaces ever found, where the ancient city’s ruler would play the sacred Maya ball game against visiting kings. The role of the game was more ritual than sport. Location of ball courts in the ritual space within Maya cities, and the imagery that accompanies them, underscores their role as boundaries between the actual and supernatural worlds.


"They also used these royal ball games to celebrate state visits and to conclude royal alliances," says Demarest. "The carvings on the altar actually represent the two kings playing and, thus, record the state visit." The stone altar was set into the ball court floor and was used as a marker or goal post for later games, as well as a sacrificial altar.

The altar is one of two from Cancuén known to exist. The other, unearthed in 1915, is on display in Guatemala’s National Museum of Archaeology and has long been considered one of that museum’s greatest treasures.

"The newly discovered altar is a masterpiece of Maya art, even better than the one found in 1915, and its text gives a glimpse of the last years of the Cancuén kingdom," said Federico Fahsen, Cancuén project epigrapher who is deciphering the glyphs. The king pictured on the altar, Taj Chan Ahk Ah Kalomte, was the greatest of Cancuén’s long dynasty of rulers.

Demarest, with co-director Tomás Barrientos, leads the Cancuén Archaeological Project, which is supported by Vanderbilt and National Geographic. Discovery of the stone altar, however, did not come about through archaeology, but as the result of a sustainable tourism and indigenous development project conducted by Vanderbilt, the humanitarian organization Counterpart International and National Geographic.

The initiative, begun in 2001, is designed to train residents of the impoverished Q’eqchi’ Maya villages near the Cancuén ruins to develop tourism and also helps provide basic health services, water, solar power and legal support. While working on the project, Demarest and his colleagues developed the trust of local residents, who eventually came to him with news that the altar had been looted from the ground after it was exposed by a storm.

Demarest first learned of the altar’s existence more than six months ago while working at the site. "One night four Maya elders showed up at my tent in the project camp," he recalled. "They told me that a woman had been brutally beaten by men in ski masks who were searching for a great altar that had been looted from Cancuén, one that I hadn’t even known existed."

The nocturnal visit set in motion a secret investigation by Cancuén project members, Guatemala’s Ministry of Culture, and the Ecological and the Cultural Patrimony Division of Guatemala’s S.I.C. (Servícios de Investigación Criminal, that country’s equivalent of the FBI) of looting in the region. It was this unprecedented cooperative effort among local Maya villagers, Guatemalan authorities and archaeologists that brought about recovery of the artifact.

Guatemalan officials state that this may be the first time an entire network of looters and dealers of Maya artifacts has been exposed. "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. Herrera will lead prosecution of the looters.

The Cancuén Archaeological Project has been the scene of a series of spectacular discoveries in the remote southwestern region of the Petén rainforest. The project has been unearthing the lost city of Cancuén, an ancient Maya mercantile port city located at the head of the Pasión River, the largest transport "highway" of the Petén during the Late Classic golden age of the Maya civilization (A.D. 600-830).

"The local shamans and leaders have long revered these sites as sacred, but because of their involvement in managing the sites, they now also see them as vital to their economic future and to that of their children and grandchildren," said Demarest. "Because of this, some local Maya leaders took great personal risk to inform us about looters in the region, help apprehend the looters, and eventually to testify against them."

Jonathan Tourtellot, director of National Geographic’s Sustainable Tourism project, views the capture of the looters and recovery of the altar as a great victory for sustainable community tourism. "It’s what we’ve been arguing for some time – that the best way to protect the world’s archaeological and ecological treasures is for the local people to share in the benefits of tourism," said Tourtellot. "They need to have an economic stake and a cultural identification with the sites."

Demarest agrees that "the story of the altar’s recovery is miraculous. Open to us now are clues to the end of the Cancuén kingdom that we never would have found without its recovery."

The larger figure carved on the altar is identified as Taj Chan Ahk, the Lord of Cancuén’s sprawling palace. "Taj Chan Ahk was the greatest of Cancuén’s long dynasty of rulers, and his titles on the altar show his aspirations to take control of the whole region during these final decades of Classic Maya civilization," said Fahsen.

Taj Chan Ahk used his wealth to construct Cancuén’s gigantic palace of fine masonry and to cover it with life-sized stucco sculptures. 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. "His strategies allowed him to stay in power and even expand his authority at a time, about A.D. 800, when most of the other Maya kingdoms of the west were collapsing," Fahsen said.

Demarest and his colleagues will use Fahsen’s decipherment of the altar and clues from other recently discovered monuments to continue excavations at Cancuén, including a search for the great king’s royal tomb.

David F. Salisbury | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.vanderbilt.edu/

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Global study of world's beaches shows threat to protected areas
19.07.2018 | NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

nachricht NSF-supported researchers to present new results on hurricanes and other extreme events
19.07.2018 | National Science Foundation

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Future electronic components to be printed like newspapers

A new manufacturing technique uses a process similar to newspaper printing to form smoother and more flexible metals for making ultrafast electronic devices.

The low-cost process, developed by Purdue University researchers, combines tools already used in industry for manufacturing metals on a large scale, but uses...

Im Focus: First evidence on the source of extragalactic particles

For the first time ever, scientists have determined the cosmic origin of highest-energy neutrinos. A research group led by IceCube scientist Elisa Resconi, spokesperson of the Collaborative Research Center SFB1258 at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), provides an important piece of evidence that the particles detected by the IceCube neutrino telescope at the South Pole originate from a galaxy four billion light-years away from Earth.

To rule out other origins with certainty, the team led by neutrino physicist Elisa Resconi from the Technical University of Munich and multi-wavelength...

Im Focus: Magnetic vortices: Two independent magnetic skyrmion phases discovered in a single material

For the first time a team of researchers have discovered two different phases of magnetic skyrmions in a single material. Physicists of the Technical Universities of Munich and Dresden and the University of Cologne can now better study and understand the properties of these magnetic structures, which are important for both basic research and applications.

Whirlpools are an everyday experience in a bath tub: When the water is drained a circular vortex is formed. Typically, such whirls are rather stable. Similar...

Im Focus: Breaking the bond: To take part or not?

Physicists working with Roland Wester at the University of Innsbruck have investigated if and how chemical reactions can be influenced by targeted vibrational excitation of the reactants. They were able to demonstrate that excitation with a laser beam does not affect the efficiency of a chemical exchange reaction and that the excited molecular group acts only as a spectator in the reaction.

A frequently used reaction in organic chemistry is nucleophilic substitution. It plays, for example, an important role in in the synthesis of new chemical...

Im Focus: New 2D Spectroscopy Methods

Optical spectroscopy allows investigating the energy structure and dynamic properties of complex quantum systems. Researchers from the University of Würzburg present two new approaches of coherent two-dimensional spectroscopy.

"Put an excitation into the system and observe how it evolves." According to physicist Professor Tobias Brixner, this is the credo of optical spectroscopy....

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

Leading experts in Diabetes, Metabolism and Biomedical Engineering discuss Precision Medicine

13.07.2018 | Event News

Conference on Laser Polishing – LaP: Fine Tuning for Surfaces

12.07.2018 | Event News

11th European Wood-based Panel Symposium 2018: Meeting point for the wood-based materials industry

03.07.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

A smart safe rechargeable zinc ion battery based on sol-gel transition electrolytes

20.07.2018 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Reversing cause and effect is no trouble for quantum computers

20.07.2018 | Information Technology

Princeton-UPenn research team finds physics treasure hidden in a wallpaper pattern

20.07.2018 | Materials Sciences

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>