GUATEMALA CITY, GUATEMALA, 5 May
2004—Important new stone monuments covered with historical texts
dating from a period just before the collapse of the classic Maya civilization
have been unearthed by archaeologists from Vanderbilt University and the
Guatemalan Ministry of Culture who are excavating a thousand-year-old ball
court with support from the National Geographic Society.
discoveries were announced by Guatemala's Minister of Culture, Manuel Salazar
Tezahuic, after a visit to the Cancuén Archaeological Project on 16
April. The minister, himself a Kaqchikel Maya, and U.S. Ambassador John
Hamilton assisted the archaeologists in the excavation of a 500-pound altar
The project, which is headed by Vanderbilt Ingram Professor
Arthur A. Demarest, is excavating one of the largest and most elaborate Maya
royal palaces yet discovered. The palace at Cancuén was constructed
between A.D. 765 and 790 by Taj Chan Ahk, one of the last great Maya rulers, so
the artifacts discovered at the site are providing valuable new information
about the critical events that transpired in the last 30 years of the life of
this ancient civilization
Minister of Culture Manuel Salazar Tezahuic, in white hat,
Ambassador to Guatemala John Hamilton
assisting archaeologists in the
excavation of a 500-pound Maya altar stone.
Photo credit: Andrew
Photo courtesy of National Geographic Society.
The new altar stone, which was unearthed by team
member Paola Torres, is the third taken from the Cancuén ball court. The
first altar stone from Cancuén was removed from the site in 1905 and is
on display in Guatemala's National Museum of Archaeology, where it has long
been considered one of that museum's greatest treasures.
altar stone was stolen unnoticed from the site in 2001 by a group of local
gangsters who sold it to black marketers. Its remarkable recovery by Demarest
and a team of undercover agents of the S.I.C. (Guatemala's F.B.I.) last fall
made headlines around the world. The archaeologists have only recently
discovered its original position in the ball court site.
altars portray the great king Taj playing against visiting rulers. The third
monument has been moved to the National Museum of Archaeology in Guatemala
City, where it is being cleaned and restored.
The minister also announced the discovery of a
perfectly preserved 100-pound stone panel from the ball court. It is covered
with beautiful images and hieroglyphics that portray ceremonies of the Maya
kings. The panel, uncovered last week by Guatemalan archaeologist Antonieta
Chajas, "is one of the greatest masterpieces of Maya art ever discovered in
Guatemala," according to project epigrapher and hieroglyphic expert Federico
Fahsen. "The images of the rulers and the historical text are deeply and finely
carved in high relief and miraculously preserved."
strategically located at the head of navigation of the Pasión River, the
principal highway of the Classic Maya world. From this capital, the kings of
Cancuén controlled the trade between the volcanic southern highlands of
Central America and the Petén jungle to the north, where the Maya
city-states flourished between 500 B.C. and A.D. 850. The royal ball court,
located near the city's river port entrance, was a ceremonial setting for ball
games between the kings of the Cancuén dynasty and the rulers of other
Many of the cities in the Petén rain forest lie along the
Pasión River route, and their kings needed the exotic goods from
Cancuén for the headdresses, necklaces, pendants, and scepters that were
the sacred symbols of their royal power and the central elements of the
costumes for the lavish ceremonies they staged.
The newly discovered
panel shows Taj Chan Ahk presiding over a ceremony in the royal plaza of his
second capital seat, the city of Machaquila, 40 kilometers to the north. It
depicts the king seated on a divine earth symbol and throne, installing into
office a subordinate king and another official. The inscriptions date this
event at the very end of the eight century A.D. According to Demarest, the
panel confirms Fahsen's interpretation of the original altar stones that
portray Taj Chan Ahk as a powerful king who dominated the Pasión River
"At a time when most of the other great city-states of the Maya
world were in decline or collapsing, Taj Chan Ahk expanded his kingdom through
alliances, royal marriages, and clever politics," said Demarest. "His palace at
Cancuen is one of the largest and most splendid in the Maya world, and he used
it and his ball court to awe and entertain visiting kings and nobles
this particular ball court, the games and the monuments that portray them were
really 'photo opportunities' celebrating the creation of alliances between the
holy lord of Cancuén and vassal kings and nobles. The kings are
portrayed in full royal regalia, with high headdresses, necklaces, and
elaborate costumes - so it's pretty clear that these were not normal versions
of the game but staged ceremonial and political events."
The Maya ball
game could often be a religious or political event, rather than "sport" in the
Western sense. The game was similar to soccer, but players could only use their
hips, knees, and elbows, not their feet or hands, according to most
interpretations based on Conquest-period descriptions of the game. "Taj Chan
Ahk used his ball court and his royal palace to legitimize his sacred power and
facilitate his Machiavellian diplomacy," Demarest said.
palace at Cancuén is being excavated by a Vanderbilt and National
Geographic team, led by project co-directors Tomas Barrientos and Michael
Callaghan. The palace has more than 200 masonry rooms and 11 plazas, according
to Barrientos, and its high walls were covered with elaborate, larger-than-life
stucco figures portraying deities and deified kings of the dynasty. Restoration
expert Rudy Larios is carefully consolidating and preserving hundreds of these
striking sculptures. Meanwhile, Callaghan and his team are excavating tunnels
into an earlier royal palace, buried beneath that of Taj Chan Ahk.
addition to showcasing the archaeological work, the purpose of the visit by the
minister and ambassador was to highlight the success of the Cancuén
Regional Development Project sponsored by Counterpart International, U.S.
Agency for International Development (USAID), Vanderbilt University and
National Geographic's sustainable tourism program. The project has gathered
more than $6 million in international support to create programs enabling the
people of some 30 Q'eqchi' Maya villages to participate in the excavations and
develop community-designed guide, boat and inn services.
The Minister of
Culture, in Maya ceremonies at several of the Q'eqchi' communities, announced
that the "modelo Cancuén" would become the standard for ethical
archaeology in Guatemala.