WASHINGTON—The National Geographic Society and Vanderbilt University today announced recovery of a 600-pound elaborately carved Maya altar, replete with images and writing that offer new information on the shrouded history of the Maya civilization. The altar was recovered through an unusual collaboration among Guatemalan undercover agents, local Maya villagers and American archaeologists that included a six-month pursuit of the relic and the arrest of a ring of antiquities looters.
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 A.D. 796 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 in Cancuén’s long dynasty of rulers.
Demarest, with co-director Tomás Barrientos, leads the Cancuén Archaeological Project, which is supported by National Geographic and Vanderbilt. 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 National Geographic, Vanderbilt and the humanitarian organization Counterpart International. 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 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 rain forest. 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 in 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.