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From the Rainforest

Rescuing an Altar from Looters

By Rachel Galvin | HUMANITIES, January/February 2004 | Volume 25, Number 1

The ruins at Cancuén were considered of minor interest until 1999, when archaeologist Arthur Demarest stumbled through a tangle of trees and vines at the site and sank to his armpits. He realized that the hilltop was in fact the top story of an enormous building. His team uncovered a three-story palace whose dimensions are comparable to that of six football fields. In the latest chapter of his adventures, Demarest helped reclaim a limestone altar looted from the ancient ball court at Cancuén last year. While conducting an NEH-funded excavation in the region, he aided villagers and the Guatemalan authorities in recovering the six-hundred-pound artifact.

"This region has been much neglected because it doesn't have any temples," says Demarest. "Instead, there are hills with caves in them, which were used as natural temples. It turns out these caves are filled with all sorts of treasures. And we have one of the largest palaces in the ancient Maya world, with a buried palace underneath it."

Cancuén, which means "Place of Serpents," is in one of the most remote tropical rainforests in the Petén region--the cradle of Preclassic Maya civilization, where howler monkeys, woolly anteaters, and rare birds reside, and trees span sixteen feet in diameter. At its peak, its royal palace housed more than a thousand residents and several thousand people lived on the surrounding lands. It rivals Tikal's central acropolis in size, and is better preserved than other ancient Maya ruins because it was constructed out of limestone instead of concrete and mud.

"I learned early on that when you dig in a place where there hasn't been much work done before, you make big discoveries--it's pretty straightforward," Demarest says. "However I also have learned that there are always good reasons why nobody ever worked there before: they are remote, there are health issues, they are in swamps and jungles far from everything, and they're often in zones of war and conflict."

The site was first documented in 1905 and 1908, but archaeologists reported that it was of little interest; in 1967 Harvard graduate students mapped 5 percent of the area, but were dissuaded from exploring further by the dense vegetation.

Archaeologists now know that the steep karst towers at Cancuén were the model for the temples of the northern rainforests. "The name for temple in ancient Maya means sacred mountain," Demarest says. "Where we are, in the jungle, there are remnants of karst towers--very eroded limestone honeycombed with caves, which were considered the entrance to Xibalbá, the underworld."

King Taj Chan Ahk ruled Cancuén in the second half of the eighth century, expanding his kingdom at a time when most others in the region were collapsing. According to Demarest, what distinguished the king's rule was a Machiavellian focus on promoting commerce and establishing blood ties. "He took advantage of the situation," says Demarest. "He made alliances with other rulers and married off his daughters. Q'eqchi' schoolchildren call him the gran suegro, the great father-in-law." The king made the most of Cancuén's position as a mercantile port city on the Pasión River. The river was the main channel for redistributing jade, quetzal feathers, cacao, obsidian for blades, and pyrite for mirrors. The city's inhabitants were wealthier than the norm: even artisans were buried with jade inlays in their teeth and elaborate ceramic figurines, a custom reserved for royalty elsewhere.

When the western region of the Maya world began to collapse in 750, its wealthier inhabitants began to flee. "Cancuén received the upper-status refugees. Taj Chan Ahk's boom was between 757 and 800, just as the dissolution was occurring elsewhere. He built his boom on the collapse," Demarest says. "He thrived because his in-law rivals were coming to visit--previously affluent houses moved greater distances." In contrast to most other Classical Maya kingdoms, no evidence of Cancuén's involvement in a major war has been found to date.

"Taj Chan Ahk took advantage of the situation," Demarest says. "But eventually Cancuén, a powerful epicenter, was destroyed too. The population was reoriented and the cult of divine kingship ended, which was the core of what generated tablets, monuments, and treasures --these legitimating monuments."

Demarest, a professor of archaeology at Vanderbilt University, has been conducting excavations in Latin America since 1976, and in the Petexbatœn region of Guatemala since 1989. In the Petexbatœn records he found mention of a marriage between a prince from Dos Pilas and a princess from Cancuén, and set out to explore.

Since Demarest initiated the first formal study of the ruins at Cancuén four years ago, he and his team have uncovered the royal palace's buried plazas, rooms, benches, staircases, walls, and stucco fragments from cornices and doorways. The stucco ornamentation depicts hieroglyphs, zoomorphic designs, deities, and larger-than-life portraits of kings. By examining the designs' cosmology and accompanying epigraphs, researchers are learning about the civilization that flourished in the region more than 1,200 years ago.

"We have recovered dozens and dozens of masterpieces of Maya art," Demarest says. "This is an atypical case, because usually the stucco melts like chalk in rain. But at Cancuén the monuments and stuccos fell in, were covered with rubble, preserved, and sealed." The jungle helped preserve the palace, with vegetation shoring up the inner walls.

The team is methodically recording its findings. Each two-meter-square unit of the excavation is photographed--with digital and conventional cameras--for sculptural reconstruction. Sand boxes of the same dimensions are used to reproduce the context in which fragments are found, which facilitates the reconstruction of iconographical motifs later on. Stuccos are wrapped in aluminum foil, medical gauze, and Japanese rice paper, and larger fragments are swathed in a mixture of dentist plaster, polyurethane foam, and other materials.

The altar Demarest helped rescue dates from 796 a.d., during the rule of one of the last kings of the Maya dynasties. It lay camouflaged for more than a millennium, until in 2001 it was unearthed by heavy rains and a gang of looters happened upon it. Cancuén villagers alerted Demarest to the theft, who in turn enlisted the Guatemalan Ministry of Culture, and after some detective work and a series of raids, in October 2003, the altar was retrieved from black market antiquities dealers in Belize. "It was a long six months. Every time we would go to get the monument, it was just moved and sold to the next level," Demarest says.

Thinking the altar had slipped through his fingers, Demarest returned to Vanderbilt University. "I got a call saying that the last raid led to the arrest of some people, who turned in state's evidence and which led us to find out where it was buried," he says. "This has probably never happened before, the recovery of a piece with the arrest of an entire network of looters."

The altar was commissioned by King Taj Chan Ahk in commemoration of a ball game with an unknown vassal lord in January 796. Both an end-zone marker and a site for animal sacrifice, the altar depicts the two lords playing the sacred sport. The game was a ritual enacted to finalize a treaty, celebrate a state visit, or conclude a royal alliance, which Demarest likens to that of the American Indian peace pipe or a photo opportunity during the signing of an accord.

The altar from the opposite end of the ball court at Cancuén was found in 1915 and is now kept at the National Museum of Archaeology in Guatemala City. It dates to September 795, four months earlier than its counterpart, and marks an alliance between the king of El Chorro, a territory to the northwest of Cancuén, and King Taj Chan Ahk.

In addition to the recent recovery of the stone altar, Demarest has retrieved looted sculpture, stelae, panels, and the steps of a hieroglyphic stairway during the past four years. He has mapped more than three square miles of Cancuén, and anticipates several decades of work before the excavation is complete.

"The jungle is filled with ancient Maya cities. There is much more archaeology there than in Egypt," Demarest says. "So it isn't a question of finding anything--there are hundreds already known--but a question of selecting one, finding important ones, choosing how to dig, and above all in Guatemala, coping with the circumstances."

Demarest is working to ensure that the Maya do not suffer from the consequences of archaeological excavation. "We must have restoration involve local people in a way that is sensitive not only to the ecology, but also to local culture," he says. "I've taken a stand on ethically responsible archaeology."

In the past, ruins considered sacred by the Maya were turned into parks, and the Maya were prohibited from performing rituals there. "Time and time again the local people lose their connection to these sites," he says.

"The local people are excluded because they are Q'eqchi', they don't speak Spanish that well, and they end up being pushed out of the region as a consequence," says Demarest. "It means archaeologists have to spend time on things they don't usually do. You can't just go in, do an Indiana Jones, and leave."

For the past decade, Demarest has been directing a development project that helps the Maya become custodians of their heritage. The project trains villagers as tour guides, park rangers, and managers of ecotourism enterprises, and allows them to continue to perform rituals at sacred sites. Development is carried out in collaboration with the Maya women's committee, men's committee, and shamans. Solar panels have been installed in village schools, a corn mill constructed, and pharmacy-clinics set up.

Demarest credits the recovery of the limestone altar to the rapport he has established with the Q'eqchi'. "I was informed about this by the Maya at great risk to them. All along the way, tracking the altar, we were informed by the Maya and helped by the Maya," he says. "This is a big triumph for the sustainable tourism concept and for the Maya."