By David F. Salisbury
Published: May 7, 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 sacred ball court with support from the National Geographic Society.

The discoveries were announced on Friday, April 23 by Guatemala 's Minister of Culture, Manuel Salazar Tezahuic, after a visit to the Cancuén Archaeological Project on April 16. The Minister, himself a Kaqchikel Maya, and U.S. Ambassador John Hamilton assisted the archaeologists in the excavation of a 500-pound altar stone.

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.


The new altar stone, which was unearthed by team member Paola Torres, is one of the first monuments of its type that has been discovered in proper context. “Although we have a number of these altar stones, this the first one that has been found in archaeological context. All the rest have come from collections,” Demarest said. Context plays a critical role in interpreting the meaning of archaeological remains.

The monument is also 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.

The second 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.

Photo by Andrew Demarest
The altar stone that was stolen in 2001 and recovered last fall.  

All three 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 Cajas, “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.”

Cancuén was 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 city-states.


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 valley.

“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.

“In 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 Cancuen 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 ballgame 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.

The sprawling 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.

Photo by Andrew Demarest
Restoration expert Rudy Larios, right, working at an entrance to the royal palace that once was line with larger-than-life-size stucco figures of kings or soldier.  

In addition to showcasing the archeological 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 .

National Geographic Society online story
Archaeologists Uncover Maya "Masterpiece" in Guatemala


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