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Vanderbilt archaeological team unearths buried Maya royal palace

By David F. Salisbury
Sept. 8, 2000

A team of archaeologists from the United States and Guatemala has determined that a structure previously identified as a minor palace is not only one of the largest and most elaborate residences of ancient Maya kings discovered but also one of the best preserved.

“With more than 170 rooms built around 11 courtyards in three stories, this eighth century royal palace is about the same size as the central acropolis in Tikal (Guatemala),” says Arthur Demarest, the archaeologist from Vanderbilt University who heads the expedition with Tomas Barrientos from the Universidad del Valle in Guatemala. “But what is most incredible about this site is that most of the palace is buried virtually intact. No one has found anything like this since the turn of the century.”

The vegetation-covered royal palace sits in the center of the ruins of an ancient city named Cancuén, which means “place of serpents.” It is located in a remote area of the Petén rainforest of Guatemala that has been largely overlooked by archaeologists. The expedition that has begun to map and excavate the site is sponsored by Guatemala’s Institute of Anthropology and History, the National Geographic Society and Vanderbilt University.

Cancuén was first visited by archaeologists in 1905, but they characterized it as a minor center; the expedition went within 100 meters of the palace but didn’t see it because it was covered in dense jungle vegetation. The site was visited again briefly in the 1960s by a group of Harvard graduate students, who first identified the palace. Their sketches and maps, however, underestimated the size of the palace and covered only a small fraction of the ancient city’s actual extent.

“These underestimates are quite understandable,” says Demarest. “To the untrained eye, the palace looks just like a great, jungle-covered hill. Even to archaeologists much of the palace appeared to be high, solid platforms.”

He says the scale and importance of Cancuén were unrecognized for so long for several reasons:

  • Cancuén is situated in a region bordering the Guatemalan highlands that has been largely overlooked by archaeologists. That is partly because the Maya built no temples in the area. “Temples indicate a major site and the presence of tombs,” Demarest says. He theorizes the Maya didn’t need temples at Cancuén because they used the area’s natural, cave-filled towers of limestone for burials and religious purposes.
  • One of the Cancuén kings had an area of about two square kilometers around the palace paved with stone. This kept the farmers from using the area to grow crops. Over time, jungle trees pushed through the stones and established an island of dense rainforest, complete with trees 16 feet in diameter and troops of howler monkeys. The area became an oasis as the rest of the rainforest was cleared for farming.
  • The walls of the 270,000-square foot palace are built of solid limestone masonry, rather than the concrete and mud typical of other sites. As a result, it did not collapse the way that other Maya structures did when enveloped by jungle. The preliminary survey of the palace found that it contains a densely packed labyrinth of hundreds of small rooms with extravagant, 20-foot, corbel-arched ceilings. This design, combined with small courtyards that were easily filled in by jungle vegetation, disguised the palace for more than 1,000 years.

The palace was so well camouflaged that Demarest and his colleagues did not recognize its true size for their first two weeks at the site. Like previous visitors, they also thought large parts of the palace were solid platforms. Then, one day when walking along the ruin’s highest level, Demarest fell up to his armpits into vegetation filling one of the courtyards. “That’s when I realized the entire hill was a three-story building and we were walking on top of the roof,” he says.

The archaeologists visited Cancuén in 1999 to follow up a lead from a 10-year dig in northern Guatemala. Excavations at Dos Pilas and several other sites had given them a wealth of information about a highly militaristic city-state called Petexbatun.

Among the Petexbatun records, they found a description of a marriage alliance between a Dos Pilas prince and a Cancuén princess. The small palace where the princess lived was one of the Dos Pilas site’s most exquisite structures. “It looks as if the princess brought her own artisans, because the stonework on her palace is just like that at Cancuén and far superior to anything in the Petexbatun region,” Demarest says.

At Cancuén, where the archaeologists expected to find a minor center, they were surprised to find evidence of a much larger, richer and more powerful kingdom, one based on control of the trade in precious commodities: jade, pyrite for making mirrors and obsidian for razor and knife blades. Thousands of people apparently lived at the center during its peak.

The palace was surrounded by the homes and workshops of artisans, which the archaeologists have explored. “Even the workmen at Cancuén were well-to-do. They had teeth filled with jade inlays and were buried with fine ceramic figurines with beautiful headdresses,” Demarest says.

While the archaeologists were mapping the site, Guatemalan epigrapher Federico Fahsen was reconstructing the history of the site by deciphering its monuments. The city’s statuary had been looted in the past, so he tracked down some of it in private and public collections. The story he has found is likely to cause major revisions in the scholarly views of Maya civilization.

Cancuén was ruled by one of the oldest Maya dynasties, one that was already well established by 300 A.D. So far, the researchers have found no evidence that Cancuén conducted any major wars with its neighbors. Instead, Cancuén’s rulers appear to have been single-mindedly dedicated to commerce. Their location, at the beginning of the navigable stretch of the Pasion River, the major waterway used by the Maya, allowed them to control the trade in precious commodities between the Guatemalan highlands and the jungle lowlands. The record shows that they used their wealth to form alliances throughout the Maya world. The researchers think that the palace had such a large number of rooms to house visiting royalty from their many allies.

The fact that Cancuén appears to have prospered for hundreds of years without warfare and that commerce appeared to play a far more important role in everyday life than religion contradicts the widespread view among scholars that religion and warfare were the sources of power for Maya kings, particularly toward the end of their dominance, after about 600 A.D.

I have a book in press that I’ll have to revise, says Demarest. It just goes to show that you can’t believe everything you read on one dynasty’s monuments.

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Photos and diagrams from the Cancuen excavation

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