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Royal Maya palace centerpiece of novel restoration effort

By David F. Salisbury
Sept. 8, 2000

The royal Maya palace now being excavated in Guatemala provides an opportunity to try a new approach to archaeological preservation that not only will protect the ancient site but will also provide economic support for the modern Maya villagers who live in the area.

That is the hope of expedition leader Arthur Demarest. The Vanderbilt anthropologist is attempting to raise sufficient private funding to re-create the former splendor of the huge, labyrinthine palace and to make it the centerpiece of a new ecotourism center.

“We hope this project will create a model for future archaeological research in developing countries — and especially for the Maya area — using the ancient treasure of the Maya civilization to benefit their descendants,” Demarest says.

The palace lies at the center of an ancient city named Cancun, which means “place of serpents.” Cancuén is not only a lost city, but also a lost natural world. In addition to the ruins, the site contains one of the last stands of tropical rainforest in the southern Petén region of Guatemala, complete with endangered tropical species including howler monkeys, woolly anteaters and rare birds; so, the plans include strict environmental preservation measures.

An integral part of the planning is to establish an educational program that will train members of the local village in the various skills needed to operate an ecotourism center and to preserve and protect the site.

“Archaeologists can’t just keep excavating ancient Maya ruins while the modern Maya settlements nearby are starving,” Demarest says.

Plans for continued archaeological study, rainforest conservation and indigenous community development are being carried out under the auspices of Vanderbilt University’s Institute of Mesoamerican Archaeology.

The archaeologist has taken the first step toward this goal by working in collaboration with a nearby village of modern Maya K’ekchi people. He has contracted with the villagers to protect the site from looters.

The effort has the support of Guatemala’s new minister of culture, Otilia Lux de Coti, who is a native Quiche Maya. Lux de Coti has said that she would like to see more projects that will help the modern Maya to discover and benefit from their great ancient heritage.

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Interview with Arthur Demarest

Vanderbilt Radio: InterVU with
Arthur Demarest

Photos and
diagrams from the Cancuen

Archaeological team unearths
buried Maya royal palace