by Princine Lewis
The long pursuit of a stolen ancient Maya sacred stone altar came to a
dramatic conclusion this month with the conviction and imprisonment of
the leaders of a looters’ ring, which was exposed as a result of a
search led by Ingram Professor of Anthropology Arthur Demarest to
recover the 1,200-year-old Maya treasure.
At the district attorney’s request, Demarest gave the prosecution’s
closing statement to the jury, arguing for the looters’ conviction and
state protection of the Q’eqchi Maya villagers who had testified
against the gang. He also denounced U.S. and European collectors whose
appetite for such archaeological treasures, he said, engenders violence
and destruction at the ancient Maya sites.
The verdict was handed down at midnight June 3 in Santa Elena, the
capital of the Petén jungle region of Guatemala. For nearly two
decades, Demarest has explored the rainforests of Guatemala for clues
to the history of the ancient Maya. Along the way, he has formed an
alliance with the descendants of that once-powerful civilization to not
only uncover but also preserve their proud heritage. That alliance paid
off with the conviction and sentencing of the gang of looters.
Despite death threats, Demarest and the Maya villagers testified
against the gang leaders, who were charged with stealing the ancient
600-pound Maya altar from a royal ball court at Cancuén, a mercantile
port city during the Late Classic golden age of the Maya civilization
(A.D. 600-830), located in the southwestern region of the Petén
The altar portrays Cancuén’s King Taj Chan Ahk, one of the last great
Maya rulers, playing ball against visiting rulers. The royal ball court
was a ceremonial setting for ball games between the kings of the
Cancuén dynasty and the rulers of other city-states. Clues from the
hieroglyphic text on the recovered altar led Demarest’s team this
spring to the location of yet another carved altar and a stone panel,
both celebrating the alliances of the great king.
Demarest believes the villagers’ investment of time and labor in the
community development project motivated them to risk their lives and
the lives of their families to testify in the case.
“This outcome really shows that good things can happen when
archaeologists engage the local community not only to discover the past
but to plan for today and for the future,” Demarest said.
The verdict came after a year of dangerous investigations that exposed
the network of looters and dealers of Maya artifacts. Demarest began
working with Guatemalan officials to investigate the looting ring after
four Maya elders visited his encampment in March 2003 with the news of
the theft and the brutal beating of a local woman by a gang searching
for the altar.
Guatemala’s Ministry of Culture and the Ecological and the Cultural
Patrimony Division of S.I.C. (Servícios de Investigación Criminal, that
country’s equivalent of the FBI) charged the three gang leaders with
looting of a national monument, attempted sale of the monument and
making death threats against Demarest and local residents. The three
were convicted on the charges of looting and making death threats.
The local Q’eqchi’ Maya’s collaborations with Guatemala’s Ministry of
Culture and Vanderbilt began with a humanitarian aid effort Demarest
founded in 2001 in conjunction with the Cancuén Archaeological Project.
That project, which he directs with Tomás Barrientos, is responsible
for a number of major discoveries in the Petén rainforest. Both the
archaeological and humanitarian projects are supported by Vanderbilt,
and the humanitarian project is now directed by the international
agency Counterpart International, the U.S. Agency for International
Development and National Geographic’s Sustainable Tourism Program.
The humanitarian initiative takes the unusual approach of establishing
formal co-management of the sites and the archaeological parks with
local villages. The project trains residents of the impoverished
Q’eqchi’ Maya villages near the Cancuén ruins to develop tourism and
enhance their stewardship of the site, the surrounding area and other
sites throughout the region. As a result, Maya have become tour guides,
park rangers and managers of rustic inns, boat services and ecotourism
enterprises, providing the villagers a stake in preserving the ancient
sites. The project also helps provide basic health services, water,
solar power and legal support.
Demarest credits these collaborations with leading to the recovery of the stone altar last October and the recent convictions.
“This conviction not only sends a message to looters and antiquities
dealers. It shows the importance of empowering and aiding local
cultures. The humanitarian project could be a model under which
archaeologists would no longer do the ‘Indiana Jones’ thing and pop in
and dig. Rather, they need to really engage the community in the
process and the benefits of archaeology,” Demarest said.