Unraveling the Lost World of the Maya ; Archaeologists May Have Only Scratched the Surface

Article excerpt

From the dizzying top of Temple IV, dense jungle canopy spreads to the horizon in every direction, rolling in the wind like the surface of the ocean.

Some 215 feet below lies Tikal, the greatest of the Mayan cities, much of it still buried by trees and vines that have swallowed Temple IV up to the base of its crowning platform. The ruined roof combs of Tikal's huge temples and palaces rise islandlike above the undulating canopy, mute monuments of a long-lost civilization.

Generations of archaeologists have worked to excavate this vast city since a Spanish governor rediscovered it in 1848. They're still at work today, clearing trees and vines from nearby temples, searching for clues to how the ancient Maya lived and what caused them to abandon their great cities six centuries before the Spanish conquest. New inscriptions, villages, even entire cities are being discovered every year, creating great excitement among archaeologists.

The latest and most stirring find was announced Sept. 8: the discovery of a nearly intact 170-room palace buried at Cancuen, a remote site 70 miles south of Tikal. The palace - a three-story complex built around 11 courtyards - is the largest Mayan palace ever discovered. It's so large, in fact, that previous expeditions to Cancuen mistook it for a great jungle-covered hill.

"It's a very exciting time in Maya archaeology," says Arthur Demarest of Vanderbilt University, who discovered the Cancuen palace. "If you're working in Egypt, it's a big deal to find the tomb of Ramses' second cousin or something like that. But in the Yucatan, we can still find whole cities, kingdoms, and dynasties."

Over the past decade, archaeologists have discovered numerous new sites, transforming our understanding of classic Mayan civilization. But their expeditions are becoming a race against time, as increasingly sophisticated looting operations raid Mayan ruins for valuable artifacts, stealing important clues before they can be evaluated.

Last year, Guatemalan archaeologist Salvador Lopez found the ruins of the small city of El Parajal smoldering in a clearing where peasants had burned the forest to make pasture land. While El Parajal's ceremonial plazas weren't damaged by the fire, all of the carved limestone tablets (or stelae) had been smashed or stolen by looters.

Looting more profitable than farming

A large proportion of the stolen artifacts are believed to make their way to the United States and Europe via Cancun, Mexico, according to George Thompson, head of the government Department of Archaeology in neighboring Belize. "It's a huge market and very well developed," he says. "Because of television and the Internet, more people are realizing the true value of these artifacts. And looting is a lot more profitable than subsistence farming."

Despite this, scholarly understanding of ancient Maya has been growing rapidly over the past 20 years. Scientists have deciphered Mayan inscriptions, revealing records of many royal dynasties and the wars they fought with one another.

Researchers have also learned that the Maya developed an advanced civilization as early as 400 BC, seven centuries earlier than had been previously thought. At their peak, between AD 600 and 800, the Maya built enormous monumental cities like Tikal and may have numbered in the millions. Most of the great cities were abandoned between 800 and 900. For the past century and a half, archaeologists have been trying to figure out why.

"There are as many theories about the Maya collapse as there are Maya archaeologists," says Norman Hammond of Boston University. …