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					Ancient Maya stone altar recovered in Guatemala
An unprecedented collaboration of archeologists, Maya villagers and Guatemalan authorities has
resulted in the recovery of a magnificent Maya altar stone that was carved in 796 AD and sheds
new light on the collapse of the classic Maya civilization. In addition to the altar's archeological
importance, its recovery illustrates the value of working with indigenous peoples to restore
ancient ruins.

It reads like a combination of the movies “Traffic” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” An
unusual collaboration among Guatemalan undercover agents, local Maya villagers and
American archaeologists have successfully recovered of an elaborately carved, 600-
pound Maya altar, replete with images and writing that offer new information on the
shrouded history of the Maya civilization.
Arthur Demarest, the Ingram Professor of Anthropology and Archeology at Vanderbilt,
who spearheaded the recovery effort, said the relic is one of the finest Maya altars
known and provides important clues about one of the wealthiest Maya kingdoms.
The great altar was placed in A.D. 796 as a marker at the end of the royal ball court of
Cancuén, the site of one of the largest and richest royal palaces ever found, where the
ancient city's ruler would play the sacred Maya ball game with visiting kings. The role of
the game was more ritual than sport. Location of ball courts in the ritual space within
Maya cities, and the imagery that accompanies them, underscores their role as
boundaries between the actual and supernatural worlds.
 “They also used these royal ball games to celebrate state visits and to conclude royal
alliances,” says Demarest. “The carvings on the altar actually represent the two kings
playing and, thus, record the state visit.” The stone altar was set into the ball court floor
and was used as a marker or goal post for later games, as well as a sacrificial altar.
The altar is one of two from Cancuén known to exist. The other, unearthed in 1915, is on
display in Guatemala’s National Museum of Archaeology and has long been considered
one of that museum’s greatest treasures.
“The newly discovered altar is a masterpiece of Maya art, even better than the one found
in 1915, and its text gives a glimpse of the last years of the Cancuén kingdom,” said
Federico Fahsen, Cancuén project epigrapher who is deciphering the glyphs. The king
pictured on the altar, Taj Chan Ahk Ah Kalomte, was the greatest in Cancuén’s long
dynasty of rulers.
Demarest, with co-director Tomás Barrientos, leads the Cancuén Archaeological Project,
which is supported by National Geographic and Vanderbilt. Discovery of the stone altar,
however, did not come about through archaeology, but as the result of a sustainable
tourism and indigenous development project conducted by National Geographic,
Vanderbilt and the humanitarian organization Counterpart International. The initiative,
begun in 2001, is designed to train residents of the impoverished Q’eqchi’ Maya villages
near the Cancuén ruins to develop tourism and also helps provide basic health services,
water, solar power and legal support. While working on the project, Demarest and his



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Ancient Maya stone altar recovered in Guatemala

colleagues developed the trust of local residents, who eventually came to him with news
that the altar had been looted from the ground after it was exposed by a storm.
Demarest first learned of the altar’s existence more than six months ago while working at
the site. “One night four Maya elders showed up at my tent in the project camp,” he
recalled. “They told me that a woman had been brutally beaten by men in ski masks who
were searching for a great altar that had been looted from Cancuén, one that I hadn’t
even known existed.”
The nocturnal visit set in motion a secret investigation by Cancuén project members,
Guatemala’s Ministry of Culture, and the Ecological and Cultural Patrimony Division of
Guatemala’s S.I.C. (Servícios de Investigación Criminal, that country’s equivalent of the
FBI) of looting in the region. It was this unprecedented cooperative effort among local
Maya villagers, Guatemalan authorities and archaeologists that brought about recovery
of the artifact.
Guatemalan officials state that this may be the first time an entire network of looters and
dealers of Maya artifacts has been exposed. “These arrests will set an example for the
looters and dealers that Guatemala takes the defense of its ancient Maya heritage
seriously,” said Claudia Gonzales Herrera, Guatemala’s assistant attorney general for
national patrimony. Herrera will lead prosecution of the looters.
The Cancuén Archaeological Project has been the scene of a series of spectacular
discoveries in the remote southwestern region of the Petén rain forest. The project has
been unearthing the lost city of Cancuén, an ancient Maya mercantile port city located at
the head of the Pasión River, the largest transport “highway” of the Petén during the
Late Classic golden age of the Maya civilization (A.D. 600-830).
“The local shamans and leaders have long revered these sites as sacred, but because
of their involvement in managing the sites, they now also see them as vital to their
economic future and to that of their children and grandchildren,” said Demarest.
“Because of this, some local Maya leaders took great personal risk to inform us about
looters in the region, help apprehend the looters, and eventually to testify against them.”
Jonathan Tourtellot, director of National Geographic’s Sustainable Tourism project,
views the capture of the looters and recovery of the altar as a great victory for
sustainable community tourism. “It’s what we’ve been arguing for some time — that the
best way to protect the world’s archaeological and ecological treasures is for the local
people to share in the benefits of tourism,” said Tourtellot. “They need to have an
economic stake and a cultural identification with the sites.”
Demarest agrees that “the story of the altar’s recovery is miraculous. Open to us now
are clues to the end of the Cancuén kingdom that we never would have found without its
recovery.”
The larger figure carved on the altar is identified as Taj Chan Ahk, the lord of Cancuén’s
sprawling palace. “Taj Chan Ahk was the greatest in Cancuén’s long dynasty of rulers,
and his titles on the altar show his aspirations to take control of the whole region during
these final decades of Classic Maya civilization,” said Fahsen.
Taj Chan Ahk used his wealth to construct Cancuén’s gigantic palace of fine masonry
and to cover it with life-sized stucco sculptures. He also dedicated ball courts and many
monuments and used those settings to host feasts, rituals and ball games in order to ally
himself with kings of other centers who had greater military power. “His strategies



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Ancient Maya stone altar recovered in Guatemala

allowed him to stay in power and even expand his authority at a time, about A.D. 800,
when most of the other Maya kingdoms of the west were collapsing,” Fahsen said.
Demarest and his colleagues will use Fahsen’s decipherment of the altar and clues from
other recently discovered monuments to continue excavations at Cancuén, including a
search for the great king’s royal tomb.


The Strange Journey of a Stolen Altar

       A.D. 796 — A 600-pound stone altar is commissioned by Taj Chan Ahk, the
Maya lord of Cancuén, to commemorate a summit with the vassal king of a neighboring
kingdom. The large limestone disk is carved with images of the two Maya lords playing a
sacred ball game. It is used as a marker for the game and a place for animal sacrifices.
       A.D. 800 to A.D. 810 — Cancuén is abandoned a few years after Taj Chan Ahk’s
death, and the altar is covered over by mahogany rain forest that begins to blanket
Cancuén.
      1900s — Altar remains buried and goes unnoticed by explorer Sylvanus Morley,
who uncovers a similar altar at the ball court in 1915. Exploration of the site in 1967 by
Harvard University graduate students also fails to discover it.
        1996 to 1999 — Vanderbilt University archaeologist Arthur Demarest determines
that the site was once a major trading center and that its royal palace was one of the
largest in the Maya world. Major excavation of the site begins, though excavation of the
ball court is postponed until 2005. The project is supported by National Geographic.
       October 2001 — Heavy rains expose the altar, for the first time in more than
1,000 years. A son of the leader of a local gang of looters spots it and tells his father,
who leads his gang on a raid of the site, hauling the heavy altar out of the ball court and
placing it into a boat. The altar is taken to the gang leader’s encampment, down river
from Cancuén.
        November 2001-December 2002 — The altar is photographed and the pictures
are distributed by the gang in search of a buyer. Local drug traffickers inspect the altar
and offer $4,000 (U.S.) for it, but the gang leader holds out for more money.
       December 2002 — A split in the gang leads four members to steal the altar,
moving it across the river and burying it. Later, the gang leader retrieves the altar in a
gun battle heard by nearby villagers. The gang continues to try to sell it.
        January-February 2003 — One of the drug traffickers, leading men with
submachine guns and ski masks, raids the place where the men believe the altar is
hidden, badly beating an innocent woman in an effort to learn the altar’s whereabouts.
Villagers concerned about the incident enlist the help of archaeologist Demarest, who is
known to them because of his work on sustainable development in the area.
        March 2003 — Because he doesn’t want to tangle with the powerful drug lords,
Demarest meets with the head of drug traffickers in the area, who is also the district
governor, and persuades him not to interfere with efforts to stop the looting and recover
the altar. A few hours later the governor is gunned down by a rival, precipitating a major
drug war throughout the region.



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Ancient Maya stone altar recovered in Guatemala

        April 2003 — Demarest reports the altar’s theft to the Guatemalan Ministry of
Culture, which calls in the Ecological and Cultural Patrimony division of the S.I.C.
(Guatemala’s equivalent of the FBI). The S.I.C. stages an evening raid on the outlaws,
with guidance from Demarest and his survey director, Marc Wolf. The gang leader and a
lieutenant are arrested. The altar, however, is not found. It has been sold to a looter,
who has loaded it onto a truck and hauled it to a town 20 miles to the south.
         May 2003 — A photograph of the altar is recovered, and the Ministry of Culture
and S.I.C. send copies of the photograph and drawings made from it to law-enforcement
officials around the world, including Interpol and Belizean authorities. The dealer last
known to have the altar is arrested but says he no longer has it; it has gone to a dealer
in Melchor de Mencos, on the border with Belize.
         August 2003 — The authorities learn that their efforts to make the altar too hot
to sell have been effective when they hear from Maya villagers that it has been moved
back to the region from which it was stolen and then buried until it can be sold safely.
        September-October 2003 — The altar is recovered after another series of S.I.C
raids. Several looters are arrested and await trial. The altar, dirt-covered but in otherwise
sound condition, is transported to the National Museum in Guatemala City for cleaning
and decipherment.



Cancuén Sustainable Tourism and Indigenous Development Project

Archaeologist Arthur Demarest first learned of the ancient altar’s existence from Maya
village elders near his project site in Guatemala. Their information, given at personal
risk, also led to the altar’s recovery and the arrest of the looters who had it. The villagers’
concern for the looted altar and their fragile heritage had come about in part as a result
of a sustainable tourism and indigenous development project that is directed by
Vanderbilt University, National Geographic and Counterpart International, with funding
from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and many other
organizations.
Under the development project at Cancuén, local villagers are trained in the stewardship
of the site, the surrounding area and other sites throughout the region. These
collaborations have helped the Maya become tour guides, park rangers and managers
of rustic inns, boat services and ecotourism enterprises, providing indigenous peoples a
stake in preserving the ancient sites. In return, visitors will learn not only about the
Classic Maya ruins but also about the Maya of today as well as their rain forests. Since
Demarest began restoring the Maya royal palace at Cancuén and the sacred caves and
sites nearby, he has worked to help the Q’eqchi’ Maya there become custodians of their
heritage, gain access to sacred sites for rituals, and reap economic benefits from the
archaeological parks and the accomplishments of their ancestors.
Raymond Chavez, director of several Counterpart International/USAID development
projects of this type in Central America, said, “Without the counterbalance of some
economic benefits from tourism and the support of the traditional Maya rituals, the sites
would have been looted and the remaining rain forest would have disappeared under
pressure from logging, ranching and farming.”
All development decisions at Cancuén are made in consultation with Maya villagers.
This collaborative approach has led to a number of additional projects, such as the


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Ancient Maya stone altar recovered in Guatemala

establishment of Maya-run village “pharmacy-clinics” that provide both basic Western
medicines and traditional Maya remedies, bringing medical care to over 30 villages.
Other projects include sustainable garden agriculture, potable water systems, solar
panels for village schools, corn mills, and support for Maya economic, political and
religious rights.
The development project at Cancuén is one of several conducted with the support of the
National Geographic Sustainable Tourism Initiative. In response to soaring tourism
growth around the world, the Initiative facilitates informed stewardship of locales and
regions that have great visitor appeal. The NGS Initiative supports innovative
community-based tourism projects based on the concept of “geotourism,” tourism that
sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place, its environment, heritage,
aesthetics, culture and the well-being of its citizens.
“The Cancuén project can serve as a lesson for other, more typical international aid
initiatives,” said Jonathan B. Tourtellot, National Geographic’s director of sustainable
tourism. “The story of the ball-court altar shows that success ultimately relies not only on
building infrastructure for tourism but also on building knowledge and trust.”
                                            ###
     More information is available at: www.cancuenproject.org/development,
www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/sustainable and www.TIA.org/survey/pdf.




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