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Maya Palace Uncovered September 8, 2000
by Angela M.H. Schuster

Extensive palace found at the Maya site of Cancuén in Guatemala's Petén region


Arthur Demarest, left, and Tomás Barrientos, right, examine the remains of a large Maya palace at Cancuén.
(Christopher Talbot, National Geographic Society)

Archaeologists working deep in the jungle of highland Guatemala have uncovered the remains of an enormous Maya palace built nearly 1,300 years ago. Found at the site of Cancuén, which means "Place of Serpents," on the Río Pasion in the Petén region, the three-story palace covers some 270,000 square feet has more than 170 rooms built around 11 courtyards. Its solid limestone masonry walls are six feet thick in places. According to inscriptions, the palace was commissioned by a king, T'ah 'ak' Cha'an, who reigned in the mid-eighth century.

A preliminary survey of the building, undertaken by Arthur Demarest of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and Tomás Barrientos of the Universidad del Valle in Guatemala City, has revealed a complex labyrinth of rooms and passageways, many with 20-foot-high corbel arches. The palace was surrounded by the houses and workshops of artisans. Adjacent areas had been paved.


Click for detailed map.
(Bette Duke)

Cancuén flourished during the Classic Period (A.D. 300-900), reaching its apogee in the early seventh century, when it controlled much of the southern Petén. The site prospered from its monopoly of trade in jade, pyrite for making mirrors, and obsidian for blade production. Withing the workshop area archaeologists uncovered a 35-pound chunk of jade that artisans had been chopping away to make amulets and beads and impressive quantities of pyrite. "Cancuén," says Demarest, "had a distinct advantage in being located at the Río Pasion's head of navigation, the first place the river's waters are navigable after it flows out of the highlands; waterfalls and rapids providing a scenic backdrop to the ancient city."

[image] An artist's reconstruction of the palace based on recent survey data. (Luis Fernando, National Geographic Society) [LARGER IMAGE]

"Clearly the city's inhabitants were wealthy," he adds, noting that even artisans, whose remains have been found under the floors of houses just south of the palace, had teeth inlaid with jade--a practice generally reserved for royalty--and had been buried with numerous ceramic figurines and elaborate headdresses.

The city was ruled by one of the Maya world's oldest dynasties, one that was established sometime around A.D. 300. The city formed a number of powerful alliances with neighboring kingdoms in the Late Classic period. Inscriptions indicate that a lord from Calakmul in Campeche, Mexico, officiated at the investitures of two Cancuén kings in A.D. 656 and 677, and, according to Guatemalan epigrapher Federico Fahsen, an inscription at the nearby site of Petexbatún records a marriage between a Dos Pilas prince known as To K'in K'awil and a Cancuén princess, Ix Chac K'awil Ix Cancuén Ahau, sometime in the A.D. 730s. "We are just now beginning to work out Cancuén's relationship to surrounding cities," says Fahsen, cautioning that decipherments made so far are preliminary. Demarest and his team estimate that at its height it had a population of several thousand people. The site was abandoned in the mid-ninth century.

[image] Left, an altar and fallen stela lay among the remains of the vast Maya city of Cancuén. [LARGER IMAGE] Right, a Classic period polychrome vase [LARGER IMAGE] (Christopher Talbot, National Geographic Society) [image]

Cancuén was first visited by archaeologists in 1905, but dismissed as a minor Maya city. In the 1960s it was surveyed by graduate students from Harvard University who discovered the palace remains. Their sketches and maps, however, underestimated both the size of the palace and the extent of the ancient city; its architecture obscured by dense vegetation. To date Demarest and his team have mapped some three square miles of urban development. They will return next summer to begin excavation of the palace, a project they expect to take more than a decade.

The site is at the center of one of the last stands of tropical rain forest in the Petén, complete with howler monkeys, wooly anteaters, and rare birds. Excavators hope to establish the area surrounding the site as an ecological preserve.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America