Posted Sept. 9, 2000 - Updated Jan. 10, 2001

On September 8, 2000, the New York Times reported that archaeologists investigating the Guatemalan site of Cancuén had uncovered one of the largest and most magnificent Maya royal palaces ever discovered. Dr. Arthur A. Demarest, an archaeologist at Vanderbilt University who led the discovery team together with Dr. Tomás Barrientos of the Universidád del Valle in Guatemala, was quoted to the effect that the find was unprecedented in this century.

Demarest asserted that the absence of pyramid mounds at the site had caused previous archaeologists to bypass the ruins and fail to investigate the palace. On the basis of hieroglyphic inscriptions and the absence of fortifications at the site, Demarest also maintained that Cancuén somehow avoided the warfare endemic to the other Maya kingdoms.

The story was also covered by the Associated Press, with a quote by Federico Fahsen, properly identified as the foremost Guatemalan authority on deciphering Mayan hieroglyphics. After indicating that the Cancuén ruler had married his daughter to the king of Dos Pilas, 55 miles to the northeast, to establish relationships with surrounding settlements rather than go to war with them, Fahsen commented: "Mayan cities have been in constant war, with their constructions dedicated to the gods and the heavens. Here we have exactly the opposite."

The story was covered by a number of other newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle, whose science editor interviewed Demarest. Other print publications, including U.S. News & World Report elaborated on the wire service report and the press release from The National Geographic Society and Vanderbilt University. A brief recap of some of the headlines to date is an interesting study in what is perceived as newsworthy.

Sept. 18. U.S. News & World Report: "Pleasure Palace in the Vines: Did Consumerism Sustain the Mayas?"

Sept. 10. Charleston Newspapers: The Sunday Gazette Mail: "Mayan Market Discovered: Peaceful City Differs from Warring Sisters"

Sept. 9. Daily Mail (London): "Stumble in the Jungle Leads to Lost City of the Kings"

Sept. 9. The Independent (London): "Mayan City of Jade is Unearthed from Jungle"

Sept. 9. The San Francisco Chronicle: "Falling into a Splendid Ruin: Archaeologist Stumbled Onto Site by Accident"

Sept. 8. The Ottawa Citizen: "Huge Mayan City Discovered"

Sept. 8. The Washington Post: In Guatemalan Jungle, A Mayan Wall Street? Enormous Palace Was Major Trading Center"

Sept. 7. The Associated Press. "Scientists Uncover 2,400-year-old Mayan Marketplace". (The story begins: "It was a sprawling Mayan mall, built 24 centuries before there was a Starbucks, a Gap or a food court to fill it."

There were also online reports at Anova and Slate ("Indiana's Nirvana").

Coverage on National Public Radio quoted Demarest: "At one point, I wandered up into the highest part of it, walking into the middle of what I thought was a very high platform. But, in fact, in walking into the middle of it, I sunk into vegetation about up to my neck. Actually the ground rustled with a lot of snakes, and that gave me the encouragement to freeze, and I actually was standing there frozen for about 30 minutes because I had stepped into a snake's nest, which the name of the site, Cancuén, means 'snake's nest' in Maya. And we now know why, because this buried palace has great appeal to snakes.

"The palace is larger than the palace at Palenque or Copan. It's about the size of the one at Tikal. The amount of wealth as measured in ancient Mayan terms, which is jade, obsidian, pyrite, chalcedony, is not only great, but spreads through the whole population. I mean, we have burials of individuals, who from the household architecture and the other remains, you would think were commoners, and they'll have 10 jade-inlaid teeth. So there's a very great level of wealth, a very different structure for power."

NPR's host, Bob Edwards, closed with the comment: "Arthur Demarest says Cancuén's focus on economic trade likely will force scholars to make major revisions to the historical view of Mayan civilization."

Map showing location of Cancuén.

Cancuén was explored and mapped by G. Tourtellot, J. A. Sabloff, and R. Sharick in 1978. These archaeologists also published a plan of the palace ("Excavations at Seibal, No. 2: A Reconnaissance of Cancuen", Memoirs of the Peabody Museum, Harvard University).

It should be noted that few Maya sites show evidence of fortifications. Furthermore, there are indications of warfare at Cancuén. One of its stelae, known since the turn of the century, depicts a war captive. Another text incised on a conch shell refers to a captive of a contemporary ruler of Cancuén.

Especially considering Cancuén's remoteness and the logistical difficulties of working there, the renewed and systematic investigation of the site is a noteworthy development. And the Cancuén project's determination to work with the local population to protect the site from looters is to be applauded.

Further updates below; more links at end

Cancuén ballcourt marker. Rubbing by Merle Greene Robertson.

In response to a critique of the newspaper reports, colleagues of Dr. Demarest circulated an email which is excerpted here. Dr. Demarest comments:

"No one on the project has claimed at any time that we first discovered the palace, but rather that we have this season recognized its size and nature. ... In all communications, we have given great credit to the Harvard team who did a good job considering they worked there for four days. Morley and Maler's two day visits must also be seen in that light, as must my own FAMSI-sponsored reconnaissances of a couple of weeks each. All of us misinterpreted the site which is literally 20 times larger than estimated by Gair et al and the palace, which has between 170 and 180 rooms. What Gair et al and we also (until this season) did not take into account is that the palace is three stories high. ...[A]ll of the courtyards of the palace are closed and the palace and its courtyards are well defined, as they are continuously connected and all sit on a raised platform of about two meters. This really is one of the largest palaces in the Maya world.

" ... After two thorough FAMSI reconnaissances in '97 and '98, we have now just completed our second full field season, funded by National Geographic and Vanderbilt (who authored the press release), as well as other sources. We have now completed six and half months of intensive field work with a team of 10-12 archaeologists and 40-80 workmen. These have included over 200 excavations, most of them 2x2 meter units but many are far more extensive. Some workshops, elite residences, and non-elite residences have been completely stripped horizontally. We have mapped (not re-mapped) about 25-30% of the site with total station and that alone includes over 200 'new' structures. The Harvard map only included part of the epicenter and only about 70% of the structures even there. Again, it is a very large site. Just the area within the bend of the Pasion River itself (which is as far as we have surveyed) covers over five square kilometers. We will begin survey on the other side of the river next year.

"Regarding the palace, we have cleared, thoroughly re-mapped, and conducted test excavations in all plazas. One excavation on the south side of the southeast plaza was expanded to 20 square meters in area and went down five meters deep. It revealed sub-structures of earlier palaces (at least three) beneath the current 8th century palace. Furthermore, I can firmly state ... that there is very little looting at Cancuen. The site was systematically looted for surface sculpture, apparently by the army... There are a number of places where large treefalls have created substantial damage, but there are only three looters trenches in the palace itself. The palace is standing with most of its rooms and corbelled vaults intact and its courtyards are filled with vegetation and wall fall which apparently sealed them in the mid to late 9th century. Rudi Larios spent two days with us this year and was impressed with the state of preservation, the quality of masonry, and the size of the palace and he will be working with us directing restoration efforts in the years to come, beginning next season.

"Regarding interpretations of the political and economic nature of the site, these are clearly highly speculative at this point. The site is remarkable in having no major religious architecture. Nearby caves in karst towers are filled with ritual deposits of the very distinctive ceramics and figurines characteristic of Late Classic Cancuen. The epigraphic corpus from monuments and artifacts compiled by Federico Fahsen, Simon Martin, Nikolai Grube, and David Stuart gives us a detailed initial view of the kingdom's history. As the NGS press release actually stated, this includes 'no major wars' but numerous long-distance affiliations and alliances. These relationships included participation in Stuart's probable Spear-Thrower-Owl Tikal/Teo event, the famous affiliation with Calakmul, the marriage alliance with Dos Pilas, and in the 8th and 9th centuries a joint kingdom with Tres Islas and Machaquila which covered much of the southern Peten.

"Comments in the press about the economic nature and wealth of the site are based on our extensive excavations of workshops near the palace in jade, pyrite mirrors, and obsidian. These workshops have original imported raw materials, high densities of debitage, production tools, and artifacts at all stages of manufacture, from a 35 pound cut jade boulder and nodules of raw pyrite and obsidian to finished eccentrics, beads, and other artifacts. Cancuen sits before the passes which lead today and in the ethnohistoric record to the highlands. It also is located at the precise 'head of navigation' of the Pasion River. Our interpretation that it is a gateway controlling import of highland stone and exotics is a valid hypothesis that we will test in the coming decade of research."

Demarest's 1999 FAMSI report.

Cancuén was previously in the news in March of 1998. A New York Times article headlined "To Save Mayan Artifacts From Looters, a Form of Protective Custory" quoted Augusto Vela Mena, Guatemala's Minister of Culture and Sport: "The [looters] are not only stealing our artifacts. They are stealing the history of our nation." Vela Mena went on to say that he had worked with the U. S. Customs Service to repatriate more than 500 artifacts that dealers or collectors were trying to export illegally to the U.S. He had also made a claim on a collection of 137 Maya items donated in 1987 to the Musuem of Fine Arts in Boston, which the museum dimissed as lacking merit. "We need to destroy the market," said Vela Mena.

As an interim measure, Guatemala was beginning to remove monuments from their sites and replace them with replicas when possible. Among the sites whose most important stelae were to be replaced with replicas was Cancuén.

Cancuén was also in the news in July of 1995, when the New York Times reported that tomb robbers in Guatemala were circulating a videotape of the looted Cancuén Panel amongst art dealers and archaeologists.

And in October of 1990, the Lady of Cancuén, known from inscriptions to have married a Dos Pilas ruler, was mentioned by Arthur Demarest in a story in the Los Angeles Times. The article, which also referred to the precocious achievements of the young hieroglyphics expert David Stuart, was entitled "The Real Indiana Jones and His Pyramids of Doom: A Determined Archaeologist, a Young Genius, and a Dog Named Rapido Unravel the Mystery of How a Great Civilization Collapsed."

Also see: Maya Palace Uncovered at Archaeology Magazine online.