Vanderbilt archaeological team unearths buried Maya royal palace

ters of the palace but didn't see it because it was covered in dense jungle vegetation. The site was visited again briefly in the 1960's by a group of Harvard graduate students, who first identified the palace. Their sketches and maps, however, underestimated the size of the palace and covered only a small fraction of the ancient city's actual extent.

"These underestimates are quite understandable," says Demarest. "To the untrained eye, the palace looks just like a great, jungle-covered hill. Even to archaeologists much of the palace appeared to be high, solid platforms."He says the scale and importance of Cancuén were unrecognized for so long for several reasons:

  • Cancuén is situated in a region bordering the Guatemalan highlands that has been largely overlooked by archaeologists. That is partly because the Maya built no temples in the area. "Temples indicate a major site and the presence of tombs," Demarest says. He theorizes the Maya didn't need temples at Cancuén because they used the area's natural, cave-filled towers of limestone for burials and religious purposes.
  • One of the Cancuén kings had an area of about two square kilometers around the palace paved with stone. This kept the farmers from using the area to grow crops. Over time, jungle trees pushed through the stones and established an island of dense rainforest, complete with trees 16 feet in diameter and troops of howler monkeys. The area became an oasis as the rest of the rainforest was cleared for farming.
  • The walls of the 270,000-square foot palace are built of solid limestone masonry, rather than the concrete and mud typical of other sites. As a result, it did not collapse the way that other Maya structures did when enveloped by jungle. The preliminary survey of the palace found that it contains a densely packed labyrinth of hundreds of small rooms with extravagant, 20-foot, corbel-arched ceilings. This design, combined with small courtyards t

Contact: David F. Salisbury
Vanderbilt University

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