Vanderbilt archaeological team unearths buried Maya royal palace

hat were easily filled in by jungle vegetation, disguised the palace for more than 1,000 years.

The palace was so well camouflaged that Demarest and his colleagues did not recognize its true size for their first two weeks at the site. Like previous visitors, they also thought large parts of the palace were solid platforms. Then, one day when walking along the ruin's highest level, Demarest fell up to his armpits into vegetation filling one of the courtyards. "That's when I realized the entire hill was a three-story building and we were walking on top of the roof," he says.

The archaeologists visited Cancuén in 1999 to follow up a lead from a 10-year dig in northern Guatemala. Excavations at Dos Pilas and several other sites had given them a wealth of information about a highly militaristic city-state called Petexbatun.

Among the Petexbatun records, they found a description of a marriage alliance between a Dos Pilas prince and a Cancuén princess. The small palace where the princess lived was one of Dos Pilas site's most exquisite structures. "It looks as if the princess brought her own artisans, because the stonework on her palace is just like that at Cancuén and far superior to anything in the Petexbatun region," Demarest says.

Where the archaeologists expected to find a minor center, they were surprised to find evidence of a much larger, richer and more powerful kingdom, one based on control of the trade in precious commodities: jade, pyrite for making mirrors and obsidian for razor and knife blades. Thousands of people apparently lived at the center during its peak.

The palace was surrounded by the homes and workshops of artisans, which the archaeologists have explored. "Even the workmen at Cancuén were well-to-do. They had teeth filled with jade inlays and were buried with fine ceramic figurines with beautiful headdresses," Demarest says.

While the archaeologists were mapping the site, Guatemalan ep

Contact: David F. Salisbury
Vanderbilt University

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