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City may be lost piece to Mayan puzzle

Published Sep. 27, 2005

Experts say rediscovered ruins in Guatemala could tell them about the origin of looted hieroglyphic tablets.

Archaeologists in Guatemala have rediscovered the lost ruins of a Mayan city that could end a mystery that has baffled researchers for decades.

Preliminary studies indicate that the city, in the remote forests of Peten province, about 300 miles north of the capital, Guatemala City, may be an important ceremonial site dating back 700 to 800 years.

"We believe it is a unique site. Nothing like this has been seen in Mayan culture," said Luis de Leon, a spokesman for Basic Resources, a multinational oil company that has underwritten the work of two local archaeologists.

The city of El Pajaral is thought to be the same site first discovered by Harvard archaeologist Ian Graham in 1970. At the time, his work was frustrated by a lack of cooperation from Guatemalan authorities and missing data. Poor mapping, political instability and an intensifying guerrilla war made access to the remote, unpopulated region virtually impossible in later years.

"The entire western part of the Peten is virtually unknown," said Arlen Chase of the University of Central Florida, a leading anthropologist and expert on Mayan culture. "Literally no one has been in there."

For years experts have debated the mysterious origin of looted Mayan hieroglyphic stone tablets that have turned up in art markets. No existing site appeared to match the fine examples of Mayan handiwork. But now El Pajaral could contain the answer to the search for "Site Q," as it has been dubbed by archaeologists. The letter "q" stands for the word "que" meaning "what" in Spanish.

Based on the carvings and fine quality of the limestone, experts have long suspected that Site Q was somewhere near the Mexico-Guatemala border, the heartland of the lowland Mayan civilization.

El Pajaral was found last year after two Guatemalan archaeologists began exploring the area hoping to pick up Graham's trail. They came across the hamlet of Los Cerritos, a community of 75 Keq'chi Indian families who had settled there five years ago as part of a government land reform program. The villagers directed them to ruins in the forest an hour's walk away.

The archaeologists were shocked to find the ruins smouldering in a clearing where villagers had slashed and burned the forest to make way for bean fields. But their dismay turned to awe as they observed the structures that the villagers' primitive farming methods had revealed.

"It's a magnificent site. Although it is quite small, the monuments are very impressive," said Salvador Lopez, 36, one of the Guatemalan archaeologists.

The centerpiece consists of two major ceremonial plazas joined by a long, 150-feet-wide stone staircase rising to 100 feet above the ground.

The site is dotted with altars and carved limestone monuments, known as stelae, that have been likened to the totem poles associated with native North American culture. The hieroglyphics contain detailed drawings depicting Mayan deities and scenes from everyday life. Sadly, none of the stelae are intact, smashed by art robbers who have systematically looted similar sites across Guatemala.

Understanding the illegal trade in smuggled Mayan artifacts is the key to the enigma of Site Q. Scientists have tried to trace the stolen tablets back to their source, coming up with different theories.

Most of the 25 stone tablets now lie in museums and private collections in the United States from Denver to Chicago. Scientists think the robbers literally defaced the monuments, cutting the hieroglyphics out of the limestone with power tools. Each tablet can earn peasant depredadores, or pillagers, as much as $1,000.

Once they are driven out of the Peten on trucks to Belize, they are shipped to Belgium where they go on sale to the art world. Most have ended up in the United States, fetching up to $112,000 at auction. Until recently, the trade in Mayan antiquities raised few questions, largely because Guatemala made little effort to object to the loss of its national heritage.

Lopez compared the site to Tikal, the majestic Mayan city popular with tourists about 50 miles northeast of El Pajaral. While smaller in size, El Pajaral, may be a significant piece in the map of Mayan civilization, providing a link with other important cities such as Chichen Itza, across the border in Mexico, and Copan in northern Honduras.

"The thing that is really striking about El Pajaral is the great diversity of architectural styles," said Lopez. "There are parts similar in style to the Mexican sites, but others look more like the ruins at Copan. People may have come from all over to attend ceremonies there."

Experts say it may be some time before its true importance can be fully assessed. The new site is expected to attract great interest among archaeologists from major U.S. universities that have conducted detailed surveys of other important Mayan sites.

"It is not uncommon for oil companies to make this kind of discovery," said Chase. "But it may be an important find." Due to logistical limitations, most archaeological studies have been limited along the main rivers in the region.

"The oil companies have traditionally been the ones who find these sites because they have the resources to make new trails into the forest," he added.

Lopez is now hoping to piece together the remains of the stelae at El Pajaral and find the answers to its ceremonial importance. But proper study will require international assistance.

"The government here doesn't have the resources," said Lopez. "There are so many other more important social needs such as housing and health care, that we have to look abroad."

With Maya studies, as well as eco-tourism, growing in popularity in the United States, that's not out of the question. Experts in the United States remain eager to solve the mystery of Site Q.

Graham, the archaeologist who first discovered El Pajaral, is now director of Harvard's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. He could not be reached for comment. But he recently gave an insight into his own continuing fascination with Site Q.

"One day we may find the eroded brethren of some of the pristine Site Q tablets," he wrote in Archaeology Magazine in 1997. "There is a good chance that others in the set . . . were spurned by looters as too weathered or fragmentary. We are getting closer to Site Q. The search will go on."

Even if it turns out that El Pajaral doesn't hold the answer, Lopez is already chasing new leads. Local art thieves have told him of a place called El Peru Chiquito (Little Peru), where antiquities can still be found.

"I'm hoping to go there later this year after the rains," said Lopez. "There are still a lot of sites to be found."

If the mystery is solved, museums in the United States may find themselves being asked to return the stolen antiquities. Guatemala is now actively seeking to recover its past, documenting pieces in its own collections and negotiating for the restitution of what's missing.

The Mayan civilization

The Maya (MAH yuh) were an indigenous people who lived in what is now Central America and southern Mexico. The Maya produced magnificent ceremonial cities with pyramids, and fine painting, pottery and sculpture. They developed a sophisticated mathematical and calendar system, and were one of the first peoples in the Western Hemisphere to develop an advanced form of writing.

The Maya lived in an area of about 120,000 square miles. Their territory included parts of what now is Mexico (on the Yucatan Peninsula), Belize, most of Guatemala, and parts of El Salvador and Honduras. As early as 1500 B.C. the Maya had settled in villages and developed an agriculture based on corn (maize), beans and squash. During the civilization's Classic Period (A.D. 250 to 900), it was centered in the tropical rain forest of the lowlands of northern Guatemala. By 1100, the great lowland cities were abandoned and the Maya moved to areas in the north and south. By the time of Spanish conquest in the early 16th century, most populations were centered around small villages.

Today, their descendants live in Mexico and Central America; they speak Mayan languages and carry on some religious customs. The Guatemalan military targeted Maya communities during the mid-1970s. Many Maya were forcibly relocated during Guatemala's civil wars.

Sources: World Book, Encyclopaedia Britannica Online; Columbia Encyclopedia