The palace _ three stories high, covering an area the size of six football fields _ lay nearly intact for centuries beneath the dense vegetation of central Guatemala's Peten rain forest.
In a major discovery, archaeologists working at the site at Cancuen announced Thursday that they had found the remains of an enormous Mayan trading center that flourished at the apogee of the Mayan civilization in the eighth century A.D, and whose size rivals the central acropolis at the famous ruins of Tikal, also in Guatemala.
"This site is very important, because it changes some of the perspective on Mayan states," said Vanderbilt University archaeologist Arthur Demarest, leader of the Cancuen excavation.
Demarest, like other scholars, said he believed "the basis of royal power among the Maya was religion and warfare." But Cancuen "has no temples, no defense, no evidence of warfare, no evidence of important wars," Demarest said. Instead, hieroglyphics at the site suggest that the business of Cancuen was business and that the city prospered by making political alliances "on a Machiavellian scale."
In expeditions sponsored by Guatemala's Institute of Anthropology and History, the National Geographic Society and Vanderbilt, Demarest determined the site's scope last spring. His team later mapped a labyrinthine three-story limestone building with 170 rooms built around 11 courtyards.
Outside the palace, buildings housed the bureaucrats and artisans who managed a thriving trade in natural resources from Guatemala's central highland: jade for ornaments and jewelry, obsidian for knives and chopping tools, and pyrite. Cancuen lies at the foot of the highlands, on a small natural harbor precisely where the Pasion River becomes navigable.
Cancuen was a rich city, even for workers, Demarest said. Common graves found in caves in the hills surrounding the palace contained finely painted ceramic pots, jewelry and utensils. One woman's skeleton showed ornamental jade inlays in 10 of her teeth.
Mayan civilization may have begun as early as 2500 B.C. But it wasn't until 3,000 years ago when large numbers of people began to settle in the jungle lowlands of what today is Central America, including all of Belize, most of Guatemala, large swatches of Mexico, and parts of El Salvador and Honduras.
The Mayan "classic period" lasted from 250 A.D. to 900 A.D. when people began to depopulate the jungle for as yet unknown reasons. The Maya endured and periodically thrived, however, until the Spanish invasion in the 16th century.
The Maya are known for their architecture at elaborate sites like Tikal, Chichen Itza in Mexico and Copan, near Guatemala. But this region _ rain-sodden, overgrown and beset for decades by guerrilla war _ is difficult to explore. "I think there are a good number of sites that have not come to the notice of archaeologists," said Maya specialist Wendy Ashmore, an archaeologist at the University of California at Riverside.
Cancuen was discovered in 1905 and revisited by a group of Harvard graduate students in the 1960s, who mapped "5 percent of the site," Demarest said. The vegetation is almost impassable, Demarest said, and filled with snakes. In the K'ekchi language spoken in the area, Cancuen means "place of serpents."
The prevailing view among scholars was that Cancuen was a "minor site," an opinion shared by Demarest, he said, until the day last spring when he was walking across what he thought was a stone platform built over landfill and suddenly fell up to his armpits in tropical vines and muck.
"I realized I was in the middle of a courtyard," he said. And unlike most Mayan ruins, the surrounding walls were built of solid limestone and largely intact, as were the roofs and ceilings. Beneath the palace were the ruins of at least three more, older buildings, he said.
Demarest described the palace as a mazelike structure, containing dozens of small rooms with vaulted ceilings 20 feet high. The rooms were clustered around equally compact courtyards, suggesting they may have been intended to house large numbers of high-ranking visitors, perhaps in town to negotiate business deals, he said.
The jungle reclaimed the palace once it was abandoned, but the vegetation preserved and disguised the building rather than destroying it, Demarest said. Over time, the trees and brush that swelled the courtyards also shored up the inner walls.
The walls themselves, made of solid limestone, did not collapse, but reinforced one another even as the jungle encroached. And outside the palace the Mayan kings had paved two square kilometers of jungle with cobblestones, which kept local farmers from trying to plant there once Cancuen had been abandoned.
Demarest said the team has barely begun excavating the site, and next year will enter the palace: "I'm going to have to excavate and restore at the same time," Demarest said.
But if Cancuen was intact, it was not undisturbed. Demarest said Guatemalan researchers involved in the dig have been able to track down monuments, stairs and other carved stones taken from the site over the years.