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Archeologists Recover Maya Altar from Looters - 2003-10-30

Archeologists have recovered an ancient Mayan altar from looters, an artifact they say describes the final days of one of the world's great civilizations.

The altar was erected in the year 796 at the end of the Maya civilization, in the large city of Cancuen, in present day Guatemala.

Archeologist Arthur Demarest announced the find Wednesday in a teleconference arranged by the National Geographic Society, which helped fund the expedition. Mr. Demarest said the altar shows, in hieroglyphic symbols, two kings in the palace court playing a game of ball.

"It is giving us the details, building on the details of a lot of other monuments we have found, the hieroglyphic staircase we found last year, and filling in the details of the collapse of this civilization," he said.

Just as modern cities are interdependent, Mr. Demarest said Mayan cities relied upon each other for commerce. When the ancient cities began to fall due to constant war, the civilization of rain forest dwellers collapsed.

Mr. Demarest said the discovery has led archeologists to a royal tomb that should provide even more information about the Maya.

The 600-pound (272 kilogram) altar was located in a very remote part of Guatemala, rife with guerrilla camps and drug dealers. Mr. Demarest said looters found it when rain washed away dirt that covered it, and tried to sell it on the antiquities market.

Mr. Demarest, who has worked with the local Maya for 20 years, said the altar was located and recovered with the help of villagers, who had been trained as custodians of the site and its surroundings, which are expected to become a draw for tourists.

"[They hope] to take them over, to manage them, to have small, very modest tourist enterprises as guides and running little hut inns, you know, for the crazy adventure tourists who want to stay in a Maya hut," he said.

Mr. Demarest called the altar a "masterpiece" that will give archeologists vital information about the last days of the Maya civilization.