Underneath the jungle curtain of mud and dense foliage was a sprawling lost
city called "Cancuen," (can-ku-win), one of the most important commercial
centers of the Mayan world for more than 1,200 years.
Cancuen has been rediscovered by Guatemalan and American scientists working
deep in the country's northern jungles. They believe it will take 10 years to
fully unearth the city, which dates to 400 B.C.
It is buttressed by a 270,000-square-foot Mayan palace. With three floors -
each 66 feet high - and 170 rooms, it is among the most grandiose Mayan
structures ever discovered, the National Geographic Society announced Friday.
The society is a chief sponsor of the Cancuen excavation project.
"We started off working with what we thought was a small palace, part of a
small Mayan settlement," said Arthur Demerest, a Vanderbilt University
archaeologist and head of the Cancuen project. "What we found was a palace 20
times as large as we were expecting and an important Mayan marketplace that had
been forgotten for almost 100 years."
Built in the shadow of the hulking palace, the 5-square-mile city featured a
crowded rectangular layout of heavy stone walls, 11 spacious stone-tiled patios
and buildings with cubbyhole-like rooms and thick, multileveled roofs.
While Demerest said scientists aren't sure how many Mayan merchants traded in
Cancuen, the city is thought to have attracted thousands from nearby highland
settlements, including the sprawling, majestic city of Tikal, 85 miles to the
Cancuen, an ancient Maya word meaning "Place of the Serpent," became a key
trading post because of the sprawling River Passion in what is known today as
southern Peten, Guatemala's northernmost province, Demerest said.
First discovered in 1905 by Austrian explorer Tobert Maler, scientists and
looters ignored the site for years.
"A city that was built only for commercial purposes and not for religious
ones seemed uninteresting to a lot of academics and worthless to a lot of
looters," Demerest said, adding that the city is now overrun with such
jungle-dwelling animals as howler monkeys.
Cancuen lacked the breathtaking temples that dominate Tikal and other Mayan
sites because its inhabitants worshipped and buried their dead in surrounding
"All of the fantastic temples you see at other sites are an effort to copy
the altitude of the highlands that surrounded Cancuen," said Demerest, who said
that being close to the heavens was the cornerstone of Mayan religious
practices. "In Cancuen they had the real thing."
Though work at the site has been suspended until next spring because of the
rainy season, scientists have already recovered dozens of artifacts in nearby
Cancuen remained shrouded by jungle until 1967, when a group of Harvard
graduate students returned to the city for less than a week and brought back
crude sketches of what they thought was waiting to be discovered there.
Demerest and scientists from Guatemala's City's Valley University were drawn
back to the area in April because hieroglyphics inscribed in artifacts recovered
in Tikal and Dos Pilas, the ancient Maya's largest commercial center, made
reference to a marketplace called Cancuen and its powerful fourth-century B.C.
ruler, Tah Chan Wi, or "Celestial Fire."
Frederico Fahsen, the foremost Guatemalan authority on deciphering Mayan
hieroglyphics and the Cancuen project's co-director, said the Cancuen ruler
married his daughter to the king of Dos Pilas, 55 miles to the northeast, to
establish relationships with surrounding settlements rather than go to war with
"Mayan cities have been in constant war, with their constructions dedicated
to the gods and the heavens," Fahsen said. "Here we have exactly the opposite."