Most remarkable of all, the archaeologists have discovered, near the ancient city centre, a huge religious complex, among the most impressive found in Central America. This 800ft long, 600ft wide area includes 10 pyramids and seven great ceremonial plazas. The summit of the tallest pyramid stands on the top of a ridge, some 200 feet above the forest floor.
The expedition, from the University of East London, has also discovered what is probably the remains of six other previously unknown pyramids on the site tentatively identified from data picked up during detailed aerial reconnaissance. The "city" is in dense jungle a few miles to the south-east of the known archaeological site of Yaxchilan on the Mexico/Guatemala border.
Two of the largest pyramids were topped by temples - one of which survives largely intact, still bearing traces of red, blue, orange and yellow paintings.
Evidence collected by the archaeologists, who worked alongside a team from Mexico, strongly suggests the largest pyramid, originally a 60ft high structure, was built as a giant tomb for a powerful king - just like the pyramids of Egypt. Most Central Amer- ican pyramids were not constructed as houses for the dead, and acted solely as temples.
But this one has a secret passageway leading to a vertical shaft which seems to descend deep into the heart of the pyramid. Only two other similar shafts have ever been discovered in Central America, and both led to spectacular royal burials.
The archaeologists, funded by the Washington-based National Geographic Society, have also discovered at least 10 small shrine sites, hundreds of house sites and a dozen ceremonial stone pillars, some of which bear traces of Maya hieroglyphic writing. In its heyday in the seventh century AD, the metropolis may well have been among the largest in the world - possibly with a population of more than 50,000.
In that period of history only a small number of other Central American cities, a few in China, and Constantinople, now Istanbul, in Europe are likely to have been any bigger.
"We believe this could be one of the most important Maya sites ever discovered," said the expedition's leader, Alan Robinson. "We plan to return there in the near future."Reuse content