Mayan city of jade is unearthed from jungle

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The Independent US

Archaeologists in northern Guatemala have hacked away 100 years of jungle creepers that hid a lost Mayan settlement, known as "the Place of Serpents", and have unearthed a 170-room limestone palace full of jade and mirrors.

Archaeologists in northern Guatemala have hacked away 100 years of jungle creepers that hid a lost Mayan settlement, known as "the Place of Serpents", and have unearthed a 170-room limestone palace full of jade and mirrors.

The new discovery, which once overlooked the Passion River, dates from AD740 and is expected to rival any of the royal residences at Tikal, considered the pinnacle of classic Mayan city-states.

"What is most incredible about this site is that most of the palace is buried virtually intact," said Arthur Demarest, a Tennessee scientist overseeing the historic dig sponsored by Vanderbilt University, the National Geographic Society and the Guatemalan Institute of Anthropology and History.

Excavation at Cancuen will take at least 10 years to complete, since the structure sprawls around 11 courtyards and over the equivalent of two football pitches. Villagers have been trained to stand guard against looters until more archaeologists are deployed in February, when the rainy season ends. One ancient workshop within the palace contains a 35lb chunk of uncut jade on the table, and the remains of a middle-aged woman's skull with 10 jade-inlaid molars has been uncovered. Elaborate polychrome ceramic figurines are stockpiled in what has been recognised as an important Mayan trading centre of obsidian and jade.

Because the new site has no stepped pyramids or temples, it had been dismissed as a minor outpost and ignored. Sporadic guerrilla uprisings near the remote area had kept all academics away for decades until Guatemala's civil war was ended by truce four years ago. Recently, archaeologists translated glyphs found at Dos Pilas, another Guatemalan site under excavation, which indicated that a Mayan princess from Cancuen had married a powerful warlord there and built herself a lavish retreat.

Professor Demarest and his team from Vanderbilt University pursued that lead and returned this summer to investigate an overgrown mound in Cancuen. While surveying the new site, Dr Demarest suddenly found himself up to his armpits in a sinkhole. "That's when I realised the entire hill was a three-storey building and we were walking on top of the roof," he said. He had fallen into a courtyard, and discovered 20ft corbelled arches over grand rooms.

Preliminary findings show that the palace is 20 times grander than anyone had expected. It resembles a modern shopping mall with great storerooms of valuable objects, and was part of a merchant network that traded semi-precious stones and feathers across the Mayan empire in Meso-America from present-day Honduras to Mexico. What makes Cancuen a seminal find is the complete absence of any evidence of militarism, or of the powerful religious hierarchy that required human sacrifice. Dr Demarest said he would now have to revamp a textbook, which is due for publication, because his notion of late-Classic Mayan culture has been turned on its head.

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