Stolen Mayan altar is found after tip-off from villagers

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An ancient altar looted from the ruins of a Mayan palace in the Guatemalan jungle has been recovered after a hunt across central America by a team of archaeologists, local villagers and government agents.

The search began when a small group of Q'eqchi' Maya elders from Cancuen, northern Guatemala, approached Arthur Demarest, an American archaeologist working in Guatemala, to tell him that art smugglers and drug gangs were fighting over a hitherto unknown stone altar, dating from AD796.

Professor Demarest, of Vanderbilt University, Nashville, believed that the tribal elders, who had walked for hours to find him, were risking their lives to tell him about the theft of the altar. He had built up a relationship with the villagers after working in the region for more than 20 years.

The altar was stolen in 2001 by armed men in ski masks after a storm washed away foliage which had kept the 600lb (270kg) limestone slab secret for more than 1,000 years. The elaborately carved altardepicts Taj Chan Ahk, a ruler of Cancuen, engaged in a ritual ball game with the vassal king of a neighbouring fiefdom. Professor Demarest said that the altar, the second known of its type, was "a priceless window to a lost world".

The thieves had tried to sell the altar to drug smugglers and at one point considered selling the piece for about $4,000 (£2,400).

A team was assembled to track down the altar after the tribal elders' visit earlier this year.The six-month hunt ended this month when archaeologists and members of a Guatemalan art recovery squad raided the gang's hideout after a tip-off. The altar was taken to Guatemala City, where it is being restored.

Professor Demarest said: "This is the first time that an entire looters' ring, up to the dealers, have been arrested.

"Open to us now are clues to the end of the Cancuen kingdom that we would never have found without its recovery. However our epigrapher has only just begun to decipher the glyphs and we know there is a lot more to discover."

The palace at Cancuen is believed to have been one of the largest in the Maya world.

The altar was inaugurated at the height of Taj Chan Ahk's powers but Professor Demarest said that "only a few years later, the powerbase had collapsed and the end of the system was just a few years away".

"Looting is one of the biggest problems facing communities, Professor Demarest said.

"We were lucky to save the altar this time, but everyday people are dying because of the desire of so-called art lovers in the US and Europe to get treasures like these in their private collections."

Cancuen was a wealthy port town on the Pasion river that controlled the jade trade. Taj Chan Ahk was building a large palace on the site where the altar was found, but his people moved soon after it was laid and the palace was never finished.