Raiders Of The Lost Altar, USA Today, Arthur Demarest

Mayan artifact wrested from nefarious looters [with the help of Arthur Demarest, Vanderbilt University ( VU )].

By Dan Vergano


Move over, Indiana Jones. A real American archaeologist was instrumental in the recovery of a priceless Mayan altar that was looted from an excavation.

Now safe in Guatemala’s National Museum, the limestone altar, whose recovery was announced Wednesday, sheds light on the political life of the Mayan era. Carved in the year 796 to honor a treaty in the Mayan city of Cancuén, the altar depicts two kings playing a ritual ballgame.

The altar’s recent past sheds light on the extent of modern looting.

Remains of the ancient Mayan civilization lie throughout Central America. Two years ago, heavy rains uncovered the altar at the excavation of the Guatemalan site that was once a major trading center and royal palace. Before archaeologists even laid eyes on it, however, a gang of looters stole it.

Since then, competing gangs have been battling over it. At one point, it twas buried again. There were gun battles between rival thieves, as well as a worldwide Interpol alter once the theft was discovered.

The loss became known when drug traffickers beat a local woman this year to learn the altar’s hiding place.

Villagers alerted archaeologist Arthur Demarest of Vanderbilt UniversityVU ) in Nashville. Demarest and his colleagues had been working with the local Mayan people in a tourism management program sponsored by the National Geographic Society.

Working with Guatemalan investigators over the past six months, Arthur Demarest helped police recover the artifact. Authorities used undercover operations to arrest a network of thieves and dealers in Guatemala and Belize. “They operate like drug traffickers. In many cases, they are drug traffickers,” Demarest says.

The looters wanted at least $4,000, but once overseas, “that altar would eventually have gone for millions,” says University of Mississippi anthropologist Gabriel Wrobel. Art collectors buy up stolen items for their beauty, heedless of the knowledge lost about ancient culture, he says.

The past: The stolen alter, which is the size of a manhole cover and weights 600 pounds, was recovered through an unusual collaboration of undercover agents, Mayan villagers and an American archaeologist. Several looters are awaiting trial for the theft.

Wrobel praised Arthur Demarest‘s intervention but added, “In the great scheme of things, it does nothing to stop this powerful and really quite nefarious industry.”

The ritual ballgame depicted on the altar was standard Mayan practice to mark the forging of treaties or alliances, says Mayan hieroglyphics expert Ian Graham of Havard’s Peabody Museum. they were the “photo ops” of the Mayan world, says Demarest, [ VU ].

The altar features the Mayan king of Cancuén, Taj Chan Ahk, who was expanding his rule at a time when Mayan civilization elsewhere was collapsing.

Archaeologists use artifacts like the altar to detail “year by year” the fall of the Mayans and debate its cause, Demarest [ VU ] says. Also, the recovered objects from the Royal Ball Court at Cancuén point to the location of the king’s tomb, slated for future excavation.

About 30 villages take part in tourism efforts near Cancuén, partly funded the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The future: Vanderbilt archaeologist Arthur Demarest [ VU ] trains Mayan villagers to be tour guides for a “sustainable tourism” project.

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