Archeologists Locate Source of Mayan Relics

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In the mid-1960s, a trove new Mayan artwork began appearing in museums and auction houses. Archeologists quickly determined that those pieces probably came from a single site — known to looters but not to scholars. Now, the site has been found. It's in Guatemala near the Mexico border.


For the past 40 years, archaeologists have been trying to find the location of an ancient Mayan settlement known as Site Q. It was a vexing search since looters had apparently found the site and then sold stolen artifacts. Archaeologists were in the dark. As NPR's Joe Palca reports, now the search is over.

JOE PALCA reporting:

In the mid-'60s, a trove of Mayan artwork started showing up on the art market.

Mr. DAVID STUART (University of Texas at Austin): First-rate portraits of rulers and, you know, people playing ball games--this ritual ball game--beautiful hieroglyphic tablets just scattered about in private collections and in museums.

PALCA: David Stuart is an archaeologist at the University of Texas at Austin. He says in the mid-'70s, scholars studying these newly found pieces concluded they were so similar they must have come from a single site, or several closely related sites possibly in northern Guatemala, maybe in southern Mexico.

Mr. STUART: We heard rumors of a place in this area of Guatemala that was sort of a blank on the map, and so we were intrigued.

PALCA: That was 1997. At the time, Stuart was at the Peabody Museum at Harvard. He and a colleague went down to the site in Guatemala. Stuart's an epigrapher, an expert in hieroglyphics.

Mr. STUART: Literally, the moment I walked into this site, when we passed by one of these sculptures that was remaining there, I looked at the inscriptions that were there and I went, `Oh, my God,' you know, `this is Site Q or a pretty good candidate for Site Q.'

PALCA: Stuart says they couldn't find quite enough material to be certain it was Site Q. He and his colleagues named the site La Corona. He planned to go back someday, but other projects sent him in different direction. Then this spring, the National Geographic Society and the Wildlife Conservation Society funded a team from Southern Methodist University and Yale University to go back to La Corona.

On the next-to-last day of the trip, Yale archaeologist Marcello Canuto came upon a pit leading to a tunnel, probably dug by looters when they were plundering the site. So Canuto crawled into the tunnel. His eyes slowly adjusted to the dim light. At the very end of the tunnel, Canuto saw something remarkable. Just beyond where the looters had stopped digging, falling dirt had revealed the corner of a stone tablet with clearly visible hieroglyphics.

Mr. MARCELLO CANUTO (Yale University): And, of course, I recoiled in complete surprise at what I was looking at. You know, after 20 years of doing archaeology, you're not trained for that, you know. You're not expecting those kinds of things. And so I went back to camp--or, more accurately, I ran back to camp, and I got the epigrapher that was with us, Stanley, to come out with me. And I said, `OK, Stan, I'm going to make your day here.'

PALCA: Stan is Stanley Guenter, a graduate student at SMU. Canuto says a hasty call to Guatemalan officials got them permission to remove the tablet and a second stone they found nearby.

Mr. CANUTO: It's essentially two panels with hieroglyphic text surrounding a central image of two rulers, one of which is the ruler of La Corona and the other of which is the ruler of Calakmul, facing each other, standing, conducting a ceremony.

PALCA: Calakmul is a Mayan settlement in Mexico, apparently allies of the Mayans at La Corona. Canuto says the tablet proves La Corona is Site Q. He and his Southern Methodist University colleagues are planning to return to La Corona next year, perhaps to find more items looters had missed. Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington.

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