by WILL WEISSERT
Associated Press Writer
GUATEMALA CITY (AP) -- It was a sprawling Mayan mall, built
24 centuries before there was a Starbucks, a Gap or a food
court to fill it.
Guatemalan and American scientists working deep in the
jungles of northern Guatemala have discovered ''Cancuen,'' a
lost city that, for more than 1,200 years beginning in 400
B.C., was one of the most important commercial centers of
the Mayan world.
The city, which scientists believe will take 10 years to
fully unearth, features a 270,000-square-foot Mayan palace
with three 66 foot-high floors and 170 rooms, making it
among one of the most grandiose Mayan structures ever
discovered, National Geographic Society announced Friday.
The society is a chief sponsor of the Cancuen excavation
''We started off working with what we thought was a small
palace, part of a small Mayan settlement,'' said Arthur
Demerest, a Vanderbilt University archaeologist and head of
the Cancuen project. ''What we found was a palace 20 times
as large as we were expecting and an important Mayan
marketplace that had been forgotten for almost 100 years.''
The 5-square-mile city featured a crowded rectangular layout
of heavy stone walls, 11 spacious stone-tiled patios, and
buildings with cubbyhole-like rooms and thick, multileveled
While Demerest said scientists aren't sure how many Mayan
merchants called Cancuen home, it is thought to have
attracted thousands of traders from nearby highland
settlements, including the majestic city of Tikal, 85 miles
to the northeast.
Cancuen, an ancient Maya word meaning ''Place of the
Serpent,'' became a key trading post because it featured a
dock on the River Passion in what today is southern Peten,
Guatemala's northernmost province, Demerest said.
First discovered in 1905 by Austrian explorer Tobert Maler,
scientists and looters ignored the site because it appeared
to be devoid of treasure and artifact-laden temples and
''A city that was built only for commercial purposes and not
for religious ones seemed uninteresting to a lot of
academics and worthless to a lot of looters,'' Demerest
said. The city is now overrun with jungle-dwelling animals
like howler monkeys.
Cancuen was devoid of the breathtaking temples that dominate
Tikal and other Mayan sites because its inhabitants buried
their dead in surrounding highland areas.
Though work at the site has been suspended until next spring
because of the arrival of the seven-month rainy season,
scientists have already recovered dozens of artifacts in
nearby mountain caves.
After its 1905 discovery, Cancuen remained shrouded by a
jungle curtain of mud and dense foliage until 1967 when a
group of Harvard graduate students visited the city for less
than a week and brought back crude sketches of what they
thought was waiting to be discovered there.
Demerest and scientists from Guatemala's City's Valley
University were drawn back to the area in April because
hieroglyphics inscribed in artifacts recovered in Tikal and
Dos Pilas, the ancient Maya's largest commercial center,
made reference to a market place called Cancuen and its
powerful fourth-century B.C. ruler, Tah Chan Wi, or
Frederico Fahsen, the foremost Guatemalan authority on
deciphering Mayan hieroglyphics and the Cancuen project's
co-director, said the Cancuen ruler married his daughter to
the king of Dos Pilas, 55 miles to the northeast, to
establish relationships with surrounding settlements rather
than go to war.
''Mayan cities have been in constant war, with their
constructions dedicated to the gods and the heavens,''
Fahsen said. ''Here we have exactly the opposite.''