Guatemala's Ancient 'Survivor' Kingdom Explored
By Frank Jack Daniel

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) -- Archeologists are exploring a ruined kingdom in Guatemala to work out how it survived centuries of conflict in the ancient Mayan Indian world before being abandoned to the jungle more than 1,200 years ago. Known as Naachtun, the city-state played a strategic and possibly unique diplomatic role in the turbulent politics of the Mayan civilization. In early February, a 32-person expedition team led by Canadian archeologist Kathryn Reese-Taylor left Guatemala City for the remote Peten jungle area near the border with Mexico to excavate at Naachtun, a Mayan name meaning "distant stone." The team will try to explain how Naachtun survived the collapse of the great pre-classic Mirador civilization and then went on to blossom during centuries of conflict that followed. It appears to have flourished between around 500 and 800 A.D., believed to be a time of almost constant warfare in the Mayan area, with Tikal and Calakmul, the two regional superpowers locked in a frequently vicious internecine fight for supremacy. "Tikal and Calakmul hated each others' guts, fought wars, captured each others kings and more to the point they generated alliances around them," said project co-director, Peter Matthews. Naachtun was located directly en route between the two great powers and came to be vitally important to both the war and trade strategies of the rival kingdoms. "If Tikal or Calakmul ever needed to launch an attack directly on the other they would have to go through Naachtun," said Reese-Taylor. Archeologists are not sure whether Naachtun was neutral territory like Switzerland where people from both sides would come in and discuss with each other or more like Afghanistan, a strategically placed entity where warring third parties would vie for influence. The team also believes the remote site's real name is actually Masul, one of a handful of Mayan kingdoms named in hieroglyphic carvings whose precise location has long been a mystery. It was only named Naachtun arbitrarily by U.S. archeologist Sylvanus Morley in the 1920s. SHIFTED ALLEGIANCES Studded with pyramids, numerous stone carvings and a sprawling 10-acre palace complex, Naachtun was founded around 400 BC and is believed to have been home to up to 20,000 people at the peak of its powers. The site today is 80 miles north of the city of Flores. Hieroglyphic records shows that the heavily fortified city shifted allegiances repeatedly, unusual in the highly polarized classic era of Mayan civilization. One explanation is that the rival powers recognized the importance of the site as a frontier between them and wanted to control it to use it as a kind of early warning system. Tikal finally won the upper hand over Calakmul, but after centuries of fighting the two great civilizations began to unravel at the end of the eighth century. This time Naachtun didn't survive either, and the kingdom was abandoned from around 800 AD. It was rediscovered by gum tappers at the start of the 20th century. RENEWED PRESSURES The last serious exploration attempt at Naachtun was a three-week visit by the Carnegie Institution in Washington in 1933 that produced the only map of the site. Cash-strapped Guatemalan authorities welcome the archeology team, which will carry out vital restoration work and pay for rangers to protect Naachtun from looters. But Yvonne Putzeys, who heads the government's archeological institute, warns that the Mirador Basin, of which Naachtun is a part, is at risk from population pressure and economic interests. Many sites in the Mirador Basin suffer extensive looting of valuable artifacts, and the digging of innumerable looter trenches frequently damages the foundations of ancient monuments. At the same time, illegal loggers active in the region trade in rainforest hardwoods, threatening the habitat of rare species such as jaguars and tapirs. "It is essential that we implement systematic protection right away, to stop the cultural and natural destruction," Putzeys said. Now though, loggers, looters, and land-hungry settlers compete for the region's natural and cultural resources with environmentalists and archeologists, while mega-development projects threaten to bring new roads connecting Mexico to Central America.