Swathed in dirt and dense underbrush, the Mayan city of Cancun was never thought to be anything of great consequence.
At the turn of the century, its German discoverer had photographed spectacular carved monuments, but when researchers from Harvard University arrived in the 1960s, they only mapped the site and never returned.
Yet a new team of archaeologists, piqued by the story of a curious marriage, returned to the site last year and has since uncovered what might be the most significant and well-preserved Mayan palace found in a century.
Cancun, in fact, had a population in the thousands, and its 170-room palace rivaled the acropolis of the great Mayan center of Tikal. Yet perhaps more intriguing, Cancun may offer a unique perspective on ancient Middle America: Artifacts and monuments suggest that it - unlike all other known Mayan centers - built its sizable fortune from trade, not military prowess.
Excavations will add "interesting new dimensions to our understanding of Mayan culture," says David Stuart, an anthropologist at Harvard University's Peabody Museum in Cambridge, Mass. Noting how intact the site is, he adds: "We have a lot of pyramids and tombs. Now we get to find out about how kings lived."
After being largely ignored for most of the 20th century, Cancun received fresh notice during the 1990s. Excavations at Dos Pilas, the capital of a city-state north of Cancun, uncovered records that tell of a marriage between a ruler of Dos Pilas now called "King 3" and "the Royal Lady of the Cancun Place."
The marriage presented a puzzle: Why would the region's military giant ally itself by marriage to a minor city? Moreover, the queen's portion of the palace contained stone carvings that were identical to those found at Cancun - and more intricate and ornate than those locals produced.
It was the loose end that drew in Arthur Demarest of Vanderbilt University and Toms Barrientos of Guatemala's Universidad del Valle. According to the team, the site was so well hidden that they didn't know its full extent for two weeks after they arrived. What they discovered was a site much grander than the Harvard team had mapped in the 1960s.
Based on the data it gathered during expeditions last year and this year, the team estimates that the palace contains more than 170 rooms and covers some 270,000 square feet. Many rooms contain corbel-vaulted ceilings 20-feet high.
"What is most incredible about this site is that most of the palace is buried virtually intact," says Dr. Demarest. "No one has found anything like this since the turn of the century."
The palace loomed over a city whose inhabitants numbered in the thousands at its peak. Moreover, Cancun's ruling dynasty appears to have been one of the longest lived in Mayan history. Based on data from nearby sites, the Cancun dynasty was firmly rooted by AD 300.
Pot shards indicate the city might go back even further. A few date to "a couple of hundred years BC," says Matt O'Mansky, one of the graduate students who has worked at the site.
The city occupied a strategic site for controlling trade. Situated on the Pasion River, Cancun sits just below the last set of rapids as the river tumbles down from volcanic highlands to the south.
"From there, it's almost a straight shot to the Gulf of Mexico," says Mr. O'Mansky.
Artifacts from the site suggest the trade was strictly high-end: jade, pyrite for mirrors, and obsidian for razor and knife blades. Even workers in the city were wealthy, Demarest says. Their teeth were inlaid with jade fillings, and they often were buried with ornately crafted artifacts. In addition, the main palace was built with stone blocks, not the more-typical mud and cement.
Beyond that, excavations may help further archaeologists' understanding of Mayan cultural development. Some scientists argue that the highland Mayans first developed advanced writing and art, which then were transferred to the lowlands. Others reverse the order.
The site also could yield new clues about the nature of power for Mayan rulers. Many of them, he says, were shaman-priest kings who derived their authority from the gods. Power was based on ideology and prowess in battle, not economics.
Yet Cancun was an economic powerhouse with little evidence of ever having fought wars. Instead, its writings record that the city-state used its wealth to forge alliances that kept potential enemies at bay.
Indeed, the large number of ornate rooms in the palace may have been built to house representatives of those many allies, the team suggests.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society