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Thursday, 22 February, 2001, 15:43 GMT
Ancient Mayan cities looted
An archaeologist inspects looters tunnels in El Pilar, Belize
Inspecting looters' tunnels in El Pilar, Belize
By Jeremy McDermott in the jungles of Central America

It looked like an odd shaped hill in the jungle, covered with thick, lush vegetation - until I got close enough to see the looters' tunnels. Three of them were sunk deep into the hill on three different levels.

From among the spoil, thrown-out brickwork was apparent. Crawling through the tunnels propped up with branches and logs hacked from nearby trees, I came to a chamber deep inside what was a sacred Mayan pyramid.

What I might have seen, had the looters not beaten me to it, was the skeleton of a Mayan king or Shaman priest, decked out in jade jewellery, with bowls and pots laid out beside him.

An artefact recovered from Can Cuen (National Geographic)
A Mayan artefact
The bowls may have been painted with drawings and hieroglyphics, intended to remind the spirit of the dead lord, what he had done in his life and the directions to resurrection.

But there were only limestone walls and burn marks on the ceiling where the fiery torches had illuminated the looters about their destructive business.

Race for remains

This was Las Milpas in Belize, but the story is the same in almost every Mayan site in Belize and a large number of those in Guatemala.

Satellite photos have shown that there are up to 4,000 Mayan sites deep in the jungles that archaeologists have not yet found.

But the likelihood is that the looters already have, as Mayan jade figurines fetch tens of thousands of dollars on the international art market - a huge fortune in a country where the minimum wage is less than $300.

Stelae, man-high stone tablets, once sign-posted the Mayan cities, telling of the deeds of the Mayan kings.

A stone stela at Caracol, Belize
Stelae are an essential record of the life of an ancient city
They are prized by collectors but normally too big to move, so looters use chain saws to cut off the carved facings or slice them into smaller chunks that will then become coffee tables for the rich in the US, Europe and Japan - the main markets for the treasures.

Lost history

With the stelae goes the history of the city, the only record of what happened there.

In front of the stelae was usually a circular altar, also carved, and often depicting a man bound and bleeding - one of the sacrificial victims that the Mayan gods demanded. The spilling of blood was the life source of their world.

The Mayan city-states often warred just to get captives to sacrifice to the gods. Other times, families offered up their children for the honour of sacrifice, watching their loved one have their still-beating hearts cut from their chests to appease the thirst of the gods and keep the Mayan circle of life turning.

In Tikal, one of the largest and best-preserved Mayan cities in Guatemala, howler monkeys leap from the trees onto the hundreds of Mayan buildings.
Tourists climb a pyramid at the excavated site of Tikal in Guatemala
Tourists climb a pyramid at Tikal in Guatemala

Many of them are set out for astrological purposes, as the Maya were supreme mathematicians, using a zero when Europe was still struggling with the cumbersome system of Roman numerals.

But nobody knows why they disappeared. Plague, drought and rebellion are just some of the explanations offered by scholars.

Guarding the treasure

Don Valentino has worked at the site of Caracol in Belize for more than 30 years. He has seen the looters come and go.

A wizened old man, his Indian appearance contrasted sharply with a pair of bright-blue eyes, very rare in indigenous people. He is Mayan, and still speaks one of the many tongues that made up the Mayan world - like Ancient Greece, a culture of warring city-states.

"The looters come in many forms," he said, drawing deeply on a cigarette. He once saw a group of seven looters coming from the direction of Guatemala, armed to the teeth and wearing the uniform of leftist guerrillas.

The Guatemalan civil war was over, and the demobilised rebels had no way of making a living. Don Valentino climbed a tree when he saw them, thinking discretion the better part of valour.

Modern Maya women selling traditional handicrafts in Antigua Guatemala
Modern Maya are losing their heritage to looters
But then there are those that he calls the legal looters, the foreign archaeological parties that come for digs during the dry season.

They are supposed to turn over everything they find to the Archaeological Commission of Belize, but when a tomb is found, they sometimes send away the workers.

Don Valentino says he has been into tombs when the archaeologists have gone to bed, and has seen some cases where the treasures were never handed over.

Tourist trail

Increasingly, hordes of foreign tourists walk the Mayan circuit, traipsing around the cities that have been excavated and restored - Palenque in Mexico, Tikal in Guatemala and Copan in Honduras.

The tourists all want souvenirs of their trips, so the unexcavated sites now have tourist visitors armed with spades instead of cameras.

An experienced looting team can tunnel through a building in as little as two days, leaving behind irreparable archaeological damage, so that even if the pieces are recovered, they have little historical value.

Mayan ruins
The Mayan civilisation is believed to have lasted 1000 years
Archeologist George Thomson took me to the strong room of the Archaeology Commission of Belize. In the room were hundreds of beautifully painted vases, jade artefacts and inscribed bowls.

But all too many of them were lost pieces of a puzzle that will never be put back together. Without their context, they are useless to archaeologists and historians, the beautiful ones being used only as museum exhibits with very general labels giving their estimated dates.

The authorities do not even have the funds to house the pieces, let alone protect the sites, so the looters have almost free reign, pillaging a mysterious society, that after the robbing and historical loss, may remain mysterious forever.

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See also:

25 Jan 01 | Americas
Inside the city of the black tiger
26 Sep 00 | Americas
Scientists 'find lost Mayan king'
25 Sep 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
A Mayan revival
09 Sep 00 | Americas
Lost Mayan palace found in Guatemala
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