A cooperative effort by Maya village elders, an American archeologist and Guatemalan federal police has led to the recovery of a precious Maya altar looted from an archeological dig -- and to one of the largest arrests of looters and illicit artifact dealers in that country's history.
The altar's recovery is a tale that might have come straight from the archives of Indiana Jones or Lara Croft, replete with clandestine raids, fierce gun battles and dangerous undercover investigations.
The 600-pound, elaborately carved altar dating from AD 796 is expected to reveal new information about the collapse of the Maya civilization and one of its wealthiest kingdoms, said archeologist Arthur A. Demarest of Vanderbilt University, who participated in the recovery.
These altars "were actually recording treaties and alliances," Demarest said Wednesday at a news conference sponsored by the National Geographic Society. "What we are getting here is, really, a detailed picture of what went on at the end [of the Maya empire], the Machiavellian politics of this great king."
The altar was stolen from the city of Cancuen, located in the heart of the Guatemalan rainforest at the headwaters of the Pasion River. Demarest discovered that Cancuen, once thought to have been a minor outpost of the Maya empire, had been one of the wealthiest cities in the region, prospering by controlling the output of jade, obsidian, pyrite, quetzal feathers and other goods.
Although the city did not have a strong army, its leaders amassed power by forming strategic alliances with other cities and by marrying the royal family's famously beautiful daughters to other rulers.
Cancuen suffered little looting over the centuries, at least in part because it does not have a pyramid or other traditional signs of Maya power.
Another large altar was discovered at Cancuen in 1915 by explorer Sylvanus Morley. It is now on display at the National Museum of Archaeology in Guatemala City and has long been considered one of the museum's greatest treasures.
The new altar "is a masterpiece of Maya art and is even better than the one discovered in 1915," said epigrapher Federico Fahsen, who is deciphering its glyphs.
It depicts Cancuen's greatest king, Taj Chan Ahk Ah Kalomte, playing handball with another king, a ritual formalization of an alliance. Other text on the altar, not yet fully translated, points to the previously unknown location of the king's tomb.
The stone altar was set into the ball court floor and was used as a marker or goal post for later games, as well as for sacrifices.
The altar was apparently exposed by heavy rains in October 2001, a time when Demarest's team was not working at the site. According to the story later pieced together by Demarest and federal authorities, a local gang of looters spotted it and hauled the heavy altar onto a boat, taking it to their encampment downriver.
They took photographs of the altar and distributed them, looking for a buyer. A local gang of narco-traffickers inspected the altar and offered $4,000 for it, but the looters held out for more.
In December 2002, a split among the looters led four gang members to steal the altar, move it across the river and bury it. Later, the gang leader retrieved it in a pitched gun battle heard by local villagers.
The drug traffickers, meanwhile, had not forgotten the altar. In January this year, a group wearing ski masks and toting submachine guns raided a village where they thought the altar was hidden, viciously beating an innocent woman in an effort to learn its whereabouts.
Demarest, who has worked in Guatemala for 21 years, was camped on the banks of the Pasion River in February when elders from a distant village showed up one night seeking help.
They told him about the altar and the beaten woman and expressed their fears about the effects the theft would have on developing the region as a tourist destination.
Demarest met the district governor, who allegedly was also the head of the drug traffickers in the region, according to National Geographic. He persuaded the official not to interfere with efforts to stop the looting and recover the altar. The governor, however, was gunned down a few hours later, precipitating a drug war.
In March, Demarest reported the theft to the Ministry of Culture, which called in the Criminal Investigation Service, Guatemala's equivalent of the FBI. Guided by Demarest and his project director, Marc Wolf, the agency raided the looters' camp, arresting the leader and his top lieutenant.
Demarest downplayed his role in the raid. "I don't use a gun," he said. "I carry a flashlight. I speak very good Spanish around armed men ... the honorary subservient form."
Unfortunately, the raid was too late. The altar had been sold to another looter. But they did recover a photo of it, which was forwarded to law enforcement officials around the world.
Using undercover agents posing as buyers, the Guatemalan agency tracked the altar through several layers of looters and dealers, always arriving just a little too late. They arrested the dealers but missed the altar.
But their efforts to publicize the theft paid off. A dealer who had planned to move the altar into Belize backed off and sent the altar back to the region from which it had been stolen, to be buried for a couple of years until the heat was off and it could be sold safely.
Again, Maya villagers informed authorities, and the altar was recovered in September and moved to the national museum for cleaning, study and, eventually, exhibition. A replica will be sent to Cancuen for display.
At the Wednesday conference, Demarest castigated collectors who buy illegally obtained antiquities. "There is blood on these monuments," he said. "They are being extracted at great human cost."