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Mexico's Hidden Mayan Ruins

I sat on a limestone block at the apex of the giant pyramid, gazing south. The wind sent green waves lapping through the treetops below me, cutting the heat of late March. Butterflies in a dozen colors bounced on the breeze. In the distance I could see crests of jungle ridges in Guatemala. The two site guards were waiting back by the gate, idly chopping at weeds with machetes, and for a moment I had Calakmul, the greatest of all ancient Mayan cities, to myself.

Centuries of slash-and-burn agriculture have turned most of Mexico's Yucatán peninsula into a scrubby savanna, but not Calakmul. On the southern fringe of the state of Campeche, it lies hidden in the country's largest rain forest. The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, created in 1989, represents a heroic effort to preserve the Mayan heartland: not a tree can be felled, not an animal hunted.

Until four years ago Calakmul was among the hardest-to-reach of the major Mayan ruins. In the dry season, the approach, by a series of rutted tracks whose treacherousness escalated as you neared the site, took even the few archaeologists who toiled there three days to traverse. A 1993 guidebook to Yucatán ruins warned, "With luck you may not get a broken windshield, but you may lose some trim."

Finally, in 1993, the Mexican government paved a road through 40 miles of wilderness to facilitate excavations at Calakmul. A visit is now within reach of mildly adventurous travelers equipped with a rental car out of Cancún or Mérida. Yet word about Calakmul is only beginning to emerge. For the next few months or even years, visitors will be able to wander alone through a ruin as majestic as tourist-thronged Tikal.

Slowly I descended the staircase of the 165-foot pyramid, which is twice as tall as Chichén Itzá's famous Castillo. A path through the woods took me to Structure III--as the archaeologists prosaically designate this work of the ancients. On a doorjamb, I found a neatly carved inscription:

c. l. lundell
12/29/31

What today we would deplore as an example of graffiti was actually standard documentation of the site's discovery by C. L. Lundell, a botanist who worked for a company that exported chicle, the key ingredient in chewing gum. (The latex of the rare sapodilla tree, chicle is found only in rain forests.) Lundell was guided to Calakmul by chicleros (chicle collectors), descendants of the ancient Maya, who for the last century have prowled confidently through jungles where gringos would get lost. Chicleros have been responsible for the rediscovery of a vast majority of known Mayan sites.

Although mounds of earth and trees covered nearly everything in 1931, Lundell knew what he was seeing. In particular, he was struck by the huge number of stelae--tall stone slabs--he found, a few still upright but most toppled in the weeds. The Maya erected the stelae in front of their palaces and pyramids, carving on them images of gods and kings, and row upon row of hieroglyphs. For centuries this ancient script defied all efforts at decipherment, but in the past two decades a small group of scholars has cracked the code, setting loose an avalanche of new insights about the Mayan culture.

By now, 116 stelae have been found at Calakmul--easily the largest number at any Mayan site. If they could be read, the texts carved on these stones would amount to a rich history of the great city. But here a cruel irony intervenes: Calakmul's native limestone is fiendishly soft and crumbly, rendering the texts illegible. On an upright stela much taller than a person, I could barely make out the severely eroded silhouette of a gaudily ornamented king. The glyphs, reduced by a millennium of wind and rain to unreadable dog biscuits, ached with lost meaning. Several stelae stood enclasped in the roots of giant trees, which strangled boasts of long-forgotten deeds.

When Lundell came to Calakmul, only Structure III stood free from the vines and hummocks of the greedy forest. I moved pensively through the building, believed to have been a palace. At the center, I peered past a heavy stone that once plugged a spacious underground vault. Archaeologist William Folan, who knows Calakmul better than any other man alive, found the remains of a royal burial in that vault a few years ago. The skeleton was adorned with three jade masks: the one covering the face had collapsed into 170 pieces. His team reconstructed these masks, as well as three others Folan unearthed during his 14 years of work at Calakmul. Only two days before, I had seen the six masks on exhibit at the Fuerte de San Miguel, a colonial fort in Campeche. No two alike, they were the most dazzling Mayan artifacts I had ever seen.

Immediately after discovering Calakmul, Lundell brought the site to the attention of Sylvanus Morley, the leading Mayanist of the day, who led a Carnegie Institution expedition to the site in 1932. Morley's team wrung all the meaning it could out of these stelae, long before glyphs could be read. They dated Calakmul between a.d. 514 and a.d. 830, and they figured out that there had been a dynasty of 10 kings, whom they designated Ruler 1, Ruler 2, and so on. Calakmul was so important that it is mentioned in texts found at other sites, including Dos Pilas, more than 100 miles away in Guatemala. Six years ago, archaeologists found a text claiming that, in 695, Calakmul's Ruler 4 was captured by the brazen lord of Tikal, held for 40 days, ritually adorned, and then sacrificed. In the seventh century, this gruesome triumph was news all over the Mayan world.

From the central plaza, I moved past a 15-foot-high wall and out into the "suburbs." Folan has mapped a mind-numbing 6,250 structures, stretching across some 20 square miles of jungle and proving Calakmul to be one-third larger than Tikal, which was long regarded as the greatest Mayan site.

I followed a trail to Structure I, a massive pyramid that, like 99 percent of Calakmul, lies unexcavated beneath vegetation. I struggled up the steep and slippery mound. At last I reached the top, where the Carnegie expedition found Stela 89, one of the ruin's two best-preserved slabs. On it, an outlandishly costumed ruler, wearing a headdress, scepter, and shield, embodied the pomp of Calakmul.

But nothing of Stela 89 remains. Sometime in the 1960's or 70's, looters sawed it into pieces and smuggled it through the black market to private collectors, most likely in Europe. (Fortunately, the Carnegie expedition's report had published two photos of Stela 89 sharp enough that scholars could read the glyphs.)

On my way up the pyramid, I came across four other stelae lying facedown, never moved since they toppled shortly after a.d. 900. The glyphs on a facedown stela do not turn to dog biscuits: the earth preserves them. As I sat on Structure I's topmost stone, I realized that beneath me lay untold treasures and secrets. Plumbing them will be the life's work of a future generation of archaeologists and a glorious revelation for visitors yet to come, as the city peels itself free of the jungle that has smothered it--and saved it--for more than a thousand years.

David Roberts writes for Smithsonian and National Geographic. His latest book is In Search of the Old Ones: Exploring the Anasazi World of the Southwest, published by Simon & Schuster.

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