Thursday, May 4, 2006 Posted: 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
EL PERU WAKA, Guatemala (Reuters) -- Archeologists outsmarted tomb raiders to unearth a major Maya Indian royal burial site in the Guatemalan jungle, discovering jade jewelry and a jaguar pelt from more than 1,500 years ago.
The tomb, found by archeologist Hector Escobedo last week, contains a king of the El Peru Waka city, now in ruins and covered in thick rainforest teeming with spider monkeys.
He may have been the dynastic founder of the city, on major Mayan trade routes that could have stretched from the city of Tikal in Guatemala up through Mexico.
"If this is indeed the founder, then it is a discovery of a lifetime," said David Freidel of Southern Methodist University in Texas, who co-directs the project with Escobedo.
The excavation team were working against the clock, aware that would-be treasures looters were scouting the same area.
Just a day before Escobedo discovered the tomb, looters sneaked into a tunnel the archeologists dug under the pyramid, clearing out rock and rubble in a fruitless effort to find booty.
Looters frequently raid Mayan archeological sites in the northern department of Peten. Known as "guecheros," an expression derived from the local word for armadillos, because they dig through dirt, they sell treasure that often finds its way to U.S. museums or private collections.
"They usually work at night or very fast and do whatever they please," Escobedo said.
El Peru Waka was discovered in the 1960s, but Escobedo and his team began scientific excavation three years ago. They had to stabilize the pyramid where he found the tomb after looters opened two tunnels the size of elevator shafts in it, leaving it close to collapse.
On Tuesday, another team of archeologists found what could be a second royal grave in a pyramid up the hill from the tomb, this one probably dating from some 400 years later.
That tomb has yet to be opened, but judging by an elaborate offering of a dozen miniature figurines of ball players, elegant women, dwarfs and seated lords found inside the pyramid, the burial site is likely to contain more royal remains, archeologists said.
At that spot, an archeologist picked up a small disc made of shell and jade about the size of U.S. nickel coin and flipped it over to reveal the elaborate profile of a head of what appears to be monkey.
The Mayans dominated southeastern Mexico and much of Central America for thousands of years until the Spanish conquest 500 years ago. Their descendants still live in the region.