May 6, 2004 — An Italian archeologist said Tuesday he had uncovered ancient objects that show an unexplored site in Guatemala's Peten region to be one of the most significant preclassic Mayan cities ever found.
"I think Cival was one of the largest cities of the Preclassic Maya, maybe housing 10,000 people at its peak," the archeologist from Nashville's Vanderbilt University said at a news conference.Francisco Estrada-Belli and his team discovered intact two large masks and jade objects used for rituals in the central square of the city, named Cival, which date to around 150 B.C.
Before being abandoned, the city may have outshone the neighboring site, Holmul, which was at the height of its civilization a thousand years later during the Classic Maya period, he said.
"Cival probably was abandoned after a violent attack, probably by a larger power such as Tikal."
The positioning of buildings in Cival toward the sunrise at the equinox suggests that they were used to measure time. The city had an "important astronomical function," according to Estrada-Belli.
Two stucco masks, each measuring five meters by three (15 feet by nine), are among the most stunning discoveries.
"The masks' preservation is astounding. It's almost as if someone made this yesterday," said the archaeologist, who discovered the first object by chance, in a crack inside a tunnel dug by looters.
Later searches uncovered the second mask, apparently identical to the first.
Estrada-Belli says the layout of the site suggests that two other masks might also be present.
He believes that four masks flanked the staircase of the pyramid that led to the chamber, serving as a backdrop for a ritual in which the Maya king played out the part of the gods of creation.
Cival's apparent level of sophistication suggests that the preclassic Mayas, who lived from 2,000 B.C. to 250 A.D., had a culture similar to that of the so-called classic Maya period that lasted until 900 A.D., when it went into decline.
According to the archaeological team, Cival was one of the largest cities of the period.
The team was able to identify potential archaeological sites around Cival by satellite.
The city's ceremonial center extended 800 meters (yards) — twice as large as had been believed until now.
Five pyramids were found there, including the largest, at 100 feet (30 meters) high.