Found: city, Mexico area

November 19, 1999

Following up on local talk, Alan G. Robinson discovered a lost city that may transform our view of a great ancient civilisation. Andrew Robinson reports

The dream of any archaeologist must be to rediscover the site of an ancient city unknown to the modern world - a Knossos or a Machu Picchu. But at the end of the 20th century, the chances are distinctly slim. The likeliest places are the tropical rainforests of Central and South America, Africa and Southeast Asia, where the jungles still conceal some secrets.

In 1998, a small expedition led by Alan G. Robinson, an archaeology student at the University of East London, struck lucky: they found the remains of a large Mayan city in the jungle of the Mexican state of Chiapas, not far from the border with Guatemala. This February they began clearing the jungle and mapping the ruins. Once properly dug, the site may turn out to be as large as some of the most famous ancient Mayan cities. It could significantly change our understanding of the greatest of the civilisations of pre-Columbian America.

Robinson, 26, has an unusual background. Born and brought up in Mexico until the age of 17, speaking more Spanish than English, he is the son of a freelance journalist from Lancashire, specialising in Latin America, and a Mexican ballerina. When he was ten or eleven, his mother took a job with a small government cultural organisation, removed her son from school for a year and together they travelled around Mexico, meeting the indigenous peoples and inviting groups to perform at the National Auditorium in Mexico City. Many of them turned up at the Robinson family home in the capital, since government funds for accommodation were limited. "I would wake up," says Robinson, "go downstairs and find the living room covered with Maya Indians, just sleeping there with their magnificent costumes needed for the dance that same day." Often, he would cook for them, learning about their culture and languages.

As a result of these travels, he thinks, "Archaeology was always at the back of my mind. I felt tremendously inspired when I was sitting on top of a pyramid, but also a bit frustrated that I didn't know anything about it, besides the usual popular myths such as 'Oh, they used to sacrifice people here'." As a teenager, he began reading up on Mesoamerican archaeology. Then, in 1990, he decided to shift his home to Britain, to experience the other half of his family background. He started a degree course in archaeology at the University of East London and, on home visits to Mexico, began to explore the jungle in Chiapas. In 1993, a Maya friend took him to meet the Lacandon Indian hunter community in Chansayab, a rainforest village near Bonampak. There, back in 1946, Lacandon Indians had shown two American adventurers some Mayan murals in the middle of nowhere. Photographed a few months later by an American photographer, the Bonampak murals, with their brilliantly coloured, exotic and cruel depiction of Mayan courtly life in the 8th century AD, caused a sensation when they were splashed over US magazines.

It was the Lacandon who led Robinson to his lost city. After they learnt to trust this young outsider, they began to tell him stories of ancient ruins. "One of the elders, Kayum Chan Kin Yuk, told me of a few houses that he saw many years ago near the Lacanja river - which he was sure had been built by the 'Hanach Winic', or, 'The Real Men'I 'The Ancient Ones'," says Robinson. "I was particularly interested in a structure with 'rooms' that Kayum described to me. I asked whether he would guide us to this place, but he declined. He said the journey was difficult and that he was too old for it, but that his nephew Ox would take us."

After a hard slog and the crossing of eight rivers, the expedition discovered signs of ancient human habitation. Clearing away masses of dense vegetation, they decided the remains appeared to be a residential precinct with a small ceremonial centre - perhaps an outpost of a bigger site, maybe nearby Bonampak. This was not especially exciting, but the architectural style was that of the Late Classic Maya; and the ruins continued into the jungle.

They followed them and came, eventually, to a place where stones lay strewn all over the jungle as if they had been ejected after an explosion. There was a pyramid with a temple still standing, embraced by giant vines - presumably the "house" mentioned by the Lacandon elder. Leaving behind their Lacandon guide, the excited expedition carried on down a ravine.

At the bottom they found a plaza and at the end, a man-made canal that went off in the direction of the Lacanja river. The following morning, they found a complex of structures framing a huge platform and a spectacular fallen stone pillar sculpted with a high-ranking individual and a series of hiero- glyphic inscriptions. "Our excitement grew exponentially. What next?" Further exploration revealed a large pyramid that had once had a stone temple at the summit.

The pyramid has a tunnel descending into its heart, suggesting that it might be a king's burial place, like those found at various Mayan sites. But the expedition immediately realised that looters had got there before them, probably in the past decade or two. The looters had, however, given up digging about three metres in, because it was obvious the removal of further stone might precipitate the collapse of the pyramid. Its careful excavation is therefore a priority for the next season in 2000 - as is the protection of the site from further looting.

This is one problem Robinson has already gone some way towards solving. Bizarrely, on his latest visit to Mexico last month, he was accidentally introduced to the looters in person, in a bar in a town miles from the site, where they offered to sell him first cocaine, then antiquities, from a new site being opened by archaeologists. After a while, he introduced himself - and a long silence followed. But since one of the men had a younger brother who wanted to become an archaeologist, Robinson made them an offer: he would take the brother on his team and train him, in exchange for no further destruction and looting of the site. "They believe in something like 'honour among thieves'," he says with remarkable self-confidence, though he is still, understandably, not anxious to publicise the exact position of the site, which he has tentatively named Lacanja.

In order to be taken seriously by the Mayanist scholarly community, it was first necessary to establish that Lacanja was a genuinely new site. As a mere student without even a first degree in archaeology, Robinson initially knew few professionals, whether in Britain, in Mexico (where the Maya are strangely neglected by archaeologists) or in the United States, which has by far the largest group of specialists.

In 1998, he decided to approach Warwick Bray, then head of Latin American archaeology at University College London. Bray arranged for an informal seminar at the British Museum and introduced Robinson to various experts, including Peter Mathews of the University of Calgary, Canada, widely respected for his contribution to the deciphering of Mayan hieroglyphs over the past two or three decades.

Although, says Robinson, the experts "slaughtered" him for his surveying methods, most of them were generally encouraging, with the exception of one up-and-coming expert on the hieroglyphs. As a result of discussions with them, searches in reports kept at the British Museum, and an exhaustive search by National Geographic Society researchers, Lacanja became recognised as a challenging new find.

When Robinson's second expedition returned there this year, it had attracted the support not only of the surveying department of the University of East London and the National Geographic, but also of Trimble Europe, the world's biggest manufacturer of global positioning systems. It loaned the team its latest design (worth Pounds 35,000), which is capable of mapping to an accuracy of down to a centimetre. The expedition was asked to try it out and report any teething problems.

The challenge now, once the mapping is complete, is to go on clearing the site and begin professional digging in a discriminating way. Its total area is estimated at 245 hectares, some 600 acres, which is comparable to that of nearby Yaxchilan, where excavation still continues after almost 30 years. So where to begin? "The main thing right now," says Robinson, "is to select which areas are likely to produce a date for the site." At present, no one can say for sure when Lacanja was inhabited and for how long, although the architectural evidence is consistent with the Late Classic period (AD 600-900).

Assuming that sponsorship is forthcoming and the site fulfils its early promise, Robinson plans to work there for a long time. "Lacanja will take up many years as the operation grows. My work is cut out. I'm very happy with that." He hopes to bring a Mexican archaeologist onto the team - "Someone at my level." He foresees senior scholars, such as Bray and Mathews, visiting the site for a week or two to teach: "Give a seminar in the jungle." In the longer term he hopes to produce a detailed archaeological atlas of the entire Maya area, using the most up-to-date technology, with research and publication possibly funded by the Mexican government.

"I'm planning to devote probably the rest of my life to making this atlas," he says. The ancient Maya have attracted a long line of devotees since they were rediscovered by travellers and scholars more than 150 years ago. It looks as if, in Alan G. Robinson, they have claimed another victim.

THE MAYA AND THEIR CIVILISATION

Maya civilisation flourished in Central America - chiefly in the Yucatan peninsula, today's Guatemala highlands and the Mexican state of Chiapas - from AD 250 to 900, when it seems to have collapsed. This is known as the Classic period. There are no great monuments after this period, but the Maya continued to produce codex "books" and works of art.

The first Europeans to encounter Maya civilisation were the Spanish, who conquered Mexico in the 16th century. They left accounts of astonishing monuments buried in the jungle and recorded invaluable clues to the meaning of the Mayan hieroglyphs.

But it was not until the 1840s that the Maya entered modern consciousness: an American traveller, John Lloyd Stephens, and his companion, English illustrator Frederick Catherwood, published one of the bestsellers of the 19th century, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan. They felt they had stumbled upon wonders comparable to those of ancient Egypt.

Today, about six million Maya live in the same areas as their ancestors. Although they are mostly Catholics, they speak several Mayan languages and preserve a distinctive culture. Relations with the governments of the countries in which they live have been fraught with oppression and bloodshed. Rigoberta MenchNo, who won the Nobel peace prize in 1992, is a Maya woman whose family suffered greatly under the 1980s death squads. While they cannot read the hieroglyphs of their ancestors, the modern Maya use the same vocabulary, which, since the 1950s, has helped scholars translate the glyphs.

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