Lost Mayan city discovered under Guatemala rain forest

The ancient Maya city of Holtun, or Head of Stone, has been discovered under Guatemalan rain forest.

Washington: The ancient Maya city of Holtun, or Head of Stone, which has been hidden for centuries has been discovered under Guatemalan rain forest.

According to research presented earlier this month, three-dimensional mapping has "erased" centuries of jungle growth, revealing the rough contours of nearly a hundred buildings.

It has long been known to locals that something big is buried in the area, but it is only now that archaeologists have been able to uncover the secrets.

Using GPS and electronic distance-measurement technology last year, the researchers plotted the locations and elevations of a seven-story-tall pyramid, an astronomical observatory, a ritual ball court, several stone residences, and other structures.

Study leader Brigitte Kovacevich, an archaeologist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said some of the stone houses may have doubled as burial chambers for the city’s early kings.

"Oftentimes archaeologists are looking at the biggest pyramids or temples to find the tombs of early kings, but during this Late-Middle Preclassic period, roughly 600 B.C. to 300 B.C., the king is not the centre of the universe yet, so he’s probably still being buried in the household," National Geographic News quoted Kovacevich, as saying.

"That may be why so many Preclassic kings have been missed by archaeologists, who expected to find the rulers`` burials at grand temples," she added.

Kathryn Reese-Taylor, a Preclassic Maya specialist at Canada’s University of Calgary, said the findings at Head of Stone, named for giant masks found at the site, could shed light on how "secondary" Maya centres were organized and what daily life was like for Maya living outside of the larger metropolitan areas such as Tikal, about 22 miles (35 kilometres) to the north.

Reese-Taylor, who called the new mapping study "incredibly significant", said Head of Stone, which has never been excavated, "was not a New York or Los Angeles, but it was definitely a Denver or Atlanta".

From about 600 B.C. to A.D. 900, Head of Stone, which is about three-quarters of a mile (1 kilometre) long and a third of a mile (0.5 kilometre) wide, was a bustling midsize Maya centre, home to about 2,000 permanent residents.

But today its structures are buried under several feet of earth and plant material and are nearly invisible to the untrained eyed.

Kovacevich said Head of Stone is so well hidden, in fact, that archaeologists didn’t learn of it until the early 1990s, and only because they were following the trails of looters who had discovered the site first, perhaps after farmers had attempted to clear the area.

She said the temple would have had these really fabulously, elaborately painted stucco masks flanking the two sides of the stairway that represented human figures, snarling jaguars, and other forms.

Reese-Taylor said during the Preclassic period, Head of Stone’s important public buildings would have been painted primarily in blood reds, bright whites, and mustard yellows, and murals of geometric patterns or scenes from myth or daily life would have covered some of the buildings.

The researchers hope to begin excavating residential structures and the observatory, as well as to possibly remove the undergrowth from the main temple this summer.