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Hansen’s annual excavation budget for the project is in the range of .5 million, dwarfing the 0,000 to 0,000 a year that most archaeologists are able to scrape together from grants for their more modest digs. Hansen is the director of what is probably the largest archaeological excavation in the world, the Mirador Basin Project, some 51 ancient Mayan cities connected by raised causeways along an 840-square-mile elevated trough in the middle of the dense and swampy rainforest of the northern Guatemalan lowlands.
Hansen’s annual excavation budget for the project is in the range of .5 million, dwarfing the 0,000 to 0,000 a year that most archaeologists are able to scrape together from grants for their more modest digs.
But while excavating a chamber in the bottom level of a structure at El Mirador known as the Jaguar Paw Temple (the jungle cat had totemic significance for the Maya), the 26-year-old Hansen came across fragments of polished-red pottery, undisturbed for centuries, that could only be preclassic in origin.
The preclassic Maya were also just as sophisticated artistically and culturally as their successors: Some of the stucco panels in a frieze at El Mirador depict the “Hero Twins,” the protagonists of the Mayan creation myth that would be written down nearly 1,500 years later in the , one of the few surviving Mayan narrative texts.
Before then, it was believed that nearly all the great monuments of Mayan civilization—the pyramids, the brilliantly painted murals, the elaborate stone carvings—dated no earlier than what is known as the “classic” Mayan period that ran from about 250 to 900 a.d., roughly corresponding to the early Middle Ages in Europe.
After 900, that civilization appears to have collapsed, and the inhabitants of its impressive cities abandoned them precipitously.
El Mirador’s roadless condition reflects a deliberate choice on Hansen’s part, with the cooperation of the Guatemalan government.
“Doing anything else would facilitate the evils that are there” in chronically poor and crime-afflicted Guatemala, Hansen told me.
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