The Mayan site of Cancuén was unearthed in the early 1900s but didn’t receive due attention until 1999, when new investigations revealed the huge scale of the ruins here. It’s located within Guatemala’s Alta Verapaz department just north of Raxrujá.
Archeologists overlooked Cancuén for much of the 20th century because it didn’t have the huge pyramids and defensive structures that characterize other important Mayan cities. However, near the turn of the century a U.S.-Guatemalan team made incredible finds here, including the largest known Mayan palace. Built in 770 AD under king Taj Chan Ahk, this three-story, 247,570-square foot (23,000-sq. m) palace has 200 rooms and 11 courtyards. It’s the site’s most impressive structure.
Cancuén may have acted as a secular trading center during its heyday. Its location on the Río La Pasiín between the northern lowlands and southern highlands would have allowed for substantial trade between some of the larger city-states The huge amounts of pyrite, obsidian, jade, and ceramic found here reinforce this notion. Cancuén’s paved plaza, which covers nearly 1.5 miles (2 km), was likely used as the marketplace.
Other items uncovered at Cancuén include a royal ball court, a bathing pool, and a 100-pound stone panel carved with images and hieroglyphics. The panel depicts king Taj Chan Ahk installing a subordinate ruler in a smaller state. This is especially interesting because it hints at Taj Chan Ahk’s ability to remain powerful at a time when other Mayan city-states were in decline.
A recent find, however, revealed a massacre by invading armies from Ceibal and Machaquilá at Cancuén around 800 AD. Around this time, Cancuén’s power was beginning to diminish, and the city was soon abandoned.
It’s thought that Cancuén lacks large temple pyramids because of its close proximity to the Candelaria caves, which were used for religious ceremonies. In Mayan belief systems, caves were thought of as passages to the underworld. The Candelaria caves would have therefore made a large temple at Cancuén unnecessary.