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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.And as Hansen and other archaeologists later discovered, instead of practicing relatively inefficient slash-and-burn agriculture, which requires farmers to move their fields every few years as the soil becomes exhausted, the Maya of the Mirador Basin constructed terraces into which they hauled nutrient-rich mud from nearby swamps, enabling the cultivation of dense harvests of corn, squash, chili peppers, and beans that could feed tens of thousands of people on limited acreage.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.The ancient Mayan structures in the Mirador Basin, uncovered by Hansen’s team of archaeologists, conservators, soil scientists, students from 66 different research universities and institutions, and up to 400 local Guatemalan workmen, are startlingly massive in both height and volume.El Mirador is either a five-day humidity-and-snake-plagued hike from the nearest road-accessible town, Carmelita, or a round-trip helicopter ride from Flores, the nearest town with an airport, that can run into the thousands of dollars.El Mirador’s roadless condition reflects a deliberate choice on Hansen’s part, with the cooperation of the Guatemalan government.Shortly after that weekend in Rupert, he would be back in Guatemala entertaining a top NASA official and ferrying around some VIPs from the National Geographic Society—more fundraising, that is.

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.

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. 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.

“That ceramic was only produced in the Mirador Basin, and I was the first one who identified that,” he says.

It was a startling moment of revisionism: It meant that the entire El Mirador agglomeration dated at least five centuries earlier than anyone had thought, to a period that began before the time of Christ, and that the preclassic Maya, rather than being primitive forerunners of a more elaborate classic civilization, had built far bigger and produced an even more complex and powerful political and social organization than their medieval successors—until they, like their successors, precipitously abandoned their massive settlements during the middle of the second century.

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