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Clues to Mayans' 'fall of Rome'

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Imagine President Bush, Britain's Tony Blair, and Junichiro Koizumi of Japan forming an alliance and "signing" their pact with a few quick, solemn passes of a soccer ball on the White House lawn.

A team of archaeologists from the United States and Guatemala says it has uncovered a Mayan altar stone whose intricate carvings record a treaty and a similarly sporty signing ceremony.

Unearthed at the site of the ancient city-state Cancuén in Guatemala, the find is one of two newly discovered monuments that researchers say are revealing the extent of Cancuén's power and reach at a critical time in Mayan history. They add to a growing body of evidence that suggests the Central American civilization fell, not because of environmental factors, as some experts believe, but for a complex set of economic and political reasons.

"It's like the fall of Rome," says Arthur Demarest, a Vanderbilt University archaeologist and one of two scientists heading the project.

The monuments offer some of the freshest evidence for uneven socioeconomic decline: Just as much of the Mayan empire was crumbling, Cancuén was on the rise.

For example, the altar stone there depicts one of the ceremonial games in which a lesser lord seals his alliance to Taj Chan Ahk, who ruled Cancuén during much of the last half of the 8th century AD. It's the Mayan equivalent of a modern-day "photo op," says Dr. Demarest.

The second monument is an intricately carved stone panel from a ceremonial ball court within the king's sprawling palace. It clearly places Taj Chan Ahk on the thrones of other major centers nearby as he installs or promotes local officials. It declares him "holy King of Cancuén; holy King of Machaquila," a kingdom some 25 miles to the north.

Two altar stones found earlier - one by looters and recovered last year by Guatemalan authorities - hinted at this broader reach. But the inscriptions were not as well preserved. The third altar stone and the wall panel appear to clinch it. Essentially, the panel proclaims: "Hey, man, I'm king of the whole region," says Demarest. Thus, a city that some researchers had held to be merely a vassal to a distant kingdom is emerging as having been a power center in its own right.

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