October 31, 2009

Scuba Diver Unearths Ancient Mayan Temple

Scuba divers are investigating the bottom of a volcanic lake in Guatemala to search for clues about a prehistoric island where Mayan pilgrims traveled to revere their gods before it was submerged by water.

Samabaj, the first archaeological ruins found underwater in Guatemala, were found by chance 12 years ago by a diver swimming in Lake Atitlan, surrounded by Mayan villages.

"No one believed me, even when I told them all about it. They just said 'he's mad'," laughed Roberto Samayoa, a businessman and recreational diver who grew up in the area hearing legends of an ancient, underwater church.

Samayoa dove for years, often finding shards of pottery from the Mayan pre-classic era. In 1996, he discovered the church, with large ceremonial stones, or stelae, sticking out.

Although he found the site in 1996, only in the last year have archeologists started unearthing the ruins, mapping the 4,300-square-foot area using sonar technology and digging out structures.

Researchers think that this place, 50 feet under the lake's surface, was originally an island until a volcanic eruption or landslide sank it.

The lake buried the buildings in 250 A.D., before the rise of the Mayan domain, and ceramics discovered in one piece imply that the residents left quickly.

"We have found six ceremonial monuments and four altars and without doubt there are more, which means this was an extremely important place from a spiritual point of view," lead archaeologist Sonia Medrano said to Reuters News.

The Maya constructed soaring pyramids and intricate palaces in Central America and southern Mexico before inexplicably deserting their homes in 900 A.D.

Medrano thinks that the island contains small houses and is full of religious items, which leads researchers to consider Samabaj a pilgrimage location.

Worshippers most likely took boats from the shore to the island to pray and meditate, Medrano said.

Digging in the lake water is taxing, as the artifacts are difficult to see and are covered with thousands of years of dirt.

The precise site is a heavily guarded secret, as archaeologists want to save it from looters.