BELIZE CITY, Belize — Archeologists are finding a wealth of Mayan artifacts at jungle sites in Belize, but so are looters who are making off with what could be valuable links to the ancient people.
"The problem of looting has increased tenfold in the past five years," Archeology Commissioner Harriot Topsey said. "There is no way to say just how much has been taken out of the country.
"Sometimes it is sold on the open market, which adds an air of legality to a very illegal business."
More than 600 Mayan sites have been found in Belize, Topsey said. He believes 600 more could be awaiting discovery under the green jungle canopy that covers much of the country on the Caribbean coast between Mexico and Guatemala.
Many of the stolen artifacts are from the Mayas' classic period, AD 300-900, but the oldest Maya sites in Belize date back to 2500 BC, making them the oldest Mayan sites found anywhere to date.
Intact Sites Vital
For maximum research value the sites must be found intact, Topsey said, explaining that a bowl made in the pre-classic area, if found in a classic-period village, might change scientists' ideas about when the village was settled.
"An object taken from its original location is out of context, and then you lose whatever information that might have been gotten."
Furthermore, he added, "many looters destroy what is at the site to get at the items that can be sold."
He said most of the stolen objects go to collectors in the United States.
The looters succeed, he said, because Belize, a nation of just 162,000 people, does not have enough police to stop them.
"If you had the whole police force, you still couldn't stop it because you need other countries like the United States working to stop it," Topsey said. "Only by international cooperation can you stop it."
Small artifacts such as pots and figures that fit into suitcases and pockets are hardest to protect, although some looters resort to bizarre methods of trying to spirit the items out of the country.
One would-be smuggler cut up a stele, a stone column covered with Maya glyphs, and tried to carry it out of the country in 11 suitcases, said Winnel Branche, another government archeologist.