WASHINGTON — Heeding the cries of scholars trying to unlock the secrets of Mayan civilization, the United States announced a ban Thursday on importation of antique artifacts from the famed Peten region of Guatemala, one of the richest and most plundered archeological sites in the world.
Eugene P. Kopp, acting director of the U.S. Information Agency, said the ban would "help save the remnants of Mayan civilization from further destruction." Kopp had the authority under existing law to issue the ban, requested by the Guatemalan government and recommended by an advisory committee of art experts and businessmen.
Guatemalan officials and American scholars say the plunder has ravaged archeological sites so badly that it is becoming ever more difficult to study Mayan civilization, long regarded as the most sophisticated to reign in the Western Hemisphere during the pre-Columbian era.
The problem has intensified even as scholars, digging out new sites, have felt they are closer than ever before to deciphering the written Mayan language and to uncovering the reasons why the great civilization, with its monumental cities, collapsed suddenly and mysteriously during the 9th Century.
Implementing the ban, however, may be problematic. Americans are the most avid collectors of Mayan and other artifacts and works of art. U.S. officials implied that they hoped the legal prohibition would embarrass American museums and private collectors enough to dry up the market.
But the plundering could persist. Clemency C. Coggins, an art historian associated with Harvard University's Peabody Museum, said the trade could shift to other countries.
Under the new regulations, the U.S. Customs Service has the authority to seize all ceramic, stone, bone and shell handicrafts and art objects originating in the Mayan sites of Peten, a vast and remote region in northern Guatemala. Under a 1972 law, Customs already had the authority to seize all large monumental and architectural pieces from any pre-Columbian site in Latin America.
Stuart Seidel, a Customs official, said that the 1972 law had "considerably dried up the market for larger sculptures" and that he hoped the new regulation would do the same for smaller artifacts.
But legal restrictions have had unexpected results in the past. Coggins said that, partly as a result of the 1972 law, "the destruction has gotten worse." Finding it difficult to sell the large pieces, bands of thieves broke them up into smaller, saleable items and ravaged sites to get at the smaller artifacts buried within. Scholars trying to decipher the Mayan script often found that they no longer could find large pieces with coherent inscriptions.
As a result, Coggins said, the new regulations were needed to block the importation of smaller pieces as well.
Looting has even been reported at Tikal, the most famous Mayan site in Guatemala and part of a national park that is guarded by the government. Guatemala does not have the staff to put guards at most other sites.
In its request for help, the Guatemalan government told the United States that "the cultural heritage of pre-Hispanic Guatemala . . . is presently in danger of being totally destroyed by looters," with many items finding their way to the United States.
Mayan civilization has long fascinated archeological buffs because of the beauty of its architecture and sculpture, the sophistication of its civilization and the twin mysteries of its written script and its abrupt decline.
Coggins described the Mayans as "the most advanced--I know that's a loaded word--native American culture" with a mastery of writing, astronomy, mathematics and the calendar, as well as monumental architecture. Scholars, noting their closeness in sophistication to ancient Mediterranean people, have called the Mayans "the Greeks of the New World."