Over the years, Naranjo has suffered damaged by erosion, forest civil war, and a steady parade of looters, who have stolen many of its most valuable artifacts and severely damaged the ancient site in the process. Today, along with recurring risk of development, continued looting still threatens this former Mayan city.
In the thick rainforests of Guatemala’s Peten province, any number of archaeological treasures are hidden. Tikal is by far the best known, and best developed; in stark contrast stands nearby Naranjo, once Tikal’s chief Mayan rival and now a mysterious pile of stones collapsing in the rainforest.
Why isn’t Naranjo better known? Well, if anything could go wrong at the Naranjo site, it did. Even though it’s situated within the tropical jungle of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, Naranjo has suffered from deforestation, forest fires, erosion, and encroaching human settlements, damaging the foundations of its plazas and pyramids and tombs. Highway construction projects are frequently proposed that would slice right across the reserve—bringing more visitors to Naranjo, but also damaging the ecosystem. But the biggest problem has always been looting, ever since the site was discovered a century ago. Looters have pilfered thousands of valuable artifacts, meanwhile damaging the buildings that remain. By now, some 150 looter’s trenches and tunnels have gutted almost every building in Naranjo’s urban core.
Capital of the Mayan kingdom of Saal, Naranjo was a power to reckon with from A . D . 546 until its mysterious decline in the mid–9th century. The central part of the site, which covers a square kilometer ( 1 / 3 sq. mile), has more than 112 structures, organized in six acropolises, as well as two palace compounds and two ball courts, their foundations cleared away from the creeping jungle vegetation. Perhaps most distinctive are the many stelae around the site, upright columns of basalt stone with carved inscriptions chronicling Naranjo’s history in detail. Even if you can’t decipher those dense inscriptions, they’re still powerful evidence of these people’s pride in their culture.
Many classic pieces of sculpture and polychromed ceramics came from Naranjo—in fact, some of the finest Mayan relics ever were removed from the tombs here, now found in collections around the world rather than at the site itself. For years, international antiquities collectors actually approved of removing art from Naranjo, where damage was almost certain, especially during Guatemala’s civil war in the 1960s and 1970s. Since the late 1990s, archaeologists working at Naranjo have repeatedly been driven off by armed and dangerous looters, many of them “retired” guerrilla fighters. The scientists are racing against time to record what is left.
With Guatemala striving to protect its archaeological heritage, Naranjo was incorporated into the Yaxhá National Park in 2004, which hopefully can provide a little more protection—if it’s not too late. In 2007, the American TV series Survivor was filmed in this park, giving Guatemala’s Mayan ruins a big shot of media exposure. Maybe international attention will finally expose the shame of what’s happened to Naranjo.