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Aspects of the story were familiar from two much later manuscripts: the 13th-century Dresden Codex and the 16th-century Popol Vuh. But these paintings, more than a thousand years older, told the same tale—with startling grace and sophistication. Clearly Maya painting had achieved glory centuries before the great works of the Classic Maya, in the 7th century. In Western terms, it was like knowing only modern art and then stumbling on a Michelangelo or a Leonardo.

The far end of the mural held another surprise. Some scholars thought that at this early stage in Maya history, the Preclassic, city-states had not yet evolved into full-fledged monarchies, with all the trappings seen later. But here was a king, named and titled, receiving his crown. In short, this one chamber upended much of what we thought we knew about the early Maya.

Almost a mile west of the painted room lay an actual king—the earliest known Maya royal burial. Last year Guatemalan archaeologist Mónica Pellecer Alecio dug beneath a small pyramid and found signs of a sealed tomb. Hearing rumors of looters working only five miles away, her crew excavated 24 hours a day, sleeping in shifts.

Just after 2 a.m. on the third day, 20 workmen used a giant wooden lever cut from the forest to wrest away the heavy capstones. Beneath lay the bones of a man, with offerings including a delicate frog-shaped bowl and a vase bearing an effigy of Chac, the rain god. On the man's chest rested a concave jade plaque—a symbol of Maya royalty.

After 2,000 years, the power of the ancient gods and kings seemed intact: Just as the team removed the dead king's Chac effigy, the clouds opened and the region's worst dry season in a decade came to an end.

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