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Archaeologists Find Ancient Maya City With a Modern Grid Layout

An ancient Mayan city followed a unique grid pattern, providing evidence of a powerful ruler, archaeologists have found.

The city, which contains flat-topped pyramids, is being excavated at Nixtun-Ch'ich' in Petén, Guatemala. It was in use between roughly 600 B.C. and 300 B.C., a time when the first cities were being constructed in the area. No other city from the Maya world was planned using this grid design, researchers say.

"It's a top-down organization," said Timothy Pugh, a professor at Queens College in New York. "Some sort of really, really, powerful ruler had to put this together."

The ancient Mexican city of Teotihuacan also used a grid system. But that city is not considered to be Maya, and so far archaeologists have found no connections between it and the one at Nixtun-Ch'ich', Pugh said. [In Photos: Mayan Art Discovered in Guatemala]

People living in the area have known of the Nixtun-Ch'ich' site for a long time. Pugh started research on it in 1995 and has been concentrating on Maya remains from a much later time period, long after the early city was abandoned. In the process of studying these later remains, his team has been able to map the early city and even excavate a bit of it.

From the mapping and excavations, Pugh can tell that the city's main ceremonial route runs in an east-west line only 3 degrees off true east. The city's residential areas were built to the north and south of the ceremonial route.

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From the excavations, archaeologists can tell that many of the city's structures were decorated with shiny white plaster. The city's orientation, facing almost directly east, would have helped people follow the movements of the sun, something that may have been of importance to their religion.

While the city was a sight to behold, its people might not have been happy with it, Pugh said. "Most Mayan cities are nicely spread out. They have roads just like this, but they're not gridded," said Pugh, noting that in other Mayan cities, "the space is more open and less controlled."

Cities in early Renaissance Europe that adopted rigid designs were often unpleasant places for their residents to live, Pugh said. It's "very possible" that the residents of this early Mayan city "didn't really enjoy living in such a controlled environment," Pugh said.

Pugh's team presented their research recently at the Society for American Archaeology's annual meeting in San Francisco.

This is a condensed version of a report from LiveScience. Read the full report. Follow Live Science on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.