DER Documentary

Out of the Maya Tombs

Out of the Maya Tombs launch preview watch the trailer

by David Lebrun
color, 96/54 min with 46 min of extras, 2017
in English and Spanish
with English and Spanish subtitles

This DVD is closed-captioned for the hearing impaired

Non-profit, K-12, and Individual pricing also available
See pricing information and conditions

Over the past 50 years, thousands of exquisitely painted Maya vases, almost all looted from royal tombs, have flooded into the world's public and private collections. These amazing works of art, filled with humor and mystery, have opened an extraordinary window on the Maya past. But the race to unearth these treasures has destroyed ancient temples and palaces, culminating in the takeover of entire ancient cities by looter armies.

Out of the Maya Tombs enters the world of the vases to explore the royal life and rich mythology of the Maya, as well as the tangled issues involved in the collection and study of Maya art. The story is told by villagers, looters, archaeologists, scholars, dealers and curators. For each, these vases have a radically different value and meaning.

On a purely sensual level, Out of the Maya Tombs celebrates the artistry of these vases. It uses visual fascination as the doorway to intellectual and emotional engagement. Dramatic re-enactments and animated graphics created from ancient artwork bring Maya history and culture to life.


The home use edition DVD includes the 96 minute full-length feature version of Out of the Maya Tombs.

The educational edition 2-DVD set includes two versions of Out of the Maya Tombs: the 96 minute full-length feature version, and a 54 minute abridgement. It also includes 9 short films or sequences providing a closer look at various characters and themes in the film.

Extra features include:

  • The Explorer (4 min)
    Ian Graham races against time to document the ancient Maya monuments of the Petén jungle before they can be ravaged by looters.

  • The Chicleros (4 min)
    From a chicle tappers' encampment deep in the Petén jungle of Guatemala, we follow two chicleros as they search for xate, their dry season crop.

  • The Archaeologists (7 min)
    We follow archaeologists as they excavate, clean, sort and label pottery sherds, used for dating of sites; then we follow Ron Bishop and Dorie Reents-Budet as they use the neutron activation analysis of a vast database of sherds to profile looted Maya vessels and trace their origins.

  • The Smuggler (7 min)
    We meet looter and smuggler Lee Moore, and follow the story of the theft of the huge painted facade of a Maya temple in Yucatán — and its eventual recovery and return to Mexico.

  • The Dealer (3 min)
    Mesoamerican antiquities dealer Ron Dammann, of the Stendahl Galleries in Los Angeles, recalls what he calls "the wild and wooly days of Pre-Columbian Art."

  • The Collectors (5 min)
    A profile of pioneering collector Robert Woods Bliss, from his first interest in Mesoamerican art in the 1920s to his founding of the museum and research center at Dumbarton Oaks. A brief excerpt from the film Breaking the Maya Code illustrates the crucial role played by Dumbarton Oaks in Maya studies.

  • The Curator (8 min)
    The impact of the 1970 UNESCO accords on cultural patrimony and the 2008 U.S. Museum Directors' agreement. This agreement specifies that any antiquity accepted into a museum collection must have paperwork showing that it entered the United States prior to the date of the UNESCO convention. It has had a profound impact on the collection, donation and repatriation of ancient art.

  • The Guardians (5 min)
    Two former looters work with members of the Wildlife Conservation Society to protect endangered scarlet macaws in the deep jungle of Northern Guatemala.

  • The 36 Glyph Mask (5 min)
    We follow a single Maya treasure from the moment of its looting to its last known home in a Santa Fe art gallery. A story without an ending; perhaps this short film will encourage a happy resolution.


Out of the Maya Tombs traces the excavation beginning in the 1970s, sometimes by archaeologists but more often by looters, of great numbers of painted vases from the royal Maya tombs in the Petén jungle of Guatemala; the impact of these vases on Maya studies, the art market, and museums; and the issues of scientific method and ethics raised by their collection, study and exhibition.

The feature version provides context for this story in the broader history of the exploration and looting of the Petén, and places the issues raised by the collection and exhibition of looted Maya vases in the broader context of the history of the collection and exhibition of ancient art. The 54-minute version omits much of this additional contextual material.

Film Festivals, Screenings, Awards
Best Film, International Festival of Archaeological Film, Rovereto, Italy, 2014
Best Film Jury Award, The Archaeology Channel International Film Festival, Eugene, Oregon, 2014
Best Archaeology Film, Arkhaios Cultural Heritage and Archaeology Film Festival, Hilton Head, SC, 2014
Special Audience Prize, International Archaeological Film Festival of Bidasoa, Irun, Spain, 2014
Cinarchea International Archaeology Film Festival, Brandenburg, Germany, 2015
Rai International Festival of Ethnographic Film Bristol, Bristol, Uk, 2015
International Archaeology Film Festival, Camp Verde, AZ, 2015
International Film Festival of Archaeology, Nyon, Switzerland, 2015
Iran International Documentary Film Festival, Tehran, Iran, 2014
International Festival of Ethnological Film, Belgrade, Serbia, 2014
International Festival of Films On Art (FIFA), Montreal, Canada, 2014

Related Resources
Filmmaker Site

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The Living Maya

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