ANCIENT MAYA ceramics from the island of Jaina sometimes are hollow, and many of them contain pebbles. Once while I was examining the effigy of a 9th-century priest or nobleman wearing an elaborate headdress and a fancy necklace, I gave him a shake to hear the pebbles rattle, and from one of two small holes in the back a pebble dropped into my palm. I looked at it with surprise because nobody else had seen it for more than a thousand years.

Now, you can turn over a shovel of dirt and choose a rock that quite possibly nobody has seen since it was formed millions of years ago, but the experience is meaningless. The importance of the Jaina pebble, therefore, did not depend on the fact that it had lain a long time concealed from human sight; it mattered because I knew that a Mayan craftsman -- some artisan whose name and features are lost -- had scooped it up, or perhaps deliberately selected it, to place inside the statue. His fingers must have touched what dropped so unexpectedly into my palm.

If one of earth's lowliest objects -- a pebble -- may be imbued with significance through such a tenuous association, the first glimpse of a prehistoric sovereign's funerary artifacts must be electrifying.

Alberto Ruz, a Cuban-born scholar who directed much of the excavation at Palenque, described the opening of Lord Pacal's tomb. A hidden staircase had been revealed, leading from the floor of the Temple of Inscriptions down into the unsuspected depths of a terraced pyramid upon which the temple stood. Four years were required to clean out the debris that clogged the passage, but at last Ruz was able to squeeze through the triangular entrance to a vault. He carried a floodlight, and what he saw evidently shocked him so that for a while he could not speak.

Later he wrote: "Out of the dim shadows emerged a vision from a fairytale, a fantastic, ethereal sight from another world. It seemed a huge magic grotto carved out of ice, the walls sparkling and glistening like snow crystals. Delicate festoons of stalactites hung like tassels of a curtain, and the stalagmites on the floor looked like drippings from a great candle. The impression, in fact, was that of an abandoned chapel. Across the walls marched stucco figures in low relief. Then my eyes sought the floor. This was almost entirely filled with a great carved stone slab. . . ."

Scholars and laymen are equally obsessed by these long-gone lords of the jungle; every year more tourists visit Mexico and Central America to see for themselves the lichen- mottled ruins of Palenque, Uxmal, Labn,a, Chich,en Itz,a, Tikal, and other Maya cities. Sixteenth-century Spaniards were just as fascinated. Conquistadors searching for El Dorado met warriors carrying obsidian- edged maces, chieftains and priests wearing jaguar-skin shirts, feathered capes, plumed headdresses, and hammered gold jewelry; but instead of a fabulous Gilded Man they found unheard-of cities with paved roads, busy markets, temples, and palaces.

THE MAYA EDIFICE collapsed with mysterious speed. European avarice and religious intolerance weakened it, but ethnologists and archeologists still have trouble explaining the rapid disintegration. Present-day Maya are not much help because they know scarcely anything about their imperial ancestors.

These people are first mentioned by Columbus, who t a canoe filled with traders from Maia or Maiam off the coast of Honduras in 1502. Fifteen years later three storm-wracked ships under Francisco de C,ordova accidentally reached Yucat,an, and when the survivors got back to Cuba they brought proof -- effigies, jade necklaces, copper and gold diadems -- of the otherwise unbelievable stories they told. In 1549 came the infamous Franciscan, Diego de Landa, who managed to burn almost every Maya codex. Philologists even now are trying to learn what might have been obvious long ago, were it not for this pious vandal. The deterioration and calculated demolition of buildings, frescoes, and sculpture were a fearful loss, but Landa's auto-da-f,e, during which these painted manuscripts went up in sparks and smoke, seems worse. This zealot burned the record of a civilization.

Charles Gallenkamp notes in Maya that with the passing of their kings and native priests, the people soon forget whatever they had known about astronomy, calendrcs, mathematics, and hieroglyphic writing. "Worst of all, the obliteration of their civilization was so thorough, and so swiftly were alien values and concepts substituted in its place, that there was no hope that future generations could ever resurrect it."

The Popol Vuh -- Council Paper or Common Book -- was written during the Spanish conquest and thus does not belong to the classic age, which is loosely dated A. D. 600- 900. Landa never got his hands on the Popol Vuh, and no European knew of it until a less bigoted friar, Francisco Xim,enez, made a copy. Professor Dennis Tedlock has produced the first unabridged translation into English, and nobody is apt to dispute his academic qualification for this difficult job; his introduction, commentary, glossary, bibliography, and guide to the pronunciation of the Quich,e language are 60 pages longer than the text. Three codices from an earlier period, supplemented by this sanguine ocument and a Yucatecan collection known as the Book of Chilam Balam, are the most important works in the Maya library.

The Popol Vuh opens in darkness with a world inhabited by gods, Tedlock comments, and the most remarkable thing about this book is "the vast temporal sweep of its narrative."

It describes humanity's beginning, naming the first four people to be made and modeled: Jaguar Quitze, Jaguar Night, Mahucutah, True Jaguar. We are told that they were good and handsome. Whatever they saw, they understood. "Their sight passed through trees, through rocks, through lakes, through seas, through mountains, through plains." Then their wives were created: Celebrated Seahouse, Prawn House, Hummingbird House, Macaw House. "And this is our root, we who are the Quich,e people."

The end of the Quich,e has been deduced from the rubble of Mayap,an -- perhaps the last great city. Although we do not know just what happened, we do know enough to recognize a familiar scenario: disunity, political intrigue, moral corruption, the schemes of egocentric authorities. Mayap,an only superficially resembled the majestic centers of the past, Gallenkamp writes: "it was a walled refuge garrisoned by paid troops, its supremacy maintained by force of arms, its inhabitants supported almost entirely by tributes, its art and architecture in severe decline, its rulers less in awe of their gods than of the intoxication of military power . . . "