The ancient Maya continue to surprise us, this time with the discovery of a well-preserved tomb under the El Diablo pyramid at El Zotz in Guatemala. Stephen Houston and his research team encountered the grave under a chamber in a small temple in front of the pyramids dedicated to the sun god, an emblem of the Maya rulers. Caches of ritual vessels and flat stones and mud led to a sealed chamber brilliant with reds, greens, and yellows. The mud and stones had preserved all kinds of organic materials, among them wood fragments, cords, textiles, and thin layers of painted stucco. When Houston first poked his head into the surprisingly small tomb, he smelt putrefaction and experienced a profound chill. The bones of what appears to be an adult man, accompanied by the remains of six children, perhaps sacrificial victims, lay in the chamber. The man himself was entombed in the regalia of a ritual dancer, including shell bells and dog canine rattles. He may have worn an elaborate headdress and held a sacrificial knife in his hands. The stone knife bears a red substance, as yet unanalysed.
Could it be blood? Excavations like this take years to complete, the analysis even longer, so there is much still to be learned. But this important Maya lord of AD 350 to 400, buried in a deep sepulchre under many layers of later building, may perhaps be the founder of the dynasty who ruled over El Zotz.
The Mystery of a Headless Maya Corpse
More on the Maya this time: Bonampak in southern Mexico is world-famous for its superb murals, painted in about AD 790. At the time, thousands of people lived in the now long-overgrown city. The stepped Temple of the Murals was damaged during a series of earthquakes in 2005 to 2007, so the National Institute of Anthropology and History undertook restoration work. A radar survey detected a cavity beneath three rooms adorned with murals depicting ritual torture. Paintings above the cavity show captured warriors being tormented. Their fingers are broken, fingernails torn out. Some are decapitated. The grave, lying below a slab of plain, white plaster, contained the burial of a 35 to 42-year old man, who suffered from a form of arthritis. His skull, but not his jaw, is missing. Perhaps he was decapitated, but archaeologist Emiliano Gallaga Murrieta thinks that the head may simply have disintegrated in the humidity. Certainly the dead man’s jade earrings lay on the floor of the grave, as if they had fallen from the head as it crumbled. The deceased was a man of some importance, for he wore a highly prized spiny oyster shell, whose orange-purple colour was much valued by the Maya elite, as well as a jade necklace and bracelets. Two multicoloured ceramic plates, an alabaster vase, and a stone knife lay with the skeleton.
Intriguingly, the ornaments the man wore match those worn by the nobles depicted in the original Bonampak murals. Whether he was a relative of Chaan Muan II, Bonampak’s ruler at the time or a captured elite warrior remains a mystery, although ongoing radiocarbon and DNA testing may tell us more.
This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 43. Click here to subscribe