Discovering two royal tombs at El Perú-Waka’

The discovery of a 7th-century gallery ultimately led to the rediscovery of a 4th-century royal tomb. Within, lying underneath fragments of the deceased’s skull, was this beautiful jade belt mask. (Image: Juan Carlos Pérez)

Excavations at the Maya city of Waka’ in Guatemala revealed a stone gallery buried within the palace acropolis. Inside its rooms were relics that told the extraordinary story of its construction, destruction, and reuse as a chamber for subterranean fire rituals. David Freidel, Griselda Pérez Robles, and Juan Carlos Pérez followed these clues to find an ancient Maya royal burial.

The victorious warriors of Tikal swarmed up the front of the acropolis at Waka’ and into the hastily abandoned palace gallery. Inside, they looted precious bundles of cloth and jewels, and smashed brightly painted stucco figures of gods, queens, and kings, throwing the shattered fragments down to companions. Some cut away the exquisite carved steps at the base of the stairway leading up to the palace and flung the blocks onto the plaza. Such desecration was aimed at killing the living building and driving out the spirit of rulership that had brought it into being half a century earlier.

Within the gallery, the rampaging warriors found a royal tomb that perhaps held King K’inich Bahlam II (whose name translates as Radiant Jaguar). He had ceremonially danced on the acropolis steps when the building was new, in a costume sprouting gleaming plumes of green feathers. The Tikal invaders pitched the bones in the tomb out onto the plaza and carried away his jewels. Afterwards, the survivors from Waka’ would bury the palace gallery itself in an attempt to preserve the memory of what it had been in its glory.

Fifty years after the Tikal onslaught, the last king of Waka’, Aj Yax Chow Pat (He of the New Battle Helmet) returned to the buried gallery. By digging down into its rooms and conducting fire ceremonies and sacrifices, Aj Yax Chow Pat hoped to entice the soul of King K’inich Bahlam II back into the building. A stone altar was created, depicting K’inich Bahlam II but renaming him Tum Yohl Akh (Covered is the Heart of the Cosmic Turtle). The turtle that inspired this new name was the place of resurrection for the first king of the Maya world, the Maize God, and remained visible in the night sky. There, the great Three Stars – known to us as Orion’s Belt – marked the back of the turtle.

The buried gallery received more visitors c.AD 800, when people tunnelled down to undertake various ritual practices A makeshift stone altar projects from the wall at the left centre of the photo.

While Aj Yax Chow Pat needed fire ceremonies to summon back King K’inich Bahlam II’s soul, another old ruler’s presence still lingered in the palace. Hidden in the rock and earth was an ancient ancestor whose tomb had been exposed when the acropolis was first cut back to build the palace gallery. This early burial, perhaps of King Te’ Chan Ahk (Sky Turtle), survived the Tikal attack unscathed. Aj Yax Chow Pat visited him, too, digging down from the acropolis slope to make sure that his white stone breath soul container was intact and his spirit alive.

This is the story that emerges from our scientific investigations at an ancient Maya city in the Guatemalan jungle, as we seek to weave the threads of the past into coherent patterns. Today, the former city site is known as El Perú-Waka’, but the Maya inhabitants called it simply Waka’, which means ‘Centipede Water’. This name reflects the city’s status as the royal capital of a ruling family known as the Centipede dynasty. What follows is our account of excavations at the palace of Waka’ over the course of many years. This work started with the rediscovery of the palace gallery in 2005, and eventually led us to two royal tombs. Along the way we gleaned major new insights into the life and afterlife of the palace that King K’inich Bahlam II built on the acropolis at Waka’.

The empty tomb, looking north towards the section of the Early Classic platform that formed the northern wall of the chamber.

Two tombs

Griselda Pérez Robles and Juan Carlos Pérez encountered two blocking walls forming a narrow corner. They examined both walls, and behind the northern one they discovered an ancient tunnel that led north and had been sealed in antiquity. At the end of the tunnel, they found a tomb chamber. Apart from fallen debris, the space was entirely empty. This was surprising. We have found four re-entered royal tombs in the course of our research, and in each case later visitors either avoided moving offerings and bones around or carefully rearranged them after taking relics. This is the first time we have discovered a tomb that had been completely cleaned out, and we suspect it presents a case of desecration rather than reverence.

Griselda and her team of expert excavators then cut through the wall of the empty tomb to make sure it was not another tomb chamber, and to see what other buried buildings might be inside. Beyond, they found a long shaft, which led down from the surface slope and cut through an even earlier platform: it was clearly an ancient re-entry tunnel, providing access to a royal tomb.

Sure enough, opening the ancient tunnel shaft allowed Griselda and Juan to peer into the western end of a crude masonry tomb chamber. Within lay the bones of a deceased ruler, with his skull pointing to the east, and over 22 offering vessels. Ceramicist Keith Eppich and Griselda date these vessels to the early part of the 4th century AD, making this the earliest royal tomb in the north-western Petén region of Guatemala. Such a date means that the remains could belong to King Te’ Chan Ahk, who was ruling in AD 317.

Griselda Pérez Robles lifting the mask. (Image: Juan Carlos Pérez)

After long days of meticulous excavation and recording in the tomb, Griselda and Damaris finally exposed the head of the ruler. The teeth of the king gleamed with inset jade discs, while he wore a necklace of Spondylus shells and a shell crocodile. Among the Maya, the Ceiba or crocodile tree – with its teeth-like trunk spikes – was another symbol of resurrection. A further shell had been fashioned into a white curved plaque, which was all that remained of a woven cloth royal crown. Fragments of the king’s skull overlay the back of a jade belt mask. This beautiful artefact had been hollowed out like a grinding stone, itself an allusion to the preparation of the flesh of the Maize God to bring food to his people. After careful recording, it was Griselda who gently lifted the mask and turned it over. As she did so, the deceased ruler peered at her through finely etched eyes, his soul meeting a Guatemalan descendant for the first time in 14 centuries.

This is an extract from the full article in featured in issue 89 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.