for National Geographic News
Archaeologists working in Honduras have discovered an entombed human skeleton of an elite member of the ancient Maya Empire that may help unravel some longstanding mysteries of the vanished culture.
The remains, seated in an upright position in an unusual tomb and flanked by shells, pottery, vessels, and jade adornments, suggest a surprisingly diverse culture and complex political system in the influential Maya city of Copán around A.D. 650.
Located at the western edge of modern-day Honduras near the border with Guatemala, Copán, was one of the most important Maya sites, flourishing between the fifth and ninth centuries A.D. (Honduras map).
But until now, much about the political makeup and cultural range of the city—famous for its funerary slabs—has been poorly understood. (Related: "Ancient Maya Royal Tomb Discovered in Guatemala" [May 4, 2006].)
The position of the body, the structure of the tomb, and several unexpected artifacts suggest the interred individual was a political or priestly figure, said discoverer Allan Maca, an archaeologist at Colgate University in New York State.
The entombed individual was found with "a jade pectoral hung from a necklace of dozens of jade beads of various sizes," Maca said. Because jade was a precious commodity, he added, the jewels represent "a level of control over economic resources."
"The incised design on the pectoral likely represents a political title or social affiliation that links this individual to other major sites around the city," Maca said.
The remains belong to a 50-year-old man with various illnesses. He had poor use of his left arm, poor arterial flow through his upper spinal cord, and a chronic infection of the skull known as mastoiditis, according to a bioarchaeological analysis by Katherine Miller of Arizona State University.
Maca discovered the tomb in 2005 in the Copán Archaeological park.
But Maca—whose work was funded by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration—only announced his findings last week, in conjunction with officials from the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History, after months of excavation. (National Geographic News is owned by the National Geographic Society.)
"The tomb is characterized by a split vault created by interlocking lintels [load-bearing horizontal supports]," said Maca, who is also the director of the Copán Urban Planning Project.
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