Reeking of decay and packed with bowls of human fingers, a partly burned baby, and gem-studded teeth—among other artifacts—a newfound Maya king's tomb sounds like an overripe episode of Tales From the Crypt.
But the tightly sealed, 1,600-year-old burial chamber, found under a jungle-covered Guatemalan pyramid, is as rich with archaeological gold as it is with oddities, say researchers who announced the discovery Friday.
"This thing was like Fort Knox," said Brown University archaeologist Stephen Houston, who led the excavation in the ancient, overgrown Maya town of El Zotz.
Alternating layers of flat stones and mud preserved human bones, wood carvings, textiles, and other organic material to a surprising degree—offering a rare opportunity to advance Maya archaeology, experts say.
"Since [the artifacts] appear in a royal tomb, they may provide direct insights in the political economy of the divine kings that likely involved tribute and gifts," Vanderbilt University anthropologist Markus Eberl, who was not involved in the project, said via email.
Excavation leader Houston added, "we're looking at a glimpse of lost art forms."
(Pictures: what the Maya Empire looked like.)
Fingers, Teeth, and a Taste of Things to Come
The researchers found grisly deposits even before they reached the Maya tomb.
Almost every layer of mud above the tomb contained blood-red pottery filled with human fingers and teeth wrapped in decayed organic material—perhaps leaves.
The fingers and teeth were "perhaps a kind of food or symbolic meal offering," Houston speculated. "Sacred breads in [Mexico's] Yucatán are wrapped in such materials today."
In another bowl above the circa A.D. 350 to 400 tomb, the team found a partly burned baby. The bowls closest to the burial chamber were arranged like the Maya cosmos—the four cardinal compass points plus the center of world.
(Related: "Ancient Maya Royal Tomb Discovered in Guatemala.")
Dancing King and Child Sacrifices
"The chill of the morgue" and "a faint odor of decay" tempered the euphoria of the find when the team finally entered the tomb itself on May 29, Houston said.
Breaking though a side wall of the small tomb, excavators uncovered the remains of six children—a rarity among Maya burials. Nearby was an obsidian blade covered in a red residue that "may be blood," Houston said.
The arrangement suggests the children, some of them infants, may have been ritually sacrificed as the king was laid to rest. (Read about Maya rituals of sacrifice and worship.)
Why the children would have been killed is a mystery, said team member Andrew Scherer, a Brown University anthropologist.
But the youth of the victims hints that their value as sacrifices may have lain in their being, to Maya eyes, on the verge of personhood, Scherer said.
Dig leader Houston added, "[The fact] that at least four appear not to have been able yet fully to speak or walk may put them at that threshold of human existence."
The role of the king in his own burial may be slightly clearer.
The team found bell-like ornaments made of shells and "clappers" made of dog teeth, which were likely placed around the king's waist and legs, Houston said.
The same accessories are seen on performers in a ritual dance depicted in Maya art, suggesting that the king may have been "cast" as a dancer in the ceremony leading to his interment—despite the arthritic joints that give away his apparently advanced age.
Turtle King Tomb a "Gold Mine"
His teeth embedded with jewels, the buried king, Houston suspects, was the founder of a dynasty at El Zotz, in what's now the Petén region (satellite map) of Guatemala.
According to the partially deciphered hieroglyphics on the tomb walls, his name translates to perhaps Red Turtle or Great Turtle. More information about him may be gleaned from further study of hieroglyphics from the tomb, Houston said.
A small state with no more than a few thousand people, El Zotz lay to the west of Tikal, once among the biggest and most powerful Maya centers (interactive map of the Maya Empire).
The neighboring settlements, though, probably weren't best of friends. El Zotz was likely "supported by the enemies of Tikal in a way to keep a check on Tikal's territorial ambitions," Houston said.
More details on the nature of that relationship—and on El Zotz and Maya life in general—may await decoding in the turtle king's tomb. The excavation team's next steps include residue analysis as well as continued analysis, and reconstruction, of the tomb's textiles and other artifacts.
"This," Houston said, "could be a veritable gold mine of information."
For the story of the Maya Empire, read the National Geographic magazine article "The Maya: Glory and Ruin" >>