Ceramic containers at the site were found filled with human fingers of sacrifice victims 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."
Found under a small, jungle-covered pyramid at at the El Zotz archaeological site, the 1,600-year-old tomb "could be a veritable gold mine of information about ... the Maya," said Stephen Houston, an archaeologist at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, who is leading the excavation.
The tomb also contained the remains of an adult, thought to be a king, and six children, several of them infants. The children were likely sacrificed as the king was laid to rest during a ritual dance echoing a ceremony depicted in Mayan art.
The 6-foot-tall (190-centimeter-tall), 12-foot-long (370-centimeter-long), 4-foot-wide (120-centimeter-wide) tomb has been sealed off from the outside world for more than 1,600 years—resulting in the remarkable preservation of human bones, painted stucco, and and rare textiles.
"When we were able to open the wall of the tomb, there was first of all the chill of the morgue—it had this almost refrigerated quality to it," Houston said. "And then I was astonished at the smell, a faint smell of decay."
A young lord or god grimaces from atop a tamale-bowl lid found in the new Maya royal tomb found at El Zotz, Guatemala.
The preservation of artifacts such as this, dig leader Stephen Houston added, provides researchers "a glimpse at essentially lost art forms."
The preservation was achieved, in part, due to alternating layers of flat stones and mud that covered the tomb, which dates to between A.D. 350 and 400. The stones and mud served as the foundation for a pyramid-shaped temple built over the tomb.
A centuries-old, etched millipede skitters across a bowl found in the new Maya tomb.
Expert analysis of the tomb's artifacts will come in the months and years ahead. "In these types of complex deposits, one has to reach out to people that have skill sets that we certainly don't have," Houston said.
According to the partially deciphered hieroglyphics, his name was perhaps Red Turtle or Great Turtle. "Turtles," Houston said, "are of cosmic importance to the Maya, as they represent world models."
Houston suspects the leader founded a dynasty at El Zotz, a city to the west of the great Maya power center of Tikal. El Zotz was likely established "to keep a check on Tikal's territorial ambitions," Houston said. (See an interactive map of the Maya Empire.)
Photograph courtesy Andrew Scherer
A mythical monkey graces another ceramic tamale-bowl lid from the Maya royal tomb found in Guatemala.
Other finds in the tomb include globs of organic material that may be feathers, wood, and honey.
"Since they appear in a royal tomb, they may provide direct insights in the political economy of the divine kings that likely involved tribute and gifts," Markus Eberl, an anthropologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, said via email.
Photograph courtesy Arturo Godoy
Into the Tomb
Project co-director Edwin Román from the University of Texas and Brown University graduate student Sarah Newman collaborate to draw a profile of a wall in the shaft leading down to the tomb's burial vault.
David Stuart, a professor of Mesoamerican art at the University of Texas, said the find's surprising–and surprisingly well preserved—artifacts have the potential to "take us in some new directions in terms of the science of Maya archaeology."