Seen for the first time in centuries, a 1,500-year-old tomb comes to light via a tiny camera lowered into a Maya pyramid at Mexico's Palenque (map) archaeological site in April. The intact, blood-red funeral chamber offers insight into the ancient city's early history, experts say.
The tomb was discovered in 1999, though researchers have been unable to get inside due to the precarious structural state of the pyramid above. Any effort to penetrate the tomb could damage the contents within, according to the team, which is affiliated with Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History.
Instead, the archaeologists lowered the 1.6-by-2.4-inch (4-by-6-centimeter) camera through a 6-inch-wide (15-centimeter-wide) hole in an upper floor of the pyramid.
Archaeologist Marta Cuevas, co-leader of the Palenque project, stands in front of Temple 20, the crumbling pyramid whose subterranean tomb was recently probed with a mini-camera.
The remains of a Maya ruler are thought to be buried in the funeral chamber, though no bones have been seen so far. Located in Palenque's so-called Southern Acropolis region, the pyramid itself is similar to a nearby one that was found to contain the remains of a ruler in 1959. (Related: "Superdirt Made Lost Amazon Cities Possible?")
"All of this leads us to believe that the Southern Acropolis was used as a royal necropolis during this epoch," Cuevas said in a press release translated from Spanish.
Lighted by the miniature camera, some of the tomb's 11 ceramic vessels dot the floor. The vessels' contents are so far unknown, the team says.
Scattered nearby are jade and shell pieces, which were "very hard to find and were only present in funerary offerings of important characters," the research team explained to National Geographic News in an email.
Lowered about 15 feet (5 meters) below the small opening in the pyramid floor, the camera illuminates tomb walls that may surround the remains of K'uk' Bahlam I, thought to be the first ruler of Palenque, or another early ruler of the city-state, Cuevas said.
Another possibility for the tomb's inhabitant is a noted female ruler, Ix Yohl Ik'nal, David Stuart, a specialist in Maya inscriptions at the University of Texas, told the Associated Press. "The female ruler is mentioned in a number of the historical texts of the site," he said.
Photograph courtesy INAH
A modern roof protects the tomb, which "is now located 5 meters [16 feet] down the hole depicted in this image," the research team explained to National Geographic News.
Later rulers of Palenque built their temples and tombs atop those of their predecessors, making it difficult to access the tombs of the earliest leaders. As a result, experts say, the newly revealed tomb—itself encased within a later pyramid—is a rare window on the past.