One of three stacked tombs newly discovered within a pyramid, this vividly painted chamber is unique among ancient Zapotec funerary architecture, Mexican archaeologists announced in late July.
Dating from about A.D. 650 to 850, the funerary complex was part of an elite neighborhood of the Zapotec, an agrarian culture that once thrived throughout what's now the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca (map).
"Painted motifs in funerary contexts are quite usual in this culture," excavation director Nelly Robles García said. "But at other sites they show important people: priests, warriors, and rulers—most likely the deceased."
No humans appear here. Instead, the designs seem to refer to the sacred ritual ball game played by many pre-Hispanic peoples in Mesoamerica. A bit like soccer combined with basketball, the game involved hitting a hard rubber ball around a court, and sometimes ended in sacrificial death for the losers.
Crowning a hill with a view to the peaks of the Sierra Juárez, the funerary pyramid at Atzompa rises 6.6 meters (21.6 feet). Inside lie the three chambers, one above the other, connected by a central staircase.
The rooms display the usual features of Zapotec tombs, but here, strangely, they appear in a stand-alone structure. At other Zapotec sites such chambers have been found under the floors of palaces.
The stone pyramid stands at one end of a large plaza near one of the site's three ball courts—a surprising number for a community of only several thousand people. The nearby site of Monte Albán, with a population of more than 20,000 at its height, had only two such spaces.
Archaeologists believe that Atzompa was once closely linked to Monte Albán, and perhaps was even one of its neighborhoods. This new discovery may be evidence of Atzompa asserting some independence. The elite families who lived there may have begun to create their own architecture, and their own traditions, to show their power as the larger community declined.
A detail from the painted chamber displays the number 12, expressed as a series of dots and bars, as well as a glyph that may represent an alligator. Though the central area (not pictured) of this wall is partly destroyed, the archaeologists believe it may once have displayed the name of the owner of the tomb.
Inside the funerary pyramid, workers install a wooden bridge across the central staircase. This will offer researchers easier access to the chamber beyond, roofed by two massive stone slabs leaning into each other.
No bones were found in that chamber, though, nor in the room with the murals. "From what we see, it's possible the bones were removed in pre-Hispanic times," Robles García said. The building itself shows signs of deliberate destruction.
Also, amid the earth and stones that filled the building, the archaeologists found the bones of a human and a dog along with small fragments of ceramics—perhaps a ritual deposit. Taken together, these features may point to a ceremonial decommissioning of the tombs when Atzompa was abandoned for unknown reasons around A.D. 850.
Archaeologist Eduardo García carefully brushes off a section of the mural in the painted chamber. At the foot of the wall lies a small group of offerings—ceramic cups, miniature grinding stones, a jade bead, a worked turtle shell, and a piece of conch shell that may once have served as the inlaid eye of a sculpture or funerary mask.
Photograph courtesy Héctor Montaño, INAH
This brilliantly painted ceramic vessel, almost 20 inches (50 centimeters) tall, has just come to light in the funerary pyramid's deepest and oldest tomb. Likely left as an offering, it once wore a headdress, which archaeologists discovered under a stone to one side.
Unlike the other two tombs in the building, this chamber held an assortment of bones, including vertebrae, ribs, a sternum, pelvic bones, and a cranium. They presumably belonged to an elite resident of Atzompa—probably male—who may have been the first of three generations from the same family to be buried in the multistory mausoleum.
As the excavation of this tomb continues, scientists will begin to study the bones for clues to the sex, age, and health of the deceased—and for any intentional body modifications that might mark their owner as a Zapotec aristocrat.