Ancient Maya Royal Tomb Discovered in Guatemala

John Roach
for National Geographic News
May 4, 2006
A newly uncovered Maya tomb might be the resting place of the first ruler of Waka', an ancient city on what was a major trade route.

The tomb, uncovered deep in the jungles of Guatemala (see map), contains a single skeleton lying on a stone bench, jade jewels, and the remains of a jaguar pelt, according to news reports.

The structure was discovered on April 29 by archaeologist Hector Escobedo of the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala and graduate student Juan Carlos Melendez.

It lies at the base of the site's largest pyramid, which is about 60 feet (18 meters) tall.

Escobedo is co-director of the Waka' Archaeological Project with David Freidel, an archaeologist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

"We are trying to identify the remains, which appear to be in good condition despite the collapse of the tomb's roof," Freidel wrote on his Web site.

"This may be the resting place of either the dynasty founder, a man we do not have a history for, or K'inich B'alam the First, the Maya king who allied with Siyaj Ka'k', conqueror of Tikal [a major Maya city] in AD 378."

"Sounds Exciting"

Archaeologists believe the site of Waka'—located in Laguna del Tigre National Park and also known as El Peru—controlled trade along the San Pedro Matir River.

At the city's height, tens of thousands of people may have lived there. Over the course of 700 years, 22 kings ruled.

Oil prospectors discovered Waka' in the 1960s. It contains 672 structures and several smaller houses.

Harvard University archaeologist Ian Graham mapped the site in the 1970s, and Freidel and Escobedo are the first to excavate there.

E. Wyllys Andrews V is a Maya scholar and director of the Middle American Research Institute at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Although he is not directly familiar with the discovery, he said it "sounds exciting."

"Any time you find something that early, you may well be finding something that sheds light on the early days or founding of the dynasty," he said.

Further excavations and research at the tomb, he adds, may reveal exactly who is inside.

Norman Hammond heads the archaeology department at Boston University in Massachusetts.

He says that if this is indeed the tomb of the founder of Waka', it pushes back evidence for royal burials of dynasty founders to the Maya Preclassic period, which scholars date at between 2000 B.C. to A.D. 250.

(Related photos: "Maya Gods and Kings.")

"It fits in well with the rapidly increasing evidence for a high level of economic, social, and political complexity in Preclassic Maya society," he said, "something which not too many years ago was thought to be nearly at the level of peasant villages or small towns."

The royal tomb is the second found at the site. In the spring of 2004 Freidel and his colleagues discovered a queen's tomb more than 1,200 years old and dated to the Late Classic period of Maya civilization.

(Related news: "Ancient Portrait of Maya Woman Found—Who Was She?")

On Tuesday a different team of archaeologists discovered another royal grave in a pyramid up the hill from the tomb discovered last week. The pyramid was likely built some 400 years later than the newly opened tomb.

The latest tomb has yet to be opened, but elaborate offerings of figurines of ballplayers, elegant women, dwarfs, and seated lords hint at the supposed occupant's royal status, according to Reuters.

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