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Ancient Maya Tomb Found: Upright Skeleton, Unusual Location

Kelly Hearn
for National Geographic News
May 17, 2007
 
Archaeologists working in Honduras have discovered an entombed human skeleton of an elite member of the ancient Maya Empire that may help unravel some longstanding mysteries of the vanished culture.

The remains, seated in an upright position in an unusual tomb and flanked by shells, pottery, vessels, and jade adornments, suggest a surprisingly diverse culture and complex political system in the influential Maya city of Copán around A.D. 650.

Located at the western edge of modern-day Honduras near the border with Guatemala, Copán, was one of the most important Maya sites, flourishing between the fifth and ninth centuries A.D. (Honduras map).

But until now, much about the political makeup and cultural range of the city—famous for its funerary slabs—has been poorly understood. (Related: "Ancient Maya Royal Tomb Discovered in Guatemala" [May 4, 2006].)

The position of the body, the structure of the tomb, and several unexpected artifacts suggest the interred individual was a political or priestly figure, said discoverer Allan Maca, an archaeologist at Colgate University in New York State.

The entombed individual was found with "a jade pectoral hung from a necklace of dozens of jade beads of various sizes," Maca said. Because jade was a precious commodity, he added, the jewels represent "a level of control over economic resources."

"The incised design on the pectoral likely represents a political title or social affiliation that links this individual to other major sites around the city," Maca said.

The remains belong to a 50-year-old man with various illnesses. He had poor use of his left arm, poor arterial flow through his upper spinal cord, and a chronic infection of the skull known as mastoiditis, according to a bioarchaeological analysis by Katherine Miller of Arizona State University.

Off-Center

Maca discovered the tomb in 2005 in the Copán Archaeological park.

But Maca—whose work was funded by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration—only announced his findings last week, in conjunction with officials from the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History, after months of excavation. (National Geographic News is owned by the National Geographic Society.)

"The tomb is characterized by a split vault created by interlocking lintels [load-bearing horizontal supports]," said Maca, who is also the director of the Copán Urban Planning Project.

"The chamber was accessed from above by a stuccoed stone chute that descends from the surface of the temple," he continued.

Maca said the features allowed the tomb to be "reentered years after the original interment, for purposes of ancestor veneration."

The tomb's location, some 1,300 feet (400 meters) west of the Acropolis, Copán's ceremonial core, was unexpected, Maca added.

"The design is without precedent in the Maya area and is the first elaborate tomb construction to be discovered outside the ceremonial center of Copán," he said. (See pictures of what the Maya Empire might have looked like.)

The grandiose tombs belonging to members of the Copán dynasty, royal court, and royal family are typically found in Copán's Acropolis, Maca explained. Copán archaeologists have focused their research in the central area for many recent decades as well as much of the 19th century.

"As we begin to think more broadly about the great extent of the royal city, and about how to protect it against modern looting and population growth, we are coming to understand that the dynasty manifested its power in sectors of the Copán Valley that have never been explored," Maca said.

Oddities

There are other oddities to the tomb.

The position of the buried individual—seated with legs crossed—was not common in Copán or in the Maya lowlands during the Classic period, which lasted from about A.D. 300 to 900.

And several vessels found in the tomb, made in sets specifically for the burial, bear "a type of false or alternative hieroglyphics unlike those used by the ancient Maya," he said.

Some of the pottery vessels likely came from the south near present-day El Salvador, Maca added.

"Thus it is unlikely that these were made in Copán and probable that they signify some sort of cultural affiliation with that region," he said.

Also found in the tomb were seashells laid in a pattern that appears to represent a kind of cosmological map and may be representative of the waters in Maya creation mythology, Maca said.

The shells must have arrived to the region through commercial exchanges with the coast, Maca said.

The findings bring into clearer focus a picture of a Classic-period Copán society that was culturally diverse.

The discovery provides "an unusual archaeological context that helps expand our knowledge of the sociopolitical and cultural complexity of the ancient city and of the funerary and ritual landscape of the Copán Valley during the seventh century A.D.," Maca said.

Dario Euraque, director of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History, said Maca's findings were significant for a number of reasons.

"Mainly, this is the first tomb to be found outside the principal monuments where all funeral sites are located," he said.

"We never thought we would find any in the Bosque, which is along the periphery of Copán."

He agreed that the artifacts and tomb characteristics were not representative of the Maya culture.

"This goes against theories that all populations in the Copán Valley were uniquely Mayan," he said. "There appears to have been a cultural mix."

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