Well-preserved tomb provides insight into Mayan culture


— U.S. and Guatemalan archaeologists have found an unusually
well-preserved burial chamber that they believe is the tomb of the
founder of a Maya dynasty, a find that promises new information about
the empire’s formative period.

Archaeologist Stephen Houston of Brown University
said the tomb was so tightly sealed that the team found remains of
textiles, wood carvings and other organic objects that normally
disappear in the humid tropics. Even after 1,600 years, the smell of
decay was still present when the team broke through the walls of the
tomb, Houston said.

Enclosed with the remains of what the team believes
to be an early king were the bodies of six infants, who may have been
sacrificed and sent to the afterlife with the king. Blood-red bowls
surrounding the tomb contained human fingers and teeth wrapped in
decaying organic matter, perhaps leaves, that may have been symbolic
meal offerings, Houston said. Sacramental breads are still prepared in
that manner today in the region, he said.

“If (Houston) is right and this is a dynastic
founder … it would be one of the only times we’ve found one of these
people,” said archaeologist Simon Martin of the University of Pennsylvania,
who was not involved in the research. It is also “uncommon to find
sacrifices in the tomb. … That is one of the things that marks it out
as pretty special.”

The tomb was found at a site called El Zotz, located about six miles from the city of Tikal in the Peten region of northern Guatemala.
Tikal was one of the largest and most powerful urban centers in the
Maya civilization and El Zotz apparently flourished on its border, even
though a variety of evidence suggests that relations between the two
cities were not good.

El Zotz was previously known as a small-time
tourist destination because of a large population of bats; “zotz” is
Mayan for “bat.” Houston’s team began mapping the site five years ago
and excavating two years later. It had not been much explored by
archaeologists, but was heavily looted.

“The pyramids looked like Swiss cheese,” he said.

Occupation at the site began about 500 BC and was
marked by “rapid-fire periods of intense building, pauses, then other
periods,” he said. “It had a highly episodic quality, what I would have
predicted in a frontier zone, periodically buffeted by Tikal and
getting caught in the political turbulences of the time.”

The city originally lay in the valley due west of
Tikal. But about AD 350, the population went into a dramatic decline
and moved to more defensible positions on the escarpment on the sides
of the valley. “I suspect they needed to skedaddle because of the
increasingly fragile political position,” Houston said.

The new tomb is in a pyramid called El Diablo in “a
supremely defensive position” at the top of a steep slope that is
difficult to climb. The pyramids of Tikal are visible in the distance.
The tomb is at the base of the pyramid and others, most now looted,
were built on top — a chronology that supports the idea that the
occupant was the founder of a dynasty.

The tomb was large by Maya standards, about 9 feet
deep and 4.5 feet high. It is sealed with alternating layers of mud and
rock, which helped preserve the contents.

The primary occupant, originally installed on a
green bier, was arrayed like a dancer, with bell-like ornaments made of
shells and “clappers” made of canine teeth. It appears he was wearing
an elaborate headdress with small glyphs on it, and his teeth were
embedded with jewels.

“We have known from the ’90s on that a big role of
kings was to be a ritual dancer,” Houston said. “This is the clearest
instance I have seen of the king being put in a tomb in that role.”

Dancing was probably associated with the maize god
“and is linked to fecundity, growth of the Earth and sprouts of new
seeds,” Martin said. “It was a soulful, powerful thing” that emulated
the swaying of maize from side to side.

Researchers are not sure if the infants were
specifically sacrificed to join the king, but they think that might be
the case because of what Houston called “a gruesome-looking obsidian
blade gunked up with some red substance” found nearby. They haven’t yet
tested to see if it is blood.

Other treasures in the tomb included shells
imported from the Pacific coast, colorful bowls, remnants of textiles
and ingots of a brilliant red pigment called specular hematitite,
similar to the bronze ingots in Mediterranean shipwrecks.

“This guy is taking his riches with him,” Houston
said. “They speak to the vast divide that separates the king from the
people who supported him.”


(c) 2010, Los Angeles Times.

Visit the Los Angeles Times on the Internet at http://www.latimes.com/

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.