WASHINGTON—On the slopes of southwestern Guatemala, archaeologists have discovered one of the earliest royal Maya graves ever found — the burial site of an unnamed king who ruled over one of the most important centers of the Maya world more than 1,800 years ago. Findings at the site reveal the richness and complexity of life in this early Maya metropolis.
The discovery of the tomb is reported in the May 2004 issue of National Geographic magazine. Project directors Miguel Orrego Corzo and National Geographic grantee Christa Schieber de Lavarreda headed up the team of archaeologists from the Guatemalan National Archaeological Project Takalik Abaj, under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture and Sports.
The unlooted tomb was discovered in what the team surmises was an astronomical observatory for the metropolitan region of Takalik Abaj. Five sculpted stone monuments on the ceremonial platform are aligned with the constellation Draco, enabling the Mayans to track the movements of stars above the surrounding mountains.
Tracing that alignment of stars and stones led Schieber and her team to excavate an area that contained a sculptured stela representing a sacred serpent surrounded by an offering of nearly 700 vessels. Behind the stela they discovered the untouched royal tomb, buried under the ceremonial platform and hidden deep in a small building.
“As we dug deeper, we smelled the carbon deposits of the incense they used in ceremonies,” writes Schieber in National Geographic.
“Though we know little about this ruler, his city was prosperous and he was a powerful ruler. Takalik Abaj was one of the most important economic and cultural centers of early pre-Columbian times. He was probably the last Maya ruler of this area.
The wealth of his burial and complexity of the art and hieroglyphic writing at the site reveal that early Maya civilization on the southwest coast was far more advanced than we had previously thought,” Schieber said.
Schieber and her team unearthed many ornaments of royal life in the burial site, including two fine ornamental earplugs, a jade necklace and other jewelry, a small ceremonial jade mask that would have hung from the royal belt, and pottery offerings.
Though the king’s skeleton has not yet been found, phosphorus tests have shown the evidence of decomposed human bones, and the burial cavity’s soil shows traces of red cinnabar that was often used in burials.
After the National Geographic magazine story went to press, the team was able to dig under the ground where the body would have lain, haul an X-ray machine down 9 feet (3 meters) into the excavation and film the “head” and “feet” area of the burial. The images reveal fine detail on the earplugs lying near where the royal head rested and white-gray clouds of radio-opaque materials indicating that some chemical traces of bone remain in the soil.
The site is protected as a national archaeological park. Excavations began here in the late 19th century, when scientists discovered the tips of the sculptured stones protruding through the earth. To date, 277 monuments have been found, some etched with hieroglyphs that are among the earliest Maya writings ever found.