An archaeologist unexpectedly stumbled upon the tomb of an ancient Maya King just as excavations in a small Guatemalan settlement were drawing to a close.
Calakmul, the city of the Snake dynasty, to whom the Centipede dynasty was a vassal [Photo by PhilippN, CC BY-SA 3.0]
The Maya were an ancient Mesopotamian civilization that once encompassed the whole of Guatemala and Belize, as well as southeastern Mexico and western Honduras and El Salvador. The Maya were known for their architecture, calendar, astronomical system, and for being the only pre-Columbian civilization with a full writing system.
One of the team of archaeologists studying the settlement El Perú Waka’ accidentally entered the foot of the king's tomb and came face to face with the remains. When the team took stock of the contents of the tomb, they were able to tell that the person buried there had been important, likely a member of the ruling class. The team hypothesized that they were standing in the tomb of Te’ Chan Ahk, a king during the Mayan Centipede Dynasty.
The tomb of Te' Chan Ahk [Photo via Juan Carlos Pérez, Proyecto Arqueológico Waka’ and the Ministry of Culture and Sports of Guatemala]
According to the archaeologists, the remains were male, buried with the head pointed east, wrapped in cloths, and placed on top of the offering vessels. These indicated that the man had enjoyed a high stature in society during his lifetime. However, they weren't enough for the researchers to confidently conclude that he had been a king.
Thus, they looked for clues around the tomb to confirm the individual's identity and social stature. One compelling piece of evidence was that the bones had been painted red using something called cinnabar, which is a mercury derivative. So why do red bones signify that the individual they belonged to had been a king?
The researchers speculate that the bones had been painted red centuries after the king's death, when his flesh had completely decomposed. Painting the bones of the Maya's deceased political and religious leaders was ceremonious in nature. The Maya believed that the souls of their leaders stay active even long after death, and therefore frequently paid tribute to the painted remains.
Most tellingly, the archaeologists also found a red jade mask depicting the king as the Maya maize god. As the study's director David Freidel explained, it was common for an ancient Mayan king to be depicted a god or religious figure.
The jade mask of Te' Chan Ahk [Photo via Juan Carlos Pérez, Proyecto Arqueológico Waka’ and the Ministry of Culture and Sports of Guatemala]
Taken together, these clues indicated the king's identity. Not much is known about King Te' Chan Ahk, but his name had come up in known Mayan history. Te' Chan Ahk was likely one of the earlier kings of the Waka, or centipede, dynasty that ruled from the fourth to the eight century. The first round of dating on the artifacts in Te' Chan Ahk's tomb indicates that the burial likely took place from 300 to 350 AD. As such, the tomb is among the earliest known Waka tombs.
20 of the 22 artifacts in the tomb turned out to be ceremonial funerary vessels. These vessels are wide, shallow earthenware pots that contain offerings thought to accompany the dead when they go to the afterlife. Te' Chan Ahk's funerary vessels seem to have been made hastily, which may mean that the ancient Mayan king died suddenly.
Get weekly science updates in your inbox!