Maya Royal Burial

The roughly 2,000-year-old tomb was found underneath another, 1,300-year-old tomb filled with treasures such as jade gorgets - normally used to protect the throat - beads, and ceremonial knives.

The upper tomb's corpse had been badly destroyed by rodents within the last few centuries, but the body was clearly that of another Maya ruler - perhaps another female, based on the small size of a ring found in that tomb.

The royal burials are the first discovered in Nakum, once a densely packed Maya center. Study co-author Wiesław Koszkul and colleagues have been investigating Nakum's surroundings, known as the Cultural Triangle, for decades. (Explore an interactive map of key Maya sites.)

© Wiesław Koszkul, Nakum Archaeological ProjectA woman ruler's skeleton—her head mysteriously placed between two bowls—is one of two royal burials recently found at the Maya ruins of Nakum in Guatemala.
"We think this structure was something like a mausoleum for the royal lineage for at least 400 years," said Koszkul, of the Jagiellonian University Institute of Archaeology in Krakow, Poland.

The Maya royal-tomb discoveries are described in the September issue of the journal Antiquity.

Into the Abyss

The ancient structure had been completely overtaken by jungle growth before excavations began in 2006, and only a small hill covered in soil and vegetation hinted at its existence.

© Robert Słaboński, Nakum Archaeological ProjectArchaeologists descend into Nakum's pyramid, formally known as Structure 15, in an undated picture.
The hill and a neighboring mound called Structure 14 are located on the east side of a Nakum patio. "Because the Maya believed the east is very important, since 2003 I have had a hypothesis that ... if there is a royal tomb in Nakum, it should be located in this structure," Koszkul said.

Once inside the first level of the tomb, the scientists noticed cracks in the floor. When they cut through the floor, they found the second, older crypt.

"I think we could find some more burials beneath the level we excavated, [but] our excavations - our test pits - are very narrow," Koszkul said. "We can't excavate everything."

Head in a Bowl

The scientists don't know exactly why the body was buried with bowls, "but we have seen similar patterns in Tikal," a site also in Guatemala that was one of the most powerful pre-Columbian Maya cities, Koszkul said.

The royal figure's gender also took the researchers by surprise, he added.

© Jarosław Źrałka, Nakum Archaeological ProjectThe head of the dead woman found in the 2,000-year-old tomb was covered by a vessel, which is pictured above containing fragments of her skull.
"It's surprising to me - we were expecting a male," Koszkul said. While other nearby cities had turned up some evidence of female rulers, Maya queens were uncommon compared to kings, he explained.

Pristine Tomb

The researchers know the person buried inside this tomb was of high status: Not only was the body accompanied by a number of treasures, but the offerings continued for two centuries after the burial. (Take a Maya quiz.)

© Robert Słaboński, Nakum Archaeological ProjectArchaeologists excavate the upper level of the Structure 15 pyramid in a picture taken in 2008.
"What was really amazing was that the tomb was unlooted, despite the fact that we found looters' trenches around the side of Structure 15," said Nakum project director Jaroslaw Zralka.

Circle 11 in this photograph contained limestone bars, perhaps used to make fishing nets, while Circle 12 contained clay cooking plates and blue-painted knives, probably used for ritual offerings.

Sacrificial Knives?

At least four of the knives were painted with a blue pigment-the same color the Maya would paint victims before they were sacrificed, hinting that the knives were also used for ritual killings.

© Robert Słaboński, Nakum Archaeological ProjectNine flint knives dating to the Late Classic period (A.D. 600 to 700) were excavated from the upper royal burial.
Parting Gifts

By A.D. 800 to 900, the Maya had begun to abandon Nakum and surrounding cities in the Classic Maya collapse, though scholars don't yet agree on why. (Read more about the rise and fall of the Maya in National Geographic magazine.)

© Robert Słaboński, Nakum Archaeological ProjectThree signet rings bearing stylized representations of faces were among artifacts deposited directly above the 1,300-year-old ruler at least a hundred years after he or she was buried.
"Nakum and the structure were already destroyed," yet the remaining citizens deposited a cache of six beads, these three shell rings, and bones of an unknown animal or human directly above the tomb, Koszkul said.

"They probably still remembered there was a large tomb [here] important for Nakum," he said.

Jade Jewelry

The glyphs on the gorget are a partial mystery: Simon Martin of the University of Pennsylvania translated the name of the person as Ixim Chan, or "Maize God-Snake." But the jade piece also contains the word "Yaxha," the name of a city 10.5 miles (17 kilometers) south of Nakum.

Jade Jewelry

Photograph courtesy Robert Słaboński, Nakum Archaeological Project

This jade pectoral, or gorget, was worn as part of a larger necklace across the chest of the ruler buried in the upper tomb.
"We don't know how the pectoral reached Nakum. Maybe one king of Nakum brought the pectoral from Yaxha, or there is the possibility that Nakum was ruled from Yaxha," Koszkul said.

The style of the glyphs is 300 years older than the tomb itself, raising the possibility that the pectoral was kept as a family heirloom for three centuries, he added.

Pyramid in 3-D

In the foreground, a drain is visible in front of Structure 14, which may have contained a second tomb or a funerary temple that served as a temporary holding place for corpses. However, the chamber had been looted, and its function may remain unknown.

© Breitner Gonzáles, Nakum Archaeological ProjectStructure 15, the burial pyramid, is seen in the background in an artist's 3-D reconstruction.
The drain could have been used to remove rainwater from both Structure 14 and 15, project director Zralka said. But considering its sophistication - channels beginning at the Structure 15 pyramid wend along Structure 14's outer wall before emerging at the trapezoidal "water mountain" - it was likely more than a purely functional drain.

Possibly a cistern located between the buildings would store water until a king would begin a "water spectacle" for citizens watching from the patio to the west.

"We think this drain may have been used in elite-sponsored spectacles of the water god," he said.