Posted by: Mayan Musings | April 26, 2012

Case Studies of Famous Mayan Burials

In most present day cultures, it becomes almost undeniable that some sort of social stratification falls into place.  But with archaeology, it is difficult to judge the status of an individual based on their remains because everyone tries to honor the dead by burying them with goods and services that might not have been something available to them during life.  Thus, it becomes difficult for archaeologists to recognize when the corpse they are looking at was in fact royalty or was just a common folk whose family honored them by burying them well.  This post takes a look at some of the famous Maya burials and how these can be distinguished a bit from the other Maya burials we have studied.

One burial that has come up in recent discoveries was known for being the “proof of a Jester God”.  This burial was found in Guatemala and archaeologists concluded that the corpse being buried with the image of the Jester God was proof of the royalty.  The news article on this can be found here.

Red Queen: One of the most referenced individuals in our mortuary research of the Mayan Peoples has been the Red Queen of Palenque. In 1994 Arnoldo Gonzalez discovered the Royal tomb of a 45- to 50- year old woman to the west of Structure XIII, Palenque’s most famous pyramid (Gomez: 2000). The skeleton, which appeared to be about 5’4”, was stained red with cinnabar, and surrounded by bone needles, pearls, obsidian knives, jade, and shells (Gomez: 2000). The cinnabar and luxury items were not the only suggestions of elite status, the Red Queen was also buried with two individuals bearing skeletal markers of having been sacrificed (Cucina and Tiesler 2008: 2). While status is no question in the case of the Red Queen, her identity remained much more of a mystery. Analysis of the remains places her in the sixth to late sixth to early seventh centuries A.D. Initially, the identity of the Red Queen was believed to be Sak K’uk, mother of one of the most famous rulers of Palenque, Pacal (Pak-kal) (“Sak K’uk as the Red Queen” 2007). An analysis of the strontium isotopes of the skeleton proved that the skeleton was not that of Sak K’uk, however, as the results placed the individual as having grown up outside of Palenque, which Sak K’uk did not (Price et al 2007: 281). DNA analysis was also near impossible as the cinnabar on the skeleton had actually broken down much of the Red Queen’s DNA (“Red Queen’s DNA”: 2007). At the end of the day, the most likely candidate for the identity of the Red Queen is Queen Tzakbu Ajal, wife of Pacal the Great. This decision came from several factors. Her purported age at death is consistent with that of the Red Queen, as is the fact that she was born outside of Palenque. Also, facial reconstructions from the Red Queen’s skeleton are fairly similar to carvings of Tzakbu Ajal on various tombs in the city (“Queen Tzakbu Ajal: 2007). While her identity cannot be one hundred percent confirmed, the multiple lines of evidence seem solid enough for some researchers to accept them as fact.

For more information on the Red Queen, including videos, check out the Discovery Channel’s “Assignment Discovery” here!

Crystal Maiden: In the Mayan World, not all elite burials are created equal. Hidden away in the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave of Belize is a more mysterious and disturbing depiction of elite Mayan burial practices. Discovered recently in 1989, fourteen burials have been preserved almost exactly as they were left around one thousand years ago—decapitated, disarticulated, and left unburied. With modified foreheads and filed teeth, these individuals were once elite members of Mayan society, now calcified to the cave’s floor (Chládek, 2011).  In particular, the discovery of an eighteen to twenty year-old girl has been of interest in the archaeological community. Separated in a high alcove of the cave, her crystallized skeleton has two broken vertebrae, amputated hands and feet, and a disarticulated lower skull. Nearby sits a large ax head made from greenstone, a suspected means of her death (Chládek). The maiden’s sprawled position suggests she was thrown to the ground after her gory end, with no deliberate care of positioning taken and no funerary goods near her (Tiesler, 2008). As Mayans believed caves were the entrance to the underworld, The Crystal Maiden and her compatriots suggest elaborate and violent sacrificial rituals occurred in these caves, possibly to appease the Lords of Xibalba and the Rain God Tlaloc, as drought devastated the Mayan lands.

In conclusion, these case studies open up a window into classical Mayan culture for modern archaeologists. Case studies provide us with a huge amount of detail about specific happenings in the past.  However, we cannot gain much information on the common experience of all people from case studies – most of them tend to be more extravagant and representative of a higher class than an average burial.  However, case studies provide us with much detail and are quite sensational.  They provoke the interest of even the most novice archaeologist. The famous Mayans we have discussed here have rich, interesting histories and sensational stories attached, which is crucial for peaking interest in archaeology.

Works Cited

Chládek, Stanislav. Exploring Maya Ritual Caves: Dark Secrets from the Maya

Underworld. Lanham, MD: AltaMira, 2011. Print.

Cucina, Andrea and Vera Tiesler. “New Perspectives of Human Sacrifice and Postsacrificial Body Treatments in Ancient Maya Society: An Introduction” New Perspectives on Human Sacrifice and Ritual Body Treatments in Ancient Maya Society. Springer Science + Business Media. New York, 2008.

Gomez, David. “The Palenque Megaproject”. Maya Discovery. October 23, 2000.

Price, Douglas, James Burton, Lori Wright, Christine White, and Fred Longstaffe. “Victims of Sacrifice: Isotopic Evidence for Places of Origin”. New Perspectives of Human Sacrifice and Ritual Body Treatments in Ancient Maya Society. Interdisciplinary Contributions to Archaeology, 2007.

“Queen Tzakbu Ajal”. Assignment Discovery. The Discovery Channel. October 27, 2007.

“Red Queen’s DNA”. Assignment Discovery. The Discovery Channel. October 27, 2007. playlist.htm#video-30588

“Sak K’uk as the Red Queen”. Assignment Discovery. The Discovery Channel. October 27, 2007. playlist.htm#video-30588

Tiesler, Vera. New Perspectives on Human Sacrifice and Ritual Body Treatments in Ancient Maya Society. New York, NY: Springer, 2008. Print.


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