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Death Mask
More than 100 of malachite fragments were carefully put back together to reassemble the Red Queen’s funerary mask. The piercing eyes were made from obsidian and jade.

Mystery Queen in the Maya Tomb

Surrounded by treasure and covered in blood red dust, the Red Queen was discovered in a seventh-century Maya tomb, but her true identity remains unknown.

Encircled by thick jungle, Palenque is one of the most impressive and mysterious of all Mexico’s ancient Maya sites. Known by the ancient Maya people as Lakamha, and today a UNESCO World Heritage site, the ruins of Palenque lie in the lush basin of the Usumacinta River in the modern Mexican state of Chiapas.

Palenque’s heyday was the seventh century A.D., when, under the reign of K’inich Janaab’ Pakal I (King Pakal the Great), the city was transformed from relative obscurity into a powerful Maya capital. Its imposing palaces, extensive administrative buildings, and temples filled with expressive bas-relief sculptures set Palenque apart from other Maya sites in Mexico, and it even rivals the grandeur of Tikal in modern-day Guatemala. Its secrets have been slowly unveiled by archaeologists, including the resting place of King Pakal himself, and more recently, the tomb of a noblewoman covered in a deadly red powder.

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Great Tombs of the Maya The Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque, is Pakal the Great’s tomb was found in 1952. To its right is Temple XIII, is the resting place of the Red Queen.

Secret Chambers

Palenque’s most notable ruin is the Temple of the Inscriptions, a 90-foot-high pyramid containing some of the most detailed Maya hieroglyphic inscriptions ever found. The monument was assumed to be a religious center until 1952, when the French-Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz discovered the tomb of Pakal hidden underneath in a well-preserved chamber.

In 1994 the archaeological director of Palenque, Arnoldo González Cruz, decided to excavate Temple XIII, a structure alongside the Temple of the Inscriptions. A tunnel was dug from the staircase on the main facade in order to access the very heart of the structure. His team came upon a corridor leading to three chambers, two of which were found to be open and empty. The entrance to the largest, central chamber was the only one sealed off by a wall. The archaeologists felt sure that this opening had been closed to protect something important.

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In the vaulted burial chamber of Temple XIII at Palenque, Mexico, a researcher examines the stained interior of the stone sarcophagus of the Red Queen.

Before they accessed the room, they knew they must proceed with caution so as to avoid damaging the ornamentation or any objects that might be inside. Their first step was to create a small hole in the wall through which they could glimpse whatever was hidden behind it.

A Grisly Discovery

Pushing a light through the hole, González Cruz could make out a small, vaulted room measuring some 14 by 8 feet. It was almost entirely filled by a monolithic limestone sarcophagus with various ceramic objects spread around it. They decided to carefully remove the stones blocking the passage and open the chamber that had not been entered in more than 1,300 years.

The archaeologists were greeted first by the sight of two skeletons. One was of an adolescent male, about 11-12 years of age. His body lay on its back. There was evidence of cuts and blows to his rib cage, believed to have been inflicted as part of a sacrificial ritual.

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This seashell with a small human figure was found with the Red Queen in Temple XIII, Palenque.

The other body lying outside the sarcophagus was an adult female thought to be in her 30s. She was also stretched out on the floor, and her bones bore signs of fatal injuries as well. It is believed the two had been sacrificed to accompany the occupant of the tomb—whoever they were—on the journey into the afterlife.

Lifting the Lid

The sarcophagus itself was chiseled out of a single block of limestone and covered with a heavy flagstone. When it was placed in the tomb, it would probably have been painted red. No trace of pigment remained as the damp conditions in the tomb would have washed it away over the centuries. On top of the lid was a small circular aperture. Archaeologists use the Greek term psychoduct to describe this kind of feature: The Maya believed the tube would enable the psyche, or soul, of the deceased to communicate with the world of the living.

Inserting a small camera through the psychoduct enabled the archaeologists to see into the interior of the tomb before they attempted to open it. On seeing human remains, they decided to open the coffin.

Having made a lifting device from wood, metal, and car jacks, the team managed to raise the heavy lid. They began immediately to photograph what was inside. To their surprise, they saw that everything, including a striking green funerary mask, was covered with a scarlet powder, later confirmed to be cinnabar, the common term for mercuric sulfide.

So far, it is not entirely clear why the grave interior, the body, the mask, and the jewel-encrusted treasure, were so liberally coated with this highly toxic powder. Cinnabar was used as a pigment in Maya art, and its red color may have been regarded as sacred. Evidence of its use in funeral rites has been found at other Maya sites, and the color may have represented the red of the rising sun, a symbol of resurrection and new life. Its use was one of many indicators of the elite status of the tomb’s inhabitant, who came to be known as the Red Queen.

Search for the Queen

Extensive studies of the remains were carried out by Mexican researchers between 1997 and 2002, as part of the Red Queen Archaeological Project. Analysis shows that they belonged to a 50- to 60-year-old woman who once stood a little over five feet tall. The richness of her grave goods, her huge monolithic tomb, and the minimal wear to her teeth all suggest that she had belonged to the Palenque aristocracy. She was almost certainly a contemporary of the great King Pakal; the two figures were buried in adjoining temples, and in both cases, human victims had been sacrificed for them.

Although the study is not conclusive, the team’s findings build a convincing case for identifying the Red Queen. The results of facial reconstruction were compared with the malachite mask, as well as with sculptures of Maya women, which are rendered in a style noted for its individualized expressions. DNA analysis has proven there is no blood link between the Red Queen and Pakal, while studies of her teeth reveal that she came from the local population of women.

All these conclusions fit with identifying the body as that of Pakal’s wife, Ix Tz’akb’u Ajaw, who came to Palenque from a nearby city to marry Pakal in the year 626. If the tombs of her sons, later rulers of Palenque, can be located, and their DNA tested and found to match hers, the Red Queen of Palenque will finally have a name once more.