As researchers were wrapping up excavations in El Perú Waka’, a small settlement in northern Guatemala, one scientist unexpectedly found the hidden bones of an ancient Maya ruler.
“He accidentally came into the foot of that tomb, and there they stared at the bones of the king,” said research co-director David Freidel. The team of archaeologists and anthropologists from the El Perú Waka’ Archaeological Project then proceeded to call in the Guatemalan army to secure the region—standard procedure to prevent looting, Freidel said.
The remains are a male, buried “head to the east, wrapped in textile, and placed on top of his offering vessels,” said Freidel. All of those are signs of the figure’s importance, leading the team to conclude that this was a member of the ruling class.
How do the researchers know their tomb belonged to a king? Without an official inscription written on the artifacts or on the tomb’s walls, it’s possible only to speculate, said Freidel. But a number of clues found in the tomb helped them confidently form a hypothesis about who the bones once belonged to.
Their strongest guess is that it may have been King Te’ Chan Ahk, whose name has been documented but about whom little else is known.
The bones were painted a red color that the researchers speculate is made from a mercury-derived chemical called cinnabar. The bones were likely ceremoniously painted around 600 A.D., centuries after the king had died and his flesh had decomposed. Death did not mean the end of life for Maya religious and political leaders. Believing their souls remained active, Mayas frequently entered the tombs of the deceased to pay tribute.
The king would have been an early member of the Waka, or centipede, dynasty that lasted from the fourth century to the eighth century. Initial dating done on the artifacts found in the tomb place the burial from 300 to 350 A.D. It’s one of the earliest royal tombs ever found in this region of Guatemala.
An elaborate complex was built around the tomb in the years that followed its construction, Freidel noted. Referred to simply as “Burial 80” by the researchers, it has been a hub for clues to Guatemala’s Maya past. In 2012, the team made one of their most impressive discoveries when they uncovered the tomb of a Maya queen known as “Lady Snake Lord,” and the first Waka ruler was speculated to have been found in 2006.
Identifying a King
While many of the bones and artifacts inside the tomb are well-preserved, the sides of the small room have collapsed since it was built. A large palace complex was built around the temple, and a likely invasion from a neighboring Maya region may have caused the structural damage. Researchers had to squeeze into the room on their hands and knees.
The most telling artifact unearthed during the excavation was a red jade mask depicting the king with an adornment commonly seen on depictions of the Maya maize god. Freidel explained that it was common for kings to be portrayed as religious figures. Paintings on the tomb walls also show the king as a religious figure, and jade stones attached to his teeth indicate he was associated with an upper class.
In total, 22 artifacts were recovered—20 of them ceremonial funerary vessels, a type of shallow, wide-brimmed earthen pot.
“All the vessels may have been made rapidly, meaning the individual may have died unexpectedly,” said Damien Marken, one of the researchers involved with the project. He noted that many of the vessels lacked the symmetry and craftsmanship typically seen in Maya pottery.
Marken said the small pots would have contained offerings such as tamales, chocolate, or other food items that were intended to accompany the dead into the afterlife. To learn for sure, Freidel and his team plan to conduct chemical analyses on the residue left in some of the pots. He agreed with Marken that some may have contained food, but he hypothesizes that there could also be residue from intoxicants, perhaps nicotine or ginseng weed, which have been found in other Maya funerary vessels.
The team has been conducting excavations in Waka since 2003, and they say there’s plenty more to uncover. Excavations in the ancient city will resume next spring.