Ancient Maya Tomb Reveals Political Intrigue

January 24, 2019

The graves and tombs of the ancient world have long been a subject of fascination to archaeology. The dead may no longer speak, but their bodies and the objects buried with them can tell us much about the lives they lived. A newly revealed burial from the ancient Maya city of Cahal Pech, Belize, is opening just such a window on the intrigues of elite Maya politics.

In the latest edition of the journal Latin American Antiquity, Anna C. Novotny, Jaime J. Awe, Catharina E. Santasilia, and Kelly J. Knudson, describe and analyze this elite burial from Cahal Pech making use of an assortment of traditional archaeological methods, osteological analyses, and epigraphic studies.

During what is known as the Classic Period (AD 250-900), the Maya built dozens of cities throughout the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico and extending southwards into the modern nations of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. This array of settlements was never unified under a single political entity; instead, it presents us with a complex landscape of shifting political alliances and all of the intrigue that comes with such situations.

Leaders and elite members of Maya society took on many different titles, including Sajal for a ‘lesser lord’, Ajaw for a ‘lord’, and Kalomte’ for a ‘prestigious lord.’ Even powerful cities could exert their presence by adopting titles that Mayan epigraphers refer to as “emblem glyphs.”

While these glyphs function similarly to a city name, only the most influential cities could display them. Other inscriptions at these cities further reveal complex networks of elite marriage alliances between families from across the Maya world. When all else failed, warfare could break out between cities, although these altercations appear to have focused on establishing status rather than taking over territory.

In this complex landscape, even mortuary rituals became part of the process by which elite families could jockey for position. The newly published burial from Cahal Pech presents intriguing insights into how these strategies played out. This tomb, named Burial 7 by the excavators, includes the remains of three individuals. ‘Individual 3,’ was interred first, sometime around AD 250, but only fragments of their skeleton remain.  ‘Individual 1,’ an adult female, and ‘Individual 2,’ an adult male, were added to the burial several centuries later between AD 525 and AD 600.

The fact that people, and presumably objects, were added to the burial at different times represents a well-known practice for the ancient Maya elite. The authors of the study wrote that “grand funerary displays, including re-entry rituals, were likely an important aspect of the theater necessary to maintain stable political power in ancient Maya society.”

Of particular interest for Burial 7 is that sometime after Individual 2 was interred, someone removed his left femur from the grave. In its place, a painted and carved jaguar femur was found, along with remnants of his lower leg bones.

The purpose of the ritual removal and replacement of Individual 2’s femur is unclear, but reflects the perceived power he held, even long after his death. Likewise, the objects found in the tomb reflect elevated status and power. Two bone rings from the burial bear inscriptions that include a little-known elite title (Kan Hix …w) differing from the standard variants noted above.

Numerous examples of jade beads and jewelry were also found throughout the tomb, as well as many examples of finely crafted ceramic vessels. Among these vessels was one made in the style of Teotihuacan, a non-Maya city found hundreds of miles to the west in the mountains of central Mexico. Similar Teotihuacan-style vessels have been found in many burials at other Maya sites suggesting that the Maya elite saw value in maintaining a form of international relations.

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