A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Archaeologists excavating the richest tomb ever found at the ancient Maya city of Copán in Honduras were surprised to discover that its occupant was a woman. Discovered in 1993, the Margarita tomb, named after the temple-platform in which it was built, was originally thought to be that of Ruler II, Copán's first great builder and the son and successor of Yax K'uk' Mo' (Green Quetzal Macaw), who founded the Copán dynasty in A.D. 426.
Composed of two vaulted masonry chambers with a long entrance passage, the crypt contained the remains of a 50-year-old woman covered with thousands of shell pendants and jade ornaments, earflares, and beads, along with burnt offerings of birds, turtles, and fish. The remains and offerings, resting atop a stone bier, were covered with cinnabar and hematite.
Embedded in the third tier of Copán's multilayered Structure 16, the 1,500-year-old Margarita tomb was designed to remain accessible for many years, its entrance passage lengthened with each addition. "We have archaeological evidence that this tomb was reentered on several occasions, possibly to conduct rituals," says University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Robert J. Sharer. "There are indications in the tomb that these ceremonies included fire and burning incense." According to Harvard University epigrapher David Stuart, texts from Maya sites, including Seibal and Piedras Negras, contain references to reentering tombs for burning rituals.
"After the remains had decomposed," adds Sharer, "still more red pigment was sprinkled over the bones, an act that may have involved the renewal of life forces symbolized by the blood-colored substance. Moreover, it appears that many of the offerings were rearranged after a partial collapse of the building, possibly caused by an earthquake."
Who could have been worthy of such veneration? "She may in fact be Ruler II," said Sharer, "or the wife or a relative of Yax K'uk'Mo'." To answer this question University of New Mexico physical anthropologist Jane Buikstra is analysing DNA from the remains to determine the relationships between the people buried in the various tombs beneath Structure 16. Female rulers are known several centuries later from Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico, and Naranjo in Guatemala. Until now there was no evidence of this tradition at Copán. "Whoever the lady was," says Sharer, "she was long venerated and no doubt played a pivotal role in Copán's ruling dynasty."