Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Maya King Unearthed Volume 49 Number 5, September/October 1996
by Angela M.H. Schuster

The tomb of a fifth-century A.D. Maya king has been found at La Milpa in northwestern Belize. Discovered within a stone vault built into a rock-cut chamber six feet wide, ten feet long, and six feet high, the remains are those of a male 35 to 50 years old. A little more than five feet tall, he had no teeth, a possible indication of disease or poor nutrition, and his neck vertebrae showed signs of trauma. The king was found lying on his back, adorned with a green jadeite necklace bearing the carved head of a vulture, and ear spools inlaid with obsidian. A jadeite bead the size of a cherry was found in the king's mouth. The green stone was an ancient Maya metaphor for life and breath.

"The jadeite vulture pendant is particularly significant," says Boston University archaeologist and site excavator Norman Hammond. "The bird is the quintessential sign of kingship in the ancient Maya world. We also believe that this is a royal tomb from the sheer complexity of the burial ritual." Unlike most royal burials, however, the La Milpa tomb was not built within a pyramid, but dug into the site's main plaza. Because of its location the tomb escaped the notice of looters who ravaged the site in the 1970s.

Although no inscriptions have been found within the tomb that would identify its occupant, Hammond believes the remains may be those of Bird Jaguar, whose name appears on an early fifth-century stela discovered at the site in 1993 and recently translated by epigrapher Nikolai Grube of the University of Bonn.

La Milpa, whose ruins include 11 plazas and some 50 masonry structures, flourished in two periods--the first between ca. A.D. 1 and 450, the second between ca. 750 and 900--between which the site was abandoned. The newly discovered king was among the last to rule during the site's first occupation.

© 1996 by the Archaeological Institute of America