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Life and Death in a Maya War Zone Volume 51 Number 3, May/June 1998
by Charles Suhler and David Freidel

[image] The remains of a sacrificed royal family were found in a late fourth- or early fifth-century A.D. tomb at Yaxuná. (Jeanne Randall) [LARGER IMAGE]

We found burial 24 quite by accident, having walked over it for weeks as we worked on the west face of a 1,700-year-old pyramid on the North Acropolis of Yaxuná, a Classic Maya site in northern Yucatán. Near the end of the 1996 field season, Don Bernardino, one of our field crew, noticed a small hole near one of the trenches. We peered in and saw a large corbel-vaulted chamber, its floor covered in fine, pale dirt--a sealed royal tomb. We were already two weeks into the excavation of the burial of an Early Classic king in an adjacent pyramid, the first sealed royal tomb in northern Yucatán discovered by archaeologists. Finding a second was an embarrassment of riches for one season, but manageable. We immediately began digging.

The tomb chamber was a little more than six feet long and less than five feet wide, with a stairway at one end leading to its entrance. Forensics expert Sharon Bennett cleared the sediment away, revealing a pile of human bones and polychrome ceramic vessels. We suspected that the bones were those of sacrificial victims placed in the antechamber of a king's burial, like those found at the entrance to the late seventh-century tomb of Pacal at Palenque in Chiapas. But where a second chamber should have been there was nothing.

At the bottom of the pile of bones were the remains of the tomb's principal occupant, a male more than 55 years old. He had been decapitated, his head tossed atop the heap of bodies. The contorted positions of many of them suggested they had been thrown down the stairs. Near his shoulders was an obsidian blade for bloodletting; near his feet, the charred remains of a polished white shell crown. This type of royal headdress, known as a sak-hunal or "white oneness," usually consisted of a white cloth band adorned with greenstone talismans. Near the crown we found a small burnt jade carving of a quetzal bird, presumably a jewel from a diadem.

The bones of an adolescent girl and a young woman, neither of whom had borne children, flanked the man's skeleton. Each also wore a sak-hunal. The bones of an infant lay in the girl's lap; the young woman cradled a doll-like goddess effigy in her left arm. Other artifacts in the tomb included jade jewels, carved bones, small mosaic pieces, and little pots and pitchers from a set used to prepare ritual enemas. Altogether, the tomb contained the remains of 11 murdered men, women, and children.

We wondered who these people were and why so many had been placed in a tomb chamber usually reserved for a single person. Then it dawned on us. We had stumbled onto the dark side of Maya history. Like the murder of the Romanovs after the Bolshevik Revolution, the sacrifice of the royal family in burial 24 had accompanied a violent change in rulership.

Charles Suhler and David Freidel of Southern Methodist University direct the Selz Foundation Yaxuná Archaeological Project.

© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America