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Planet Earth

60: Royal Tomb Reveals Secrets of the Maya

By Zach ZorichJanuary 2, 2005 6:00 AM


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At a remote rain forest site in Guatemala last February, archaeologist David Lee happened upon the find of a lifetime: a royal tomb from the seventh century A.D. that suggests war was not strictly a man’s game in ancient Mayan society. Lee was working amid the ruins of the city of Waká when he lifted a stone and found himself looking into the burial chamber of a warrior queen with an intricately carved jade battle helmet. “There are only about a dozen tombs of royal women known in the Mayan world,” says David Freidel, leader of the archaeology team from Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “She is the first to be found with a battle helmet, ever.” Stingray spines on the burial dais suggest this queen led traditionally male sacred ceremonies. Before battle, she would have pierced the spines through her genitals, sacrificing her blood to conjure war gods and strengthen her soldiers’ weapons.

Even as the soil was being brushed away from the queen’s bones, a team of Guatemalan and American archaeologists were uncovering a separate Mayan kingdom ruled through economic power rather than military might. Two stone carvings at the eighth-century city of Cancuén tell the story of King Taj Chan Ahk, who filled the royal coffers from trade in jade, obsidian, and quetzal feathers. Through shrewd deals and strategic marriages, he controlled neighboring kingdoms without sending a single warrior to die. In the meantime, Taj Chan Ahk emerged as the Donald Trump of his day; most of the city’s buildings, including an elaborate royal palace, were built during his reign. The peace and prosperity were short lived. By A.D. 810, after Taj Chan Ahk’s death, Cancuén’s alliances had dissolved, and the government collapsed, foreshadowing the demise of classic Mayan royalty.

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