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Maya queen's tomb found in Guatemala

Archaeologists say they have found the 1,200-year-old remains of a woman who appears to have been the powerful leader of a Maya city.
Graduate student David Lee works on a royal burial site in the Laguna del Tiger National Park in Guatemala.AP / Courtesy of K'ante'el Alliance
/ Source: The Associated Press

While excavating an ancient royal palace deep in the Guatemalan rain forest, archaeologists made a rare discovery — the 1,200-year-old tomb and skeleton of a Maya queen.

Archaeologists announced the find Thursday, and said the woman appears to have been a powerful leader of a city that may have been home to tens of thousands of people at its peak. They found her bones on a raised platform, with evidence of riches scattered around her body.

“We find clues of people’s existence in the past all the time, from the garbage they left or the buildings they built. ... But when you actually come face-to-face with human beings, it’s a deeply sacred moment for all of us,” said David Freidel, an anthropology professor at Southern Methodist University, which sponsored a team of 20 archaeologists excavating the site.

Kept secret for months
The discovery in the ancient Mayan city of Waka’ in northwestern Guatemala was made in February but was not made public until Thursday.

Word of the find comes two days after a Vanderbilt University archaeologist, whose work is supported by the National Geographic Society, publicly described excavation of a little-known Guatamalan site called Cival, which housed as many as 10,000 people at its peak some 2,000 years ago.

Stephen Houston, a Brigham Young University professor specializing in Maya archaeology and writing who was not involved in the project, called the tomb discovery significant.

“We haven’t found to date many tombs of Maya queens,” he said.

Discovered in park
The tomb is the first discovered at Laguna del Tigre, Guatemala’s largest national park, where SMU began its excavation project in 2002.

The queen’s skull and leg bones were missing, probably removed sometime after the body had decomposed to be used as relics. Other than that, the tomb — measuring 11 feet long by 4 feet wide by 6 feet high (3.3 by 1.2 by 2 meters) — was untouched.

The queen is thought to have been 30 to 45 when she died, but archaeologists have uncovered no clues as to her name, dynasty or cause of death.

Freidel, who leads the excavation team with archaeologist Hector Escobedo of Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala, said the power the queen held is evident in the 1,600 artifacts found in the tomb — especially the remains of a plated helmet.

Twenty-two jade plaques, each about 2 inches (5 centimeters) square, appear to have been part of the helmet. Archaeologists also found a 4-inch-long (10-centimeter-long) jade carving depicting the dead of a deity in profile — a type of jewel worn by kings and queens, Freidel said.

Stingray spines found in the tomb were usually used as bloodletting implements — males pierced their genitals in ceremonies that offered their blood to the gods, while women generally placed the spines in their tongues. The ones found in the tomb were placed on the queen’s pelvis, Freidel said.

“She’s being represented as both male and female, in my view,” Freidel said.

City abandoned a millennium ago
Research suggests that Waka’ — called El Peru on present-day maps — was inhabited as early as 500 B.C., but reached its peak between A.D. 400 and A.D. 800. The city was abandoned in the late 800s to 900s.

Freidel’s project is working with the Guatemala government and conservation groups to try to protect 230,000 acres of the Laguna del Tigre.

Last year, 100,000 acres of the park were burned as impoverished villagers cleared rain forest for illegal cattle ranching and logging. Freidel says the deforestation threatens habitat for several endangered species, including the scarlet macaw, as well as the area’s archaeological resources.