John Roach in National Geographic:
Reeking of decay and packed with bowls of human fingers, a partly burned baby, and gem-studded teeth—among other artifacts—a newfound Maya king’s tomb sounds like an overripe episode of Tales From the Crypt.
But the tightly sealed, 1,600-year-old burial chamber, found under a jungle-covered Guatemalan pyramid, is as rich with archaeological gold as it is with oddities, say researchers who announced the discovery Friday.
“This thing was like Fort Knox,” said Brown University archaeologist Stephen Houston, who led the excavation in the ancient, overgrown Maya town of El Zotz.
Alternating layers of flat stones and mud preserved human bones, wood carvings, textiles, and other organic material to a surprising degree—offering a rare opportunity to advance Maya archaeology, experts say.
“Since [the artifacts] appear in a royal tomb, they may provide direct insights in the political economy of the divine kings that likely involved tribute and gifts,” Vanderbilt University anthropologist Markus Eberl, who was not involved in the project, said via email.
Excavation leader Houston added, “we’re looking at a glimpse of lost art forms.”
Fingers, Teeth, and a Taste of Things to Come
The researchers found grisly deposits even before they reached the Maya tomb.
Almost every layer of mud above the tomb contained blood-red pottery filled with human fingers and teeth wrapped in decayed organic material—perhaps leaves.
The fingers and teeth were “perhaps a kind of food or symbolic meal offering,” Houston speculated. “Sacred breads in [Mexico‘s] Yucatán are wrapped in such materials today.”
In another bowl above the circa A.D. 350 to 400 tomb, the team found a partly burned baby. The bowls closest to the burial chamber were arranged like the Maya cosmos—the four cardinal compass points plus the center of world.