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Rare Maya Burial Temple Discovered in Belize

Excavations at Xunantunich have uncovered the remains of a body and hieroglyphics that tell the story of the snake-head dynasty

Temple where the remains of a body and two important hieroglyphic slabs were discovered in Xunantunich (Jaimie Awe)
smithsonian.com

The Maya people produced some awesome pyramids like the Castillo at Chichen Itza and the temple at Tikal. But unlike Egypt and other parts of the world, these pyramids were designed more for religious reasons than for royal burials. That makes the recent discovery of an elaborate temple-grave in western Belize a huge find, reports Alan Yuhas at The Guardian.

Jaime Awe, director of the Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance Project, led a team of researchers who discovered the tomb while excavating the stairway on a structure in Xunantunich, a Maya archaeological site on the Mopan River. Inside, they found human remains later identified as belonging to a well-muscled man in his 20s inside the tomb, Yuhas reports. Jade beads, bones from jaguars and deer, ceramic pots, obsidian blades and other objects were placed around the body.

The roughly 15-foot by 8-foot burial chamber—which is one of the largest to be discovered Belize, and is different from other Maya graves Awe has encounted —is undeniably an exciting discovery. However, the body isn't the most important find in the temple complex, Jamie Seidel writes for news.au.com

Instead, Seidel reports, the discovery of two stone slabs inscribed with hieroglyphics has researchers buzzing. The panels fill in the gaps in a story about the struggle between the snake-heads and the Lords of Naranjo, two competing Maya dynasties from the area. Researchers already know Lord Kan II of the snake-head dynasty based in the city of Caracol defeated the Lord of Naranjo sometime before 642 AD. The snake-head dynasty had the story of their clan and Naranjo’s defeat inscribed on a ceremonial staircase at Caracol.

But in 680, Naranjo had its revenge, defeating the snake-heads and capturing their city. They took the ceremonial staircase and reassembled it in their own capital city, perhaps as a trophy, leaving out four of the panels, probably to obscure parts of the snake-head dynasty's legacy. Two of the stone panels were previously uncovered but the final two were in the burial chamber at Xunantunich.

Christophe Helmke, an epigrapher working on the project, says the two new panels are important because they are the first and last stones in the story. They detail how the Snake Head dynasty began with a marriage between Caracol and Yaxca, a Maya city in Guatemala. Helmke also says the panels show there were internal struggles within the dynasty, with one of Kan II's half brothers vying for the crown.

Researchers are not jumping to conclusions, but the fact that one of the panels was found at the foot of the burial chamber makes them believe the noble buried there is associated with the snake-head dynasty’s saga. Whether he was a relative or helped put an end to the family, though, is not known.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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