Ancient Maya Royals’ Remains Were Burned in a Public Ceremony to Mark a New Political Regime

Archaeologists discovered charred remains of former rulers tossed “haphazardly” into a tomb in present-day Guatemala, suggesting they had been removed from their original burial sites

A side, front, back, and top view of a white carved pendant of a human head.
A carved pendant plaque of a human head found at the Ucanal burial site. C. Halperin

In the ancient Maya kingdom of K’anwitznal—a lowland city located in present-day Guatemala—dead royals weren’t always treated with reverence, archaeologists say.

New research, published last week in the journal Antiquity, suggests some former rulers’ treasure-filled tombs were raided and their corpses were burned, with the remains thrown unceremoniously into a new pyramid as part of a symbolic—and likely public—political ritual.

“The finding of the burnt royal human remains was a total surprise,” Christina Halperin, an archaeologist at the University of Montreal and the lead author of the research, tells Art Newspaper’s Garry Shaw. “Although it would not be surprising to find a royal tomb within a temple pyramid, we were not expecting to find a thick deposit of fine soot, carbon, burnt bone and thousands upon thousands of burnt, fire-cracked and spalled ornaments.”

In 2022, Halperin led a team of archaeologists to a temple-pyramid in Ucanal, an archaeological site within the former Maya kingdom. In 800 C.E., the temple’s upper levels would have stood some 150 feet tall. The team excavated various layers of limestone construction blocks until they came upon a burial chamber. While filled with valuable artifacts that signaled royalty—such as a greenstone mask usually buried with rulers—the tomb was arranged unexpectedly.

Images and drawings of diadems and ornaments discovered at the site; burn and char marks were radiocarbon dated to be some 1,200 years old.
Archaeologists found more than 1,500 fragments of objects including greenstone ornaments, pendants and diadems at the burial site. C. Halperin

Unlike the burial sites of other Maya royals, this chamber wasn’t designed for people to enter and share offerings. The remains were buried beneath stone materials typical of facade construction, not places of burial. And the items inside—including surviving fragments of human bones, delicate diadems, stones and pendants—were haphazardly strewn.

Even the ground itself, the team noticed, was infused with odd material. “This soil was so sooty and full of carbon,” Halperin tells Science’s Rodrigo Pérez Ortega. “You couldn’t excavate… you couldn’t be clean.”

It soon became clear to Halperin and the team that these royals and their objects had been exhumed from another site, burned and then dumped here. Because of the setup of the room, they concluded the burning had been an act of desecration rather than reverence.

“The burnt remains were deposited haphazardly and with little care,” Halperin tells Newsweek’s Aristos Georgiou. “Unlike cremation burials placed in urns, no effort was made to protect the remains. Construction fill was thrown on top of it, causing bone and ornament fragments to scatter during the process of its burial.”

They counted at least four adult bodies—three were male, and all were likely related—along with more than 10,000 beads made from ocean shells and some 1,500 pieces of jade, obsidian, plaques and mosaics.

Four photographs of beads and discs, made from greenish marine shells,  found at the site.
More than 10,000 beads and discs made from marine shells were found at the site. C. Halperin

Radiocarbon dating suggests the blaze was hotter than 1,472 degrees Fahrenheit and was set between the years 773 and 881 C.E. The chamber itself did not have any scorch marks, suggesting the burning occurred elsewhere—either in the rulers’ original tombs or in a public place.

But at the time they were burned, the royals had already been dead for decades, archaeologists found, which led them to hypothesize the burning—which was likely part of a rite called och-i k’ak’ t-u-muk-il, which in the Mayan language means “the fire entered his/her tomb”—was an intentional desecration to celebrate a change in regime.

Scholars have already established that around the time of this fire, the Maya military leader Papmalil was ascending into power. It is possible, the team writes, that setting fire to old royals was a symbolic gesture amid a changing society. Under Papmalil, myriad architectural projects—including new canals, homes and a ball court—were pursued, and new alliances with nearby leaders were forged.

In many ways, the researchers write, the 9th century ruler differed greatly from his predecessors. This discovery offers new evidence of how political changes can be preserved in archaeological records.

“The burning of human remains to erase [the memory of a Maya] dynasty, with all its ornaments—I have not seen that before,” Francisco Estrada-Belli, an archaeologist at Tulane University who was not involved in the new research, tells Science.

“To be able to recognize something like this in the complexity of building fill, instead of it being a formal burial, is a technical achievement in itself,” Thomas Garrison, an archaeologist at the University of Texas who did not participate in the study, tells National Geographic’s Tom Metcalfe. “And I think the argument for it being connected to this specific shift in power is very coherent.”

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