Archaeologists Discover 1,700-Year-Old Jade Mask Inside the Tomb of a Maya King

Located in Guatemala, the tomb also held rare mollusk shells, carvings and other funeral offerings

Mosaic Jade Mask and Femur Bone
A 1,700-year-old mosaic jade mask and a carved femur bone found inside an ancient Maya tomb at Chochkitam, Guatemala Francisco Estrada-Belli / Tulane University

Researchers in Guatemala have uncovered a royal Maya tomb that may have belonged to a “previously unknown” king. Dating to 350 C.E., during the Maya classic period, the tomb is full of “extraordinary” funeral offerings, including an ancient mosaic jade mask, according to a statement from Tulane University.

The archaeological site, known as Chochkitam, is located in the dense rainforests of Petén, a region of northern Guatemala. Researchers have known about the area for about 100 years, but no formal excavations have occurred until recently. Looters have stolen many of the artifacts at the site.

“A discovery like this is a bit like winning the lottery in terms of information,” says Francisco Estrada-Belli, the lead archaeologist on the dig, in the statement. “It opens a window into an obscure time we have very little texts about.”

Estrada-Belli and his team found the tomb using lidar, a remote sensing technology that involves shooting lasers from an airplane to make a digital map of the terrain.

“It’s like taking X-rays of the jungle floor,” Estrada-Belli adds. “It revolutionizes our field. Only now can we see where we’re going instead of just bushwhacking through the jungle hoping to find something.”

The team’s lidar scans revealed tunnels that looters had dug into an ancient pyramid, as well as a spot they seemed to have abandoned. Perhaps they had missed something.

Bone Drawing Photo
An ancient femur bone featuring carvings (right) beside a drawing by Tulane's Alexandre Tokovinine (left) Tulane University

Estrada-Belli and his team dug more than 20 feet into the pyramid before finding the tomb, according to National Geographic’s Erin Blakemore. The looters appear to have given up just before they reached it.

The tomb’s stone ceiling had collapsed in on itself—but it was otherwise undisturbed, save for natural decay. Inside, archaeologists discovered the jade mask, over 16 rare mollusk shells and human femurs carved with hieroglyphics.

“The jade used in the mask has been documented at other ancient Maya sites, where it was used to form mosaic masks for royal burials,” writes All That’s Interesting’s Kaleena Fraga. “These masks often depicted deities or ancestors.” Researchers think this particular mask was meant to represent the Maya storm god.

The mollusk shells, called Spondylus shells, come from a spiny oyster that Maya royalty used as currency and jewelry—and even included in sacrificial rituals. Some of the carvings on the femur bones depict a man holding a jade mask just like the one in the tomb. Others are hieroglyphs, which researchers think “identify the king’s father and grandfather, linking the ruler to the Maya states of Tikal and Teotihuacán.”

The bones and the mask are significant discoveries that demonstrate the wealth and influence of the king interred with them. “It’s a tremendous thrill and a privilege,” Estrada-Belli tells National Geographic. “Sometimes we do get lucky.”

During this mysterious king’s lifetime, Chochkitam was a “medium-sized Maya city with relatively modest public buildings,” Estrada-Belli tells All That’s Interesting. Between 10,000 and 15,000 people lived in the city, while another 10,000 resided in nearby areas.

Soon, the researchers will be conducting a DNA analysis of the bones. They will also continue digging at the site, which they hope will reveal even more lost treasures.

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