“Pothunter,” grave-robber,” and “tomb-looter” are not respectable epithets in the vocabulary of archaeology. However, these similar activities are sometimes dignified by the objectives which inspire them and by the amount of cultural information diligently extracted from otherwise unglamorous rubble and mud-mortar. In the case of Temple I at Tikal, “The Temple of the Giant Jaguar,” a tomb was not the primary objective of the almost four hundred feet of tunnels dug into the interior of the great pyramid. Information concerning the earliest stage and successive constructions was the first consideration, but the Maya practice of intruding burials of important personage into their pyramids presented probability that a tomb would be found in this, the first of the Tikal Great Temples to be investigated by the tunneling. The archaeologist himself cannot deny the thrill of finding, or even the prospect of finding, a well-preserved rich burial to add color to routine excavation and recording, and this possibility was an added incentive as an exploratory tunnel was begun, in 1959, at plaza level into the stairway of the pyramid of Temple I.
The tomb proved to be elusive Expected and familiar data–floors, types of fill, sherd samples, and even caches–were encountered, collected, recorded, and studied as soon as the tunnel had penetrated the stairway, but none of the customary signs that forecast a burial was recognized until the excavation had been pushed about twenty-five feet toward the center of the pyramid. The presence of quantities of flint and obsidian chips in fill overlying tomb construction is a distinctive trait of Maya burial practices in the Peten, and numerous instances have been found at Tikal in association with burials of both Early Classic and Late Classic periods. Consequently, when the pickman began to encounter pockets of flint chips in the stone and mud-mortar fill it was optimistically taken for granted that an important burial was not far ahead or below the area that was producing these significant tokens. But this was not to be the case. Expectancy faded and became mixed with perplexity as the tunnel progressed forward while the appearance of flint diminished and finally ceased altogether. No further signs of a burial could be distinguished–the stone and mortar fill appeared undisturbed by intrusion, and the early lime-concrete floor over which the pyramid of Temple I had been erected was unbroken.
This situation presented a question concerning the significance of flint chip deposits: would they prove consistently indicative of burial activity when found under such circumstances, or had they still another, undetermined, meaning? Previous experience at Tikal supported the probability of a tomb but, at this stage of excavation, there was no clear indication of where it would be found. The center-line tunnel had penetrated only twenty-five feet into the interior of the pyramid and, rather than being random probing for a tomb by lateral excavations, we decided to continue axial tunnels as originally planned for investigation of the great pyramid.
During 1960 and 1961, tunneling was continued at both the base and upper levels of the pyramid but no masonry remains of an earlier building were found and no further clue as to the location of a tomb was developed. However, by the 1962 season William R. Coe’s excavations and analysis of the growth of the North Acropolis supported the supposition that, if they existed, earlier structures underlying Temple I would be found to the north of the center line of the pyramid. Since no tomb or burial had been encountered on the late axis, it was further reasoned that the flint chip deposits could indicate burial activity in relation to an earlier building, located farther to the north and subsequently covered by the construction of Temple I pyramid.
During the 1962 season, two lateral tunnels were extended to the north from the center-line tunnel, both in the area of the heavy flint deposits. The first tunnel produced increasing quantities of flint as it progressed to the north but no other signs of a burial or tomb were found after the excavation had been carried forward almost thirty feet. The literally thousands of flint chips imbedded in the mud and rubble fill was an encouraging and clear indication that excavation should not be abandoned, although this tunnel had reached its productive limit. Accordingly, another tunnel was begun about nine feet to the east of and parallel to the first. As before, flint concentration increased as the diggers penetrated to the north and, after seventeen feet, remains of a decayed horizontal beam were struck, about three feet above the floor which formed the bottom of the tunnel. Although the meaning of a beam at this point was not understood, it was taken as evidence that the diggers had arrived at an area where the Maya had been up to something. It required only fifteen inches more of digging to show that the “something” was the intrusive tomb-cut which had been looked for: the lime-concrete floor had been cut in a straight line now to be seen across the full width of the tunnel, and flint-bearing mud and rubble fill descended below the level of the floor.
With one limit of the actual burial area determined, known tomb construction practice at Tikal made it possible to anticipate a tomb pit and to excavate accordingly. The tunnel was continued to the north, across the area where the floor had been removed by the Maya, and the opposite cut edge was found. These two edges represented the north and south limits of a pit the Maya had sunk through the floor into the underlying fill. At this point no trace of tomb construction itself was evident, but it was a simple assumption that the center line of a buried vault or chamber would lie midway between the two edges of the pit; therefore, a tunnel was begun at right angles to the north-south excavation. In due course the east and west cut edges of the floor were exposed and an approximately 15-foot square pit was defined by the four 3-foot sections that could be seen within the intersecting tunnels. Excavation was then continued downward within the exposed limits of the pit. In addition to a constantly increasing quantity of flint, obsidian chips, broken cores, and flake-blades began to appear between the stones of the rubble and mortar fill. Previous excavations at Tikal had produced similar obsidian deposits, usually close to the entrance or immediately overlying the masonry of tomb construction.
At a depth of about three feet below the level of the floor a large, irregular slab of limestone was uncovered. On top of it were charcoal remains of a ceremonial fire and many small obsidian chips and broken flake-blade. Other flint and obsidian chips were thickly distributed along the sides and tightly packed against the edges, as though intended to seal the stone in its position. When the diggers had cleaned the surface of the slab, a small crack opened between it and an adjoining stone, offering an opportunity to check the assumption that the top capstones of a masonry vault had been found. A thin measuring tape was lowered through the crack to a depth of six feet without touching the bottom or meeting any obstacles. The elusive tomb had finally been pinned down. To judge from the size of the pit and the extent of the boid under the capstone, a large and at least partially uncollapsed vaulted chamber lay below.
This stage of excavation was reached in May 1962, just when preparations were being made to terminate the season’s field work and to close down the camp. Reluctantly and with extreme curiosity concerning the condition and contents of the tomb, we sealed off the tunnel entrance until excavation could be resumed.
The following November, the large limestone slab was removed and complete excavation and recording of the tomb was begun. The stone, unusually large for the purpose, proved to be the central capstone of a vaulted burial chamber. On the bottom surface, in the area which spanned the opening between the two sloping sides of the vault, a 10-inch spot was painted with brilliant red cinnabar. Although the significance of the red disk is not known at this time, an identical mark was found on the capstone of a vaulted tomb discovered below the pyramid of Structure 5D-33 during the field season of 1961. The duplication of this red symbol and other similarities between the two tombs–location below large Late Classic pyramid, pit-type construction, and profuse use of flint and obsidian chips in overlying fill–forecast the style of burial and mortuary offerings to be expected. In general, anticipated conditions proved well founded, but the contents of the Temple I tomb, now designated Burial 116, turned out to be, in many respects, the richest yet found in Tikal.
After removal of the capstone the opening was enlarged to allow entrance to the chamber. Although the greater part of the vault was intact, the weight of the superimposed burden and horizontal pressure had pushed the side and end walls inward and lower courses of the vault masonry had subsequently dropped, filling the room with rubble and earth to a depth of about three feet. No part of the floor or burial contents was visible. In general design, the chamber resembled a room of a temple or palace building, but with no doorway. Vertical side walls and sloping ceiling, typical of Maya corbelled vault construction, were built of soft limestone, laid in horizontal courses and finished with a thin coat of lime plaster. Three tiers of log beams, four to five inches in diameter, now disintegrated to powder, had originally been deeply imbedded in the sides of the vault to span the width of the chamber, in the same way vault beans are seen in the temple and palace buildings throughout the site.
Before diggers could begin removing fallen stones it was necessary to shore unsupported sections of the vault with stout timbers and heavy planking to insure against further collapse. Then began the slow task of breaking up the large fallen stones to a size that could be loaded into buckets and hoisted through the restricted opening in the vaulted ceiling. This labor brought to mind the problem the Maya must have faced in lowering a corpse and all his grave furniture through a similar opening, plus the discomfort of the activity-generated heat and stuffy atmosphere within the tomb.
Once the heavy material was removed and only a layer of soft fill and small stone remained, it was necessary to begin careful excavation with small tools and brushes. The richness of the burial became apparent as artifacts came to light one by one, beginning in a cramped corner at the north wall and working progressively to the south wall. First, a large polychrome tripod bowl closely followed by an unusual vessel fashioned to resemble the cross section of a huge conch shell. Then a succession of pots, an unusual quantity of jade adornments, pearls, shells, the skeleton, and other grave furniture were cleared and recorded until the entire burial was exposed in situ. The tomb was large by Tikal standards, measuring fourteen and a half feet in length by almost eight feet in width and thirteen feet in height from the lowest part of the floor to the bottom side of the vault capstones. In plain it was divided into two distinct areas: a low platform or dais extended the full length of the room against the east wall, leaving a 29-inch aisle along the west side. The platform was the focus of the burial and the aisle undoubtedly served as the area where priests and attendants officiated during the burial ceremonies within the tomb.
The burial contained a single male individual, fully extended on his back in the center of the dais, richly adorned with unusual quantities of jade, pearls, and shells, and surrounded by grave furniture. The jade, some of exceptionally fine color and quality, consisted of headdress plaques, tubular necklace beads, bracelets, anklets, and earplugs. Many well preserved pea-shaped and baroque pearls were found in the neck and chest area, probably originally part of the jade necklace. Across the lower chest was a surprising “collar” composed of 114 spherical jade beads, graduated in size from one-half to two inches in diameter and weighing a total of eight and one-half pounds. Fortunately, the beads had not been scattered by falling masonry but remained in their relative positions, making possible the reconstruction of a rare example of the heavy bead collar worn by Maya dignitaries shown on stelae sculptures at Tikal and other sites. In addition to the wealth of personal adornments on the skeleton, offerings consisted of twenty pottery vessels, an alabaster vase, an unusual jade mosaic vase with lid, pyrite encrusted slate plaques, shells, and stingray spines. Other materials, disintegrated beyond recognition, left only traces and stains to suggest apparel, possibly of textiles, leather, or feathers. A heavy, dark brown layer of finely decomposed material under the skeleton was identified as jaguar or ocelot skins by numerous groups of feline paw bones spaced along the edge. When the floor was finally cleaned, clear imprints of a fringed petate, a palm or straw mat similar to those made by modern Indians, were found in the soft, damp marl surface of the dais, and a few similar impressions of a finely woven textile overlay the edge of the mat.
Because of the profusion of objects and the restricted space in which to work, the entire contents of the dais were cleared, recorded, and removed before the attention was turned to the narrow aisle. The north half of the aisle proved to be absolutely bare except for a simple bone implement, which appeared to have been randomly dropped rather than deliberately placed. This space, free and uncluttered, seemed necessary for foot room for the priests or attendants who performed the burial rites and placed the many offerings around the body, and it was probably from this area that they made their exit through an opening in the vault, by means of a ladder, when the ceremonies were completed. In the central and south area was a total of twelve pottery vessels, ten of which were polychrome cylinder vases with scenes of enthroned “priests” and supplicant subjects standing or kneeling before the throne. Hieroglyphic bands and panels, probably non-calendrical, were incorporated in the decoration. The artistry and technique exhibited in the draftsmanship and compositions ranged from unusually fine to rather crude, and the similarity of the subjects suggests that the vessels were decorated by different artists, specifically as funeral offerings and presumable depicting scenes relating to the life of the deceased. Possibly further study of the hieroglyphic texts will shed light on the relationship of the scenes to each other and to the burial as a whole. In addition to the twelve pottery vessels, there were two pyrite-encrusted plaques and a few random stone beads and inlays.
At this stage of the excavation there remained only the extreme south end of the aisle floor to be cleared, and it was here that the most extraordinary artifacts of the entire burial were found. They consisted of a cluster of worked bones which, on first sight, resembled nothing more than a jumbled pile of broken and partially disintegrated jackstraws. On top of the bones, lying face down, was a small jade figurine. This statuette, about five inches high, depicts a male figure, seated with legs crossed and arms folded across the chest with hands on the shoulders. The only clothing is a wide waist band and breech cloth. The head is smooth with only small grooved representation of a fore top-knot of hair. The lobes of the ears are pierced and may at one time have contained suspended ear ornaments which were not found in the debris. The carving and representation of the figure are simple, rather than crude, and abraded areas suggest that the piece was old, or an heirloom, when it was placed in the grave. Except for its position, there was no apparent relation to the cluster of bones on which it rested.
When attention was turned to the bones it was assumed that a batch of not too unusual tools, such as “awls,” “needled,” “perforators,” had been rather carelessly deposited in this far corner of the tomb. Worked, carved, or incised human or animal bones are not, in themselves, unusual artifacts; they might be expected to be found in one form or another at almost any Maya site, sometimes in graves or simply as discarded refuse. However, when further cleaning revealed two long tubes with carved ends and beautifully incised columns of hieroglyphs accented with the brilliant red of cinnabar, it became apparent that this was not a mere batch of utilitarian implements, and a tedious job of preservation and removal was indicated. Fortunately, this was the final chore to complete the excavation of the tomb; it required five full days of careful picking, brushing, drying, and solidifying in situ before the entire collection was recorded and removed to the laboratory. Individual bones were not scattered, and appeared to be only slightly displaced from their original positions. All were cracked or fragmented by the vertical pressure of three feet of overlying debris and, in some cases, were extremely soft due to the high water content absorbed from the constantly damp floor. Some were badly disintegrated, eroded, and discolored by oxidation of organic material, especially where bone was in contact with bone and under concentrated pressure of fallen stones. On the other hand, many were surprisingly well preserved–hard and polished when dried and cleaned. There was no evidence to suggest that any of the bones were broken or incomplete when placed in the tomb; missing parts may most likely be accounted for by complete disintegration or extreme fragmentation which made collection or matching fits impossible. The exact number of complete pieces originally in the collection could not be determined, but further study and attempts to fit minute fragments will probably not change greatly the present estimate of approximately ninety separate items.
No significant relationship of one bone to another was evident from their arrangement in the tomb but some were clearly grouped together. Most obvious in the arrangement was that all but six of the bones lay approximately parallel to each other and, with only a few exceptions, their pointed ends, or distal ends in the case of bones with recognizable joints, were to the southwest.
In grouping, pairs of long split bones were placed one inside the other and long, slender awl-like bones were covered by the,. There was also a pronounced tendency for bones to occur in pairs. Where modification of the original bone did not remove all form, it is seen that a right and left bone were used, probably a matching pair. None of the items retains the natural form of the bone from which it was fashioned–all having been modified by splitting, thinning, carving, and cutting to artificial shapes. In some cases articular ends remain, but these too have been modified. The collection has not yet been studied for determination of whether the bones are all animal, or whether human bones are also represented. However, of those which retain slightly modified articular ends, one appears to be a human tibia. It is possible that long, slender, awl-like items were made from strips cut from human long bones. Others retaining recognizable joint ends are clearly animal.
The uniqueness of this collection of bones from Burial 116 lies not so much in the large number of items composing it, but rather in the quantity of inscribed hieroglyphic texts, the subject matter of incised drawings, and the high degree of artistic and technical ability they exhibit. In these respects the collection is truly unprecedented. Of eighty-nine items catalogued, thirty-seven are engraved with hieroglyphs or hieroglyphs and scenes, fourteen are worked by shaping and carving, and thirty-five are plain. The accompanying drawings by Miss Annemarie Scuffert faithfully portray the delicacy of line and intricacy of design. The engraving was done with an extremely fine instrument, probably a point rather than a blade, and in most instances the line was emphasized by rubbing brilliant cinnabar into the incision to give the effect of a red-line drawing against a bone-white background. Four pairs of the incised items are complete or partial pictorial mirror-images on right and left hand bones. All of these had been rubbed with cinnabar and the joint ends heavily coated with the same pigment. Except that the repeated scenes appear on right and left hand pairs of bones, the significance of the mirrored image is not apparent and in all of these bones the hieroglyphs are in normal form, not reversed.
The technical and artistic ability of the engraver, or engravers, is at once apparent in the sureness of flowing lines and pleasing composition of design to fit the space and form of the bone as exemplified in Figs. 1, 2, and 10. The boat scenes, Figs. 3a, 4, 5, 6, and 7, are truly delightful in their unusually realistic movement and animation. Although mythical and clothed in symbolism, the strange cargo of passengers, including a laughing iguana and a “shaggy dog,” seem believable. Even the famed Bonampak murals and the beautiful Piedras Negras Stela 12 sculpture of prisoners do not match the aliveness of the god-headed men arguing (?) about the day’s haul of fish. The bound individual, Fig. 9a, a recurring theme at Tikal, is portrayed in a realistic manner not seen in the stone sculptures. In this example the figure is not formalized, but is natural in posture, expression, and anatomical detail. He appears to be exactly what a person in this predicament should be.
All of the scenes require further intensive study to answer some of the many questions they rais: the origin and occurrence of the three types of canoes with their strange asymmetrical paddles; the identity of all the characters portrayed; an interpretation of the symbolism and the scenes in their entirety; the relationship of the scenes to the individual in whose tomb the bones were found; and still other questions which each of these answers will probably evoke. It is to be hoped that eventually the hieroglyphic texts will provide a key. Linton Satterthwaite has made a preliminary analysis, and supplies the accompanying note. He also collaborated in writing captions for some of the figures.
Little more can be added at this time regarding the functions of individual items in the collection, or of the collection as a whole. Similar artifact forms have been classified as “tools,” such as awls, needles, perforators, pins, but it seems more likely that the Burial 116 collection represents a type of ceremonial paraphernalia or priestly implements rather than tools in the usual sense of the word. The Maya used human and animal bones for both ornamental and ceremonial purposes and they are depicted in scenes painted on pottery and in stone sculptures. Notable examples of carved bones have been found at Copan and at Chiapa de Corzo, and presumable bowls of ceremonial bones are shown in scenes carved on stone lintels at Yaxchilan and on Altar 5 at Tikal. It is suggested here that the collection from Burial 116 represents this type of priestly equipment, possibly used by the occupant of the tomb for ceremonial or divinatory purposes. As part of the collection, the plain bones pose a question. They show the same range of forms and conceivably they would have been inscribed later, had the priest not died.