Uncovering Copan’s Earliest Royal Tombs

By: Ellen E. Bell, Loa P. Traxler, David W. Sedat and Robert J. Sharer

Originally Published in 1999

View PDF

The royal tombs found buried deep within the core of the Acropolis are a potent source of information about Early Classic life at Copan. In order to glean as much information as possible about the tomb occupants and the jumble of objects surrounding them (Fig. I), precise excavation techniques—and infinite patience—are called for.

The Margarita Tomb

The Margarita Tomb is an elaborate funerary complex that may have served as a focus of ritual activity for many years. With an upper offering chamber and a lower burial chamber connected by a staircase (Fig. 3), it is unlike most Early Classic tombs. Two additional vaults were constructed to extend the stairway at the time that later temples were built over the tomb and the Margarita plat­form was buried (see Sedat and Lopez, this issue). This, together with other compelling evidence, in­dicates that the Maya maintained continued access to the chambers, re-entering the tomb following the initial burial event.

In 1994, one year after the tomb was discov­ered, we assembled a team of archaeologists, conservators, artists, and photographers to painstakingly document, remove, and curate the contents of the tomb. Work in the upper cham­ber began with the careful removal of the south­ern wall to allow access to the contents. Inside were over 18 elaborately decorated pottery ves­sels (Fig. 2), some of which still held food (dried fish and fresh-water shrimp), painted gourds (used as serving vessels), nested baskets, jade earflares, and mosaic adornments of jade and shell. The pattern of deposition indicates that additional offerings were added after part of the vault had collapsed. The presence and ex­traordinary preservation of straw baskets and other organic objects prompted us to turn over the excavation of this area to our conservation team (see Grant, Fig. 6).

As work there continued, we turned to the lower burial chamber. Our first task was to shore up the crumbling plaster on the vault stones, which threatened the delicate objects below. In 1995, after the chamber walls had been stabilized, the debris obscuring the bones and offerings was removed. In the 1996 and subsequent seasons, the thousands of jade and shell pieces that adorned the burial were documented, carefully removed, and taken to the project lab.

The skeletal remains lay on a massive funerary slab set on four cylindrical stone pedestals. The stone slab had been broken in antiquity by struc­tural settling or an earthquake. The fracturing of the slab and falling debris disturbed a number of objects, making our task of reconstructing the original arrangement of the deposit all the more difficult. But careful excavation revealed both the arrangement and composition of the remains. The slab had first been covered with a straw mat or coarsely woven textile. A thick layer of red pig­ment, mostly cinnabar (mercuric sulfide), lay be­tween the mat and the elaborately dressed remains of an elderly woman (see Fig. I). Research by bio­anthropologist Jane Euikstra indicates that the woman was about 4 feet 10 inches tall and over 55 years of age at the time of her death (Fig. 4). While her identity remains uncertain, she was most likely the wife of the founder, Yax Mo’, and the  mother of Ruler 2 (see Sharer, this issue).

This woman was buried with the richest array of jade and shell ornaments yet encountered at Copan. She wore intricate sandals or anklets fashioned of shell plates and knee-bands of large jade beads (Fig. 5). Strands of tubular jade beads and rounded blue beads were laid on the slab along her right side, while over 9,000 tiny jade beads (no more than a quarter of an inch in di­ameter) were piled on top of a thick layer of cin­nabar along her left side. Her waist was adorned with sea shells, and about her were the remains of a burial garment decorated with jade beads, jade earflares, feathered bird heads, and a pyrite mir­ror. She also wore armbands with three rows of large jade beads, and wristlets made of layers of tiny rectangular jade plates.

The most spectacular adornments were   concentrated on the woman’s torso. She wore an elaborate necklace made of shell and jade beads in a variety of shapes and sizes. The right side of the necklace was principally composed of long, curved shell beads, while the left side was made of round shell and jade beads, in­cluding a carved shell coatimundi with its paws on its nose. Her neck was also encircled by a strand of 10 large jade figures carved with sym­bols of elite status and rulership that may have spelled out her name and titles (see Coates, Figs. 4, 5). Tragically, only five of these were documented; the remaining pieces were stolen along with a portion of the jade and shell necklace when looters broke into the tomb in 1994. Despite this loss, the vast majority of the tomb contents were documented and safely moved to the security of the Copan Project lab.

Because the spatial relationships between ar­tifacts are lost when they are removed, precise documentation of the position of each object is vital to the interpretation of any deposit. The complicated arrangement of the artifacts in the Margarita Tomb, the depth of the cinnabar de­posit (up to 6 inches), and the precarious balance of the tiniest beads made the recording of each object’s location especially important and time-consuming. In her work in Copán’s Sub Jaguar tomb (see EXPEDITION 35[3]: 58), Loa Traxler had used a 10 centimeter grid to pinpoint the lo­cation of artifacts. This grid was laid out by stretching fine thread between pins placed at 10 centimeter intervals. While we wanted to use a similar system in the Margarita Tomb, we found that even the finest thread displaced small jade beads when laid across them. The problem was solved by establishing a “virtual” grid. The cor­ners of the squares were marked by pins, but in­stead of stretching thread between the pins, we snapped digital photos of the gridded area, and drew in the guidelines on the computer (Fig. 6).

In 1994, the systematic documentation and excavation of the burial slab itself began (see Fig. 7). Once again digital photography and a “virtu­al” grid were employed. As the bones and offer­ings were removed, the delicate lifting procedures learned in the Margarita and Sub-Jaguar Tomb excavations proved invaluable.

The elderly man had been buried with an elaborate headdress made of cut shell “spangles,” an uncarved jade pectoral. a jade bead with a mat design, and jade earflares and perforated disks adorning his upper body (one of the earflares had fallen to the floor). A cluster of stingray spines and bone awls probably used for ritual bloodlet­ting were found along his left leg, while a jaguar claw anklet was near his right leg (see Coates, Fig. 2). A number of poorly preserved shells lay along the edges of the burial slab, which had been cov­ered with a textile or finely woven mat.

While many of the remains were apparently undisturbed, others had been displaced, sug­gesting that the Hunal Tomb had also been re­visited. We had been puzzled by large chunks of red-pigmented material associated with the un­displaced bones. We initially postulated that these might be desiccated human tissue, but once analyzed they proved to consist of inor­ganic pigment and vegetable matter, including saprophytic fungi, preserved by the red pigment (cinnabar). This means the cinnabar was ap­plied after the body had decomposed and the fungi had flourished. Thus, both the analyzed material and the documented state of the bones and adornments indicate that the Maya re-en­tered the tomb, probably to conduct postmor­tem rituals that included painting the bones with red pigment.

At the end of the 1994 season, three ceramic, We then marked the location and identification of each object as it was lifted from the slab on print-outs of the gridded image. Unlike conven­tional photographs, the digital images could be produced almost instantaneously on-site, elimi­nating time-consuming photo processing.

We completed the documentation and exca­vation of the funerary slab in 1998. To reach the offerings on the floor of the burial chamber, in­cluding several ceramic vessels, bone needles, bone rings, and additional jade beads, we lifted the slab fragments this spring (1999) and began the work of processing the objects. At the present time, we expect the last of the offerings on the tomb floor will be documented and removed in our final season (2000).

Cite This Article

Bell, Ellen E., Traxler, Loa P., Sedat, David W. and Sharer, Robert J.. "Uncovering Copan’s Earliest Royal Tombs." Expedition Magazine 41, no. 2 (July, 1999): -. Accessed June 15, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/uncovering-copans-earliest-royal-tombs/

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

Report problems and issues to digitalmedia@pennmuseum.org.