Funerals, Sacrifice, Rituals in Mayan Empire

Jagiellonian University archaeologists have made exciting finds during their second expedition to the Mayan pyramids of Nakum, Guatemala. Team members found a crypt with a body inside one pyramid, probably someone who had been sacrificed, the team said. The sacrifice occurred between the years 100 and 250 C.E., they estimated. They found evidence of sacrifices inside other pyramids as well during their expedition in May to June, 2007.

The Mayans routinely sacrificed humans to appease their gods. The archaeologists’ most important find was nine heads made of clay. Some depicted Mayan gods, the Polish Press Agency (PAP) reported. Professors Jaroslaw Zralka and Wieslaw Koszkul of the Institute of Archaeology at Jagiellonian University started the pyramid project last year. The Jagiellonian team was in Nakum, a former Mayan ceremonial center in the jungles of northern Guatemala, from April to June 2006. The Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies in Crystal River, Florida, has financed the Jagiellonian expeditions. The foundation was established in 1993 to foster understanding of ancient Indian cultures.  

One of the most important finds at Nakum last year was the tomb of a woman who was a member of the Mayan royal family. It was the first tomb excavated inside a Nakum pyramid, the foundation said.The tomb contained many riches, including a rare jade necklace with a human face etched on one side and a short hieroglyphic text on the other. Scholars say Nakum was founded in the 7th or 8th Century. Its palace and temple complexes are hidden in the jungle, guarding secrets of those who lived there 2,800 years ago.

This year the archaeologists found a stone crypt with a body six meters below it. The person (it has yet to be determined whether a man or woman) was lying on his or her back facing south. The person’s head was placed in a ceramic dish that had been colorfully painted and covered with another dish in geometrical patterns. The person had probably been sacrificed but might have been laid to rest in a burial ritual that suggested sacrifice. The head’s placement in a ceramic dish suggested that the burial occurred between the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the archaeologists said.

In a pyramid adjacent to where the crypt was found, team members found two well-preserved chambers dating from the 5th and 6th centuries a few meters below the surface. In one chamber they found a small round hole leading to an arched room, which appeared by its shape and size to be a tomb. After removing the earth covering the room, they discovered it contained the painting of the head of someone singing. The team also found stucco handles that could be used to close the room.Team members said the room could have been used for some time as a place to prepare the dead for burial. Later it could actually have been used as a tomb, they said. Human teeth and a bead the archaeologists discovered on the floor of the tomb indicated that the chamber was used for burial rituals, the team said. The archaeologists said there were signs the tomb had been robbed, possibly by the Mayans themselves.

One piece of evidence indicating that the pyramids contained victims of sacrifice was cylindrical decorations made of what appear to be human bones. They were found seven meters below the surface of one pyramid.  The archaeologists also found ceramic discs with perforated openings, jade beads and a jade pendulum depicting the head of a monkey or a man with a monkey mask. In the center of that discovery was a dish, placed upside down, covering a collection of pebbles, clay fragments, earth and sand. In the earth buried below the dish were nine clay heads, some depicting Mayan gods, plus an unusual ceramic cylinder with a lid and another jade pendulum with a monkey face. That was the best find of the expedition, the excited team members said.The nine heads could reflect the nine levels of the underworld that Mesoamerican tribes believed in, the archaeologists said. They will consider that possibility as part of their comprehensive analysis of all the finds. 

The Jagiellonian team will continue its work at the pyramid site in 2008.

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