The image of a "Jester god," a symbol of royalty among the ancient Maya, may have done just the trick. Discovered on a buried incense burner, the Jester god identifies what archaeologists report is the oldest tomb of an ancient Maya ruler.
The ancient Maya filled Central America with pyramid-dotted cities prior to a drawn-out abandonment of such sites around 850 A.D., one of archaeology's most storied mysteries. The unexpected find from the archaeological site of K'o (Kuh-OH) in modern-day Guatemala, reported here at the Society for American Archaeology meeting, pushes the first known Maya ruler, or "Ajaw," back two centuries to around 350 B.C.
"We have older Maya burials, but don't have ones with grave goods that include a royal symbol," says research associate John Tomasic of the University of Kansas, who found the burial site in 2008 at K'o. The remains found in K'o, which was a suburb, more or less, of a larger Maya site of Holmul, were under what seemed like the ruins of a wealthy, but normal, home.
"We excavated the floor of the building and just dug down until we found a lid," Tomasic says. Under the lid, about 16 inches across, ("just wide enough for a human body," he says), was a tunnel leading into a " chultun" (chull-TOON), a storage chamber. "We crawled in and shined a light and saw the burial."
Arrayed around the body of a man, likely in his 50's and seemingly in good health at the time of his death (aside from some arthritis and a few cavities in his teeth), were seven ceramic vessels, jars and plates. Most intriguing was a black incense burner, depicting a man wearing a distinctive headdress, marked by a trefoil shape on its forehead like the tassel of a jester's cap. This Maya jester god headdress is widely known among scholars as one of the earliest symbols of Maya rulership, seen in murals and carvings of kings from 100 B.C. or so, onwards.
"The real question here is how old was the body," says archaeologist Michael Callaghan of the University of Texas at Arlington, who analyzed the ceramics for the research team, and presented the results for Tomasic at the meeting. The pots clearly belong to an era around 350 B.C. when Maya ceramics began to adopt a uniform " Sierra red" color. A sample of bone from the body was sent to a lab for radiocarbon dating, yielding the same age. "These are fairly persuasive numbers," Callaghan says.
Until now, the earliest known royal burial of a Maya ruler was from a site called San Bartolo unearthed in 2005, and dated to 100 B.C. Similarly, this burial also was found under a home, not buried inside a pyramid temple as with later Maya rulers.
"I think it is fair to say what we have found is the oldest known burial of a Maya ruler," Tomasic says. "And we have found the earliest depiction of a jester god headdress."
"This is rare, this is old. We don't find this every day," says archaeologist Andrew Kinkella of Moorpark (Calif.) College, who was not part of the research. Jester god images were inevitably connected with inherited political power among the ancient Maya, he says. "So, I think we could safely say this is one of the oldest burials known of a Maya ruler."
But what really matters about the find, Tomasic says, is that it shows the ancient Maya ideas about rulers were in place long before Maya kings declared themselves divine. That trend emerged in the later "Classic" period that saw the full flowering of ancient Maya writing and pyramid building. The so-called "Pre-Classic" era of the ancient Maya featured some of the same gods and notions of leadership that their descendants held until the time of the famed Maya collapse.
What looked like a distinctly different period, the Pre-Classic era, for the ancient Maya looks like a more connected one to their later lives. That means the famed pyramid builders of Central America had an even longer-lived civilization than suspected by scholars just a few decades ago. "I think we will find more of these royal burials too, older ones, as we look under more homes," Tomasic says.