The Tomb of an Ancient Maya God-King Was Just Discovered in Guatemala

Archaeologists have been working at the site since 2003.

The jade mask found in Burial 80 at the El Perú-Waka’ Regional Archaeological Project in Guatemala. Courtesy of Proyecto Arqueológico Waka’ and the Ministry of Culture and Sports of Guatemala.
The jade mask found in Burial 80 at the El Perú-Waka’ Regional Archaeological Project in Guatemala. Courtesy of Proyecto Arqueológico Waka’ and the Ministry of Culture and Sports of Guatemala.

Archaeologists have discovered the tomb of an ancient Maya king at the pre-Columbian site of El Perú-Waka’ in Guatemala. Thought to date from 300–350 AD, it is the oldest royal tomb found in the northwestern Petén region.

“Although the dates are preliminary and need further analysis, we think this could be one of the first rulers of the Wak dynasty,” archaeologist Griselda Pérez Robles told artnet News in email. Along with two colleagues, Pérez Robles helped lead the tunnel excavations in the site’s palace acropolis that led to the find.

“Excavations from outside the building took 76 days of uninterrupted work,” Pérez Robles added, noting that the discovery of the tomb itself took place on day 65 and required eight intensive days of work. “We removed one of the rocks and could see a funeral chamber with bone remains. Their offerings were covered with cinnabar, which indicated that it was a personage of royalty.”

The discovery of Burial 80 at the El Perú-Waka’ Regional Archaeological Project in Guatemala. Courtesy of Proyecto Arqueológico Waka’ and the Ministry of Culture and Sports of Guatemala.

The discovery of Burial 80 at the El Perú-Waka’ Regional Archaeological Project in Guatemala. Courtesy of Proyecto Arqueológico Waka’ and the Ministry of Culture and Sports of Guatemala.

The tomb, the seventh to be found at the site, has been named Burial 80. It contained a carved jade mask that depicts the departed ruler as the Maya god of maize, as well as 22 ceramic vessels, Spondylus shells, jade ornaments, and a shell pendant carved in the shape of a crocodile.

“The Classic Maya revered their divine rulers and treated them as living souls after death,” David Freidel told the Source at Washington University in St. Louis, where he is a professor of anthropology. “This king’s tomb helped to make the royal palace acropolis holy ground, a place of majesty, early in the history of the Wak dynasty.”

Excavation of Burial 39 at El Perú-Waka', Petén, Guatemala, Left to right: Jennifer Piehl, Michelle Rich, and Varinia Matute, Photo © Kenneth Garrett

Excavation of Burial 39 at El Perú-Waka’, Petén, Guatemala, Left to right: Jennifer Piehl, Michelle Rich, and Varinia Matute, Photo © Kenneth Garrett.

Located at the intersection of the San Pedro and San Juan rivers, El Perú-Waka’ was a key area of commercial exchange in Petén in ancient times. “The discovery of Burial 80 allows us to get closer to the knowledge of the first centuries of the site, when it was in development, although it already had an established social organization and a complex ideological system,” said Pérez.

Excavations have been ongoing at the El Perú-Waka’ Regional Archaeological Project since 2003. “The site, given its history and influence in the region, is extraordinary,” said Pérez Robles. “It would not be surprising if further findings of great relevance continue to be uncovered.”


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