From the NY Times
June 14, 2005
Maya Tomb Tells Tale of Two Women, Elite but Doomed
By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD
In their more scholarly moments, archaeologists may speak earnestly of settlement patterns and cultural transitions, the analytical thrusts of their research. But down deep, they live for the thrill of turning stones aside and finding a full tomb, especially if they are searching around Maya ruins in Guatemala.
Dr. David Freidel of Southern Methodist University cast one appraising look on a pyramid at a site known as Waka and said he felt the presence of tombs hidden inside, waiting to be discovered. One likely place to look was a broad landing on a stone stairway leading up the pyramid to the temple at the summit. Or perhaps under a stone shrine midway up the face of the pyramid.
Michelle E. Rich, a graduate student at S.M.U., and Jennifer C. Piehl of Tulane began excavating under the shrine and broke through to a vaulted chamber. They found the remains of two women, apparently of elite status. Offerings of seven colorful ceramic vessels included one with a lid decorated with three royal crowns in a style associated with the fourth century A.D.
In a separate burial, the archaeologists found the skeleton of a third woman, who appeared to be of an advanced age, accompanied by similar pottery.
The discoveries, made in April, were announced two weeks ago at the Ministry of Culture and Sports in Guatemala City. Dr. Freidel and Héctor Escobedo of the University of San Carlos in Guatemala are directors of the excavations at Waka, known today as El Perú, in the jungle 40 miles west of Tikal, the famous Maya site.
Dr. Freidel said in an e-mail message that the handsome pottery, dated about A.D. 350, ranked "with the best we have from the Early Classic period of Maya civilization and demonstrates that Waka was a mainstream player in the civilization of that time."
The absence of any inscriptions in the tomb chamber made it impossible to identify the two women. But the symbolism of the ceramics and other evidence, Dr. Freidel said, suggested that the women had links to royalty, either as members of a ruling family or attendants in a royal court.
The women were young, 25 to 35, and apparently in robust health at death; one was pregnant. They had no dental cavities, indicating that their diet was rich in meat and fruit, not corn, the staple of commoners. And they seemed to have been interred at the same time, one on top of the other in the small chamber.
The two women almost certainly died as "sacrifices in the context of a royal ritual," Dr. Freidel concluded.
They could have been sacrificed, he speculated, in the ceremonies dedicating the stairway shrine or for the accession of a new king. In other Maya art, two nude women are depicted assisting the maize god's resurrection.
"The stacking of the two women underscores the fact they are to be regarded as a pair," Dr. Freidel said. "I infer that these two sacrificed women symbolize this pair of helpers of the maize god."
The archaeologists noted that royal crowns in the style of the ones at Waka have been found decorating artifacts uncovered at Tikal. The grave goods were placed in tombs holding remains of the royal household, who appeared to have suffered similar fates as sacrifices.
Next, the excavators at Waka plan to extend their search for other tombs in the pyramid, perhaps the burials of a king or queen who were attended by the two unfortunate young women.