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Tomb Discovered Inside Southern Mexico Pyramid

May 18, 2010

On Monday, archaeologists in southern Mexico announced they have found a 2,700-year-old tomb of a dignitary inside a pyramid that may be the oldest type of burial documented in Mesoamerica.

The tomb held a man believed to be aged at about 50 who was buried with jade collars, pyrite and obsidian artifacts and ceramic vessels.  Archaeologists Emiliano Gallaga said the tomb dates between 500 and 700 B.C.

Gallaga told the Associated Press (AP) that based on the layers in which it was found and the tomb’s unusual wooden construction, “we think this is one of the earliest discoveries of the use of a pyramid as a tomb, not only as a religious site or temple.”

Pre-Hispanic cultures built pyramids mainly as representations of the levels leading from the underworld to the sky.

The tomb was discovered at a site built by Zoque Indians in Chiapa de Corzo, in southern Chiapas state.  It may be about 1,000 years older than the better-known pyramid tomb of the Mayan ruler Pakal at the Palenque archaeological site, also in Chiapas.

The man was buried in a stone chamber.  He is believed to be a high priest or ruler of Chiapa de Corzo, a prominent settlement at the time.  Marks in the wall indicate that wooden roof supports were used to create the tomb, but the wood long ago collapsed under the weight of the pyramid built above.

Archaeologist started to dig into the pyramid mound in April in order to study the internal structure when they discovered a wall whose finished stones appeared to face inward.  Last week, they uncovered the 13 ft. by 9 ft. tomb chamber about 19 ft. or 22 ft. beneath what had been the pyramid’s peak.

The body of a 1-year-old child was laid carefully over the man’s body inside the tomb, while that of a 20-year-old male was tossed into the chamber with less care, perhaps sacrificed at the time of the burial.

The older man was buried with jade and amber collars and bracelets and pearl ornaments.  His face was covered with a funeral mask with obsidian eyes.

A tomb of a woman was nearby, also about 50, and contained similar ornaments.

The ornaments and some of the 15 ceramic vessels found in the tomb show influences from the Olmec culture, which is considered the “mother culture” of the region.

The discovery has raised the possibility that Olmec pyramids might contain similar tombs of dignitaries, especially at well-known sites such as La Venta. 

Olmec pyramids have not been excavated, mostly due to the high water table and humidity of their Gulf coast sites not being as conducive to preserving buried human remains.

“The Olmec sites have not been explored with the depth they deserve,” Lynneth Lowe, an archaeologist at Mexico’s National Autonomous University who participated in the dig, told AP.  “It is possible that thus type of tomb exists at La Venta.”

Experts said that despite the Chiapa de Corzo tomb’s location, it is not clear the later Maya culture learned or inherited the practice of pyramid burials from the Zoques or Olmecs.

“While I have no doubt it relates to Olmec, there is no tie to Maya at this time per se,” archaeologist Lisa Lucero of the University of Illinois, who was not involved in the Chiapa de Corzo project, told AP.  “There are scholars who would like to see Olmec-Maya connections so they can show direct ties from Olmec to Maya, but this would be difficult to show with evidence at hand.”

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