Peeking into a 1,500 year old tomb

Well, here’s something you don’t see every day.

The Maya site of Palenque in Mexico has thousands of largely unexplored structures — so it’s no surprise that interesting new things are discovered as archaeologists painstakingly work their way through their “backlog.” One of the larger structures currently under investigation is Temple XX — part of a group of mid-sized pyramid temples, just south of the main part of “town.” Temple XX has been the site of excavation, consolidation, and reconstruction since 1999 — and it was known early on that it contained a tomb in its earliest layer.

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Temple XX (image courtesy INAH)

But courtesy of the structure’s weak foundation (the pyramid was built on a rocky hill, but low spots were filled in with gravel), it’s only been recently that enough consolidation has been accomplished for exploration to be done safely. In April, a tiny camera was lowered through a shaft only 6″ across to take images of the inside of the tomb chamber — and some of the images were released on the 24th of this month at a press conference.


The ladder to Temple XX’s original temple level, the floor of which contains the top of the access shaft. (image courtesy INAH)

The original version of Temple XX was built around 550 AD, but after a few hundred years its temple was leveled, the pyramid was sheathed in a new layer of limestone a few meters thick, and a new temple built on top. The shaft used for access to the tomb is apparently a psychoduct, running from a pyramid’s tomb to its temple, intended to allow the departed’s spirit to communicate with priests and other figures of note at the temple. The ladder in the above picture is being used by modern-day archaeologists to access the level of the original temple, and from there, the tomb via the psychoduct.


The tomb chamber (image courtesy INAH)

The tomb chamber has a floor of about 5 square meters in area, and a door sealed by two large slabs of limestone (see image above).


Funerary offerings in pottery (image courtesy INAH)

Unlike other tombs at Palenque, whoever was interred in this chamber did not benefit from the use of a sarcophagus — he or she was laid out directly on the floor. Bits of jade and shell (likely jewelry on the corpse) have been seen in images, along with some bones. Once investigators can safely enter the tomb, a more thorough search for bones in the debris on the floor will be an early part of the process.


Wall murals (image courtesy INAH)

Unfortunately, water seeping through the masonry over the centuries has managed to peel much of the original plaster (and with it, artwork) from the walls. But still, nine figures have been successfully sketched from the images taken to date.

Most of the structures visible today at Palenque date from late in the city’s history, so Temple XX may well prove to be pivotal in understanding the early history of the site and its dynasty.

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