An unexpected discovery of a royal burial inside a previously unknown substructure of Temple XIII in Palenque, Mexico, set off a decades-long archaeological mystery. In 1994, a young Mexican archaeologist named Fanny Lopez Jimenez was performing routine stabilization work on the temple stairs, when she noticed a small crack partly covered by weeds and masonry.
She directed light into the crack using mirrors and a flashlight, and peered into a narrow passage, six meters long and completely clear of debris. At the end of the passage, she saw another passage at right angles, and a large sealed door where they met. The next day her team chipped away stones making an opening through which they entered the passage, finding two empty chambers on each side of the sealed door which had signs of rituals being performed in front. They sensed that the sealed chamber held something important.
Temple XIII is a smaller pyramid structure adjoining the soaring Temple of the Inscriptions, burial pyramid of famous Mayan ruler K’inich Janaab Pakal I. Pakal’s tomb was excavated in 1942 by Alberto Ruz Lhuillier, revealing the first royal Mayan burial found in a pyramid, and compared in its richness of jade, ceramics and jewelry to the tomb of Egypt’s King Tut. The team made a small cut above the sealed door, threaded a long-neck lamp through and saw a closed sarcophagus nearly filling the chamber, covered with red cinnabar.
Mercuric oxide (cinnabar) was used by ancient Mayas as a preservative in royal burials. Two weeks later, they made a larger entrance into the chamber and found many artifacts, including a spindle whorl used by women to weave, figurine whistles, and ceramic bowls dating the burial to 600-700 AD.
The Maya Codices: The Precious Remaining History of an Eradicated Civilization
Hidden in the Glyphs: Deciphering Bilingual Mayan-Olmec Text
These findings caused Fanny Lopez to suspect the sarcophagus held the remains of a royal woman who was linked to Pakal. If so, this would be the first Mayan queen’s burial discovered. It took another two months for the team to remove the monolithic limestone lid off the sarcophagus, using a custom-built hydraulic lift. They beheld a royal skeleton not seen for fourteen centuries, lying on its back with bones completely permeated with red cinnabar.
It was a rich burial; a diadem of jade beads adorned the skull, hundreds of bright green fragments framed the cranium from a broken mask, and more jade, pearls, shells, obsidian blades, axes and bone needles surrounded and covered the skeleton. It was the biggest discovery in Mayan archaeology in forty years. [….]