Colgate anthropology professor Allan Maca and a team of researchers have found a previously unknown tomb in Copán, Honduras, dating back to the 7th century A.D. that contained the skeleton of an elite member of ancient Maya society in the city.
The unusual characteristics of the tomb’s construction, the human remains, and the artifacts found near the body, according to Maca, paint a picture of an urban state that was more politically complex and culturally diverse than was previously thought.
As reported this month by National Geographic News and the Honduran press, Maca and his group — which includes Kristin Landau, who graduated this May from Colgate — discovered the tomb in 2005 in Copán, an ancient city near the western edge of Honduras where the country borders Guatemala.
Over the past two years, they have excavated and studied the tomb and its contents, with funding support from the National Geographic Society and Colgate.
While Copán, a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Site, is well known for grand, carved and inscribed monuments, a hieroglyphic stairway with the longest text in the Americas, and other famed discoveries in the ceremonial center of the city and its Acropolis, Maca’s team’s find was unexpected because it comes from beyond the administrative heart of Copán, in an area that has not yet been well studied.
“Combined with other characteristics, it is becoming clear that this discovery provides unprecedented evidence for political complexity and cultural diversity at Copán during the early part of the Late Classic period [A.D. 600 to 750],” said Maca.
Some of the most unusual elements of the find included the positioning or seating of the interred individual, the artifacts found with the body, and design of the tomb itself.
All in all, the discovery provides “an unusual archaeological context that helps expand our knowledge of the sociopolitical and cultural complexity of the ancient city and of the funerary and ritual landscape of the Copán Valley during the seventh century A.D.,” he said.
Dario Euraque, director of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History, agreed that Maca’s findings were significant.
“Mainly, this is the first tomb to be found outside the principal monuments where all funeral sites are located,” he said.
“We never thought we would find any in the Bosque, which is along the periphery of Copán.”
He also believes that the artifacts and tomb characteristics were not representative of the Maya culture.
“This goes against theories that all populations in the Copán Valley were uniquely Mayan,” he said. “There appears to have been a cultural mix.”
The 2005 discovery was announced this month in conjunction with the Honduras Ministry of Culture, Arts, and Sports and the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History.
Due to its location in an area with poor security, the tomb will be reburied later this summer once consolidation and preliminary restoration have been completed.