The Mayan Red Queen Skull. Image: INAH

The Mystery of the Mayan Red Queen

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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.

Cinnabar was used as a preservative in ancient burials.

Cinnabar was used as a preservative in ancient burials. (CC BY-SA 3.0 )

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.

Archaeologists Arnoldo Gonzalez Cruz and Fanny Lopez Jimenez in vault of Red Queen's crypt and opening sarcophagus lid.  Image: INAH

Archaeologists Arnoldo Gonzalez Cruz and Fanny Lopez Jimenez in vault of Red Queen's crypt and opening sarcophagus lid.  Image: INAH

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.

Skeleton of Mayan Red Queen in sarcophagus, permeated with cinnabar.  Image: INAH

Skeleton of Mayan Red Queen in sarcophagus, permeated with cinnabar.  Image: INAH

Three months later, Mexican physical anthropologist Arturo Romano Pacheco was sent by INAH (National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico) to examine the skeleton. He determined from the shape of the pelvic bones and structure of jaw and skull that it was a woman. Fanny Lopez was thrilled; she had found the first burial of a Mayan queen. But who was the woman? The crypt walls and sarcophagus were entirely devoid of hieroglyphs and paintings. This surprised archaeologists, because Pakal's burial had numerous portraits of ancestors and glyphs detailing his entire lineage. There was no information to identify the woman, although several clues pointed to a relationship with Pakal. Her burial pyramid was adjacent to his, and they both had a monolithic lidded sarcophagus, jade masks, diadems and jewelry. Both their skeletons were permeated with cinnabar, and they were buried during the same time period. Though archaeologists searched for a tunnel between the pyramids, one has not yet been found.

Archaeologist Arnoldo Gonzalez Cruz, Project Director of the Palenque work for INAH, gave the unknown royal woman the nickname, "The Red Queen." There were four candidates for her identity, drawn from depictions of Pakal's family in his tomb; extensive hieroglyphic panels in the temple on top his burial pyramid, and relief carvings in other structures made by his sons. The candidates were:

  • Yohl Ik'nal, Pakal's grandmother - Heart of Wind Place
  • Sak K'uk, Pakal's mother - Resplendent White Quetzal
  • Tz'aakb'u Ahau (Ajaw), Pakal's wife - Accumulator of Lords
  • K'inuuw Mat, Pakal's daughter-in-law - Sun-Possessed Cormorant


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