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Rare pre-Hispanic shaft tomb uncovered in Mexico

Rare pre-Hispanic shaft tomb uncovered in Mexico

Archaeologists have uncovered an ancient shaft tomb in Colima, Mexico, containing the remains of children and small dogs, as well as the sculpture of a long-faced shaman.  The intact pre-Hispanic tomb, which dates back 1,500 years, was found on a plot of land in the municipality of Villa de Alvarez by archaeologists from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). It is a rare discovery because most shaft tombs that have been found have already been looted due to the wealth of grave goods they normally contain.

A shaft tomb or shaft grave is a type of deep rectangular burial structure dug 3 to 20 metres down into what is often underlying volcanic tuff. The base of the shaft typically opens into one or two horizontal chambers.

Until recently, the looted artefacts were all that was known of the people and culture or cultures that created the shaft tombs. So little was known, in fact, that a major 1998 exhibition highlighting these artefacts was subtitled: "Art and Archaeology of the Unknown Past".

A 1.50 metre-deep well was found at the entrance to the tomb. The volcanic rock found on the walls of the tomb is different to the other tombs found and, according to archaeologists, the tomb probably dates to between 0 and 500 AD.

As well as the remains of the children and dogs, six pots were found inside the tomb, as well as the 50cm high sculpture of a long-faced shaman, which was probably placed there as the guardian of the tomb.  The dogs were most likely sacrificed and placed in the tomb with the children as Mesoamerican cultures believed that dogs were soul guides of the dead and would help them to reach the afterlife. 

Pre-Hispanic shaft tomb uncovered in Mexico

The shaman sculpture found in the tomb

"With regards to the figure of the shaman, he was found upright and is holding some kind of weapon, probably an axe. He was placed exactly at the entrance, towards the crypt. He is some kind of a guardian of the main character deposited inside the shaft tomb," said archaeologist Marco Zavaleta.

It is highly unusual to find a shaft tomb only containing children.  Evidence indicates that shaft tombs were used for families or lineages over time, so most contain both adults and children, or only adults. 

"An important piece of information in this particular case is the immense presence of children. They were all placed around the tomb. There are practically no adult individuals. We would have to analyse the relationship between the children, the shaman and the dogs, who are protecting and preparing (for burial) but why were these children placed here?" said archaeologist Rosa Maria Flores.

The shaft tomb tradition is thought to have developed around 300 BC, although some shaft tombs date back as far as 1500 BC.  Like much else concerning the tradition, its origins are not well understood.  The tradition lasted until at least 400 AD, although there is not wide agreement on the end date.

The labour involved in the creation of the shaft tombs along with the number and quality of the grave goods indicate that the tombs were used exclusively by the society's elites.

Featured image: The entrance to the shaft tomb.

By April Holloway

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