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Undated photo of a mosaic jade mask discovered inside an ancient Maya tomb dating back 1,700 years in Chochkitam, Guatemala, near the borders of what are now Mexico and Belize, on July 1, 2022. Source: Francisco Estrada-Belli/Tulane University

Haunting Jade Mask and Inscribed Bones Unearthed In Guatemala

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An ancient Maya tomb, dating back 1,700 years, has been uncovered at the site of Chochkitam in Guatemala, near the border of modern-day Mexico and Belize. This looted, pyramid tomb revealed an intricately crafted interlocking jade mask believed to have once adorned a previously unknown Maya king. Amongst other funerary offerings, mollusk shells and writings carved in human femur bones have also been discovered.

One of the decorated bones discovered in the tomb depicts the profile of a man, believed to be the unknown king, holding a jade mask similar to the one found within the tomb. The hieroglyphs inscribed on this artifact are thought to identify the king's father and grandfather, establishing a genealogical link that connects the ruler to the Maya states of Tikal and Teotihuacan.

Undated photo of the restored mosaic jade mask discovered inside a Maya tomb dating back 1,700 years in Chochkitam, Guatemala, on July 1, 2022. (Francisco Estrada-Belli/Tulane University)

Undated photo of the restored mosaic jade mask discovered inside a Maya tomb dating back 1,700 years in Chochkitam, Guatemala, on July 1, 2022. (Francisco Estrada-Belli/Tulane University)

Winning the Lottery: Uncovering the Chochkitam Site

“A discovery like this is a bit like winning the lottery in terms of information,” said Francisco Estrada-Belli, the lead archaeologist who discovered the tomb in 2022 and has since been working to preserve, scan, photograph and interpret the finds. “It opens a window into an obscure time we have very little texts about.” He was quoted by a press release released by the Tulane University, with whom he is affiliated as a research assistant professor in the School of Liberal Arts.

The archaeological site, known as Chochkitam, is situated near the Peten Basin, a subregion of the Maya Lowlands in northwest Guatemala, choked by the dense rainforest and cluttered with fallen leaves, palm trees, and scattered chunks of stone. This area holds significance as the heartland of the Maya Classic Period, spanning from 200 to 900 AD. Chochkitam, although relatively obscure, has gained attention through ongoing studies revealing three major monumental groups interconnected by a lengthy central causeway.

The excavation site of the Maya tomb, showing the fragments of the jade mask and other votive offerings in situ. (Francisco Estrada-Belli/Tulane University)

The excavation site of the Maya tomb, showing the fragments of the jade mask and other votive offerings in situ. (Francisco Estrada-Belli/Tulane University)

The discovery unfolded following a LiDAR survey in 2021, which detected evidence of unauthorized excavation within the core of a royal pyramid. Subsequent examination revealed that looters had overlooked a particular section within the pyramid's inner chamber, reports The National Geographic.

“That was the first amazing thing about it. It was very lucky… It’s like taking x-rays of the jungle floor,” Estrada-Belli added. “It revolutionizes our field. Only now can we see where we’re going instead of just bushwhacking through the jungle hoping to find something.”

A Treasure Trove for Archaeology

Jade held profound cultural and spiritual significance for the Maya, extending beyond its material value. It was revered as a protector of both the living and the deceased. Consequently, jade masks were often employed to symbolize deities or ancestors, serving as potent symbols of the wealth and status of the individuals interred within Maya tombs.

During the excavation, archaeologists unearthed a wealth of artifacts, including a human skull and bones, some of which bore hieroglyphs, as well as a coffin-shaped stone box. Additionally, a variety of ceramic items and funerary offerings, such as a pottery vessel, oyster shells, and numerous jade pieces meticulously fitted together to form a jade mask, were uncovered.

Undated photo of an incised femur bone discovered inside an ancient Maya tomb dating back 1,700 years in Chochkitam, Guatemala. (Francisco Estrada-Belli/Tulane University)

Undated photo of an incised femur bone discovered inside an ancient Maya tomb dating back 1,700 years in Chochkitam, Guatemala. (Francisco Estrada-Belli/Tulane University)

Deciphering the Finds: The Science of Archaeological Corroboration

University of Alabama archaeologist Alexandre Tokovinine, an expert in Maya epigraphy, collaborated with Francisco Estrada-Belli to decipher the glyphs found on the artifacts. Together, they unraveled the secrets surrounding the identities of both the ruler and the deity depicted in the carvings.

The ruler was identified as Itzam Kokaj Bahlam, which translates to "sun god/bird/jaguar" in Maya hieroglyphs. The deity depicted, known to archaeologists as Yax Wayaab Chahk G1, represents a manifestation of the Maya storm god. The deity's name can be translated as "first sorcerer rain god." Estrada-Belli described the find as "very, very unusual".

Researchers speculate that this name may belong to the Maya king buried at Chochkitam around 350 AD. A carving on one of the bones depicts the ruler grasping the head of a Maya deity, mirroring the design of the assembled jade mask discovered in the tomb.

Incised femur bone beside drawing by Alexandre Tokovinine with the Tulane University HolmulArchaeological Project. (Courtesy Tulane University)

Incised femur bone beside drawing by Alexandre Tokovinine with the Tulane University HolmulArchaeological Project. (Courtesy Tulane University)

All artifacts and bones unearthed from the Chochkitam tomb were transported to the Holmul Archaeological Project (HAP) lab for cleaning and initial analysis. It was at this laboratory where archaeologists meticulously pieced together the individual blocks of jade recovered from the tomb, successfully reconstructing an entire mosaic jade mask, reports Arkeonews.

"All of Indigenous America has a deep and complex history," concluded Marcello A. Canuto, MARI director and Tulane archaeologist specializing in the Maya archaeology. "For this reason, Tulane recognized early on that it was important and worthy of serious and focused academic interest. Discoveries like this one and others, including those made by other Tulane faculty and students also conducting fieldwork, represent Tulane's commitment to the study of ancient indigenous American peoples and their accomplishments."

Top image: Undated photo of a mosaic jade mask discovered inside an ancient Maya tomb dating back 1,700 years in Chochkitam, Guatemala, near the borders of what are now Mexico and Belize, on July 1, 2022. Source: Francisco Estrada-Belli/Tulane University

By Sahir Pandey

References

Altuntas, L. 2024.  A Stunning Jade mask discovered in tomb of Maya King in Guatemala. Available at: https://arkeonews.net/a-stunning-jade-mask-discovered-in-tomb-of-maya-king-in-guatemala/.

Blakemore, E. 2024.  Stunning jade mask found inside the tomb of a mysterious Maya king. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/maya-jade-mask-carved-bone-discovery.

Plaisance, S. 2024.  Tulane archaeologist uncovers ancient Maya king’s tomb, revealing rare treasures and royal lineage. Available at: https://news.tulane.edu/news/tulane-archaeologist-uncovers-ancient-maya-kings-tomb-revealing-rare-treasures-and-royal-2 .

 
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Sahir

I am a graduate of History from the University of Delhi, and a graduate of Law, from Jindal University, Sonepat. During my study of history, I developed a great interest in post-colonial studies, with a focus on Latin America. I... Read More

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