In the Path of the Maize God: A Royal Tomb at Nakum, Peten, Guatemala

By Zralka, Jaroslaw; Koszkul, Wieslaw et al. | Antiquity, September 2011 | Go to article overview

In the Path of the Maize God: A Royal Tomb at Nakum, Peten, Guatemala


Zralka, Jaroslaw, Koszkul, Wieslaw, Martin, Simon, Hermes, Bernard, Antiquity


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Introduction

Intensive looting in ancient Maya cities has resulted in a tremendous loss of archaeological information. The search for marketable artefacts from tombs and ritual deposits has damaged or destroyed architecture directly, while the pits and trenches left by illicit excavations have hastened the collapse of already fragile remains. North-eastern Guatemala has suffered greatly from this devastation. At the large site of Naranjo, for example, the two looter's trenches documented in 1996 had increased to 57 in 1998, and to more than 250 in 2004 (Quintana 2003; Fialko 2005).

However, the establishment of the Triangulo Park- covering Naranjo and two other large centres, Nakum and Yaxha--together with the onset of archaeological investigations at these and many smaller sites by the Guatemalan Institute of Anthropology and History (IDAEH), has led to a major reduction in the plunder. The Nakum Archaeological Project, directed by Jaroshw Zralka and Wieshw Koszkul from Jagiellonian University, Krakow, Poland, which began in 2006, has had the rare opportunity to study a major undisturbed tomb at Nakum: Burlai 1 in Structure 15. This is one of the first intact royal burials to be scientifically excavated by archaeologists in the Triangulo Park area. The discovery and its subsequent interpretation, reported here, serve to emphasise the detailed history that is lost through looting and the benefits of a modern strategy of investigation and restoration.

Nakum: history of investigations and description of the site

Nakum lies at an elevation of about 200m asl and is situated in the heart of the modern Guatemalan district of Peten. Its discovery is attributed to the French Count Maurice de Perigny in 1905; who returned to explore the ruins in 1910 (Perigny 1908, 1911). Further reconnaissance was carried out by Alfred Tozzer and Raymond Merwin from the Peabody Museum, Harvard University (Tozzer 1913) and later by Sylvanus Morley (1937-38) and Nicholas Hellmuth (1992). In 1989, IDAEH initiated efforts to rescue and protect buildings in the core area of the site. Formal investigations were initiated in 1994 with the restoration and excavation of the most deteriorated monumental structures in the southern sector of the site.

IDEAH investigations indicate Nakum was first settled during the Middle Preclassic period (c. 800-300 BC). Many structures visible at Nakum today were constructed in the Late Classic period (AD 600-800)--the apogee of Maya civilisation. However, one of the most intriguing features of Nakum is its vigorous development during the Terminal Classic period (ninth-tenth centuries AD), when most other Southern Lowland Maya centres were in decline (Hermes & Zralka 2008). The core of Nakum is divided into northern and southern sectors connected by the Perigny Causeway, named after the discoverer of the ruins. The largest and most impressive is the southern sector which is home to several tall temple-pyramid structures (Structures A, B, C, V and U) as well as the extensive Acropolis complex and many other buildings. The Acropolis (Figure 1) consists of a large platform, 180 x 150m at its base, which is topped primarily by 'palace-like' structures grouped around 12 courtyards or patios.

Structure 15, Burial 1 and its occupant

Structure 15 is a 13m high mound on the eastern flank of the largest courtyard of the Acropolis, Patio 1 (Figures 1 & 2). By investigating this structure we sought to test the hypothesis put forward by Wieshw Koszkul that it should contain an important burial. The hypothesis was based on the observation that at many other Maya sites structures situated on the eastern side of plazas often contain important internments, as documented by investigations at Tikal, Caracol, Copan and Quirigua (Becker 1971, 1999, 2003; Chase & Chase 1987, 1994; Jones 1999; Sharer & Traxler 2006:351-4). These buildings evidently served as shrines dedicated to the founders of elite families, including royal dynasties. …

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