Maya Snake dynasty tomb found in Belize

Archaeologists have discovered the tomb of a lord from the Maya Snake dynasty inside a temple at the ancient site of Xunantunich in western Belize. At 4.5 by 2.4 meters (14’9″ by 7’10”), it’s one of the largest burial chambers ever found in Belize, and is the largest royal one. It was discovered 16-26 feet underground, buried under layers dirt and debris beneath the central stairway of a pyramidal structure.

Inside were the remains of an adult male between 20 and 30 years old when he died. He was lying on his back with his head pointing south. Initial osteological analysis found that he was fit and well-muscled with no obvious signs of disease or fatal injury. Buried with him were jaguar and deer bones, six jade beads, 13 obsidian blades and 36 ceramic vessels. Two other offering caches were found at the base of the stairway. They contained nine obsidian and 28 chert flints and artifacts known as eccentrics which are flaked and chipped around the edges like flints, but instead of having a functional design are carved in symbolic animal or plant shapes.

While there is no direct evidence of who was buried in this tomb, it had to be someone of great importance. Maya tombs are usually “intrusive,” built into or dug out of pre-existing structures. This tomb was built inside the temple from the beginning, a very rare design in Maya architecture. Two hieroglyphic panels were also discovered, not in the burial chamber but in the central staircase, and those panels may be the most exciting part of this very exciting find.

The Snake dynasty was one of the dominant dynasties of the Maya Classic Period (200–1000 A.D.). Its seat was the city-state of Calakmul, now in southern Mexico, but through conquest, alliances and strategic marriages, its area of influence extended south to Guatemala and Belize.
Xunantunich, just east of the border with Guatemala more than a hundred miles south of Calakmul as the crow flies, was founded around 600 A.D. as a subordinate of the Naranjo polity 10 miles to the west. Naranjo was at first allied with Tikal, Calakmul’s greatest enemy, but was conquered by Calakmul’s ruler Tuun Kab Hix in 546 A.D.

Tikal’s influence in the region suffered a devastating blow in 562 when Tikal’s Lord Wak Chan K’awiil (Lord Double Bird) was defeated by Lord Yajaw Te’ K’inich II (Lord Water) of Caracol, an important city 25 miles south of Xunantunich. The defeat kicked off 120 years of decline in Tikal, with significant population loss, destruction of monuments and no new buildings erected for the entire period.

Calakmul was more than glad to step into the breach. In 619, Lord K’an II of Caracol formally allied his polity to Calakmul and its mighty Snake Lords (and Lady Snake Lords). During the 40 years of Lord K’an II’s reign, Caracol grew in population, architecture and size. He also went to war with Naranjo, a former ally with a mutual Calakmul connection, no fewer than four times, killing its king during one of those wars. To celebrate his long reign and many victories, in 642 Lord K’an commissioned an elaborately carved hieroglyphic stairway at Naranjo.

K’an II died in 658 A.D. and a couple of decades later, Naranjo reestablished its regional prominence when it decisively defeated Caracol in 680 A.D. Lord K’an’s hieroglyphic stairway was dismantled but not destroyed. Its symbolic power was destroyed, however, because most of the panels were reassembled out of order and four of them were scattered so the hieroglyphics no longer made sense and K’an’s gloating was rendered meaningless. One of the four missing panels was unearthed at the archaeological site of Ucanal in northern Guatemala. Another was found at Caracol. Archaeologists believe the two panels found at Xunantunich are the last missing pieces of the stairway, the first and the last, no less, alpha and omega. That makes it a hugely significant discovery for Mayan epigraphy.

The panel hieroglyphs indicate the stairway was built in 642 (earlier estimates put it at 637) and note the death of Lady Batz’ Ek’, Lord K’an’s mother. Her titles suggest she was probably born in Yakha, a nearby Snake-ruled city in Guatemala, and was married to the lord of Caracol to cement their alliance.

[Epigrapher Dr. Christophe] Helmke said the panels “tell us of the existence of a king of the dynasty that was murky figure at best, who is clearly named as Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kan”. This ruler reigned sometime between 630 and 640AD, and may have been Kan’s half-brother.

“This means that there were two contenders to the throne, both carrying the same dynastic title, which appears to have been read Kanu’l Ajaw, ‘king of the place where snakes abound’,” he wrote in an email.

The panels clarify what Helmke called a “tumultuous phase of the snake-head dynasty” and explain how it splintered between cities before dominating Maya politics in the region.

The panels identify the origin of the snake dynasty at Dzibanche, in the Yucatan peninsula of modern Mexico, and refer to the family’s move to their capital of Calakmul.

8 thoughts on “Maya Snake dynasty tomb found in Belize

    ” artifacts known as eccentrics which are flaked and chipped around the edges like flints, but instead of having a functional design are carved in symbolic animal or plant shapes.”

    I’ve seen eccentrics all over Mayaland in different collections. It would seem that the very best flint and chert was reserved for their manufacture. The idea that they were used to make sounds is intriguing. The flints were a major trade idem, I’ve seen examples of the zebra stripe flint from Orange Walk Belize in the Maya collections in Merida and Guatemala City. I suspect the Snake Clan’s traders got around.

  2. “A king of the dynasty, murky figure at best, who is now CLEARLY named as Waxaklajuun Ubaah K’an” 😮 .

    I’d love to see BTW the tomb and all the finds in more detail. Norm, THOSE ‘nine eccentrics’ do not particularly look like musical instruments, but in general the idea makes sense to me (i.e. regarding the link you gave):

    Vive les Balafons!

  3. I saw some video of a reconstructed ancient Chinese lithophone being played about a decade or so ago. Archaeology Magazine had a link to it on their main page.

    We have very well made flints that are often shaped as various things on the western side of the Appalachians in the old Adena/Hopewell heartland where I currently live, Norm. Many get described as “maces”, which never made a lot of sense.

    Why go to the trouble to flake these intricate pieces out of flint when you could hack someones head off with a simple ground slate/shale celt or bash it in for ceremonial purposes with a finely carved wooden club?

  4. I suspect it is tuned by knocking off a bit here and there, maybe held on a string to give it the right independent tone. I’ve been in a number of caves where the stalagmites had been carved to change their pitch when struck. An eccentric struck within a small room would be loud enough to be used in a ceremony. I’ve always been careful to take a picture of every eccentric in the different collections because they are so unusual. There is far more that we do not understand than what we do understand about Mayan culture.

  5. The Chinese lithophone I saw recreated and played was supported by a wooden frame with many of the stones suspended from cords. The thing was found intact, except for the majority of the wood of course, in a tomb. I believe it dated from the Warring States period, but it’s been quite a while since I read about it and viewed the video. It was impressive to see in both scale and to see played reconstructed.

    There’s and old commercial cave not far from me called “Organ Cave” due to the tuned stalagmites. I believe it finally closed a few years back.

    Our understanding of Mesoamerican cultures, other than the brief, but very skewed view the Spanish got at the time of contact, is likely to remain quite murky until we’re both long gone. However, that’s what makes it interesting.

  6. Norm, what’s the situation around Copan these days? I understand gang violence over the drug and migrant trade have made it a much more dangerous place to visit in the past few years?

    I have a friend whose company grows cigar tobacco in the valley. He doesn’t like to go there unless it’s necessary. They’ve been traveling with armed guards in that region of Honduras due to the violence for nearly a decade, although I haven’t spoken with him in well over a year.

  7. It has been three years since the last time I was in Copan. The town was safe but it was only because of local vigilantes. Outside of town is more of a crap shoot. Everyone who can afford a gun has one. I’ve gone into Copan on 1st class bus and by tourist shuttle, never a problem. I can understand someone who has a local farm being warey. Anyone who has to carry cash is at risk. That said, people come and go with no issues every day .

    I toured the north coast a few years ago, rented a truck in Celiba , drove out to the cape at Trujllo . The road was pretty beat up, people were traveling in convoys. I cut my trip short after talking to some US military guys who painted a pretty bleak picture of the route I had planned.

    As in anywhere in the world, if you stay away from the vice trade, one improves their chances of avoiding trouble by a thousand percent.

    I would not hesitate to go to Copan. The town is safer than Warren or Youngstown Ohio, two cities I do business in. The locals in Copan keep the riffraff away. They check out every soul getting off the common carriers. My last trip to Copan, I heard a heavy pistol empty a clip and a few on a reload at 3AM. I had picked a ground floor room behind three block walls from the street so there was little danger of a stray.

    Go, it is a great ruin. The town sits on the old residential compound from the classic Maya period. The Honduran government has done a nice job on the ruin.
    And pay the extra to go into the archeology tunnels , they are worth every penny.

  8. My friend has been in the tunnels a few times They literally own a farm next to the site and were friendly with the researchers.

    I was heading there 10 years ago. However, there was a death in the family. It’s still on my bucket list, though.

    I’ve heard stories about the guns. A guy once told me it’s the only place where he’s ever seen men sitting in the waiting room of a hospital packing pistols.

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