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High Rise of the Dead

Friday, October 05, 2012

deadLike builders everywhere, the ancient Zapotec made the most of valuable real estate by building up, rather than out. At Atzompa, near the southern city of Oaxaca, Mexican archaeologists discovered three burial chambers stacked one on top of the other. Dating from a.d. 650 to 850, the unusual vertical design allowed builders to take advantage of the tombs’ breezy hilltop location, with the lowest tomb built into the ground and two later chambers erected above it. The upper tombs were stripped of human remains, probably in antiquity, but whoever had ventured into the complex seems to have missed the basement tomb—it was sealed off with boulders and mud bricks, says archaeologist Eduardo García of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History. In the lowest tomb, archaeologists found a skeleton, apparently that of a male, and funerary offerings including a ceramic head painted in a vivid red pigment. Ceramic offerings showed little variation across levels, suggesting to García they may have held three successive generations of rulers. But the tomb’s most dazzling feature is a mural with designs representing a jaguar paw print and an I-shaped ball court—another sign that Atzompa, with at least three ball courts, was an important center for the sport, in which men bounced hard rubber balls off their hips. The mural “is exceptionally well preserved,” says García.