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Tomb of the Vulture Lord

A king’s burial reveals a pivotal moment in Maya history


Monday, August 12, 2013



For 2,500 years, the Vulture Lord’s tomb lay hidden in the rugged highlands of southern Guatemala. In comparison to the soaring pyramids of other sites in the region, his burial monument was a fairly modest, 16-foot-high, grassy platform made of clay and cobblestones. But eight feet below its summit, at the bottom of a damp cavity uncovered after two years of meticulous excavation, archaeologists Christa Schieber and Miguel Orrego from Guatemala’s Cultural and Natural Heritage Office found hundreds of apple-green and blue jade beads. A few feet away were six skillfully made clay female figurines, one of which had a face that was old and wrinkled on one side, and fresh and young on the other side. Another had a tattoo design on its back. Nearby, an array of ceramic bowls lay jumbled about, suggesting they had once been piled with food offerings. The most significant of the artifacts was a pendant with an early Maya status symbol—a vulture’s head, in jade, lying exactly where the deceased’s chest would have been. He must have been wearing it when he was buried. Schieber and Orrego named him the Vulture Lord (K’utz Chman in the modern Mayan language), and although his bones had long since rotted away, clusters of precious stones showed exactly where he had worn two bracelets, two anklets, and a jade-encrusted loincloth. “The artifacts are wonderful, and they’re clearly not the sort of things that people would have used in daily life. This was a royal tomb,” says Schieber. And perhaps the earliest Maya royal tomb yet discovered, she adds.



Since excavation began there in 1976, Takalik Abaj, “Place of the Standing Stones,” has attracted archaeologists with its carefully laid out early Maya urban environment—there are at least 83 structures and more than 300 sculpted stone monuments. Although few tombs have been discovered thus far, other structures suggest a history of elite pleasures and rituals. One of Mesoamerica’s largest ball courts, measuring 75 by 16 feet, stretches across one of the site’s few flat areas. According to Schieber, one platform may have been an observatory. On its surface, three parallel lines of stone monuments line up with the Big Dipper when it rises just east of true north. Nestled as it was in a mountain pass, the city had extensive trade networks that stretched as far afield as Mexico’s Veracruz state, El Salvador, and the Petén lowlands. Archaeologists believe Takalik Abaj was a cosmopolitan city and a crossroads of peoples and styles. In its stonework and artifacts, Schieber and Orrego see an unusual mix that may hold answers to one of archaeology’s most vexing questions—how and when did the Maya civilization that would dominate the region for almost 1,500 years replace the more ancient Olmec culture?




Known primarily from their cities on the Gulf of Mexico coast, the Olmec initiated many of the achievements usually associated with the Maya, including written language, ball courts, and perhaps urban planning. But how and why they eventually ceded influence to the Maya remains unclear. Schieber believes Takalik Abaj, and the tomb of the Vulture Lord, offer new insights into how that change might have happened. “This period, around 500 B.C., was a period of transition,” says Schieber. “In the stonework at the site’s ceremonial platforms you can see how sculptors were gradually changing their minds and treating the stone in a different way, moving away from the Olmec style.” It’s notable, too, explains Schieber, that all but two of Takalik Abaj’s 354 stone monuments were locally quarried, and that the ceramics were fashioned of local materials. This suggests that the cultural changes in evidence were not the result of the arrival of an alien population such as the Maya bringing its own wares, but of local artisans changing the way they made objects as outside cultural influences seeped in.

Wolf Rites of Winter

Archaeologists digging a Bronze Age site on the Russian steppes are using evidence from language and mythology to understand a remarkable discovery


Tuesday, September 17, 2013



Around 4,000 years ago, on the steppes north of the Black Sea, a nomadic people began settling down in small communities. Known today as the Timber Grave Culture, these people left behind more than 1,000 sites. One of them is called Krasnosamarskoe, and Hartwick College archaeologist David Anthony had big expectations for it when he started digging there in the late 1990s. Anthony hoped that by excavating the site he might learn why people in this region first began to establish permanent households. But he and his team have since discovered that Krasnosamarskoe has a much different story to tell. They found that the site held the remains of dozens of butchered dogs and wolves—vastly more than at any comparable site.


Nerissa Russell, the project’s archaeozoologist, says, “I remember saying early on in the dig that we were finding a lot of dog bones. But I had no idea how important they would turn out to be.” When the team got to work analyzing all the animal bones in the lab, they identified the remains of about 51 dogs and seven wolves, as well as six canines that could not be classified as either. At other Timber Grave sites, dog and wolf bones never make up more than 3 percent of the total animal bones found. At Krasnosamarskoe, they made up more than 30 percent. “I don’t know of any other site in the world with such a high percentage of dog bones,” says Russell. She and her team found that most of the dogs were unusually long-lived, up to 12 years old in some cases, which meant they were probably not raised for food. “Were they treasured pets, hunting dogs, or pariahs? We don’t know,” she says. “But they are so old that these were dogs that had been around for a while and had some kind of relationship to these people.” 


1 bonesTo add to the mystery, the bones were cut in unusual, systematic ways that did not resemble ordinary butchering practices. Snouts were divided into three pieces and the remainder of the skulls were broken down into geometrically shaped fragments only an inch long. No one would have made these cuts to simply get meat off the bones.  


Anthony and his wife, archaeologist Dorcas Brown, knew it was a unique discovery. Brown, in particular, suspected the canines were probably sacrificed there as part of a ritual and decided to examine the research literature broadly on the subject of rituals involving dogs. What she discovered was that there was indeed a body of work on just such ancient practices. In an unusual move for prehistoric archaeologists, they decided to consult historical linguistics and ancient literary traditions to better understand the archaeological record.



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