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Tomb of the Vulture Lord

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

September/October 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.



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