Bioarchaeology of a Royal Burial from Palenque

Looking south over Gran Plaza from the Temple of the Cross in Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico, via Wikimedia Commons

Looking south over Gran Plaza from the Temple of the Cross in Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico, via Wikimedia Commons

Palenque is perhaps one of the most famous and most studied archaeological sites of the Maya. It was actually one of the first places that led me to become more interested in bioarchaeology. While I was an undergraduate at SUNY Geneseo, my department’s chair, Dr. Ellen Kintz, loaned me a book titled “Janaab’ Pakal of Palenque: Reconstructing the Life and Death of a Maya Ruler”, edited by Vera Tiesler, Andrea Cucina. It was a fascinating read, and it inspired me to spend two weeks with the Mayans in an archaeological/anthropological field school. Further, this early reading and support was part of the reason I pursued bioarchaeology as a passion. While my interests have shifted since then to a broader perspective focusing on the entire mortuary site and practices, and I’ve changed my area in interest, this site still holds a special place in my heart. The site of Palenque continually pops into the news every now and again for new interpretations and findings. I’ve written before about the an excavated tomb from the site, which contained no human remains, and there has been a lot in the news about the ‘Red Queen’ found at this site.

A new article by Couoh (2013) examines the human remains from one of the oldest tombs excavated at Palenque. The tomb, known as Tomb 3, was first uncovered in 1956 by Heinrich Berlin, and was further explored in 1957 by Victor Segovia. Within the tomb, two individuals were recovered, including PAL-44 determined to be a young adult male around 19 years, of upper status and PAL-45 that was assessed as a young adult female of lower status around 25 years old. The burial of the two individuals was found within the funerary chamber of a larger temple within the civic-cermonial area of Palenque. PAL-44 was found in the center of the tomb with numerous grave goods, including jade beads, belt jade mask, jewelry, stone earrings, pottery, and was coated with a red pigment that was likely cinnabar. PAL-45 was found seated with extended legs in the southeast corner of the tomb with no offerings. Both sets of remains were disturbed due to landslides and the collapse of the floor, though more movement was detected with PAL-45. The grave goods found with them date from 200-600 CE based on style, and it was therefore proposed that the young male was one of the first rulers of Palenque- likely Ahkal Mo’ Nahb’I based on epigraphy. Couoh’s (2013) goal is to reassess the burials and bioarchaeology using new techniques and evidence to determine who these individuals were.

Photo and map of the burials of PAL-44 and PAL-45 in Tomb 3, via Couoh 2013

Photo and map of the burials of PAL-44 and PAL-45 in Tomb 3, via Couoh 2013

The re-analysis of the individuals involved reassessing bioarchaeological methods for determining sex and age, pathological evaluation, and redating of the material. Couoh (2013) found that PAL-44 was definitely a male, but aged to his late 20’s, rather than late teens as suggested by earlier research. PAL-44 had idiopathic scoliosis, a condition where there is bending within the spine with no known cause, and its severity would have left him slightly deformed and unable to walk without problems. Re-dating of the individuals based on AMS dates revealed that they were placed there between 250 and 420 CE, part of the Early Classic Period but meaning that it is highly unlikely that the individual is  Ahkal Mo’ Nahb’I. The use of cinnabar on the remains was confirmed with x-ray fluorescence. This treatment of the remains is well known among the Mayan elite, and would have been painted or sprinkled on the body after death. PAL-45 was determined to be a female, but also is older than thought around 30 years rather than mid-20’s. She displayed signs of major physical activity in the upper limbs, and was found to have signs of childhood malnutrition in her teeth (linear enamel hypoplasia). She also received fractures to a rib, nose, and frontal bone, and the trauma occurred within a few weeks of her death. It isn’t known whether she was a sacrifice or not.

Re-analysis of older interpretations, especially at well known sites, can be extremely useful. Since the 1950’s, our methods and techniques in bioarchaeology have greatly improved, and we are able to determine much more. It would be interesting to learn more about the two individuals and what their relationship was- whether the female was a sacrifice, caregiver or servant is unknown and I don’t know how we would determine exactly which is was. Perhaps continued study on Mayan tomb sites and comparison may reveal an answer.

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2 responses to “Bioarchaeology of a Royal Burial from Palenque

  1. Pingback: Forensic Anthropology and Science News 08/28/13 [Links] | Strange Remains·

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