Mortuary archaeology is the study of the funerary context, and while skeletal remains are most likely going to be present, they are only one piece of the possible evidence in understanding the past. Context is the most important aspect of mortuary archaeology. Without knowing where they came from, what they were associated with, and the configuration in which they were found, skeletons and grave goods lose the majority of the information we can glean from them. Context is the most important factor in studying burial and mortuary practices of the past. Even without the human remains, context can be vital to understanding individual and group identities, and unraveling the meaning behind mortuary practices. Evidence of its primacy can be seen in mortuary studies where human remains are not recovered, whether it be due to highly acidic soils destroying the remains, or looters removing them.
The funerary tomb at Palenque has been under investigation for almost a century, and the search for the tomb of the ruler has been going on just as long. Palenque is located in Southern Mexico. It was a city during the Mayan period, and flourished around the 7th century. Only about 10% of the city has been excavated, and this consists primarily of the temple of inscriptions, which housed the ruler Pakal the Great, and the primary fortification. The pyramid which is currently under investigation is thought to contain another leader of Palenque. It closely mirrors another pyramid at the site which revealed skeletal remains in 1959.
In 1999 a potential tomb was found beneath the pyramid using a camera. However, the structure was too fragile to excavate. Traditionally in this region the pyramids are deconstructed during the excavation and then reconstructed, but these researchers hope to keep the original intact. In order to get a better perspective, excavation has continued on the plinth, the base of the pyramid, to find better access to the pyramid itself. Researchers were able to send a camera down into the funerary chamber to get more improved imagery from the inside of the tomb.
The camera revealed a highly decorated tomb, with nine black figures painted on a red background. The artwork and pyramid is indicative of the earlier period at Palenque, possibly the 5th century CE. The presence of jade and shell further supports the conclusion that this burial belongs to a high ranking noble. With the images from the camera, archaeologists can begin making interpretations about the site.
Given what they know of the site from other inscriptions, archaeologists think that this may be the tomb of a female leader. Previous investigations at the site in 1994 revealed the tomb of the “Red Queen”. Like the tomb under investigation, the Red Queen was found covered in red cinnabar, a symbol of nobility. However, her tomb lacked the decorations of the current tomb under investigation. The Red Queen was found in a sarcophagus in a similar burial tomb with a large decorative funerary mask.
The primary problem of this tomb is that it lacks a sarcophagus and a skeleton. While the tomb itself seems complete, there doesn’t seem to be anyone buried there. Archaeologists believe that they will find the bones, and it is possible that they are on the floor. This would be a departure from the pattern of burial normally seen in Classic Mayan elite, with the elaborate sarcophagi and funerary costumes. The jade and shell could be the remnants of the costume, but further analysis is needed.
What can be learned when the remains are missing? A lot! Further investigation of the wall decorations may reveal the identity of the absent individual, and excavation of the dirt floor may show whether a sarcophagus was ever put in place or if the tomb ever had an occupant. Looking at the broader area, it is now thought that this location in Palenque is a royal necropolis, reserved for the elite burials. By comparing between the tombs, we can begin to see patterns of mortuary behavior. The skeleton is only one piece of a larger picture.
Roach 2011. Blood Red Pyramid at Palenque. National Geographic. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/06/pictures/110629-tiny-camera-maya-tomb-palenque-mexico-science/
AP 2011. Tiny Camera at Mayan Tomb in Palenque. Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jun/24/tiny-camera-mayan-tomb-palenque