The Best of Mayan Mortuary Archaeology and Bones Goes Abroad!

Yup, that is me in 2007 visiting Chichen Itza as part of an anthropology trip to the Yucatec Peninsula!

Yup, that is me in 2007 visiting Chichen Itza as part of an anthropology trip to the Yucatec Peninsula!

Over the next week and a half, I’m going to be traveling the Riviera Maya and visiting some fantastic Mayan archaeological sites. Mayan archaeology has always held a special place in my heart. Visiting the Yucatec peninsula as a teenager convinced me to pursue archaeology as my career choice, and during my undergraduate studies I was lucky enough to have the chance to tour this region with Dr. Ellen Kintz, a fantastic cultural and archaeological anthropologist with a deep love of the Mayan people, both past and present. I didn’t become a Mayan archaeologist (although there are some amazing Mayan archaeologists at MSU that almost convinced me to change regions). However, this region will always be special to me. The great monuments and structures, combined with the modern art and culture of the Maya makes this an amazing place to visit and conduct research.

When I return from my travels, I will share some of the fantastic mortuary sites in this region- but until then, enjoy some of my favorite posts on the Maya.

Top Mayan Mortuary Archaeology Posts

An Unusual Case of Scurvy Found in the Maya: Scurvy is caused by a lack of vitamin C in one’s nutrition, and is rarely investigated among the Maya because skeletal preservation isn’t good, vitamin C deficiency often takes the form of non-specific indicators of new bone growth that can be interpreted in many ways, and the tropical settings of this area and abundant vitamin C resources make malnutrition highly unlikely. However, regardless of difficulty of interpretation and how unlikely it is- we cannot just assume that nutritional deficiencies aren’t present. A new journal article by Gabriel Wrobel (2014) argues for a possible case of scurvy found in an Early Classic Maya Burial.

Art, Text and Dismemberment: Mayan art has been known to be fairly violent in its depiction of what happens to captives and sacrificial victims- heads were being taken as trophies and individuals were dismembered after battle, and texts seem to support this image of violence. Most recently, researchers of the Department of Anthropology of the Americas at the University of Bonn have discovered a 1,400 year old mass grave within the Mayan city of Uxul that revealed hatchet marks on the neck bones indicating decapitation, and some have violent trauma unrelated to the dismemberment like blows to the front of the skull.

Female Mayan Rulers: In the past, there has been an assumption in archaeology that grand tombs and artifact laden graves belong to male rulers. However, Mayan archaeology has been quite forward thinking in this respect and in the past has left interpretations open. Recent excavations at the Mayan ruins of Nakum in Guatemala found the skeletons of two royal burials, both of which have been interpreted as females.

Mayan Tomb… Without the Bones: While the tomb itself seems complete, there doesn’t seem to be anyone buried there. Given what they know of the site from other inscriptions, archaeologists think that this may be the tomb of a female leader. What can be learned when the remains are missing? A lot!

Investigating Red Colored Bones in Mesoamerica: It isn’t rare to see bones that have a color other than the usual lab-cleaned white or dirt-stained brown. Red stains are usually attributed to natural substances like ochre, which when combined with water can make a non-toxic oil like paint. However, a new study by Avila et al. (2014) looks deeper into the presence of red colored bones in Mesoamerica and questions are current understanding of this color in mortuary contexts.

Bioarchaeology of a Royal Burial from Palenque: Palenque is perhaps one of the most famous and most studied archaeological sites of the Maya. A new article by Couoh (2013) examines the human remains from one of the oldest tombs excavated at Palenque, and 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.

Enjoy these while I’m adventuring- we will be back with new content on February 12!





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