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Blood-Red Pyramid Tomb Revealed by Tiny Camera
Seen for the first time in centuries, a 1,500-year-old tomb comes to light via a tiny camera lowered into a Maya pyramid at Mexico's Palenque archaeological site in April. The intact, blood-red funeral chamber offers insight into the ancient city's early history, experts say.
The tomb was discovered in 1999, though researchers have been unable to get inside due to the precarious structural state of the pyramid above. Any effort to penetrate the tomb could damage the contents within, according to the team, which is affiliated with Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History.
Instead, the archaeologists lowered the 1.6-by-2.4-inch (4-by-6-centimeter) camera through a 6-inch-wide (15-centimeter-wide) hole in an upper floor of the pyramid.
Archaeologist Marta Cuevas, co-leader of the Palenque project, stands in front of Temple 20, the crumbling pyramid whose subterranean tomb was recently probed with a mini-camera. The remains of a Maya ruler are thought to be buried in the funeral chamber, though no bones have been seen so far. Located in Palenque's so-called Southern Acropolis region, the pyramid itself is similar to a nearby one that was found to contain the remains of a ruler in 1959. "All of this leads us to believe that the Southern Acropolis was used as a royal necropolis during this epoch," Cuevas said in a press release translated from Spanish. As a whole, Palenque was not among the biggest Maya cities, but scholars and travelers today prize it for its rich inscriptions, carvings, and architecture, which have helped unravel archaeological mysteries and yielded the first time line of rulers of a Maya city.
Exceptionally preserved due to their inaccessibility, nine black paintings of human figures adorn the Maya tomb's walls, the archaeologists said. Who or what the figures represent remains unknown. However, the style of the art helped the team date the chamber to between A.D. 400 and 550, the earliest stage of this Maya city-state. Extending south from southern Mexico, through Guatemala, and into northern Belize, the Maya Empire prospered from about A.D. 250 to 900, when it mysteriously crumbled.
Lighted by the miniature camera, some of the tomb's 11 ceramic vessels dot the floor. The vessels' contents are so far unknown, the team says. Scattered nearby are jade and shell pieces, which were "very hard to find and were only present in funerary offerings of important characters," the research team explained to National Geographic News in an email.
Lowered about 15 feet (5 meters) below the small opening in the pyramid floor, the camera illuminates tomb walls that may surround the remains of K'uk' Bahlam I, thought to be the first ruler of Palenque, or another early ruler of the city-state, Cuevas said.
Another possibility for the tomb's inhabitant is a noted female ruler, Ix Yohl Ik'nal, David Stuart, a specialist in Maya inscriptions at the University of Texas, told the Associated Press. "The female ruler is mentioned in a number of the historical texts of the site," he said.
A modern roof protects the tomb, which "is now located 5 meters [16 feet] down the hole depicted in this image," the research team explained to National Geographic News.
Later rulers of Palenque built their temples and tombs atop those of their predecessors, making it difficult to access the tombs of the earliest leaders. As a result, experts say, the newly revealed tomb—itself encased within a later pyramid—is a rare window on the past.