Discovery of the Tomb of the Mayan Red Queen
Temple XIII, Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico
On the morning of April 11, 1994, a young archeologist named Fanny Lopez Jimenez was doing routine work clearing weeds and debris off the collapsed stairs of Temple XIII. Her goal was to stabilize the structure and prevent further deterioration. She stood at a distance observing her work, and noticed a small crack about 4 cm size, partially covered by masonry. Using a mirror first and then flashlights, Fanny and co-workers directed light into the fissure and peered in, seeing a narrow passage 6 meters long. The passage was empty and clear of debris, and opened onto another passage running at right angles. Where the two passageways met, they saw a large sealed door. Fanny could hardly contain her excitement. She had found an unknown substructure
buried inside the surface of Temple XIII, a building no one thought had anything important to offer. After getting project director Arnoldo Gonzales Cruz’ okay, her team chipped away stones and entered the passage the next day. As she climbed through the opening, she felt as though she entered “a tunnel of time,” her footsteps falling upon the silence of centuries, echoing off slumbering walls long mute. They entered a 15-meter gallery built with large limestone blocks that had three chambers. The two side chambers were empty; the central one was closed off by precisely fitted stonework covered with a coat of stucco that still had traces of black pigment. At either end of the gallery were sealed doorways. The tall ceilings were constructed using the Maya corbelled arch, a triangular shaped roof finished with capstones. Charcoal remnants on the floor in front of the sealed chamber indicated that rituals had been performed there. The archeological team, working on a project to maintain Mexico’s cultural heritage, was under the auspices of INAH, the National Institute of Anthropology and History. They all sensed this was an important discovery. Temple XIII abuts the Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque’s tallest pyramid and the burial monument of its famous ruler K’inich Janaab Pakal. In 1942, Pakal’s tomb had been excavated by Alberto Ruz Lhuillier, revealing the first royal Mayan burial in a pyramid, compared in its richness of jade, ceramics and jewelry to the tomb of Egypt’s King Tut. The team made a cut above the sealed door, extended a long-neck lamp through and saw inside a closed sarcophagus carved in one single piece and painted red with cinnabar, a mercuric mineral used as a preservative in burials. Two weeks later, after careful preparations, the team carved a
larger entrance into the chamber and found many artifacts, including a spindle whorl used for weaving, figurines made into whistles, and ceramic bowls that dated the burial between 600-700 CE. In the early hours of June 1, 1994, the team used the hydraulic lift technique that Ruz had applied to open Pakal’s sarcophagus, slowly cranking the monolithic limestone lid off. A strong odor of cinnabar emanated from the sarcophagus, and the workers had to put on face masks. When the lid was moved aside enough to allow entry into the vault, the team beheld a royal form not seen for fourteen centuries. A skeleton lay on its back, bones completely permeated with red cinnabar. On the skull was a diadem of flat, round jade beads; hundreds of bright green fragments framed the cranium. More jade, pearls, shells and bone needles covered and surrounded the skeleton. They were from necklaces, ear spools, and wristlets that adorned the entombed body. On the chest were many flat jade beads and four obsidian blades; three small limestone axes covered the pelvis. The interior of the sarcophagus was coated with cinnabar. A royal burial had been found. It was the biggest discovery in Mesoamerican archeology in 40 years, making headlines and drawing a visit from the Mexican president. Everyone wanted to know who was buried in Temple XIII. Fanny Lopez had an intuition that it was a woman, a Mayan queen. Three months after the discovery, physical anthropologist Arturo Romano Pacheco was sent by INAH to examine the skeleton. He determined from the shape of the pelvic bones and other skeletal markers that it was a woman. Speculation ran rampant
over which Mayan queen was interred next to Pakal: his grandmother Yohl Ik’nal, his mother Sak K’uk, his wife Tz’aakb’u Ahau, or his daughter-in-law K’inuuw Mat. It took many more years to determine this with any certainty. Advances in strontium isotopes and DNA analysis of bones were needed to narrow it down to someone not genetically related to Pakal. Most Mayanists now believe the Red Queen of Temple XIII is Pakal’s wife, Tz’aakb’u Ahau. Since there were no glyphs carved on her sarcophagus or painted on the walls of the tomb, epigraphic confirmation is not available.
The story of Pakal’s wife is brought to life in my historical fiction book:
If you read Spanish, I highly recommend Adriana Malvido’s book La Reina Roja. It details the discovery of the Red Queen’s tomb.