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Maya Royal Grave On Assignment

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Maya Royal Grave
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Pre-Columbian Prosperity

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By Cliff TarpyPhotographs by Kenneth Garrett

Fit for a king, one of the oldest known Maya burials is discovered unlooted in southwestern Guatemala.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Long hidden beneath a canopy of coffee trees in southwestern Guatemala, a ceremonial plaza cleared of overgrowth only hints at what lies nearby. Within an area of 2.5 square miles (6.5 square kilometers), more than a dozen similar plazas and some 80 buildings have been found—one holding the trappings of an early Maya king. Little is known about this leader who ruled the long-deserted metropolitan center now known as Takalik Abaj, but his domain was one of "extraordinary power," says archaeologist Christa Schieber de Lavarreda of Guatemala's Ministry of Culture and Sport.
One reason for the city's prosperity is reflected in the gravel road  that traces a trade route used during the city's heyday from the eighth century
B.C. through the second century A.D. Merchants hauled highly prized cacao and salt to cities as far away as present-day El Salvador and Mexico, returning with quetzal feathers, pyrite, obsidian, and jade for tools, jewelry, and works of art. "Takalik Abaj evolved into one of the most important economic and cultural centers of early pre-Columbian times," Schieber says.
Excavations here date from the late 19th century after a botanist spied the tips of sculpted stone monuments jutting from the ground. Since then 277 monuments, largely from the Olmec and later Maya cultures, have been discovered at Takalik Abaj, which means "standing stones" in Mayan. (The name was recently corrected from the Spanish-style Abaj Takalik.) Several of the Maya monuments bear intricate inscriptions that have proved to be some of the oldest Maya glyphs. The site is now protected as a national archaeological park.
The locations of the standing stones may be as meaningful as the inscriptions. The careful alignment of the monuments on a large platform called Structure 7 suggests it served as an astronomical observatory. Tracing the alignment, Schieber and her colleagues first uncovered a decorated stela surrounded by an offering of 660 vessels. "As we dug deeper, we got excited when we smelled the carbon deposits of the incense they used in ceremonies," she recalls. Behind that stela, deep inside a small building, the team found the unlooted royal grave. This king, buried in his regalia, is presumably the last of the Maya rulers at Takalik Abaj.

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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

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What's in a name? Everything when it refers to a sacred Maya site.  When the Guatemalan government recently changed Abaj Takalik to Takalik Abaj, the country's Mayan speakers were delighted. In the mid-1960s American archaeologist Suzanne Miles, who was studying the region's sculpted monuments, first called the site Piedra Parada, literally "stones standing."  She soon decided those words in the Quiche Maya language, Abaj Takalik, would be more appropriate. But Maya shamans and leaders objected.  Adjectives do not follow nouns in Mayan, so to them the name grated for decades until Takalik Abaj became official two years ago.
—Jeanne E. Peters
Did You Know?

Related Links
Mayan Language
Want to write your name in Maya hieroglyphs or say hello in Yucatec Maya? Learn how at this University of Oregon website.
Tour Guatemala
Discover the history of one of the most important early Maya sites and other ancient cities at this comprehensive site.
Mesoamerican History
Learn about the latest scholarship on the Maya world and all the Mesoamerican cultures.


Coe, Michael D. The Maya. Thames and Hudson, 1999.
Kelly, Joyce. An Archaeological Guide to Northern Central America: Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. University of Oklahoma Press, 2001.
Miller, Mary, and Karl Taube. An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya. Thames and Hudson, 1997.
Sharer, Robert J. The Ancient Maya. Stanford University Press, 1994.


NGS Resources
Inomata, Takeshi. "Aguateca: New Revelations of the Maya Elite." National Geographic (May 2003), 110-19. 
Zackowitz, Margaret. "Royal City of the Maya." National Geographic (August 2003), 96-9.
Sloan, Christopher P. Bury the Dead: Tombs, Corpses, Mummies, Skeletons and Rituals. National Geographic Books, 2002.
Kostyal, K. M. and Chicki Mallan.  "Deep in the Heart of Mayaland." National Geographic Traveler (November/December 1998), 118-31.
Fagan, Brian. Into the Unknown: Solving Ancient Mysteries. National Geographic Books, 1997.

Stewart, George E. "New Light on the Olmec." National Geographic (Novermber 1993), 88-115.
Stuart, Gene S. "Exploring A Lost Kingdom." National Geographic World (February 1993), 14-7.


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