2008-2009 Field Seasons

Mass Grave – Itzmal Ch’en

One highlight of the discoveries includes evidence for a mass grave containing the remains of at least eighteen elite patrons of the Itzmal Ch’en group. This “bone bed” of human remains was located just ten centimeters below the surface, averaged 40 centimeters deep, and extended across an area 14 meters long by 8 meters wide. The mass grave was located along next to a staircase and along the edge of the platform that supports the ceremonial group buildings. The human bones had been dismembered, chopped apart, and subjected to burning. Among the bones were arrow points that were probably shot into the bodies at the time of death; one arrow tip was found embedded in a scapula (shoulder bone) of a victim. Spherical hammerstones were also found in the deposit that were probably used to chop up the bones. The violent death of these individuals was accompanied by an additional act of desecration: ceramic deity sculpture effigies from the temple, shrines, and halls of Itzmal Chen were smashed and scattered throughout the grave. Other mass graves are known at Mayapan.

A similar broad, shallow scatter of disarticulated humans was found by Carnegie Institution investigator Robert Adams under the plaza surface just outside the city’s main plaza (by Temple Q-80); further work in this locality by Carlos Peraza revealed its broad extent. These bones were buried in a layer of ash, included numerous smashed pottery deity effigies, and one individual had a knife embedded in their rib cage. At least two other mass graves were also found between buildings by Carlos Peraza. The city’s monumental center also has at least two temples with deep shafts filled with disarticulated bones of sacrificial victims, which illustrate that public, ceremonial sacrifice was an important part of Mayapan religious practice. The surface mass graves of Itzmal Ch’en and the central plaza by Temple Q-80 are more suggestive of warfare-related violence that targeted the city’s nobility. Radiocarbon dates on human remains from both of these contexts indicate that the events occurred prior to A.D. 1400, and these results were a big surprise. Mayapan’s violent fall and abandonment between A.D. 1441 and 1451 is well documented in historical accounts, yet these graves attest to invasions and mass deaths at least half a century prior to the end of the city’s occupation. These archaeological findings point to chronic warfare leading up to the collapse of this political capital.

Itzmal Ch’en Colonnaded Hall – An Administrative Meeting Hall

Investigations of the Itzmal Ch’en in 2008 revealed an offering in the altar of Hall H-15, a vessel with the image of Itzam Na (god of sorcery). Also on the hall’s floor were a few offerings of smashed effigy censers and a greenstone object. Evidence of burning in part of the hall suggests the edifice was destroyed, probably at the time the victims in the mass grave were killed. Sculptures in the rooms and along the front of the hall, including a dog, turkey, jaguar, and serpent reveal decorative themes and ritual offerings linked to the hall’s activities.

Itzmal Ch’en Temple

Our findings from the Itzmal Ch’en temple have been separately provided to NGS in a preliminary summary. This temple, now excavated and restored (on three sides), represents one of the largest edifices constructed in the Postclassic Maya realm. This landmark continues to have sacred status to local Yucatec Maya speakers who own the land and live in nearby villages. To review here, an offering of a stone turkey sculpture and sacrificial knife were found in the temple’s upper room behind a stone table top supported by plaster deity figures. The upper surface of the steep temple also revealed a few smashed offerings of deity censers and greenstone objects, including an exquisite jade carved in the form of an olive shell – a symbol for marketplace currency as well as the pendant of the feathered serpent deity (Kukulkan). Many sculptures of serpents were found around the temple, attesting to the fact that it was dedicated to Kukulkan, who is associated with the mythological founding of Mayapan. A stela representing the death god was also found in front of the temple. Sculptures of turtles, old gods, and monkeys were also found, which link rites of the group to celebrations of the sacred calendar and creation myths. The top of the temple was burned upon abandonment, likely during an act of desecration linked to the mass grave event. Analysis of artifacts from the floors of the Itzmal Ch’en temple, hall, and plaza surface is helping us to reconstruct activities performed by patrons during political meetings and calendrical celebrations. These fine-grained studies will also reveal how the consumption economy of the ceremonial group was linked to production patterns within the surrounding neighborhood and other parts of the city.

Dwellings at Mayapan – Social and Occupational Heterogeneity

Horizontal investigations of dwellings were equally exciting. Eight houses have now been fully explored by our project, and five of these were studied in the 2008-2009 seasons. Two commoner houses near Itzmal Ch’en and three examples in the downtown area near the site center were very different in terms of wealth and occupational specialization. The additional discovery of a freestanding stone tool workshop reveals that craft producers sometimes worked outside of their domestic settings – an uncommon practice at ancient Mesoamerican cities. Occupants of the houses were diverse in their professions - members of one family served as guardians to the Itzmal Ch’en temple, others specialized in making obsidian blades, shell ornaments (a currency item at the time), hide or textile working, chalcedony stone tools, and pottery – or combinations of these crafts. Determining the degree of occupational specialization is an essential step in calculating dependencies among urban residents of all social standing. One outlying elite house (2003 season) had eight rooms, including a frontal gallery for festivities, a bench room for private guest reception, a shrine room at the end of a stone passageway, and two storerooms. The house was abandoned prior to A.D. 1400, around the time of the mass graves, and residents smashed all of their beautiful household pottery on the floors of the rooms and then covered them with layers of dirt and rock in what must have been a regretful farewell. We argue that neighborhood administrators lived in this house, and that they profited through trade as their abundant effigy cacao beans and exotic pottery assemblage suggest.

Ceramic Workshop and Unique Offerings of the Trade

Two other discoveries in 2009 were particularly surprising. At a downtown area house that had been identified as a ceramic workshop (due to thick surface lenses of pottery), three offerings were found that consisted of layers of recycled olla bases containing different colored raw clays used to make pottery. Two of these offerings were placed at the transition between earlier and later construction phases.  The third was associated with the burial of an infant located north of the house group.  In effect, these artisans chose to offer materials precious to their livelihood in ritual context. No such offering has ever been reported in the Maya area before.

A Rich Tomb Found in 2009

The final new discovery was also unexpected. At a house in the same downtown neighborhood as the pottery making house described above, we uncovered one of the richest tombs ever found at the city, in the unlikely context of a humble commoner house that was adjacent to a palace. The family grave had two adults and one child, and was buried with copper tweezers, 36 copper bells (including copper and shell necklaces and a monkey effigy copper bell), an engraved copper ring, a polished shell ring, jade beads, miniature pottery vessels, and a pottery puppet figurine and whistle. These grave goods were concentrated around the bones of a small child – other lavish graves at the city (found by the Carnegie Project in the 1950’s) also seem to involve child burials. The richness of this grave was unexpected as we had hypothesized that the residents of the modest house in which it was found worked as servants to the small palace compound next door (Group Q-41). Clearly, the identity of the occupants needs to be reconsidered. The house may have been occupied by relatives of the palace group who chose to settle in a neighboring vacant lot, off of the elevated platform. Many other alternative interpretations are possible in accounting for the grave’s inventory and the precious status of its smallest occupant. No other signs of wealth or elite status were found at the house, which performed ordinary activities, including stone tool-making. Some servants were esteemed and had prestigious duties. Elaborate child and adult graves at small houses in Mayapan’s ceremonial center (such as those found by the Carnegie Institution) may contain the remains of special guardians (and their offspring) charged with maintenance of sacred edifices.