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The Mysterious Mayan Tomb Of Palenque, The Eternal Rest Of The Red Queen

In 1994, the sepulcher of a seventh-century princess impregnated with cinnabar was discovered in a temple in the Mayan city of Palenque.

Palenque is one of the most beautiful and impressive cities in the Mayan area. Called by the ancient Mayans Lakamha’, it was built in the wooded tropical jungle of the Usumacinta river basin, in the Mexican state of Chiapas. During the 7th century, the city experienced a moment of great splendor under the long reign of K’inich Janaab’ Pakal I. It was then that numerous palaces, temples and administrative buildings were erected, including the Temple of the Inscriptions, which hosted the monumental sarcophagus of the monarch.

In 1994, the director of the Palenque archaeological project, Arnoldo González Cruz, decided to excavate in Temple XIII, located next to the Temple of the Inscriptions, in order to study the foundations or the possible hidden substructures under this building. To penetrate it, a tunnel was dug that started from the staircase of the main façade and entered the very heart of the temple. Soon, the team ran into a corridor that gave access to three cameras. Of these, the largest, the central one, was sealed with a wall, at the base of which traces of smoke from some ritual practiced by the ancient Maya could be seen.

The archaeologists understood that this room, sealed on purpose, protected something important. Determined to proceed with caution so as not to damage the decoration or the objects that could have been deposited there, they made a small hole through which they could spy on that space without problems

The remains of the Red Queen, buried in the XIII temple of Palenque


Like Howard Carter seventy years before in the tomb of Tutankhamun, Arnoldo González inserted a flashlight through the crack and looked inside the burial chamber. In the dim light, a small, vaulted room, 4.20 x 2.50 meters, was made out almost entirely by a monolithic limestone tomb, with various ceramic objects scattered around the room. After removing the stones that formed the rough enclosure wall, the archaeologists entered the chamber. There they found two bodies, one located on the east side and the other on the west. Undoubtedly, both had been sacrificed to accompany the high-ranking character deposited in the sarcophagus on his journey.

The body on the east side corresponded to a young woman who was lying on her stomach, in an extended position and with her hands tied behind her back and who had cuts and bruises on her rib cage, undoubtedly wounds inflicted when extracting her heart; the one on the west side was that of a child, also in an extended position and with a severe blow to the back of the neck that had caused his death. Undoubtedly, both had been sacrificed to accompany the high-ranking person deposited in the sarcophagus on his journey.

This had been carved from a single block of limestone and was covered by a heavy slab. In its day it was painted red, but humidity and water leaks had spoiled part of its polychromy. On the lid were found the remains of an incense burner, no doubt used in the burial ritual, which covered a circular opening: the psychoduct, a channel that allowed the soul of the deceased to escape from his body and travel to the underworld. The ancient Mayans used to venerate their ancestors through tomb opening ceremonies. They were offered copal (incense), vessels and food; a way of perpetuating and venerating the memory of the ancestor, something that some indigenous communities still practice.

Seashell from which a small human figurine emerges, discovered in Temple XIII of Palenque


Through the psychoduct, the archaeologists introduced a light and a small camera that allowed to see the interior of the sarcophagus. Thus they distinguished some human remains covered with cinnabar of a bright red color.

The problem that the archaeologists faced was how to access the interior of the sarcophagus without damaging the lid, since the distance between it and the walls did not allow it to be moved. To do this, they designed and manufactured a wood and metal device that would make it possible to raise the roof using hydraulic jacks. As Arnoldo González later recalled, once the structure was assembled they realized that they did not have jacks and had to use those of their own vehicles to proceed to raise the cover. It was five in the morning on June 1, 1994.

When the tomb was opened, the team members began firing the flashes of their cameras non-stop. When the flashes stopped, the archaeologists’ eyes needed a few moments to get used to the gloom and to be able to glimpse the interior of the sarcophagus, which glowed red: the walls and the bottom, the bone remains…, everything was impregnated with the toxic cinnabar powder . In the middle could be sensed the rich decorations that accompanied what she would soon be baptized as the Red Queen.


Malachite mask of the Red Queen after its restoration at the Palenque Museum


Recent studies of the bone remains carried out by the anthropologist Vera Tiesler together with other researchers show that it was a woman between 60 and 70 years old and one and a half meters tall. The richness of her trousseau, the monumentality of her tomb, the cranial deformation –a frequent feature in members of the Mayan nobility– and the scant deterioration of her teeth –a reflection of a healthy and elaborate diet– indicate that this woman belonged to the Palenque elite.

Jewels for a queen

She was a contemporary of the great K’nich Janaab ‘Pakal I and her tombs are very similar, except that the Red Queen’s is devoid of inscriptions. Both characters had been buried in two adjoining temples that occupy a preferential place in the city and in monolithic sarcophagi, something unusual in Mayan burials. The funerary ritual –with their bodies heavily impregnated with cinnabar and the presence of sacrificial victims– seems to have been prepared and executed by the priests themselves.

Vera Tiesler explored various avenues to identify the body. She reconstructed her face and compared it to portraits of Palenque queens that appear on some reliefs. Through the DNA she verified that there was no relationship between Pakal and the lady with the red bones. Studies of the teeth, carried out by the physical anthropologist Andrea Cucina, revealed that they came from a nearby town. All these conclusions point to Ix Tz’akbu Ajaw, originally from the nearby city of Tokhtan or Ox te’kúb, who came to Palenque to marry Pakal I in the year 626, perhaps with the purpose of reinforcing political alliances between the two kingdoms. . Two of her children were also kings of Palenque.

The comparison of the DNA of the Red Queen with that of those who would be her children would constitute the definitive proof of this identification, but the tombs of these sovereigns have not yet been