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Mayan Tomb Reveals Clues to Mysterious Snake Dynasty

Archeologists digging in Xunantunich, an ancient Mayan city in Western Belize, have discovered one of the largest Mayan royal tombs ever, containing not just a skeleton but writings that shed new light on a mysterious and powerful ‘Snake Dynasty’ that ruled the area 1,300 years ago.

What’s amazing about the discovery of this tomb is that we know that archaeologists have been working at Xunantunich since the 1890s.

Jaime Awe from Northern Arizona University led the team that found the huge Mayan burial temple, measuring 4.5 meters (14.7 feet) by 2.4 meters (7.9 feet), buried about 20 feet deep. Both its size and purpose made it an unusual find, says Awe.

… it appears that the temple was purposely erected for the primary purpose of enclosing the tomb. Except for a very few rare cases, this is not very typical in ancient Maya architecture.

Digging in the tomb

Digging in the tomb

What they found inside added to its mystery. The skeleton was of a muscular man in his 20s. He was buried with bones of a jaguar and a deer, jade beads, obsidian blades, and 36 ceramic vessels – signs that he may have been of some importance. Was he a ruler of the Snake Dynasty?

Panels found in the tomb were covered with hieroglyphics that told of the ruling family that used a snake’s head as its symbol. According to epigrapher Christophe Helmke, the panels described the conquests of Lord K’an II, the ruler of the ancient city of Caracol located 26 miles from the tomb. They also mention the death of K’an’s mother, Lady Batz’ Ek’. But the most startling discovery were additional panels showing the feats of another Snake Dynasty king, Waxaklajuun Ubaah K’an, who appeared to have ruled at the same time, competed with K’an for the ultimate title of Kanu’l Ajaw (“King of the place where snakes abound”) … and may have been his brother! These aren’t just hieroglyphics, they’re a Mayan soap opera!


In the findings published in the Journal of the Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute, Helmke point out that these panels are actually explanations of the beginning and the end of the Snake Dynasty. It began in Dzibanche in the Yucatan peninsula and moved to Calakmul when Lady Batz’ Ek’m who was from what is now Guatemala, married the ruler of Caracol. The dynasty ended with the fight for power between the two K’ans.

Is the skeleton in the tomb one of the brothers? It’s hard to say since the hieroglyphic panels were moved to Xunantunich from Caracol. Whoever he is, its discovery in this tomb hidden for so long in a well-researched area shows how little we know about the Mayans and how rich their history is.

The Xunantunich Maya Ruins

The Xunantunich Maya Ruins