You don’t need to be an archeologist to ascertain that unusual burials are a good sign that there were some strange circumstances surrounding the dead and how they died. However, amateur and professional archeologists alike are baffled by a recent find in Mexico – ten human skeletons were discovered buried on their sides in a spiral circle with their arms intertwined. That can’t be a good sign … and it gets worse. Some of the skulls showed signs of intentional deformation
The 2400-year-old remains were found in Tlalpan, the largest borough (delegaciones) of the Federal District of Mexico City. According to the National Institute of Anthropology and History, the remains were found one-and-a-half meters below the Pontifical University of Mexico and are the largest collection of skeletons from the Preclassic period (1000 BCE-250 CE) ever found in the Basin or Valley of Mexico. (A video of the site can be seen here and a photo of the circle of skeletons here.)
And what a strange collection it is. Two of the skeletons are definitely females and one is a male – the genders of the rest have not been determined. The ages range from one adult to a 3-year-old infant and a one-month-old baby, with the rest being teens or young adult. It was the circular, interlocking burial and the sideways positions of the skeletons that caught the attention of archeologist Lucía López Mejía.
“We have different anatomical depositions: ventral flexion, hyperflexion with the lower limbs bent towards the pelvis, dorsal decubitus with the limbs towards the abdomen, and extended ventral decubitus. The bodies were buried ‘interacting’ between them, that’s why we talked about the same event.”
So the bodies were buried together and positioned so that the arms of each were wrapped around the body of another. While obviously this was part of some sort of ritual, Mejía and her colleagues have few clues to what it might signify. There were also bowls and pots buried with them and some had ceramic spheres and stones in their hands.
Then there’s the skulls.
“From the observable, a couple of individuals have intentional cephalic deformation, dental mutilation is also detected in some cases, pathologies such as osteocytes in the vertebrae and generalized tooth wear.”
While not as visually apparent as the elongated skulls, dental mutilations in the form of inlays, tooth sharpening and even the filing of teeth into serrated (notched or saw-like) shapes were known to be performed by older Mayan women on younger women using grinding stones and water. (Insert sound of screaming here.) That fits with the ages of the skeletons. While the purpose isn’t known, the mutilations are suspected to indicate social status or be part of religious rituals.
Why were they buried on their sides in a circle? Why were they buried together? Why was there such a range of ages? Why the mutilations? The remains are from the Mayan Preclassic period, which mysteriously collapsed between 100 and 250 CE. With the unusualness of this burial and the mutilations, more excavations are expected at this site in the hopes of finding clues to the rituals, the history and the collapse of the Preclassic Mayan culture.
With the long heads and saw teeth, perhaps the cause was embarrassment.
And yes, Spiral of Skeletons would be a great name for a band.