Monte Alban's lavish tombs reveal how Mesoamerican rulers were immortalized


For ancient Mesoamerican civilizations, mortuary rites were of great importance, as they represented the beginning of a long journey to the underworld, the place of the dead. For this journey between life and death, the rulers were given offerings richly adorned with gold, green stones, animals and vessels, but they also had lavish tombs built for them, with which they were able to pass to immortality.

Pakal mask. Image: INAH
Pakal mask. Image: INAH

The Mixtec, Mexica and Maya cultures had differences, but also similarities, for example, they had many myths about death. They were terrified of losing their lives, so they imagined a series of places where they would go after their time on earth. The truth is that their bodies would not go anywhere, and the offerings remained as witnesses of their greatness and the power they achieved.

During the 20th century, many of these tombs were opened as a window to the past. Such are Tomb 7 of Monte Alban, in Oaxaca; that of Pakal II, in the Temple of the Inscriptions, and that of the Red Queen in Temple XIII of Palenque; and that of Ahutizotl, which could be found in front of the Great Temple, among others.

Tomb 7

Tomb 7 was located by Alfonso Caso in 1932 in Monte Alban, one of the oldest cities in Mesoamerica, founded by the Zapotecs in 500 B.C.; its hegemony in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca lasted several centuries, its peak was between 200 and 750 A.D., a time when it coexisted with other cities such as Teotihuacan and Cholula. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Alfonso Caso set himself the task of studying the Zapotec and Mixtec cultures that occupied what is now the state of Oaxaca.

In his first season of work, which began on January 6, 1932, he explored the North platform and several tombs. The one assigned with the number 7 turned out to be the most interesting; it corresponds to Monte Alban's Epoch III (200 -750 A.D.), and it was reused in the Late Epoch V (1300-1521 A.D.).

In the tomb, which consisted of a chamber and an antechamber, Alfonso Caso found nine skeletons distributed, one at the bottom of the tomb, three near the south wall of the second chamber, one in the north wall and four in the sill and part of the first chamber.

Caso had the support of Dr. Daniel Rubín de la Borbolla, who studied the remains and came to the conclusion that the bones were removed from other places and placed in Tomb 7, and must have belonged to Mixtec characters of high hierarchy.

Among the pieces that composed the funeral offering it highlights a pectoral of gold in form of tiger knight, vessels of alabaster, rings, a bird's head with the eyes of gold, an eagle's head, that in the part of back had a layer of gold, a fan handle, a diadem, several earrings, jade necklaces, snails, the face of Xipe Totec, god of jewelers, which could have served as a belt clasp, because it was found near the iliac bone, among other objects.

Pakal II

Years later, another outstanding archaeologist, Alberto Ruz, went into the Chiapas jungle to carry out a field season in Palenque, a Mayan city that had great influence in the region during the Classic period (600-800 A.D.). The site was visited since 1730 by Canon Ramón de Ordóñez, but it was on June 15, 1952, when the burial chamber of Pakal II was discovered.

K'inich Janahb Pakal, better known as Pakal II, is the name given to the ruler whose body was deposited in the limestone sarcophagus found in the Temple of the Inscriptions. His mandate extended from July 26, 615 A.D. to the time of his death on August 28, 683 A.D., which means that he ruled for more than sixty years.

The entrance of Alberto Ruz to the funerary chamber was not simple, because the interior stairway of the Temple of the Inscriptions was filled with stones; as it was released a series of offerings and burials were found, which speak of the sacredness of the place.

While excavating the burials, he noticed a triangular doorway on the north side. Ruz removed a part of the stones and then he could see the interior of the chamber: a slab that occupied a good part of it, and on it diverse objects, among them fragments of jade, stone earrings, mother-of-pearl plates and marine shell.

Inside the crypt they found a stone sarcophagus covered by a carved slab, and inside the walls were polished and painted with red cinnabar pigment. The tomb contained the skeletal remains of an individual who had been buried with his jewels on and shrouded in a red-painted shroud, the fabric of which disintegrated, the pigment adhering to the bones and jewels.

Ruz made a detailed record of the skeleton as well as of the jewelry found: mask formed by jade mosaics, shell eyes and obsidian iris, jade earrings, a diadem, five pearls, earrings, 189 beads, two jade bracelets, two nose rings, ten jade rings, jade beads near the feet, five jade figurines and bone pins.

The Red Queen

Four decades later, in 1994, Arnoldo Gonzalez found a new tomb in Temple XIII of Palenque, very close to the Temple of the Inscriptions, in which the remains of a woman they called the "Red Queen" were found. Like Pakal, she was buried with sacrificed individuals and a lavish trousseau, consisting of mask, diadem, jadeite beads, pearls and axes. The two tombs correspond to the Otulum period, between 600 and 700 AD. According to the representations located on panels, as well as DNA studies, physical anthropology and epigraphy, Mrs. Tz'ak-b'u Ajaw, wife of Pakal, was buried in this building.


This refers to the tomb of the Mexica tlatoani Ahuítzotl, which could be under the monolith of Tlaltecuhtli, located in 2006 in the Casa de las Ajaracas, in front of the Templo Mayor, by Leonardo López Luján. This supposition is based on a glyph carved on the claw of Tlaltecuhtli (goddess of the earth) with the calendrical date 10 rabbit that refers to the year 1502, when the eighth Tenochca ruler died. Historical sources also indicate that several rulers were cremated in front of the Templo Mayor, and their ashes were placed in a building called Cuauhxicalco.

Fernando de Alvarado in Crónica mexicana narrates that the priests made a very high tomb, which they called tlacochcalli, and another called tzihuac calli, where they deposited the body of the king, while the priests chanted and added dry wood that they set on fire. The six slaves that would be sacrificed in honor to Ahuítzotl were adorned with feathers, weapons, earrings and gold of the ruler. The next day the priests collected the ashes, placed them in a new pot and buried them in the Cuauhxicalco, however, so far the remains of the tlatoani have not been found.

Source: INAH