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Death and the Classic Maya Kings

Death and the Classic Maya Kings

The first comprehensive study of ancient Maya death rites in twenty years.

Series: The Linda Schele Endowment in Maya and Pre-Columbian Studies, The Linda Schele Series in Maya and Pre-Columbian Studies

January 2009
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321 pages | 7 x 9 | 12 color images in section, 60 line drawings, 4 maps, 6 tables |

Like their regal counterparts in societies around the globe, ancient Maya rulers departed this world with elaborate burial ceremonies and lavish grave goods, which often included ceramics, red pigments, earflares, stingray spines, jades, pearls, obsidian blades, and mosaics. Archaeological investigation of these burials, as well as the decipherment of inscriptions that record Maya rulers' funerary rites, have opened a fascinating window on how the ancient Maya envisaged the ruler's passage from the world of the living to the realm of the ancestors.

Focusing on the Classic Period (AD 250-900), James Fitzsimmons examines and compares textual and archaeological evidence for rites of death and burial in the Maya lowlands, from which he creates models of royal Maya funerary behavior. Exploring ancient Maya attitudes toward death expressed at well-known sites such as Tikal, Guatemala, and Copan, Honduras, as well as less-explored archaeological locations, Fitzsimmons reconstructs royal mortuary rites and expands our understanding of key Maya concepts including the afterlife and ancestor veneration.

  • A Note on Orthography
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1: Celebrations for the Dead
    • Anthropology and Death Rituals
    • The Classic Maya Case
    • Methodological Concerns
    • Kingship and the Ancestors
  • Chapter 2: Death and the Afterlife in the Lowlands
    • Earth
    • Maize
    • Mortality
    • Writing Death
    • The Self and the Soul
    • Breaths of Life and Death
    • Way
    • To the Afterlife
    • Celestial Bodies and Maize Gods
  • Chapter 3: Royal Funerals
    • Waiting for Interment
    • Gravemakers
    • Tombs as Underworld Surfaces
    • Tombs as Caves
    • Tombs as Houses
    • Timing and the Ritual Process
    • Embalming and Processing
    • Dressing and Bundling the Corpse
    • Painting
    • Arranging the Body, Arranging the Furniture
    • Sealing the Tomb
  • Chapter 4: Death and Landscape
    • K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo'
    • Lowland Founders and Local Variations
    • Cults of Personality
    • Bird Jaguar IV
    • Gods and Orchards at Palenque
    • Souls within Buildings
    • Ancestor Shrines
  • Chapter 5: Entering the Tombs of the Classic Maya Kings
    • Patterns of Reentry at Piedras Negras
    • Fire in the Motmot Burial
    • Fire and History at Tonina
    • Family Affairs
    • False Reentry
    • Painting, Drilling, and Bone Peeling
    • The Portable Dead
  • Chapter 6: The Dead King and the Body Politic
    • Royal Funerals: Public or Private?
    • Bodies and Monuments
    • Corpses, Souls, and Mourners in Transition
  • Guide to Appendixes
  • Appendix 1: Burial Structures and Contexts
  • Appendix 2: Body Preparations and Funerary Activities
  • Appendix 3: Grave Goods
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

James L. Fitzsimmons is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Middlebury College and is currently directing excavations at the site of Zapote Bobal, Guatemala.


Rituals surrounding death are informed not only by biological concerns but also by social and religious norms of behavior. As a primary focus in sociocultural anthropology, the study of death witnessed an explosion in theoretical refinement and scope over the last few decades of the twentieth century, expanding far beyond its modest nineteenth-century origins in the study of social organization to address broad philosophical and anthropological issues. Archaeology has followed a similar path, with speculative, chronological, and cultural approaches to burials supplanted by the concerns of processual and postprocessual theory. Yet most analytical approaches to death have at their theoretical roots the work of early-twentieth-century sociologists such as Robert Hertz and Arnold van Gennep, themselves the by-products of a larger, late-nineteenth-century tradition initiated by Émile Durkheim and published in L'Année sociologique. Through their work, we see death reflecting and shaping social values, ideas that find resonance even among the tombs and temples of Classic Period Mesoamerica.


The crux of van Gennep's thesis, originally formulated for societies in Madagascar and Indonesia, is that death rituals—part of a class of rituals concerned with the transition from one status to another, such as initiation or marriage—consist of a tripartite structure. These involve a separation from the original status, a liminal period, and a reincorporation of the individual into a new social status; a "death" and subsequent "rebirth" into a new identity are characteristic of each of the three stages.


Hertz dealt with a similar situation in Borneo: his fieldwork revealed a number of societies that did not see death as instantaneous. One notable example from his research involves a period when the body is neither alive nor fully dead. Set rituals are undertaken, including secondary burial and feasting, to bring the dead out of the liminal stage into a new social status, that of an ancestor. Although Hertz did not categorize or even number these stages, his concern with the liminal phase of death rites has, along with van Gennep's approach, set the standard for subsequent elaborations and refinements of the anthropology of mortuary ritual. More important for the present study, however, has been his idea that the changing state of the body during these ceremonies often reflects the changing state of the soul. Viewing these states from three sides of death—corpse, soul, and mourners—Hertz pioneered a new form of comparative analysis that continues to be used in modern research.


As can be surmised, the application of these ideas—or their subsequent elaborations—to archaeological contexts presents a difficult problem. Lacking living participants in ancient death rites, archaeologists are denied direct access to ceremony outside of ethnographic or ethnohistoric information. Attempting to view "the three sides of death" is far more difficult when all of the participants have expired! Nevertheless, traditional approaches to rank and status are today complemented by studies addressing death in all its symbolic and sociological roles, including cultural attitudes toward mortality as well as ideas about the afterlife. In Mesoamerica, works by van Gennep, Hertz, or other more recent theorists have had a lesser impact; in the Maya lowlands, there have not been many attempts to reconcile the anthropology of death with artifactual remains in a systematic way.


For the Classic Maya (AD 250-900), the works of Alberto Ruz Lhuillier and W. Bruce M. Welsh remain the foremost analyses of burial practice. The former's focus on grave goods, orientation, and patterns in mortuary practice was adopted in subsequent studies of the Maya area and at Teotihuacan. Documenting the widespread presence of specific grave goods and burial patterns for the Classic Maya, Ruz Lhuillier synthesized information from numerous sites throughout the lowlands, building upon interpretations from site reports and attempting to reconstruct elements of Classic Maya religion and ideology. The task of reconstructing elements of Classic Maya religion has since been met in a variety of ways, ranging from specific analyses of underworld supernaturals to generalized treatments of belief systems.


The more technical study by Welsh established firm grave typologies for the Maya lowlands and dealt with grave orientations, social implications of grave goods, and general burial practices based on patterns in such behavior as skeletal mutilation or human sacrifice among elite as well as household interments. As he did not examine epigraphic or iconographic data, Welsh proposed general patterns of Pan-Maya and regional practice based on archaeological evidence augmented by references to ethnography and ethnohistory. Despite these limitations, his work continues to be relevant to scholars of Classic Maya mortuary analysis.


Recent developments in hieroglyphic and iconographic decipherment have changed the way Classic Maya religion is studied, to the point where such issues as perceptual psychology, ancestor worship, and the sociopolitical aspects of "tomb entering" rituals can be viewed textually in the words of ancient Maya scribes and their kings. Elaborate rites of death, spanning from days to hundreds of years, have been identified for specific individuals and support the existence of multiple stages of death and rebirth, in some ways similar to those noted earlier for Indonesia and Madagascar. Moreover, knowledge of these rituals is now beginning to be applied to archaeological examples. In light of these developments, a broader anthropological analysis of Classic Maya remains seems justified.


The "language" of royal Classic Maya burials—as a material, textual, and iconographic entity—is the focus of this work. Viewing this language through a lens of developments in contemporary Mesoamerican archaeology and anthropology, I examine how royal written and iconographic records of Classic Maya mortuary rituals accord with archaeological evidence. Although this study focuses primarily on examples from sites where mortuary epigraphy, archaeology, and iconography converge, I have used supporting data from sites where one or more of these are in evidence. Testing the archaeological record with examples from text and iconography does not presume superiority of one over the other for understanding Classic Maya religion, but rather explores the continuities and discontinuities that can be gleaned from existing data. Moreover, although examples from text are used to posit models for royal mortuary ceremonialism, significant inter- and intrasite variations exist. Investigating these sheds light not only on individual or local strategies for interment but also on the sociopolitical and religious climate that brought about ceremonies for the dead.


Anthropology and Death Rituals


In a widely cited work on the use of ethnographic parallels in archaeology, Peter Ucko has pointed out that multiple analogies are a crucial factor in the explanation of material remains. In the case of a burial, aspects such as orientation, grave goods, or tomb construction do not necessarily imply belief in an afterlife and therefore require supporting data. This is precisely why combining archaeology, epigraphy, iconography, and multiple lines of ethnographic inquiry appears to be the most rigorous methodological approach to the Classic Maya case. Nevertheless, we might analyze the ways in which these lines of ethnography fit within broader anthropological theory. In looking at ethnography to provide meaning, we may overlook the theoretical context of an ethnographic example within the anthropology of death itself. To provide this framework for the current research, I have drawn upon models first constructed—and subsequently revised and elaborated upon—in the early part of the twentieth century. Influenced in large part by Durkheim's notions of self and society, these models involve rites of passage and changes in societal state. Criticized as "vague truisms" but vindicated in the same breath, they require a brief explanation as well as a defense of their applicability to the present work.


Focusing on the opposition between individual autonomy and societal integration, Durkheim was instrumental in shaping the sociology of religion. He saw religion as a collection of commonly held beliefs uniting individuals within society and, at the same time, defining separate identities within that whole. This tension between society and autonomy plays out in the work of van Gennep, where various aspects of the death ceremony draw lines between, divide, and reintegrate corpse and culture. In his schemes, ceremonies involving transition, such as those performed for marriage, pregnancy, or death, are characterized by a tripartite structure. These are illustrated in Table 1, where states are broken up into three schemes: (I) single distinctions; (II) two categories; and (III) three "ceremonial" stages.


The first stage of scheme III involves rites of separation, preliminal rites, which divorce individuals from their previous status. In childbirth rites among the Toda of India, for example, van Gennep notes a separation of the expectant mother from her village and all sacred places, imbibing ritual drinks and marking herself with burns. The second liminal, or threshold, rites involve a transitional state—in the case example, this is a return to her home, the performance of appropriate rites, and a waiting period ending in the delivery of the child. The final postliminal rites require the incorporation of the individual into a new status, ceremonies once again changing the role of the individual within society. For the Toda, mother and child leave the house to live in a special hut two or three days after childbirth. Rites are performed for the departure from the house, departure from the hut, and the return to the house, identical to those marking the preliminal period. While lacking the elaboration of the pre- and postliminal rites, death rituals among the Toda accentuated the liminal period, a characteristic noted by van Gennep for a number of societies in India, Indonesia, and Madagascar.


Although van Gennep was concerned with a wide array of rituals marking transition, Hertz limited his study to funerals and secondary burials in Indonesia, particularly those performed by the Berawan in Borneo. Concentrating on the "intermediary period," which is roughly analogous to the liminal in van Gennep's work, Hertz observed a period, lasting anywhere between eight months and ten years, when the deceased was in between life and death. Within a temporary burial place, in many cases a miniature wooden house raised on piles or a roofed platform, the corpse remained in state until its flesh was gone. At this time, the village prepared a "great feast" (magnitude determined by length of decay), and the bones were processed and reburied at a new location. Combining these rituals with observations on religious practices in Borneo, Hertz proposed that the fate of the body in these death rites was analogous to the fate of the soul. The corpse, in the process of decay and putrescence, was a model for the soul: during the "intermediary period," the soul was homeless and an object of dread, unable to enter the afterlife. The feast, he observed, marked the end of this period and the celebration of the soul's arrival into the land of the dead, indicated by the now-dry bones and the reestablishment of more "friendly" social relations with the deceased. Stressing the interrelationship of corpse, soul, and mourners, Hertz provided a case study and model for future analyses of burial rites and secondary burials.


Scholarship since these two seminal works has illustrated their strengths as well as their weaknesses. As noted by Peter Metcalf and Robert Huntington, van Gennep's initial idea—that rituals have a beginning, a middle, and an end—appears simplistic. The merit of his analysis, as they assert, is in demonstrating the similarities between the preliminal, liminal, and postliminal rituals; each involves a symbolic "death" of the old status and the construction of a new one.


With respect to death rituals, the liminal phase has been a topic of much elaboration. For example, in exploring the concept of "liminality" in the death rites of the Ndembu of southern Africa, Victor Turner developed the view that liminality was a "state of transition" whereby the deceased was "betwixt and between" normal societal roles. Extending this analysis outside of southern Africa, Turner saw the liminal period as a static, autonomous point in the death process. Metcalf and Huntington have criticized this view, cautioning that the static view of liminality divorces it from larger processes of change and transformation. Liminality, they argue, should be explained in terms of change, process, and passage. Yet even van Gennep observed that liminality in death rites could be somewhat static:


A study of the data . . . reveals that the rites of separation are few in number while the transition rites have a duration and complexity sometimes so great that they must be granted a sort of autonomy.


Likewise, some of the most influential modern mortuary studies have drawn upon van Gennep's tripartite arrangement to analyze the relationship between funerary ritual and social structure. Occasionally we see a disparity between mortuary behavior and social status, a problem facing archaeologists in the field as well as sociocultural anthropologists. As observed by Jack Goody and Peter Metcalf in West Africa and Borneo, respectively, this disconnection can take the form of ennoblement, where corpses of politically unimportant or marginal individuals are dressed in royal finery or set within elaborate mausoleums. Death provides an excuse for a leader to consolidate power, as per Metcalf, or a social group to direct attention to its prosperity in the form of a dressed body, as among the Lo Dagaa in West Africa. While this ennoblement may not be relevant to royal funerals among the Classic Maya, the idea that a tripartite or similar arrangement can be manipulated to serve political ends will be a central theme in this book.


Despite these adaptations of van Gennep's work, his basic tenets remain widely used in the anthropology of death. Wary but admiring of the application of his ideas to multiple societies, Metcalf and Huntington have provided the best criticism and defense of van Gennep to date:


Van Gennep's notion that a funeral ritual can be seen as a transition that begins with the separation of the deceased from life and ends with his or her incorporation into the world of the dead is merely a vague truism unless it is positively related to the values of the particular culture. The continued relevance of van Gennep's notion is not due to the tripartite analytical scheme itself, but to the creative way it can be combined with cultural values to grasp the conceptual vitality of each ritual.


The model of preliminal, liminal, and postliminal rites must therefore be culturally embedded to be analytically useful.


Equally important are critiques and revisions of the model provided by Hertz. The idea that the passage of the soul is comparable to the decay of the body may indeed be an "invariate universal," but exceptions have been observed. In Madagascar, for example, Bara funeral customs lack the concept of a journeying soul, whereas clearly defined conceptions of an afterlife are characteristic of Merina funeral rites. Moreover, Hertz did not take into account issues of differential status in his work, a just equally relevant to sociocultural and archaeological anthropology.


Focusing wholly on these exceptions and refinements, however, ignores the scope and intent of Hertz's work. The majority of his ideas did not address "universal" theories of death like van Gennep; he limited his work to a set group of cases within a clearly defined culture area. The true value of his approach to scholars outside Indonesia can be found in the idea that one can review the symbolism of death rites to find mirrors in changing societal roles and relations. It is the idea that the fate of the body can mirror the fate of the soul—or a change in the relationship between deceased and society—and not that it will, that can be applied outside the Indonesian context. As Catherine Bell has pointed out, the body is not necessarily the "mere physical instrument of the mind" but can represent the social person; as such, we should compare the rites and attitudes associated with the physical body in order to understand changes to the social one.


Therefore, the purpose of this book is not to force the models of van Gennep, Hertz, Turner, or others onto the Classic Maya example, but to examine their more general tenets within the context of Maya archaeology, epigraphy, and iconography. Karl Taube was the first to apply the idea of liminality to Mesoamerican examples in his work on Yucatecan New Year festivals; further efforts to tie Mesoamerican archaeology to such models have been made, for example, by Shirley Mock in her study of termination rites. The present work builds upon their initiatives by drawing on models of liminality and body-soul equivalency to explain Classic Maya mortuary behavior. To illustrate how these ideas can be investigated with respect to the Classic Maya, it is perhaps useful to take an example from one of the largest and best-known cities of tropical lowland Mesoamerica.


The Classic Maya Case


Flourishing within the lush jungle of the southern Yucatán Peninsula (Figure 1), the great Maya cities of the Classic Period rose and fell in a period roughly bounded between AD 250 and AD 909. Among the palace complexes, administrative buildings, and temples at the heart of these centers, Maya rulers commissioned monuments bearing hieroglyphs and portraits illustrating themes of dynastic succession, conquest, and courtly life. One of the best-known polities, centered at the site of Piedras Negras on the Usumacinta River, has been pivotal to our understanding of the Maya inscriptions. As the setting for two major archaeological projects, Piedras Negras has likewise served as a focal point for investigations into nearly every aspect of Classic Maya society, from art and architecture to political economy. Several years ago, I examined the ways in which royal anniversaries—events commemorating births, deaths, and other aspects of personal life—were observed by the Piedras Negras dynasts. The twenty-year anniversary of the death of a ruler, for example, might be marked by a special dance; it might even be celebrated by a "visit" to the tomb so that his survivors could gain access to his remains. Discussing similar practices at the sites of Copan and Seibal, I noted that the time between an initial event—death—and subsequent rites varied within and between sites throughout the Classic Maya lowlands.


In the case of K'inich Yo'nal Ahk I (Ruler 1) of Piedras Negras, who died on February 6, 639 ( 5 Imix 19 K'ayab), the interval was approximately twenty years; our next record of events begins on October 11, 658 ( 3 Lamat 6 Keh). On this day the tomb of Ruler 1 was "censed," that is, burning torches, incense, or both were brought within the burial chamber. Six days later, on the one-k'atun (ca. twenty-year) anniversary of the death of his father, Ruler 2 received a number of royal helmets. Mimicking a rite that took place hundreds of years prior to the occasion and is mentioned on Piedras Negras Panel 2 (Figure 2), this second phase was overseen by the Maya god of lightning (Chaak), an unknown entity (1-Banak 8-Banak), and a figure dubbed the "Jaguar God of the Underworld." Conjured to witness this occasion, these gods were probably complemented by a retinue of earthly subordinates. Clearly, this was an important event in the history of Piedras Negras, where political and religious events converged at precisely recorded times.


The events surrounding these activities are well known. Following the death of K'inich Yo'nal Ahk I, his son waited almost four months to take office. As I demonstrate in subsequent chapters, he may have waited almost a week to lay his father to rest; his successors and contemporaries in the Maya area spent varying—sometimes copious—amounts of time waiting to inter their dead. Thus for the lords of Piedras Negras, we have discrete, dated ceremonies occurring on ritually significant days attached to the death of a ruler. Numbered lapses in time, involving kingship and reigns of rulers, as well as a rich assortment of items recorded on monuments, are complemented by archaeological information confirming a pattern of "tomb firing" at Piedras Negras. Completing this picture is an assortment of scholarly literature on Classic Maya beliefs in the underworld and a wealth of ethnographic data on afterlives, ancestors, and episodic funerary behavior.


From this brief introduction, we might find a series of events that could spell "stages of death" for the Classic Maya rulers of Piedras Negras. The length of time involved in the mortuary rites for K'inich Yo'nal Ahk I suggests practices not unlike those observed by van Gennep and Hertz for radically different societies, involving a "middle period" when royal society at Piedras Negras was in transition. But while it is tempting to try to fit the death of Ruler 1 into a tripartite scheme or other universal, it seems more useful to analyze the Classic Maya example as an entity unto itself. As Metcalf and Huntington note:


It is necessary not merely to apply an old formula to new rituals, but in a sense to create anew the rites of passage in a dynamic relationship among the logic of the schema (transitions need beginnings and ends), biological facts (corpses rot), and culturally specific symbolizations.


By examining the Classic Maya case for archaeologically, textually, and iconographically represented rituals, we can begin to reconstruct models for how the Maya conceived of death and, perhaps more importantly, how mortuary rites were carried out from beginning to end. In creating these models, we might find that the sociocultural anthropology of death—as represented by the ideas of van Gennep, Hertz, and their successors—and the archaeological anthropology of the Maya are two halves of a greater conceptual whole.


Methodological Concerns


The royal focus of the Classic Maya inscriptions presents limitations for this study of ancient rites of death and burial. Written by and for a ruling minority, the texts were a form of communication shared between select individuals in polities throughout the Classic Maya landscape. Given that this study is a comparison of what can be gleaned from the archaeological, epigraphic, and iconographic records of kings in combination, I focus out of necessity on the royal sector of Classic Maya society, as defined by the burials of rulers or their immediate families. That royal sector in turn is limited to those sites—largely confined to the southern lowlands—that historically bore a tradition of strong, centralized kingship. As these burials were not, for the most part, the result of human sacrifice, I do not generally focus on this concept, a topic requiring separate volumes for its importance in Classic Maya history. The ideas and conclusions expressed in this book thus center on a fairly small segment of Classic Maya society in space and time. Nevertheless, burials from all segments and geographic areas of the Classic Maya world are available for study and comparison, and where applicable, I use their data for analogy to the royal situation.


There is clear evidence that many sites shared common beliefs about the afterlife and the process of death. These commonalities are most observable in the phrasing of death (e.g., k'a'ay u sak "flower" ik'il, "it finishes, his white flower breath," or ochb'ih, "road-entering") on Maya monuments and in the use of conventions in grave construction, grave goods, symbolism, and site layout. The "ideology" of a Maya tomb, as Michael Coe has described, is somewhat universal. The problem lies in the application of these broad views on death to individual contexts: most of the burials to be discussed, even within a single site or narrow time frame, display variations on common themes of descent, rebirth, and flowery paradises. Where appropriate, I deal with these variations and commonalities epigraphically as well as archaeologically. We might look to wider sociopolitical developments in the lowlands to explain this variation: changing power relationships between and within sites certainly affected the dissemination of ideas. Likewise, religion itself is an evolving, changing entity. Fashions come and go and are not always explainable through the lens of politics or social aggrandizement. Where possible, I have used archaeology and epigraphy to delve into this problem, pointing out situations where motives or changing modes of belief are evident.


Another methodological concern lies in the use of the term royal to describe interments. Two publications have defined criteria by which interments, barring epigraphic evidence, can be identified as royal. The first of these, by Estella Weiss-Krejci and T. Patrick Culbert, addresses a broad lowland sample of Maya burials and defines royal burials by the statistical frequency of tombs, ceramics in large quantity (>13), red pigments, earflares, stingray spines, jades in large quantity, pearls, obsidian blades, and mosaics. In this study, there is a broad correlation between the first six of these categories, with smaller frequencies of the latter three. The second publication, limited to Piedras Negras and by Fitzsimmons et al., identifies a royal burial based on a series of similarities with other high-status interments at the site. In this case, the similarities include a carved bloodletter, a large number of jade artifacts, a jade stingray spine, the presence of a vaulted tomb, and hieroglyphs identifying its occupant as "royal." Yet no pearls, obsidian eccentrics, or mosaics were recovered; only one vessel was found within this tomb. Clearly there are some discrepancies between these definitions of royalty.


However, we must remember that sites were discrete entities, and kings, the rulers of distinct—and oftentimes independent—polities. Alberto Ruz Lhuillier (1968) and W. B. M. Welsh (1988) have noted a series of significant regional and local patterns, including:


  1. a relative paucity of grave ceramics in Palenque and Piedras Negras interments;
  2. a comparatively small number of bowl-over-skull burials at Copan, Piedras Negras, Palenque, and Tonina;
  3. the reuse of graves for successive interments at Tonina and Palenque;
  4. a predominantly northern head orientation for graves at Piedras Negras, Palenque, Tonina, Tikal, and Uaxactun; and
  5. a predominantly eastern head orientation for graves at Uaxactun (temples only), Dzibilchaltun, Seibal, Altar de Sacrificios (northern in residences), Copan, and Altun Ha (only in residences).


Thus while a broader model of royalty is both necessary and useful for comparing funerary behaviors at sites, we must keep in mind local patterns as well. What is identifiably royal at a site like Tikal—where royal burials adhere to or even exceed all qualifications of royalty heretofore provided—cannot be wholeheartedly applied to qualify or disqualify royal interments elsewhere, particularly at sites like Palenque or Piedras Negras. Consequently, I primarily limit the sample of this study to individual interments identified epigraphically, iconographically, archaeologically, or contextually as royal by their excavators. At the same time, I have designated as "royal" a small number of burials that, while falling within the Weiss-Krejci and Culbert parameters for royalty, clearly stand apart from other local or regional interments. The result is a conservative list of royal burials, which appears as Appendix 1, that takes into account individual site peculiarities. The burials in this appendix do not represent all of the known royal burials in the Classic Maya lowlands; instead, they represent a sample of burials about which enough information is published or readily accessible to provide insights into the kings and queens of the Classic Maya world.


A final methodological concern involves the applicability of ethnographic and ethnohistoric data. Conceptions of death drawn from these sources are set within a context of syncretic pre- and postcontact ideas ranging between God and indigenous supernaturals. Ethnohistoric accounts from Yucatan, for example, display an amalgamation of Christian and native conceptions of the afterlife:


They said that this future life was divided into a good and a bad life—into a painful one and one full of rest. The bad and the painful one was for the vicious people, while the good and the delightful one was for those who had lived well according to their manner of living. The delights which they said they were to obtain, if they were good, were to go to a delightful place, where nothing would give them pain and where they would have an abundance of foods and drinks of great sweetness, and a tree which they call there yaxche, very cool and giving great shade, which is the ceiba, under the branches and the shadow of which they would rest and forever cease labor. The penalties of a bad life, which they said that the bad would suffer, were to go to a place lower than the other, which they called Metnal, which means "hell," and be tormented in it by the devils and by great extremities of hunger, cold, fatigue and grief.


Thus, it is difficult to draw the line between pre- and postcontact developments with certainty; we cannot divorce this "heaven" and "hell" of sixteenth-century Yucatan from what we identify as "native" in postcontact accounts. Nowhere is the problem of analogy more evident than in our own conceptions of the Classic Maya Underworld (Figure 3), largely based on a postcontact version of the Quiche Popol Vuh. To draw absolute correlations between the Classic and the Colonial is to deny seven hundred years of indigenous religious change that developed through the influx of Christianity, Central Mexican, lowland, and highland ideas.


However, even in examining ethnographic and ethnohistoric sources it is clear that there are widespread similarities crossing ethnic, temporal, and linguistic boundaries. For example, central to many conceptions of illness and death among the modern and historic Maya is the idea of "soul-loss," a concept observed among the Lacandon, the Zinacantecos, and a number of highland Maya groups. Death is the result of "fright" from the gods, the death of an animal spirit-companion, or the sale of the soul to the "Earth Lord" (witz). Similar ideas are represented in the ethnohistoric literature by such texts as The Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel and The Ritual of the Bacabs. For these groups, the soul is thought to leave the body at the point of death, eventually joining a pool of ancestors worshipped at the community or individual level. There is clear evidence that similar ideas are represented in the archaeology and epigraphy of the ancient Maya.


Illustrating this point are two examples of soul-loss and ancestor worship from Classic Maya texts. The idea that the soul is removed from the body as a cause and function of death is represented textually by the use of the word ik', synonymously translated as "breath," "life," "spirit" in death phrases on monuments and pottery: k'a'ay u sak "flower" ik'il, "it ends, his white ? breath." Visually, this breath is depicted as "traveling" on pottery, where death's heads appear with ascending ik' glyphs pouring from their nostrils. While there are no concrete associations of sak ik' in Ch'orti', the closest modern relative to the language of the Classic Maya, sak-ik' in Colonial Yucatec is translated as a "wind coming from the west." This direction, in turn, has long been associated with the solar mythology of the Classic Maya Underworld. This "traveling" soul appears to have been one of many souls residing in the Classic Maya body. The idea of multiple souls is preserved today in highland societies in the form of animal spirit companions or souls, who share the fate of the soul corresponding to the Classic Maya ik'.


A second example concerns the use of ch'ab'-ak'ab', "penance-darkness," a phrase observed on a number of monuments in the Peten. Associated with the conjuring of ancestors in a variety of situations, ch'ab'-ak'ab' rituals involve a number of archaeologically recoverable items of penance, including stingray spines and bloodletting bowls. In ethnohistoric accounts, ch'ab'-ak'ab' is a phrase used in the curing of sicknesses, conjuring ancestral and supernatural entities to perform their healing task:


Removed is creation (ch'ab), removed is darkness (akab), from the bond of its force at the place [o]f Ix Hun-pudzub kik, Ix Hun-pudzub-olom. There he took his force, at the place where he vomited water, [if] not water, then clotted blood.


Similarities such as these cannot be ignored; that both ancient and colonial sources mention the conjuring of ancestors and supernaturals indicates some continuity in theology. Therefore, remembering their distance in time, we can look to further parallels between ancient, colonial, and modern rites to gain insight into Classic Maya mortuary ceremonialism.


Kingship and the Ancestors


In any discussion of death and the rituals surrounding it, notions of an afterlife must come into play. Despite an abundance of iconographic depictions of the Maya Underworld, few texts even come close to describing the Classic Maya conception of it. As noted earlier, analyses of ceramic or monumental depictions of the Underworld have traditionally focused on imagery from the Popol Vuh or other Colonial Period sources, despite the fact that no known glyph for Xibalba, or the Underworld, exists. While a complete study of the Underworld is far beyond the scope of this work, some basic theories on how the afterlife was conceived are necessary, particularly with respect to a widespread facet of Classic Maya life—ancestor worship. Setting up this afterlife will be the task of the following chapter, although as a pivotal concept the afterlife does factor into many interpretations and analyses. It is particularly relevant when we deal with the relationship between dead kings and their successors. Far from being a paradise divorced from earthly concerns, the royal hereafter was all too often yet another stage involving consultations, oversight committees (albeit supernatural ones), and other forms of episodic contact.


Numerous ways in which ancestors were perceived, summoned, and used have surfaced in recent years. Addressing the nature of ancestor worship in Living with the Ancestors (1995), Patricia McAnany has done much to raise our awareness of reverential behavior in Classic Maya archaeology. Since that publication, items such as Classic Maya heirlooms, elaborate rituals of conjuring, and volumes of "fired" tombs throughout the lowlands have come to light. Although disturbed burials were initially viewed as signs of disrespect, we now accept many of them as signs of reverence or political manipulation. Ancestors are today viewed as having an even more "active" role in Classic Maya elite life: "dancing" on his son's birthday, a deceased Ruler 2 of Piedras Negras exemplifies this line of thought.


Given that this study primarily examines royal rituals of death, the process by which a ruler is turned into an ancestor is of great concern. As noted by van Gennep and Hertz, the transition from a living individual to an ancestor is a transformative one. This process is in evidence for the Classic Maya, as noted by Linda Schele and Peter Mathews, in such visual media as the Sarcophagus Lid of Pakal at Palenque, where its famous ruler, K'inich Janaab' Pakal I, is shown in ascendance with a "garden of ancestors" flanking his rise. Despite the clarity of iconography depicted in this example, there is some question as to what happens to the institution of kingship when a ruler dies. It is clear that at some point the status of ancestor is reached, whereupon the ruler is engaged as an ancestor in a variety of religious and politically motivated rituals. It is the point between death and dynastic succession, mentioned earlier for Piedras Negras Ruler 1, that is troubling. Exploring why sites have long interregna brings up issues of the body politic versus the body natural, itself a topic of wide anthropological and historical concern.


Research into the nature of death rituals and ancestor worship among the Classic Maya kings has implications for the study of the burials of elites and commoners. Being able to reconstruct not only the rituals involved but also the ideas that drove them highlights the similarities and differences of a belief system spanning the Maya lowlands. While Classic texts were written by and for native and visiting dignitaries, some of the largest results of royal mortuary practice—in the form of temples and other large-scale monuments—were visible to individuals outside the royal sector. In a sense, the way in which Classic Maya kings represented death communicated it to others. This is not to say that belief systems were wholly shared between royal, elite, and nonelite groups, but it is at least probable that commoners learned where their rulers were going after death. Some of the same burial practices, in terms of grave goods (albeit on a much smaller and poorer scale), were indeed shared on a number of status levels. Accordingly, general concepts of an afterlife, whatever the status of the individual, were probably active for the descendants of the dead. Whether this Underworld was viewed as the horrific Xibalba or a place of "food and drinks of great sweetness" will be discussed in the sections to come.




“Fitzsimmons is the first to attempt to survey the entire corpus of Lowland Maya hieroglyphic texts, iconography, and archaeological site documentation relating to royal death, burial, and afterlife. It is an ambitious undertaking, but Fitzsimmons rises to the challenge and has produced a book that makes a lasting contribution to Maya archaeology.”
Patricia A. McAnany, Boston University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, author of Living with the Ancestors: Kinship and Kingship in Ancient Maya Society


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