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Maya Graves Cast Doubt on Historians’ View of Ancient Civilization

September 30, 1985

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The discovery of the graves of two Maya rulers who died 1,000 years apart shows that the ancient Central American civilization retained a sophisticated political and economic system until the Spanish conquest, according to a team of archaeologists.

The find contradicts the belief of some historians that the Maya culture declined before the Spanish arrived, the scientists said in a report to the National Science Foundation, which supported the work and announced the discovery Sunday.

″A sophisticated civilization flourished right up to the invasion of the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century,″ said Diane Z. Chase and Arlen F. Chase, a husband-wife team of anthropologists from the University of Central Florida.

The graves, found in Belize last month, contained intact skeletal remains and artifacts that included ornaments and jewelry not native to the area - an indication that the buried were high-ranking officials and the civilization was involved in commerce, the scientists said.

Some historians believe that the Maya civilization, which built huge pyramids and stone cities in Central and South America, had already fallen into decadence and decay by the time the Europeans arrived. They cite as evidence the fact that entire native American empires fell to so few Spaniards.

During its height between 300 A.D. and 900 A.D., known as the Classic period, the Maya empire covered much of what is today Mexico, Belize and Guatemala, and parts of Honduras and Nicaragua.

At an archaeological site called Santa Rita, located on a sea bluff that circles Corozal, the third largest urban area in Belize, the scientists found a large stone tomb and an earthen grave less than a mile apart.

The ornate 1,500-year-old tomb, containing the remains of a Maya king, was discovered under the floor of what was once a large building. The chamber is more than 13 feet long, 6 feet high and 4 feet wide.

The skeleton lay on its back, resting on a wooden pallet. The figure wore jade ornaments, including a set of jade and mica-inlaid earflares, large earring-like jewelry that covered the entire ear, they said.

The tomb also contained dozens of items representing status and office, including painted pottery and masks. The finest object, the researchers said, was a five-inch-diameter limestone bowl with four finely carved panels depicting a deity.

The other burial site was that of a provincial ruler who reigned more than 500 years ago. Unlike the older tomb, this one was a simple grave in the ground beneath a small shrine consisting only of several lines of stones, they said.

While the site was stark by comparison with the older tomb, the remains of the ruler were adorned with elaborate jewelry. The researchers said these included a pair of gold earflares inlaid with turquoise and jade, a necklace of shell and jade, and a bracelet of red sea shells not native to the area.

Arlen Chase said the discovery is the first find of remains of a ruler of the late Postclassic period, spanning 1350 to 1530, and said the discovery shows there were both commerce and authority at the time.

″The earflares were clearly traded in the area, as metal does not occur naturally in the Maya lowlands,″ he said. ″For such earflares to occur in a burial site more than 750 miles from central Mexico indicates the importance of the buried individual as a provincial ruler.″

The presence of a second body in the grave adds to the importance. The unadorned individual was a sickly, elderly person whom the researchers think may have been involved in a blood-letting sacrifice for the dead ruler.

The second body was riddled with 13 string-ray spines and a long copper needle, all used in ritual blood-letting by the Maya elite, they said.

Diane Chase said the study of Postclassic Maya culture is at a turning point, with new archaeological evidence casting doubt upon the written records of the Spanish concerning the Maya and the presumptions of some scholars.

″The first thing people notice is the Classic (period) society, with its big pyramids and fine cities,″ she said. ″They figure that anything after this was downhill. What we are saying is that it was just different.″

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