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NAU Archaeologist Jaime Awe Describes ‘Unbelievable’ Find In Belize

Jaime Awe
(Photo courtesy of Jaime Awe - Northern Arizona University)
Jaime Awe (center) and graduate student Diane Slocum prepare to enter the tomb.

Archeologists made a major discovery in Belize this summer: they uncovered one of the largest Mayan tombs ever found, along with two hieroglyphic panels. Northern Arizona University professor Jaime Awe led the expedition.

Jaime Awe directs the Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance Project. This is the second year he’s brought NAU students to Belize; so far, more than 40 students have gone on the digs. Awe talked about the discovery with the Arizona Science Desk.

So you made some big findings in Belize this summer. Can you talk about that?

There’s a site in Western Belize known as Xunantunich. That site has been investigated since the turn of the 19th century, so back in 1890s. Just a large number of people have worked there. Nobody had ever found a burial of an important elite ruler of the site.

This year we decided to excavate this one smaller temple, and bingo, we hit this huge tomb, in fact one of the largest tombs ever discovered in the country of Belize.

This thing was so massive we had about six people excavating inside this burial chamber at the same time. We had people excavating the skeletal remains, we had some people excavating the animal remains in there, because there was some of that, and other people exposing some of the artifacts.

What kind of artifacts did you find?

Inside this tomb we found this adult male individual somewhere between 20 and 30 years old and really robust; this guy was in really good shape.

He had about 30 some ceramic vessels — that’s a large number of pots — inside this tomb. He had a little jade necklace, obsidian blades, a bone pin — because sometimes they use these pins to hold up their long hair — and the animal remains look like they’re from jaguar and deer.

Now, I understand you also found two panels at the site that used to be part of a hieroglyphic staircase. And these panels have told you a lot about Mayan history.

I think in many respects the information provided by these panels far outweighed the discovery we made in the tomb. So for a long time we didn’t know when the hieroglyphic stair had been commissioned. We knew who and where. Well, our panels now tell us that the hieroglyphic stair was actually commissioned and produced in 642 AD.

So, if you’re in the business about learning about ancient Maya civilization and some of the political intrigue, the discovery of these panels is just an incredible major contribution. Fantastic!  

How common are tombs and tablets like this? How often are these types of discoveries made?

I have colleagues who have been working in Maya archeology for entire careers and have never found any monuments with hieroglyphic inscriptions or have ever discovered any kind of important tombs. So to say this is an unbelievable opportunity, experience, is an understatement.

Melissa Sevigny is a reporter at KNAU in Flagstaff.