Jade Mask Discovered In The Tomb Of A Maya King In Guatemala

Published January 29, 2024
Updated January 31, 2024

Archaeologists suspect that the mask may be connected to Itzam Kokaj Bahlam, a Maya king who ruled in 350 C.E.

Maya Jade Mask

Rubén Salgado EscuderoThe mask was discovered in an ancient pyramid in Guatemala that had been looted by grave robbers.

While studying the ancient site of Chochkitam in Petén, Guatemala, archaeologists made two startling discoveries. First, grave robbers had already tunneled into the remains of an ancient pyramid. And secondly, the looters had overlooked an area within the pyramid’s inner chamber.

When the archaeologists went to excavate the chamber themselves, they came across a number of stunning treasures, including an interlocking jade mask that seemingly once belonged to a Maya king.

“It’s a tremendous thrill and a privilege,” National Geographic Explorer Francisco Estrada-Belli told the magazine. “Sometimes we do get lucky.”

The Discovery Of The Maya Jade Mask

As National Geographic reports, Estrada-Belli and his colleagues first noticed evidence of grave robbing at the Chochkitam site in 2021 while studying LiDAR surveys. But the robbers had overlooked a central chamber in the ancient pyramid, which the archaeologists painstakingly dug to themselves.

“It was quite a surprise as we were digging into a pit already opened by looters and were about to stop for safety reasons,” Estrada-Belli told All That’s Interesting about the dig via email.

Fortunately, they didn’t stop. And within the pyramid, the archaeologists discovered the jade mask, a human skull, teeth and bone pieces, a coffin-like box, and funerary offerings including a pot and oyster shells. Thrillingly, the archaeologists made a “second happy surprise” when they discovered that some of the long bones had carvings.

Full Jade Mask

Facebook/University of Alabama, Department of AnthropologyThe archaeologists found a number of objects within the pyramid alongside the jade mask, including bones, a human skull, and large oyster shells.

Known as tesserae, the jade used in the mask has been documented at other ancient Maya sites, where it was used to form mosaic masks for royal burials. These masks often depicted deities or ancestors.

Archaeologists discovered a carving on one of the bones that appeared to show the interred ruler holding up the head of a Maya deity — who looked just like the jade mask.

So who was the royal buried at Chochkitam?

The Murky History Of A Maya Monarch

National Geographic reports that experts were able to decode other carvings and hieroglyphs found on the bone pieces that appear to spell out the king’s name: Itzam Kokaj Bahlam. He was apparently associated with the Maya storm deity Yax Wayaab Chahk G1, whose name translates to “first sorcerer rain god.”

Based on radiocarbon dating of his tomb, archaeologists believe that the king reigned in 350 C.E.. This puts him well within the Maya Classic period of 250 to 900 C.E., the civilization’s powerful and little understood peak.

Estrada-Belli told All That’s Interesting that Chochkitam was a “medium-sized Maya city with relatively modest public buildings.” He explained that 10,000 to 15,000 people lived in the city proper, with another 10,000 living in the surrounding area.

But though the king’s tomb indicates that he was powerful, archaeologists suspect that Itzam Kokaj Bahlam answered to even more powerful rulers.

“Everything suggests to me that this was a Maya king who was part of a network of Maya royalty in the sphere of influence of Tikal [in Petén] and Teotihuacán [in modern-day Mexico],” Estrada-Belli told National Geographic.

He added: “There’s no statement of vassalage at the site. But if you read between the lines, that’s what it means — these were vassals, probably of Tikal directly and Teotihuacán indirectly.”

For now, there’s still much to learn about Itzam Kokaj Bahlam, Chochkitam, and the ancient civilization that once thrived there. The pyramid may yield more ancient secrets, and Estrada-Belli and his colleagues are looking forward to studying the tomb’s bones for DNA.

He told All That’s Interesting that he and his team will continue to explore the looters’ tunnels and map the nearby cities using LiDAR. It’s certainly possible, he added, that the pyramid contains more chambers.

That’s a tantalizing possibility, as more artifacts could paint a richer picture of what life was like for the ancient Maya at Chochkitam.

After reading about the jade mask discovered in a Maya pyramid in Guatemala, discover the story of Camazotz, the Maya god known as the “death bat.” Then, learn about the most astonishing archaeological discoveries of all time.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "Jade Mask Discovered In The Tomb Of A Maya King In Guatemala." AllThatsInteresting.com, January 29, 2024, https://allthatsinteresting.com/maya-jade-mask. Accessed June 15, 2024.