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BYU archaeologists discover ancient royal tomb in Mexico that may be oldest in Americas

PROVO — Whoever they were, the two adults went out of this life in style — their bodies adorned with jade carvings shaped like monkeys and crocodiles, and their mouths filled with precious jewels and tiny seashells.

Archaeologists who recently discovered the final resting place of what may have been a royal couple in the ancient city of Chiapa de Corzo, Chiapas, Mexico, believe this is one of the oldest pyramid tombs in Mesoamerica, dating back nearly 2,700 years.

"It was a mixture of emotions," BYU archaeologist and project director Bruce Bachand said of the find. "Astonishment at the remarkable nature of the remains, excitement and gratification knowing that they are important archaeologically and anxiety knowing that they had to be recorded correctly."

The main tomb held an ornately decorated male and two sacrificial victims, with a similarly adorned woman, presumably the man's wife or lover, on a landing outside his tomb.

The discovery was the result of a collaborative effort between BYU's New World Archaeological Foundation and the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia en Chiapas with co-director Emiliano Gallaga. Additional funding was provided by National Geographic and others.

The pyramid is believed to be the work of the Zoque people, who lived near the well-known Olmecs.

Some archaeologists believe Mesoamerican civilization originated with the Olmecs in the Gulf of Mexico and then spread. Others believe individual groups like the Zoques developed simultaneously and eventually merged.

Professor Robert Rosenswig, a Mesoamerican scholar at the University at Albany, said it is very likely both peoples spoke related languages and shared similar aspects of material culture.

"The tomb provides us with evidence that the same sorts of objects were put in royal burials in both regions and that they were arranged following similar principles," Rosenswig said. "Who influenced whom and to what degree is a contentious issue in Olmec studies."

Ceramic pots found in the tomb show clear signs of Olmec influence, Gallaga said, and Bachand has also discovered caches of stone axes, similar to those found in Olmec areas, that serve as another pattern of interaction.

However, Bachand said the most compelling evidence of a biological tie to the Olmec Gulf Coast could come from bone strontium evidence.

Yet the burial style, with its wooden roof and stone walls, was a distinct Zoque tradition — the type of fact Gallaga hopes gains the attention of the local, modern-day people who often identify more with a later migrant group than the Zoques.

"The debate about the Olmec presence or influence will be strong," he said. "But the Zoque presence at the site will be strengthened and hopefully reevaluated. The discovery will show that the Zoque were already a complex society very early in time … capable of building temples, plazas, platforms, etc.

"This could take the rest of our life (to study) if we wanted," Gallaga said. "But a couple of years would be good timing to explore almost all the research questions."

New World Archaeological Foundation

When the foundation began in 1952, it was not associated with BYU or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It simply was the creation of dedicated Mesoamerican scholars who happened to be Mormon and were interested in the Chiapa de Corzo region.

Those early archaeologists also discovered impressive tombs, explains former foundation director John E. Clark, but there was no media attention, just pages and pages of professional publications.

"The (foundation) is the foreign archaeological organization with the longest continued presence in Mexico," according to its BYU website. "The foundation has an excellent reputation among other archaeologists working in Mesoamerica. Its publications are referenced extensively by others."

Researchers found another spectacular tomb in 1967, when they went down to rescue a pyramid that was being destroyed to make way for a chocolate factory, Clark said.

Over the years, the foundation changed from a private entity to one funded by the LDS Church, then was eventually turned over to BYU to run, explains current foundation director Don Forsyth. Now, it's the BYU New World Archaeological Foundation.

With a handful of unanswered research questions, Clark sent Bachand back in 2008 to continue excavating. And this season, they got lucky.

Besides the spectacular amount and quality of the artifacts, it's also the first time Clark, a well-respected Mesoamerican archaeologist, said he had heard of a male and a female buried next to each other, at least in this Mesoamerican time frame.

"It will take a long time to process the information," Clark said, "but right off the bat, based upon what the foundation has done in the last 58 years, this is the top of the list."

Research and Study Center

Once the New World Archaeological Foundation became a BYU organization, its purely professional research angle didn't mesh with BYU's goals of student-oriented research.

"We are trying to now move the foundation in that direction," Forsyth said, "and hope to be able to have these students come down and work on collections that are stored here, that haven't been analyzed from previous excavations … and also continue to work with excavations such as the one that is going on now at Chiapa de Corzo."

Kim Goldsmith has been busy ever since.

Recently hired as the director of the foundation-sponsored Research and Study Center in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Goldsmith is responsible for arranging study opportunities for both BYU and local Mexican students.

"There are very few entities like this in Mexico," she said, referring to the center's impressive lab, large library and study space. "If you have had some time down here … that's going to stand out on your graduate school application or your job application."

The Research and Study Center is run like BYU, with no smoking, drinking or inappropriate behavior, Goldsmith said.

Visitors are also greeted with a table full of pamphlets about the LDS Church, though Goldsmith stresses that the New World Archaeological Foundation is in no way trying to look for Book of Mormon lands.

"It's a great opportunity for the Mexican people and for other researchers from around the world to get to know us as a church, as Mormon people, as a culture," she said.

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