The Red Queen of Palenque

During the Classic period, Palenque was one of the most important Maya cities. Archeologists have uncovered some of Palenque’s greatest secrets, including two sarcophagi, that contribute to Palenque's continued importance. A sarcophagus discovered in 1952 belonged to King Pakal, Palenque’s most significant ruler. The slab-crypt lid contains volumes of information on Palenque. Another surprise was the discovery of the sarcophagus in the neighboring temple, belonging to the mysterious Red Queen. Unlike Pakal’s encrypted funerary box, this one has no writing that would give archeologists an indication of who this noblewoman may have been. This discovery was the beginning of a still ongoing search of the her identity. When Pakal’s sarcophagus was found in the Temple of Inscriptions in 1952 it was a rare moment for Mesoamerican archeologists. Sarcophagi burials in the New World are very uncommon, and there have only been four discovered in the Mayan world to date.

What makes the sarcophagi discoveries even more valuable besides being rare is that they are also two of the richest burial chambers in Mesoamerica; one of them belonging to a female. Within her stone case were pieces of jade, pearl, shell, and obsidian jewelry and figurines, as well as an elaborate jade and malachite death mask. Trying to unearth who this honored woman was is difficult not only because of decomposition and lack of epigraphs, but because Palenque, as a part of its extraordinary history, has had several noteworthy heroines.

In 1994, inside Temple XIII, archeologists Fanny Lopez and Arnoldo Gonzalez, discovered passageways that lead to this sarcophagus. When opened, the entire contents was stained a bright red from the cinnabar matter that enlaced the whole box. Cinnabar was only used for the families of the highest social status. The bright red powder gave the Red Queen her nickname. Due to the proximity of Pakal’s sarcophagus, and the almost identical burial style, historians are certain this woman was of significance to the him. Scholars and researchers first narrowed the options to three exceptional females: Yohl ik Naal, true queen of Palenque and grandmother to Pakal; Sak K’uk, mother of Pakal and provisional ruler of Palenque; or Tz’akbu Ajaw, wife of Pakal and mother to his three sons (two of whom would become rulers). Yohl ik Naal lead Palenque in battle against Calakmul and began to rebuild her city to its former glory. Based on the ceramics within the sarcophagus and the age of two skeletons of the sacrificial victims (c. 650-700 AD), it is unlikely that the Red Queen is Pakal’s grandmother, who died in AD 604. Although her remains may have been reburied in this temple, the skeleton was too intact for this to be likely.

The next theory, Pakal’s mother, was also a likely answer, but DNA has proved otherwise. Biological archeologists, such as Vera Tiesler, were able to extract and compare the DNA of Pakal to the DNA of the Red Queen to prove the two were not related. That leaves the wife of Pakal, Lady Tz’akbu Ajaw. Dental analysis proves the Red Queen was not native to Palenque, like Pakal’s wife who was part of a marriage alliance. Osteoporosis was detected in the skeleton, which would have been caused from late childbirth; Tz’akbu Ajaw gave birth to her last son when she was thirty-eight years old. Facial reconstruction based on both the deformed skull and the funerary mask has allowed researchers to match the face of the Red queen to Pakal’s wife based on the realistic iconography Palenque Mayans left behind. The most obvious answer seems to be that the Red Queen was Pakal’s wife, Lady Tz’akbu Ajaw, mother to two royal heirs of Palenque. There is one determining piece of evidence missing: the DNA of one of her sons that archeologists are hoping to find in another sarcophagus.