Meet the Red Queen of Palenque. She lived around the time of the city’s greatest grandeur under K’inich Janaab’ Pakal I (King Pakal the Great) in the 600s CE. When she died she was between 50 and 60 years old, and stood a little over 5 feet tall. In her lifetime she must have been important. The lavish tomb she was buried in, at the heart of Temple XIII, is evidence of her high status and high respect.
Her tomb was found sealed by a wall in a corridor inside Temple XIII. When archaeologists removed the stones blocking the passage, they found first the body of a male between 11 and 12. Just beyond him was also an adult female roughly in her thirties. Both bore signs of fatal injuries – sacrificed to accompany the Red Queen on her journey to the afterlife.
Then there is the woman herself, buried in a sarcophagus made of a single block of heavy limestone. Inside, surrounded by lavish grave goods, she wears an intricate mask of malachite and a jade tiara. Everything in the grave’s interior, the mask, the body, the jewel-encrusted treasures, were covered in powdered cinnabar. That’s the common term for poisonous mercuric sulfide. Besides being toxic, mercuric sulfide has a bright red color which we know was a popular color with the ancient Maya. As the tomb’s occupant decomposed her very bones were stained red. Researchers still do not know why the sarcophagus’ interior was liberally coated with a poisonous red powder. But it gave the elite inhabitant her nickname: the Red Queen.