Women Power in the Maya World

IN GUATEMALA’S Laguna del Tigre national park, the dense forest hides many treasures: endangered scarlet macaws flit among the treetops while rare jaguars hunt on the forest floor. Only recently has the world learned about one of the greatest treasures of Laguna del Tigre, a 2,500-year-old city that once stood at the crossroads of the ancient Maya world.

The archaeologists working on the site believe that this city can answer many of the lingering questions about political events in the Petén region during the Classic Period of Maya history.

The ancient city of Waka’—known as El Perú today—first came to the attention of the modern world after oil prospectors stumbled upon it in the 1960s. Ten years later Harvard researcher Ian Graham recorded the site’s monuments, and then in 2003 two veteran archaeologists, David Freidel of Southern Methodist University in Texas and Héctor Escobedo of University of San Carlos in Guatemala, launched a full-scale excavation of the site.

According to the historical record, Waka’ was inhabited as early as 500 BC. The city reached its political peak around 400 AD and was abandoned some 400 years later. In its heyday, Waka’ was an economically and strategically important city with tens of thousands of inhabitants who utilized four main plazas, hundreds of buildings, and impressive ceremonial centers.

Researchers say the key to Waka’s importance was its location between two of the most powerful Maya capitals—Calakmul to the north and Tikal to the east—and that in its history Waka’ switched its alliance back and forth between the two rivals. Researchers suggest that the city’s final choice of Calakmul may have led to the city’s demise at the hands of a Tikal king in 743 AD.

“We know a great deal about the ancient inhabitants of this site from their monuments,” Freidel said in an article for SMU Research. “The more than 40 carved monuments, or stelae, at the site chronicle the activities of Waká’s rulers, including their rise to power, their conquests in war, and their deaths.”

Waka’s location right by the San Pedro Mártir River, which was navigable for 80 kilometers in both directions, gave it great power as a trading center. In addition to the waterway, Freidel suggests that Waka’ controlled a strategic north-south overland route that linked southern Campeche to central Petén. Freidel calls Waka’ a “crossroads of conquerors in the Pre-Columbian era.”

One of the most intriguing people who inhabited Waka’ was a woman of uncommon power and status. The discovery and excavation of her tomb in 2004 by team member José Ambrosio Díaz  drew a lot of attention to the site.

“We knew that we were dealing with a royal tomb right away because you could see greenstone everywhere,” says David Lee, a Ph.D. candidate at SMU in Texas, who is investigating the Waka’ palace complex.  Greenstone is the archaeologists’ term for the sacred jade the ancient Maya used to signify royalty.  The team found hundreds of artifacts in the 3 ½ meters by 1 ¼ meters tomb that dates to some time between 650 and 750 AD.

There were several indicators that this woman was highly important and very powerful. Her tomb lay underneath a building on the main courtyard of the city’s main palace. Her stone bed was surrounded by 23 offering vessels and hundreds of jade pieces, beads, and shell artifacts.

Among the rubble, the researchers discovered a 4 x 2 inch high jewel called a huunal that was worn only by kings and queens of the highest status. Typically a huunal was affixed to a wooden helmet called a ko’haw that was covered in jade plaques. Carved depictions suggest that only powerful war leaders wore these helmets.

On the floor of the queen’s tomb near her head, researchers found 44 square and rectangular jade plaques they believe were glued onto the wooden part of the ko’haw.

The presence of this helmet in her tomb, has led the researchers to the conclusion that this queen held a position of power not typically afforded women of the time. “She may have been more powerful than her husband who was actually the king of El Perú,” Lee concludes.

Although the presence of the helmet identifies her as a warlord, archaeologists have found no evidence of Maya women physically fighting in battles. What they have discovered are images of women as guardians of the tools of war.

“The curation of the war helmet is one of the roles of royal women,” says the excavation’s bone expert Jennifer Piehl. She explains that Maya iconography describes how royal women curated these helmets and then presented them to their kings when they prepared for war.

David Freidel says that to the Maya war was more than just a physical act. It was also an encounter between supernaturally charged beings, and women had an active role in battle by conjuring up war Gods and instilling sacred magical power in battle gear.

Other symbols of royalty were the stingray spines found in the pelvic regions of the queen’s remains. Stingray spines are bloodletting implements that were used in ceremonies by Maya kings to let blood from their genitalia.

“The association between gender and power becomes blended because this person represents both kinds of power,” explains Lee. “As we learn more, we are discovering that what our culture considers traditional ideas of male-female roles, don’t hold true for Maya royalty.”

Researchers could also determine the importance of the woman by what was missing from her tomb. Some time after her burial, the tomb was opened up to remove her skull and femora.

“The cranium and crossed femurs is a very salient symbol in Maya ritual. It is the ancestor,” says Piehl. The Maya would take the skull and femur from an important ancestor and curate them in bundles. Maya images show how these bundles were used during ceremonies or were worn on the back of the ruler’s regalia.

“They are literally carrying their ancestor around with them,” says Lee. Researchers surmise that possession of a bundle gave legitimacy and power to the owners.

Once her status as a queen was confirmed, the question becomes which queen was she? A good candidate is a woman named Lady K’abel who lived during the Late Classic period and was the daughter of the King Jaguar Paw Fire of Calakmul.

Researchers interpret her marriage to king K’inich B’ahlam II of Waka’ as a savvy political move for Calakmul, because a royal marriage could forge a permanent political bond between the two cities. Unfortunately this marriage would not be a good political move for Waka’. Researchers suggest that this marriage was considered an act of betrayal by Tikal, which eventually led to Tikal’s defeat of Waka’ in 743 A.D.

A detailed portrait of Lady K’abel comes from a stela dated to 692 AD that was looted from Waka’ in the late 1960s. According to Maya expert and project epigrapher Stanley Guenter, inscriptions on the front face of the stel —curated by the Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio —clearly identify the woman as Ix Kalmoote’ (lady warlord) Lady K’abel, princess of Calakmul.

“Mosaic mask pectorals formed of greenstone, shell teeth and eye whites, and obsidian pupils found in the interment are consistent with the image of Lady K’abel on Stela 34,” Lee and Piehl wrote in a recent paper.

“These attributes clearly demonstrate the royal status of the woman and an identification with Lady K’abel.” Radiocarbon dating of the queen’s remains will confirm whether the woman in the tomb lived during the same time period as Lady K’abel.

Another tomb, discovered by archaeologists Michelle Rich and Jennifer Piehl in 2005, tells the story of two women from an earlier part of Waka’s history, dating back to between 350 to 400 AD. The tomb contains the remains of two women between 25 and 35 years old, placed back to back, one of top of the other, with stingray spines near their groins.

The bottom woman, who was pregnant, lay face down and the top woman lay face up. Although the tomb is tiny by royal standards—90 cm wide, 1.2 m high, and 2 m long—Rich and Piehl believe that these women were high-ranking members of a royal family.

By analyzing their skeletal remains, archaeologist and osteoglogist Jennifer Piehl can tell a great deal about the status of these women in life.

“What we can say of the bones of the two Waka’ women is they were in excellent health—better than the majority of the Waka’ population—which fits with them being royal,” she says.

In addition, the lack of dental cavities suggests that unlike ordinary Maya, these women were treated to special foods including meat, fish, and fruit.

Further evidence of the elite status of these women comes from the seven ceramic vessels that accompanied them in death.  “The first thing we saw was the cluster at [their] feet of three gorgeous museum quality polychrome vessels,” Piehl recalls. The quality of the vessels and the symbols of royalty on them indicate that the women came from a royal bloodline.

Vessels of the exact same style were also found at Tikal in a similar set of tombs containing members of a royal dynasty that were probably killed by the great 4th century conqueror Siyaj K’ak’ from Teotihuacan.

According to the stone stelae from Waka’s main plazas, Siyaj K’ak’ also visited Waka’ in 378 AD on his way to conquer Tikal. “My conclusion is that these are members of the royal family that was in power before the arrival of Siyaj K’ak’,” Piehl says. Freidel calls Siyaj K’ak’s visit to Waka the city’s “first great experience as a crossroads of conquerors.”

Rich suggests that the women were sacrificed as part of a lineage replacement, where one invading ruler comes in and kills the current royal family to establish his family as the only royal blood in the kingdom.

“The king would have been the primary focus of sacrifice, but then the rest of the family would have to be exterminated in order to wipe out the entire ruling line,” Rich says.

To prove that hypothesis, the team is searching for a king from the same time period. In 2006 Hector Escobedo and Juan Carlos Melendez uncovered the tomb of a king under the site’s main pyramid, but more research needs to be done to fully understand who that man was.

Also in 2006, Rich and Varinia Matute, found another ruler, but he dates to approximately 550-650, a couple hundred of years later than the women.  “At this point we have two rulers and no connection to the sacrificed women,” Rich says. “El Perú is a huge site, and there is so much we can learn.”

Although the archaeologists involved with this project agree that further excavations of Waka’ have the potential to fill in some of the gaps of the political history of the region, the future of the Waka’ Archaeological Project is uncertain.

The site of Waka’ is located in Laguna del Tigre, the largest nature reserve in Central America which covers 48,000 hectares of such biologically significant habitat that in 1990 it was the first site named to the List of Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

Despite its protected status, the forest of Laguna del Tigre is in danger due to illegal logging, slash and burn agriculture, and drug smuggling. Just as the forest is in danger, so is the city of Waka’ and any other archaeological treasures hidden in the forest.

To ensure the protection of Waka’ and the forest that surrounds it, Freidel developed partnerships with the Government of Guatemala, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and ProPetén to try and safeguard 230,000 acres of the forest. The group formed the K’ante’el Alliance, which means “precious forest” in Maya and refers to the mystical place where the Maya Maize God was reborn and where the Maya believe their civilization began.

The K’ante’el Alliance plans to protect the park by developing environmentally friendly sources of income for local communities that will celebrate the forest’s resources instead of destroy them.  The hope is that Waka’ and Laguna del Tigre will continue to share their hidden treasures for years to come.

Published in Americas magazine, May-June 2008, by Chris Hardman Map courtesy of the Waka Research Foundation



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