AN INTERNATIONAL team of archaeologists has uncovered the earliest known portrait of a Maya woman at the remote city of Naachtun in Northern Guatemala. The image was carved on a stela — a 6-foot high, 3-feet wide stone monument — and dates back to the 4th century A.D., making it 100 years older than any previous discoveries of Maya female portraits.
“I’ve worked in the Maya area a long time and I’ve never seen anything like it,” says team co-director Professor Kathryn Reese-Taylor of the University of Calgary in Canada. She suggests that this find indicates that Maya women held positions of power early in Classic Maya history, around A.D. 400, when the city of Naachtun was at its peak.
Although the stela was discovered in 2004, the team had to wait a year before they could excavate it. Project co-director Martin Rangel Guillermo, an archaeologist from Guatemala, found the stela sticking out of a looter’s trench. “He came to me and said, ‘I think we have something really important and I need you to come look at it,’ ” explains Reese-Taylor. They could see that the stela had intricate carvings on the side, but it was deeply buried inside the trench, and it would take much longer than the five days they had left to dig it out. The rainy season was rapidly approaching, and they knew they wouldn’t have enough time to study the stela before the site became inaccessible. So after consulting with the Guatemalan government, they made the tough decision to bury their incredible find and wait nearly a year until they could return and examine it.
Now the researchers are trying to figure out who this woman was and why was she important enough to document in stone? The first clues to her identity are in the portrait’s headdress, where a series of three glyphs spells out the name Ix Tzutz Nik or “Lady Completion Flower.” “What we’re looking at are a couple of possibilities that this is naming a historical queen or that this is naming a deity,” Reese-Taylor says. The name has shown up in three other early Maya sites, appearing on a stela and a pair of earrings. “We are going to have to have more information before we can conclusively state who this person is,” Reese-Taylor explains.
What the research team has concluded is that mythical or real, this Maya female was extremely important to the people of Naachtun. Stela typically portray kings, and if a woman is present, she is usually a mother or a wife, not a main protagonist. In addition stela were usually found on the outside of Maya buildings. “The fact that her stela was put inside this structure is something that is very rare,” Reese-Taylor explains. “That is reserved for really important historical figures or founders of dynasties.”
An attack from a neighboring city may explain why the stela was buried inside the temple. The glyphs on the back of the monument have been completely cut off and the sides hacked away. In times of conflict the ancient Maya would try and erase their enemies’ history by attacking stela and destroying glyphs. Perhaps the damage to the Lady Completion Flower stela was the result of such an attack, and afterwards the stela was moved to the temple where it was buried with a complete set of dedicatory offerings. Such burials were always associated with really important historical figures and females were not normally treated that way. “This represents an extraordinary event in the history of Naachtun and we were really lucky to find it,” Reese-Taylor says.