Something Interesting: Tomb of Mayan Queen Found

Analysis by Rossella Lorenzi
Thu Oct 4, 2012 07:49 AM ET
Archaeologists in Guatemala say they have discovered the 7th-century tomb of Lady K'abel, one of the greatest queens of classic Maya civilization.
Unearthed during excavations of the royal Maya city of El Perú-Waka' in northwestern Petén, Guatemala, the grave contained the skeletal remains of a mature individual buried with rich offerings such as dozens of ceramic vessels, numerous carved jade, shell artifacts and a small, carved alabaster jar.
According to the archaeologists, the white vessel strongly suggest the tomb belonged to the warrior Queen Lady K'abel.
Carved as a conch shell, with a head and arm of an aged woman emerging from the opening, the alabaster jar portrayed a woman, mature with a lined face and a strand of hair in front of her ear, while on the other side it featured a brief glyphic text consisting of four hieroglyphs.
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The final two glyphs named the owner as "Lady Waterlily-Hand, Princess of Calakmul."
"This is almost certainly an alternative spelling of the name of Lady K'abel, as both names consist of hands holding waterlilies and both are titled as princesses of Calakmul," David Freidel, professor of archaeology at Washington University in St. Louis and co-director of the expedition, said.
The most powerful person in Waka' during her lifetime, Lady K'abel is known in Maya archaeology because of a beautiful and detailed portrait of her in a stela dated to 692 A.D. The carved stone slab was looted from Waka' in the 1960s and is now in the Cleveland Art Museum.
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Lady K'abel ruled with her husband, K'inich Bahlam, for at least 20 years (672-692 A.D.). She was the military governor of the Wak kingdom for her family, the imperial house of the Snake King, and carried the title Kaloomte', which translates to "Supreme Warrior."
"The significance of this woman's powerful role as a 'Kaloomte,' a title rarely associated with Maya women, provides tremendous insight on the nexus of gender and power in Classic Maya politics," Olivia Navarro-Farr, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at The College of Wooster and co-director of the expedition, said.
The discovery of the tomb of the seventh-century Maya queen occurred while Navarro-Farr investigated "ritually potent" features at El Perú-Waka’, such as shrines, altars, and dedicatory offerings.
Conch effigy
The tomb was found underneath various phases of a masonry shrine that had been placed on a staircase.
The shrine contained a monumental fire altar which had been dedicated by the sacrifice of a mature woman buried underneath it.
"Below that last shrine was a buried earlier version and it was below this earlier shrine that the royal tomb was found," Freidel and Navarro-Farr said.
It soon became clear to the archaeologists why the structure received so much ritual attention throughout its final occupation.
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"The golden age of the city, and the great queen and her husband who presided over it, were remembered and celebrated by ordinary people with their humble offerings," the researchers said.
Inside the tomb the team led by Freidel and Navarro-Farr found the skeletal remains of an individual, whose skull was almost covered by ceramic vessels.
Deterioration of the bones did not permit a clear identification of the subject as male or female.
"If female, the interred individual had more robust than gracile features," the researchers said. The traits would match the queen's portrait on the stela on display at the Cleveland Art Museum.
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One further clue favoring the identification of the skeleton as a queen was the presence of a large red spiny oyster shell on the lower torso.
"Late Classic queens at Waka', including K'abel, regularly wore such a shell as a girdle ornament in their stela portraits while kings did not," the researchers said.
According to Freidel, the newly uncovered tomb is a rare situation in which Maya archaeological and historical records meet.
"To put the discovery into perspective, there are five maya tombs in Classic Maya history that are indentifiable as to the person inside them -- this is one of those five," Freidel said.
Photos: Top: The burial chamber. Queen K'abel’s skull is above the plate fragments. Credit: El Peru Waka Regional Archaeological Project. Bottom: The carved alabaster vessel (shown from two sides). Credit: El Peru Waka Regional Archaeological Project.

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