(Warrior) Queen for a Day

Posted on October 5, 2012


Tomb of Maya Queen Found– “Lady Snake Lord” Ruled Centipede Kingdom says the headline from National Geographic.

And not just any kind of queen– the story opens

The suspected tomb and remains of a great Maya warrior queen have been discovered in Guatemala.

[emphasis added]

I am trying to be excited. I am trying not to be cranky. I should be happy. Why am I not happy?

Let’s start with this: queens are always treated as exceptions to the (assumed) rule. So finding the tomb of a queen doesn’t (necessarily) help in the vital task of taking apart the assumptions that make us see the past in general– and the Classic Maya past in particular– through a gendered lens in which women are normally subordinate to men.

So no matter how many Maya noble women’s tombs are identified, each one seems to be a surprise: finding a royal woman is always an exception, so the next royal woman isn’t seen as evidence of a category of powerful women, but another exception to the normal status of women as powerless.

Hence my failure to rejoice over coverage of this latest find. Citing the Nat Geo again:

The body inside was buried with … a small alabaster jar carved in the shape of a conch shell, out of which the carved head and arms of an old woman emerge.

Maya hieroglyphs on the back of the jar include the names “Lady Water Lily Hand” and “Lady Snake Lord,” according to the study team.

Both names are thought to refer to Lady K’abel, who governed the Wak kingdom for her family, the empire-building Kan, or “Snake,” dynasty, based in the Maya capital Calakmul in what’s now Mexico.

While Lady K’abel ruled with her husband, K’inich Bahlam, her title of Kaloomte, or “supreme warrior,” gave her higher authority than the king.

From the perspective of the National Geographic, the newsworthy thing here is not (just) that a royal tomb of a powerful woman was recovered; it is that this woman was surprisingly powerful– more powerful than her male spouse.

But dynastic marriage patterns, in which powerful families sealed alliances by marrying off young women to less powerful ruling families at other sites, virtually demand that we expect many sites to yield evidence of noble or ruling women whose status might be higher than that of their local spouse.

We should be long past the time that it would surprise us that there were powerful women in Maya dynasties. Even a cursory search uncovers story after story of royal tombs whose occupants turned out to be women. The Red Queen at Palenque and the occupant of the Margarita Tomb at Copan are two of the most visible examples. Yet again, Archaeology magazine’s online story about the occupant of the Copan tomb begins with the line “Archaeologists excavating the richest tomb ever found at the ancient Maya city of Copán in Honduras were surprised to discover that its occupant was a woman”.

But these royal women are in very good– and abundant– company.

Just about a year ago, the National Geographic reported on a royal woman from a tomb at Nakum, Guatemala. The lead archaeologist is quoted saying that the “royal figure’s gender also took the researchers by surprise”:

“It’s surprising to me—we were expecting a male,”… While other nearby cities had turned up some evidence of female rulers, Maya queens were uncommon compared to kings, he explained.

A second, less well preserved burial, later than the one securely identified as a royal woman, was also described as possibly that of a woman, based on the small size of a finger ring in the tomb.

A similar instance of two burials of women was discussed by Karen Olsen Bruhns and Karen Stothert in 1999. The more recent burial in the pair was identified as likely sacrificed as part of the funeral rituals for the first buried woman. They described the first, Burial 128 at Altar de Sacrificios, in Guatemala, as “far more lavish than any other person buried at Altar de Sacrificios”. They argued that discussions of burials at the site, which compared the aggregate of men’s burials to the aggregate of women’s burials, gave a false picture. By asserting that men (in general) received more attention in burial than women (in general), these arguments of male/female status managed to skip over the fact that the single most impressive burial was that of a woman.

The tendency to lump all women together into a single category, and contrast it with all men, breaks down entirely when confronted with the rich singularity of examples of burials like those of Maya queens. I would be delighted if these individual unique burials were used, as they clearly should be, to challenge any assumption that there actually was such a thing as (uniform) “women’s status” in Classic Maya society. The woman in Burial 128 at Altar de Sacrificios had nothing of social significance in common with the young woman killed to accompany her in death.

The people in these two burials were both women, yes: but what it meant to be a woman who commanded, or who served, were very different things. Archaeologist Christine White has demonstrated that gendered dietary differences varied in different times and places across the Maya area, often demonstrating distinctions between nobles and commoners in kind and degree of gender difference.

So when we read that the Red Queen from Palenque was “uncharacteristically tall for the female population of her region and times”, we might want to ask why we would expect a powerful noble woman to resemble women of less powerful families?

The new tomb from El Peru is identified tentatively as that of the woman named on the small alabaster vessel–a conclusion that seems plausible, although sometimes such objects in tombs are heirlooms or gifts to other people. This particular woman is quite well known already from her depiction in astonishing carved stone monuments like El Perú Stela 34, looted from the site, cut into pieces, and now reassembled in the Cleveland Museum of Art. There, she wears a round shield on one arm, and holds ritual regalia in the other, in a pose identical to that of a male noble on a paired stela, now in the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

Finding her tomb may have been serendipity.

But the fact that there were women powerful enough to be buried with the greatest degree of celebration possible in the Classic Maya world should no longer come as a surprise.