While some, such as a burial chamber found at Nakum, west of Naachtun, are relatively modest, containing only a few painted pots, others clearly advertise the great wealth and influence of the occupant. At Copan, to the south, for example, fifth-century mourners dressed their dead queen in burial garments shimmering with precious greenstone beads, shell ornaments and feathered bird heads, and they laid her to rest on a massive carved funerary slab in what is known today as the Margarita Tomb. Then they sprinkled her remains with costly imported red pigments from the minerals cinnabar and hematite.
Ardren has “brought together studies from throughout the ancient Maya world to show that women were not sidebars in Maya society, but significant actors in their own right,” says Reese-Taylor, who is now building on Ardren’s work as she looks for clues about powerful queens who were also fierce warriors.
In 2012, more evidence emerged from Guatemala. While excavating the ancient royal Maya city El Peru-Waka’, archaeologists from Washington University in St. Louis uncovered the tomb of a royal woman. Her bones lay resting beneath a shrine, surrounded by jewels and two figurines. Hieroglyphs nearby indicated her name was Lady K’abel, also known as Lady Waterlily-Hand and Lady Snake Lord. Lady K’abel’s name had been etched on a seventh-century stela next to a picture of a woman dressed in royal garb, and holding a warrior shield.
Before the Fall
For Reese-Taylor, Ardren and many others, these new findings reveal much that previous researchers have missed when it came to Maya queens. “I think it shows that power was a lot more complicated than our models have suggested,” concludes Ardren. “And clearly we have a long way to go in understanding the biographies of the most extraordinary women.”
By analyzing hieroglyphic inscriptions and illustrations of costumed queens, poring over evidence from royal tombs and reconstructing royal dynasties, Reese-Taylor and her colleagues have revealed for the first time how some Maya queens ruled alone in turbulent times, securing their dynasties and their kingdoms from usurpers, while others led their subjects to war, presiding over battles of attrition against enemy kings. “These queens are really important,” says Reese-Taylor, “and we had just given them lip service before.”
[This article originally appeared in print as "The Power & Glory of the Maya Queens."]