Lady K’abel rises: Tomb of Maya queen uncovered in Guatemala
Below the surface, Lady K’abel waited. The Guatemalan army moved in on the plaza of El Perú Waka, a small city in the northwestern Petén region of Guatemala armed against potential intruders. As days and nights passed, she began to emerge from the underbelly of one of the largest city temples in the Petén. Lady K’abel finally surfaced, not as the most powerful Mayan queen of the seventh century, but as corporeal fragments and withering remains, for she had been dead for centuries.
The tomb of Lady K’abel is the most recent discovery of Wash. U. archaeology professor and principal investigator of the El Perú Waka site David Freidel and his colleague at The College of Wooster, Dr. Olivia Navarro-Farr. While excavating a city temple (known as M13-1 in archaeological jargon) reminiscent of Teotihuacan style architecture, Navarro-Farr uncovered a ruptured staircase that led her to this unexpected and serendipitous find.
“When they got to that level of the tomb, they had a contingent of members of the Guatemalan army that lived on the Plaza day and night to protect the excavations from harm while they were excavating, because finding precious materials in such tombs invites theft and disturbance,” Freidel explained, noting that such pilfering had occurred in the past.
But as thieves remained to the north in Guatemala City, archaeologists at El Perú began to piece together Lady K’abel’s body and the story behind this illustrious woman. “[Navarro-Farr] has a great deal of work ahead of her in making sense of this,” Freidel commented, referring to both the body and over 22 artifacts scattered around the tomb.
Lying near the queen’s remains, these artifacts help to contextualize Lady K’abel’s role in the ancient Maya world: a drinking cup inscribed with the name of K’awiil, a royal Mayan god, a small jade portrait of the queen as a young woman and, most significantly, an alabaster jar about the size of a billiard ball.
“It is carved in the form of a shell,” Freidel said, “and the shell is symbolic of the place of the ancestors for the Maya.”
An elderly woman’s face and her hand protrude from one side of this once-white-but-now-sandy-colored and cracked jar. “She’s a bust—the upper part of her body—and the Maya think of busts as representative of sacred bundles of ancestral bones, so she is posing as an ancestor.”
With each investigation of this alabaster jar, Lady K’abel’s story becomes more intricate. A number of vessels similar to this one have appeared in royal tombs at neighboring sites, confirming its significance as a royal object.
According to archaeology Ph.D. candidate Mary Jae Acuña, who searched for Lady K’abel’s remains in 2003 in the building right next to the one in which it was recently found, these findings help to bridge the gap between the epigraphic and the archaeological record.
“We’ve known about [Lady K’abel] through the epigraphic record of the site and through a lot of different carved monuments. Having her remains found archaeologically is one way that demonstrates how we can use both epigraphy and archaeology to build a much more nuanced understanding of ancient Maya history,” Acuña said.
Although epigraphy and archaeology work to reaffirm each other, archaeologists are not always inclined toward consensus. However clear Lady K’abel’s royal status is, her gender continues to be contested in the archaeological community. Freidel believes both her musculature and her depiction on the alabaster jar indicate her status as a woman.
“We know it is a woman because she has a curl of hair in front of her ear, which is diagnostic of the face of a woman,” Freidel asserted. “In the hieroglyphic text system, it reads “lady,” or “ix,” so we know it’s a woman and a beautiful portrait of a woman because it is not stylized. It represents her as an old and very dignified person.”
The backside of this alabaster piece contains hieroglyphics—which to the layman’s eye appear as drawings of human faces alongside those of a fish and a turtle—which solidify her status as a queen. They indicate her name in ancient Mayan, meaning “Lady Waterlily-Hand” in English, and deem her to be a Holy Snake Lord of the Chan (Snake) Dynasty. As the Snake dynasty reclaimed power in the Petén, Lady K’abel served as its political leader and supreme warrior, even surpassing her husband in power.
“Other archaeologists are excited by this discovery because it is one more reason to claim that we need to keep an open mind about gender roles in classic Maya civilizations,” Freidel said.
Hoping to deflate some of the false understandings of women’s place in indigenous communities, Freidel emphasized, “Women were very central to politics including military, economic and religious matters. They were not peripheral and they were not subservient. They were part and parcel of the practice of Mayan politics and statecraft, that much I’m clear on.”
Ph.D. candidate in archaeology and lab director on this excavation Diana Fridberg said that this tomb does not merely offer tangible historical artifacts, but also displays the humanity behind one of the largest civilizations in history.
“The artifacts are just very interesting and looking at them, you have a real sense of this event, this burial event that happened,” Fridberg said. “It’s all a very human kind of thing. It’s not just treasure. You can really sense the person behind it, the actual ritual of burying this person. There are handprints visible in the plaster. The objects are very finely made. It’s very personal.”
These burial artifacts illuminate Lady K’abel’s history while also uncovering Mayan notions of life and death. According to Freidel, the alabaster jar, or what he calls the “White Soul Flower cache vessel,” reveals just this.
“The idea of resurrection, of rebirth, of sprouting from one’s own head—it’s really intrinsic to the idea called the ‘White Soul Flower cache vessel,’” Freidel proposed. “And I believe the alabaster jar is a ‘White Soul Flower cache vessel,’ and so it represents [Lady K’abel’s] seed because the soul flower or the white flower is a metaphor for death, for life and for rebirth. We see the flower fades, becomes a seed [and] the seed falls on the ground and turns into a tree and grows back up again and so the cycle of life is represented by the soul flower. And a way of calling a person deceased is [by saying], ‘faded was her white soul flower.’”
Lady K’abel’s tomb has surfaced thoughts on gender roles, power dynamics and the connotations of death within this Guatemalan empire amongst the leading archaeologists of the Maya. As this discovery permeates to the public sphere, Freidel hopes that false notions of a Mayan-predicted doomsday this Dec. 21 will be exchanged for accurate and equally-as-dramatic histories of the Maya.
“It’s a shame that the Maya are subject to this kind of misrepresentation, but they are the civilization of the moment and so it is inevitable that charlatans will be attracted to them the way they have in the past been attracted to Atlantis or to the ancient Egyptians,” Freidel expressed. “So it’s hard for us archaeologists to complain too hard because it gives us an opportunity, this interest, to tell our societies what the Maya really were like.”