A royal tomb
The ancient Maya inhabited the northern part of Central America - today’s Guatemala, Honduras, Southern Chiapas, Mexico, and the Yucatan. The Mayan empire peaked from around the third century AD until about a thousand years ago. But the people remained long after the empire crumbled. They resisted the Spanish conquistadors, and Mayan culture and languages persist today.
While much of Mayan history remains hidden among the ruins of cities covered by tropical growth, the life of one figure has suddenly come into focus.
College of Wooster anthropology professor Olivia Navarro-Farr describes the moment this summer when she first saw the symbolic shield of a warrior atop bones buried beneath a temple in the Mayan city of El Peru-Waka'.
“There was an audible gasp, ‘Look at what is here!’”
She was the first person to view the body in nearly 1,500 years.
“We knew it was a person of royal import, a royal individual, a ruler. We didn’t know whether it was male or female at this point; we hadn’t excavated the remains.”
Signed: Lady Snake Lord
Buried with the body, Navarro-Farr discovered an alabaster sculpture of a woman emerging from a tiny conch shell.
“But it wasn’t until we picked it up … and turned it around and, … ‘Oh my God, there’s a line of glyphic text on the back.”
It reads… “Ix Kan Ajaw, or Lady Snake Lord.”
Stanley Guenter is an expert in Mayan hieroglyphics and one of the investigators in the project. He teaches anthropology at Idaho State University. He says the vessel discovered with the body identifies her as from the ruling family of Calakmul, the main seat of power in the Mayan world.
He says, “though she ruled with her husband at El Peru, she was always referred to as a princess from that site to the north.”
Calakmul, 120 km north in what is now Mexico, was the seat of the Mayan emperor.
Olivia Navarro-Farr agrees: “Her place as a princess of Calakmul, her role was one of very profound political cache.”
Navarro-Farr began her exploration of the temple nearly a decade ago as a student of David Freidel, an archeologist from Washington University in St. Louis.
Freidel says the woman discovered this summer at El Peru-Waka was more than a princess, more than even a queen.
“She was the military governor of the Snake Empire in the west.”
The warrior queen
The Mayan called this rank the ‘Kaloomte'’. Lady Snake Lord, or Lady K’abel in her language, was more powerful than her husband. He was a king, but still a vassal of her father, the emperor. She was Kaloomte', the supreme political and war leader.
Freidel says a comparison can be made between Lady K'abal and another warrior queen, Cleopatra.
Freidel says Lady K’abel ruled at a critical time in the region’s history. Her empire was locked in a centuries old civil war with the neighboring city-state of Tikal. Her empire was eventually overthrown by Tikal, but not while Lady K’abel lived.
Mayan queen in Cleveland
Freidel says Lady K’abel still radiates power in a detailed sculpture that’s part of the Pre-Columbian collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
“She is portrayed as a serene and beautiful woman facing to her right. She holds in her right hand a magic wand, she holds on her left arm a battle shield.”
The same battle shield that Olivia Navarro-Farr uncovered this summer at El Peru-Waka’. She says, discovering the tomb of Lady K’abel at the base of the temple complex explains why, throughout a decade of study, she and her team have found dozens of other people buried nearby.
“This building represents the ultimate ancestor shrine…for everybody’s ancestral legacy.”
Navarro-Farr says the memory of Lady K’abel still inspires reverence among the Maya of Guatemala. Her image in Cleveland will be back on display when the museum completes its restoration at the end of next year.