Woman Power in the Maya World

Article excerpt

In Guatemala's Laguna del Tigre National Park, the dense forest hides many treasures: endangered scarlet macaws flit among the treetops, while rare jaguars hunt on the forest floor. Only recently has the world learned about one of Laguna del Tigre's greatest treasures, a 2,500-year-old city that once stood at the crossroads of the ancient Maya world. The archaeologists working on the site believe this city can answer many of the lingering questions about political events in the Peten region during the Classic Period of Maya history.

The ancient city of Waka'--known today as El Peru--first came to the attention of the modern world after oil prospectors stumbled upon it in the 1960s. Ten years later, Harvard researcher Ian Graham recorded the site's monuments, and then in 2003 two veteran archaeologists, David Freidel of Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Texas and Hector Escobedo of the University of San Carlos in Guatemala, launched a full-scale excavation of the site.

According to the historical record, Waka' was inhabited as early as 500 BC. The city reached its political peak around 400 AD and was abandoned some four centuries later. In its heyday, Waka' was an economically and strategically important place with tens of thousands of inhabitants, four main plazas, hundreds of buildings, and impressive ceremonial centers. Researchers say the key to the city's importance was its location between two of the most powerful Maya capitals--Calakmul to the north and Tikal to the east--and that in its history Waka' switched its alliance back and forth between the two rivals. They suggest that the final choice of Calakmul may have led to the eventual demise of Waka' at the hands of a Tikal king.

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"We know a great deal about the ancient inhabitants of this site from their monuments," Freidel writes in an article for SMU Research. "The more than 40 carved monuments, or stelae, at the site chronicle the activities of Waka's rulers, including their rise to power, their conquests in war, and their deaths." The location of Waka' right by the San Pedro Martir River, which was navigable for 50 miles in both directions, gave it great power as a trading center. In addition to the waterway, Freidel suggests that Waka' controlled a strategic north-south overland route that linked southern Campeche to central Peten. Freidel calls Waka' a "crossroads of conquerors in the pre-Columbian era."

One of the most intriguing people who inhabited Waka' was a woman of uncommon power and status. The discovery and excavation of her tomb in 2004 by team member Jose Ambrosio Diaz drew a lot of attention to the site. "We knew that we were dealing with a royal tomb right away because you could see greenstone everywhere," says David Lee, a PhD candidate at SMU who is investigating the Waka' palace complex. Greenstone is archaeologists' term for the sacred jade the ancient Maya used to signify royalty. The team found hundreds of artifacts in the tomb, which dates to sometime between 650 and 750 AD.

There were several indicators that this woman was important and powerful. Her tomb lay underneath a building on the main courtyard of the city's main palace. Her stone bed was surrounded by 23 offering vessels and hundreds of jade pieces, beads, and shell artifacts. Among the rubble, the researchers discovered a four- by two-inch jewel called a huunal that was worn only by kings and queens of the highest status. Typically a huunal was affixed to a wooden helmet called a ko'haw that was covered in jade plaques. Carved depictions suggest that only powerful war leaders wore these helmets. On the floor of the queen's tomb near her head, researchers found 44 square and rectangular jade plaques they believe were glued onto the wooden part of the ko'haw. The presence of this helmet in her torab has led the researchers to the conclusion that this queen held a position of power not typically afforded women of the time. …