16 October 2012

Kaloomte, the 'Supreme Warrior' Queen

Meet Lady K'abel, Snake of Snakes.

Sometime in the 7th century CE, in the city of el-Peru, -- a Maya kingdom in the northernmost province of today's Guatamala --  there ruled a Supreme Warrior Queen, and this is what she looked like.

Centipedes and Snakes

During the 7th century, the kings who ruled el-Peru* belonged to the Centipede Dynasty (the Wak) and they were loyal vassals to the Snake kings (Kan) who had their seat at Calakmul*, far away to the northeast in what is now Mexico.  After 638 CE, a powerful king of the Snakes conquered towns and turf around the lands of el-Peru and established an empire in the Maya lowlands.  The Centipede king of the time, K'inich Bahlam II, had allied himself with the Snakes, and won as his reward a wife from the royal Snake Dynasty, most likely the king's own daughter, the princess K'abel.  

K'abel and her husband ruled for at least 20 years (672-692), and she very likely continued to govern for some time after his death.  These were golden years for el-Peru.  King K'inich Bahlam commissioned monument after royal monument, and K'abel, too, was regularly portrayed on great stone stele -- not least on that masterpiece pictured above, which boasted the signatures of nearly a dozen carvers, the work of an entire community of artists. 

More than just a pretty face

And more than just a queen, K'abel held the mighty rank of Kaloomte, meaning 'Supreme Warrior' -- a title connected with the paramount storm god 'Chahk with the axe' -- which made her higher in authority and gave her greater status than her husband, the king.  Maya epigrapher Stanley Guenter comments:
This is a title that references the bellicose storm god , and “warlord”, I think, is an appropriate, if rough, gloss. (I think the title would have fit somewhere between our own titles warlord and emperor ...). That said, I don’t think this is a title that should be translated as “warrior” as I see little reason to believe that the person holding the title actually was directly axing people and/or places.
Whether K'abel ever strode into battle and axed a living enemy is unknown.  The title is certainly military but it might mean no more (and no less) than Queen Elizabeth II's rank of "Commander-in-Chief of the British Armed Forces".  It's likely, though, that as Kaloomte, she served as military governor of the el-Peru kingdom under the auspices of the House of the Snake King, to which she belonged.

In the portrait above, K'abel holds a military shield in one hand and  ritual regalia in the other hand, exactly as we see on a similar portrait of the ruling kingAccording to Prof. Olivia Navarro-Farr, one of the directors of the excavation at el-Peru, what is certain is this:
She had a long life, and she was a powerful woman who was depicted as such. That's important, because history remembers her as a formidable figure with a supreme title.
Formidable.  Yes indeed.  Figuratively ... and now literally.  She was a big woman.

Welcome to her tomb! 

The news broke last week that the queen's tomb almost certainly has been found.  And, blessedly, its contents were intact.

Here's the story.

Earlier excavations in the main temple of the city centre at el-Peru (circled, left) discovered that, long after the fall of the last royal dynasty, worshippers still used this sacred place and continued to do so into the early 9th century CE.  These post-royal city dwellers placed layers of offerings over the ruined temple. They also dragged heavy fragments of royal stone slabs and arranged these along the front of the building.  In 2012, excavators decided to dig into the temple to define its architecture and determine why it remained so revered after the fall of the last dynasty.

A shrine over a shrine over a shrine ...

In the post-royal period of the site's history, a masonry shrine had been placed on the main staircase of the temple.  Underneath this, in its last phase (after 750 CE) was a monumental fire altar which had been dedicated by the sacrifice of a mature woman buried below it.  Beneath that, they found another shrine, this one much earlier, and underneath that was a tomb containing the skeletal remains of a person who was buried with a vast wealth of grave goods. 

This is a royal tomb

The tomb contained the remains of a single mature individual who was buried with many rich offerings, including a number of ceramic vessels datable to 700-750 CE, as well as considerable amounts of  jewellery and figurines made from jade -- a material so highly prized by the Maya that it was equal only to the feathers of the Resplendent Quetzal bird in value.

(Left) You can see the skeleton's skull just above the broken plate, which probably represents a round shield.  

The burial turns out to be that of Queen K'abel.  And this is how we know....

It contained a small alabaster jar carved into the form of a conch shell (left): in Classic Maya religion, the conch shell is the dwelling place of royal ancestors and gods.  Conch shell trumpets would be blown during religious rituals to invoke the royals and deities.

The head and arm of a woman emerges out of the shell. She has the woman's characteristic strand of hair in front of her ear.  Her lined face indicates an advanced age.   All these factors strongly suggest that the vessel depicts a royal woman well past her youth who is buried in the tomb.


On the other side of the jar is a brief text of four hieroglyphic signs (right).  These name the jar's owner as "Lady Waterlily Hand" (an alternative spelling of the name Lady K'abel: the glyph for K’abel is hands holding waterlilies) and "Lady Snake Lord", which identifies her as a princess of the Kan Dynasty of Calakmul.  Matching the names given to queen K'abel in other inscriptions, the hieroglyphs leaves no question it's the same woman.

So, what did she look like in death?

Studying the skeleton showed that the queen was a mature individual (which accords with what we know of her in history), with more robust than gracile facial features and a sturdy frame -- traits consistent with the forceful portrait of Lady K’abel on the stela at the top of this post.

So, the archaeologists who set out to discover why there was so much ritual activity surrounding this particular temple at the site, got a very decisive answer: these worshippers were venerating a warrior queen: 

Such a burial would be unusual for most Mayan women, but it seems perfectly appropriate for the interment of a woman afforded the rare title of Supreme Warrior.

"She's an exceptional kind of woman, from a historical standpoint," says Prof. Navarro-Farr, who discovered the tomb. "She was a strong, politically savvy and important person, and I think her tomb does provide new kinds of evidence that shed light on the key role of women in dynastic rulership."

And as Prof. Rosemary Joyce reminds us (on her blog Ancient Bodies/Ancient Lives), the high rank and status of Lady K'abel was far from being so very singular:
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.
And indeed they do. An elite circle, to be sure, but a well-peopled one.  By now, we should get used to it: "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."

Welcome, Lady K'abel, to the Kaloomte club.

*  These are the modern names of the sites: the Maya names were Waka (el-Peru) and Ox Te' Tuun (Calakmul).

Sources include the report from the excavation team at Washington University in St. Louis website; James Owens for National Geographic News; Mesoweb Encylopaedia (el-Peru); Faine Greenwood interviews Olivia Navarro Farr for the Global Post; The History Blog; and David Stuart's Maya Decipherment blog, including the comments by Karen Bassie, Stanley Guenter, and of course the blog-owner himself; and Rosemary Joyce at Ancient Bodies/Ancient Lives.


Top:  Stele 34, portraying Lady K'abel (dedicated in 692 CE) looted from the site of el-Peru/Waka in the sixties and bought regardless by the Cleveland Art Museum, where it is now on display.  Her name appears in the text panel below her round shield.  Photograph: Cleveland Art Museum via Maya Decipherment blog.

Top left:  The main temple in the city centre of el-Peru/Waka, at Washington University , Fig. 2.

Middle left:  Burial 61 from the west. The queen's skull is above the plate fragments, at Washington University , Fig. 8.

Below left and right: The small conch-effigy alabaster vessel, and drawing of the Glyphs on the back of the vessel (drawing by Stanley Guenter), at Washington University , Fig. 10.

Bottom left: Carved jade head from the tomb, much like the one Lady K'abel wears around her neck on the stela at the top of this post, from The History Blog, Tomb of Maya queen, 'Lady Snake Lord' Found.


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