Female Mayan Rulers

In the past, there has been an assumption in archaeology that grand tombs and artifact laden graves belong to male rulers. However, Mayan archaeology has been quite forward thinking in this respect and in the past has left interpretations open. A great example of this was the 7th century tomb found without skeletal remains in Palenque. Although there were no clear indicators of whether the individual who would be interred within was male or female, based on inscriptions it was proposed to be the tomb of the “Red Queen”. The earliest arguments about Mayan life, especially in the Late Classic, were focused primarily on the roles of men and priests. However, this was quickly amended when it was discovered that translation of glyphs showed that the plump individuals thought to be priests were actually females. In fact, the translations showed that women were also rulers during this period such as Lady Xoc and Lady Shkul. Women either served by their own merit, succeeded brothers or husbands, or ruled as regents before their sons were able.

Studies of female rulers through hieroglyphs and art have argued that females were masculinized in order to be rulers. Hardman (2006) notes that the women’s names were changed to have the masculine ending and that their artwork was shifted to include more male motifs. Due to this, she argues that female rulers were not that common, so instead of feminizing the position they were given the male format. She notes that it is possible that they were “gender benders” or were impersonating males. By masculinizing themselves, they were able to control the throne. Another theory proposed by Hardman (2006) is that the ancestors of the female rulers made them more masculine in order to legitimize their lineage. Sadly, all of these interpretations let the females be seen as lesser rulers because of their femininity, and only truly legitimate once male. Isn’t it possible that the conventions we see are not gender based but based on station- so the adoption of certain name changes and artistic elements is a sign of kingship rather than maleness? It is well known that hieroglyphics and art are highly biased by those who commissioned the pieces, and may not be reflective of the truth. Therefore, we turn to osteological evidence for a different perspective.

Recent excavations at the Mayan ruins of Nakum in Guatemala found the skeletons of two royal burials, both of which have been interpreted as females. The first tomb found was dated to the 8th century CE, and appears to have the remains of a female but they had been badly degraded by vermin and weather. The second individual found dates to the 1st century CE, and was well preserved. This tomb was also filled with numerous treasures like jade gorgets, beads and ceremonial knives, as well as two bowls which were placed on the head of the woman.

When the research team was excavating the tomb, based on the inscriptions and grave goods they made the assumption that the individual was a male king. “It’s surprising to me—we were expecting a male,” Koszkul, an archaeologist on the project, said. Maya female rulers are not unheard of, but they are uncommon and this is the first skeletal evidence of a female ruler. It is unknown yet who the individual specifically was, but further analysis is being made of each individual artifact. Whether they will fully understand the tomb is unknown since they believe it suffered a number of lootings throughout the past 700 years.

In order for gender interpretations to be made, to further assess whether female rulers were masculinized or simply wearing the appropriate dress of a ruler without gender connotations a comparison of graves needs to be made. If we compare the grave goods and costumes of male and female rulers, as well as male and female elite, we can better understand how Mayan female rulers were perceived. Males and females had distinctly different costumes, and while the majority of the outfit would be lost over time to degradation, the general outfit can be inferred from beads.

Works Cited

Hardman, 2006. Classic Maya Women Rulers in Monumental Art. In Totem 14(1).

Kaufman, 2011. Rare Mayan Female Ruler Found in Guatemala. National Geographic.http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/09/pictures/110922-rare-mayan-female-ruler-tomb-found-guatemala/

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One response to “Female Mayan Rulers

  1. Pingback: Contagions Round-up 15: Vampires, Vikings and Viruses « Contagions·

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