A University of Calgary archaeologist and her international team of researchers have discovered the earliest known portrait of a woman that the Maya carved into stone, demonstrating that women held positions of authority very early in Maya history - either as queens or patron deities.
The discovery was made earlier this year in Guatemala at the site of Naachtun, a Maya city located some 90 kilometres through dense jungle north of the more famous Maya city of Tikal. The woman's face, carved on a stone monument called a stela [STEE-la] - and in an artistic style never before seen - suggests women played significant roles in early Maya politics.
"I've worked in the Maya area a long time and I've never seen anything like it," says Dr. Kathryn Reese-Taylor, the director of the U of C-led Naachtun project. "We have images of queens, who ruled both singly and with their husbands or sons, depicted on stelae later in Maya history beginning in the early 6th century AD. But this stela is completely unique in style and likely dates to the 4th century AD." The woman could be a figure from Maya history, but researchers are tantalized by the possibility she might be a mythical figure. Hieroglyphic inscriptions of the Late Classic period (600-900 AD) mention female deities, but none have ever been discovered on a stela. "If this is a patron deity, then it is extremely rare," Reese-Taylor says. "When hieroglyphic texts do mention women, it is usually in the context of being either someone's mother or someone's wife."
The stela measures two metres in height, one metre in width, and 50 centimetres in depth. It was buried by the Maya inside an ancient building after their city was attacked and the inscriptions on the stela were hacked off by the invading forces. The burial was a reverential act meant to honour the individual whose image was carved on the monument. An infant's burial accompanied the stela.
"This represents an extraordinary event in the history of Naachtun and we were really lucky to find it," Reese-Taylor says.
Dr. Julia Guernsey, a professor of Precolumbian Art History at the University of Texas at Austin, says the gender of the figure portrayed on the stela is unquestionably significant.
"If this individual was, indeed, a historical woman, it means that her portrait pre-dates other known stela representations of powerful women in the Classic Maya Lowlands by over a hundred years. It also means that we may need to re-evaluate the role and status of women within Early Classic Maya political dynamics," Guernsey says.
"The other fascinating aspect of the image, in my opinion, is its formal representation, or style. The fact that the body of the figure is completely absent and attention is focused on the head and headdress alone is very interesting and unusual."
The co-directors of the project are Lic. Martin Rangel Guillermo, Universidad de San Carlos, Guatemala; Dr. Peter L. Mathews, La Trobe University, Australia; and Dr. Debra Selsor Walker, Florida International University.
Students from a number of universities participated in the project in 2005: Alejandra Alonso, a Ph.D. student from the University of Calgary, assisted Lic. Martin Rangel with the excavation of the stela. Ms. Alonso is also a conservator, so her expertise was invaluable for the subsequent conservation of the monument. Shawn Morton, a U of C MA student, is surveying and mapping Naachtun's civic centre, which extends over two square kilometres.
Silvia Alvarado, a student at the University of San Carlos, directed excavations in one of the earliest public buildings at the site. Ernesto Arredondo, a PhD student from La Trobe University, is investigating the defensive fortifications at Naachtun as a part of his dissertation research. Chris Morehart, a PhD student from Northwestern University, is directing the study of the settlement surrounding Naachtun's civic centre. Fernando Rochaix, PhD student from the University of Texas at Austin, directed the laboratory analysis and served as the project photographer during the 2005 season.
Reese-Taylor and her team first began fieldwork in Naachtun in 2002 and are undertaking the first scientific excavations of the site. Co-director Martin Rangel actually discovered the stela peeking out from a looter's trench at the end of the 2004 season and excavated it in the spring of 2005.
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