Unearthing gender roles

An archeological team led by a University of Calgary professor have unearthed a startling monument in Guatemala that sheds new insight in to the role of women in early Mayan culture.

The team discovered a massive stone stela–pronounced stee-la–at the Guatemalan site of Naachtun. The stela depicts a powerful female holding two gods in her hands and is inscribed with her name, suggesting women held positions of authority in Mayan culture far earlier than previously thought.

“It’s remarkably well preserved,” said U of C archeologist Dr. Kathryn Reese-Taylor, head of the international team. “This is the earliest depiction of a woman in Mayan culture ever found, certainly the earliest I am aware of.”

Reese-Taylor explained there have been depictions of queens found dating from the sixth century AD, but that the Naachtun find predates them by as many as 200 years. Even more exciting for Reese-Taylor is the possibility the carving depicts a female deity. Though hieroglyphic inscriptions have been found that mention mythical female figures, depictions have never been found.

“This happened during the time period dynasties were founded,” she said. “This may well be a patron deity.”

The name of the figure is inscribed above the face and literally translates: “Lady Partition Lord.” Reese-Taylor said ‘partition’ is a common Mayan phrase used to describe the partition of the earth from the sky, and carries implications of creation myths.

Mayan sites like Naachtun have been the victim of vandalism and looting for centuries, she said, noting the back-side of the stela was destroyed at some point in history in order to clear the records that were likely carved into it.

“At a later point in history they actually attacked the public monuments,” she said. “It was a target of their enemies.”

The monument was then buried face down to protect what was left of it, and likely remained that way until her team brought it to light. Reese-Taylor added this was a further indication of the likely importance of the female depicted upon the stela.

“It’s always a reverential act to inter something,” she said.

The act of uncovering and setting the stela upright took the team three weeks this summer, though the stela was first discovered in 2004. U of C PhD student Alejandra Olvera joined the project this year as a conservator to help ensure the stela stayed preserved as it was excavated.

“It’s very dangerous to leave it exposed to the weather,” said Olvera, noting the site had to be guarded against other dangers. “Looters are around even today.”

Olvera said the several-tonne monument was set upright with the use of ropes, pullies and a team of local experts. Currently the stela has been reburied to protect it. It will eventually be moved to a museum.

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