Archaeologists Discover Tomb of Maya Queen Lady K’abel in Guatemala

During excavations of the royal Maya city of El Perú-Waka’ in northwestern Petén, Guatemala, an international team of archaeologists has discovered the tomb of Lady K’abel, one of the great queens of Classic Maya civilization.

Left: El Peru Stela 33, portraying Maya King K’inich Bahlam II. Currently in the collection of the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas. Right: El Peru Stela 34, portraying Maya Queen Lady K’abel. Currently in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art (David Freidel, Juan Carlos Pérez et al)

El Perú-Waka’, located approximately 75 km west of the famous city of Tikal, is an ancient Maya city in northwestern Petén, Guatemala. It was part of Classic Maya civilization (200-900 AD) in the southern lowlands and consists of nearly a square kilometer of plazas, palaces, temple pyramids and residences surrounded by many square kilometers of dispersed residences and temples.

A small, carved alabaster jar found in the burial chamber caused the archaeologists to conclude the tomb was that of Lady K’abel. The white jar is carved as a conch shell, with a head and arm of an aged woman emerging from the opening. The depiction of the woman, mature with a lined face and a strand of hair in front of her ear, and four glyphs carved into the jar, point to the jar as belonging to K’abel.

“Based on this and other evidence, including ceramic vessels found in the tomb and stela carvings on the outside, the tomb is likely that of K’abel,” said Prof David Freidel of Washington University in St. Louis, co-director of the expedition.

“The discovery is significant not only because the tomb is that of a notable historical figure in Maya history, but also because the newly uncovered tomb is a rare situation in which Maya archaeological and historical records meet.”

“The Classic Maya civilization is the only ‘classical’ archaeological field in the New World — in the sense that like archaeology in Ancient Egypt, Greece, Mesopotamia or China, there is both an archaeological material record and an historical record based on texts and images. The precise nature of the text and image information on the white stone jar and its tomb context constitute a remarkable and rare conjunction of these two kinds of records in the Maya area,” he explained.

The discovery of the tomb of the great queen was “serendipitous, to put it mildly,” Prof Freidel said.

Left and center: the carved alabaster vessel found in the tomb of Lady K’abel, shown from two sides (David Freidel, Juan Carlos Pérez et al.) Right: drawing of the Glyphs on the back of the alabaster vessel. The text consists of four hieroglyphs. The first one was inscribed half on the body of the alabaster vessel and half on its lid, and erosion patterns along the edge of the lid indicates that it saw considerable use before being deposited in the tomb. This use wear has badly damaged the first hieroglyph but enough remains to read it as yotoot, ‘the house of’, and the second glyph should refer to the original contents of the vessel. The name of the owner of this alabaster vessel appears in the final two hieroglyphs of this text. The first is the personal name, and while this cannot be read full phonetically in the ancient Classic Mayan language, it can be translated as Lady Waterlily-Hand. The final glyph is a female version of the Calakmul Emblem Glyph, reading Ix Kan Ajaw, or Lady Snake Lord and identifying Lady Waterlily-Hand as a princess of Calakmul. This is almost certainly an alternative spelling of the name of Lady K’abel, as both names consist of hands holding waterlilies and both are titled as princesses of Calakmul (Stanley Guenter)

The team has focused on uncovering and studying “ritually-charged” features such as shrines, altars and dedicatory offerings rather than on locating burial locations of particular individuals.

“In retrospect, it makes a lot of sense that the people of Waka’ buried her in this particularly prominent place in their city. With the discovery, archaeologists now understand the likely reason why the temple was so revered: K’abel was buried there,” Prof Freidel said.

“Lady K’abel, considered the greatest ruler of the Late Classic period, ruled with her husband, K’inich Bahlam, for at least 20 years (672-692 AD),” Freidel said. “She was the military governor of the Wak kingdom for her family, the imperial house of the Snake King, and she carried the title ‘Kaloomte,’ translated to ‘Supreme Warrior,’ higher in authority than her husband, the king.”

K’abel also is famous for her portrayal on the famous Maya stela, Stela 34 of El Perú, now in the Cleveland Art Museum.

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Bibliographic information: David Freidel, Juan Carlos Pérez et al. 2012. Report: The Queen of El Perú-Waka’ – New Discoveries in an Ancient Maya Temple.