Tomb of Revered Maya Queen Discovered in Guatemala
College of Wooster professor leads team of archaeologists in making June discovery
WOOSTER, Ohio — A team of archaeologists in Guatemala, led by Olivia Navarro-Farr, assistant professor of anthropology at The College of Wooster, has discovered the tomb of Lady K’abel, a seventh-century Maya queen, also known as “Kaloomte’ K’abel.” She is a “Holy Snake Lady” of Classic Maya Civilization whose monument can be viewed at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and her discovery has made international news, including articles in USA Today and The Cleveland Plain Dealer.
The tomb was identified in early June during excavations of the ancient Maya city of El Perú-Waka’ in northwestern Petén, Guatemala. A small, carved alabaster jar found in the burial chamber led archaeologists to believe that the tomb was that of Lady K’abel. The white jar was 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 four glyphs carved into the jar, indicated that the jar belonged to K’abel. Additional items included roughly 20 ceramic vessels, a large spondylus shell near the pelvis, and numerous carved jade and shell artifacts.
“The late Robert Sharer advanced an approach to Maya archaeology he called the ‘conjunctive approach,’ which is the analysis of historical information in tandem with archaeological evidence.” says Navarro-Farr. “This discovery represents a unique instance in which the archaeological context includes textual information, which bears directly on the evidence.”
The discovery of the great queen’s tomb was serendipitous. It occurred while Navarro-Farr’s team was focused on recording architectural change and examining “ritually potent” features, such as shrines, altars, and dedicatory offerings. The tomb was located at the base of a stairway in the structure the team was excavating.
Navarro-Farr originally began excavating the surface of this temple structure as a doctoral student in 2003. She continued to pursue the project this summer because her investigations indicated that the building was the subject of a great deal of ritual activity for generations after the fall of the dynasty at El Perú-Waka’. Her previous research focused on the extensive ritual deposits associated with post-dynastic life at Waka, but now it has greater context and understanding of the likely reason this temple was so revered — because Lady K’abel was buried there.
“Lady K’abel was considered the greatest ruler of Waka’ during the Late Classic period,” says Navarro-Farr. “She ruled with her husband, K’inich Bahlam, for at least 20 years (672-692 AD). 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,’ which translates to ‘Supreme Warrior’ — higher in stature and authority than even her husband, the king. The significance of this woman’s powerful role as a ‘Kaloomte,’ a title rarely associated with Maya women, provides tremendous insight on the nexus of gender and power in Classic Maya politics.”
The project continues to be sponsored by the Foundation for the Cultural and Natural Patrimony of Guatemala (PACUNAM) and is carried out under the auspices of the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Guatemala. Additional funding was awarded to Navarro-Farr by the Alphawood Foundation, the Office for Equity and Inclusion Postdoctoral Diversity Fellowship at the University of New Mexico, and the Department of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico. The project is co-directed by David Freidel, professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, and Juan Carlos Perez, former vice minister of culture for cultural heritage of Guatemala.
Navarro-Farr’s research team included Griselda Pérez, former director of prehistoric monuments at the National Institute of Anthropology and History, as well as Damaris Menéndez and Francisco Castañeda.
“We’ve been at the site for a number of years,” says Navarro-Farr. “Our objective was to define architecture, and establish a tighter chronology. We were hoping this season’s research would address our question of why this building received so much ritual attention throughout its final occupation. Needless to say, encountering the royal tomb of Kaloomte K’abel herself is not only tremendously exciting and rewarding, but also humbling. It is an honor for all of us to share in and carry forward this work.”