This carved alabaster vessel found in the burial chamber helped archaeologists conclude that the tomb was Lady K’abel’s. Photo: El Perú-Waka’ Regional Archaeological Project
Not far from Mirador, in the Petén region of northern Guatemala, lies a pre-Columbian Maya archaeological site called El Perú-Waka’. Some 1,600 years ago, El Perú-Waka’ was a powerful city with tens of thousands of residents, ideally situated for trading along the San Pedro River. Recently, it became the site of one of this year’s most exciting archaeological discoveries: the tomb of Lady K’abel, considered the greatest ruler of the Late Classic period.
A team of U.S. and Guatemalan experts, led by archaeologist David Freidel and sponsored by GHF partner PACUNAM, found the remains of the ancient warrior queen alongside various offerings, including ceramic vessels, jade jewelry, stone figurines and — most importantly — a small alabaster jar.
According to a report by the Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL), the white jar is carved in the shape of a conch shell, out of which the head and arms of an old woman emerge. The depiction of the woman, mature with a lined face and a strand of hair in front of her ear, as well as four carved glyphs on the back of the jar indicating the queen’s nicknames (“Lady Water Lily Hand”, “Lady Snake Lord”), helped the team to conclude that the tomb belongs to K’abel.
“To put it into perspective,” said Freidel in a WUSTL video interview, “there are five Maya tombs that are identifiable as to the person inside of them in classic Maya history. This is one of five. There are not very many like this.”
The presumed burial chamber of Lady K’abel. Photo: El Perú-Waka’ Archaeological Project
More than a queen, K’abel was a supreme warlord who carried the prestigious “Kaloomte” title, making her the most powerful person in the kingdom, higher in stature and authority than even her husband, the king. Because of this, experts believe the discovery of her tomb could help redefine the understanding of women’s political roles during the Classic Maya period.
“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,” said Olivia Navarro-Farr, co-director of the expedition.
“The royal tomb shows that women have been leaders in the past, and we must now assume and exercise political participation to strengthen the role of women in the new era,” said Rosa Maria Chan, Guatemala’s deputy minister for cultural and natural heritage, in a statement released by the ministry.
Like GHF’s Mirador project, the El Perú-Waka’ Archaeological Research Project gives equal focus to cultural and ecological conservation, as well as community participation and development. The discovery of Lady K’abel’s tomb has rightfully attracted major international attention, and once again demonstrated the infinite potential for research in the region — but for the archaeological promise of these sites to be truly realized, they must first and foremost be sustainably preserved.