Bearers of War and Creation - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Bearers of War and Creation January 23, 2003
by David Freidel and Stanley Guenter

A Site Q monument in the Dallas Museum of Art is changing our view of ancient Maya royal women.

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(Courtesy Dallas Museum of Art)
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(Illustration by Linda Schele/Courtesy FAMSI)
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While we once knew very little about the roles royal women played in Classic Maya (A.D. 250-900) society, today we know that they were instrumental in the political and social administration of their cities. They conducted important ceremonies, their marriages cemented alliances between kingdoms, and they could even found new dynasties and rule as sovereigns in their own right. One of the major pieces of evidence that is changing our view of ancient Maya royal women is a sculptured tablet in the Dallas Museum of Art that depicts two such women on portable shrines. Looted in the 1960s, when many other important Maya monuments surfaced on the antiquities market, the Dallas Tablet, generally called the Dallas Altar, has long been a source of discussion among epigraphers and archaeologists.

This exquisitely carved monument, which is about two feet square, was beveled along its edges and smoothed on its back in antiquity, suitable for use as a wall decoration. Erosion shows that it was exposed for a long time to rain and weather while still set in a vertical position. This is why the upper surface is more badly damaged than the lower, where fine-line inscriptions can still be discerned. The tablet must have been set into a wall as part of some larger architectural and sculptural composition. The famous Oval Palace Tablet in House E of the Palace at Palenque, Mexico, may be a similar case. Dating from the seventh century A.D., the Oval Palace tablet also features a royal woman, Lady Sak K'uk', mother of K'inich Janaab Pakal I, the most famous king of that realm. If the Palenque case is a good guide, then the Dallas Tablet was likely set into the wall of a throne room, above the stone-bench throne where scenes such as those depicted on the tablet were enacted. The throne room, in turn, was likely part of a palace complex in a public center.

While the Dallas Tablet was thought possibly to have come from the ruins of El Perú (anciently named Waka'), about 45 miles west of the great Maya city of Tikal, its glyphic texts make clear that it came from a site named Sak Nikte', or "White Flower." Tom Sever of NASA discovered the probable location of Sak Nikte' in 1997, a ruin known as La Corona in the northwestern sector of the department of Petén, Guatemala. Ian Graham and David Stuart of the Harvard Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphics Program have studied the ruins and monuments of La Corona, which contain a number of references to the site as Sak Nikte'. La Corona, which is a candidate for the elusive Site Q, is located near the Chocop River, a tributary of the San Pedro Martir River, a major transportation route that linked the large interior kingdoms of the Maya world to border kingdoms and the outside commercial markets of Mexico. Politically and economically, Sak Nikte' was of immense strategic importance to the powerful Snake Kingdom, 'Kan' in Mayan, with its Late Classic period (A.D. 600-900) capital being the enormous ruin of Calakmul, in southeastern Campeche, Mexico.

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Sak Nikte' was located approximately halfway between the Kan capital and the lower reaches of the San Pedro Martir River, and its confluence with the greatest river of the western Maya world, the Usumacinta. Through Sak Nikte' and other vassal cities on the San Pedro Martir river system, the Snake Kings of Calakmul sought to command trade and tribute flowing on these major commercial arteries. While Sak Nikte' was normally ruled by vassals of the Snake Kings, the texts recovered from La Corona suggest that the Snake Kings used this center as a secondary capital and strategic base for operations against, and interactions with, the lands to the south and west.

The Dallas Tablet [INTERACTIVE IMAGE] bears directly on these political goals. It depicts two women facing each other, standing in front of thrones atop portable shrines known as palanquins. The woman on the left is inside a shrine held up by old gods. The base of the shrine is marked with Yax signs, meaning "blue-green," "new," and "first," and is also decorated with a cleft design. Together these symbols signify that she is standing on a clefted place called the Yax Hal Witznal in ancient Mayan, meaning the "First True Mountain Place," the first piece of terra firma to appear after Creation. This is the place of rebirth of the Maize god in Maya religion, and the roof of the shrine continues this theme. Karl Taube, of the University of California, Riverside, has identified the three foliated images seen here as the "first three stone hearth place." In Maya creation mythology, this is another symbol of the place where the maize god was reborn.

Above the three foliated (smoking) hearth stones, from which emerge Maize Gods, there is an undulating serpent that is a supernatural being particularly associated with underwater scenes and watery places. It is from this watery serpent-fish that the Maize God was reborn, and its appearance atop this shrine situates the queen standing below at the very place of Creation and rebirth, from which she will bestow upon her kingdom her powers of fertility.

The woman on the viewer's right stands atop a battle palanquin of the kind that Maya rulers rode during important ceremonies and into battle with their armies. The enormous jaguar beast looming behind her is a variant of the sun jaguar war gods worshiped by the Maya throughout their history. The woman wears a special headdress that was introduced into the Maya region from highland Mexico in the fourth century A.D., along with a major war god called in ancient Mayan, Waxaklaju'n u B'aah Chan, or "Eighteen Snake Heads." Although a foreign deity, this being became the standard god of war among the Classic Maya. The head of this jaguar beast is, in fact, that of the Mexican war god in question. As paired with the birthing shrine on the viewer's left, the presentation of the battle palanquin refers to the role of royal women in bringing war gods into this world to wreak havoc on their enemies.

While worn and eroded, the hieroglyphic inscription on the Dallas Tablet provide critical insights into the history of Sak Nikte' and its relationship to the great Kan Kingdom to the north. The text refers to the arrivals of three royal "Snake" women at Sak Nikte', in A.D. 520, 677, and 721. Given that all three women are said to have arrived at Sak Nikte' from the Kan capital, it is likely that these are images of the actual palanquins they would have rode into the site, bringing with them the powers of Creation and War.

Significantly, the second woman, who arrived in 677, did so on the very day of one of the greatest victories for the Kan Kingdom, when Calakmul's major rival for domination of the Maya lowlands, Tikal, was defeated in battle. This Snake Princess is said to have been the wife of the local ruler, K'inich Yook (ruled 667-ca. 682), who in turn is said to have been the yajaw, or "vassal of," Yukno'm Ch'e'n II (636-686), the greatest king of Calakmul.

The two other women, in fact, were not married to local lords, but were actual queens of Calakmul, being married to Snake Kings themselves. The first, who arrived in 520, was named Lady Naah Ek' ("House Star"), and is specifically said to have been u nahtal ix kan ajaw, "the first Snake Queen." She is also said to have been the wife of Tuun K'ab' Hiix (ruled ca. 520-ca. 550), one of the great early rulers of the Snake Kingdom, who on La Corona Stela 1 is associated with rites in 544 that may be part of the founding of the site.

The third woman, Lady Ti', came to Sak Nikte' in 721 and is described as the yatan, or "wife of," Yuknoom Took' K'awiil, the last great ruler of Calakmul (ruled ca. 702-ca. 731). The date of her arrival is most interesting as it falls 26 years after a major victory by Tikal over Calakmul, in which the power of the Snake Kingdom was overthrown and its influence in the Petén was seriously curtailed. In addition, this arrival occurred only a dozen years before another major clash between Tikal and Calakmul, in which the former again appears to have successful. This information, in combination with the iconography of the tablet, suggests that Lady Ti's arrival served to reestablish, after a lengthy absence, the presence of Calakmul in the Petén. In this light, we can begin to appreciate the pairing of the Creation and War palanquins, and the role of the Snake Queens at Sak Nikte'.

Given that most studies of the ancient Maya concentrate on the role of kings in warfare and the founding of dynasties and cities, the Dallas Tablet is important for highlighting the role of royal women in these actions that were so central to Classic Maya civilization. Not only are all of the actors in this narrative female, the mothers of all the Snake women are also named, to the exclusion of their more famous fathers, the Snake Kings themselves. That the names of these important and powerful women are found nowhere else in the corpus of Maya hieroglyphic inscriptions adds to the importance of the Dallas Tablet to scholars of the ancient Maya.

For more on the subject, see "The Search for Site Q" (September/October) 1997) and Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens, by Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube (Thames and Hudson 2000).

David Freidel is University Distinguished Professor at SMU. He has carried out field research at Cerros, Belize, and Yaxuná, Yucatán, and he is initiating work at the site of El Perú (ancient Waka') to the south of Sak Nikte' on another tributary to the San Pedro River.

Stanley Guenter is an epigrapher of ancient Mayan and a Ph.D. student in archaeology at SMU. He is working on the texts from the Mirador Basin for the RAINPEG project in Guatemala and is the project epigrapher for the research at El Perú (Waka'.)

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© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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