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Scientists find monument to Mayan woman

Archaeologists working in Guatemala say they have unearthed a monument with the earliest known depiction of a woman of authority in ancient Mayan culture.
University of Calgary student Alejandra Alonzo helps wrap up a 4th-century stela at Naachtun, a Mayan archaeological site.
University of Calgary student Alejandra Alonzo helps wrap up a 4th-century stela at Naachtun, a Mayan archaeological site.University Of Calgary / University of Calgary
/ Source: Reuters

Archaeologists working in Guatemala have unearthed a monument with the earliest known depiction of a woman of authority in ancient Mayan culture, the Canadian leader of the research team said Monday.

The 6.5-foot-high (2-meter-high) limestone monument, called a stela, has a portrait of a female who could be either a ruler or a mythical goddess, said Kathryn Reese-Taylor, a University of Calgary archaeologist.

The stela may date from the late 4th century, making it as much as 200 years older than previously discovered monuments depicting powerful Mayan women, said Reese-Taylor, whose international team made the find earlier this year.

“It’s unique in that it shows a woman in a really early period in Maya history, a period when the city-states were being founded and dynasties were being instituted,” she said.

Archaeologists found the stela — the likes of which normally describe events in the lives of kings — at the site of Naachtun, a Mayan city 55 miles (90 kilometers) north of the more famous site of Tikal.

It was buried inside an ancient building, and some of the inscriptions had been hacked off, suggesting it had been a casualty in an invasion of the city, possibly by forces from Tikal at the end of the 5th century, she said.

“This was not unusual ... that they hack off or break stela. But one thing that was left on this stela was the name of the individual, and that is the name of a woman,” Reese-Taylor said.

The name translates into Lady Partition Lord, she said.

Researchers do not suspect Mayan culture was matriarchal, but the newly unearthed stela shows that women played important roles in the establishment of the society, she said.

Next, the team will return to the site to make molds of the monument and begin studying the imagery that accompanies the portrait, which includes a bird deity with serpentine wings.

“There’s a lot of rich iconography that we need to interpret and that will give us clues of the position that she held — probably the political position of a founder of a dynasty. That would be my best guess right now,” Reese-Taylor said.