March 7, 2014

Archaeologist demystifies warrior queens of the Maya world

Kathryn Reese-Taylor investigates overlooked gender dynamic in ancient society
University of Calgary archaeologist Kathryn Reese-Taylor noticed a spike in the number of Maya warrior queens between about 600 and 800 A.D. Photo by Alejandra Alonso, Naachtun Archaeological Project
University of Calgary archaeologist Kathryn Reese-Taylor noticed a spike in the number of Maya warri

“The Power and Glory of the Maya Queens,” reads the compelling headline of a feature in the March 2014 issue of the popular science magazine Discover. An eye-catching illustration draws us in further, depicting a formidable warrior-woman, adorned in a resplendent feathered headdress and brandishing a shield.  

The article focuses, in a large part, on the research of archaeologist Kathryn Reese-Taylor, pictured above, an associate professor at the University of Calgary. Reese-Taylor is shining new light on evidence suggesting that in the ancient Maya world, between about A.D. 600 and 800, there emerged a sizable contingent of warrior queens who made a profound impact on their society, in areas ranging from politics, culture and commerce to warfare.

Visit to Great Pyramids of Naachtun sets project in motion

Reese-Taylor, who is writing a book on the topic, began researching the idea in earnest following a 2004 archaeological expedition to the Great Pyramids of Naachtun, in the forests of Guatemala, one of the most remote, inaccessible sites in the ancient Maya world.

There, the research team discovered a massive stone pillar depicting a fierce Naachtun queen, standing upon a conquered foe. Her academic curiosity piqued, Reese-Taylor wondered whether this find was an anomaly, or, if there was further evidence of warrior Maya queens from the era.

“As I began researching I noticed the existing literature suggested there was only a few isolated examples of these warrior queens in Maya society,” says Reese-Taylor. “But I started to realize that was bogus. There were, in fact, many examples of noble warrior women.”

The power of these figures cannot be underestimated. Take, for example, the Maya princess Ix Wak Chan Ajaw, who ruled with an iron fist, launching eight major military campaigns in five years, crushing all who stood her in way.

A restored figurine, discovered in 2006 in the ancient remains of a Maya city in Guatamela.

A restored figurine, discovered in 2006 in the ancient remains of a Maya city in Guatamela.

Ricky López, El Peru/Waka' Archaeological Project

Mysterious spike in depictions

The appearance of such figures spikes dramatically in the A.D. 600 to 800 era, with hundreds of examples cropping up in that time frame, compared to almost nothing in earlier periods. “It’s suddenly this quantum leap in the number of women warriors depicted on these royal monuments,” says Reese-Taylor. “I began to amass this data and look at why this role might have emerged for women at this time.”

Reese-Taylor is quick to point out that her work in this area builds on the findings of many researchers, including archaeologists Traci Ardren from the University of Miami and former University of Calgary professor Peter Matthews, as well as Maya scholars Linda Schele, Simon Martin, and others going back generations.

“A lot of what I did is to look at all of their findings and bring all of that evidence together to discover, ‘Hey, there’s more going on here than we previously thought,’” she says.

But with some of this evidence going back as far as the late 19th century, one wonders why this notion of the warrior Maya queens was never explored until now?

In part, says Reese-Taylor, earlier generations of archaeologists simply hadn’t accrued the knowledge needed to fully understand what they were finding. They had yet to decipher the hieroglyphics or to identify the tell-tale signs on what they were investigating. Archaeology is an ever-evolving science, always building as new data is amassed and discoveries are made.

Notion of Maya queens takes hold

As well, the cultural biases of the times may have come into play, putting blinders on the research. “In the late 19th and early 20th century, the idea of women as warriors was completely unheard of,” says Reese-Taylor. “Women didn’t lead battles. Figures like Catherine the Great and Joan of Arc were thought of as the exceptions of history. Why would we believe there could be this culture where women took on these roles?”

In addition, after the devastation of the World Wars, there was a cultural desire for the possibility of Utopian societies, suggests Reese-Taylor, and our perception of the ancient Maya world came to fulfill this fantasy.

“Until about the 1970s, the Maya were viewed as these peaceful priest scholars who studied time,” says Reese-Taylor with a laugh. “They didn’t have warfare or sacrifices!” Of course, evidence contrary to this notion is now undeniable.

But while the powerful image of the Maya warrior queens has captured the public’s imagination, Reese-Taylor stresses that her research examines the dynamic role of all women in Maya society.

“We see in this particular era that the roles of women changed drastically,” she says. “While the warrior queens captivate the public, I’m interested in how the dynamics of gender relations changed in this society.”