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Tiny jar identifies mighty Maya queen

El Peru-Waka Regional Archaeological Project

A carved alabaster jar found in the burial chamber of a high-ranking Maya woman led archaeologists to conclude the tomb was that of Lady K'abel, who was one of the great queens of the Classic Maya civilization. These pictures show the two sides of the jar. On the left, the head of a woman rises from the conch-shell carving. On the right, Maya glyphs identify the jar's owner.

Glyphs carved into a tiny alabaster jar have led archaeologists to conclude that the tomb in Guatemala where the jar was found belonged to one of the greatest queens of the Classic Maya civilization, known as Lady K'abel.

"She was not only a queen, but a supreme warlord, and that made her the most powerful person in the kingdom during her lifetime," David Freidel, an archaeologist at Washington University in St. Louis, said in a report released today. That description would put Lady K'abel in the same class as other ruling women of the ancient world, ranging from the biblical Queen of Sheba to Egypt's Hatshepsut and Cleopatra.

Freidel is the co-director of an excavation at the royal Maya city of El Peru-Waka in Guatemala's northwestern Peten region, near the Mexican border. The tomb site has been under study for almost a decade. Freidel and his colleagues found artifacts suggesting that a high-ranking female personage had been buried there, and Lady K'abel was the No. 1 candidate. But it took the alabaster jar, small enough to fit in a queen's hand, to clinch the case.

The jar is carved to look like a conch shell, with the head and arm of an aged woman emerging from the opening. Four Maya hieroglyphs were carved into the back of the jar, including two titles referring to the owner: "Lady Waterlily-Hand" and "Lady Snake Lord." These names have long been associated with Lady K'abel.

David Freidel, an archaeologist at Washington University in St. Louis, discusses the case of Lady K'abel.

Stanley Guenter

Four glyphs were found on the alabaster vessel: The first appears to read "the house of." The second is thought to refer to the contents of the vessel. The third can be translated as "Lady Waterlily-Hand." The fourth is "Lady Snake Lord," identifying the lady as a princess of Calakmul.

"It's as close to a smoking gun in archaeology as we can get," Freidel told me today. "Archaeology is a circumstantial science, but we're putting this forward as our working hypothesis."

Like Cleopatra, Lady K'abel held her own in the midst of powerful men — including her husband, K'inich Bahlam II, with whom she ruled the Wak kingdom for at least 20 years in the late 7th century (672 to 692). Because K'abel held the additional title of military governor, she was considered more powerful than the king. This wasn't strictly a love match: K'abel was a princess from the Kan dynasty, the imperial family who ruled from the great city of Calakmul. Her marriage was in line with a political alliance between the king in Waka and the emperor in Calakmul — against the region's other superpower, the city-state of Tikal.

The artifacts found in the tomb suggest that the person buried there was held in great reverence. For example, the alabaster jar contained red cinnabar pigment, which the Maya used in royal burial chambers. Freidel and his colleagues believe the jar served as a funerary "white soul flower cache vessel," which was thought to hold one of the several souls specified in Maya religious texts.

Another ritual item, a jade jewel representing the Maya maize god, was found on the body of the woman in the tomb. And a potbellied figurine was placed at the woman's groin. Freidel said this figurine appears to represent the Blue Moon Akan, a Maya death god that was the companion of kings. "That is remarkable," he said. "I see an image of the Akan, born mystically by the dead queen who was the warlord of her kingdom."

After Lady K'abel's reign, Tikal's rulers continued their war against Waka and Calakmul. By the middle of the eighth century, Tikal had the upper hand in the Maya superpower struggle. And by the middle of the ninth century, the Classic Maya civilization was well on its way to its mysterious collapse. But the lady's tomb remained, apparently serving as a monument to a take-charge woman warrior.

Does this close the case of the princess with the alabaster jar? Not yet. The word from Freidel is that there's much more to come. For example, there's still a chance that the jar was actually an heirloom item, passed down from Lady K'abel to another woman in the royal family who was buried in the tomb.

"A royal tomb of this kind is very complicated, forensically," he told me. "It will take years to publish this out, but that's normal for Maya archaeology."

More about the Maya:

The El Peru-Waka excavation is co-directed by Juan Carlos Pérez, former vice minister of culture for cultural heritage of Guatemala. Olivia Navarro-Farr, assistant professor of anthropology at the College of Wooster in Ohio, directed the excavations with Griselda Pérez Robles, former director of prehistoric monuments in the National Institute of Anthropology and History, and archaeologist Damaris Menéndez.

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.