Feb. 1, 2019

Women and power in the ancient world

Unearthing the stories of Maya women

We will break her. We will break her in half — this stone image of the queen, this carving that contains her essence. We will place it here, in this stairway, where we can tread upon her faceless body every time we walk up and down. Locked away in broken stone, she will feel nothing but the soles of our feet.

Was this what ancient Maya raiders were thinking when they tore down a stela, or stone monument, depicting a queen, broke it and used the lower half to pave a staircase? Dr. Kathryn Reese-Taylor, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology in UCalgary's Faculty of Arts, pictured a scene similar to this when she unearthed a stairwell in the ancient city of Naachtun. A block on the staircase, paved with a queen’s image, is just one of many artifacts that compels Reese-Taylor to return again and again to the remote rainforests of northern Guatemala.

Every spring, Reese-Taylor treks through dense vegetation to perform field research on the growing complexity of Maya civilizations during the Preclassic and Classic periods (900 BC — AD 850). She’s fallen in love with the rainforest biosphere. And she’s become transfixed by the stories of Maya women.

As an archaeologist, Reese-Taylor digs beneath the generalities and myths surrounding the Maya culture. When you think of this ancient culture you might think of mathematical prowess, stunning pyramids and temples — or you may have seen the hugely misleading portrayal of Maya violence in the film Apocalypto.

The ancient Maya were no more homogenous than Canada’s Indigenous peoples.

Reese-Taylor is quick to point out that the Maya culture is not easy to describe in general terms. “We think of Maya as a homogenous culture group. But really, the ancient Maya were no more homogenous than Canada’s Indigenous peoples.” Reese-Taylor works in an area of Guatemala where the northern lowlands meet the southern lowlands. And in ancient times, these areas were home to a wide variety of dynamic cultures.

Maya gender relations: a tale of perpetual motion

One of Reese-Taylor’s goals is to track the changing role of women in Maya cultures. “It’s hard to make generalizations,” says Reese-Taylor. “It’s like summing up how women’s roles changed over 1,000 years in Western Europe.” But she is interested in revealing the nuanced nature of gender relations in a civilization that never stood still.

“When we look at Maya cultures, we tend to fossilize them,” says Reese-Taylor. “We assume something we see at 100 BC is the same at AD 400, and it’s not.”

Around 600 AD, Reese-Taylor has found, women became more visible in archaeological records. “At this time, we see increases in gender equality. And these increases were related to one kingdom — the Snake Kingdom — shifting south and making marriage alliances with kingdoms in southern lowlands.”

As these alliances took root, women’s status continued to grow. “Women took on more roles and we often see women in public office,” says Reese-Taylor. “In fact, there were many queens ruling their states and possibly leading troops into battle.”

And these queens had a significant impact on women’s roles in general, from commerce to politics to community leadership.

We don’t have complete equality in 21st-century Canada either.

Reese-Taylor says that an increase in equality doesn’t mean all genders were completely equal. “Mind you,” she says, “we don’t have complete equality in 21st-century Canada either.”

Determining why gender roles changed over time is a near-impossible task. “However, we can correlate shifts in gender relations with changing political and economic trends in Maya areas,” says Reese-Taylor. ”For example, social structures become much more varied and layered — it wasn’t just elites and commoners. You begin to see layers growing in the middle.” As society became more complex, new roles emerged and women assumed roles that increased their public presence.

Tools of a Maya archaeologist

To gather information on women’s roles in Maya societies, Reese-Taylor examines a wide variety of artifacts. There's a great deal of cultural information to be found in the stelae, which are idealized sculptures or carvings of Maya royalty, with textual inscriptions describing events like battles, political alliances, marriages and religious ceremonies.

For example, in the city of Calakmul, which lies in the heart of the Maya lowlands, there are over 100 monuments depicting kings — paired with queens. “From 550 AD on, in Calakmul,” says Reese-Taylor, “men and women ruled mainly in pairs. And because Calakmul was the most powerful city in the Maya region for over 200 years, the presence of women in governance there is truly significant.”

In a marketplace near the center of the city, public murals illuminate the daily lives of some Maya women. “These images show women involved in commerce,” notes Reese-Taylor. “We see depictions of people buying and selling all sorts of commodities, and about half of these people are women. So women were living and working in public spaces.”

Telling women’s stories: a modern phenomenon

Investigating the lives of ancient Maya women hasn't always been a priority in archaeological scholarship. “Even in the 1970s, scholars weren't posing research questions about women’s lives,” says Reese-Taylor. So women’s stories have not typically played a big part in Maya scholarship.

There are always exceptions, however. Consider Tatiana Proskouriokoff (1909 — 1985), an architect by training, who studied and rendered Maya structures and costumes. In the 1950s, she became one of the first to identify Maya queens. Proskouriokoff also played a role in deciphering hieroglyphs and honorifics referring to women, thus enabling archaeologists to single out women depicted in Maya texts.

But it wasn’t until the late 20th century, when more women began to enter the field of archaeology, that researchers began exploring the lives of ancient women. “Until that point,” notes Reese-Taylor, “No one was asking, 'what were the women doing?' And gender biases limited the telling of female stories.”

For example, when archaeologists working earlier in the 20th century found a royal burial site, they would typically assume it belonged to a king. Kingdoms were ruled by men, right? “Not necessarily,” says Reese-Taylor. “To be sure, nowadays, you could order a DNA study to determine if the ruler is genetically male or female, or you could examine the artifacts in the grave.” But even the presence of gendered artifacts is not a fail-safe gender determinant.

In 2017 the occupant of a Viking grave, long assumed to be a man, was revealed through osteological analysis and DNA testing to be a woman. The grave contained a sword, ax, spear and shields — weapons associated with male warriors. Scholars are now arguing about whether the woman in the grave was actually a warrior.

“We have biases that we carry with us and we really need to be aware of them,” says Reese-Taylor. “So we should be asking different questions now, and taking more care as we interpret a site, in order to do justice to both men and women of ancient Maya.”

Making the invisible visible

It’s the asking of new questions that makes Reese-Taylor so passionate about researching Maya women. “As a feminist, I feel it’s important to get women’s stories out there,” she says, acknowledging that women and their contributions have been overlooked throughout history. “But look at the Maya women,” she says. “They did remarkable things. They ruled powerful kingdoms.”

Reese-Taylor, whose field research teams have included numerous scholars from the United States, Mexico and Guatemala, notes that research on ancient Maya cultures brings substantial benefits to those from Latin America. “They are so keen to understand their own history, and this sort of cultural understanding involves knowing about the roles women played.”

Reese-Taylor sees the unearthing of Maya women’s stories as empowering for future generations as well. “I’m thinking of my daughter and sons, my nieces and nephews. I want them to know that, in all societies, women have always made significant contributions. And I want people to think about what we’re missing by not having women in more positions of authority and power.”

The broken queen: An ancient tale for modern times

Perhaps that’s why discovering the broken stela of a Maya queen in an ancient staircase made such a profound impression on Reese-Taylor. Since the Maya believed images contain an individual’s vital essence, placing the queen’s image underfoot seems hugely significant. The Maya were experts at employing humiliation as an expression of power, but, according to Reese-Taylor, this tactic was normally reserved for males.

“They ripped her in half,” she says. “They placed the carving face-up in the stairway, so every day they trod over her, up and down. They went to great lengths to humiliate her, so she must have been absolutely formidable.”

And here Reese-Taylor can’t help making connections to 21st-century women of power. “It’s like when you mention Hillary Clinton. She lost the election over two years ago but they’re still screaming about her. It says a great deal about Clinton and her importance in American society.”

But given the mutable nature of gender relations, perceptions of Hillary Clinton — and the queens of ancient Maya — may change dramatically over the next century.

“These are fascinating stories,” says Reese-Taylor. “And the way people react to stories of powerful women speaks volumes, not only about the women themselves, but about our societies in general.”

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Dr. Kathryn Reese-Taylor, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology in UCalgary's Faculty of Arts. Her research focuses on the development of complexity among the Maya during the Preclassic period, with particular interest in landscape archaeology, the formation of early communities, and the development of urbanism in the tropical lowlands. Read more about Kathryn

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