The Woman in Wood: A Reencounter with Tikal’s Queen from Temple II
by James Doyle (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) and Stephen Houston (Brown University)
In 2014, we investigated a long-lost fragment of a wooden lintel, probably from Tikal, that is now stored in Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The fragment may have derived from one of three lintels in Temple II. Two lintels of that pyramid are missing. But the third, Lintel 2, which spanned its middle doorway, was documented by Teobert Maler, Herbert Spinden, and the Tikal project of the University of Pennsylvania (Coe, Shook, and Satterthwaite 1962:35; Doyle and Houston 2014:143; Jones and Satterthwaite 1982:100, Fig. 71). Lintel 2 survived only in part, in two beams. Yet enough remained to pose a mystery. Was the surviving figure, a woman, the main person in the carving? Or did she stand to the side as a peripheral character?
This was important. The dominant presentation of a royal lady would be unprecedented in the Tikal lintels. It would also lend weight to the argument, made long ago by Clemency Coggins (1975:455, 549-551) and Mary Miller (1985:8), that Temple II housed the remains of a royal consort. That lady would have been the wife of “Ruler A” (Jasaw Chan K’awiil), whose spectacular tomb lay under Temple I, just across from Temple II. For Miller, the Great Plaza at Tikal represented more than a set of buildings. It crystallized social relationships. Consorts “faced” one another, the male to the east, the female to the west. Implicitly, too, a royal son, a king, was there to bury the parents. This would have been “Ruler B” (Yik’in Chan K’awiil), whose final resting spot is still subject to debate. The usual candidate, the gargantuan Temple IV, seems not to have had such a tomb (unpublished excavations by the Centro Universitario de Petén [CUDEP] have penetrated deeply into the building). But there is another option, the extraordinarily rich Burial 196. This lies under Str. 5D-73, some 30 m to the south of Temple II. Notionally at least, his tomb would triangulate with those his parents’.
There is new evidence. In December 2015, we were able to view the original beam of Temple II Lintel 2, now in the collections of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Figure 1. (a) “Tikal: Fragment of Carved Beams from Lintel of Doorway Leading to Second Chamber of Temple II,” photograph by Teobert Maler (1911: Plate 18-2).
Maler had photographed the two fragments of Temple II Lintel 2 at Tikal itself. The second, less well-preserved piece went missing by the time Spinden arrived to collect the carvings for the AMNH (Figure 1). The beams taken to New York, including another from Tikal Structure 10, were on joint display in the 1920s–a photograph exists to prove it. Only the Temple II beam remained on exhibit, however, when the Structure 10 beams were lent for an exhibit at the Museum of Primitive Art in 1966. In response to a loan request, Gordon Ekholm wrote on January 20, 1966, that the “larger one is in storage and the smaller one has been on exhibit.” In her response, Julie Jones (curator emerita from the Metropolitan Museum, then assistant curator of the MPA) confirmed that “the one in the exhibition hall is from Temple II.” In the records of the Museum of Primitive Art exhibition, “Tikal 1956-1966: Excavations in Maya Guatemala,” the Structure 10 lintel is the sole carving to appear in the checklist and installation photos (Figure 2).
Figure 2. “Tikal 1956-1966: Excavations in Maya Guatemala,” Museum of Primitive Art Exhibition 41, Installation Photo. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Museum of Primitive Art-Curatorial Files (AR.1999.3.5).
Thanks to the staff at the AMNH – Senior Scientific Assistant Sumru Aricanli and collections manager John Hansen – we were able to view and re-photograph the Temple II beam. This may be the first time in 50 years that the lintel has been examined by specialists. The surviving fragment is exceptionally well-preserved, and the surface retains a high polish that must have been achieved by applying an abrasive. Close inspection reveals that the ends of the beam had been burned in order to remove the slab from the doorway (Figure 3), a horrifying process described by Maler (1911:43). The beam had been sawn in two pieces of equal length, presumably by Spinden’s team. This would have eased transport out of the site, which could only have been done by mules. A portion of the surface from the lower right-hand corner, depicting part of the figure’s garment, had suffered a loss between the time of Maler’s photograph and the lintel’s arrival at the AMNH. The relief of the carving is 3-4 cm in some places. In several areas, the carvers had blocked out the raised portion and polished or finished the area around it first; only then did they hack into the raised portion for finer detail (Figure 3). This practice is also known on stone carvings at Palenque and elsewhere. A final detail is that the burned ends of the beam show the annular striations of the chicozapote (Manilkara zapote) from which the slab was carved. The inner core was at the center of this beam, its outer rings on its edges, suggesting that a medium-sized log—the wood is staggeringly heavy and unwieldy—had been split across its diameter and then trimmed down (see Figure 3; Ralph 1965: Fig. 2). The AMNH preserves many samples of wood shaved from the lintel. In the 1950s these had been prepared, it seems, for Linton Satterthwaite and colleagues to perform early C14 assays at the University Museum in Philadelphia. The samples hold out the promise for further, more refined testing.
Figure 3. (above) Detail of charred superior end of the beam showing tree rings (below). Detail of outline for deep relief carving. Courtesy of the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History (30.0/ 2955). Photos by James Doyle.
The carver was masterful. The beam depicts a female wearing an elaborately woven textile dress, a quetzal-feather headdress, and fine jade regalia. The headdress also contains knotted cloth and vegetal elements, as well as shorter, spotted feathers. The jade collar consists of plaques, beads, and masquettes. A representation of what could have been a jade hu’n element appears halfway down the body (Figure 4). The garment itself is highly complex. There are alternating fields of geometric brocades and elements of the sky band, including so-called “Zip-monsters,” angular muyal glyphs as symbolic clouds, along with a field that contains a Tlaloc-like visage close to the hem. The Tlaloc designs recall the Central Mexican imagery inserted by woodworkers into a portrait of Jasaw Chan K’awiil in the lintel of Temple I across the Great Plaza.
Figure 4. Details of the textile: (left) Hu’n jewel, (right) Tlaloc. Courtesy of the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History (30.0/ 2955). Photos by James Doyle.
The lady’s identity is impossible to confirm without an accompanying text or a tomb. Most likely, she was the person we now call Ix Lachan Unen Mo’ (“Lady 12 Baby Macaws”), the wife of Jasaw Chan K’awiil, the ruler of Tikal from AD 682-734 (Coggins 1975:455, 549-551; Martin and Grube 2008:46; Miller 1985:8). The late 7th- or early 8th-century date for the lintel accords well with the radiocarbon dates from Temple I’s lintels. Researchers found that one of the beams from Lintel 3 was cut and carved between AD 658-696 (Kennett et al. 2013:4; cf. Satterthwaite and Ralph 1960; Ralph 1965).
Figure 5. Ankle of Ix Lachan Unen Mo’. Courtesy of the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History (30.0/ 2955). Photos by James Doyle.
In the original publication by Pennsylvania (Coe, Shook, and Satterthwaite 1961: Fig. 17), the authors reconstructed the lintel with the help of a new photograph. The damage after Maler’s time was clear, as evidenced by surface losses and the bisecting saw cut. In this photo, too, the ankle is clearly visible where it was not in the original plate from Maler’s publication (Figure 5). Yet William Coe, a superlative draftsman, seems to have relied exclusively on Maler’s photo for his rendering. In it, the queen’s ankle is no longer visible.
Fig. 6. Tikal Str. 5D-2-1st (Temple II): Li. 2., modified by James Doyle after drawing by William R. Coe (Jones and Satterthwaite 1982: Fig. 71), Courtesy of the Penn Museum.
As we confirmed on our recent visit, the queen’s left foot does indeed emerge from the hem of the skirt below the Tlaloc image. What’s more, the ankle and instep of the foot are clearly distinguishable in the relief of the carving, the left foot turning outward (Figure 6). This indicates that the queen stood with splayed feet, a pose used by figures at the center of a composition. Cloaked in sky imagery, the lady was thus the main image of the lintel. Most likely, Temple II pertained to her, and, as Coggins and Miller suggested, the pyramid needs to be understood as a gendered feature of Tikal’s ancient landscape.
Special thanks to Dr. Charles Spencer, Curator of Mexican and Central American Archaeology, and Sumru Aricanli of the AMNH for facilitating a viewing of the lintel and allowing permission to publish the study photographs here.
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