Queenly Vases

Stephen Houston (Brown University)

In her classic book on women in preindustrial America, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (2001) unspools stories about things that were spun, woven, lashed, coiled, twined, stitched, embroidered or otherwise coaxed into wearable and usable form. Cloth and clothing, baskets and bedcovers: all appear to embody American ideologies of womanhood from colonial times to the 19th century. In processing thread or making textiles, mutual support tangled with competition, and helpful, sisterly gestures brushed up against tournaments of skill. Ulrich’s carefully chosen objects go deeper still. They attest to a young republic’s wish for economic autonomy, but they balance that against very personal matters of identity and ability, ambition and need.

The industrial revolution and its brick buildings would soon come along. There would be more concentrated settlements. Mills and congregant housing would jeopardize health and impose unfair demands on those within. Yet women’s work—fulfilling work—continued. There would be quilting bees, home-sewn dresses, knitting, and embroideries; there would be nods to a rural past that was in part imagined. Ulrich proves that large events live through small things. With scholarly attention, textiles and baskets from early America can disclose “enduring habits of possession, and the mnemonic power of goods” (Ulrich 2001:418). In doing so, they provide unexpected glimpses of slighted people.

A volume of this quality gets one thinking. By now, Mayanists know of several objects owned by Classic Maya women. Such pieces, all of elites, carried practical utility, and, via glyphs, they discharged a certain “mnemonic power.” This is hardly surprising. Ulrich’s most telling objects have written labels or narratives, often tied to people who can be accessed through contemporary descriptions or their own diaries or letters. Such detail does not exist for the Classic Maya, yet there are gendered patterns to be discerned. Glyphically tagged weaving pins (puutz’ baak) occur at Buenavista del Cayo, Belize (Ball and Taschek 2018:fig. 13, linked to women from Naranjo, Tikal, and “9 Kab”), Dzbilchaltun, Mexico (Taschek 1994:fig. 32a, owned by IX tz’u-nu-*nu le ke), and the area of Holmul (Dacus 2005:figs. 27–39; Houston and Stuart 2001:64, fig. 3.2; a woman known as IX yo-OHL-la CH’E’N-na; to be sure, many pins or bodkins do not attest to male ownership, and a large number in Burial 116 at Tikal refer to figures and events in the distant past [Moholy-Nagy 2008:fig. 193c–f, figs. 194–196]). A jar for makeup or unguent has been found in the tomb of a queen at El Perú, Guatemala (Navarro-Farr et al. 2021:fig. 8), a women’s hair pin comes from Santa Rita, Belize (Helmke 2020:fig. 10), and a royal lady’s earspool from the area of Lake Petén Itza, Guatemala, later imported by some unknown mechanism to Altun Ha, Belize (Helmke 2020:fig. 7). The celebrated Spondylus shells from Burial 5 at Piedras Negras may refer to a number of foreign women, one from Namaan (La Florida, Guatemala), another, maybe, from Palenque, in contacts occurring over at least two generations. Yet the shells found their way into the tomb of a king (W. Coe 1959:figs. 53, 64). The few images of textiles with glyphs seem never to mention females, a surprise given the likelihood that women produced them.

The intense portability of the finds tagged glyphically to women leads to the suspicion that some of these pieces were not found in their place of manufacture. Royal women moved for political reasons, the pawns of dynastic alliance (Martin 2020:194–195, who also stresses the evidence for endogamous unions within kingdoms). Perhaps their possessions moved with them or, as heirlooms or precious goods, passed through multiple networks before insertion into a tomb or cache. Royal and noble women are frequently depicted in Maya imagery, and many of their names documented. The overriding impression, however, is that few objects were said overtly to belong to them. Either glyphs did not serve that purpose, for reasons of textual decorum, or the deprivation was real, a feature of a world in which elite men tended formally to possess prestigious objects and to deny those “habits of possession” to others. Indeed, a certain stinginess about dowries, and the complete or partial restriction of inheritances to men, struck Diego de Landa while commenting on early colonial Yucatan (Tozzer 1941:99, 101; but see Christensen and Restall [2019:79, 82, 123] for female ownership of looms, jewelry, animals, and some property in the 18th century).

The tendency holds true for tagged ceramics. According to glyphic texts, almost all belonged to men, and a considerable number to young men in particular (Houston 2018:67–82). The food and drink presumably prepared by women or served by them were not in ceramics they owned (see S. Coe 1994:141, for frothing of cacao by goddesses; or Houston et al. 2004:fig. 3.3, for a woman grinding maize—although mythic, the figures may have been perceived as normative exemplars). Men, usually a central male, seem to have done all the talking, eating, and drinking, aside from the mischief of a cheeky dwarf (K1453, Australian National Museum 82.22.92). In the rhetorical register of elite images,”royal needs and royal satiety” appear to be the main focus (Houston et al. 2004:130).

A notable exception comes from Xultun, Guatemala (for the history of the site, see Garrison and Stuart 2004; Houston 1986; Krempel and Matteo 2012; Rossi and Stuart 2020; Saturno et al. 2015). In a relatively short time, at least three royal ladies, two with the exalted titles of ba(h)kab and the female version of Emblem of the city (Ix Baax Witz Ajaw [Houston 1986; Prager et al. 2010)], have vases and elevated plates (jawte’, ajalhib) tagged with their ownership (Luin et al. 2018; Polyukhovych and Looper 2019). One vase (K8007) is unusually delicate and narrow, 6.5 cm in width—the better for a female grip (Figure 1)? A similar delicacy, of 6 cm in width, marks a vase from Tayasal, Guatemala (K2707). It is not tagged with female ownership but accords unusual prominence to two women. The queen whose name was probably read Ix Yax We’n Chahk, “Lady First/New Eating Chahk,” was also linked to a numbered succession of k’awiil, “13” in this case (Rossi and Stuart 2020:14). That was most likely a designation of a ruler’s sequence within a dynasty, in what Simon Martin (2005:7-8) has called a “short dynastic count.” Franco Rossi and David Stuart (2020:14) not only make a strong claim for such regnal status but point to a row of stelae belonging to this queen in front of Xultun’s Structure 11K17 (formerly Structure A-23, see von Euw and Graham [1984:79–89]). That building faced north to a key sakbih or causeway at the city, connecting two main clusters of Xultun. Her centrality was worked into the very fabric of the city.

Figure 1. A chocolate vase owned by Ix Yax We’n Chahk, Queen of Xultun (K8007).

The other queen was known as Ix We’n(?) ‘Om Yohl Ch’e’n (Polyukhovych and Looper 2019). Her tagged ceramics include a plate in the FUNBA collection (Fundación Nacional para las Bellas Artes y la Cultura) of La Antigua Guatemala (Figure 2), and a vase in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (M.2010.115.616, K5976). The name is suspiciously close to that of the owner of the weaving bones above (Ix Yohl Ch’e’n). Perhaps there was some family association between the two.

Figure 2. Plate on triple supports, with name of Ix We’n(?) ‘Om Yohl Ch’e’n (courtesy of Matthew Looper and Yuriy Polyukhovych, FUNBA collection, La Antigua Guatemala).

But these were not the only women who potentially owned pots at Xultun. An eroded passage on one chocolate vase contains a name that could be female designator (K2324). Another may, by one interpretation, belong to a female lord, with an image below of a server who happens to be, in a highly unusual touch, a royal lady of Xultun (Figure 3). The text above refers to a drinking vessel yu-UK’IB, but the head in that spelling is plainly that of a woman, not the more usual male; what follows in turn may be a ta-IX?-*AJAW-wa, i.e., a drinking vessel “for a royal lady.”

Figure 3. Royal lady of Xultun serving lord (de Smet 1985:pl. 16c, from a photograph by Nicholas Hellmuth, Foundation for Latin American Anthropological Research).

Another vase in a similar hand, if more loosely executed, highlights a lightly erotic scene with a female and a male (Figure 4). Such touching is rare in Maya imagery, as is the whimsical appearance of what may be a tethered pet (an insect?) below. [Note 1]

Figure 4. Eroticized scene of female; the ba il spellings resemble those on a different part of the vase in Figure 3 (de Smet 1985:pl. 39, from a photograph by Nicholas Hellmuth, Foundation for Latin American Anthropological Research).

The Xultun ceramics, at least one of which belonged to a (probable) regnant queen, underscore their sheer anomaly. One of the few other such vases comes from Yucatan (Figure 5). Almost certainly from the area of Oxkintok, it refers to a vase (jaay) that belongs to a queen who makes an elegant appearance in a watery frame nearby. High titles attach to her person, including a kaloomte’ and an under-spelled, directional bakab. Lower-ranking men might have owned pots, but it was a privilege accorded to only a few women of highest, even regnant rank, with a special emphasis at one site in particular, Xultun. An opening may have occurred there because of local dynamics of power and succession, or possibly because of the dominant personality of one woman: a Catherine the Great or a Cixi could exist elsewhere.

Figure 5. Vase belonging to high-ranking lady, area of Oxkintok, Mexico (courtesy Justin Kerr, K4463).

But, for most of the Classic Maya, “enduring habits of possession, and the mnemonic power of goods” seem to have been, for prestige ceramics, skewed towards explicit possession by males. Ultimately, this may say less about what women did or did not own—that could lie beyond empirical evidence—as to how glyphs obeyed conventional inequities of citation or reference.


Matthew Looper and Yuriy Polyukhovych were most helpful with the image from the FUNBA collection. Andrew Scherer, David Stuart, and Karl Taube shared leads on bugs.

Note 1 Andrew Scherer, David Stuart, and Karl Taube drew my attention to such pets in Yucatan today: the makech bugs, often bejeweled and pinned to clothing. That the Motul dictionary refers to such creatures in the late 16th and early 17th centuries attests to some time depth for this interest: Macech [Makech], “vnos escarauajos sin alas y con conchas, los quales, quando secos, ponen las indias a los niños en la garganta y en las muñecas por dixes” (Acuña 2001:378). Dried, dead bugs could have been mere ornament—shells glimmering with color and iridescence, inexpensive bling on young necks or wrists. Perhaps there was also a therapeutic or apotropaic function when mothers (las indias) attached them to children. Further searches show a thriving trade and support industry for such insect pets in Japan. Bugs participate in mini-gladiatorial bouts and, according to Ryohei Takatsuchi, one of Taube’s students, seem even to have inspired features of samurai armor. There could be worse analogies for warriors than the carapaced truculence of beetles.


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