k626 Weaving the Past:
An Examination of Bones Buried With an Elite Maya Woman

by Chelsea Dacus
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Figure 9. Cache: Bones Thirteen through Twenty-Four.
Click on image to enlarge.


To the ancient Maya, the practice of weaving and cloth production was an essential and life affirming process necessary for protection from the elements, for use in accession ceremonies and tribute rituals, as well as burials and temple dedications. Indeed, the manufacture of fabric and cloth has been a vital element in all human societies throughout history, and has remained a way for bonding mentally, emotionally, and religiously throughout the passage of time. The significance possessed by the actions of weaving and the fabrication of cloth is clearly conveyed in the art of the ancient Maya, where images of cloth and clothing are ubiquitous, and figures of goddesses and elite women engaged in the process of weaving abound. The intricate patterns of weaving and embroidery are recorded in careful detail on many monuments of the Maya from the Classic period, and their ceramic vessels document the offering of bundles of cloth from vassals to lords and from lords to vassals in a confirmation of their relationship, which was central to the operation of Maya society. In fact, this distribution and gifting of cloth and fabric is the most commonly featured theme in these gifting ceremonies recorded in the images on Maya ceramics and carving. The vibrant murals of the Maya city of Bonampak demonstrate the variety of colors and types of fabric which existed as fundamental elements of ritual and ceremony. The act of a lord’s accession into the office of ruler was marked by the crucial process of tying on a headband of cloth, which was a predominant sign of rulership. The phrase for accession (k’al hun) translates into the act of tying on this headband and the glyph for accession takes the form of a human or bird head wearing the headband. Traditionally in Maya culture, weaving has been symbolic of a woman’s crucial procreative abilities, as demonstrated by the powerful ancient Mesoamerican goddess of weaving and childbirth, Ixchel. This vital position weaving played for the ancient Maya is also confirmed by a fascinating set of inscribed bones taken from the tomb of a royal Maya woman.

Sadly, due to the climate of the warm and humid tropics, very little is left of the majestic fabrics the ancient Maya wove. Yet from the evidence left in their art we can imagine the incredible weavings they must have made to adorn their homes, thrones and themselves as well as to trade and exchange in important tribute rituals. Rulers may have used swaths of fabric like a curtain to set themselves apart, and as a backdrop on which to stage their rituals. Rulers are often shown on painted ceramics seated on thrones with a gathered bundle of cloth above their heads. Evidence exists in the form of tie holes by doorways that screens of fabrics were stretched across doors and parts of the building to create rooms and a degree of privacy, though also to allow discreet regulation of the conversations of those living and working in, and visiting the home or palace. Tents of fabric could also be stretched out from the façade of a building to create additional space. Rulers and their families are frequently portrayed on vessels and monuments wearing clothing with elaborate and intricate patterns, which have echoes in the colorful textile creations of today’s modern Maya.

In order to fashion such outstanding works of art, the Maya would have needed many different kinds of weaving tools. These we have in relative abundance in the archaeological record in the form of a variety of spindle whorls, pins, needles, and weaving picks, often called awls, from the ruins of ancient Maya cities and in the archaeological and iconographical evidence from other ancient American cultures as well, though not often in profusion or in the context of a burial cache. These tools are most often made of ceramic, and much less commonly wood or bone. The survival of these latter two materials is extremely rare due to the difficult conditions for survival in the hot and humid tropics of the ancient Maya region. Many of the objects related to cloth production are found within elite households and constitute the evidence of the daily activities of the inhabitants leading to the possibility that emphasis was put on an elite woman’s ability to create fabric for tribute.

There is a unique set of carved and inscribed bones deposited in the tomb of a Maya woman as special items meant to honor and accompany the deceased. This assemblage of 24 inscribed bones and 15 fragments discussed in this study are rare examples of such weaving tools for several reasons. They were found in a burial with a group of other elite items rather than in a domestic setting. Though the practice of depositing carved and inscribed bones in burials is well documented in Maya archaeology, the bones are primarily from the tombs of male rulers, and as such exhibit masculine themes related to ritual, rulership, and mythology. The bones in this study, however, have a distinctly feminine motif. The weaving tools typically discovered are not inscribed as well. Weaving tools such as the ones in this paper with inscriptions which title them as weaving bones are extremely rare. Their abundance is also extraordinary. Such weaving tools are usually found scattered and discarded few and far between in the context of living spaces where the Maya performed their daily activities, not in concentrated bundles given special account and status by being covered in cinnabar and deposited in a burial. Though the context of the burial is obscure, all of these items, including the bones, were covered in cinnabar that is more than 78% mercury, giving them a shared archaeological and ancient origin.

From the inscriptions on them and the other items included in the tomb it can be ascertained that they are from a grave deposit rather than any sort of dedicatory cache for a building or monument. Inscribed with glyphs describing them as u puuhtz’ and u puuhtz’ b’aak or "the needle of" and "the needle bone of," the bones also give us the name of a royal lady as the owner. Such possessive inscriptions are usually given only to items included in the tomb of a specific personage – in this case, a royal woman. The objects which accompany the bones include jade pieces from a diadem or necklace, lip plugs of a white stone like alabaster, stingray spines for bloodletting, bone needles, and flint blades, as well as a large spondylus shell with a miniature jade bead, possibly a censer. All of these items are often included in burials, in conjunction with ceramics and other personal items such as carved or inscribed bones, deer antlers, or other materials. These bone tools are unique from other weaving tools found in the Maya region not only because of their number, rarity of material, or their derivation from a mortuary context, but also because they were found in the burial of a woman, which are rare discoveries in Maya archaeology.

Though scholars have translated the word puuhtz’ as meaning "needle" or "pin", the meaning is not that of our modern western culture. Puuhtz’ indicates a tool related to cloth production, though it could specify a weaving tool, or several different kinds of weaving tools. The Maya had needles for sewing and letting blood, but the particular bones of this study are too blunt, long, and thick to be the kind of needles used by the Classic Maya for those purposes. Instead, they resemble weaving pins or picks used by the modern Maya in the fabrication of brocade, as well as by ancient weavers in the Andes exhibited in half woven looms with the cloth still attached and the weaving instruments still inserted. The survival of ancient looms and weaving tools in the Andes is unique to that region due to the dry climate. The same is not true of the Maya region unfortunately, and though we have ceramic representations of women weaving on the backstrap loom, one of the most ancient types of looms used throughout the history of human civilization, the figures are not detailed enough to demonstrate the use of tools such as these or they would have been so small that they were likely lost to time.

Though we lack the iconographical images of these tools in use in the Maya realm from the first millennium A.D., the likelihood is that they were utilized in the context of cloth production through correlation between cultures that have used the backstrap loom throughout history, such as the ancient and modern Andean cultures, the cultures of the Philippines and Indonesia, and the modern Maya, all of whom demonstrate the use of tools made of wood or bone which closely resemble those of this study in weaving with backstrap looms, in addition to the glyphs carved on them, titling them as weaving bones. It is possible that some of the bones lacking the puuhtz’ (needle or pin) glyph or an inscription altogether, and even those that include it, were utilized for other purposes such as hair pins, clothing pins, makeup applicators, or some other daily usage, though there is sadly little evidence. On many painted vases it does appear that some kind of similar long pins were used to bind the hair up of the women and even the men, however it would be difficult to prove that this was a purpose to which these particular bones were put. For the variety of weaving patterns, thicknesses, and fabric ranging from thick brocade to a gauzy lace-like textile, which we can see in the carved monuments and painted murals and vessels of the ancient Maya, it is likely that they needed a variety of tools, a diversity which is attested to by the bones of this analysis. Nevertheless, the bones without the puuhtz’ glyph or inscriptions possess enough homogeneity with those that are called weaving pins that they were all likely put to related use. For the purposes of this study, we will concentrate on their utilization in weaving, and put aside the question of their viable application in other labors.

There are twenty-four complete or only partially broken bones, though most of the broken bones have been reconstituted by modern conservators since their unearthing, and thirteen are incised with glyphs. There are fifteen fragments as well, which have resisted reconstruction, seven of which have inscriptions of some kind. Two complete bones and four of the fragments have lines which spiral down around them, a common motif on weaving instruments and possibly related to the particular use of that kind of bone. All of the bones and fragments have or had at one point in history decorative finials in the form of hands holding bundled objects, bundled objects alone, hollowed out round-cheeked heads, and, in the case of one aesthetically refined bone, a Resplendent Quetzal bird. The more complete bones are anywhere from fifteen to twenty-five centimeters long, and are very slender at three to six millimeters in width. The decorative ends are larger at five millimeters to as much as one and a half centimeters in width. The fragments are more delicate, varying only two to thirteen centimeters in length and less than three to almost five millimeters in width.

Elegant and slim, these carefully constructed tools were finely carved artistic ornaments to the person buried with them, though more functional than some of the more elaborately decorated Maya bone objects which are included in the richly attired burials of rulers. They are from the tomb of a royal woman from Naranjo, an ancient Maya site located in the far North-Eastern region of Guatemala, near the modern border with Belize, known for its activity between 300 and 900 A.D.  Very little is known of Naranjo’s development outside of that period due to a lack of archaeological work there. The most information we have garnered from the evidence involves a fairly lengthy span of time known as the Middle Period, during the first part of which Naranjo was governed by a woman from 682 to 693 A.D. as regent for her son. She possibly even commanded the site until 741 in support of or in addition to her son, the ruler, as she appeared on several monuments as a victorious sovereign. Most scholars believe that the titles on the bones under consideration here are variations of the titles for this woman. It is more likely, however, for reasons discussed in the next chapter that they belonged to another royal woman of Naranjo from this era or in the centuries following.

The activities of food and cloth production in ancient Maya society were two of the crucial and time-consuming duties of ancient Maya women, and thus served as defining elements of their social identity. The bones of this study were tools that would have been used in such duties and hence were placed in the tomb of a woman. Items similar to these, though rare, are also found in the tombs and decoration of royal and elite burials and palaces, not only of the Maya, but also of other Pre-Columbian cultures such as the Mixtec at Zaachila, suggesting that tools used in cloth production were objects of significance to these cultures. Some of the bones found in the tomb for the well known Lady K’ab’al Xoc in Structure 23 at Yaxchilan bear resemblance to those of this study, though they are much smaller and lack the longer inscriptions and sheer plenitude. Examples of comparable length and exhibiting analogous glyphs have been identified at Mirador in Mexico and Uaxactun in Guatemala, as well as one example at Dzibilchaltún, though their numbers remain few. The weaving tools pictured at Zaachila are presented as goods which the woman, Lady 4 Rabbit, was bringing with her into the marriage with Lord 5 Flower. They represented her adeptness in the art and her ability to contribute to the gifting tradition of the Mixtec, a tradition corresponding to that of the Maya. Her skill in creating textiles and thus to produce items for tribute was an additional attraction as a royal wife.

Weaving was a metaphor for the process of creating and birthing a child and the tools used in the process of weaving had connotations of the act of procreation. A woman’s crucial physical productive ability was likened to her ability to create fabric and clothing. In addition, it has been found that while the emphasis for non-elite Maya women seems to be on food preparation capabilities, the focus for elite women appears to be their skills in textile manufacture indicating that fabric production and fabric were high status actions and objects within ancient Maya culture. An elite woman’s ability to supply fabric to a household’s tribute paying capabilities and wealth seems to have been of considerable concern, both to the Maya and other Mesoamerican cultures, perhaps even as much as the injection of powerful bloodlines. Tribute and gifting ceremonies where objects like cloth, food, ceramics, and other items were traded between lords (ajaw) and retainers (sajal) were the primary means of cementing relationships for the ancient Maya. Therefore, it is perhaps not so surprising that tools used in this central activity of cloth production were deposited in the tombs of elite women. Due to the scarcity of such buried evidence and the focused studies of them, however, the exact meaning of such funereal repositories and what they mean in terms of the status and roles of elite ancient Maya women remains somewhat of a mystery.

Little studied before now, the bone tools catalogued in this work can shed some light on this puzzle. Relatively rare objects in a small corpus of bone items related to weaving from a tomb in at Naranjo in Northeastern Guatemala, they arouse many questions which this exposition will attempt to answer. Who was the woman who owned these? How did she come to Naranjo? How did she use them in the act of weaving? How often were they used? What is the purpose or meaning of their burial with her? Through a careful iconographical, iconological, and categorical examination of the cache with which they were found, and of each individual bone, including a loose translation of the glyphs inscribed on them, I hope to contribute further data in the ongoing discourse elucidating the diverse positions of women in Classic Maya society.

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Weaving the Past: An Examination of Bones Buried With an Elite Maya Woman
by Chelsea Dacus

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