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UCR Today: Research Re-examines Role of Maya Women

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Contrary to popular belief, women played a central role in Maya society before the arrival of Spanish explorers in the early 16th century, a University of California, Riverside graduate student has discovered. That finding is significant for modern Mayan women, whose status in society rapidly diminished under Spanish colonial rule and remains so today, according to Shankari Patel, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology.

Patel’s groundbreaking research, which included extensive fieldwork in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and an examination of previously uncatalogued artifacts in the British Museum, has won her the 2011 Dissertation Award from the American Anthropological Association’s American Feminist Association (AFA) and the AAA Minority Dissertation Fellowship. Patel expects to complete her dissertation, “Journey to the East: Pilgrimage, Politics, and Gender at Postclassic Yucatan,” and graduate in June.

The AFA described her reinterpretation of the archaeology and history of the Maya as “compelling.”

Patel, a native of Hawaii who grew up in Echo Park, Calif., said she became interested in the role of Maya women while touring the Yucatan Peninsula.

“Maya culture has been described by scholars as male-dominated. But I found many towns named for women, and female deities on the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula,” she explained. “I started asking how women came to be removed from religious institutions and activities, and from the history of the region.”

Patel discovered that thousands of religious and other artifacts of Maya society were removed from the region, beginning with Spanish explorers who arrived in 1512, and later by British sailors. More than 2,000 objects from Isla Sacrificios, a small island off the coast of Vera Cruz that she contends was part of a female deity pilgrimage network in use from about 1100 A.D. to 1500 A.D., were delivered to the British Museum in 1844 and remained in crates. Fewer than a dozen of those items had been published or displayed in the museum. “We excavate so much, but not all of it gets analyzed,” she said.

This statue, housed at the British Museum, is one of several hundred female sculptures found along the eastern coast of Veracruz. While it has been traditionally interpreted as the Aztec goddess Tlazolteotl or the Huastec goddess Ixcuina, some scholars suggest she represents a priestess. The solar rays on her headdress may indicate her role in the funerary cult of the solar afterlife.

After receiving permission from museum administrators and with research funding from UC MEXUS (University of California Institute for Mexico and the United States), Patel began a methodical examination of mountains of crates in a scene she likened to “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” She found hundreds of spindle whorls — ceramic disks typically used for spinning and weaving, but in this case used in religious rituals — as well as female icons and figurines used in funerary rituals.

FULL ARTICLE: UCR Today: Research Re-examines Role of Maya Women.

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