Below is a page from one of my old notebooks, giving some of the evidence I was considering in 1989 for the decipherment of the tza syllable sign, a version of which is shown at right. The reasoning was pretty tentative back then, but it was bolstered in my own mind by considering more examples of the sign in the spellings of tzu-tza-ja and TZUTZ-tza-ja, for the passive for of the verb tzuhtzaj, “it is finished” (See Stuart 2001). Shortly after this page was jotted down I came across completive forms spelled 2tzu-ji-ya (with the tzu syllable doubled) for tzuhtz(a)jiiy, “it was finished,” which made the tza reading fairly certain.
The tza syllable sign is not a very common sign. It crops up in only a handful of other spellings, such as tza-ka or tza-ku for tzak, “to conjure, manifest (a god)” — a reading otherwise familar for the “fish-in-hand” logogram (TZAK).
Stuart, David. 2001. A Reading of the “Completion Hand” as TZUTZ. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, No. 49. Center for Maya Research, Washington, D.C.
Most readers of this blog are probably aware of the fundamental insights of Yuri Knorosov, who in 1952 first published his breakthrough observation that Maya writing was in part phonetic, employing syllabic elements to spell words and grammatical constructions. The key for Knorosov was to see Bishop Diego de Landa’s “alphabet” as a misrepresentation of a syllabary.
What few may realize is that Knorosov was not the first to hold this view. I was fascinated to come across clear evidence that Daniel Brinton, the famed American linguist and anthropologist, had pretty much the same view as early as 1879. Brinton’s insight seems to have gone largely unnoticed these days, perhaps because it was published only as an excerpted letter within a somewhat obscure book on Palenque’s Tablet of the Cross by Charles Rau (1879). In fact Brinton was an early advocate of the view that Maya writing was phonetic and quite sophisticated, even if decipherments were few and far between at the time. His thinking evolved over the decades, but at least by 1879 he seems to have had much the same fundamental insight about Landa’s alphabet for which Knorosov is now famous:
Excerpt of letter from Daniel G. Brinton to Charles Rau, dated March 4, 1879:
“My later reading has led me to doubt whether De Landa’s alphabet is really an alphabet in the proper sense of the term, that is, representing elementary sounds of the language by written characters. It appears more likely that the figures he gives represent compound sounds, syllabic or partly so, and that they are but fragments of a large repertory of phonetic signs, never reduced to the elements of sound, used by the Mayas of that age. He evidently very positively considered them phonetic and not ideographic, and he could not have been mistaken on such a point, I should suppose. In his endeavor to arrange them according to the analogy of the Latin alphabet, he obscured their real purport, and I think we should reject the whole of his theory of their use in this manner.” (Quoted in Rau 1879:52-53).
Here Brinton nails it, noting that Landa had fundamentally misunderstood syllable signs as alphabetic elements. What’s odd is that Brinton didn’t follow up his own assessment of Landa’s glyphs as “compound sounds.” It seems he could have taken things a step or two further and applied his thinking to specific glyph readings, in the same way Knorosov would decades later. Interestingly, just a year after Brinton’s letter to Rau, much research on Landa’s alphabet would be roundly criticized by Philipp J. J. Valentini, who declared it to be a “Spanish fabrication” (Valentini 1880). Perhaps this discouraged Brinton from taking up the matter further. Brinton also may have stepped aside to allow Thomas to delve into the atomistic details of Maya epigraphy. Both men saw the same tantalizing clues of phoneticism, but only Thomas went ahead and proposed actual readings. Unlike Brinton, Thomas considered some signs to be possible consonants or “elementary sounds.” While he made a few good insights, Thomas’s specific arguments tended to fall short on many counts, and their weakness eventually exposed the overall phonetic approach to a good deal of criticism from the likes of Eduard Seler and others.
I wonder too if Brinton, a remarkable polymath, might have simply had too much on his plate to focus his mind on Maya glyphs — in ’79 he would soon embark on editing and contributing to many volumes of the Library of Aboriginal American Literature that would appear between 1882 and 1890. For whatever reason Brinton himself didn’t move forward on teasing out the patterns of phoneticism in the script, despite having described the abstract nature of Mayan writing with what we can see now as remarkable accuracy.
Rau, Charles. 1879. The Palenque Tablet in the United States National Museum, Washington, D.C. Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, 331. Smithsonian Instituion, Washington City.
Valentini, Philipp J.J.. 1880. The Landa Alphabet: A Spanish Fabrication. Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, no. 75, pp. 59-91. Worcester, MA.
The website for INAH (Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia) contains a very useful and detailed zoom-able image of Palenque’s Tablet of the Cross, the original of which is now visible in the Museo Nacional in Mexico City. This has been available for a while now, and well worth checking out as an epigraphic/iconographic resource.
It’s important to stress that the right third of the tablet shows extensive restoration, and a number of details of the glyphs are not what they should be. This restoration work took place in several phases, it seems, and goes back to the late nineteenth century, after that section of the tablet was first broken at the ruins, sometime before 1839. The fragments were sent to the U.S. National Museum in Washington D.C. in 1842, and remained there for many decades attracting “considerable attention on the part of numerous visitors” before their eventual return to Mexico. An early photograph of the glyphs published by Charles Rau, in 1879, shows somewhat different restoration work, so clearly the panel had a complex and troubled history.
The new publication Maya Archaeology 2 includes my article “The Name of Paper: The Mythology of Crowning and Royal Nomenclature on Palenque’s Palace Tablet.” This piece was written back in 2009 and offers a somewhat novel take on the mythical-historical narrative on one of Palenque’s more important texts, focusing on the role of its unusual mythological protagonist, Ux Yop Huun (name glyph is shown at right). Much about this topic remains fairly opaque, and there is still a great deal to discuss and consider about the Palace Tablet and its layered meanings.
Maya Archaeology 2 is available for order here.
A pdf of my article on the Palace Tablet can be accessed here: The Name of Paper: The Mythology of Crowning and Royal Nomenclature on Palenque’s Palace Tablet
EDITOR’S NOTE: Starting now all entries on Maya Decipherment will be classified as one of five categories: Articles, Notes, Archives, News, and Books. More categories may be introduced in the future, but I see this as a good way to start organizing the varied sorts of contributions that have made their way onto the blog thus far.
The most recent issue of Science includes an article on the remarkable finds recently made at Ceibal (Seibal), Guatemala. Excavations there have revealed very early evidence of Maya ceremonial buildings and civic space, dating as far back as 1000 BCE. It’s wonderful and significant work, extending the roots of Maya religious architecture back to the Early Preclassic. Congratulations go out to Takeshi Inomata (my old Vanderbilt classmate and road-trip companion), Daniela Triadan and their colleagues.
Link to Science article (subscription required for full access)
“Early Maya Ceremonial Constructions at Ceibal, Guatemala, and the Origins of Lowland Maya Civilization”
Takeshi Inomata, Daniela Triadan, Kazuo Aoyama, Victor Castillo, and Hitoshi Yonenobu
Science, Vol. 340, no. 6131, pp. 467-471
The spread of plaza-pyramid complexes across southern Mesoamerica during the early Middle Preclassic period (1000 to 700 BCE) provides critical information regarding the origins of lowland Maya civilization and the role of the Gulf Coast Olmec. Recent excavations at the Maya site of Ceibal, Guatemala, documented the growth of a formal ceremonial space into a plaza-pyramid complex that predated comparable buildings at other lowland Maya sites and major occupations at the Olmec center of La Venta. The development of lowland Maya civilization did not result from one-directional influence from La Venta, but from interregional interactions, involving groups in the southwestern Maya lowlands, Chiapas, the Pacific Coast, and the southern Gulf Coast.
New carbon-14 tests of one of the famous carved wooden lintels from Tikal generally confirm the long-established GMT correlations of the Maya Long Count calendar, as explained in a new press release from Penn State University. This is not the first test of the calendar correlation against radio carbon data — such efforts began some 50 years ago — but it does use the latest calibration methods.
Maya Archaeology 2, edited by Charles Golden, Stephen Houston and Joel Skidmore. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.
Precolumbia Mesoweb Press has just published Maya Archaeology 2, a beautifully illustrated volume with important contributions on the archaeology and epigraphy of Calakmul and Palenque. Authors of the included reports and articles are Ramón Carrasco Vargas, María Cordeiro Baqueiro, Simon Martin, Arnoldo González Cruz, Guillermo Bernal Romero, and David Stuart. The book will be available May 2013, and order information is now available here through the Mesoweb website.
by David Stuart
Figure 1. The sign yo or YOP. (Drawings by D. Stuart)
Decipherment’s progress isn’t always measured by big leaps forward, nor marked by completely new readings of signs or radically new analyses of spellings. More often our work involves fairly small refinements of things we “thought we knew” but which turned out not to be quite correct. A good example might be the familiar sign I long ago proposed as having the value yo (Stuart 1987) (Figure 1). This reading is now widely accepted, but after many years I realized that the syllabic yo reading wasn’t always quite workable in certain contexts. Over a decade ago I came to the realization that the same sign might carry the related logographic value YOP on certain occasions, forcing a few adjustments to readings that had already made their way into print and the epigraphic literature. For students of Maya epigraphy it’s probably a bit confusing to come across this sort of minor tweak or change to seemingly established readings, especially when the arguments behind them remain unpublished, usually circulated as emails among colleagues. Here, therefore, I’ll discuss the yo and YOP values, clarifying how the sign is used in some distinct settings.
Figure 2. The yo sign as a prevocalic possessive pronoun. (a) yo-OTOOT-ti, y-otoot, “his/her house,” (b) yo-OHL-la, y-ohl, “his/her/its heart/center.” Drawings by L. Schele and I. Graham.
Most familiar uses of the yo syllable are as a sign prefix, to indicate the pre-vocalic third-person pronoun y- before a word beginning in o-. Thus yo-OTOOT for y-otoot, “his/her dwelling,” or yo-OHL-la for y-ohl, “his/her heart” (Figure 2a and b). On rarer occasions the yo sign is used in non-initial
Figure 3. The syllable yo in final position. (a) from Comalcalco, Bone Pendant 17A (drawing by M. Zender), (b) from Pomona-area panel (drawing by N. Grube)
position as part of spellings of certain roots (Figure 3a and b), as in xo-yo, perhaps for xoy, “round”(?), or po-mo-yo for the place name Pomoy, an unknown site in the lower Usumacinta region (the toponym is based on the noun pomoy, attested in modern Ch’ol as “capulín cimarrón” (small shrub-like tree, possibly a trema) (Aulie and Aulie 1978:211).
Figure 4. Spellings of yopte’, “leaf”. (a) yo-po-TE’-NAL, yopte’nal, “leaf place(?),” (b) AJ-YOP-TE’, aj yopte’, “Yopte’ person.” (Drawings by D. Stuart and I. Graham)
Many years ago I noted an interesting use of yo in the glyph yo-po-TE’-NAL, written as part of a caption on the large stucco frieze from Tonina (Figure 4a). This is surely for yopte’, “tree leaf,” with -nal perhaps being a place name suffix. Yop and yopte‘ is a widespread root for “leaf” in Ch’olan langauges, and no doubt the leaf-like form of the yo sign has its origin in this word. This is surely related to another glyph from an early inscription at Yaxchilan (Figure 4b), where the leaf element is combined with TE’ in a personal title. Here, flanked by two logograms, reading the leaf as syllabic yo value seems unlikely (AJ-yo-TE‘); rather it seems natural to see the sign here as a direct logogram for YOP, “leaf,” in the sequence AJ-YOP-TE’, aj yopte’, “he of yopte’” or “the yopte’ person” (here Yopte’ is most likely a place name). There is a reasonable chance therefore that the leaf sign is both the logogram YOP and the syllable yo, depending on context.
Such a direct connection between a logogram and a syllable is not terribly surprising. The use of the simple “fish” sign for ka as well as for KAY/CHAY is perhaps a good parallel, as is the “gopher” logogram BAAH used at times as the syllable ba (although usually in late settings). But in the case of yo and YOP it has led to some misunderstandings and confusions about certain readings, especially this important element we find within royal names at Copan, Quirigua, Naranjo and elsewhere (Figure 5).
Figure 5. Names of the Copan ruler Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat. Note the substitution of the YOP-AAT-ti/ta glyph by the Chahk-like deity in final position. (Drawings by D. Stuart and L. Schele)
For many years, the final glyph on this sequence — evidently the name of an important deity related to Chahk — has been read as yo-AAT, although never precisely translated. Aat is “penis” and yo never made much sense as its prefix. If however we read this grouping as YOP-AAT we at least have a more comfortable juxtaposition of two logograms (even if the inescapable translation “leaf-penis” doesn’t make much sense to our ears). For this reason, I have long preferred to read the sequence in such royal names (i.e. the final two glyphs in Figure 5a and b) as CHAN-na YOP-AAT-ti/ta, “Sky Yop-aat.”
One more interesting bit of information supports the YOP-AAT analysis. As just noted, Yopaat seems to refer to a deity with close relations to Chahk, the god of lightning and storms. Visually he seems identical, with the exception of having curved dotted elements on his head — perhaps representations of clouds or mist — and a hammer-like stone in his upraised hand. Yopaat is often represented in the ritual costumes of kings, for example as a small figure dangling from a belt, or else as an elaborate helmet or headdress (Figure 6). Intriguingly, the Yopaat headdress seems to be mentioned in the Yucatec Diccionario de Motul, where the entry yopat is glossed as “una manera de coraza o mitra que usavan los indios antiguos” (Martinez Hernández 1929:456).
I hope this clarifies what might seem a very minor issue over alternate readings of a single sign, one syllabic and the other logographic. There are a number of other signs that similarly have two related values with different functions, one syllabic and another logographic. While subtle, the case of yo and YOP demonstrates how small changes used in the methods of decipherment over the last couple of decades can lead to slightly better and more refined notions of just what the Maya were writing down.
Aulie, H. Wilbur, and Evelyn W. de Aulie. 1978. Diccionario Ch’ol-Español, Español-Ch’ol. Mexico, D.F.: Instituto Linguístico de Verano.
Martinez Hernández, Juan. 1929. Diccionario de Motul. Mérida: La Compañia Tipográfica Yucateca.
Stuart, David. 1987. Ten Phonetic Syllables. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, no. 14. Washington D.C.: Center for Maya Research.
Presented here is a new drawing of Panel 6 from La Corona, Guatemala. Its elaborate scene and lengthy hieroglyphic text commemorate the fascinating history of intermarriage between the rulers of La Corona (Saknikte’) and princesses of the Kan (or Kanal) court, centered at Dzibanche and Calakmul (Freidel and Guenter 2003; Martin 2008). On the left side we see the contemporaneous La Corona queen (and daughter of the then-king of Calakmul) under the roof of a small “water temple” as she celebrates a Period Ending in 731 A.D. Opposite her, under the protective arm of a large Teotihuacan-style feline, is the local queen who had arrived at La Corona from the Kan court over two centuries earlier, in 520.
Four dates are given in the text, listed here in chronological order:
- 18.104.22.168.16 12 Kib 9 Pax – Arrival of first Kan noblewoman
- 22.214.171.124.17 11 Kaban 10 Sotz’ – Arrival of second Kan noblewoman
- 126.96.36.199.14 8 Ix 17 Sotz’ – Arrival of third Kan noblewoman
- 188.8.131.52.0 4 Ahaw 13 Yax – Period Ending
Panel 6 is currently in the Ancient American Art gallery of The Dallas Museum of Art (Object number 1988.15.McD).
Freidel, David, and Stanley Guenter. 2003. Bearers and War of Creation. http://archive.archaeology.org/online/features/siteq2/
Martin, Simon. 2008 Wives and Daughters on the Dallas Altar. Article available on Mesoweb. http://www.mesoweb.com/articles/martin/Wives&Daughters.pdf