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REPORT: Name and Image on Two Codex-style Vessels

Written by webmaster on %d 21UTC %B 21UTC %Y. Posted in Attractions

by David Stuart

Among the many images in Justin Kerr’s wondrous database of Maya vases are two codex style vessels, K1552 and K1647 (Figures 1 and 2). These are part of a much larger set of vessels that bear symbols and iconography inspired by Teotihuacan, including images of so-called war-serpents and “Tlalocs” (see Robiscek and Hales 1981: Tables 5, 6, 7, 15, and 16). Many of these look to be painted by the same artist, including the two pictured here.

f917c18dc4 1552 REPORT:  Name and Image on Two Codex style Vessels

Figure 1. Rollout of Kerr 1552, showing jaguar paw and fire elements flanking a central k’an cross, in pseudo-Teotihuacan style. Photograph by Justin Kerr.

a3593bfcbc 1647 REPORT:  Name and Image on Two Codex style Vessels

Figure 2. Rollout of Kerr 1647, showing two pseudo-Teotihuacan figures with jaguar paw and flame elements. Photograph by Justin Kerr.

Compared those many vessels the imagery on K1152 and K1647 stands out. We see repeating ornate designs exhibiting k’an crosses, “fans” and other elements that commonly are used to evoke a Teotihuacan style in Late Classic Maya art (I suspect many of these elements have origins in butterfly imagery — another frequent theme of Early Classic central Mexican iconography). The design of K1152 is somewhat simpler than on K1647, where a human figure is added to the mix. He wears a so-called “tassled headdress” — here a rare Late Classic depiction — that is a familiar feature of Teotihuacan warriors throughout Mesoamerican art (Millon 1988).

Two elements seem to be featured in the repeating iconographic assemblages on each vessel — a protruding jaguar paw to the left of each design, and a prominent set of curving flames to the right. It’s an odd combination that doesn’t find parallel in the repetoire of Maya or Teotihuacan iconography, as far as I’m aware. But the paw and the flames are otherwise familiar as hieroglyphic elements that spell the core component of the royal name Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’, who ruled at Calakmul as the king of the Kaanal (or Kaanul) kingdom from to 686 to 697 CE. In truncated examples his name is simply written with a jaguar paw (ICH’AAK) and fire (K’AHK’), for Yich’aak K’ahk’, “Claw of Fire” (the phonetic prefix yi- in Figure 3d provides the prevocalic possessive pronoun y-).

a3593bfcbc names of yyk REPORT:  Name and Image on Two Codex style Vessels

FIgure 3. Name variants of the Calakmul ruler Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’. (Drawings a and b by David Stuart; c and d by Simon Martin).

I have to wonder if the icons on the two related vessels are symbolic references to this important Calakmul king. Could the profiles shown on K1647 be his portrait? Throughout Maya art royal names could be routinely displayed in a similar fashion, where the elements of script often assumed the appearance of iconography. We often find such names in headdresses, for example, where the lines between image and script seem almost completely blurred (a playful overlap that Maya scribes and artists were apparently trained to feature and exploit).

The connection of these vases to Calakmul goes well beyond any strained visual link. It’s now firmly established that these and other codex-style vessels were produced in the so-called Mirador “Basin” (a geographical misnomer) at centers such as Nakbe, which were evidently in the close political sphere of Calakmul (Reents-Budet, et. al. 2010). The stylistic allusions to Teotihuacan are suggestive as well. According to a two different references in the inscriptions of La Corona, Yich’aak K’ahk’ assumed the unusual title Waxaklajuun Ubaah Chan, a name otherwise closely associated with the so-called Teotihuacan War Serpent. These can be found on Stela 1 and on Block V of Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 (Figure 4). The title probably alludes to Yich’aak K’ahk’s importance as a powerful warrior during a time he was warring with Calakmul’s great southern rival Tikal.

a3593bfcbc crn hs2 5 yyk name REPORT:  Name and Image on Two Codex style Vessels

Figure 4. The Teotihuacan War Serpent title with the name of Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’, from Block 5 of Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 at La Corona. (Drawing by David Stuart)

The timing for such a personal reference seems about right, too, for many if not most codex-style ceramics appear to have been produced in a relatively short span of a few decades in the late seventh and early eight centuries.

Readers might wonder why I haven’t addressed what the line of glyphs on the vessels actually say. The texts below the rims of the two vessels are nearly identical. Both are standard dedicatory formulae, marking them as drinking cups for cacao, and owned by a k’uhul cha(?)tahn winik, a “holy person” of place or court named Cha(?)tahn (the reading of one of the signs as cha in this context is uncertain; I suspect it may be a logogram of unknown value, and not the syllable sign cha). This may be an indirect reference to a character named Yopaat Bahlam, who carries this same title and is named on many codex style vessels. I suspect, as others probably have, that he was a local ruler of the Late Classic settlement at Nakbe or somewhere nearby, as well as being a subordinate ally under Calakmul’s power.

So in sum, I tentatively suggest that the two vases shown may have been painted ca. 690 CE to commemorate Calakmul’s warrior-king Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’. Their decorations look to be personal references to that k’uhul ajaw — emblem-like name glyphs melded with iconographic allusions to Teotihuacan. It’s probably significant that the writing system that was actually used at Teotihuacan consisted of proper names written in a similar emblematic manner (Taube 2000). The painter of these two vessels may have wanted to show the king’s name using a mix of Teotihuacan and Maya styles, not unlike the glyphs rendered in the Teotihuacan “font” in the Temple Inscription from Temple 26 at Copan (Stuart 2005).


Millon, Clara. 1988. “A reexamination of the Teotihuacan tassel headdress insignia.” In Feathered Serpents and Flowering Trees: Reconstructing the Murals of Teotihuacan, edited by Kathleen Berrin, pp. 114-134. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco.

Reents-Budet, Dorie, Sylviane Boucher Le Landais, Yoly Paloma Carillo, Ronald L. Bishop and M. James Blackman. 2010. Codex Style Ceramics: New Data Concerning Patterns of Production and Distribution. Paper presented at the XXIV Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatamala, 2010, Guatemala City.

Stuart, David. 2005. A Foreign Past: The Writing and Representation of History on A Royal Ancestral Shrine at Copan.  In Copan: The History of An Ancient Maya Kingdom, edited by E. Wyllys Andrews and William L. Fash.  pp. 373-394.  The School of American Research Press, Santa Fe.

Taube, Karl. 2000. The Writing System of Ancient Teotihuacan. Ancient America I. Center for Ancient American Studies, Barnardsville, NC and Washington, DC.

 REPORT:  Name and Image on Two Codex style Vessels  REPORT:  Name and Image on Two Codex style Vessels
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NEWS: Discovery of an Inscribed Temple Facade at Holmul, Guatemala

Written by webmaster on %d 07UTC %B 07UTC %Y. Posted in Attractions

f917c18dc4 ozctkavi9nf4flkjxjc2wml66aok  d9zfcdhpicha NEWS: Discovery of an Inscribed Temple Facade at Holmul, Guatemala

A large and beautifully preserved temple facade has been unearthed this year at Holmul, Guatemala, by an archaeological team led by Francisco Estrada-Belli. The imagery features a local Holmul ruler named ? Chan Yopaat seated atop a world mountain (witz). Large serpents emerge from the witz mask and face toward other seated figures — possibly ancestors  – at the corners.

The official National Geographic announcement (with photos) can be found here.

The Boston University press release is here.

UPDATE: A Higher res picture is available here, courtesy of Alex Tokovinine. Thanks, Alex!

One unusual and important feature of the Holmul facade is a long hieroglyphic text that runs along the bottom of the scene. This is now being closely studied and documented by Alex Tokovinine of the Holmul project. It contains a number of royal names, including that of the contemporary ruler from nearby Naranjo, “Aj Wosaaj.”  The inscription also refers to the ruler of the Snake kingdom (Kaanul or Kaanal) when it was based at Dzibanche.

A great find. I only wish Francisco had found this before we had our Art of Maya Architecture gathering at the 2013 UT Maya Meetings!

 NEWS: Discovery of an Inscribed Temple Facade at Holmul, Guatemala  NEWS: Discovery of an Inscribed Temple Facade at Holmul, Guatemala
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NEWS: Recent Epigraphic Finds at El Peru

Written by webmaster on %d 16UTC %B 16UTC %Y. Posted in Attractions

d258b85fc4 ix ikoom NEWS: Recent Epigraphic Finds at El Peru

The El Peru Regional Archaeological Project has announced some significant epigraphic discoveries made over the past two seasons, focusing on two new inscribed monuments, numbered Stela 43 and 44. These include some interesting new historical characters and hints at wider regional politics of the 6th century, a time that is still poorly understood in Maya history overall.

Press release from Washington University in St Louis

Press Release from the Guatemalan Ministerio de Cultura y Deportes

 NEWS: Recent Epigraphic Finds at El Peru  NEWS: Recent Epigraphic Finds at El Peru
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REPORT: An Earful of Glyphs from Guatemala

Written by webmaster on %d 14UTC %B 14UTC %Y. Posted in Attractions

by Stephen Houston and Alexandre Tokovinine

A by-product of giving public talks is that, at times, a member of the audience will introduce themselves and offer an unexpected image: a glyphic text not seen before or since. This happened to Houston in 1994, at a Maya Society meeting in Washington, DC. The chat was brief, the name of the owner escapes us now (if it was ever noted), and the photos settled into one of many piles in Houston’s office. Yet such finds are always worth sharing, whatever their current location.

2b3d96f003 figure 1 earspools REPORT: An Earful of Glyphs from Guatemala

Figure 1. Photograph of earspool set and “hair-ornament” (Photographer unknown)

351fa76309 figure 2 enhanced photograph REPORT: An Earful of Glyphs from Guatemala

Figure 2. Same photograph with enhancement (Photographer unknown, enhancement courtesy of Simon Martin).

351fa76309 figure 3 earspool and bead1 REPORT: An Earful of Glyphs from Guatemala

Figure 3. Drawing of set by Alexandre Tokovinine.

The attached images and drawings—the latter by Tokovinine, with slight suggestions by Houston—show a set of earspools and what might be a perforated jade bead to gather a ponytail or serve as a forehead ornament (Figures 1, 2 and 3). There was no scale in the photograph, but the assumption is that the earspools were fairly large, perhaps 7 to 9 cm across, at least to judge from similar examples with known measurements (e.g., K1365, K3166). Carved by the same lapidary artist, the pair clearly forms a coherent whole. One depicts the so-called “baktun” bird, perhaps a celestial eagle. Its pectoral indicates some close but unspecified tie to the Principal Bird Deity. The other displays, not a bird in full flight, but a swimming lizard with scutes running up and down his front and back legs. The central design, a quadripartite element with four lobes, appears to represent a cavity at the center of each creature. Was this a witty reference to the central perforation or an allusion to their emergent state?

Cosmic layering must have related in some poorly understood manner to the display function of such earspools, one to either side of a ruler or nobleman’s face (Carter et al. 2012; http://antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/carter333/). The creatures on our earspools do not, however, show any evidence of complementary orientation. Rather than facing into the royal visage, as in some ornaments with human bodies or faces, they appear to face in the same direction. The position of the glyphs on the reptile or turtle suggests that it was oriented so that the text could be viewed in vertical position. The “Baktun” bird is less clear in placement.

The site from which these objects came is uncertain. Two possibilities come to mind:

(1) On the reptile earspool, the main sign of the Naranjo emblem occurs with the number 4, at the beginning of that text (the number “6” also occurs with this sign on Naranjo Stela 45 and a stucco frieze found by William Saturno at Xultun and reported at the 2013 Texas Maya Meetings). The presence of the number hints at cosmic directional symbolism. Perhaps the following glyphs designate a place within a particular location. Presumably, the first glyph reads AHK-ku or AHK-TUUN, followed by a toponymic sequence that is well-attested in Maya inscriptions (Stuart and Houston 1994:figure 9). Indeed, the reptile on the earspool may refer to the toponym in some way.

d258b85fc4 figure 4 stela 45 REPORT: An Earful of Glyphs from Guatemala

Figure 4. Name of Naatz Chan Ahk on Naranjo Stela 45 (Field Drawing by Alexandre Tokovinine).

There are other dynastic links on the “Baktun” bird, close to another earspool discovered in Tomb 2 of Río Azul 1 At the back of the bird, carried notionally on its back (cf. K2131, of the Principal Bird Deity), is na-tzu-[CHAN?]AHK, a ruler of Naranjo, Naatz Chan Ahk (Martin and Grube 2008:70-71). The chan (or kan) glyph seems to be missing here, but it may have been elided or incorporated into the ahk head, as on Naranjo Stela 45 (Figure 4).

(2) A similar name occurs at Río Azul, also from the Early Classic period. The name appears in two places. The first is on a looted vessel in the Detroit Museum of Fine Arts (#1984.12.A, formerly Peter Wray collection, see also K1446; Taylor 2000). The Detroit vessel likely originated in the sacked Río Azul Tomb 12, which contains the second example: na-tzu-AHK (Adams 1999:Figure 3-16). The Detroit vessel shows the turtle with gaping mouth and pronounced beak. In an email, David Stuart wonders whether this creature is a snapping turtle, that ferocious consumer of human toes and fingers. After all, the snapper is, in Stuart’s memorable phrase, the “badass of turtles”!

d258b85fc4 figure 5 comparable name on incised turtle shell REPORT: An Earful of Glyphs from Guatemala

Figure 5. Incised turtle shell with name highlighted in grey-tone (Drawing by Linda Schele).

The parallel with the earspool from Tomb 2 at Río Azul is suggestive. The living lord appears, not on the tail of the bird, but on its head. Our suspicion is that the name on our earspool is a hitherto undetected ruler of Naranjo or, perhaps less likely, of Río Azul. The glyphs are difficult to read with any precision, but may have included a WAHY(IS) — note the characteristic percentage sign on the forehead of the spelling on the turtle shell. In all likelihood, the same ruler owned, as a MAM, “grandfather/ancestor,” an incised turtle shell that is also unprovenanced (Figure 5, note the highlighted glyph). Could this object have come from the same deposit as the earspools?

Incidentally, it is intriguing that the turtle shell was called a yu-k’e-sa?, “weeper,” a tag found in another context by Marc Zender (2010:84, pl. 43; cf. the so-called “Pearlman Conch,” now in the Chrysler Museum of Art, #86.457, Coe 1982:123, with its unambiguous yu-k’e-sa). Clearly used in music making, these objects might have been less about joyful celebration than a different intent, to make the sounds of mourning or the keening summons of spirits. Indeed, many Maya objects, especially of ancestral shells, might have been rough equivalents to the jet mourning jewelry of the Victorians: a reminder and fetishized evocation of the deceased.

As for the bead or hair- or forehead ornament, there is little to be said: a K’AWIIL above the head of a human being with K’IN earspool.

Any addition to the corpus of texts is welcome. These finds, taken illicitly from Guatemala, remind us of how little is known about Maya ornament. Of small size but large meaning, they invite closer study and broader comparison.


Note 1. This earspool is on display in the Museo Nacional in Guatemala City, with the name of a local ruler, JOL-BAHLAM, on its head. The same name occurs on Temple Structure A-2 at the site, reproduced in a lamentable drawing by R. E. W. Adams (1999:Figure 3-19, B7).


Adams, R. E. W. 1999. Río Azul: An Ancient Maya City. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Carter, Nicholas P., Rony E. Piedrasanta, Stephen D. Houston, and Zachary Hruby. 2012. Signs of Supplication: Two Mosaic Earflare Plaques from El Zotz, Guatemala. Antiquity 86:Project Gallery; http://antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/carter333/.

Coe, Michael D. 1982. Old Gods and Young Heroes: The Pearlman Collection of Maya Ceramics. Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2008. Chronicles of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. 2nd ed. Thames and Hudson, London.

Stuart, David, and Stephen Houston. 1994. Classic Maya Place Names. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology 33. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C.

Taylor, Dicey. 2000. A Chocolate Cup for Eternity in the Road of Awe: The Detroit Cylinder Tripod. Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts 74(1-2):4–19.

 REPORT: An Earful of Glyphs from Guatemala  REPORT: An Earful of Glyphs from Guatemala
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REPORT: The Lost City of Tzendales

Written by webmaster on %d 19UTC %B 19UTC %Y. Posted in Attractions

0959cd7464 982400051 REPORT: The Lost City of Tzendales

Alfred M. Tozzer during his 1905 fieldwork with the Lacandon Maya

These days it might seem easy to dismiss the idea of “lost cities” as a thing of the past, or as a romanticized notion from a by-gone era in Maya archaeology and exploration. After all, most significant sites are pretty well-known by now, even if not fully explored and mapped by archaeologists. But a few unknown places and remains are still “out there” awaiting discovery, as this year’s announcement about the site of Chactun dramatically demonstrates.

Another intriguing case involves a Maya ruin called Tzendales, located somewhere in the remote forests of the Selva Lacandona of Chiapas, Mexico. As far as I’m aware no one knows its exact location, yet the site was visited in 1905 by the Harvard anthropologist Alfred Tozzer when he was doing ethnographic fieldwork among the Lacandon Maya of the area. Tozzer paid a brief visit to the ruins and noted the presence of large buildings, one bearing a sizable roof-comb. Inside a vaulted chamber he came upon a well-preserved panel or stela bearing the portrait of a Maya king. No outsider ever returned to the ruins after Tozzer’s first visit, so at least from the vantage point of archaeological research Tzendales remains a true “lost city.”

An excellent article on the mystery of Tzendales was written a few years ago by the Mexican author Carlos Tello Díaz. I recall meeting Carlos when he stopped by our offices at the Peabody Museum at Harvard at the time he was researching in the archives and looking over Tozzer’s original field notes. We chatted about the remarkable case of Tzendales, and our mutual amazement that how no one yet knew its location even a century after Tozzer’s visit. Carlos ended up going to the Chiapas rain forest in 2000 and found the abandoned lumber camp where Tozzer stayed before and after his foray to the ruins. But still Tzendales itself remained elusive in the surrounding jungle.

0959cd7464 tzendales003 REPORT: The Lost City of Tzendales

The Tzendales stela. This drawing was published by Herbert Spinden in his 1913 A Study of Maya Art, based on Tozzer’s original field sketches.

What of the stela? Thanks to the accuracy of Tozzer’s old sketch we can make out a good deal about its inscription. The text first runs down the long vertical column then up to the two glyphs above the headdress. It all begins with the Calendar Round date 7 Imix 13 Zip and later on cites the period ending 8 Ahau 8 Uo ( A Distance number of 16.19 bridges the two dates, giving us a firm anchor for both in the Long Count:

9.12.19. 1. 1  7 Imix 14 Zip
9.13. 0. 0. 0  8 Ahau 8 Uo

The first episode refers to the dedication or ritual refurbishment of a tomb for a local ruler named K’ahk’ Witz’(?) K’awiil (a name that is very similar to that of Ruler 12 of Copan, by the way). The portrait is probably of this same local ruler, or just perhaps of the living king who oversaw the dedicatory ceremonies for his deceased ancestor. An emblem glyph (court title) in the thirteenth block is intriguing but unrecognizable.

Roughly translated, the text reads:

“At the day’s darkening, on Seven Imix (G3, F) the thirteenth of Chakat,
the fire enters into the eht(?) naah, which is the name of his burial (at?) Juuntz’i’nal,
of the k’atun lord K’ahk’ Witz’ K’awiil, the ? Lord.
It is nineteen and sixteen-score days before
Eight Ajaw the eighth of Ik’at, (when) the thirteenth k’atun will occur,
that it happens.”

No one can say for sure if the Tzendales stela or panel even still exists; it’s just possible that it still lies in the deep forest where Tozzer left it over a century ago.

 REPORT: The Lost City of Tzendales  REPORT: The Lost City of Tzendales
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NEWS: The Discovery of Chactun, Campeche

Written by webmaster on %d 18UTC %B 18UTC %Y. Posted in Attractions

INAH (Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia) has posted video footage of the newly discovered site of Chactun, Campeche. The ruins were located and surveyed this season by archaeologist Ivan Sprajc and his colleagues. It looks like a fascinating place with large structures and inscribed monuments, one of which mentions a Late Classic ruler by the name of K’inich Bahlam. Ivan and Octavio Esparza are featured in the video, explaining the significance of the discoveries.

A big congratulations to Ivan, Octavio and everyone involved. I’m sure many can’t wait to hear more about the find.

UPDATE: INAH has also released a news item on the discovery on their official website, as well as a nice photo gallery showing some of the monuments.

 NEWS: The Discovery of Chactun, Campeche  NEWS: The Discovery of Chactun, Campeche
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NEWS: La Corona Notes on Mesoweb

Written by webmaster on %d 11UTC %B 11UTC %Y. Posted in Attractions

22c1470c68 dsc 0566lores NEWS: La Corona Notes on Mesoweb
Our friends over at Mesoweb have launched a new series of short reports called La Corona Notes, featuring interpretations and data from the Proyecto Arqueológico Regional La Corona. The series editors are Marcello Canuto of Tulane University, Tomás Barrientos of the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, and David Stuart of The University of Texas at Austin.

A number of upcoming contributions to the series will feature epigraphic studies of La Corona’s many inscriptions, including the new texts from Hieroglyphic Stairway 2, discovered last year. Maya Decipherment will regularly announce and provide links to these future works as they come up.

The first note in the series is “The Importance of La Corona” by project directors Marcello Canuto and Tomás Barrientos.

(Photo: Detail of La Corona Panel 1, by D. Stuart)

 NEWS: La Corona Notes on Mesoweb  NEWS: La Corona Notes on Mesoweb
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REPORT: Tonina’s Curious Ballgame

Written by webmaster on %d 10UTC %B 10UTC %Y. Posted in Attractions

by David Stuart

Narrative scenes in Maya art are not always as simple as they might seem. Take for example this image of a ballgame on Monument 171 from Tonina, Chiapas. This small relief sculpture was discovered some years ago in the site’s acropolis, and is now on display near the entrance to the Sala Maya in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City.

6a2e061a53 tonina ball panel REPORT: Tonina’s Curious Ballgame

Figure 1. Monument 171 from Tonina, showing the king of Calakmul, at right, playing ball with the deceased ruler of Tonina K’inich Baaknal Chahk, at left (Photograph by D. Stuart).

Like many scenes of the Maya ballgame, the Tonina relief shows two players in action with knees on the floor and a large ball between them. Three text panels are integrated within the scene and identify the actors and the time-frames of the game depicted. The central and right-hand sections form one continuous text, with the text at the the far left as a stand-alone caption for the left-hand figure. (Note: In the accompanying illustration I have re-lettered the columns to reflect the true reading order, so that columns A-B are at the center of the composition, above the large ball; columns A-B in the Corpus publication are here given as F-G).

40311afa74 tna m 171 renumbered REPORT: Tonina’s Curious Ballgame

Figure 2. Drawing of Monument 171 by Ian Graham, showing new column designations to reflect true reading order. (Adapted from Graham, et. al. 2006)

The date opening the main caption (A1-A2) is  7 Eb 5 Kankin, or October 31, 727 AD, during the reign of the Tonina ruler known as K’inich Yich’aak(?) Chapat, who had assumed the throne a few years earlier in 723 (See Mathews 2001 for a useful tabulation of Tonina’s dates and history).  The event phrase (B2-A3) is very clear as u baah ta pitz, “(it is) his image in (the act of) ball-playing,” repeating a sequence of glyphs found also in the secondary caption at the far left (a curious echoing of phrase that is meaningful, and which we will return to).

So who’s playing ball? One might think that the text would simply name the two players, but in fact there are three people named in the accompanying glyphs. As I hope to explain, the added complexity reveals interesting aspects about how Maya artisans sometimes layered narrative history and manipulated text-image relationships in order to point emphasize certain important narrative elements involving actors and time-frames that might otherwise be obscure.

The subject of the main ball-playing expression is named in blocks B3-C1, and here we find something of a surprise. This is not the name of the local Tonina king, but instead looks to be that of the king who was ruling at distant Calakmul, an important character known in the literature as Took’ K’awiil (a provisional nickname; see Martin and Grube 2000:112). His name phrase is quite clear, reading across the body of the right ballplayer to highlight his identity, and identical to examples known from Calakmul and surrounding areas. After the name and the accompanying kaloomte’ title (C1) we come upon an undeciphered glyph — clearly a possessed noun (U-ma-?-li) (D1) — followed by the name of the local ruler K’inich Yich’aak(?) Chapat (E1-D2) and his two royal court titles (emblem glyphs), followed in turn by another example of the honorific term kaloomte’. The undeciphered glyph at D1 must express some relationship between the ballgame or the Calakmul king and the contemporary Tonina ruler, although the nature of this connection still remains unclear (I recall seeing one other example of this same odd relationship glyph in another Tonina inscription that remains unpublished).

The ballplayer to the left is named in the caption behind him. This reads, in loose translation:

He is playing ball, the one k’atun kaloomte’, K’inich Baaknal Chahk, the Holy Lord of Po’

Here we have another ruler familiar from the Tonina’s history. However — and this is the truly odd aspect of the scene — at the time of the ballgame K’inich Baaknal Chahk had not been a ruler for nearly twenty years. He had been an important king who waged several notable wars against Palenque and its allies, but who died probably around the year 709, shortly before his young successor, Ruler 4, came to power on 9 Etznab 6 Muan. The next ruler after him, in turn, was K’inich Yich’aak(?) Chapat. So we have an odd situation at hand: a scene from the year 727 depicting a long-deceased Tonina ruler playing ball with a foreign Calakmul lord, with the current king named but not even shown.

So what gives? I believe we have here an excellent example of a common but little known convention in Maya art where times and identities can intentionally “merge” for narrative effect. One might even call it a form of visual poetics used by artists to carefully draw parallels and connections that, while not explicit on the surface, were nonetheless readable and knowable to those familiar with the conventions of Maya imagery. The 727 ballgame was probably real, a ritual contest involving the ruler of Calakmul Took’ K’awiil and the Tonina king who was alive at the time, K’inich Yich’aak(?) Chapat. Such royal ballgame scenes were frequently commissioned as a means of documenting long-distance alliances and hierarchical connections, and were used especially in the sphere of the Calakmul (Kaanal) court (examples are known from La Corona, Uxul and Hixwitz, among other places). The point of adding K’inich Baaknal Chahk’s image to this scene is, I think, to collapse this 727 event with a similar ballgame of a prior generation, involving the same Calakmul king and a deceased Tonina hero. The Calakmul ruler Took’ K’awiil was alive and on the throne in both time-frames, having acceded to the throne in 698. I suspect that he may held some important role in the complex geopolitics of Chiapas at the end of the seventh century, perhaps turning his attention westward after the defeat of the Kaanal kingdom by Tikal in 695. It’s probably no accident that Calakmul would find an ally in Tonina, who had for years been in conflict with its northern neighbor Palenque, itself an old enemy of the Kaanal kingdom. At any rate, the connection between the two ballgame events isn’t described textually or in conventional narrative fashion, yet it seems implicit in the juxtaposition of time with the actors shown.

Similar depictions of two subjects “out of time” with one another appear with some frequency in Maya sculpture. For example, La Corona Panel 1 shows two standing figures facing one another, each identified as the same ruler, K’inich ? Yook, on different ritual occasions. The scenes of the three tablets of the Cross Group at Palenque offer a similar juxtaposition of two inward-facing portraits of one king, K’inich Kan Bahlam, at different stages of life (as a young boy and as a middle aged man). A better parallel perhaps comes from the bench tablet of Temple XXI from Palenque, showing the deceased ruler K’inich Janab Pakal overseeing the bloodletting rites of his grandsons. In many of the Palenque narratives, earlier events and subjects are presented on the left, with later or contemporaneous protagonists on the right (the more “dominant” side of a composition).

I suggest that the Tonina ballgame scene presents a similar artistic stratagem. The written date and the subjects are carefully specified but are historically incompatible, a incongruence that serves to highlight the artist’s underlying message, linking an episode of current history with something parallel and similar in the past. I suspect this is why we have the apparent redundancy of two repeating phrases in the scene that simply state “he is playing ball” — each is needed because they serve in different historical moments. In Maya texts, the rhetorical links between such like-in-kind episodes are extremely common, and I would argue that Maya artists were just as keen in showing such connections, though perhaps not so linearly or directly. This then is a figurative ballgame, documenting to a old alliance between Tonina and the Kaanal court during the reign of K’inich Baaknal Chahk, and collapsing it with a more current relationship during the reign of K’inich Yich’aak(?) Chapat.

So this small elegant carving gives us with a fine example of how the ancient Maya conveyed layered and complex meanings involving time and identity, offering much more than first meets the eye.


Graham, Ian, David Stuart, Peter Mathews, and Lucia R. Henderson. 2006. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 9, Part 2: Tonina. Peabody Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2000. Chronicles of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. Thames and Hudson, London.

Mathews, Peter. 2001. The Dates of Tonina and a Dark Horse in Its History.  The PARI Journal 2(1):1-5. Link to pdf here.

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BOOKS: The Spectacle of the Late Maya Court: Reflections on the Murals of Bonampak

Written by webmaster on %d 28UTC %B 28UTC %Y. Posted in Attractions

Coming in July 2013 from The University of Texas Press

0435326b7e 9780292744363 BOOKS: The Spectacle of the Late Maya Court: Reflections on the Murals of Bonampak

The Spectacle of the Late Maya Court: Reflections on the Murals of Bonampak
by Mary Ellen Miller and Claudia Brittenham

The blurb from The University of Texas Press website:

Located within the deep tropical rainforest of Chiapas, Mexico, the Maya site of Bonampak is home to the most complete and magnificent mural program of the ancient Americas. In three rooms, a pageant of rulership opens up, scene by scene, like pages of an ancient Maya book. Painted c. AD 800, the murals of Bonampak reveal a complex and multifaceted view of the ancient Maya at the end of their splendor during the last days of the Classic era. Members of the royal court engage in rituals and perform human sacrifice, dance in extravagant costumes and strip the clothing from fallen captives, acknowledge foreign nobles, and receive abundant tribute. The murals are a powerful and sophisticated reflection on the spectacle of courtly life and the nature of artistic practice, a window onto a world that could not know its doomed future.

This major new study of the paintings of Bonampak incorporates insights from decades of art historical, epigraphic, and technical investigation of the murals, framing questions about artistic conception, facture, narrative, performance, and politics. Lavishly illustrated, this book assembles thorough documentation of the Bonampak mural program, from historical photographs of the paintings—some never before published—to new full-color reconstructions by artist Heather Hurst, recipient of a MacArthur award, and Leonard Ashby. The book also includes a catalog of photographs, infrared images, and line drawings of the murals, as well as images of all the glyphic texts, which are published in their entirety for the first time. Written in an engaging style that invites both specialists and general readers alike, this book will stand as the definitive presentation of the paintings for years to come.

Ordering information can be found at the The University of Texas Press.

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REPORT: Two Inscribed Bones from Yaxchilan

Written by webmaster on %d 16UTC %B 16UTC %Y. Posted in Attractions

Back in 1979, excavations at Yaxchilan overseen by Roberto García Moll unearthed several carved bone objects within Tomb 2 of Structure 23 (Mathews 1997:161; Perez Campa 1990:150). Among them were the two artifacts in the figure below, each with a carved deity head on one end and a short hieroglyphic inscription (there were other similar bones as well, not treated here). In this report I would like to offer a few observations on the short texts, focusing mainly on the relationship they bear to the deity images.

As one can see in the drawings, these intriguing bones are pointed at one end, which might lead one to think they functioned as ritual bloodletters. I’m not so sure this is the case here, given their blunt appearance. It’s possible that they were pin-like devices inserted in some sort of unknown material, not unlike similar objects recently described by Martin (2012:77) in the paintings of Structure Sub 1-4 at Calakmul. Unfortunately the texts do not say exactly what they were used for — as we will see, one is simply a “jaguar bone” (Bone 1) and the other is an “offering bone” (Bone 2).

Each text is structured somewhat differently, but both clearly label the objects as belonging to Ix K’abal Xook, the noted queen of Yaxchilan from the early eighth century who is depicted on a number of sculptures at the site, including the famous carved door lintels of Structure 23 (Lintels 24, 25 and 26). Each text also includes a god’s name corresponding to the carved head, placed differently in each case.

2643894376 yax bones1 REPORT: Two Inscribed Bones from YaxchilanBONE 1:

u-ba ke-le BAHLAM-ma IX (k’a-ba)-la
u baakel bahlam Ix K’abal
(it is) the jaguar’s bone of Lady K’abal

XOOK?-ki AJ-K’AHK’ o?-CHAHK-ki
Xook / Aj K’ahk’ O’ Chahk
Xook. (It is) Aj K’ahk’ O’ Chahk.


to-k’a-la AJAW-wa U-MAY-ya-ji
took’al ajaw u mayij
Flint Lord is the offering

ba-ki IX-(k’a-ba)-la XOOK?-ki
baak Ix K’abal Xook
bone of Lady K’abal Xook.

The text on Bone 1 (a provisional designation, by the way) looks to have two segments. One is a name-tag based on the interesting term u baakel bahlam, “her jaguar bone…,” with he name of the owner, Lady K’abal Xook, continuing to glyph B1 on the obverse side. Glyphs B2 and B3, larger in size than the others, seem to stand apart as a separate name. This is familiar from a number of other texts as Aj K’ahk’ O’ Chahk, an important royal patron deity of Yaxchilan. The small head atop Bone 1 does indeed resemble as aspect of Chahk, the storm god, with a possible pointed diadem and and rope pectoral.

Aj K’ahk’ O’ Chahk was a local deity, named and depicted only at Yaxchilan and environs. I suspect he was the principle patron of the royal throne of Yaxchilan, not unlike GI was for Palenque, given his central role in the rhetoric of royal accession at the site (as on Lintel 25 and 35, among others). The first part of his name, Aj K’ahk’,  means “He of Fire,” although this title doesn’t always seem to be present. The core portion of the name simply seems to be O’ Chahk (and, no, there is no evidence he was Irish). O’ is the name of a raptorial bird whose image appears in the glyphs as the head sign with the values o (a syllable) or O’ (a logogram); this head sign is usually simply abbreviated as the spotted feather, so that in these deity names we seem to have the sequence O’-CHAHK-(ki) (see Figure 2a and 2b, below).  The O’ Chahk name corresponds to the headdress worn by Yaxchilan’s rulers during important dedication ceremonies, as shown in Figure 2a. Here the o’ bird is stacked atop the head of Chahk, essentially replicating the hieroglyphic name O’-CHAHK in iconographic form.

ad3f6fcb38 o chahk REPORT: Two Inscribed Bones from Yaxchilan

Figure 2. (a) The deity O’ Chahk as a headdress, from La Pasadita, Lintel 1. (b) the name Aj K’ahk’ O’ Chahk from Yaxchilan, Lintel 25, (c) The name O’ Chahk from Yaxchilan, Lintel 35. (Drawings by Ian Graham)

Bone 2 references a different god named Took’al Ajaw, “Flint-knife Lord,” who thus far has gone unrecognized. The inscribed statement is a bit more direct about the identity of the object, saying that “Took’al Ajaw is her offering bone.” Atop the bone we see a god resembling the so-called “Jaguar God of the Underworld,” with a long beard-like feature as well as a pointed, animated flint knife for a forehead — hence his name.  This deity is also of local importance at Yaxchilan. Several portraits of him can be fount at the tops of stelae that depict consecration rites on important Period Endings and anniversaries, where he is always shown above a sky band and in-between ancestral portraits of the rulers mother and father (Figure 3). Otherwise we know little about him, or his connection to other members of the local pantheon.

ad3f6fcb38 yax st 4 top maler lores REPORT: Two Inscribed Bones from Yaxchilan

Figure 3. The top fragment of Stela 4 from Yaxchilan (front), showing the parents of Bird Jaguar IV as the sun and the moon. Took’al Ajaw, with his flint headdress, appears between them as another celestial deity. (Photograph by Teobert Maler)

It seems that Structure 23 was the formal “house” of Ix K’abal Xook, with Tomb 2 her likely burial place (See Plank 2004:35-54). Several other bones bearing her name were found in the tomb, including one very elaborate mayij baak named for another deity named Bolon Kalneel Chahk. He was evidently another aspect of the storm god who was important in local rituals and political symbolism.

What were these small objects used for, then? It is difficult to say for sure, and the texts on them are not as explicit on this point as we would like them to be. The job of these glyphs was more to identify the owner (Ix K’abal Xook) and the deity depicted. If allowed to speculate, I wonder if such pointed bones might themselves have been used as elaborate figural “labels,” inserted into incense or food offerings (mayij) or some other substance as a way of attributing or directing them to different gods. There is no way to prove such a function, but it might be a useful avenue to ponder and explore further. At any rate, I hope to revisit these issues in a future post, looking at other examples and varieties of inscribed bone artifacts.


Martin, Simon. 2012. Hieroglyphs from the Painted Pyramid: The Epigraphy of Chiik Nahb Structure Sub 1-4, Calakmul, Mexico. In Maya Archaeology 2, pp. 60-81. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press.

Mathews, Peter Lawrence. 1997. La Escultura de Yaxchilan. INAH, México, D.F.

Perez Campa, Mario. 1990. La vida en Yaxchilan. In La exposición de la civilización maya, pp. 149-154. Mainichi Shinbunsha, Tokyo, Japan.

Plank, Shannon E. 2004. Maya Dwellings in Hieroglyphs and Archaeology: An Integrative Approach to Ancient Architecture and Spatial Cognition. BAR International  Series 1324, Oxford, England.

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