NEW PAPER: An Early Maya Calendar Record from San Bartolo, Guatemala

New paper by David Stuart, Heather Hurst, Boris Beltran and William Saturno. Published as an open access paper in Science Advances, vol. 8, issue 15, 13 April 2022

Abstract: Here, we present evidence for the earliest known calendar notation from the Maya region, found among fragments of painted murals excavated at San Bartolo, Guatemala. On the basis of their sealed contexts in an early architectural phase of the “Las Pinturas” pyramid, we assign these fragments to between 300 and 200 BCE, preceding the other well-known mural chamber of San Bartolo by approximately 150 years. The date record “7 Deer” represents a day in the 260-day divinatory calendar used throughout Mesoamerica and among indigenous Maya communities today. It is presented along with 10 other text fragments that reveal an established writing tradition, multiple scribal hands, and murals combining texts with images from an early ritual complex. The 7 Deer day record represents the earliest securely dated example of the Maya calendar and is important to understanding the development of the 260-day count and associated aspects of Mesoamerican religion and cosmological science.

RRAMW 64: The Logogram for Wax, “Grey Fox,” in Maya Hieroglyphic Writing

With this post we are pleased to present another new issue of the long-running series Research Reports on Maya Hieroglyphic Writing, published by the Boundary End Archaeological Research Center. Number 64 of the series is available here for download as a pdf, and future numbers will be posted here on Maya Decipherment. The full digital archive of the RRAMW series (1984-present) will soon be available on the BEARC website, and announced here as well.

RRAMW 64: A Logogoram for WAX “Grey Fox,” in Maya Hieroglyphic Writing by Christian Prager.

Sun Shadows and Maya Stelae

Stephen Houston (Brown University)

For the ever-sunny George Stuart, on his birthday

Humans have long been intrigued by the sun, its shadows, and the ways of monitoring them over time. The reasons for that interest are obvious: by paying attention to the effects of the sun, observers could tell the time of day, determine the seasons, and separate or mark parts of the year. But how does one do such tasks precisely? In antiquity, this was mostly made possible by that “simplest” of “scientific instrument[s],” the gnomon (Isler 1991:155). Often little more than a vertical stick or pole, the gnomon cast little shadow at midday. But when the sun rose or fell, shadows extended considerably, and, if observed at equinoxes, aligned with reasonable accuracy to “true” east and west (Isler 1991:180; see also Dash 2017). In China, gnomons (gui biao) showed another innovation. Holes in them would be used to project shadows onto horizontal scales laid out north-south in relation to the vertical gnomon (Li and Sun 2009:1380, fig. 2).

A sundial focuses on the direction of shadows to establish the time of day.[1] More elaborate gnomons target the length of shadows, for this allows the time of year to be determined. In some cases, as in imperial China and early India, measurements of shadows were tabulated over centuries (Yano 1986:26), and the instruments to measure them could be large or even monumental. At Denfeng in Henan province, China, the horizontal scale ran over over 31 m (Li and Sun 2009:fig. 2). Places to observe the positions of the sun have been proposed for much of Mesoamerica, including: caves with overhead openings to permit the entry of sunlight; the celebrated “E-groups,” in part with solar orientations, that coalesced in the Preclassic period; buildings oriented towards sunrise events; and solstitial alignments in doorways at Yaxchilan, Mexico (e.g., Anderson 1981; Aylesworth 2015:787–789; Espinasa-Pereña and Diamant 2012:table 2; Zaro and Lohse 2005:89–93; Tate 1992:94–96). These involved observations, but whether they were “observatories” per se depends on whether a particular feature is “performative rather than practical, a theater rather than a laboratory, a planetarium rather than an observatory” (Aveni 2003:163). In other words, they might have borne witness to solar events, those almost miraculous synchronizations of light, shadow, and place. But they were not “scientific” instruments collecting data over time.

The focus on the sun and its diurnal passage may elucidate an unusual stela erected at the city of Machaquila, Guatemala. Dating to Dec. 2, A.D. 711 (Julian), this monument is, on its front and back, an almost square carving with a head protruding from its top (Figure 1, Graham 1967:87–88, figs. 33). At the bottom is a witz or “hill” element, an emblem of fixity. Just above floats the local king as the embodiment of lordly time at the close of a katun (20-year) period. The glyphs frame that day sign portrait of the ruler with a relatively unembellished, angular sky band that once contained glyphs, now in a poor state of preservation. (Many stylized sky bands take this shape, suggesting a rather rectilinear view of that part of the cosmos.) As for the head, it shows many characteristics of the Classic Maya Sun God: the large “eagle eyes,” possibly crossed (pupils closer to the nose), and a polished mirror-like element in the forehead. Notably, this is the first datable monument at Machaquila, and Andrés Ciudad Real and colleagues have wondered if this carving came just after the movement of the Machaquila dynasty from another location on the Pasión river to the southwest (Ciudad Ruiz et al. 2013:77). The ruler of this time was one Sihyaj K’in Chahk, or Chahk [being] Born from the Sun, a fact inferred from a statement of parentage on the all-glyphic Stela 11 at Machaquila (Graham 1967:fig. 63). Stela 11 dates 30 years after Stela 13, and the reference to this individual by a sequent ruler fits the chronology. That this ruler was “born” from an entity highlighted on the carving is unlikely to be a coincidence. Stela 11 faces west, so viewers would see the Sun God rising from the east, framed above the sky and the floating image, doubtless a portrait, of the current ruler. Much like Chahk, his namesake, the king grasps an axe. He evidently hovered above or was about to land on the firmament of Machaquila itself.

Figure 1. Machaquila Stela 13 (Graham 1967:figs. 66, 67).

A superb visualization by Andrés Ciudad Ruiz and colleagues reveals the setting of Stela 13  (Figure 2). To the west is a sunken quatrefoil, found on excavation to contain incensario fragments, whistles, and other ceremonial artifacts (Cuidad Ruiz et al. 2010:133–141). As Stuart and Houston noted long ago, this quatrefoil matches the place name of Machaquila (Stuart and Houston 1994:33, fig. 37). On another carving, Stela 10, Chahk looks up from that quatrefoil, in the face-up position assumed by newborns (Graham 1967:fig. 60). This could be another allusion to the first-known ruler at the city, a figure whose very name refers to birth (sihyaj). We do not know for certain, but the quatrefoil could have been basin that filled with water; after all, its excavators note that it was probably plastered at one time, an effective means of keeping water in place (Ciudad Ruiz et al. 2010:133). Behind Stela 13 is an arrangement of two buildings, Structures 17 and 16, numbered from north to south. The cleft between them aligns closely with the top of Stela 13.

Figure 2. Central Machaquila, showing Plaza A, Altar 4, Stela 13, and Structures 16 and 17 (reconfigured and emended from Ciudad Ruiz et al. 2012:figs. 6, 8).

 

This is where the Sun God’s head comes into play. It was not just a deity above a sky band but possibly a gnonom, in the narrow sense of a vertical device used to cast shadows. The sun would rise between the buildings behind the stela, and the shadow of the head thereby reach to quatrefoil in the plaza. For its part, the head would be surrounded by an aureole of light in the early morning. In a straight line from there to the other side of the plaza was a stone model of a cosmic turtle: Altar 4, a conventional representation of the terrestrial world (Graham 1967:92–95, figs. 71–74). The carvings and plaza must have been planned with this alignment in mind. As a sequence of carvings and hollows, Plaza A at Machaquila enchained the sun, time, water, and the earth’s rocky surface (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Map by Ian Graham, with emendations, of Stela 13 in relation to the mythic turtle, Altar A; the sunken quatrefoil lies in between (Graham 1967:fig. 42, with emendations).

 

The shape of Stela 13 has parallels in other sites that are relatively close by. Stela with such everted “tangs” are also documented at the related site of Cancuen, Guatemala, where the Machaquila Emblem is attested in joint use with another, more local title. That second Emblem might have first been used at Tres Islas, a small settlement between the two, larger communities of Machaquila and Cancuen. It was also a place evincing close attention to solar alignments. The three Early Classic stelae at Tres Islas clearly form a single composite image of a central figure over a cave with an ancestral female (Stela 2), flanked by two figures in the dress of Teotihuacan warriors (Stelae 1 and 3); the layout in turn evokes the composition and content of the front and sides of Tikal Stela 31, with the main difference being the separation at Tres Islas of one overall image into  three separate carvings. More to the point, the stelae at Tres Islas have been credibly tied to solar alignments (Barrios and Quintanilla 2008: 215–217; Tomasic et al. 2005:392–396). A viewing point from an altar just to the west would look east to the stelae. Behind them, the sun would rise at “true” east for the central stelae, at the equinoxes (or quarter year) for the other two.

At Cancuen, the tanged sculptures include Stelae 1 and 2 (both carved), and Stelae 5 and 8 (both “plain” or unadorned, Tourtellot et al. 1978:227–231). In all cases, these carvings were oriented with one side to the east, another to the west (Maler 1908:fig. 8; Morley 1937:pl. 196b; but note that Gair Tourtellot and colleagues [1978:fig. 5] situated Stela 1 facing south, a fact countered by earlier sources reporting on the site before its carvings were disturbed or moved). Much like Machaquila Stela 13, the tangs on the carvings could also serve as gnomons on an east-west orientation. Indeed, according to Sylvanus Morley, who visited Cancuen in 1915, Stelae 1 and 2 were placed in an east-west line with respect to each others (Morley 2021:230). Stela 1 has another relevant feature (Figure 4). The east side depicts a local queen, the west a later ruler of Cancuen (Maler 1908:pl. 13). Yet the stela also has two quite distinct holes made with obvious care by the sculptor(s); he (or they) visually accommodated the holes by surrounding them with smoky volutes. In addition, there were smaller holes along the side, prompting Maler to speculate that “victims were bound …to these stelae, the sacrifice probably being usually performed with the victim in an upright position” (Maler 1908:44). Such perishable attachments are known in imagery and on Stela 1 from Ixkun, Guatemala (Houston 2016; Stuart 2014), but the main holes hint at conduits for sunlight, in ways that recall the deliberate, calibrated perforations of Chinese gnomons. In China these were arranged north-south, so the parallel cannot be exact. Yet the orientation at Cancuen suggests at least some solar motivation for the holes. At dawn or sunset light would pass through, to shine on some surface in front or behind the stelae, and perhaps on each other.

Figure 4. Cancuen Stela 1, east and west (viewer’s left and right respectively, Maler 1908:pl. 13).

 

The suggestion that the Sun God head at Machaquila, the “tangs” at Cancuen, or the perforations on Stela 1 at that site operated as gnomons for light and shadow accords with their position, orientation, and imagery, especially at Machaquila. If gnomons, they could have been performative, even providing a kind of cosmic theater, but the play of light perhaps helped with observations too. A careful study of them is impeded by looting and displacement of carvings; many monuments are no longer in their original position. Nonetheless, it seems possible that, at sites far beyond Machaquila and Cancuen, the Maya choreographed and manipulated beams and shadows from the sun. Stelae were freestanding, yet, by such displays, in ways not yet fully studied or understood, they interacted with spaces and surfaces nearby.

[1] In a recent email, Walter Witschey, a Mayanist colleague, informs me that, for a time, he held the record for the largest analemmatic (graduated scale) sundial ever made: “for size (1/3 acre)[,] gnomon height (25′)[,] and accuracy (30 sec midday and 5 sec early morning and late afternoon).” Clearly, this is not an exhausted skill or art form. After this was first posted, Kristin Landau also drew my attention to an intriguing paper on Copan Stela D as a possible gnomon (Pineda de Carías et al. 2017). 

References

Anderson, Neal S. 1981 The Solar Observatory at Xochicalco and the Maya Farmer’s Almanac. Archaeoastronomy 4(2):22–25.

Aveni, Anthony F. 2003. Archaeoastronomy in the Ancient Americas. Journal of Archaeological Research 11(2):149–191

Aylesworth, Grant R. 2015. E-Group Arrangements. In Handbook of Archaeoastronomy and Ethnohistory, edited by Clive L. N. Ruggles, pp. 783–791. New York: Springer.

Barrios, Edy, and Claudia Quintanilla. 2008. Tres Islas: Un pequeño centro de comercio de las Tierras Bajas en el río Pasión, Sayaxche, Petén. In XXI Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala, 2007, edited by Juan Pedro Laporte, Bárbara Arroyo, and Héctor Mejía, pp. 214–238. Guatemala CityÑ Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología.

Ciudad Ruiz, Andrés, Alfonso Lacadena García-Gallo, Jesús Adánez Pavón, and Ma. Josefa Iglesias Ponce de León. 2010. Espacialidad y ritual en Machaquilá, Petén, Guatemala. In El ritual en el mundo maya: de lo privado a lo público, edited by Andrés Ciudad Ruiz, Ma. J. Iglesias Ponce de Léon, and Miguel Sorroche Cuerva, pp. 129–151. Madrid: Sociedad Española de Estudios Mayas-Grupo de Investigación, Andalucía-América-Centro Peninsular en Humanidades y Ciencias Socials, UNAM.

——. 2013. Crisis y supervivencia en Machaquilá, Petén, Guatemala. In Millenary Maya Societies: Past Crises and Resilience, edited by M.-Charlotte Arnauld and Alain Breton, pp. 73–91 (on Mesoweb).

Dash, Glen. 2017. Occam’s Egyptian Razor: The Equinox and the Alignment of the Pyramids. Journal of Ancient Egyptian Architecture 2:1–8.

Espinasa-Pereña, Ramón and Ruth Diamant. 2012. Possible Use of a Lava Tube as a Zenithal Observatory Near Cantona Archaeological Site, Puebla, Mexico. Latin American Antiquity 23(4):585–596.

Isler, Martin. 1991. The Gnomon in Egyptian Antiquity. Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 28:155–185.

Graham, Ian. 1967. Archaeological Explorations in El Peten, Guatemala. Middle American Research Institute, Publication 33, New Orleans: Tulane University.

Houston, Stephen. 2016. Maya Stelae and Multi-Media. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography.

Li, Yong, and Xiao-Chun Sun. 2009. Gnomon Shadow Lengths Recorded in the Zhoubi Suanjing: The Earliest Meridian observations in China? Research in Astronomy and Astrophysics 9(12):1377–1386.

Maler, Teobert. 1908. Explorations of the Upper Usumatsintla and Adjacent Region: Altar de Sacrificios; Seibal; Itsimté-Sácluk; Cankuen. Reports of Explorations for the Museum, Memoirs 4(1). Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.

Morley, Sylvanus G. 1937. The Inscriptions of Peten, Volume V, Part 2, Plates. Publication 437. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington.

——. 2021. The Archaeological Field Diaries of Sylvanus Griswold Morley, 1914–1916, edited by Prudence M. Rice and Christopher Ward, Mesoweb.

Pineda de Carías, María C., Nohemy L. Rivera, and Cristina M. Argueta. 2017. Stela D: A Sundial at Copan, Honduras. Ancient Mesoamerica 28(2):543-557. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0956536116000286

Stuart, David. 2014. Notes on a Sacrifice Scene. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography.

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

Tate, Carolyn E. 1992. Yaxchilan: The Design of a Maya Ceremonial City. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Tomasic, John, Claudia Quintanilla, and Edy Barrios. 2005. Excavaciones en el sitio arqueológico Tres Islas, Río Pasión, Petén. In XVIII Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala, 2004, edited by Juan Pedro Laporte, Bárbara Arroyo, and Héctor Mejía, pp. 403–412. Guatemala: Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología.

Tourtellot, Gair, III, Jeremy A. Sabloff, and Robert Sharick. 1978. A Reconnaissance of Cancuen. In Excavations at Seibal, Department of Peten, Guatemala, edited by Gordon R. Willey, pp. 191–240. Memoirs 14(2). Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University,

Yano, Michio. 1986. Knowledge of Astronomy in Sanskrit Texts of Architecture (Orientation Methods in the Īśānaśivagurudevapaddhati). Indo-Iranian Journal 29(1):17–29.

Zaro, Gregory, and Jon C. Lohse. 2005 Agricultural Rhythms and Rituals: Maya Solar Observation in Hinterland Blue Creek, Northwestern Belize. Latin American Antiquity 16(1):81–98.

Captains of the Team

Stephen Houston (Brown University) and David Stuart (University of Texas, Austin)

 

Sporting events are much in mind these days, as we watch the end of the Tokyo Olympics. There is exhaustive training that leads to heartbreak or a medal and coveted position on the podium. But it is the team events that crowd with social drama, including athletes who languish on the bench and others, the captains, who toss the coin, lead the charge, and argue with referees. Not surprisingly — there is much money and prestige involved — scholars of sports give occasional thought to who might be chosen captain. The tasks are heavy, and selection cannot be undertaken lightly (Cotterill and Cheetham 2016), yet bonds of affection and kinship, a mistaken evaluation of someone for leadership, tend to operate more often than not (Fransen et al. 2019). The wrong person is put in charge, bungles things, and is kept there only by social pressures. Yet prowess comes into play as well. Leadership might be bestowed, as in soccer, on stars who manage better than others to dribble around opponents and land a shot, or, in the sports that involve horses, bring a team of them past the finish mark. Many dead Romans are forgotten, but not so Gaius Appuleius Diocles, who, in the early 2nd century AD, raced his chariot to many victories and a fortune greater than that of many Roman senators (Bell 2014:498; Struck 2010). A cunning and aggressive competitor, Diocles might lead from the beginning of the race (occupavit et vicit), dart around in the final moments (eripuit et vicit) or accelerate from far behind to swift victory (successit et vicit; Devitt 2019:186 fn.488).

For Maya ballplay, there is growing awareness of how big rubber balls might be — very big, as pointed out by Michael Coe (2003) — and the various acts by which they were thrown, yahlaj or possibly tz’ohnaj(?) being two such motions (see Beliaev and Houston 2020:fn.1; Stuart 1997; for an alternative reading of the second as jatz’naj, see Taube and Zender 2009:202–203, fig. 7.24; Zender 2004). There may even be an expression for the kneeling that takes place when a player is about to strike a ball, as on the Colonia La Esperanza marker from Chiapas, Mexico (Figure 1, Kowalski 1989:22fn.1). The text reads u-BAAH ta-OCH-K’AHK’ ta-ke-hi-na?, u baah ta ochk’ahk’ ta kehiin?, “his image/body in [the act] of fire-entering, in [the act] of… That final element recalls colonial Tzoztil, kejan ba, “bow, kneel” and kejel, “to be kneeling,” along with kehi, “kneel,” kehleh, “kneeling,” and kehuh, “genuflect” in present-day Tzotzil (Laughlin 1975:171; 1988, I:22); for its part, Tzetal has kejaj, “kneel,” and kejel, “kneeling” (Berlin and Kaufman 1997:35). The ballplayer is both dedicating the marker (or its court[?]) through the ritual of och-k’ahk’, “fire-entering” (Stuart 1998:387–389), and referring to the kneeling shown on the stone.

Figure 1 Colonia La Esperanza Ballcourt Marker (right, cropped photograph by Wolfgang Sauber, Creative Commons; close-up, lower center, photograph by Stephen Houston).

An important essay by Karl Taube and Marc Zender (2009) details the many acts of violence that took place in Maya ballcourts. An equally useful essay by Christophe Helmke and colleagues (2018) studies the equipment for the game. As scholars have long noted, a divide appears to exist in such gear. To one side are perishable originals, including the apparent “yoke” (yugo) or hip-protector found by chance as a cavity left by decay in the fine matrix of Burial 195 — this was the probable tomb of “Animal Skull” (K’inich Wawa’n[?] Ahk Bahlam) at Tikal, Guatemala (Guillemin 1968; Moholy-Nagy, with Coe 2008:66, fig. 231b, #12U-106/27; its plaster and gesso would lighten weight but presumably also flake and crack under vigorous use). Then there are the skeuomorphs, the imperishable versions in stone of which several have been found at Maya sites (Cruz Romero 2012; Shook and Marquis 1996:27–59). The “yuguitos” or “small yugos,” for example, appear to reproduce the knee pads worn by players while kneeling. If used, however, they would quite smash, in patellar agony, the body part they were supposed to protect (Helmke et al. 2018:12–13, fig. 6). There is a proposal that stones were worn but in slower ritual movement, in evocations of actual ballplay but without its actual, herky-jerky violence (for debates on wearability, see Alegría 1951:349; Clune 1963; Ekholm 1946, 1961). Gordon Ekholm notes that, despite their 18 to 27 kilo weight, many yokes might be worn around the hips provided the user were “not an exceptionally large person and still retains a certain athletic slimness… [of] non-civilized peoples” (Ekholm 1946:596). The most fetching illustration of this comes from an article by Stephan De Borhegyi, which shows a suitably slim man and woman — the author and his wife, Suzanne? — decked out in such gear (Figure 2).

Figure 2 Stone yokes and manopolas (saps) in use, in photographs from 1948 (a) and 1959 (b); equipment from El Baúl, Guatemala (De Borhegyi 1964:fig. 1).

Looking at all ballgear is beyond the reach of a blog. But a glyphically embellished find from the site of Bolonk’in, not far from Chilón, Chiapas, raises the question of what to call the yoke (Figure 3, Shesheña and Lee Whiting 2004; the image, although missing a few glyphs, such as a 7 Imix day sign, is beautifully redrawn in Helmke et al. 2018:fig. 5). The shell glyphs on the yoke were inlaid (Shesheña and Lee Whiting 2004:fig. 1) and leave little doubt, as others have explained, that this is a name-tagged object belonging to the subordinate of a ruler of Tonina, Mexico (Helmke et al. 2018:11–12). The key element is the first glyph block in the text below. On the basis of a recent decipherment, it must read u-ya’-tuun, not u-tun-‘a or some other possibility (see Grube 2020:fig. 7). A proposal by Stuart, YA’ or ya’, is securely tied to concepts of “pain” in some readings, and this meaning seems valid in many contexts (Beliaev and Houston 2020; see also Grube 2020). But Maya glyphs also employ homophones. That principle of substitution may operate here.

Figure 3. Text of shells on a yugo reputed to be from Bolonk’in, Chiapas, Mexico; u-[YA’]- ‘a-TUUN-ni ya-ja-K’UH-na ya-AJAW-TE’ pi-tzi-la K’INICH-CHAPAAT-BAAKNAL-CHAHK (drawing by Christopher Helmke [Helmke et al. 2018:fig. 5).

A perusal of Mayan dictionaries reveals an entry of *jol ya’ for “cadera” or hip in Ch’ol (Aulie and Aulie 1998:121; see also b’äkel ya’ “cadera” in Hopkins et al. 2010:15). The use of “head” (jol) to preface body parts, or rather, parts of body parts, occurs in Ch’orti’ as well: jor-b’aker, “hip,” and jor-pik, “waistband area of a skirt” (Hull 2016:178). The term ya’ for “hip” is probably also documented as ‘o’il, “hip” in Tzotzil, a language with well-attested variance between /a/ and /o/ phonemes (Laughlin 1975:452), and in Ch’ol terms for “thigh,” i ya’ (Warkentin and Scott 1980:116), and a,”muscle/thigh” in Ch’olti’ (Robertson et al. 2010:331). Thus, the term on the yoke is not “pain” but “hip”—indeed, a “hip-stone,” as shown in De Borhegyi’s playful image.

The reading opens many possibilities. An issue with reading ya’ as “pain” is that objects were clearly involved in a number of texts. There were things taken or received, ch’am, or, in one instance, name-tagged to a long-decayed backing (Beliaev and Houston 2020:figs. 4c, d). The exquisite shells from Piedras Negras offer a test-case of this. Found by Héctor Escobedo in the first days of a multi-year project with Houston, these proved eventually to come from the tomb of a ruler at the city, Itzam K’an Ahk, a.k.a. “Ruler 4” in the ordering of Tatiana Proskouriakoff (Figure 4, Escobedo 2004:279). Further study of these shells led to the realization that they mentioned Yopaat Bahlam, the “missing” king of Yaxchilan who was recorded on Panel 3 at Piedras Negras (Martin and Grube 2008:149; Martin 2020:134). The date in the first glyph is likely 9.15.15.10.16, Jan. 3, AD 747, one of the few calendrical records for a lord otherwise erased from Yaxchilan’s official history. But it is the name tag that is relevant here, for it displays ya’ with its prefixed (and purely iconic) obsidian blade, along with a subfixed ‘a to reinforce the reading.



Figure 4. Shells from Burial 13, Structure O-13, Piedras Negras; glyph to lower right from Panel 3:J2 (drawings by Stephen Houston, photograph from the University of Pennsylvania Museum Archive, use courtesy of Jeremy Sabloff).

In the same tomb is the mosaic, also in Spondylus shell, of a ballplayer pieced together by Zac Hruby, the lithicist for the Piedras Negras Project (Figure 5). It seems plausible that the glyphs pertain to this image, and that the shells once fitted either into a perished tableau of ballplaying or, as seen enduringly in the Bolonk’in piece, a long-disappeared yoke. The ya’ simply referred to “hip” but also to the “yoke” that simulated and protected this body part. (In English, by a similar convention,”girdle” refers to the pelvis but also to an item of clothing encircling the waist.) Yopaat Bahlam came to visit Piedras Negras — did he also play there or provide a piece of ballgame gear to the local king? Or was it won as a trophy in play? It was certainly valued enough to be included in his host’s tomb.

Figure 5. Mosaic ballplayer in Spondylus shell, Burial 13, Piedras Negras, along with relevant glyphs, T’AB[yi]-YA’-‘a (photograph to left, Jorge Pérez de Lara, to right, Kenneth Garrett).

Dos Pilas, Guatemala, also has ya’ spellings that cue a concrete, portable object and affirm a link to ballplay (Figure 6). The earliest known monumental inscription at the city, Hieroglyphic Stairway 2, Center, refers to a ch’am “take, receive” event with a probable yoke at 9.10.10.16.9 4 Muluk 2 Mak, Oct. 29, AD 643. At this juncture, the local Lord, Balaj Chan K’awiil, was 18 years old and, a few years before, at 9.10.1.3.19, had been involved in some bloody event, perhaps ‘i-LOK'[yi] ti-ta-ji, taaj being a well-known term for “obsidian.” That is, he was surely mature enough for rough activity. The text referring to the yoke is partly eroded, but the reference is followed by a title string associated with “ballplay,” ba-TE’ pi-tzi (cf. Dos Pilas Hieroglyphic Stairway 4, Step IV:K1–L1). This is unlikely to be a coincidence. The other allusion to “receiving/taking a yoke” appears on Dos Pilas Hieroglyphic Stairway 1. Although an unfinished text, especially its upper riser (which may date later), the stairway adjoins this reference to a scene of ballplayers in full gear. They are evidently in some ritual in which gear is being broken out or balls unwrapped.[1] As at Piedras Negras, the juxtaposition of text and image is unlikely to have arisen by chance.

Figure 6 . Ya’ as “yoke” on two texts from Dos Pilas, one with ballplayer title (bate’ pitz), the other with ballplayer scene (top image, PARI; bottom, drawing by Stephen Houston, image from PARI).

In sum, there is evidence that YA’ functioned as a homophonic sign. In a few examples it also occurs as a title, usually of subordinate lords, even princes at court. YA’ is prefixed by BAAH or ba, doubtless for baah, “head, first.” Similar constructions occur in Maya texts, where that prefix creates a title by attaching itself to the name of an object, a flint (took’), shield (pakal), staff (te’) or throne (tz’am, Houston 2014:27–28, fig. 17). The title implies habitual service; the adjective “head” or “first” denotes salience in those duties. They apply to people in principal charge of — or most skilled at — the care or use of an object at dynastic courts. Examples in Figure 7 attest to a similar pattern with yokes. Young princes of royal houses appear to be the “Head Yoke” or “Head [Person of the] Yoke.”[2] The ballcourt ring from Oxkintok refers to the local ruler in the company of “youths” (ch’oktaak) and may then give two names in succession, concluding with baah (or ba) ya’, the “head yoke” or “head person of the yoke. The very setting points to an overt association with ballplay. The other examples hint that they too were given distinction in this sport. Perhaps the Baah Ya’ were victorious athletes or, as leaders, “captains of the team.”

 

Figure 7. “Head Yoke” as a title of princes and subordinates: Oxkintok Ballcourt Ring (left, position pZ1, García-Gallo 1992:fig. 2); Yaxchilan-area panel (upper right, photograph by Stephen Houston); and carver or owner’s tag on stone mace (photography courtesy of Justin Kerr [for shape of artifact, see Robicsek and Hales 1981:fig. 38).

[1] Dressing scenes in Maya imagery tend to be anticipatory, not about packing up afterwards; see Bonampak Room 1 and K2695, in which royalty is being prepared for dance.

[2] Marc Zender (personal communication from 2018) wonders whether there might be an implicit agentive ‘a or aj in such spellings. That is a real possibility, as hinted at in Figure 7, BAAH-‘a~AJ[YA’] by one reading. But it would not shift the general meaning here.

 

References

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Aulie, H. Wilbur, and Evelyn W. de Aulie. 1998. Diccionario Ch’ol de Tumbalá y Sabanilla, edited Emily F. Scharfe de Stairs. Mexico City: Instituto Lingüístico de Verano.

Beliaev, Dmitri, and Stephen D. Houston. 2020. A Sacrificial Sign in Maya Writing. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography. Accessed Aug. 4, 2021.

Bell, Sinclair. 2019. Roman Chariot Races: Charioteers, Factions, Spectators. In A Companion to Sport and Spectacle in Greek and Roman Antiquity, edited by Paul Christesen and Donald G. Kyle, pp. 492–504. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

Berlin, Brent, and Terrence Kaufman. 1997. Un pequeño glosario Tzeltal de Tenejapa, Chiapas, Mexico. Athens, GA: Department of Anthropology, University of Georgia.

Clune, Francis J., Jr. 1963. Borhegyi’s Interpretation of Certain Mesoamerican Objects as Ball-Game Handstones. American Antiquity 29:241–242.

De Borhegyi, Stephan F. 1964. Pre-Columbian Ball-Game Handstones: Rejoinder to Clune. American Antiquity 30:84–86.

Coe, Michael D. 2003. Another Look at the Maya Ballgame. In Il sacro e il paesaggio nell’America indigena, edited by Davide Dominici, Carolina Orsini, and Sofia Venturoli, pp. 197–204. Bologna: Cooperativa Libraria Universitaria Editrice Bologna.

Cotterril, Stewart T., and Richard Cheetham. 2016. The Experience of Captaincy in Professional Sport: The Case of Elite Professional Rugby. European Journal of Sport Science 17:2, 215–221.

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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 or idealized. Ulrich proves that large events live through small things. With scholarly attention, textiles and baskets from early America can be made to 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; but see K2695 for a vase owned by a queen— excavated at Tikal, it may depict the woman interred in this burial [Laporte and Fialko 1995:82, fn60, fig. 70]). 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. Outside of large carvings, a possession that depicts its owner is rare indeed in the Maya canon. 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.

Acknowledgements

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, may even have inspired components of samurai armor. There could be worse analogies for warriors than the carapaced truculence of beetles.

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