A Parallel Long-Reckoning between the Chilam Balam of Chumayel and a Hieroglyphic Inscription from Yaxchilan Reply

by Jorge L. Orejel (Infosys Limited)

Editor’s Note:

In 1990 Jorge Orejel, then a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, made an important contribution to Maya epigraphy with his decipherment of the “axe/comb” hieroglyph as ch’ak, “to chop” (Orejel 1990). This glyph appears in the Dresden Codex as well as in historical inscriptions where it represents a term for conquest and military defeat, as we have explored recently in the complex chronicles of warfare on Naranjo’s Stela 12. Jorge wrote his decipherment in the series Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, published by The Center for Maya Research and its later iteration, the Boundary End Archaeological Research Center. Several years ago he submitted another study on the fascinating text on Step VII of Yaxchilan’s Hieroglyphic Stairway 2, where the same ch’ak verb occurs three times in a mythological context. My father George Stuart, the editor of the RRAMW since it inception, was ill around the time Jorge submitted his second contribution, and with my dad’s passing in 2014 the paper failed to appear as part of that long-lasting series. The Research Reports may yet be re-conceived as an ongoing publication, but in many ways its function has been supplanted by other outlets, including this Maya Decipherment blog. In that spirit we here present Jorge’s paper at long last in on-line form, without further delay, appearing many years after it was first written.

I would like to thank Jorge for his infinite patience, and to Jeff Splitstoser for his hard work in getting the article formatted.

– David Stuart


Orejel, Jorge L. 1990. The “Axe/Comb” Glyph as ch’ak. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, number 31. Center for Maya Research, Washington, D.C.

Click here for A Parallel Long-Reckoning between the Chilam Balam of Chumayel and a Hieroglyphic Inscription from Yaxchilan, by Jorge L. Orejel.


Step VII of Yaxchilan Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 (Drawing by Ian Graham, Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Program, Peabody Museum, Harvard University)


Snake on a Stick

by Stephen Houston

Two things I want to unsee: an eyelash viper (Bothriechis schlegelii) coiled at face level in a low tree (Figure 1); and a “Barba Amarilla” (Bothrops atrox), an aggressive viper, slithering with shocking ease into the upper reaches of a hut (click Snake in rafter for an Amazonian parallel, ending in foul language). The forest poses many dangers, but climbing, venomous snakes induce an unease most of us would rather not feel. Sometimes it is better to forget these experiences.    

Figure 1 Eyelash viper, Cahuita, Costa Rica (photograph by Pavel Kirillov, Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0).

Not surprisingly, the Classic Maya noticed such reptiles and their alarming behavior. Indeed, there is a glyph that shows a snake looping around a horizontal bar, which, in one image (Figure 2, K3844), clearly bears a TE’ or “wood” marking: the bar is a stick, branch or beam. Another feature is that most such spellings begin with a color, “red” (chak, K3844), or “green-blue” (yax, K2752, and an unprovenanced “turtle shell” of jade, doubtless a miniature imitation of a percussive instrument; note the yu-k’e-*se, “noisemaker,” tag [see Zender 2010: 84]; cf. Dumbarton Oaks Flanged Pectoral:B4 [Fields and Tokovinine 2012: 159]). The reading is a little less clear, but, to judge from its spelling—usually by itself, once with ke, an evident syllabic reinforcement—the glyph recorded a word ending in -k.

Figure 2. Snake on a stick sign, with color designations, final example outlined in yellow (“K” photos used by permission of Justin Kerr, © Kerr Associates).

Most such spellings occur in the following sequence: a color (the attribute just mentioned) + “snake on a stick” + a mammal, ranid, even a dove? (K2572, spelling u-ku-na, like ukum?, “paloma” in Yukateko [Barrera Vásquez et al. 1980: 898–899]; for a word sign lacking a color, see K3007). The examples in Figure 3 are assembled with an argument in mind, that “snake on a stick” is not just a word sign ending in -k; it alternates with syllabic le-ke and thus carries a value of LEK. The ke on K3844 suggests this is more than a speculative proposal (note, however, that the examples in K5451 and 5722 are unlikely to cue the same historical figure). If the argument has merit, a sculptor’s name in Figure 3 would add another color, k’an, “yellow.”

Figure 3. Possible substitutions between the word sign, “snake on a stick,” and syllabic le-ke (“K” photos used by permission of Justin Kerr, © Kerr Associates; to right is a sculptor’s signature, pencil drawing by David Stuart from a looted, confiscated piece now in the Pomona Bodega, Tabasco, Mexico.)

The relevant glosses divide into two sets.

Cluster of terms for “good” and its congeners

Western Mayan  *lek “bueno” (Kaufman 2003: 203)

Ch’ol  lek, adj. “good,” “bueno” (Hopkins et al. 2011: 127)

Tzendal  lec(lek), “poseer”; lec(lek), “Hermosa cosa,” “digno” (Ara 1986: 319–320).

Tzotzil  lek, “elegant, gallantly, genteel, graceful, handsome, polished” (Laughlin 1988, I:243); lek, “good” (Laughlin 1975: 208)

Cluster of terms for “hanging over, suspended”

Ch’olti’  lechbun, “hang it, suspend it” (Robertson et al. 2010: 306)

Ch’orti’  lekb’u, transitive positional, “hang, suspend” (Hull 2016: 252); lekwan, positional, “hang over” (Hull 2016: 253)

Pokomam  lekli, participle of leka, “cosa, que esa colgada, como paño” (Feldman 2000: 231)

The first provides a more direct meaning that may attach to animals (“good,” “elegant,” “worthy”). In fact, in the 1990s, David Stuart suggested to me that the syllabic spelling of le-ke might correspond to “good” (see also Houston et al. 2009: 22, fig. 2.4; my thanks to Alexandre Tokovinine for reminding me of this citation). The second recruits a homophone suitable for graphing (“hanging over, suspended”). The terms for “hang,” “hang over” or “suspend” relate plausibly to the unnerving behavior of snakes up in trees or the roof beams of thatched homes. A final entry from a dictionary source ties lek to an actual, transverse house beam: Yukateko lekeb, “viga…el tercer poste transversal, el de más abajo que une a las tijeras” (Barrera Vásquez et al. 1980: 444). Of course, Mayan speakers often refer to a roof beam in traditional houses as the “road of the rat” (Wauchope 1938: Tables 4, 7, 9, 14). In houses, snakes ascend for a reason, to go after meals.

Yet the entry in Ch’olti’ (lechbun), along with the instability and relatively late date of the k/ch transition in Ch’olan languages (Law et al. 2014), raises another possibility. Perhaps lech was the relevant term in modern languages. In Ch’orti’, that word associates with open, snarling mouths (Hull 2016: 251), a nuance that links logically to roaring jaguars and croaking ranids. The toad or frog in K3844 (Figure 3)—or is it a turtle?—gapes noticeably.

As with most proposals for decipherment, the suggestion is now in place, awaiting further tests…and the need to forget about real snakes on sticks.


Ara, Fray Domingo de. 1986. Vocabulario de Lengua Tzeldal Según el Orden de Copanabastla. Edited by Mario Humberto Ruz. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Barrera Vásquez, Alfredo, Juan Ramón Bastarrachea, and William Brito Sansores. 1980. Diccionario Maya Cordemex. Mérida, Yucatan: Ediciones Cordemex.

Feldman, Laurence. 2000. Pokom Maya and Their Colonial Dictionaries. Report submitted to the Foundation for Mesoamerican Research, Inc.

Fields, Virginia M., and Alexandre Tokovinine. 2012. Winged Plaque. In Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks, edited by Joanne Pillsbury, Miriam Doutriaux, Reiko Ishihara-Brito, and Alexandre Tokovinine, 154–159. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Number 4. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Hopkins, Nicholas A., J. Kathryn Josserand, and Ausencio Cruz Guzmán. 2010. A Historical Dictionary of Chol (Mayan): The Lexical Sources from 1789 to 1935. Tallahassee: Jaguar Tours. http://www.famsi.org/mayawriting/dictionary/hopkins/CholDictionary2010.pdf

Houston, Stephen, Claudia Brittenham, Cassandra Mesick, Alexandre Tokovinine, and Christina Warriner. 2009. Veiled Brightness: A History of Ancient Maya Color. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Hull, Kerry. 2016. A Dictionary of Ch’orti’ Mayan-Spanish-English. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

Kaufman, Terrence, with John Justeson. 2003. A Preliminary Mayan Etymological Dictionary. Kaufman with Justeson

Laughlin, Robert M. 1975. The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of San Lorenzo Zinacantán. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

— 1988. The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of Santo Domingo Zinacantán, Volume 1, Tzotzil-English. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Law, Danny, John Robertson, Stephen Houston, Marc Zender, and David Stuart. 2014. Areal Shifts in Classic Mayan Phonology. Ancient Mesoamerica 25(2): 357–366.

Maffi, Luisa. 2002. A Tzeltal Maya Dictionary. Report submitted to the Foundation for Mesoamerican Research, Inc. http://www.famsi.org/reports/94026/94026Maffi01.pdf

Robertson, John S., Danny Law, and Robbie A. Haertel. 2010. Colonial Ch’olti’: The Seventeenth-Century Morán Manuscript. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Wauchope, Robert. 1938. Modern Maya Houses: A Study of Their Archaeological Significance. Publication 502. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Zender, Marc. 2010. The Music of Shells. In Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea, Daniel Finamore and Stephen D. Houston, 83–85. New Haven: Yale University Press.

A New Drawing of the Tablet of the Foliated Cross from Palenque 1

by David Stuart (The University of Texas at Austin)


One of my current projects is to update and prepare for publication my transcriptions and analyses of the art and inscriptions of the Cross Group temples at Palenque, Mexico. These three shrines (the Temples of the Cross, Foliated Cross and Sun) were major elements in the architectural landscape of the site, known in ancient times by the name Lakamha’. The integrated design and narratives of these temples is conveyed through a triadic framework of space and time, integrating the dynastic history of Palenque with a primordial mythology involving the so-called Palenque Triad, the deities who were the patron gods of the city. The three temples were dedicated on January 8, 692, in anticipation of the looming k’atun ending, and at a time of major political change at Palenque, in the wake of the passing of K’inich Janab Pakal. My preliminary transcriptions and analyses of the inscriptions were presented in raw form a number of years ago at the 2006 Maya Meetings at UT-Austin; the current book project will present this data in a more analytical and interpretive way, looking at architecture, landscape, art and narrative in terms of a holistic design.

As part of this project I made the decision to produce new drawings of the main Cross tablets – the first to be made in over four decades. Here I post my newish rendering of the Tablet of the Foliated Cross, the large panel placed in the back of the inner shrine of the Temple of the Foliated Cross. It is based on a variety of sources, including stunning new photographs kindly provided by Jorge Pérez de Lara. Working with these tablets over many years, it became increasingly clear to me and colleagues that earlier drawings had many subtle but important inaccuracies. Redrawing them has very time consuming, but I think worthwhile effort, given new digital rendering methods. And rather than sit on this while I very slowly churn them all out, I thought I would share it for others to use for study. I will be making corrections and tweaks (and more stipples) to this and and other drawings from time to time, so it will be updated at some point.

DSC_5434 lo res

Palenque’s Temple of the Foliated Cross in 2012 (Photograph by D. Stuart)

It’s almost imposssible to summarize the significance of this image in a few sentences, but here goes:  the tablet shows a central icon of bejeweled maize, a symbol of the deity Unen K’awiil, a personification of young maize and the most important of the three Triad gods. The corn plant is flanked by two portraits of K’inich Kaan Bahlam, Pakal’s eldest son, corresponding to important moments in his life as adult king (left) and as six-year old heir (right). The inscription links Unen K’awiil’s mythic birth with the making of his new god effigy to be housed in the temple (a rebirth of sorts), offering parallels to K’inich Kaan Bahlam’s own biography, including his own birth and accession. It’s a masterful presentation of narrative symmetry, especially when viewed in relationship to the art and texts of the two neighboring shrines.

The drawing is for free use, but please contact me for any use in publications, or if higher-res versions might be needed. Any reproductions for teaching, etc., can simply include the credit “Drawing by David Stuart.”

Back in 1977 I helped my mentor Linda Schele make corrections to her own drawings of these same beautiful tablets. Making fresh versions has taken me back to our long afternoons together in the Cross shrines 42 years ago, where I learned so much about Maya art and writing.

TFC tablet drawing

A Captive’s Story: Xub Chahk of Ucanal

by David Stuart (University of Texas at Austin)

The written history of the Classic Maya names many important war captives, most of whom are only vague to us as historical figures. Typically they appearin terse statements such as “so-and-so was captured,” with little if any historical context. For example, we know precious little about “Jeweled Skull,” the celebrated prisoner of Yaxuun Bahlam IV (Bird Jaguar IV) of Yaxchilan, nor do we know the backstory of K’awiil Mo’, the Palenque lord taken by the king of Tonina. This shouldn’t be too surprising, since many of these obscure characters were warriors or junior members of rival courts, not terribly prominent even in the records of their home communities. Exceptions come about when high kings are defeated and taken, such as the Copan ruler Waxaklajuun UBaah K’awiil, who was famously defeated in war by his Quirigua rival.

Here I point to another interesting exception, a prisoner who seems to have had an eventful life both before and after he was taken as a prisoner of war. His name was Xub Chahk (or perhaps Xuxub Chahk, “Whistling Chahk”), and he ruled at the present-day site of Ucanal during the late eighth century (Note 1). In 796 CE he was captured by the king of Yaxha, K’inich Lakamtuun, during a time of unusual political instability and warfare in the eastern Petén, spurred by the wars of an aggressive ruler of Naranjo named Itzamnaaj K’awiil. A handful of inscriptions of the period highlight these wars, especially Naranjo’s Stela 12 and the recently excavated “Komkom Vase” from Baking Pot, Belize. Xub Chahk (as we will call him) was on the losing end of the conflict with Yaxha, but from there his story continued and took on new complexity. As I will explore here, he was later displayed as a prisoner of Caracol’s king, years after his capture. Somehow he was “transferred” from one kingdom to another and perhaps even had a longer life than most war captives. Xuxub Chahk’s complex story consists of short, terse episodes of written history, and the means by which we can interpret them relies (as is usually the case) on circumstantial evidence and a good deal of reading between the lines. Nevertheless, his narrative seems unique in the annals of Classic Maya history, as a ruler of one realm who became a prisoner of two others.

Yaxha Stela 31 and the Capture of Xub Chaak

Figure 1. Front of Yaxha Stela 31. Drawing by I. Graham, Photo (replica) by D. Stuart

What we know of Xub Chahk’s story begins in 796 CE with Stela 31 of Yaxha, a Late Classic monument that was erected in that site’s Plaza E, just to the south of the impressive North Acropolis (Figure 1). The front of the stela displays a complex scene of what might be called “ritual capture,” with a richly dressed warrior-king – clearly a god-impersonator – standing above a diminutive captive who is stripped of nearly all clothing. The inscription of six glyph blocks (A1-B3) provides some key historical information about the scene (Figure 2).

The Calendar Round (CR) date is 13 Ix 2 Zac, followed by a playfully conflated spelling of the verb chuhkaj, “(he) was captured” (chu-ka-ja, with the first and third syllabic elements graphically combined). Using a date recorded on the left side of the stela (to be discussed momentarily) we can narrow down the CR date to 12 Ix 2 Zac CR date to, or August 11, 796 CE. The name of the captive comes in the following two blocks followed by what seems to be a title at B3, with a damaged glyph topped by AJAW.

Figure 2. Main caption from Yaxha’s Stela 13. Photo by D. Stuart

Inspection of the details on the original monument shows that the name is spelled xu-bu (B2) CHAHK-ki (A3), and the final glyph is surely K’AN-na-WITZ-NAL-AJAW(B3). This is the place or emblem glyph we know to be associated with the archaeological site of Ucanal, Guatemala, located approximately 22 kilometers to the south of Yaxha (first identified by Peter Mathews) (See Stuart 1987). The text on the stela’s front is therefore a simple and direct statement of a conflict with Ucanal and of Xub Chahk’s capture.

We also find two small glyphs within the scene, placed just above the head of the small captive (see Figure 1). The two glyphs are somewhat eroded but they clearly seem to constitute another Calendar Round date. Visible is the day 12 Ben and an eroded month sign that is surely one of the Sihoom months (Ch’en, Yax, Zac, and Ceh). I suspect that this msut be 12 Ben 1 Zac, exactly one day prior to the date recorded in the main caption, thus 12 Ben 1 Zac. Why would it be included here as a “secondary text”? We can speculate that the smaller date, more integral to the scene that the larger caption above, gives us the specific time of the defeat in battle, whereas his formal capture and tying-up came a day later. Whatever the case, it is interesting that the ancient historian and designer who composed this complex scene decided to differentiate the two events.

The inscribed sides of the monument begin with a Calendar Round for the Period Ending 9 Ahau 3 Ceh, which is most likely the stela’s dedication date. Some hieroglyphs are difficult to make out due to erosion and damage, but the last three on the left side, following the date, seem to record one or more ancient place names corresponding to the location of the stela. One of these locational glyphs reads hi-HIX-BIH-TUUN-ni, hix bihtuun, “Jaguar Causeway(?),” perhaps the proper name of the plaza or alternatively of the long sacbe feature running roughly north-south from Lake Yaxha towards the Maler Group. Stela 31 is located directly on this path, just to the east of the site’s massive E-Group. Several hieroglyphs on the right side of the stela are also damaged or missing, but clearly at the end we find mention of a scattering ceremony and the recognizable name of K’inich Lakamtuun, one of only a handful of historical names we can associate with Yaxha’s dynasty (Figure 3). This ruler, the last we know from Yaxha’s history, is otherwise known from his portrait on Yaxha Stela 13, dedicated a few years earlier on, and, as we will see, also through several mentions in historical texts from Naranjo and Baking Pot, Belize, where he appears as the victim of military attacks against Yaxha in the year 799 (Helmke, Hoggarth and Awe 2018:70-71). We can be sure that K’inich Lakamtuun is the victorious warrior depicted on Stela 13 a few years before this own defeat at the hands of Naranjo’s ruler.

Figure 3. The name K’inich Lakamtuun, from Yaxha Stela 13 (drawing by D. Stuart)

Stela 31 is an unusual sculpture. K’inich Lakamtuun wears a massive ornate headdress and he seems to move with a bit more dynamism than we usually see in a Maya king. His spear appears as a diagonal line running toward the prisoner, clearly indicating the moment of capture. Depictions of captives are common on stelae, of course, but such scenes of violence and defeat are exceedingly rare on the monuments of the central lowlands. Far more common are the standard portraits of kings or queens in their ritual attire, overseeing a Period Ending and from time to time accompanied by a depiction of a bound prisoner.

The scene is also highly unusual among other capture scenes in Maya art in being overtly mythologized. K’inich Lakamtuun is far more than an armed warrior; he displays the features of the Jaguar God of the Underworld, and his massive headdress looms above, replete with cosmological and ancestral imagery. The three large hieroglyphs at the very bottom of the scene emphasize the ruler’s divine attributes, stating that the capture “is the work of Chak ? Ik’ Chiwooj?,” a name that corresponds nicely with the jaguar attributes of the portrait. We can assume that this is the supernatural identity of K’inich Lakamtuun, given he is the protagonist of the stela and the side inscription.

Stela 31’s record of a war between the rulers of Yaxha and Ucanal is the first known historical connection between these two important centers of the eastern Peten. Their relationship must have been eventful over the course of the Classic period, however, given their close proximity, yet this history is largely missing due to the relative lack of legible texts at both sites, despite their importance, have very few legible inscriptions. Those of Yaxha are badly fragmented and date mostly to the Early Classic era. Of its Late Classic monuments, only Stela 13 and 31 have any legible contents and both date to the reign of our protagonist K’inich Lakamtuun. Ucunal’s surviving texts are small in number as well, and cluster more toward the Terminal Classic era, without a single identifiable mention of Yaxha. One of its prominent rulers of the Classic period was Itzamnaaj Bahlam, who would later be captured by K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Chahk of Naranjo in 701 CE; presumably he was Xub Chahk’s distant predecessor on the throne, and likely a royal ancestor.

K’inich Lakamtuun’s own personal history as a ruler of Yaxha provides a good case study of the political infighting among kingdoms in the region at the end of the eighth century. We have direct indications that he ruled at Yaxha in 793 (Stela 13) and in 796 (Stelae 31), but he was defeated by Naranjo’s king Itzamnaaj K’awiil only short time later, in 799, as recorded as part of a very complex historical narrative recounted on the back of Stela 12 of Naranjo (see Figure 6). In that inscription Yaxha is repeatedly cited as a target of attacks and conquests throughout the summer of that year, seemingly led by Itzamnaaj K’awill against his enemy K’inich Lakamtuun, who ultimately was captured on or before September 4, 799 ( 1 Ben 6 Ceh). K’inich Lakamtuun’s capture of Xub Chahk was only a short-lived victory, therefore, for he himself was forced to flee Yaxha on at least two occasions before being captured only three years later. But what was the fate of his own illustrious prisoner?

Caracol Altar 23 and the Display of Xub Chahk

Altar 23 of Caracol was dedicated on the Period Ending 10 Ahau 8 Zac (August 16, 800 CE), just shortly after the accession of the new local ruler K’inich Joy K’awiil (Figure 4). It was one of several monuments dedicated on this date, representing a time of significant political and artistic revival at the site after a number of years of relative quiet. The well-preserved sculpture presents two bound captives who each sit upon large table-like stones or “altars” in a bilateral composition, surrounded by text captions (Chase, Grube and Chase 1991:7-11). It is likely that Altar 23 itself was once such a pedestal monument, and that the carved image is self-referential, depicting two unfortunate prisoners who were separately displayed on Altar 23 as part of the celebration of the new king’s Period Ending.

Figure 4. Caracol Altar 23. Xub Chahk of Ucanal is depicted on the right. Drawing by N. Grube, A. Chase and D. Chase (from Chase, Grube and Chase 1991)

The main text of the altar is placed in a vertical band between the two prisoners, opening with a record of the 10 Ahau 8 Zac (A1-B1) or The ensuing two glyphs note that the Peried Ending is u k’altuun, (U-K’AL-TUUN) “his stone-raising,” ti tahnlamaw, “at the half-diminishing” (a half-period). The name of the ruler K’inich Joy K’awiil comes next at C1 (K’INICH-JAY-K’AWIIL-li), followed by the standard Caracol emblem title at C2 (k’uhul k’antu[?] maak). The main passage continues with a second verbal statement directly related to the scene, opening with chuhkaj, “he is captured” and a non-specific subject, simply given as U-BAK-ka, u bak, “his prisoner(s).” The owner of the captives is then given with the following three blocks as a lord named Tum Yohl K’inich (C4: tu-mu-OHL-K’INICH), accompanied by the titles “three k’atun lord” (B4) and baahkab (B5: ba-ka-ba). It is noteworthy that Tum Yohl K’inich – no longer the king at this time — lacks the distinctive Caracol emblem glyph we found earlier with K’inich Joy K’awiil. The final glyphs of the main passage tell us that the capture episode was “overseen” by K’inich Joy K’awiil (D1), who does take the emblem (D2) and an additional bahkaab title (D3). Evidently we have a complex relationship to ponder here, between the current Caracol king and another person who bears a familiar name found with several other Caracol rulers. We will return to this question momentarily.

Each of the captives is identified by name and place of origin. The short glyph caption behind the figure at left reads LEM?-TI’-BAHLAM, probably for Lem Uti’ Bahlam, “Shining is the Mouth of the Jaguar.” He also has an emblem glyph title, labelled as the k’uhul ajaw or ruler of a dynasty or place bi-TAL or BIH-TAL. No archaeological site has been ideitified as yet with the name “Bital” (as I will provisionally refer to it) but we know of three other mentions of the site, two from war records at Naranjo (see Chase, Grube and Chase 1991:9), and another from an Early Classic vessel more recently excavated in a tomb at Caracol. The place named Bital presumably exists somewhere in the area of these two sites. The caption continues with ye-te, a relationship term perhaps based on et or eht (y-et, “his companion”[?]), and then with the name we have already seen, Tum Yohl K’inich or Tutum Yohl K’inich.

Turning to the portly captive shown at the right on Altar 23, his caption reads xu-bu-cha-ki (G1) and he carries the Ucanal emblem glyph (G2: K’UH-K’AN-WITZ-NAL-AJAW). This of course repeats the prisoner’s name on Yaxha Stela 31. He again is named as the y-eht, “the companion(?) of” Tum Yohl K’inich (G3, G4). Given the proximity of the dates, the two mentions of “Xub Chahk, the Holy Lord of K’anwitznal (Ucanal)” at Yaxha and Caracol must refer to the same individual. On Stela 31 his capture by K’inich Lakamtuun was given as August 11, 796, and on Caracol Altar 23 we see him presented — and also “captured” — nearly four years later to the day, on August 16, 800.

To my knowledge this this the first attested example of one captive being portrayed as a prisoner at two sites, and it naturally raises a number of interesting questions. These center not only on Xub Chahk’s unfortunate history, but to some extent on the nature of Maya warfare and history during this turbulent period at the beginning of the Terminal Classic.

The Wars of 799

How did Xub Chahk, captured by Yaxha’s king, end up four years later on display at Caracol? As with much of Maya history this is impossible to answer through direct evidence. Apart from Stela 31 and Altar 23, no historical sources at our disposal make reference to Xub Chahk, nor do any texts fill in the blanks about his apparent “transfer” or movement from one site to another. However, it is important that we view his story in the larger historical context of those times, and specifically within the setting of wider political instabilities at the very end of the eighth century.

As we have seen, this was an era of frequent conflict and strife in the region of the eastern Petén, as especially revealed by two important sources — Stela 12 of Naranjo and the extraordinary “Komkom” Vase recently excavated at Baking Pot, Belize (Helmke, Hoggarth and Awe 2018). Stela 12’s very long text (Figure 5) focuses on a series of military engagements waged by the Naranjo king Itzamnaaj K’awiil against Yaxha (Stuart 1993:414-5), leading up to the Period Ending (Note 1). This important narrative has gained renewed attention based on fascinating parallels between it and the lengthy text on the Komkom vase, which Helmke has found to repeat much of the same historical informatiot with a slightly different “spin” and perspective (see Helmke, Hoggarth and Awe 2018:82-86). The vase was produced much later than the history its text recounts, in the early ninth century, as a record of retrospective history – perhaps as a gift or “momento” of wars in the recent past.

Figure 5. The back of Naranjo Stela 12, with two passages relating the “fleeing” of K’inich Lakamtuun. Photo by T. Maler, drawings by D. Stuart.

Stela 12’s long storyline contains a nine very closely grouped dates, beginning in February 15, 799 and leading up to the Period Ending on August 16, 800 (the same date we saw recorded on Caracol’s Altar 23). A number of war-related events such as conquest and “fleeing” are mentioned over these eighteen or so months, several involving attacks on Yaxha. The first of these occurs on 12 Cib 9 Uo, or February 18, 799, when we read of a conquest of some unknown locale named Ux K’awiil, said to be “within Yaxha” (tahn ch’een yaxa’) (see Helmke, Hoggarth and Awe 2018:68) (Figure 5b). Part of the passage is damaged, but it continues with a verb reading ahn-i “he flees” (AN-ni, using an interesting logographic variant of the more common syllabic a-ni spelling also found in this text), suggesting an event of conquest or disruption (Note 2). The subject is effaced, but given patterns later in this same text and parallel metnions on the Komkom Vase, it was surely K’inich Lakamtun who “fled” on this day (Helmke, Hoggarth and Awe 2018:70-71). An accompanying verb of movement t’ab-iiy, “goes up (to)” appears next on Stela 12, with an unclear place name and subject. Again we find a parallel on the Komkom Vase, where the a place name is preserved, spelled u-su-la, possibly for Usu’l (ibid.:71). Even these ambiguities and unclear participants, it is clear that this passage on Stela 12 features an attack on Yaxha and the displacement K’inich Lakamtuun as a result. And it is the first of several such statements, each echoing the same general pattern.

Fifty-five days later, on 2 Chuen 4 Tzec, we read:

cha’ kahji k’inich lakamtuun yaxha’ ajaw u kabjiiy(?) k’awiil mutul ajaw
He settled(?) again, K’inich Lakamtuun, the Yaxha Lord, by the doing of ?, the Mutul Lord.

This statement (not illustrated here) is important in bringing Tikal into this complex political mix, as the overseer or patron of the K’inich Lakamtuun. The main verb at the beginning of the text refers to the establishment or “founding” of ruling centers, and perhaps reads KAJ, for kaj, “start, begin, settle,” as suggested by Dimitri Belaiev (personal communication 2015). Evidently K’inich Lakamtuun had been in exile from Yaxha, perhaps having fled at the time of the initial attack recorded against Yaxha, on 12 Cib 9 Uo. This new statements suggests that he may have returned from exile after a period of 55 days, or was otherwise somehow reinstated, under the watchful eye of Tikal’s own ruler. Tikal’s role here is fascinating, for the use of the term u kabjiiy implies a hierarchical relationship as the political superior of Yaxha – a relationship that resonates also in the archaeology and architectural layout of Yaxha, with its Twin Pyramid group. And it is worth noting that around 799 CE Tikal’s own dynastic record is largely invisible. No monuments of the time appear at Tikal, so that the royal name on Stela 12, while damaged and unreadable, would have filled an important gap in the later portions of Tikal’s dynastic sequence.

Stela 12 continues by noting that 91 days after K’inich Lakamtuun’s possible re-enstatement at Yaxha he was again attacked by Narnajo on 2 Ik 15 Ch’en ( 5c). The verb has the numerical adverb cha’, “two,” or “again,” and his destination is different, though unclear. The first glyphs of the passage read:

2-CH’AK-ja YAX-a a-ni K’INICH-LAKAM(TUUN)-ni T’AB-yi ya-?-?
cha’ ch’ahkaj yaxha ahni k’inich lakamtuun
“Again Yaxha was attacked and K’inich Lakamtuun fled”

As Helmke, Hoggarth and Awe (2018:69) note, a parallel episode is recorded on the Komkom vase, coming four days later on 6 Ik 19 Ch’en. On this day K’inich Lakamtuun (with a misspelled name) was the victim of an attack. The common phrasing and circumstances suggests that this must refer to the same overall episode as recorded on Stela 12, although on a slightly different historical time-frame.

K’inich Lakamtuun’s fate gets worse, as we continue to read the account on Stela 12. On 1 Ben 6 Ceh he falls victim to yet another “axe” event, a defeat at an unknown locale when for a third time the Yaxha ruler must flee (ahn-i) to another place. Subsequent passages on Stela 12 go on to refer to the Naranjo’s sacking and taking of Yaxha’s wealth (in the final columns of the text we read y-ikaatz yaxa ajaw, “the load ([of jade] of the Yaxha lord”), an extraordinary statement regarding the material consequences of Maya warfare (Note 3).

The day 1 Ben 6 Ceh appears to represent the culmination of prolonged warfare by Naranjo against Yaxha.  In fact the same date is highlighted as a single, freestanding event in the fascinating inscription on Naranjo’s Stela 35, a monument dedicated on the same Period Ending as Stela 12, but couching the conflict in more mythological terms. There war is described as a like-in-kind recurrence of a primordial “burning” of a god, or group of gods, whose names look identical to those cited on Stela 31 of Yaxha as the supernatural identities of K’inch Lakamtuun. The attack on Yaxha’s king on 1 Ben 6 Ceh involves the “axing” of a temple and the defeat of K’inich Lakamtuun’s god, clearly a historical reflection of that earlier myth. Thus Stela 12 and Stela 35, both dedicated on the same day, serve complimentary roles as historical and mythic records of warfare.

These two Naranjo texts can be analyzed in far more detail, but I need not go over them here, especially given the excellent new comparative analysis of Stela 12 by Helmke and his colleagues. Suffice it to say that Xub Chahk’s capture and subsequent “transfer” must be understood in terms these unusually detailed records of conflict in the year 799, when his own captor was constantly on the run across the eastern Peten.

The attacks against Yaxha by Naranjo’s king in the 790s apparently involved some degree of inter-familial strife, given the close dynastic connections between the two centers. Several mentions of Itzamnaaj K’awiil’s mother in the texts of Naranjo refer to her with the royal title Ix Yaxa’ Ajaw, “The Noblewoman of Yaxha,” revealing that she was married into the Naranjo dynasty as the wife of Itzamnaaj K’awiil’s father, K’ahk’ Kalaw Chan Chahk. Itzamnaaj K’awiil’s wars were therefore against his mother’s home community, and presumably against some fairly close relatives, who might have included K’inich Lakamtuun himself. And the conflicted connections between these two neighboring centers appear to have run very deep. Earlier in Naranjo’s history we read of another conquest or defeat of Yaxha on 8 Etznab 16 Uo (March 20, 710), given as the Initial Series date on the side of Naranjo, Stela 23. The young king K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Chahk, the grandfather of Itzamnaaj K’awiil, was the agent of this war. That was a particularly destructive episode, involving the “burning” of the city of Yaxha (its “cave,” ch’een) and the opening and defilement of the tomb of its deceased king, Yax Bolon Chahk. Just a few years later another Yaxha lord participated in a dance performance by K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Chahk, in 714, as recorded in the opening passage of Stela 30. The wars against Yaxha at the end of the eighth century exhibit a rupture within a complex family network that existed throughout most of the previous decades.

Xub Chahk is nowhere to be found in Naranjo’s own detailed narratives of the Naranjo-Yaxha war. Was he taken by Naranjo’s court? Or was he set free by Naranjo’s king, as an enemy of an enemy? There is no satisfactory answer at present, but we should keep in mind that Ucanal had itself once been a long-standing enemy of Naranjo, conquered, as we have seen, by Itzamnaaj K’awiill’s grandfather earlier in the seventh century. This might suggest that Xub Chahk would not have met a friendly fate at the hand of the Naranjo king when he defeated K’inich Lakamtuun. By 820 CE Naranjo’s relationship with Ucanal seems to have warmed, as indicated by the ritual visit of a subsequent Naranjo king to that site as recorded on Stela 32. In short, we can’t know the nature of political relations between Naranjo and Ucanal in 799, whether they were amicable or not.

The immediate fate of Xub Chahk is unclear, at least until he reappears at Caracol. It is surely significant that Xub Chahk’s display occurred only a very short time after the accession of its new king K’inich Joy K’awiil on 6 Muluc 2 Kayab, or December 9, 799. This came after a noticeable gap or hiatus in Caracol’s own history, and within a short time K’inich Joy K’awiil erects a number of new and ambitious monuments, evidently reviving Caracol’s dynasty, at least for a time. We know little of his own family history or genealogical connections, but one possible key in our consideration of Xub Chahk is this new Caracol ruler’s relationship to the person named Tum Yohl K’inich, the “owner” of the captives mentioned three times on Altar 23. That altar says very little regarding Tum Yohl K’inich’s status, only that he was a “three K’atun Lord” and a baahkab. It might seem natural to assume that he was the predecessor of K’inich Joy K’awiil, as Martin and Grube (2000) suggest. Significantly, his name appears also on Caracol, Altar 12, perhaps in association with 12 Ahau 8 Pax (November 29, 780). The event there seems to refer to the “return” of someone at Ucanal, apparently in the wake of the latter’s defeat by Ixkun (Note 4).

Xub Chahk’s story, framed by these complex and vague interactions between Yaxha, Naranjo and Caracol, represent an especially belligerent moment in Classic Maya history when distinct conflicts, perhaps inter-related in some way, raged over much of the southern lowlands. The wars of the eastern Peten in 799 and 800 seem unusual in their character, at least rhetorically, compared to previous time periods (some earlier Naranjo narratives do anticipate it, however) . Naranjo’s Stela 12 and the Komkom Vase illustrate this interest in the presentation what might be called “concentrated warfare,” with its remarkably detailed narrative presentation, containing numerous dates and episodes of war spanning a remarkably short span of time. Of the ten dates recorded in Stela 12’s inscription, eight are concerned with the narrative of the Yaxha conflict and the ultimate victory over the desperate K’inich Lakamtuun. The similarly unfortunate Xub Chahk was an unwilling companion in the content movements of his captor.

Here it is also important to recall how Stela 31’s scene of violent, mythologized capture also falls well outside of the local traditions of stela design and thematic content. Before 800 or so, such overt images of war are virtually non-existent in Yaxha’s own monuments, nor are they very present in the overall artistic traditions of monument production in the central Petén. Such active depictions of capture simply don’t exist at Tikal, Uaxactun, Naranjo, and nearby centers. They are of course more standard in sculptures of the Usumacinata region, where reminiscent scenes of violent encounters occur at the centers of Dos Caobas (a regional vassal of Yaxchilan) and Moral-Reforma, also in the western region. Yaxha’s Stela 31 may possibly reflect some influences from western modes of sculpture, and at the very least represents an important departure in subject matter, much in the same way as the narrative presentation of war seems different and more intensified in the case of Stela 12, dating to just a few years later.


This lengthy note shines a spotlight on a curious group of events from Maya history when a prominent captive seems to have been kept and displayed at two different centers within the span of a few short years. The political context of Xub Chahk’s capture and transfer remains murky, despite the detailed war records references that come from his time. That his troubled captor was “on the run” during this time is surely part of that larger story, and may well account for Xub Chahk’s own curious movement and displacement. His situation was not unique, perhaps, but it represents a previously under-reported aspect of captives and prisoners in Maya history – that even as prisoners of war, they could have their own complex stories and biographies.


Note 1. Stela 12’s narrative has been studied by several epigraphers since my first notes on its connections to Yaxha in 1993. Most important are Helmke’s excellent consideration of its close parallels with the Komkom Vase, as well as the detailed reading of the texts presented in Beliaev and de Leon (2016:50-60). All of these studies have reached similar conclusions about the inscription’s historical content.

Note 2. The syllabic reading a-ni for ahn-i, “he ran, fled,” was first suggested to me by Stephen Houston in the late 1990s, in connection with its occurrence in the painted cave text of Yaleletsemen, Chiapas. The logographic form showing two legs and a lower torso was first identified by Alfonso Lacadena.

Note 3. In my previous brief study of Stela 12 (in Stuart 1993) I suggested that the mention of y-ikaatz on Stela 12 pertained to bundles of tribute paid by Yaxha as a consequence of its defeat. However, Dmitri Beliaev has shown me (personal communication 2019) that the verbal statement associated with the term is likely baak-w-aj, an alternate term for “capture” that indicates that the bundles were considered war booty.

Note 4. Ucanal’s own history during the Late Classic is extremely patchy, but it seems to have been regularly venerable to military attacks during the eighth century. According to the text on Ixkun, Stela 2, Ucanal (K’anwitznal) was “burned” on 2 Kan 12 Pop, or December 19, 779. This is probably a statement of military defeat, although the possibility ought to be considered that this also refers to a ceremonial fire of some sort being lit at K’anwitznal. This event came fifty days after Ixkun itself was burned by a ruler of Ucanal, probably indicating a military tit-for-tat between these centers (see Carter 2016). All of this came two decades before Ucanal’s defeat at the hands of Yaxha. The date of Ucanal’s possible defeat in 799 came less than a year before the (780) Period Ending recorded as a retrospective date on Caracol, Altar 10, when Tum Yohl K’inich was involved in some sort of noteworthy ceremony at Ucanal. We must wonder therefore if Caracol was somehow indirectly involved in Ucanal’s “burning” in 779. We find no mention of Xub Chahk being present at Ucanal in connection with the events of 779 and 780, perhaps because he was not yet an adult actor.

Sources Cited

Beliaev, Dmitri, and Mónica de Leon. 2016. Informe Técnico de Piezas Arqueológicas del Museo Nacional de Arqueología e Etnología. Proyecto Atlas Epigráfico de Peten, Fase III. Centro de Estudios Yuri Knorosov, Guatemala.

Carter, Nicholas P. 2016. These are are Mountains Now: Statecraft and the Foundation of a Late Classic Maya Court. Ancient Mesoamerica 27: 233-253.

Chase, Arlen F., Nikolai Grube and Diane Z. Chase. 1991. Three Terminal Classic Monuments from Caracol, Belize. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, no. 36. Center for Maya Research, Washington, D.C.

Helmke, Christophe, Julie Hogarth and Jaime Awe. 2018. A Reading of the Komkom Vase Discovered at Baking Pot Belize. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press Monograph 3. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2000. The Chronicle of Maya Kings and Queens. Thanks and Hudson, New York.

Stuart, David. 1993. Historical Inscriptions and the Maya Collapse. In Lowland Maya Civilization in the Eighth Century A.D., edited by Jeremy A. Sabloff and John S. Henderson, pp. 321-354. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C.

Watery War

by Stephen Houston

For Héctor Escobedo Ayala, my friend of decades  

Violence and water do not mix. Weighted down by armor, the Emperor Frederick I drowned in the Göksu river on his way to the Holy Land. A similar drama enfolded the American G.I.s landing on Omaha Beach. Dodging bullets, the soldiers sank, choking, under heavy packs. “[F]loating in the water… they didn’t know they were in the water, for they were dead” (Pyle 1986:280).

Rimmed by seas, living along rivers and streams, the Classic Maya must have fought in this way. Yet the evidence is surprisingly thin and late. There is a gold disk from the Cenote of Sacrifice at Chichen Itza that shows warriors on canoes, others on plank-like craft, a naked figure floating belly-down between them (Lothrop 1952: 51, fig. 35; see also the linked port of Isla Cerritos, Yucatan, an island endowed with a seawall, Andrews et al. 1988; Clark 2015: fig. 3.4). Murals from the Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itza supplement that scene with an array of canoes—the warriors’ shields just visible in surviving paint—and a single, light-haired figure floating in water: his legs splay out as intestinal gases bloat the body (Figure 1). The jade beads in the hair recall an earlier image, from the early eighth-century AD, of a captive incised on a bone found in Burial 116 at Tikal. That figure is at once humiliated and beautified (Moholy-Nagy 2008: fig. 200a, c). By common Maya convention, he anticipates his defeat by appearing, dressed for failure, in sacrificial garb.


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Figure 1. Floating captives and war canoes (renderings by Jean Charlot; Morris et al. 1931: pls. 145 [left], 147 [right]). 


In the murals, the captives’ hair is blond. This may be less from Viking blood—an actual suggestion by fantasists (Vikings at Chichen)—than because it has been bleached for the Sun God, a figure with the same color of hair (Ishihara-Brito and Taube 2012:466). Perhaps the captives were intended for his eventual consumption or they came from the east, a direction associated with the deity; or, to make a final stab at an insoluble puzzle, their hair signaled some unknown ethnic distinction. In paintings at Chichen Itza, bodies and canoes alternate with a rich, ethno-classification of sea life, including turtles, mollusks, crustaceans, and fish, one stingray extending its barbed spine (Finamore and Houston 2010: pl. 69).

In the so-called “Codex-style” images on Classic ceramics, there are images of the maize god in surging, unsettled water up to his chest (K1333, 1338, 1343, 1346, 1365, 1366, 1395, 1489, 1562, 2011, 2096, 3428, 4117, 5002, 8201; also Robicsek and Hales 1981: 70–74). He is met by mythic warriors and, to his back, figures holding the tokens of royal tribute. These remain an enigma, relatable, presumably, to some agricultural trope or even the seasonal timing of war. Yet, in the Maya region generally, with local variations, rainy seasons do not correspond to an increased incidence of conflict in the historical record. Indeed, quite the opposite seems to be true, from glyphic evidence in the form of secure dates and practical considerations of movement and manpower (Simon Martin, personal communications, 2014, 2019, and in work soon to appear). The pots are also without provenance (for an exception, see García Barrios 2011: 85–86, fig. 11) and, with a few exceptions, retouched by restorers. Reliable examples (Robicsek and Hales 1981: Vessels 95, 98, 99) vary in their glyphic dates (1 Ik 15 Sak in one example [Vessel 98], 7 Ajaw 2 K’ayab in another [Vessel 95]). One names an assailant as the “great youth” (Chak Xib [Vessel 98]), and the event itself is described as a “chop-water” (CH’AK?-?-HA’ [Vessel 95]). Some ferocity, it seems, fell directly on the liquid. In a number of images, the warriors’ line of sight inclines to the water, not to other figures.

A vessel from northern Guatemala provides unexpected evidence. It also obeys Houston’s First Law of Epigraphy: “glyphs thought necessary for decisive interpretation shall be eroded or missing.” (Even less cheery than the Runologists’ “for every text there shall be 20 specialists with 21 different views.”) There are two images, both provided by the ever-generous Justin Kerr. One is in color, the other black and white. Blessedly, the latter is unretouched, heightening confidence in details (Figures 2 and 3).


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Figure 2. Watery conflict, in color, retouched surface (K8592, © Kerr Associates).


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Figure 3. Watery conflict, unretouched surface (K8592, © Kerr Associates).


The slightly corpulent or full bodies, figural dynamism, long eyelashes, and stylistic range of the mid- to late-eighth-century AD indicate a probable origin in the Ik’ kingdom of western Lake Peten Itza and areas just to the west (Just 2012: figs. 93–96, 141–144, pls. 6, 16, 17). A closer match, with a similar dark rim that contains asterisms, was excavated by Takeshi Inomata in Str. M7–35 at Aguateca, Guatemala (Inomata 1997: fig. 15). Equipped with named, courtly figures, that vessel must date to the final half or quarter of the eighth-century AD.

Despite the erosion—looters or low-end dealers tend to over-clean sherds—the scene is almost certainly historical. There is a Calendar Round (possibly 10 *Chuwen 14 ‘Color Month’), but that is less telling then the absence of any mythic figures. Instead, there are warriors with body paint and two captives with matted and disheveled hair. Two glyphic captions, each highlighted by an almost pink hue, tag figures in the scene. One identifies the warrior at the prow of a canoe, poised to strike with his atlatl: the crooked spur is fully evident (Figure 4; Simon Martin, personal communication, 2019). The tag may also refer to a second warrior in the water, just off the prow, but flaked paint makes this difficult to resolve.


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Figure 4. Atlatl with dart, close-up, unretouched surface (K8592, © Kerr Associates).


The other caption is more securely tethered. It applies to a captive who is up to his thighs in the lake, stream or river below the canoe (Figure 5). A warrior pins his arms back. Another, more important figure grasps his hair in the standard chuk, ‘seize, grab’, pose. Presumably, he was responsible for the capture. He may also have jabbed or pummeled the captive in the face, for blood spills out in copious flow. Enticed, a crocodile and a turtle with k’an sign swim close to this possible meal. (The k’an and size of the chelydrid suggest he is the daunting snapper turtle, a creature found by David Stuart in many royal names.) In the canoe, another captive cowers. Perhaps he has just been hoisted onboard. A bare-headed figure holds a spear in one hand and gestures with the other. Was this intended to still or reassure the captive? An unlikely outcome. Looking away, a standing warrior paddles the boat into position.


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Figure 5. A turtle paddles close to the captive’s blood, close-up, unretouched surface (K8592, © Kerr Associates).


The similarity is obvious to the battle scene in Room 2 of the mural building in Bonampak, Mexico. Asterisms perch above that dark tableau of violent conflict. There are body blows, trampled warriors, trumpets, and, at the end, a human harvest of captives (Miller and Brittenham 2013: 105–106); in Room 2, the darkened solar disks above may correspond to eclipses, a dire omen. The night-time scene on the vessel from Aguateca—a jaunty figure smoking a cigarillo cues the time of day (Inomata 1997: fig. 15, right)—had star signs too. The eroded vase goes one better with a scorpion whose back carries a direct analogue to scorpion asterisms at Cacaxtla, Mexico, Copan, Honduras, and elsewhere (Brittenham 2015: 99–104, fig. 138; Fash 2011: 167). The flaming snouts hint at the passage of comets or meteors, a smoking asterism found in the skyband on Piedras Negras Stela 11 (David Stuart, personal communication, 1998; Stuart and Graham 2003: 57).


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Figure 6. Celestial scorpion with star sign on its body, close-up, unretouched surface (K8592, © Kerr Associates).


The text is illegible and its participants unknown. In all likelihood, the setting was some watery part of Peten, Guatemala, in the later eighth-century AD, and possibly within or near the Ik’ kingdom. But the overall image, an historical battle in and on water, is unique for the Classic Maya.

Karl Taube raises another possibility, that the captives were thrown into the water for sacrificial spearing (personal communication, 2019). They did not so much “sleep with the fishes,” in Mafia argot, as feed them. The captive in the boat cowers because he is next in line. This grim alternative has a certain plausibility given the presence of what may be sacrificial pools in some royal courts (Barrientos Quezada 2014: 604–619). At Cancuen, Guatemala, one such basin, with a step-in and stairways to facilitate use, contained at least 38 bodies; another, to the north of the site, had at least 15 (Barrientos Quezada 2014: 616, 619). Most bones exhibited trauma by unspecified “sharp instruments” (Barrientos Quezada 2014: 617). The excavators have interpreted this as a massacre, but a sacrificial pool, fed by springs—and perhaps equipped with ravenous creatures—adds a vivid if unpleasant ritual to Classic Maya practice. Blood spreads quickly in water, and, in links to agricultural or seasonal rituals, similar trauma may have awaited captives in flooded ballcourts or other sacred receptacles fed by natural springs (Taube 2018: 266, 282, 298). I have personally seen small crocodiles in small, temporary ruts in jungle roads, well away from lakes or streams. How on earth did they get there? Where did they come from? It would not take much for crocodiles and snappers to crawl to an inviting pool.

For the moment, perhaps, the chuk gesture on the pot, as well as the canoe and precise date, suggests a more martial interpretation—that this is a specific, datable conflict on water. But there is simply not enough text to confirm this. Yet I do think of a feature that has puzzled many Mayanists. This is a mid-river structure near Yaxchilan, built on bedrock out of carefully laid masonry and lying some meters from the western banks of the Usumacinta River (Figure 7). Roughly triangular in form, the “point” of the pier carves into the flow of water, deflecting debris and giving solidity to the whole. One theory is that the feature supported an immense suspension bridge (O’Kon 2005). I doubt this completely. The opposite bank, in Guatemala, has no such support. A visit in low water indicates that the pier, the probable base of a small platform, was more about monitoring traffic (for taxation?) and throwing atlatl darts at unwelcome visitors. In low water, spears and darts from Yaxchilan would fall short of the opposite bank. With the pier in place, a small citadel mid-stream, the weapons would hit with force. Watery war lay within reach.



Figure 7.  Likely fortification, low-water, looking southeast, Usumacinta River, Yaxchilan, with Dr. Héctor Escobedo as scale (photograph by Stephen Houston, 1995). 



Acknowledgements Justin Kerr kindly sleuthed his files for a rollout, and, as always, past and present, Simon Martin, David Stuart, Karl Taube provided useful comments. Figure 7 shows how good and patient a friend Héctor has been, including our years of adventure and mis-adventure on the Usumacinta. The martial theme is equally consistent with his distinguished family. I dedicate this essay to him.



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