Design Transfer and the Classic Maya

Stephen Houston (Brown University)

Printing designs on textiles goes far back in time. An example at the Hunan Provincial Museum in China dates to the Western Han dynasty in the 2nd century BC. Likely produced by stencil, it reveals the ease of reproducing designs in this way but also the need, in places, for hand-coloring and fussy adjustment. More than just hastening the process, it yields a pleasing consistency, an orderly repetition of pattern. But it was seldom the act of one person.

Think of a Japanese print, be it an ukiyo-e (Edo-period) or shin-hanga (Meiji and post-Meiji Japan). Despite many museum labels, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, by Hokusai, was not literally by his hand. Hokusai made the original drawing, which was destroyed when a carver attached it to a board and set to work, highlighting the original inkwork while shaving down the background. Another person, a printer, then created what we see today, building on the help of assistants of varying status, in a production supervised by a publisher who took most of the profit (Salter 2002:11, 37, 60, 64).[1] Such complexities must also have entered into textile printing at the time of Hokusai, and earlier still in China and India (Riello 2010:8-9).  

The question is, did block-printing or, more broadly, design transfer occur among the ancient Maya? Evidence of a direct sort is poor. Bark cloth, which must have been abundant, judging from implements to make it, is almost impossible to find archaeologically, although it is well-attested among groups such as the Lacandon of Chiapas, Mexico (Moholy-Nagy 2003:figs. 101-105; Soustelle 1937:60-62, pls. ID, VA, VIC; Tozzer 1907:fig. 1, 129; see also Tolstoy 1963). For their part, early Maya textiles are only preserved under exceptional circumstances. They might occur in water-logged deposits, well-aerated caves, or endure by contact with metal or as decayed impressions visible on other objects (e.g., Johnson 1954; Lothrop 1992; Morehart et al. 2004; Ordoñez 2015). This means that Maya textiles survive in limited samples, although they are frequently depicted in ways that reflect their cut, color, and kind of weave (e.g., Halperin 2016). The quantities of such cloth must have been staggering, and not just for dress, costume or sacrificial offerings. Renderings of textiles on walls at Xelha, Quintana Roo, and suspension holes for cloth at Palenque, Chiapas, point to the wide use of such materials as changeable wall hangings (Anderson 1985; Ruiz Gallut 2001:lám. 13). When exposed, such textiles could not have lasted long. Soon mildewed, soggy, and faded, they would need replacement on a regular basis.

The direct and indirect evidence is that textile threads were colored with dyes, and, as added decoration, when weaving was finished, with freehand and resist painting, a technique attested in cave finds from Chiapas, Mexico (Figure 1, Johnson 1954:fig. 16; see also Filloy Nadal 2017:36). There is no question that the Classic Maya painted textiles and, in a few instances, tagged the calligraphers or the owners of clothing….if in coy ways that never identified such people. Names curl out of view or hide behind other items of dress (see Miller and Brittenham 2012:230, 233 [Captions I-5B, I-5C, I-49B]; Tokovinine 2012:70-71, figs. 32-33; note that such labels probably marked garments passing through tributary networks).

Figure 1. Textile from Chiptic Cave, Chiapas, Mexico, with use of resist paint (Johnston 1954:fig. 16).


There is a paradox, however. Surviving textiles and images show few clear signs of block-printing and its tidy repetitions. Yet there are archaeological objects, all of rugged or durable ceramic, that must have been used for printing or stamping.[2] Several are cylinders, with step-fret designs that are common on textiles and well-suited to the warp-weft constraints of weaving. Such cylinders extend deeply into the Mesoamerican past (Field 1967:22-38). That these cylinders were used in body painting seems improbable. If charged with pigment, they would have left messy or indistinct patterns with their expansive fields of color, and the designs on the cylinders are step-fret or of fragrant blossoms attested on other textiles (e.g., Filloy Nadal 2017:fig. 34). In any case, all images of body painting involve brushes (e.g., K1491, K4022).

Three cylinders occur in the probable tomb of a princess or queen at the site of Buenavista del Cayo, Belize; the tagged weaving bones in that burial hint that such designs might also have been rolled over textiles created by high-ranking women (Figure 2, Ball and Taschek 2018:485-487, fig. 14; see also Moholy Nagy 2008:fig. 219l).

Figure 2. Ceramic roller-stamps, Burial BV88-B13; note that each design could also be applied in inverted orientation (drawings by Jennifer Taschek, in Ball and Taschek 2018:fig. 14).


Others were flat stamps that, more than the cylinders, would have been ill-suited for use on human bodies. A large set was discovered in Tomb 6, a royal burial in Structure II, Calakmul, Mexico (Figure 3, Carrasco Vargas 1999:31). With their figuration, the Calakmul examples are anomalous in comparison to other stamps, a hint of varied, more narrative or setting-oriented imagery on stamped materials. As at Buenavista del Cayo, this less well-reported tomb contained weaving bones and was said unequivocally to hold the remains of woman, perhaps the spouse of the ruler. These finds of weaving implements and stamps, flat or cylindrical, suggest that stamping was a gendered activity among the Classic Maya. Its tools were linked to the process of finishing textiles, and large areas of cloth or barkpaper could be decorated with both speed and care. Nonetheless, as in Japan and elsewhere, more than one person presumably wove, made stamps, concocted pigments, and pressed them onto textiles. The volume of production and need for varying expertise may have demanded it…and an elite or royal lady would not have operated without servants. There is also a suspicion, challenging to prove, that the stamps at Calakmul and at other sites formed part of a much larger inventory during the Classic period. In India, at least historically, most stamps or blocks were of wood, and these would have disappeared long ago in the Maya Lowlands (Lewis 1924:1-2; see [2]).

Figure 3. Flat stamps with water lily creature, hummingbirds over cavity, Venus sign, spirals, and full-frontal images of Teotihuacan-style warrior; from possible burial of royal woman, Tomb 6, Structure II, Calakmul, Campeche; on display, Museo Arqueológico, Fuerte de San Miguel, Campeche, Mexico (photograph by Stephen Houston).


A unique illustration of direct transfer exists in the collection of the Museo Regional de Yucatán, Palacio Cantón (Figure 4); see Mediateca INAH, CC BY-NC). It has no provenience but appears to be a slateware, possibly Muna or Dzitas Slate, the latter associated with Chichen Itza, Yucatan–the dish would need closer study to establish its precise affiliation (George Bey, personal communication, 2023). The central element is a sign for k’in, “sun,” but also, more telling here, for NIK[TE’] or NICH[TE’], “flower.” An extraordinary touch is that the interior rim has a series of designs in which, not a brush, but a flower has been dipped in ink and repeatedly pressed into the surface. The flower itself is difficult to identity yet could relate to the Asteraceae family of plants (Shanti Morell-Hart, personal communication, 2023). The double reference in image and mode of decoration is likely to be deliberate. Perhaps this flowery ceramic was intended to contain flowers, as seen in one mythic scene with an anthropomorphic hummingbird and a youthful God D (K8008). The repeated design itself might have triggered a synesthetic sense of fragrance. The flower on the dish served as its own instrument of depiction; the central glyph nailed the floral reference and standardized it into canonical form.

Figure 4. Painting with flowers on a dish, Museo Regional de Yucatán, Palacio Cantón, Mérida. Mediateca INAH, CC BY-NC.


Whether this object has any parallels remains unclear. There are two images that show scribal gods dipping (or having dipped) an undulating, near-vegetal “brush” into a conch inkwell (Figure 5). They cannot be conventional brushes but do open unexpected possiblities for the toolkit of Maya painters.

Figure 5. Two scribal deities dipping or flourishing near-vegetal “brushes” (images from Justin Kerr Maya archive, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, DC, CC BY-SA 4.0).


Acknowledgments   My new colleague at Brown, Shanti Morell-Hart, assisted with the flower identifcation, and George Bey and William Ringle helped to type and possibly date the plate in the Palacio Cantón, Mérida. Joanne Baron kindly forwarded a high-resolution image of a Kerr photograph.


[1] An exception would be the sōsaku-hanga (“creative-prints”) of the early 20th century in Japan. These were painted, carved, and printed by a single artist, often inflected by Western art and its focus on individual production (Binnie 2013:65).

[2] These were probably not the only such blocks. As in India, examples in wood may have been far more numerous (Lewis 1924:1-2).


Anderson, Michael. 1985. Curtain Holes in the Standing Architecture of Palenque. In Fourth Palenque Round Table, 1980, edited by Elizabeth P. Benson, pp. 21-27. San Francisco: Pre-Columbian Art Institute.

Ball, Joseph W., and Jennifer T. Taschek. 2018. Aftermath A.D. 696—Late 7th and Early 8th Century Special Deposits and Elite Main Plaza Burials at Buenavista del Cayo, Western Belize: A Study in Classic Maya “Historical Archaeology.”Journal of Field Archaeology 43(6):472-491.

Binnie, Paul. 2013. The Legacy of Shin Hanga, by an Artist Working in the Tradition. In Fresh Impressions: Early Modern Japanese Prints, by Carolyn M. Putney, Kendall H. Brown, Koyama Shūko, and Paul Binnie, pp. 64-73. Toledo: Toledo Museum of Art.

Carrasco Vargas, Ramón. 1999. Tumbas reales de Calakmul. Ritos funerarios y estructura de poder. Arqueología Mexicana 7(40):28-31.

Field, Frederick V. 1967. Thoughts on the Meaning and Use of Pre-Hispanic Mexican Sellos. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology 3. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks.

Filloy Nadal, Laura. 2017. Mesoamerican Archaeological Textiles: An Overview of Materials, Techniques, and Contexts. In PreColumbian Textile Conference VII / Jornadas de Textiles PreColombinos VII, edited by Lena Bjerregaard and Ann Peters, pp. 7–39. Lincoln: Zea Books.

Halperin, Christina. 2016. Textile Techné: Classic Maya Translucent Cloth and the Making of Value. In Making Value, Making Meaning: Techné in the Pre-Columbian World, edited by Cathy Coastin, pp. 431-463. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Johnson, Irmgard Weitlaner. 1954. Chiptic Cave Textiles from Chiapas, México. Journal de La Société Des Américanistes 43: 137–47.

Lewis, Albert B. 1924. Block Prints from India for Textiles. Anthropology Design Series 1. Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History.

Lothrop, Joyce M. 1992. Textiles. In Artifacts from the Cenote of Sacrifice, Chichen Itza, Yucatan, edited by Clemency C. Coggins, pp. 33-90. Memoirs, 10(3). Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.

Miller, Mary, and Claudia Brittenham. 2013. The Spectacle of the Late Maya Court: Reflections on the Murals of Bonampak. Austin: University of Texas Press; Mexico City: INAH and CONACULTA.

Moholy-Nagy, Hattula. 2003. The Artifacts of Tikal: Utilitarian Artifacts and Unworked Material. Tikal Reports 27B. Philadelphia: University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania.

Moholy-Nagy, Hattula, with William R. Coe. 2008. The Artifacts of Tikal: Ornamental and Ceremonial Artifacts and Unworked Material. Tikal Reports 27A. Philadelphia: University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania.

Morehart, Christopher T., Jaime J. Awe, Michael J. Mirro, Vanessa A. Owen, and Christophe G. Helmke. 2004. Ancient Textile Remains from Barton Creek Cave, Cayo District, Belize. Mexicon 26(3):5054.

Ordoñez, Margaret T. 2015. Appendix V: Textiles. In Temple of the Night Sun: A Royal Maya Tomb at El Diablo, Guatemala, by Stephen Houston, Sarah Newman, Edwin Román, and Thomas Garrixon, pp. 258-262. San Francisco: Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

Riello, Giorgio. 2010. Asian Knowledge and the Development of Calico Printing in Europe in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Journal of Global History 5:1-28.

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Tolstoy, Paul. 1963. Cultural Parallels between Southeast Asia and Mesoamerica in the Manufacture of Bark-cloth. Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences 25:646–662.

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Further Observations on the MUT Logogram

by David Stuart

Figure 1. The complements mu and tu on the Tikal/Dos Pilas emblem glyph.

Back in 1993 I proposed that the main sign of the emblem glyph of Tikal and Dos Pilas/Aguateca is read as MUT, based on the affixes mu- and -tu that appear with it in different contexts, apparently as phonetic complements (Figure 1). My colleague Christian Prager noticed this pattern around the same time, also seeing these syllables as essential clues to the sign’s reading. Many examples of the emblem also show an additional -la suffix, suggesting that MUT-la is a fuller spelling that has led to the various reconstructions Mutal, Mutul, Mutuul. Mutu’l, or something similar (the precise nature of the vowel in such -Vl suffix remains a point of minor debate among epigraphers). My inclination is to see the ancient court name as related to the historical attested place name Mutul, known from both Yucatan and the Petén, as in the modern names Motul de San José, or Motul, Yucatan (home of huevos motuleños, a staple of restaurant breakfasts in Yucatán). “Mutul” is the form I will use here as the reading the full Tikal emblem. In the Classic period Tikal seems to have gone by the name Yax Mutul, “The First Mutul,” perhaps as a way of distinguishing it from earlier centers who also had claimed the Mutul name.

One key lexical item of support of the MUT reading – or so it seemed at the time – was that the sign represented tied bundle of hair, seeming to agree well with the Yukatek term mut pol, cited in the Vienna Dictionary meaning rodete hacer la mujer de sus cabellos (“bun made by a woman from her hair”), clearly related to mut as rodete para asentar olla o vasija (“[round] support for a jar or vase”). However, mut here this may be a corruption or even mis-transcription of the better-established noun met, meaning ruedo, rodete, o rodillo sobre que se asienta alguna vasija (from the Calepino Motul). This possibility had set some doubt in my own mind about the lexical basis of the MUT sign reading, despite the evidence of the syllabic complements we had found. The lack of any non-Yukatek sources for the reading seemed problematic as well, and I’ve long thought MUT needed a bit more backing. Still, it is important to note that there were several signs that ubstitute with one another in the context of the Tikal emblem, each featuring bound hair or a twisted braid, as first patterned out by Linda Schele (1985).

Here I point out a helpful substitution of signs that would appear seems to confirm the MUT value once and for all, in the spelling of the name of a royal woman cited in the inscriptions of Yaxchilan and environs (Figure 2). She was a noblewoman from the court of Hixwitz, a spouse or consort of Yuxuun Bahlam IV (Bird Jaguar IV) named Ix Mut(?) Bahlam. She is depicted on Lintels 17, 40, and 43, identifiable by her name, which damaged in two of the three instances. The best-preserved examples of from Lintel 17, where the name is IX-MUT-tu BAHLAM (Figure 2b). It was this example that gave us the final –tu as a likely phonetic complement to the supposed MUT sign.

Figure 2. Portrait of Ix Mut Bahlam, royal woman of Hixwitz, from Yaxchilan, Lintel 17. Name caption from Dos Caobas (a) compared to Lintels 17 (b) and 43 (c). Drawings by Ian Graham except (a) by David Stuart.


Figure 3. Dos Caobas, Stela 2. Photograph by David Stuart.


Another portrait of Ix But Bahlam comes from Stela 2 from Dos Caobas, a satellite of Yaxchilan whose two monuments are now on display in the Museo Regional of nearby Frontera Corozal, Chiapas (Figure 3). Stela 2 is a fascinating and unusual monument, depicting the ruler Yaxuun Bahlam seated high upon a pillow-throne, facing a standing male figure who holds an object to him. Standing behind are two women, one named Ix Wak Jamchan Ajaw, of the Ik’ or Ik’a’ court of the central Peten lake area. She is also portrayed on Yaxchilan’s Lintels 5 and 41, and perhaps also 15 and 38, with a slightly different spelling. The second woman is a slightly eroded caption that contains a Hixwitz title (IX-hi-HIX wi-tz-AJAW) (see Figure 2a), and is surely Ix Mut Bahlam. Indeed, the BAHLAM logogram of her name is clear, as is a revealing spelling of the first part of her name in the initial block: IX-mu-tu. This substitutes directly for the IX-MUT-tu from Lintel 17’s caption, and offers another welcome piece of evidence to bolster the MUT reading. 

Figure 4. The name Ix Ch’ajan(?) Mut, showing possible substitution of hair-bundle and bird. Drawings by William R. Coe (a,b) and Stefanie Teufel (c).

One last connection that may be relevant is the name of another woman who is cited on Tikal’s Stela 23, whose name I tentatively read as IX-CH’AJAN?-MUT-AJAW?, or Ix Ch’ajan Mut Ajaw (Figure 4a). This surviving passage from the stela’s text records her birth, with no other names or titles, so she was clearly a person of great importance. This name seems related to another woman or female deity mentioned on the much earlier Stela 26 (Figure 4b), where we see the same combination of elements with the addition of a “mirror” or “shiner” sign, perhaps read as li or LEM before the MUT, possibly for Ix Ch’ajanil Mut. Yet another possible variation of this name or reference comes from a much later context, on a carved bone from Topoxte’, Guatemala (Figure 4c). This object was owned by an individual whose mother is also named, bearing the royal title of Tikal (IX-MUT-AJAW). Here the personal name may be distinct, displaying the sign TAL, but I wonder if this is instead the same twisted cord sign I consider as CH’AJAN followed by a full-figure of a bird, easily recognizable as MUUT (“bird”). The combination could suggest the possibility of a logographic substitution between two near homophones: MUUT, “bird,” for the hair-bundle MUT we find in the spellings at Tikal.Differences among these names makes their equivalence somewhat iffy, but such a substitution fits a pattern we see elsewhere in texts after 750 CE or so, which disregard certain traditional distinctions in the internal vowels near-homophones. In this case, the scribe may to have replaced the logogram MUT (mu-tu) with a short /u/ with MUUT (mu-ti), with its long vowel /uu/. By the time this late text was composed the old distinction may have been lost, and the pronunciation of the two signs may have been quite close. 

All of this, especially the Dos Caobas example, is to buttress the original MUT reading of the hair-bundle sign that is the basis Tikal emblem glyph and its court name Mutul, as proposed three decades ago. Questions still surround the lexical background of this reading, but from an epigraphic angle the logogram’s value seems secure.


Schele, Linda. 1985. Balan-Ahau: A Possible Reading of the Tikal Emblem Glyph and a Title at Palenque. In Fourth Palenque Round Table, 1980, Vol. VI, edited by M.G. Robertson and E. P. Benson, pp. 59-66. Pebble Beach, CA: Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute.

A New Drawing of the Marcador Inscription

by David Stuart

The Marcador from Group 6C-XVI of Tikal. Note the name of Eagle Striker in the center of the upper rosette, prossibly a war shield.

Posting a new drawing of the hieroglyphic texts on the famous Marcador sculpture of Tikal. I made this as part of my upcoming publication on aspects of Teotihuacan-Maya history, slated to appear next year with Dumbarton Oaks. The drawing is based on inspection of photos and digital scans, and corrects a few minor errors in other drawings that have appeared since the Marcador was discovered back in the early 1980s.

Each text panel focuses on a particular event. The first recalls the conquest of Tikal in 378 CE led by the famous Sihyaj K’ahk’, who in some capacity seems to have acted at the behest of the Teotihuacan ruler who I prefer to call Eagle Striker (“Spearthrower Owl” being an old nickname). Sihyaj K’ahk’ arrival to the Peten in that year was a transformative political event, broadly affecting the Maya political order of the Early Classic. The second text panel focuses on the dedication of the Marcador itself sixty years later in 414, highlighting its association with Eagle Striker, whose name is also prominently displayed within the center of sculpture’s rosette-like shield. As background for this, Eagle Striker’s accession in 374 is cited at the beginning of the second text panel (E1-E5).

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.