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).
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
 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).
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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.
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).
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.
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 126.96.36.199.16, 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.
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.
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 188.8.131.52.9 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 184.108.40.206.19, 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. As at Piedras Negras, the juxtaposition of text and image is unlikely to have arisen by chance.
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.” 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.”
 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.
 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.
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