New Book: The Adorned Body

The Adorned Body: Mapping Maya Dress, edited by Nicholas Carter, Stephen D. Houston, and Franco D. Rossi. From the University of Texas Press, 2020.

A new volume—a project arising from a seminar at Brown University—is just out. It offers a comprehensive review of the meaning, layers, and intersections of Maya clothing over time…and should be of keen interest to readers of this blog.

From the University of Texas Press:

How we dress our bodies—through clothing, footwear, headgear, jewelry, haircuts, and more—is key to the expression of status and identity. This idea was as true for ancient Maya civilization as it is today, yet few studies have centered on what ancient Maya peoples wore and why. In The Adorned Body, Nicholas Carter, Stephen Houston, and Franco Rossi bring together contributions from a wide range of scholars, leading to the first in-depth study of Maya dress in pre-Columbian times.

Incorporating artistic, hieroglyphic, and archaeological sources, this book explores the clothing and ornaments of ancient Maya peoples, systematically examining who wore what, deducing the varied purposes and meanings of dress items and larger ensembles, and determining the methods and materials with which such items were created. Each essay investigates a category of dress—including headgear, pendants and necklaces, body painting, footwear, and facial ornaments—and considers the variations within each of these categories, as well as popular styles and trends through time. The final chapters reveal broader views and comparisons about costume ensembles and their social roles. Shedding new light on the art and archaeology of the ancient Americas, The Adorned Body offers a thorough map of Maya dress that will be of interest to scholars and fashion enthusiasts alike.

New Book: Ancient Maya Politics

Ancient Maya Politics: A Political Anthropology of the Classic Period, 150-900 CE by Simon Martin. From Cambridge University Press, 2020.

2020 has seen the arrival of an important new book by Simon Martin, a frequent contributor to Maya Decipherment. It’s no exaggeration to say that Ancient Maya Politics is a pivotal work, crucial for both archaeology and epigraphy. A must-read and re-read for students, scholars, and anyone keenly interested in how we access and interpret the political world of the ancient Maya.

From Cambridge University Press:

The Classic Maya have long presented scholars with vexing problems. One of the longest running and most contested of these, and the source of deeply polarized interpretations, has been their political organization. Using recently deciphered inscriptions and fresh archaeological finds, Simon Martin argues that this particular debate can be laid to rest. He offers a comprehensive re-analysis of the issue in an effort to answer a simple question: how did a multitude of small kingdoms survive for some six hundred years without being subsumed within larger states or empires? Using previously unexploited comparative and theoretical approaches, Martin suggests mechanisms that maintained a ‘dynamic equilibrium’ within a system best understood not as an array of individual polities but an interactive whole. With its rebirth as text-backed historical archaeology, Maya studies has entered a new phase, one capable of building a political anthropology as robust as any other we have for the ancient world.

Canonical Space and Maya Markets

Stephen Houston (Brown University)

In his account of the great Aztec market at Tlatelolco, Bernal Díaz del Castillo spoke of its varied merchandise. Among the wonders: gold, precious stones, rope, deer skin, wild animals, honey cake and tripe, pottery, pitch-pine, human excrement for salt and curing of skins, paper, timber, boards, metal axes, gourds, flint knives—Díaz almost grew weary of their description, “porque es para no acabar tan presto de contar por menudo todas las cosas” (Díaz del Castillo 2011:96–99). But there were also male and female slaves, many lashed to long poles across their necks. The slaves were brought and sold in such quantity as to recall, for Díaz, the Portuguese trade of Blacks in “Guinea” (Díaz del Castillo 2011:97–99). Free and enslaved people were so plentiful at Tlatelolco that they could be heard, he said, a league away.

A joint description in text and image comes Fray Diego de Durán, in a manuscript now in the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid (Figure 1). Probably written in his hand, albeit drawn from varying sources, this document of c. 1574–1581 drew on illustrations that were in part cut from another document and then glued on the page before relevant passages (Milne 1984:3; Robertson 1968:343). This is one of those images, as can be seen from the distinct color of its paper, slightly skewed placement, and overlap with previously written text. Puzzling out where Durán and his associates got their information is to grapple, perhaps fruitlessly, with the fusions, rejections, authorial complexity, and tumult of the era. Was the document and its kin informed by biblical history (Driggers 2020:184–185; Milne 1984:384), previous books or oral history (Milne 1984:381), pre-Columbian or early Colonial pictorials of assured skill and knowledge (Driggers 2020:189) or adorned with paintings taken from Franciscan workshops under the supervision of Bernardino de Sahagún (Milne 1984:393)? What can be assumed is that the preparation of this document was thoughtful. Mutual reinforcement took place between text and image.

Figure 1. Market, Historia de las Indias de Nueva España e islas de la tierra firme (Durán 1579:301v,

The written description is, at times, focused on physical attributes. “The markets of this land were all closed (off) by large (standing) walls and facing (opposite) the temples of the gods or to one side” (Durán 1880:217, my translation). Durán also emphasized the orderly timing and specialization of markets, so that, for example, dogs could be had in Acolman, slaves in Azcapotzalco and Izocan [Itzocan] (Durán 1880:219). Slaves, some taken in war, demonstrated grace of movement by being forced to dance or sing. (One can imagine the heaviness of heart.) Others had committed crimes, fallen into debt from gambling, disobeyed parents or become so hungry from want that slavery seemed the only recourse for their families. There would be fewer mouths to feed (Durán 1880:220–222). “Collars” of wood or metal kept the slaves symbolically marked, psychologically disadvantaged, and physically manageable. Grabbing a person’s arm or leg risked injury; grabbing a neck-stick kept the slave at safe distance (Durán 1880:220). [1] These sticks go far back in time, appearing in a Late Classic stucco of captives or slaves from the Maya city of Tonina, Chiapas (Houston et al. 2006:fig. 5.13). Presumably, sticks could double as garrotes, if not to execute then to control by restricting air and blood flow to the brain.

Payment for slaves was in textile mantles, gold jewelry, and greenstone (Durán 1880:224). The denial of liberty extended to cages or wooden chambers, evidently to house slaves or those castigated by law (Durán 1880:222). Relative freedom of movement may have accorded with the kind of slave. Enemy warriors or intended sacrifices for priestly “olocaustos” (Durán’s word) were let loose at peril. They might fight or flee. A child or debtor posed less risk. Colonial sources indicate that market stalls (“a house, a post”) could be personal property (Johnson 2018:100–101). Regulating the whole were ordinances and religious orientations, the latter of special disdain to Durán (1880:215-216; for “directors” of markets, see Sahagún 1979:67–69).

Durán’s focus on slaves may account for the image. Was this some glancing allusion to the Babylonian captivity of the Old Testament, or to the benighted state of the Aztecs? By the thinking of the day, they were, after all, a “lost tribe” of Israel, Christianity their redemption (Driggers 2020:184). Or was he placing emphasis on such trade because it was in fact a dominant concern? That emphasis can be overstated in view of the stupendous inventory of trade goods at Aztec markets. At the same time, by many accounts, human trafficking was undoubtedly present. Some comments on the scene identify three buyers and six sellers (Russo 2005:73). That is unlikely. Two of the latter, a male and a female, bear wooden staves at the neck, marking their status as slaves. This would mean that all the sellers—there are four, two of higher status to judge from their mats—happen to be women. This gendering contrasts strongly with slave merchants elsewhere in the world, especially the male slavers of ancient Rome or the horrors of Price, Birch, and Co. in Alexandria, Virginia (Harris 1980:129–132;

Durán highlights payment in mantles, gold, and greenstone. These occur throughout the scene, some in baskets. They could simply have been precious objects for sale (Driggers 2020:52). If the focus were on slaves, they might also have been payments from past transactions. The small squares resemble 1/5 tablets of gold (although their white color fails to fit that view) or, from a tablet superimposed on mantles in the Tribute Record of Tlapa, a unit of 400 textiles (Gutiérrez 2013:fig. 6.3). Perhaps the female slave is spinning for the vendor’s needs or displaying a valued skill to a buyer.

Durán (1880:215) also stressed “round stones worked as large as a round shield and in them sculpted a round figure as a figure of the sun with some paintings in the manner of roses around them with some round circles.” In Aztec writing, this corresponds to the sign for TIĀNQUIZ, “market” (Peñafiel 1895:pls. 79, 99). The buyers and sellers sit within the sign. Yet another emblem, perhaps a stone marker or altar (momoztli), appears dead center. That sign contains an inner, gold circle, a token of the sun, affirming a proposal that the celebrated Calendar Stone of the Aztecs was such an altar, albeit in Tenochtitlan rather than Tlaltelolco (Stuart 2018:214-215). In Durán’s words, it was “a figure of the sun” but ensconced within a market, its circular outline tied to both meanings.[2] A perceptive study of these carvings and their relation to markets has recognized several such “disks” in the corpus of Aztec sculpture (López Luján and Olmedo 2010).

Glyphs or stylized and condensed depictions of markets occur in several manuscripts of Colonial date (Figure 2). The sign itself has an almost flowery, jewel-like fringe and roseate glow but above all a circular outline (Mundy 1996:fig. 67). The visual overlap with the fans of merchants, pōchtēca, and the main disk in the place name of Pochtlan is probably no coincidence (Peñafiel 1895:pl. 59). Others point to a connection, common among the Aztecs, between war, trading, and similar insignia among high-ranking soldiers (López Luján and Olmedo 2010:18; a suspicion also gathers around the so-called La Ventanilla “Composite Stela” at Teotihuacan as a publicly mounted disk—of foreign merchants?—in the style of El Tajín, Veracruz [Cabrera Castro 2-17:108, fig. 14.2]). At times, the TIĀNQUIZ shows the dotted circumference of a formal “wall,” TENĀN/TENĀM (Figure 3b, c, d, e, cf. Codex Mendoza signs for the towns of Teotenanco [folio 10r] and Tenançinco [folio 10v]; Karttunen 1983:224). Some glyphs feature a confused welter of footprints, a sign of dense movement (Figure 3b, d); the “sand,” XĀL, in Xaltianquizco, may be both lexical and practical, a surface suited to shuffling feet (Figure 2b).

Figure 2. TIĀNQUIZ signs and depictions: (a) Codex Mendoza, c. 1541 (folio 67r, © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford); (b) Codex Mendoza, Xaltianquizco, c. 1541 (folio 16v, © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford); (c) Lienzo de Quauhquechollan, c. mid-16h-century (Museo Regional de Cholula [Museo Casa del Alfeñique]; Asselbergs 2008,, photograph by Bob Schalkwijk); (d) Matrícula de Huexotcinco, c. 1560 (folio 541r, National Library of France,; (e) Relación Geográfica map of Tetlistaca, 1581 (JGI xxv-12, Benson Latin American Collection, The General Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin); and (f) Relación Geográfica map of Muchitlan, 1582 (JGI xxv-13, Benson Latin American Collection, The General Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin,

Echoing Durán, there is some pairing with temples, including Christian churches, or in many instances—depictions of Conquest-period Guatemala come to mind—walled precincts that contrast with cleared circular places (Figure 3c; Asselbergs 2008:figs. 24–27). As Durán notes, such areas were suitable for dance, and, in one source, lightened circles without walls denote markets: i.e., some were more formal than others (Figure 2c, Asselbergs 2008:fig. 12). The Lienzo de Quauhquechollan, as in Codex Mendoza, show them pierced by roads or with routes passing nearby. A more daring idea is that the circularity was cosmic in intent, to fix markets “in the center of the universe” (Russo 2005:75). That might have been reflected in the walls and four-part entrances of an unusual, rectangular depiction of a market in the Relación Geográfica of Cempoala, Veracruz (Figure 3). The object or place in the center with scalloped edge is the target of movement, a focus within a broader precinct.

Figure 3. Market with four entrances, Cempoala, Veracruz, 1580 (JGI XXV-10, Benson Latin American Collection, The General Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin,

A vignette from the Codex Mendoza injects a certain pathos. Fathers instructed 6-year old boys to go to the market so that they might collect spilled maize or “beans and other miserable things that the traders left scattered” (Berdan and Anawalt 1997:120). The Codex is notorious for its austere model of parenting. Some punishments involved beating, jabbing with maguey spikes; dry chile was forced into the nostrils of immobilized children. A less literal view of the vignette is that it concerned “the disciplining of material and domestic space in order to achieve cosmic order” (Driggers 2020:119fn24). The raw nopal tuna gnawed by one child mirrors, in a symmetry of human and vegetal states, “their shared ‘rawness’ in Mexica thought” (Driggers 2020:119fn24). But I see a harsher reality. It is possible the scene reveals the depth of food insecurity in the Mexica metropolis—recall Duran’s mention of hunger and enslavement. Every bean or grain counted. Moreover, the scratching, plucking, and furtive chewing affect the archaeological study of markets. They might well have been intensively scavenged. What was dropped by vendors or buyers on the floor of the market did not necessarily stay put.

Figure 3. Scavenging in the market at age six, Codex Mendoza, 1541 (folio 58r, © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford).

A major concern in Mesoamerican studies is how later material, or that far away, relates to other reaches of its vast sprawl. This applies to markets. After much debate, most Mayanists concede the presence of such facilities during the Classic Period (e.g., Cap 2015; Dahlin et al. 2007; King 2015; Martin 2012). As one example of many, what had seemed to be unrelated features—a proposed water-conservation measure for agriculture at Ixtutz, Guatemala—can now be reinterpreted as market stalls (Chase and Chase 1983; cf. Chase et al. 2015:230; Jacobo 1993, who detected unusual concentrations of phosphate in this zone).

In 1984, equipped with a preliminary map from Ian Graham, I did a compass survey of Dos Pilas, Guatemala, a Classic Maya city with many inscriptions. Graham was a superlative mapper, a legend with limited resources yet boundless gumption. But he had not noticed that certain low walls on his plan went over masonry. They connected as a system of concentric walls, not just in its main plaza but around the pyramid of El Duende about 1 km to the east. Theodolite mapping in 1986 for my doctoral research laid these out in far greater detail (Figure 4; Houston 1987:Maps 3, 5; reproduced in Houston 1993:Site Maps 1, 3). In my dissertation, I interpreted the small, rectangular features marked in pale red as a “squatter” settlement and the walls, here in light blue, as “defensive bulwarks” of late date; these consisted of material obviously robbed from preexisting buildings (Houston 1987:383, 386).

Figure 4. Concentric walls at Dos Pilas, Guatemala (Houston 1987:Map 3).

There was always a problem. The walls went directly over buildings, in ways that did not make any practical defensive use of the elevated palace to the south. The layout seemed instead to be planar or geometric, designed to preserve a regular concentricity, a determined circularity. Nor, being chock-a-block, did the “squatter” settlement conform to any clear pattern of contemporary communities. I also had doubts the section to the north was ever finished. The builders appear to have piled up field stone at regular intervals, a standard practice for lengths of masonry, but they failed to connect them. Excavations by Joel Palka in these deposits, as part of a wider project by Vanderbilt University, later found abundant trade goods (Fine Grey) and confirmed the density of platforms (Palka 1980; Palka et al. 1991).[3] In 1984, guards at the site had shown me pieces of jade beads recovered from the “squatter” village. They had disturbed the alignments and low walls to make it easier to cut grass in the plaza. Loose stones dulled their machetes and were thus collected and piled up at the base of trees. The small platforms were probably far more numerous in the past.

My doubts grew when, decades later, I visited the site of Pueblito, Guatemala, with my former student, Sarah Newman. In important research that has yet to be followed up, Juan Pedro Laporte and his team discovered what appeared to be market stalls and identified them as such (Laporte and Chocon 2008). During my stay, I saw and walked the same sorts of concentric walls that I knew well from Dos Pilas, but here concentrated on the monumental plaza with plain stelae; the area with stalls lay a few meters away. Market stalls seem also be present at nearby Ixtutz, Guatemala (Chase and Chase 1983; Chase et al. 2015; Jacobo 1993). The pattern of relatively late, c. 8th-9th century walls occurs at a number of sites, a few with the concentric walls that baffled me at Dos Pilas (Figure 5). As at Dos Pilas, Xuenkal, Yucatan, excludes a major construction; a wall at Cuca, also in Yucatan, climbs over a substantial platform; and there have been suggestions that the walls at Ek Balam, Yucatan—their thickness is greater than elsewhere—tend to be more symbolic than defensive (Lundy 2016:100, citing William Ringle and George Bey, the original mappers and excavators of the ruin).

Figure 5. Walls, some concentric, at Ek Balam (Houck 2004:fig. 2, map provided to Houck by William Ringle), Cuca (Webster 1978:fig. 5), and Xuenkal (Manahan et al. 2012:fig. 2).

A lidar survey confirms that these concentric systems are found far beyond settlements in Yucatan, appearing also in southwestern Campeche (Figure 6; Ruhl et al. 2019). The discoverers believe that these settlements, which they identify as markets, are distinct from the “hastily erected defensive walls…or more carefully constructed fortifications” of sites such as Cuca or Dos Pilas (Ruhl et al. 2018:88). But perhaps the concentric arrangements are closer than first apparent: all have a post-hoc quality, look (at least superficially) to be Late Classic or Terminal Classic in date, abut or pass over preceding construction, and selectively exclude monumental architecture. At times, the estrangement from past dynastic rituals could be acute. At Dos Pilas, as I saw from mapping in 1984 and 1986, the rupture was blunt and brutal. Walls elsewhere were more seamlessly integrated with preexisting buildings.

Figure 6. Concentricity and probable markets, G-LiHT transects, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (Ruhl et al. 2018:fig. 3, excerpt).

“Symbolic” is an expansive yet loose term. But, to come full circle (so to speak), these finds could reflect a particular moment in Classic and Terminal Classic history. Spaces and planar shapes deemed canonical—appropriate to this or that function—arose from pragmatic choices. If these were markets, a matter to be confirmed by close study on the ground, then they closed off access, protected stored goods (what vendor leaves a stall unsecured?), afforded a sense of security for economic transactions, and assisted regulation, monitoring, and even taxation. Goods moving in and out could be monitored. Nor is there reason to exclude defense, for marketing and warfare were known companions in Postclassic Mexico. But there was also a strong sense of signaling. As hinted by the TIĀNQUIZ sign, markets should, by broad understanding, be notionally circular: they are, as much as any square or rectangular plaza, a canonical space. Accordingly, a later emblem of centrality and orderly trade may have arisen from a Maya precedent in the final years of the Classic period, or at least from eastern Mesoamerica in general.[4] Links with the Aztec or speakers of Nahuatl are documented by several Maya gods that tie into central Mexican ones; reciprocally, the Dresden Codex, a Maya book, records several Mexican deities (Taube and Bade 1991; Whittaker 1986).

Possibly, the walls also kept people in. This is the most speculative and disquieting part of the argument: some of these facilities may have been pens, the corrals of people. The degree to which the Classic Maya slaved is unclear. The non-locals (11–16%) found by chemical studies of bone at Tikal—the samples are not large, however—could reflect this practice (Wright 2012). Aztec neck-sticks are almost copies of those on the much-afflicted, Late Classic captives at Tonina (see above). Pietro Martire d’Anghiera mentions that a native canoe encountered by Columbus was “drawn by naked slaves with ropes around their necks,” and Diego de Landa leaves no doubts about the abundance of slaving, often to trade for cacao, and attributed “this evil” to a particular group, the Cocom, i.e., he historicized it, fixed it as a development in time (Tozzer 1941:36, 36fn175, 94). For the Classic Maya, Mary Miller notes many ceramic figurines, including finely dressed women, with what appear to be slave-ropes around their necks (personal communication, 2019).

Was this, as Andrew Scherer suggests to me, the darker side of the Terminal Classic? Dynasties might raid, but they could also shield. Their unraveling, the evident movements of people, and the new ethnic presences documented by Simon Martin (2020:290–294, 296–297, fig. 73) led potentially to vigorous profit and a frayed social contract. This might have been especially the case for the “internationalization” of slaving, a trade highlighted by early Colonial sources. In Africa, according to a chilling appraisal by two economic historians, the “marginal value of people as captives [rose] above their marginal value as producers to be taxed…[with an] incentive to produce ‘outsiders’ who can be raided” (Whatley and Gillizeau 2010:573). For the Yoruba in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, war yielded slaves, slaving drove war, with no small capital outlay required to mount campaigns and to house slaves in enclosures known as ita (Ojo 2008:80–81). Brokers, chiefs, warriors—all profited from human misery. For a time, and perhaps among the Terminal Classic Maya, fluid trade could coexist with fragmenting societies.

[1] The term for “slave” in Nahuatl (TLĀCOH-TLI) is a near-homophone for “staff, pole” (TLACŌ-TL, David Stuart, personal communication, 2020; see Karttunen 1983:256). This may have been a metonym, an object standing for (and even depersonalizing) its referent or perhaps, because of the divergent vowels, the association was fortuitous.

[2] Durán refers to another altar that has yet to be discovered by urban excavation (Stuart 2018:23). The distant analogy of Maya altars suggests a logical dyad, the moon. Altars or ballcourt markers with moon deities include Caracol Altar 25, Tenam Rosario Altar 1, and Quirigua Altar Q.

[3] The broader mesh of trade in the region has since been emphasized to the south, in and around the upper and middle reaches of the Pasión River, Guatemala (Kovacevich 2006; Demarest et al. 2014).

[4] The operative concept is probably the pan-Mayan word pet, “circular” or “round” (Kaufman and Norman 1984:128). To my knowledge, the glyphic version of this, a circle within a circle, was first deciphered by Nikolai Grube. The graphic origin is doubtless that of a hard stone ear spool, an object of great value and patient manufacture. The sign is employed as a verb to indicate the creation of some rounded thing and, less literally, as the completion of a carving. See K1180, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (#1988.1182), in which a monkey-scribe holds up a rounded object near a verb PET-ta-ja, pehtaj, “it is rounded” (photograph courtesy of Justin Kerr). The insertion of the hand and rounded object into the vertical, glyphic passage is probably a self-conscious integration of text with image.


My thanks go to Charles Golden, Takeshi Inomata, Simon Martin, Mary Miller, Joel Palka, Andrew Scherer, David Stuart, and Karl Taube for useful discussion, and to Oswaldo Chinchilla and Nicholas Dunning for help with figures. Sarah Newman defrayed the costs of our productive visit to Pueblito and was, as ever, full of insight and energy. For Nahuatl words, including those spelling in hieroglyphs, I use the spellings with vowel length in the authoritative dictionary by Karttunen (1983). The online dictionary edited by Stephanie Wood is also a wide-ranging tool for scholars (


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——, ——, and Karl Taube. 1989. Excavaciones en la plaza central de Dos Pilas. In El Proyecto Arqueológico Regional Petexbatun, Informe Preliminar #1, edited by Arthur A. Demarest and Stephen D. Houston, pp. 62–129. Report submitted to the Instituto de Antropología e Historia, Guatemala.

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Yesterday’s Moon: A Decipherment of the Classic Mayan Adverb ak’biiy

by David Stuart (University of Texas at Austin)

Deciphering the Adverb Ak’biiy, “Yesterday”

Maya inscriptions contain a few terms or phrases that we can classify as temporal adverbs, helping to specify the timing of events relative to the text’s internal time-frame. One such term is sahm-iiy, spelled sa-mi-ya, “earlier today,” which I identified some years ago in two moon age records at Palenque (Figure 1) (first presented in Houston, Robertson and Stuart 2000). In this context, before the verb hul-iiy, sahm-iiy simply states that the new moon appeared only within a day of some notable event in the narrative “present.” The full phrase illustrated here can be translated as sahm-iiy hul-iiy, “earlier today it arrived.” Its suffix -iiy is the Classic Mayan form traceable to proto-Mayan *-eer, “ago, before,” and is an extremely common deictic suffix found on most if not all of these adverbs that mark a point in the past. It can appear on intransitive verbs, adverbs, as well as on some enumerated nouns. Grammatically, sahm-iiy and its relatives work in a way similar to standard day-counts that reckon a span of time from some earlier event to up to a present one. For example, we find in other lunar day-counts the expressions jo’lahuun-ij-iiy (15-ji-ya),  “fifteen days ago…”, or wuk-bix-iiy (7-bi-xi-ya), “seven days ago.”

sahmiiy glyph
Figure 1. Parallel examples of sahm-iiy hul-iiy, “earlier today it arrived.” (a) PAL: Palace Tablet, Q10-R10, (b) PAL:T.XXI bench edge. Drawings by D. Stuart.

Here I identify another temporal pronoun that I read as ak’b-iiy, “yesterday,” or “the night before.” Like the examples just cited, these occur in records of moon ages, where short-term temporal expressions of less than thirty days are routinely found. The first instance comes from Stela F at Qurigua (Figure 2a), as part of the moon age record accompanying the Long Count 1 Ahau 3 Zip (March 14, 761 CE). Here before the verb hul-iiy (hu-li-ya), “it arrived,” (Macleod 1990), we find a glyph consisting of a turkey’s head with the suffix sign ya. Infixed into the turkey is a bi syllable. The second case comes from Zoomorph O’ (Figure 2b), where the same glyph appears but now with the prefix a-, also before hul-iiy. These related glyphs have remained undeciphered until now, but they have generally been recognized as indicating new moon, or the start of the lunar month.

ak'biiy glyphs
Figure 2. Two examples of ak’b-iiy hul-iiy, “yesterday it arrived.” (a) QRG Stela F, F6, (b) QRG: Zoo O’, J1-I2. Drawings by D. Stuart

There is good evidence to show that the turkey head is read AK’, based on the noun ak’ or ak’ach, “turkey hen.” In the inscriptions of La Corona, the very same sign appears in the spelling of the personal name Chak Ak’ Paat Kuy, where it alternates with the syllabic comination a-k’a (Figure 3) (Houston, Stuart and Zender 2017, Stuart and Zender 2018). The same turkey sign also occurs on Stela 1 of Dos Pilas in a variant of the “dance” verb AK’-ta-ja (Figure 4b) (see Grube 1990), suggesting it may be a head variant or a graphic elaboration of the more abstracted AK’ sign we find more frequently in that position (we will return to the connection between these signs a little further on).

Ckak ak'
Figure 3. The AK’ turkey logogram in a name from La Corona. (a) CRN: Elem. , (b) CRN:Elem. 56, pB1, (c) CRN: Elem. 56, pF2. Drawings by D. Stuart

ak'taj verbs
Figure 4. Substitution of AK’ in AK’-ta-ja, ak’t-aj, “he dances” (a) DPL: Stela 11, (b) DPL: Stela 1. Drawings by D. Stuart.

On Quirigua Stela F we therefore have a plausible reading AK’-bi-ya for the glyph before hu-li-ya. On Zoomorph O’ we have the very same expression, but with an a added as a prefix on AK’. The bi infix again looks to be present (photos are murky), so the full form here seem to be a-AK’-bi-ya. There can be little doubt that these two glyphs spell the temporal adverb ak’b-iiy, a form found in Ch’olan languages meaning “yesterday,” or “last night,” based upon the noun ahk’ab, “night.” Note its use in these sentences from from Ch’orti and Ch’ol:

ak’bi patneen, yesterday I worked (Wisdom 1950)
ac’bi tsa’ huliyon ilayi, yesterday I arrived here (Aulie and Aulie 1978)

In the last example cited, it is interesting to see that Ch’ol ac’bi serves as an adverb before a derived form of hul, “to arrive,” much as we find in the case of the Lunar Series examples from Quirigua. The same term can be traced more widely throughout lowland Mayan languages (all shown in their original orthographies).

Ch’olti’: acbihi, yesterday (Moran 1935)
Ch’orti’: ak’bi, yesterday, of yesterday (Wisdom 1950)
Ch’ol: ’ak’-b’i, yesterday; ayer (Hopkins, et al 2008)
Ch’ol: ac’bi, ayer (Aulie and Aulie 1978)
Chontal: ?äk’-bi, yesterday, before (Knowles 1984)
Chontal: äc’-bi, ayer (Keller and Luciano 1997)
Tzeltal: ahkab-ey, anoche (Polian 2020)
Tzotzil: ak’ub-e, anoche (Kaufman and Justeson 2003)
Yukatek: ak’be’, anoche, la noche anterior (Barrera Vásquez 1980)

In the two contexts from Quirigua the full verbal expression is therefore ak’biiy huliiy, “yesterday it arrived,” the subject being the lunar month of 29 or 30 days. This might be roughly understood to saying that the moon is simply one day old. However, we should exert some caution in assuming so, and reflect further on the descriptive language the Maya used in such records. The moon’s “arrival” is not simply the astronomical new moon, which corresponds to its dark, invisible phase. “Arrival” should be understood as referring to the moon’s first visibility, as a thin waxing crescent in the darkened sky. Landa made this point in his Relación, wherein he states that “they counted (the lunar month) from the time at which the new moon appeared until  it no longer appeared”  (Tozzer 1941:133). This is confirmed, I believe, by the form of the HUL logogram used in the vast majority of moon age records, which depicts a hand pointing at the crescent (see Houston 2012). The “pointing at the moon” form of HUL is especially clear in its Early Classic examples (Figure 5). All of this is to say that first visibility would fall a two or three days (depending on timing) after astronomical new moon. Thus ak’biiy huliiy can be best analyzed as an explicit statement about first visibility happening “yesterday,” falling two or even three days after the astronomical new moon.

HUL signs
Figure 5. Selection of Early Classic HUL logograms, emphasizing its origin as a hand pointing at the crescent moon. (a) RAZ: Tomb 1, (b) COP: St. 63, (c) CLK: Celt, (d) PNG: St. 30, (e) RSB: HS 3. Drawings by D. Stuart.

ak'biiy Coba
Figure 6. Alternate spelling of ak’biiy huliiy from COB: Panel D. Drawing by D. Stuart.

Apart from Quirigua, there may be one other example of ak’biiy in a text from Coba. This is Panel D, the unusual rectangular panel or altar with a spiral-shaped inscription. This text opens with a Lunar Series, probably a continuation of a calendrical text now lost. The initial glyph of the text (Figure 6) is “Glyph D” of the Lunar Series, incorporating the verb hul-iiy (HUL-li-ya). Before this we have a glyph shows an infixed bi element and a ya suffix. I suggest the main sign here is the alternate logogram for AK’, known from the frequent dance verbs mention above (AK’-ta-ja) (see Figure 4a). At first I wondered if this could be a spelling of bix-iiy, using a logogram for BIX that I identified in 1996 (Stuart 2012). However, it is possible to distinguish that form from the somewhat similar AK’, which consistently shows two darkened elements along the internal curved line. BIX seems to regularly feature a single darkened element, with an infixed bi. I suspect that this AK’ is graphically related to the turkey head variant, perhaps originating as a pars pro toto of it.

The use of the turkey AK’ in these spellings brings up a couple of interesting points regarding hieroglyphic orthography. First, we have here the rare use of a logogram for purely phonetic purposes (the adverb ak’biiy having nothing to do with turkeys). It also reflects a high degree of phonetic sensitivity in Maya script. As we have seen, the derived form ak’b-iiy results from two morphophonemic process that work on the underlying noun ahk’ab, “night.” The first is vowel syncope. In Ch’olan languages, any stem of more than two syllables, such as that formed by the combination of ahk’ab and -iiy, sees the loss of its penultimate vowel, in this case a (Kaufman and Norman 1984:86). The second process is the loss of the h before a cluster of two consonants. The root for “turkey” is ak’, lacking the internal h we find in ahk’ab. As Marc Zender has pointed out to me (personal communication, 2020), a spelling such as a-AK’-bi-ya appears to be a remarkably precise means of representing the phonetic result of these standard processes. A similar situation presumably exists in the spellings of the verb for “dance,” usually spelled AK’-ta-ja (see Grube 1990), at times with the very same AK’ turkey sign. The proto-Ch’olan verb root is ahk’ot, and the addition of the intransitivizing suffix -aj necessitates the same two processes just described, the result being ak’t-aj, “(s)he dances.”

Thus far I have not encountered the temporal adverb ak’biiy outside of the context of moon age records. This is not terribly surprising, given how Lunar Series passages focus on short-term time frames involving less than thirty days, sometimes focused on time changes within a single day, as in sahm-iiy.

Moon Ages and Correlations

The ak’biiy huliiy statements may be significant in considering the astronomical correlations of certain Maya calendar dates. For example, the Long Count on Quirigua, Stela F is 1 Ahau 3 Zip, falling on March 11, 761 according to the 584283 correlation. This is astronomical new moon, which occurred in the pre-dawn hours of that day.

YEAR 0761
New Moon          First Quarter       Full Moon         Last Quarter
Mar 11 05:43      Mar 18 01:19        Mar 25 04:59   Apr 2 05:49
(dates and times in Universal Time minus 6 hours).

It should be emphasized that astronomical new moon describes a phase of complete invisibility before the first sliver of the crescent is visible. Yet we know in Maya terms that the moon’s “arrival” was its first appearance to the naked eye, as discussed above, and as indicated by the visual forms of several HUL logograms (Prager 2020).  It is very difficult to see the young waxing crescent of the moon within 24 hours of astronomical new moon, in fact, suggesting that visibility with the naked eye during the night spanning March 11 and 12 would have been extremely unlikely. The night of March 13 is a more likely time for the moon’s true “arrival” and visibility. If we align these lunar phenomena with the different correlation constants for, we have:

584283, night of March 11, 761 – Astronomical new moon (invisible)
584284, night of March 12, 761 – initial waxing crescent, minimal visibility
584285, night of March 13, 761 – waxing crescent, newly visible
584286, night of March 14, 761 – one day after visibility

Here we see that the moon record on Stela F, explicitly stating that the moon “arrived yesterday,” accords best with either the 584285 (March 13) or perhaps even more so with the 584286 correlation (March 14) proposed by Martin and Skidmore (2012).

The ak’biiy huliiy date on Zoomorph O’ is the accession of the ruler we know as “Sky Xul,” on 9 Edznab 1 Kankin. In the 584283 correlation this falls on October 9, 785. New moon, the period of invisibility, had occurred just before midnight on October 7, into October 8, and would have continued for another 24 hours. First visibility would most likely have been no earlier than the night of October 10 or 11.

YEAR 0785
New Moon          First Quarter       Full Moon         Last Quarter
Oct 7 23:02        Oct 15 17:35         Oct 22 08:42    Oct 29 12:08
(dates and times in Universal Time minus 6 hours).

Using the 584285 constant, the accession date is October 11, and with the 584286 it falls on October 12. The ak’biiy statement on Zoomorph O’ therefore is in keeping with either of these correlations, but not so much with the 584283. Of the two, the 584286 may even seem more fitting, marking the arrival of the moon, or first visibility, on October 11. Zoomorph G celebrated the Period ending 5 Ahau 3 Muan, only 22 days after the accession of Sky Xul. Its moon age is recorded is recorded as 23 days, precisely what we would expect if we reckon from Zoomorph O’ and its ak’biiy statement of the moon being first visible on October 11. It is worth noting that these two uses of ak’biiy at Quirigua also correlate well with the probable eclipse record at Santa Elena Poco Uinic Stela (July 16, 790), which seems best anchored in the 584286 correlation, as discussed by Martin and Skidmore (2012).

These are only cursory observations about the correlation issue, and far more thought needs to go into these questions. The main point to stress is that, until recently, Maya epigraphers simply classified the two glyphs we can now read as ak’biiy and sahmiiy as general indicators of “new moon.” Now we can be more precise about their meanings. One is “earlier today,” and another is “yesterday.” The implications of these decipherments should be pondered further, for they might help in fine-tuning the correlation of the ancient Maya calendar with our own.

Note: Moon phases are from the historical lunar tables available on (

References Cited

Aulie, William H., and Evelyn W. de Aulie. 1978. Diccionario Ch’ol-Español, Español-Ch’ol. Mexico City: Instituto Lingüistico de Verano.

Grube, Nikolai. 1992. Classic Maya Dance: Evidence from Hieroglyphs and Iconography. Ancient Mesoamerica 3(2):201-218

Hopkins, Nicholas A., Ausencio Cruz Guzmán, and Kathryn Josserand. 2008. A Chol (Mayan) Vocabulary from 1789. International Journal of American Linguistics 74(1).

Houston, Stephen. 2012. Heavenly Bodies. Maya Decipherment, July 16, 2012.

Houston, Stephen, David Stuart, and Marc Zender. 2017. The Lizard King. Maya Decipherment, June 15, 2017.

Kaufman, Terence, and John Justeson. 2003. A Preliminary Mayan Etymological Dictionary.

Kaufman, Terrence, and William Norman., 1984. An Outline of Proto-Cholan Phonology, Morphology and Vocabulary. In: J.S. Justeson and Lyle Campbell (eds.), Phoneticism in Mayan Hieroglyphic Writing, 77-166. Institute for Mesoamerican Studies Publication No. 9. SUNY, Albany.

Keller, Kathryn, and Plácido Luciano G.. 1997. Diccionario Chontal de Tabasco (Mayense). Serie de Vocabularios y Diccionarios Idígenas “Mariano Silva y Aceves,” Número 36. Tucson: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Knowles, Susan Marie. 1984. A Descriptive Grammar of Chontal Maya (San Carlos Dialect). Ph.D. Dissertation, Tulane University.

Martin, Simon, and Joel Skidmore. 2012. Exploring the 584286 Correlation between Maya and European Calendars. The PARI Journal 13(2):3-16.

MacLeod, Barbara. 1990. Deciphering the Primary Standard Sequence. Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Texas, Austin, TX.

Morán, Pedro [sic]. 1935. Arte y diccionario en lengua cholti. Edited by William Gates. Maya Society publ. 9.

Polian, Gilles. 2020. Tseltal-Spanish multidialectal dictionary.
Dictionaria 10. 1-8109. DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.3660891 (Available online at, Accessed on 2020-08-01.)

Prager, Christian. 2020. A New Logogram for “to Arrive” – Implications for the Decipherment of the Month Name Cumku. Textdatenbank und Wörterbuch des Klassischen Maya, Research Note 13. Universität Bonn.

Stuart, David. 2012. The Verb Bix “Go, Go Away.” Maya Decipherment, January 23, 2012.

Stuart, David, and Marc Zender. 2018. Epigraphy and History at La Corona: Contingency and Surprise in Epigraphic Discovery.  Paper presented at the 83rd Annual Meetings of the SAA, Washington, D.C.

Toxxer, Alfred M. 1941. Landa’s Relación de las Cosas de Yucatan: A Translation. Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, vol. XVIII. Peabody Museum, Cambridge, MA.

Wisdom, Charles. 1950. Materials of the Chorti Language. Middle American Cultural Anthropology Microfilm Series 5, Item 28. University of Chicago Library.

All the Small Things

Stephen Houston

For the small people in my life, and for those soon to arrive

In his study of the sublime, Edmund Burke observed that, “[i]n the animal creation, out of our own species, it is the small we are inclined to be fond of; little birds, and some of the smaller kinds of beasts (Burke 1757:97). These creatures are beautiful; they inspire affection and pleasure. Then there are the things that are gigantic, uncontrolled, unbalanced, even monstrous. Marked by excess, they trigger awe, fear or distaste: “[a] great beautiful thing, is a manner of expression scarcely ever used; but that of a great ugly thing, is very common” (Burke 1757:97). Smallness pleases, largeness overwhelms. A feeling of vulnerability besets the viewer of that “great ugly thing” disliked by Burke (Mack 2007:54). For him, beauty and delight came in petite guise.

Among the Classic Maya, life-sized images were reserved for stone or perhaps wood, a material mastered by Maya sculptors but now largely gone because of tropical decay (Doyle and Houston 2014, 2016). The only clay effigy of comparable size dates later. A foot survives from a Postclassic statue found in 1921 at Mound I, Tayasal, Guatemala. Clearly of unusual size, it might once have sat in a temple. [1] For their part, stone carvings drew close to—or even exceeded—”one-to-one-ism,” a mimetic approximation of an actual human frame (Houston 2019; see below).

Yet the Maya made many small things. Abundant at some sites, scarce at others, “figurines” are described by a diminutive, very much a reduced version of what they depict (Halperin 2014:37–43). This is no less true of so-called “miniature” vessels or containers (Figure 1). [2] Varied in form and surface treatment, they tend to have restricted openings, if with slightly everted lips around the rim. Stoppers of perishable material held the contents in place. Whether the vessels were small so as to enhance portability, house a valuable substance, or made for some other reason remains the issue here.

Figure 1. Miniature ceramics, Magdalena, Guatemala, note ko-lo ch’o-ko on ‘a’ , to upper left (A. L. Smith and Kidder 1943:fig. 52).

Smallness has many motivations. The diminutive implies an innate comparison with the human body, “the gold standard in the realm of measurement” (Mack 2007:53; see also Hamilton 2018:28). The object being seen or held is related visually and experientially to the person doing the beholding. That gamut of size can run, in two whimsical examples, from the smallest Hebrew Bible, on a 0.5 mm2 chip, easily blown off a finger tip by a puff of air (Jaffe-Katz 2009), to, somewhere out on the Plains, a ball of twine so large it would flatten any fool trying to lift it—competition heats up over where that ball might be (Hwang 2014). The small, regardless of time or place, is also right for small people. Conceptually, the small-scale is to full-scale as a child is to an adult. For practical reasons too: in little hands, a doll is easier to grasp than a baby, the consequences less dire if dropped. There is playful imitation, a rehearsal for later roles. Caring for a doll or using a small tool helps to prepare for the local norms of adult work (Mack 2006:139–157).

The hand-held nurtures a feeling of intimacy. Holding an object pleases the viewer, a point made long ago by Claude Lévi-Strauss (1966:23–24). Large and “formidable” things put the viewer at a disadvantage; a mental image can only be pieced together after multiple views, one angle at a time. But more than pleasing, small objects lend themselves to eroticism. In 18th and 19th-century Anglo-America, miniaturists painted on ivory a lover’s eye with arched eyebrow or a full-lipped mouth. The images went into a locket or a slim tablet the size of a wallet. Private, kept close to the heart, they were at once a recollection of past contact and a promise of future raptures. And, contrary to Lévi-Strauss, they were small yet partial. The task of imagining the whole was less an unpleasant or onerous effort than the main point of such reverie.

Sometimes the painter was the lover. In 1828, Sarah Goodridge, a celebrated miniaturist, depicted her breasts for the statesman Daniel Webster (Figure 2; Barratt and Zabar 2010:125, fig. 12, #256). The painting highlighted, among other attributes, a single mole at the midline. It is a visual billet-doux, and the recipient must have known of this blemish. But the painting also idealized Goodridge’s body. She was nearly 40 years old, and these were the breasts of a younger woman. Perhaps the reception was not what Goodridge hoped for. Recently widowed, Webster soon married another.

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Figure 2. “Beauty Revealed,” by Sarah Goodridge, 1828, 6.7 x 8 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006.235.74, CC0 1.0.

In such images, the meanings are non-general, the recipients targeted. This is where tactility comes into its own, in that the effects occur at close distance. The hand can and should hold them (Goldring 2019:2). Smallness also draws attention to the finely made, to a surfeit of detail, to precious material whose minute working asks for a second or third look. An opulent housing may attract the attention of others, and a private statement becomes (nearly) public by its glittering package (Goldring 2019:2). The Phoenix Jewel, designed by Nicholas Hilliard for Queen Elizabeth I of England, astonishes because of its flamboyance and, as a big part of its allure, the fine chasing and enameling, the summit of craftsmanship in this period (Goldring 2019:114–115). [3] Objects like this condense time, so great was the care that went into them. The viewer understands and enjoys that investment. And in what must be a cross-cultural impulse, exquisite things invite repeated visits. Minoan seals astound by their microscopic excellence, surely the focus of the makers and owners who handled them, and a revelation to those lucky enough to visit the Heraklion Museum in Crete (Weingarten 2012). Much later, Lorenzo the Magnificent spent hours scrutinizing his collection of gems and stone vases (Dunkelman 2010; Hellenstein 2013), and some of the largest collections of Russian Fabergé exist in the collections of the British royal family, who exchanged these bibelots as gifts ( If there is such a thing as court culture, the small but sensational played an important role within it.

But the emotions are not always about pleasure. Writing of “tiny stone animals” in the Andes, Catherine Allen discerns “love, awe, reverence, gratitude, and, yes, anxiety and fear” (Allen 2016:416). The last two arise because the pebbles or carved rocks are, in a sense, persons with their own powers, or they relate to grand forces brought, as small sized objects, into the household (Allen 2016:419; see also Mack 2006:162–181). Smallness can be potent and microcosmic, relating to landforms and overall structures of the universe (Dehouve 2016:507–512). In the Andes, for example, families prosper by collecting and shaping stones imbued with the spirits of mountains (Allen 2016:418, 429). Yet with that use comes risk. A power strong enough to assist can slip out of control, and a blessing becomes a peril.

In sum, small things give pleasure by being hand-held, appreciated at one glance (if part of an imaginative process that ripples wider), and exemplary in skill and artful use of precious materials. These features make them precious, coveted, collectable, hoardable. As toys for children, they are literally playful. But by scale, by being smaller versions of much larger things—and inherently non-normative—they inspire a certain awe. What they represent lends some essence of the original to its copy. In some cases, they house spirits that make even the small seem powerful. And, above all, the small inspires a response, along with a range of wishes, emotions, and creative results (Stewart 1993).

Size is an absolute, characterized loosely or by precise measurement. Scale is inherently about comparison, a suggestion made by Andrew Hamilton (2018:27) in his invaluable study of Inca scale, size, and proportion. For him, scale can be loosely descriptive (“tiny, small, large, gigantic”), but has to be in relation to something else. Some are: (1) “reduced,” being smaller than their presumed original (a llama, house model, terraced fields with huaca, water courses, and puma, a textile with Inka checkerboard); (2) “enlarged,” being larger than their natural inspiration (an Aztec grasshopper or chapulín some 47 cm long); or (3) “commensurate,” being the same size as an original (Hamilton 2018:31, 244, pl. 70)—in other words, examples of “one-to-one-ism” (see above). There are, in some instances, ritual or spiritual implications to the relations thus established. A “co-activity” occurred in which “humans coordinate[d] their activities with nonhuman agents” (Pitrou 2016:479). This insight does need detail, however. The size and scale of a llama in gold or silver, or a grasshopper of lustrous stone but monstrous proportions, are not simply aesthetic in origin. They are not made just because they could be made. There were reasons and meanings behind them, a panoply of manufactures and uses, patrons and makers, an intended placement, either concealed or in view, along with names, identities, essences.

Maya data are deeply concerned with smallness. There are contemporary texts, rich resources from Mayan languages, and many relevant objects. The Ch’olan languages have the following: Ch’olti’, the language closest to may Classic-period inscriptions, has com (kom), as in com aic, “small thing,” com uinic, “small man,” coman, “idol,” comcom, “a little pot with a neck,” se-se, “small,” and tzitic tzitic (tz’itik?), “very small” (Ringle n.d.). Or, in Ch’orti’, there are b’ik’it, “small, little,” chuchu’, “small, little, young,” or the negation ma noj, “not big” (Hull 2016:70, 108, 144, 265); Ch’ol provides b’ik’it, “small,” ch’ok, “young, small, and tz’ita’, “a little bit” (Hopkins et al. 2010:22, 53, 249). More distantly related languages offer: Colonial Tzotzil bik’it, “little, narrow, thin, humble,” ch’am, “little, small, trifling,” or machal, “modest, even phlegmatic” (Laughlin 1988:166, 196, 253), or present-day Tzoztil ‘unen, “small, young, unripe, new (moon), leaf, rising (sun)” (Laughlin 1975:74). Tzeltal records bik’it, “pequeño, chico,” ch’in, “pequeño, chico,” ch’ujch’, “pequeño, menudo, diminuto,” pek’el, “bajo, pequeño,” tut/tutu’, “pequeño, chico (Polian 2017:156, 225, 234, 491, 577). Yukatek, lush with words, yields chan, chan chan, kom, ma’ noh, ts’e, and so on (Barrera Vásquez et al. 1980:83, 84, 334, 498, 880).

What is clear from this incomplete list is that: (1) the terms can apply to things, humans, and idols alike; (2) they can negate by overt comparison with their opposite (ma’ noh, “not large”); (3) words can intensify by means of reduplication (se-se [tz’e-tz’e?], tzitik tzitik [tz’itik tz’itik?], chuchu, tutu’, chan chan); (4) cognates exist across several languages (bik’it, chuchu’/ch’uhch’); and (5) bio-metaphors exist, or an expansive reference from one thing, a small or young being, to a new moon or rising sun, and vegetal growth that is small, and likened reciprocally to a child (ch’ok). Diminutives themselves have, in some Mesoamerican languages, a self-deprecatory quality, sometimes combined with honorifics (Romero 2014:69). They might also affirm a mode of polite, careful address (Brown 1993). Tzotzil projects the use of diminutives as part of story-telling or entreaty (Laughlin 1975:17–19). Tenderness and delicacy are there, but also an almost humble (even wheedling) tone if to a social superior or a supernatural. That Latin American Spanish makes pronounced use of diminutives raises the possibility of indigenous influence on such usage (Eddington 2017; Walsh 1944).

From the Classic period, an inventory of reduced-scale objects would include (Figure 3): a temple (wayib) for a dynastic god at Copan, Honduras (Fash 2011:160, fig. 184); a micro-stela from Tikal, Guatemala (Moholy-Nagy, with Coe 2008:fig. 218, gg); another said to be from Uaymil, Campeche (photograph from John Bourne; Zender and Reents-Budet 2012:103–102, #83); and a city precinct of limestone, also from Tikal, with small holes that may represent chultunes or storage cavities (Laporte and Fialko 1995:fig. 74; n.b: this model, not a maquette for builders, shows a degree of architectural compaction that would be impossible in Maya cities; it does not correspond to any known sector of Tikal). These are consistently smaller, both absolutely and at reduced scale, in comparison to their inspirations. The micro-stelae do not have the long, deep bases of actual monuments—without such “espigas,” real stelae would list by imbalance or soil creep or topple with gusts of hard wind. The Copan temple model, a dwelling for a deity, is set apart by its smallness. By its marked, notable reduction in scale, it offers a hint of “co-activity” with the humans living nearby. Although crudely executed, a miniature stela said to be from Uaymil, Campeche, appears to bear the name of its carver. Evidently, despite its regrettable opacity, the stela was valued. A closer reading of its text could tell us much about the meaning of smallness among the Classic Maya.

Figure 3. Reduced scale among the Late Classic Maya: House “model” for god, Copan, Group 10L-2 (photograph by Barbara Fash, Fash 2011:160, fig. 184); miniature stela, Tikal, Op. 20D–72/43 (7.5 cm high, Moholy-Nagy, with Coe 2008:fig. 218, gg); Uaymil, Campeche Mexico (56.5 x 12.8 x 9.7 cm, photograph from John Bourne, TL 2009.20.196); Tikal “maquette,” Structure 5C-54 (Laporte and Fialko 1995:fig. 74).

Scalar inventions are in some ways the basis of Maya writing. The glyphs are, in a word, “calibrated.” They are images adjusted to a glyphic domain where variant scale cannot be accommodated within a single band of writing (Andréas Stauder, personal communication, 2019). The glyphs for a pyramid platform, a frontal stairway leading to its summit, and a stone-pedestaled altar on the Copan Hieroglyphic Stairway are nowhere near their relative scale—they have passed through a graphic process that makes them equivalent in size (Figure 4). Such calibration is necessary to all hieroglyphic systems. They must obey linearity, a language-based sequencing, but be framed within an area set off as writing. They are “reduced” but clarified further by a second adjustment in which relative size no longer mattered. Each glyph was probably central to Maya concepts of civic settlement. These were the places where ritual duties were performed. In what seems a necessary duality, platformed buildings existed with open-air altars used for sacrifice, sometimes of humans (see Caracol Altars 22 and 23; Grube 2020:fig. 13). To judge from glyphic reading order, the platforms took rhetorical precedence over the altars.

Figure 4. Stepped platform of two levels and pedestaled altar, Copan Hieroglyphic Stairway, Honduras, upper portion (Gordon 1902:pl XII, H).

Reduced scale ceramics are found on Maya sites, if not in great number. But they do appeal to collectors, as in the large troves in the Kislak Collection at the Library of Congress (Dunkelman 2007:11, 12, 13, 42, most descriptions by John B. Carlson) and a set of unprovenanced examples in the Museo de Antropología e Historia de Guatemala, most in its storerooms. Simply put, they are highly collectable. They are a discrete category of small size and, on a piece-by-piece basis, modestly priced on the art market. Their use and formal composition show evidence of variety and playfulness. Not at few at Uaxactun, Guatemala, display what might be called “componential inventions.” In trompe l’oeil fashion, they appear to fuse two distinct shapes, an open bowl with a water jug. They are small yet, even at that size, playing with much bigger forms.

Figure 5. Componential inventions, “bowls” with inserted “tinaja,” Tzakol or Early Classic miniatures, Uaxactun, Guatemala (R. Smith 1955:66, A10, 11).

The metaphors in such miniatures vary greatly. They can be versions of trophy heads or skulls, one at the Library of Congress with pummeled, swollen eyes and lips (Figure 6a; for larger examples, see Chase and Chase 2018:fig. 75; Inomata et al. 2010:fig. 8.46, likely modeled as a deceased captive). A piece from the Aguateca palace complex appears to show a figure in which the miniature becomes its satchel held by tumpline (Inomata et al. 2010:fig. 8.28f); another exhibits a small bug, probably a firefly, on a small vase (Inomata et al. 2010:fig. 8.27g). Others are skeuomorphs—cross-media transfers—from perishable to non-perishable materials, as in a gourd-shaped miniature from Uaxactun or flat, canteen-like flasks that might have reflected leather or wooden originals (Figure 6b; cf. flat, horizontally elongated flasks in Eppich 2011, a shape well-suited to figural scenes), or the small houses common in square shapes, sloping roofs with fringed thatch or leaves (Figure 6c). Churned out in large number, these last exemplify the mold-made productions that heightened access to hieroglyphic texts and high-style images (Card and Zender 2016; Matsumoto 2018, 2019). Curiously, many seem to have been produced in the area of Copan, the Motagua River Basin, but with eventual find spots in areas that had little evident literacy in glyphs: readable texts that were unread if admired. What is worth noting too is that many miniatures have counterparts in larger pots, but not all do, especially the “flat” or “canteen-like” flasks. For unclear reasons, the imagery is largely decoupled from the probable function of the miniatures, one of the few exceptions being a flask with a tobacco plant (e.g., Houston et a. 2006:fig. 3.9b).

The wit here is notable, a skull like a receptacle, a “house” that stored limited contents, a gourd that did the same. They resemble, and are likened to, things they are not, but with a looser semblance of function. That marking of special shape and small holdings—tobacco is one likely content (Houston et al. 2006:114–116, figs. 3.9–3.10; see also Loughmiller-Cardinal and Zagorevski 2016)—may explain their inclusion in special deposits or caches at Caracol, Belize (e.g., Chase and Chase 2018:fig. 72a), and Tikal (Problematic Deposits 116, 169, Culbert 1993:figs. 114b, 148g, 155b), or in the Barranca Escondida chasm at Aguateca, Guatemala (Inomata et al. 2010:fig. 8.59). These are variant sizes in symbolically marked spaces. The presence of copal or resin in some such miniatures hints at other sacred offerings to be combusted by fire (R. Smith 1955:figs. 9k, 12n).

Figure 6. Miniatures and metaphors: (a) swollen, bleeding head, perhaps with eyes removed (Kislak Collection, Library of Congress); (b) a “gourd” (A. L. Smith and Kidder 1943:fig. 52d); (c) “house” with God D, quetzal bird, and dwarf, Tazumal, El Salvador (Card and Zender 2016:fig. 4); and a “house” flask with ballplayer scene (Yale University Art Gallery, 2018.12.8, gift of Peter David Joralemon).

A few, up on four supports, are more likely to be sedan chairs. A creature sprawls on its roof, and four feet elevate it for resting on an uneven or muddy surface. Both are portable, one by a single hand, the other, judging by the handbars, by at least two heaving porters (see also K6759). Other miniatures have two small “ears” for lashing the stopper or suspension around the neck—if with tobacco powder, a short distance to the nose (Inomata et al. 2010:figs. 8.15c, 8.16a, 8.19a, b, 8.25h, 8.27g).

Figure 7. Miniature as sedan chair, Magdalena, Guatemala (left, see Figure 1a, above), and Late Classic vase (right, K767, courtesy Justin Kerr).

In fact, an image of a male rat or pocket gopher may display a unique image of a miniature in use. The rodent clutches a small object that may be self-referential, the flask in use, close to the face (Figure 8).

Figure 8. Miniature shown in possible use, Bodega, Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología (photograph Stephen Houston).  

The glyphs on the flasks and miniature jars need their own study. A few refer explicitly to tobacco snuff (see above), but, notably, the owner is not always specified: in flexible phrasing, “the dwelling [yotoot] of his or her snuff [may]” applies to the first owner all the way to the last. One who is specified carries almost a casual, stripped-down record, a-ku MO’-‘o, “Turtle Macaw,” without the titles that would further identify him.

Most texts are, if legible, highly formulaic, with glyphs repeated and reordered into what seems a jumble. One has an upside text (American Museum of Natural History 30.2/ 6083). These glyphs are generally syllabic, perhaps a nod to consumers unfamiliar with the language: ko-lo, che?-ye/HA’?-ka, AJAW, AJ-cha?-la, XOOK?, and, most clearly, ch’o-ko (e.g., K7122; one molded text may even allude to a “great youth,” CHAK ch’o-ko). The presence of this, a term for “youth,” could refer to these as flasks intended for young men as gifts in rites of passage (Houston 2018:80–81). At the least, their broad occurrence suggests a certain degree of impersonality, a more generic sort of reference. Yet the biometaphors for small things may indicate an alternative: the ch’ok are the objects themselves (Figures 1, 7). A flask with incised, post-fire text reinforces this possibility with a name-tag that simply reads, u-ch’o-ko ch’a-jo?-ma, u ch’ok ch’ajoom, “[this is] the ch’ok of the incense [priest]” (Coe 1971:137, pl. 76).

That there was aesthetic and emotional regard for miniature vases seems undeniable. Metaphors informed their shape and decoration. They may have satisfied cravings if filled with snuff, or served rituals as handy places for copal (tobacco might also be burned on such occasions). They were not just lowly and workaday but could find their way, votive-like, into sacred caches or, testifying to royal use, on the floors and benches of a rapidly abandoned palace. Like a locket, they could be kept on one’s person. The beauty of other small things invoked yet other metaphors. A small conch of unknown provenance has on it a text that spells out “[this is] his hummingbird conch” (Figure 9). [4] Not because any such bird cavorts on its surface, but because “hummingbird” was an expression—and is so used today—for a “very small” thing in Ch’orti’ Maya (Hull 2016:462). In that language, superbly documented by Kerry Hull, it concerns living things, a turkey (or, today, a chicken), a dog, rooster (gayu, from Spanish gallo), a person or, in this example, a small conch cradled in the hand. A tiny bird, anomalous in many ways—fragile yet fierce, of shocking speed and wayward flight—extends to a once-living shell that was probably a rarity in the place it was made.

Figure 9. Small conch, u-tz’u-nu2 HUB-nu, u tz’unun hub, “his hummingbird conch” (photographer unknown).

Reduced scale has many meanings, not all, for the ancient Maya, explicable on available evidence. The allusions could be “playful,” even if to a scooped-out head. (Amusement is a universal but not what prompts it.) And if affection and humility are discernible a millennium out, those feelings may also have enveloped small things. The small and the large appear to intensify responses to them. Some objects were crude, perhaps modeled by children, but there is no proof that the young were involved other than, perhaps, as recipients. Moreover, Burke’s conviction that only large things inspired awe has grounds for disbelief. From the Preclassic period on, the stone effigies of Chahk, the ferocious storm and rain god, were mostly small: powerful in ways that could split trees and blast rock yet rest in the hand; wielders of lightning some decimeters high at most; cut with care, brought to high polish, each quite tactile (e.g., Coe 1973:25, pl. 1, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, ANT.236866; Princeton University Art Museum, y1990-74; American Museum of Natural History 30.3/ 2507). Where these were kept in Classic or earlier times cannot be known. Yet, although things of awe, they could, by human contact, by their small, holdable size, come under human control.

[1] For the Tayasal image: The Hollis repository also contains a photograph of a large seated figure from Laguna Cilvituk, a fired effigy that also dates to the Postclassic period (58-34-20/53638). The Tayasal statue might have had the same pose, the legs drawn up in throned position.

[2] As a label, “miniature” comes from the practice of limning small paintings. It derives from Latin minium, “red lead” or “cinnabar (see the Trésor de la Langue Française informatisé,;s=1921873545;).

[3] On the Phoenix Jewel:

[4] The term for conch may lose vowel complexity over time: hu[bi] and, in possessed form, yu-bi are attested (, position D1, the other from a photograph kindly shared by David Stuart). The example here contains a logograph HUB and a subfixed bu. For incisive discussion: Zender (2017:16–17, fn32), who proposes, for future discussion, a spelling less about vowel complexity than “selected [so as] to minimize orthographic variation in possessed contexts.”


My thanks go to Simon Martin for organizing a session, on Feb. 25, 2020, at the Kluge Center, Library of Congress, where I first presented some of these ideas. The meeting was stimulating, and a warm memory from just before the pandemic. Karl Taube was helpful in discussing little gods who were also “big,” and Christina Halperin and David Stuart were supportive too.


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