Back in 1993 I proposed that the main sign of the emblem glyph of Tikal and Dos Pilas/Aguateca is read as MUT, based on the affixes mu- and -tu that appear with it in different contexts, apparently as phonetic complements (Figure 1). My colleague Christian Prager noticed this pattern around the same time, also seeing these syllables as essential clues to the sign’s reading. Many examples of the emblem also show an additional -la suffix, suggesting that MUT-la is a fuller spelling that has led to the various reconstructions Mutal, Mutul, Mutuul. Mutu’l, or something similar (the precise nature of the vowel in such -Vl suffix remains a point of minor debate among epigraphers). My inclination is to see the ancient court name as related to the historical attested place name Mutul, known from both Yucatan and the Petén, as in the modern names Motul de San José, or Motul, Yucatan (home of huevos motuleños, a staple of restaurant breakfasts in Yucatán). “Mutul” is the form I will use here as the reading the full Tikal emblem. In the Classic period Tikal seems to have gone by the name Yax Mutul, “The First Mutul,” perhaps as a way of distinguishing it from earlier centers who also had claimed the Mutul name.
One key lexical item of support of the MUT reading – or so it seemed at the time – was that the sign represented tied bundle of hair, seeming to agree well with the Yukatek term mut pol, cited in the Vienna Dictionary meaning rodete hacer la mujer de sus cabellos (“bun made by a woman from her hair”), clearly related to mut as rodete para asentar olla o vasija (“[round] support for a jar or vase”). However, mut here this may be a corruption or even mis-transcription of the better-established noun met, meaning ruedo, rodete, o rodillo sobre que se asienta alguna vasija (from the Calepino Motul). This possibility had set some doubt in my own mind about the lexical basis of the MUT sign reading, despite the evidence of the syllabic complements we had found. The lack of any non-Yukatek sources for the reading seemed problematic as well, and I’ve long thought MUT needed a bit more backing. Still, it is important to note that there were several signs that ubstitute with one another in the context of the Tikal emblem, each featuring bound hair or a twisted braid, as first patterned out by Linda Schele (1985).
Here I point out a helpful substitution of signs that would appear seems to confirm the MUT value once and for all, in the spelling of the name of a royal woman cited in the inscriptions of Yaxchilan and environs (Figure 2). She was a noblewoman from the court of Hixwitz, a spouse or consort of Yuxuun Bahlam IV (Bird Jaguar IV) named Ix Mut(?) Bahlam. She is depicted on Lintels 17, 40, and 43, identifiable by her name, which damaged in two of the three instances. The best-preserved examples of from Lintel 17, where the name is IX-MUT-tu BAHLAM (Figure 2b). It was this example that gave us the final –tu as a likely phonetic complement to the supposed MUT sign.
Another portrait of Ix But Bahlam comes from Stela 2 from Dos Caobas, a satellite of Yaxchilan whose two monuments are now on display in the Museo Regional of nearby Frontera Corozal, Chiapas (Figure 3). Stela 2 is a fascinating and unusual monument, depicting the ruler Yaxuun Bahlam seated high upon a pillow-throne, facing a standing male figure who holds an object to him. Standing behind are two women, one named Ix Wak Jamchan Ajaw, of the Ik’ or Ik’a’ court of the central Peten lake area. She is also portrayed on Yaxchilan’s Lintels 5 and 41, and perhaps also 15 and 38, with a slightly different spelling. The second woman is a slightly eroded caption that contains a Hixwitz title (IX-hi-HIX wi-tz-AJAW) (see Figure 2a), and is surely Ix Mut Bahlam. Indeed, the BAHLAM logogram of her name is clear, as is a revealing spelling of the first part of her name in the initial block: IX-mu-tu. This substitutes directly for the IX-MUT-tu from Lintel 17’s caption, and offers another welcome piece of evidence to bolster the MUT reading.
One last connection that may be relevant is the name of another woman who is cited on Tikal’s Stela 23, whose name I tentatively read as IX-CH’AJAN?-MUT-AJAW?, or Ix Ch’ajan MutAjaw (Figure 4a). This surviving passage from the stela’s text records her birth, with no other names or titles, so she was clearly a person of great importance. This name seems related to another woman or female deity mentioned on the much earlier Stela 26 (Figure 4b), where we see the same combination of elements with the addition of a “mirror” or “shiner” sign, perhaps read as li or LEM before the MUT, possibly for Ix Ch’ajanil Mut. Yet another possible variation of this name or reference comes from a much later context, on a carved bone from Topoxte’, Guatemala (Figure 4c). This object was owned by an individual whose mother is also named, bearing the royal title of Tikal (IX-MUT-AJAW). Here the personal name may be distinct, displaying the sign TAL, but I wonder if this is instead the same twisted cord sign I consider as CH’AJAN followed by a full-figure of a bird, easily recognizable as MUUT (“bird”). The combination could suggest the possibility of a logographic substitution between two near homophones: MUUT, “bird,” for the hair-bundle MUT we find in the spellings at Tikal.Differences among these names makes their equivalence somewhat iffy, but such a substitution fits a pattern we see elsewhere in texts after 750 CE or so, which disregard certain traditional distinctions in the internal vowels near-homophones. In this case, the scribe may to have replaced the logogram MUT (mu-tu) with a short /u/ with MUUT (mu-ti), with its long vowel /uu/. By the time this late text was composed the old distinction may have been lost, and the pronunciation of the two signs may have been quite close.
All of this, especially the Dos Caobas example, is to buttress the original MUT reading of the hair-bundle sign that is the basis Tikal emblem glyph and its court name Mutul, as proposed three decades ago. Questions still surround the lexical background of this reading, but from an epigraphic angle the logogram’s value seems secure.
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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