The Preclassic “Whiplash”

A few newly unearthed hieroglyphic texts from San Bartolo, all Preclassic in date, exhibit a distinctive curved “whiplash” line that runs beneath and along the right side of some signs. This may represent little more than artistic flair, but the line could also hold some meaning or function still unclear. When visiting the Museo Miraflores in Guatemala City last year, I was fascinated to find the same linear feature on a glyph incised into the text panel of Stela 21 from Kaminaljuyu, a Late Preclassic fragment with a style that surely dates to about the same time as the murals.

The well preserved Stela 21 glyphs, both undeciphered, show an infixed le syllable in the head sign at left, and a -la suffix on the block at right.


5 thoughts on “The Preclassic “Whiplash”

  1. Mario April 2, 2008 / 2:30 AM

    Mr. Stuart,

    First of all, I am an undergraduate student of anthropology at California State University, Los Angeles and my understanding of Classic Maya writing is very modest, but I am always eager to read, learn and study everything related to this complex and fascinating topic. As I was going through the various posts of your website, it intrigued me to see the observation you made on the San Bartolo murals and the “whiplash” line element of the glyphs. I would like to know what are new insights regarding your observation.
    I would also like to comment on the other set of signs (3 signs to the left of the signs you mentioned above) of the same portion of the San Bartolo murals. As I was attempting to apply syllabic values to the signs, it seems to me that the sounds correspond to something like:


    Then, based on the synharmonic and disharmonic rules explained in Reading the Maya Gylphs by Coe, the first two signs are reduced to represent:

    po-m(o) or pom,

    I guess it means “incense”? The third sign is –ja, and as it is explained and recognized by yourself, Houston and Robertson, it could well represent a morphosyllabogram, thus:

    –ja becomes –AJ

    So, could the reading of all the signs correspond to pom-AJ, which would translate into English, as “it is incense”? Also, the figure to the right of these 3 signs seems to carry something that releases smoke or perhaps a fragrance of some type, maybe “pom”? I would really appreciate you comments and time.

    Mario Giron

  2. Mario April 2, 2008 / 2:52 AM

    I ‘d also like to ask how incorrect or insensitive is to apply Classic Maya syllabic values to Pre-classic writing? Thanks.


  3. David Stuart May 5, 2008 / 4:13 PM

    Dear Mario,

    You ask good questions, and sorry it has taken me so long — a month! — to reply. When you wrote I was in the field at San Bartolo.

    In all honestly we don’t know much at all about Pre-Classic Maya script. Some signs can be easily equated with Classic variants, while others at San Bartolo and elsewhere seem altogether unfamiliar. It gets especially tricky when we are dealing with what we think are syllabic elements. That is, we can equate logograms without too much trouble, but I have yet to find or feel comfortable with one syllabic spelling at San Bartolo or in any Pre-Classic text. Logograms seem to abound.

    The supposed po / mo / ja elements you mention, from the north wall of San Bartolo Mural 1, are a case in point. They do seem like syllables, and I and others had considered, as you suggest, that the po and mo were perhaps spelling “incense” (pom). Now this turns out to be unlikely. The supposed “po” element was mis-drawn (by yours truly), and checking the original painting at the site a few weeks ago, I noticed that there is much more to it, at least enough to steer away from a po identification. My sense is that these signs might also be logograms, naming the standing figure nearby.

    There are many more texts at San Bartolo to ponder, some just unearthed in the last few weeks, so lots of analysis awaits.

    Thanks for your great questions.

  4. Jeff February 11, 2009 / 11:32 AM

    Hello Dr. Stuart,

    Could I run another idea by you about the SanB glyphs?

    In looking at the glyphs to the right of the burning dear there can be seen familiar glyphs such as EK’, the three “to” cloud swirl glyphs atop what might be an early “tun” sign (without the rainbow and bunched grapes), and possibly a glyph showing the brests of a woman (somewhat close to the “tza” phonetic sign) topped of by K’AK… I thought that they might actually be logographic instead of syllabographic combinations.

    It is interesting to see that there are so few glyphs on such a seemingly important mural and that it was done so very early in the life and formation of their writing.

    Also there are, as in many Maya works that include art and glyphs, glyphs within the artwork. But in this piece, unlike the Dresden, many appear to be more “real-life” objects that had symbolic meaning in the life of those depicted, but were not recognized or even established as formal glyphs by then. One example is the knot tied around many of the characters’ arms and legs and hodling the support sticks for the burning animals. This appears to be a “ji” glyph but it doesn’t appear to be a glyph placed into the scene by the artist to convery a word, it seems to be actually at home in the mural. Unlike the “u” shaped glyph on the dear and other items, the usage of the “knot”, and what appears to be a “pakal” glyph (to the left of the burning pheasant) that is very much the same as the jade disks found at the same site, and the fluer-de-lis looking symbols that look so much like “ya” glyphs seems to point to me to show more the origins of the glyphs from important symbols used by those elite.

    In these murals we see more than ever the imagery that would have lead them to formalize symbols into glyphs from the curls of the fire into K’ak or the curls of smoke into Muyal/Tok, and the fleur-du-lis into ya, among others.

    Therefore could it be that what we see here is purely logogaphic writing (without acrophony being applied yet) as well as artisic representations of what were symbols to them that perhaps had not reached actual “glyph” status as their glyphic vocabulary hadn’t quite fully matured by that time?

    Either way the artwork on these murals is no less than stunning. It’s funny how art-deco they look!

    Thank you Dr. Stuart

  5. Betty May 22, 2009 / 9:33 PM

    Estimado doctor Stuart, es para mi un honor y orgullo poder escribirle este correo, se lo escribo en español porque sé que usted habla muy bien mi idioma. Yo soy una estudiante del último año de Arqueología en la Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala. El motivo de la presente es contarle que yo lo conozco a usted porque me ha tocado hacer investigaciones sobre epigrafía, lo he visto en la “U” y una vez estube tentada a pedirle un autografo. Eso es todo. Mi nombre es Carmen Elizabeth Castañeda Vásquez y tengo 62 años de edad (ya estoy viejita). También conozco al Doctor Saturno y por cierto que lo confundí con usted. Ha sido un placer poder escribir este correo. Gracias y Adios.

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