An Early Classic Cave Ritual

by Steve Houston

A few months ago, I happened to visit the Museo Principe Maya in Coban, Guatemala. It is an impressive (and now registered) collection, with dozens of important objects. Few visitors go there, however. The museum lies on a side-street and is unknown, it seems, to the local office of tourism. The staff was baffled when asked about it.

But find it we did, with some pleasant surprises.

The image below comes from a piece of cave flow-stone — under a cm. thick, and obviously cut from a cave, with carbon black painting and a thick, daubed white, perhaps some kind of kaolin. (I vaguely recall seeing this object in an issue of Mexicon but cannot find that reference now. Stanley Guenter was certainly there before me, and had prepared a number of written descriptions of objects, all out in nice, bilingual display.) The entire object is close to a meter high, perhaps a little more than that from side to side. Unfortunately, it’s also behind glass, which makes photography somewhat difficult. For all that, the flow-stone is one of the most important cave texts found in the last 20 years. It’s not on a par with Naj Tunich, of course. But it still provides fascinating glimpses into Early Classic ritual and gives us some notion of a pan-Maya event celebrated in at least two caves.

The iconography on the flow-stone shows two figures, both lords, at least to judge from the jaguar pelts. They are probably not people of the highest rank, as can be seen by their distinctive gathered headdresses, of a type that sometimes occurs with subordinate lords. (Dave Stuart has a full discussion of the headdress in his book on the Palenque Temple XIX texts, esp. figs. 106-107, 108-110.) I would guess that the figures are, in fact, priests of some sort. The animals above the headdresses are doubtless their personal names. The reading of the title for such lords is still under discussion, but *abaat, “worker, servant,” is one possibility. (The term is cognate with a documented expression for “messenger,” noticed by Dave in the 90s and presented in our book with Karl Taube, The Memory of Bones.)

What’s important here is that the date can be worked out — it has to be ( 9 Ajaw 3 Muwaan, Jan. 31, AD 426, Julian. The event is clearly one of the censing. Small nodules of ch’aaj sprinkle from the hand of the person to the left, down to what may be an incense burner.

So, a high-end cave text, painted expertly on thin flow-stone, comemmorating a major period-ending. It involves one of the earliest images of figures with a distinctive headdress (another of comparable date is known from Rio Azul, as illustrated in Dave’s discussion).

It gets even more interesting: Dave pointed out to me that what is probably the *exact same date* also occurs in a painting from the Jolja cave, and with two people as well. At Jolja, the figures have black body-paint, just as on the Coban stone, and one of them holds a torch, of the sort used in burning offerings, like incense or paper. The gesture of the figure to the left is that of incense-sprinkling, again like the figure from the Principe Maya. Karen Bassie has done an excellent, e-report on the Jolja finds, at:

In any case, comparable events of great ritual importance took place in at least two caves, separated by what I presume to be quite a distance — the artifacts in the Coban museum tend to come from the Peten, not Chiapas. The quality in both instances is high, even of royal commission, and the dates are both 9 Ajaw, itself suggestive of the underworld or cthonic settings — I’m thinking here of the 9 Ajaw house on Tikal Altar 5, which specifies the burial place of Lady Tuun Kaywak. In the Early Classic, the date at Jolja and on the Coban flow-stone would only fall on major Period Endings (katun or lahuntun endings) at fairly rare intervals, as in, and then again (aside from our date), at Dave and I have to wonder if the cave rituals were prompted in some way by preparations for the change of the Baktun a few years later.

5 thoughts on “An Early Classic Cave Ritual

  1. David Stuart December 13, 2007 / 6:10 PM

    The “Nine Ajaw House” mentioned on Tikal’s Altar 5 is certainly related to this, as you suggest, Steve. Taking the connection a bit further, the best real example of a “Nine Ajaw House” is Temple 22A at Copan, with its large glyphic labels of this same name on its facade, as well as its nine portraits of Underworld deities. For years I’ve thought of these Temple 22A characters as Maya versions of the “Nine Lords of the Night” of central Mexican thought. The cave settings of these early Maya rituals must have something to do with this Underworld association. If so, we might entertain the idea that certain Period Endings, named “# Ajaw,” took on meanings based on the significances of their associated numbers. Not too surprising, really.

  2. Stephen Houston December 13, 2007 / 6:49 PM

    An addendum to this useful observation about Copan:

    At the last Texas Maya Meeting, I suggested that this is why the very first depictions of the day sign Ajaw qua headbanded lord are on *1 Ajaw*, namely, Before that, the Ajaw day signs show the more usual version, with rather abstract, frontally disposed face. Of course, it’s hard not to see a connection between this innovation and Hunhunapuh [i.e., 1 Ajaw], or to his Classic predecessor!

  3. David Stuart December 13, 2007 / 8:32 PM

    And we get a sense of the importance of Ajaw numbers from the tablets of the Temple if the Inscriptions at Palenque. There scribes described each new K’atun period as an animate number “becoming a lord” (ajaw-yan): On 1 Ajaw “One becomes lord,” on 12 Ajaw, “Twleve becomes lord,” and so forth.

    There are a few Hunajaw (Hunahpu) heads used as Ajaw day signs in Early Classic inscriptions at Copan (Stela 24, 63 come to mind), but you’re right that it’s pretty customary after 1 Ajaw 8 K’ayab.

  4. Stephen Houston December 13, 2007 / 8:42 PM

    You’re right! I should have specified, “day signs” on Giant Ajaw altars.

  5. Stephen Houston December 14, 2007 / 4:19 PM

    I should stop clogging the blog — kudos for doing this, Dave.

    But I’ve just remembered — and, I’m sure, others have noted — a second germane point. (Matt Looper must deal with this as well.) Namely, that Quirigua is full of personified numbers in iconographic settings. For example, Stela A is named as the “6 Ajaw” stone (the IS is 6 Ajaw 13 K’ayab) and displays, on its north face, a personified form of the Number 6 in the act of dancing, evidently within a “house.” (Note the element above. It’s like the structural feature above God L on the Princeton Vase or, for that matter, the Vase of the 7 Gods.) The same personified and dancing Number 6 appears on Stela A. Then, of course, Stela F refers to “the name of the 1 Ajaw stone,” for a monument with precisely this IS. The rich maize imagery on Stela J must relate as well to its IS of *8* Ajaw 8 Zotz. All of this is consistent with the notions of embodied time developed in our recent book for UT Press.

    The building names at Quirigua remind me of the ones mentioned by Dave at Copan, with numbers, day names, and subfixed NAAH. Note the location of a scattering event on Zoomorph P or a place of burial on Zoomorph G, at a time when “kingship is dropped” by the holy lord. (I’m obliged to Simon Martin for drawing my attention to this text and its [ya-ka-ta-ji].)

    The last phrase intrigues me. Could it be that, at some sites, rulership does not end at death but only when the king is buried? Liminality, indeed, and consonant with the widespread notion that death is a process, not a single event. It also makes me wonder if we’re interpreting correctly the “abdication” on PNG Throne 1, which has the same phrase. Did Ha’ K’in Xook, much like QRQ lord, simply die, to be buried at night [ta-yi-K’IN-ni]? (We know of nightime events with burials and tombs at Tzendales and Dos Pilas.) At PNG, are the two acts of “carrying” the “bundle of office” and its placement in a building, both mentioned after the [ya-ka-ta-ji], simply part of rituals of interregnum? Regalia stored, like Arthur’s sword, until the right person comes along?

    So much at PNG relates to the Jaguar-Paw-Stone that Dave identified with Altar 4 and more broadly with the East Group Plaza. A place where things began and where they ended. For example, I’m convinced that the first legible event on PNG Throne 1 refers to an Early Classic lord of the site (Ruler 7 his namesake), as ever involved with the Jaguar-Paw-Stone place. And it’s not just Ruler 7 making loud claims, as is his usual MO: Ruler 5 is also involved with the location, as seen on El Cayo Panel 1.

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