The Dallas Bone

One of my favorite Maya artworks is this intricately incised bone dating to about 600 A.D., now on display in the Dallas Art Museum. It’s been published and analyzed before (sort of), and is well-known to most scholars, but whenever I see the original I’m always stunned by its tiny size — less than 10 cms. in height.


The scene depicts the crowning of a king, in all likelihood a mythical figure based on the Maize God. An elderly gent resembling God L holds aloft an elaborate royal headdress in the form of the Principal Bird Deity, shown also perched on the celestial band above the throne. The iconography references, I think, an important storyline from ancient Maya origin mythology, where a great supernatural bird — probably based on an eagle, and a basic symbol of royal authority since Preclassic times — descended from the heavens to engender kingship as a political and cosmological paradigm. The story is depicted on many other objects, including the famous Blowgunner Vase (Kerr 1226), where we see a melding of this ancient story with somewhat different motifs and episodes of the later Popol Vuh epic. Marc Zender has traced some aspects of it as well in his discussion of the verb ehm, “to descend.” The San Bartolo mural shows the most vivid scene of the Principal Bird’s descent on the center of its west wall, as Bill Saturno, Karl Taube and I will present in a formal publication in the coming year.

The date recorded on the Dallas Bone is “5 K’an End of Yaxk’in,” perhaps a day of great mythological significance. I say this because in the 260-day calendar 5 K’an comes just two days after 3 Ik’ — the single day written next to with the descending Principal Bird image at San Bartolo. That, in turn, comes two days after the important 1 Ajaw featured in the Blowgunner Vase, and which obviously served as the basis of the name Hun Ajaw (meaning in a mythical sense “First, Original Lord”). So, for what it’s worth, we have three very different references to the myth of the bird that fall into a nice sequential arrangement: 1 Ajaw – 2 Imix – 3 Ik’ – 4 Ak’bal – 5 K’an. I’m as yet unsure what this all means, but the pattern seems worth further consideration.

One interesting aspect of the Dallas Bone’s design is the careful arrangement of the text within the scene. The four glyphs above the headdress provide the date (5 Kan End of Yaxk’in) and the main verb (k’ahlaj, “it was fastened…”). Then the text passes over to the floating glyph at far left, labeling the headdress (? hu’n), before it continuing down to the three glyphs above the image of the seated recipient, reading t-u-baah Lem ? Ixiim?, “…upon the head of Shiny-?-Maize(?).” It’s a fine example of an artist’s carefully considered integration of text and image.

The inscription:

5-“K’AN” / TI’-HAAB / YAX-K’IN-ni / K’AL-ja / ?-HU’N-na / tu-BAAH-hi / LEM?-?-IXIIM?

Jo’ K’an(?) (u-)ti’-haab Yaxk’in k’ahlaj ? hu’n t-u-baah Lem(?) ? Ixiim

(On the day) Five K’an the ‘end’ of Yaxk’in, the ? headdress is fastened upon the head of Shiny-?-Maize(?).

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