Of Beads and Cylinders

by Steve Houston

Some months ago I happened to see a remarkable object in a small private collection. It is a stone cylinder c. 12 cm. in height, c 7 cm. in diameter. Mary Miller had also shown me photos of the piece many years ago, in the ‘80s. I did a drawing of it at the time – which I cannot now find for the life of me!


The cylinder belongs to a genre of Early Classic objects, none of great size, that show the heads of what I take to be deceased lords. This ID is suggested by the closed eye and the disembodied nature of the portraits. One such object is on human bone, the other occurs on a sculpture drawn by Dave Stuart. (Both images are shown below.) On the human bone, the name of the deceased ruler appears in the headdress, a standard practice in Maya imagery, from earliest times to the end of the Classic period, a millennium later.


But what is the cylinder, and what does its text say?

First the date: The combination of the 5 Chuwen in the 260-day calendar and an early G2 (the so-called “lord of the night,” plus title” that occur in the 2nd and 3rd places of the vertical text) limits us to a few options, especially in view of the early style of the cylinder. The range of dates can’t be more than a century and is probably rather less than that. The Maya sometimes prized economy of expression, and the cylinder exemplifies this drive to concision.

As I was looking at the piece, it suddenly occurred to me that I had seen the name before or at least a name close to it — the nominal signs are, of course, the glyphs that stretch over the final blocks of the vertical text. The glyphs also appear as elements in the headdress of the portrait to the other side of the cylinder. I’ve attached a rather poor drawing I did in ’81 or so of Balakbal Stela 5, with a date of in the Maya system, May 16 (Julian), AD 406 in ours. (Perhaps I shouldn’t apologize too much for the drawing. The photo of the stela was grainy and uncooperative.)


Note the similarity, illustrated here, between the name on Stela 5 and that on the cylinder. In the first glyph there appears the “cruller” device that wraps around the eye and passes through the earspool. The cylinder makes it clear, both in text and imagery, that the final name of this lord is that of the Rain God, Chahk. Most of the same attributes are in place, from the hair-knot to the serpent-tongue, and, in the inscription, a distinctive shell-earspool – a collection put together by Karl Taube in his classic book on Maya deities makes this point neatly. I wish the Chahk were clearer on Stela 5, but the text has become damaged at just this point.


What do we know of Balakbal? Ruppert and Denison’s publication for the Carnegie, Archaeological Reconnaissance in Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Peten, shows that it lies in a remote place very close to the border of Peten, Guatemala, and the Mexican states of Quintana Roo and Campeche. The compass map by Ruppert and Denison reveals that the site has a so-called “E-group,” a massive set of buildings oriented to dawn-events that is a characteristic of the Maya Preclassic and into the Early Classic. Thus, this is likely to be an early site, at least in part, and the date of Stela 5, among the most important, early texts we know, fits well with this impression.

Back to the dating of the cylinder. Balakbal Stela 5 is difficult to make out, like many early Maya inscriptions. But its main date ( 9 Etznab 16 Pop, May 14, AD 406) is most likely an accession, followed a short time later by the celebration of an important calendrical ceremony, presided over by the new ruler — and, I suspect, the figure on the cylinder. The reference to accession is expected for the simple reason that the right side of the stela may record the death of his predecessor only a short time before (31 days, to be exact).

The link to Balakbal gives us a possible linchpin for assigning a date to the cylinder. Of course, 5 Chuwen, G2, has to come after the dates on Stela 5, and probably by more than a short period, as we are likely to be dealing with a posthumous object. These are the possibilities, given the clues from Stela 5 (all dates in the Julian system).

(1), May 27, AD 407
(2), Oct. 17, AD 417
(3), March 14, AD 420
(4), Aug. 10, AD 426
(5), Jan 5, AD 433

Later dates are biologically possible, but they begin to stretch beyond what I would find stylistically feasible. Date (1) seems too early for me, which leaves the following four. Unless there is some clue that escapes me, I cannot sort out which might be correct. I suspect, however, that the latest two are more likely to be correct, given what we know of most spans of rule. The intended readers must have found certain things obvious. The sculptor understood this and didn’t bother with a complete date, to our frustration. (The Stuart text with the Initial Series in the Maya system is far fuller and more explicit.)

So, we have a date or range of dates – if predicated on a number of assumptions–an identifiable (if deceased) personage, a possible find-spot at or near Balakbal, Campeche, and a standard verb to indicate dedication or offering (this is the possible t’abayi verb, with a reading proposed by Dave Stuart in 5th position within the text). This leaves the highly enigmatic yu-BAAH.

It could be that this is a disharmonic spelling, one with a “complex” vowel, thus the yuub. That’s reasonable, yet I believe such a spelling may not work with the so-called “pocket gopher” glyph (BAAH). At this stage in Maya writing, the “gopher glyph” functioned, to an exclusive extent, as a rebus for “portrait, body,” baah (Dave, Karl, and I explain this in our book, The Memory of Bones).

I believe we are looking at a unique spelling that is nonetheless consistent with what we know of Maya words at this time. The y-u-baah is a possessed object, hence y- for the third-person, “his” (in this case, although “her” and “its” are possible, too), followed by the name of the thing being possessed, then the name of the possessor. The /baah/ is explained by the portrait on the other side.

…but what of the /u/ in between? Long ago, John Justeson of SUNY-Albany suggested that there were glyphs for “bead, necklace,” spelled [U] in the writing system. There is a handsome study of this by Dave Stuart, in this blog, who points to a clear demonstration of U as “bead” in a particular spelling at Tonina, Chiapas. (There’s another, eroded example at Tonina on Monument 7, so it isn’t a singular example.) I had also entertained the idea of a reading involving the root for “hearing,” ub, with assimilation of the final “b” into baah. Thus, a “hearing/sensing” image. But I think this interpretation is more of a stretch.

In short, the cylinder may be a “bead-image” or “bead-portrait” of the ruler. The shape fits, of course, and the Maya were known to have created particular objects of “jewelry” (or simulacra of them) in outsized form, as in a number of gigantic earspools that could not have been worn by anybody but a giant. We also know that a great deal of jewelry (whether literal or figurative) depicted ancestors.

This may be what occurs on the cylinder. I have seen finely polished stone cylinders from a number of Maya sites, including, I dimly recall, an example excavated by Dave Stuart at Arroyo de Piedra, in 1990. Are these “plain versions” of carved cylinders? Just as plain stelae evoke monuments embellished with images of rulers?

There may be more of these than we think. I attach an image of a small, rectangular stone, found in a niche by Sarah Jackson during the 2000 field season at Piedras Negras. The setting: Group C, just off the Northwest Group Plaza. In 1932, Linton Satterthwaite of the University Museum at Penn found very similar objects in Structure O-7, all of which just seem to sit there, without plastering or rooting in the substrate. Behind Sarah’s niche was a buried bench with various offerings of ceramics, as shown in the second photo.

Are stones like this altars or “rectangular columns,” as Satterthwaite called them…or, rather more strangely, plain versions of “ancestral jewels”? Beads of square section are, of course, attested in Maya jewelry.

UPDATE: A copy of Steve’s drawing of the cylinder will be posted here later — Dave has a copy somewhere in his files…

One thought on “Of Beads and Cylinders

  1. Julian dates October 15, 2009 / 5:54 PM

    In this post you give the equivalent calendar dates of seven Long Count dates. All of these would be in the Julian calendar and are labeled as such.:, May 16, AD 406 9 Etznab 16 Pop, May 14, AD 406, May 27, AD 407, Oct. 17, AD 417, March 14, AD 420, Aug. 10, AD 426, Jan 5, AD 433

    Using the G.M.T. correlation I calculate these as: – January 29th, 426 – May 12th 406 – May 20th, 407 – October 15th, 413 – March 12th, 420 – August 8th, 426 – January 3rd, 433

    The second, fifth, sixth and seventh are the same as mine except that they are two days later. This would be correct if you are using the Thompson (Lounsbury) correlation of 584,285 days. I don’t know how you could get the dates you state for the others. I calculate the calendar round of second one the same as you do. Just as you clarified what you wrote by giving these as Julian dates, you should say what correlation you are using if you aren’t using the G.M.T. correlation that is in use by almost everyone that studies this subject.

    Most of these conversions are done using a computer program. I have a Mac so I use this one:


    I have checked its calculations and to the best of my ability to do so, it does them right. It can find dates based on every different aspect of the calendars, use a number of different options and it’s free.

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