A Caracol Emblem Glyph at Tikal

by Simon Martin
The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA

The inscriptions of Tikal have been scoured by epigraphers for many a year, but they still have the ability to surprise. I was leafing through the copy proofs of Hattula Moholy-Nagy’s new volume on Tikal artifacts (Tikal Report 27A) not so long ago when I saw a photograph of a text I’d previously seen only as a drawing. It was a close-up of a stucco-covered vessel found in Burial 195, the tomb of the sixth-century king dubbed Animal Skull.

As is widely known, this grave was flooded soon after its dedication and a slurry of mud deposited across its floor, burying many of its contents. A meticulous excavation by Rudy Larios and George Guillemin in 1965 revealed empty cavities in the now-hardened sediment, the remains of decayed wood and other perishable materials. Once filled with Plaster of Paris they could be recovered in whole or in part, in some cases revealing original stucco coatings with surviving color and painted designs. One of these objects was a small, covered bowl. The lid was almost complete and bore a 13-glyph Primary Standard Sequence in good preservation—perhaps bearing a woman’s name—a text now designated Miscellaneous Text 219. The style and coloring technique resembles those on the other stucco-covered pot in Burial 195, although it doesn’t appear to be in the same hand. The text on another stucco-coated item in the tomb, this time a ceramic plate, has a similar style but the artist is plainly different.

The body of the lidded vessel and the text it carried were in much poorer shape. Labeled Miscellaneous Text 277, it has only two surviving glyphs, the first no more than a fragment of border. The second is broken, yet unmistakably supplies the sequence K’UH-K’AN-tu-ma-ki for k’uhul k’antumaak—the emblem glyph of Caracol. With a blank section of stucco following, it falls at the end of a phrase, just where we might expect to find such a title.

Even today, when we have so many other ways of investigating Classic Maya politics, emblem glyphs remain a fundamental tool with which to examine relationships between sites. An isolated case such as this—damaged and lacking even the name of the person it refers to—can hardly carry the burden of great significance. We cannot even be sure that the vessel carrying it comes from Caracol. Nevertheless, it is interesting that such a title should appear in this particular grave at this particular time, and in this sense it does have a context in which it can be placed.

Animal Skull’s predecessor, Wak Chan K’awiil (formerly “Double Bird”) had close connections to Caracol and installed its king Yajaw Te’ K’inich II in 553. But relations soured rapidly and three years later, in 556, Wak Chan K’awiil attacked his former client. Six years after that, in 562, the Tikal king was defeated in a “star war” and disappears from history. The phrase describing the defeat on Caracol Altar 21 is badly damaged and the name of the victor unclear. Elsewhere I have argued that the Snake kingdom under its king Sky Witness is a better candidate than Caracol’s Yajaw Te’ K’inich, but we can only hope that some future find will make the matter clear. Certainly this marks the beginning of close ties between these two polities.

We don’t know how soon after 562 Animal Skull was inaugurated as Tikal’s 22nd king, and his rule is largely a historical blank. He has no known stelae and what little information we have comes from texts on unprovenanced ceramic vessels and those found within Burial 195. The tomb inscriptions appear on a set of four carved wooden boards (that survive today as plaster casts) and two polychrome plates. The first of the boards and one of the plates carry the same Long Count date, the Period Ending of 593. This makes it very likely that his grave was dedicated before the next K’atun-ending in 613. Several ceramic vessels name his mother, a royal woman from the site of Bahlam “Jaguar,” while only one (from Burial 195) refers to his father, and this name is otherwise unknown and lacks any identifying title. As Christopher Jones first suggested, there are good grounds to doubt that Animal Skull descended from the existing royal patriline—although this is not to say that he was without some claim to legitimacy.

We are left to ask how and why a vessel carrying a royal Caracol name came to be in Burial 195. It is safe to assume that it had some symbolic purpose, but in the absence of any sure knowledge we can only guess what this might have been.

Just a generation earlier, Caracol was a sworn enemy of Tikal and at least partly responsible for a major military defeat—one of the more consequential in Tikal’s long history. Yet, by the time of Animal Skull’s death an object naming a Caracol lord was chosen to be among a relatively small number of goods in his last resting place—a special location by any standard.

One scenario might see Caracol as having fallen into the Tikal fold once more, with this vessel in some way signaling their renewed subordination. Because we lack a dedication date for Burial 195, we cannot know whether Yajaw Te’ K’inich II (553-593) or his son Knot Ajaw (599-613) was in power at the time. However, Yajaw Te’ K’inich and his younger son K’an II ( 618-658 ) were clear allies of the now-dominant Snake kingdom (the latter was affirmed in his kingship by the new Snake king Yuknoom Ti’ Chan) so any such ties to Tikal would realistically be restricted to the reign of Knot Ajaw, K’an II’s half-brother. The situation would need to have been dynamic indeed for relations to yo-yo quite so rapidly, and comes in the absence of any evidence for Animal Skull’s political strength. We would, I think, need to see new inscriptional evidence for this model for it to be persuasive. The same might be said of another possibility, that the vessel was booty seized in a successful new attack.

A further scenario sees greater stability following the war of 562. Here the evident disruption of the Tikal patriline is an especially important consideration. Animal Skull could have introduced a regime more to the liking of the victors, perhaps one politically beholden or subservient to them. Burial 195 was not very wealthy in terms of its jade and other valuables, and seems to reflect somewhat straitened times. Although Animal Skull seems to have some connection to distant Altar de Sacrificos—perhaps as the father to one of its kings—to date he lacks the credentials of his immediate successors as a true reviver of Tikal fortunes. Is the woman named on the lid the one with Caracol connections, could she have married into the Tikal line? We might never know. However, just like the serendipitous survival of this emblem, some unexpected piece of data might fall into our hands one day and bestow a clarity we currently lack.


Further reading:

Martin, Simon. 2003. In Line of the Founder: A View of Dynastic Politics at Tikal. In Tikal: Dynasties, Foreigners, and Affairs of State, edited by Jeremy A. Sabloff, pp. 3-45. School of American Research Advanced Seminar Series, School of American Research Press and James Curry, Santa Fe and Oxford.

2005. Caracol Altar 21 Revisited: More Data on Double Bird and Tikal’s Wars of the Mid-Sixth Century. Precolumbian Art Research Institute (PARI) Journal 6(1):1-9.

Moholy-Nagy, Hattula. 2008. The Artifacts of Tikal: Ornamental and Ceremonial Artifacts and Unworked Material. Tikal Report No.27 Part A. University of Pennsylvania Museum Monograph 127. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia.