Notes on a Painted Text from Palenque

Among the many buildings and chambers of Palenque’s Palace is House B, facing the Northeast Court and located, as one might expect, between Houses A and C. The well-preserved structure was built sometime in the early reign of K’inich Janab Pakal, although no written dedication date survives. In fact, the only hieroglyphic text we know from House B is painted on the back wall of one of its rear room, evidently a name caption that accompanied an elaborate stucco relief now largely destroyed. In the late 18th century this scene was still intact, recorded by the artist Armendáriz who accompanied the 1787 expedition to Palenque led by Antonio del Río. His drawing is reproduced here (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Armendáriz

The painted text (Figure 2, below) was not included in Armendáriz’s drawing, but it today survives near the upper right portion of the now-missing scene, just above the seated figure to the right of the central “T” window. The glyphs were photographed and drawn by Merle Greene Robertson (1985:Fig. 170-1); here I include a new drawing based on her photograph that reveals a number of key details that help in its decipherment, and which bring up one very interesting epigraphic detail.

Figure 2. The House B text (Sketch by David Stuart)

The text is a name phrase, although it’s difficult to know who it refers to in Palenque’s known history. Here’s my tentative analysis and translation of it, to be discussed in some detail below:

ha-ta / i-tz’i-WINIK / ch’o-ko / AJ-pi-tzi-la? / OHL-la / 7-“BEN”?
ha’at itz’in winik ch’ok aj pitzl(al) ohl Wuk “Ben”
“You, younger brother, the ??, Seven Ben(?)…”

Let’s first look first at the final three or so glyphs. The fourth and fifth block (AJ-pi-tzi-la? / OHL-la) clearly show a title or name found elsewhere in Palenque’s texts. Aj pitzlal ohl is found in the Cross Group and elsewhere, for example, as a common reference to K’inich Kan Bahlam, to eldest son of K’inich Janab Pakal. The full phrase is difficult to translate — “ballplayer” (aj pitz) is surely inadequate — but it does incorporate two known roots: pitz, “to play ball” and ohl, “heart, center.” However one translates the full phrase, aj pitzlal ohl is known to be a pre-accession name for K’inich Kan Bahlam, and was also used by the later K’inich K’uk’ Bahlam (see the Tablet of the 96 Glyphs).

The final discernable glyph of the caption looks to be a day sign “Ben” with a 7 number prefix. Here I doubt “7 Ben” functions as a date, for it’s location suggests it work as a calendar name in reference to some historical individual. In other Palenque inscriptions we find a similar use of such 260-day records as names, as with the sculptor named “5 Kan” mentioned on the so called “Death’s Head” from the Cross Group, and the lord named “4 Ahaw” who is portrayed on the bench platform of Temple XIX. Here I take 7 Ben — if that’s what the glyph is — to be a reference to the individual named also by the aj pitzlal ohl title.

Near the front of the name phrase, in the first and second blocks, we find a much clearer and readable title for this person: itz’i(n) winik ch’ok, “younger brother youth” (see Stuart 1997). This points to the obvious conclusion that the subject of this caption is some junior sibling, but just who’s brother is he? We can’t know for sure. In Palenque’s texts we find the same term applied to the ruler K’inich K’an Joy Chitam, the younger brother of K’inich Kan Bahlam. These glyphs look to be early in style, possibly contemporaneous with the architecture of House B, dating to the mid-seventh century, during the reign of their father. “7 Ben,” if a personal name, seems an unlikely designation for Pakal’s younger son, so might it be the younger brother of Pakal? Not being sure of the generation of the subject, his historical identity remains unclear.

Leaving the speculation aside, we still need to address the very first part of the initial glyph, a sequence that looks to be ha-ta. This is perhaps a previously unrecognized spelling of the 2nd person independent pronoun ha’at, “you,” known from at least a few other inscriptions at other sites (Figure 3). One of the more interesting aspects of the decipherment during the last two decades has been the identification of similar first- and second-person pronouns in numerous inscriptions, like “my,” “you,” “we” and so on (see Stuart 1993; Hull, Carrasco and Wald, 2009). The Palenque example is, I suggest, another case, incorporating a form a address to an otherwise conventional-looking name caption: “You, younger brother, the ??, 7 Ben (?)…”

Figure 3. Two possible examples of the pronoun ha'-at. From Copan, St. 49 (left) and the 'Birth Vase' (right; see Taube 1994)

Considering the possible presence of the unusual pronoun, it might prove useful to review that there are two basic types of pronoun classes attested in the glyphs — and known in Mayan languages — known as the “ergative” and “absolutive” sets. Ergative pronouns are prefixes that mark possession on nouns and also the subjects of transitive verbs. The most common ergative prefix in the hieroglyphic script is the third-person u- or (u)y- (pre-vocalic), but there are others. We have attested thus far:

1st person singular: ni- / w-V
2nd person singular: a- / aw-V
3rd person singular: u- / y-V
1st person plural: ka- / k-V-
2nd person plural: unattested (reconstructed in proto-Ch’olan as *i- / *iw-V by Kaufman and Norman)
3rd person plural: u-…(-oob) / y-V…(-oob)

Absolutive pronouns work differently, as suffixes that specify the subjects of intransitive verbs or else the subjects of stative statements when attached to nouns or verbs. These are also known from the Classic inscriptions, if a bit incompletely:

1st person singular: -een
2nd person singular: -at ~ -et
3rd person singular: -ø
1st person plural: -o’n(?)
2nd person plural: unattested (-ex? ~ -ox?)
3rd person plural: -oob

These absolutive suffixes can in turn appear with the demonstrative particle ha’- to make a class of demonstrative or independent pronoun (ex. ha’-at, “[it is] you here”). These include some irregular forms, but the relationship is clear:

1st person singular: hiin(?) < *ha’-in(?)
2nd person singular: ha’-at
3rd person singular: ha’-i ~ haa’-ø
1st person plural: unattested (ha’o’n)
2nd person plural: unattested (ha’ex)
3rd person plural: ha’-oob

So, returning to our Palenque text, we may have a possible second person independent pronoun in an unusual context, introducing a name caption. If this is the case, one question becomes: just who is addressing the younger brother? Who is saying “you”? Perhaps one of the standing figures in the scene? Or, in an odd discursive twist, could it be the viewer of the artwork? Such questions often come into play when assessing the voices behind such obscure, non-third person texts, especially when they are incomplete or lacking context.

Another vexing issue, of course, centers on the historical identity of the mysterious “younger brother,” and whether he lived in Pakal’s generation or the next.


Hull, Kerry, Michael Carrasco, and Robert Wald. 2009. The First-Person Singular Independent Pronoun in Classic Ch’olan. Mexicon, vol. XXXI, no. 2, pp. 36-43.

Robertson, Merle Greene. 1985. The Sculpture of Palenque: Volume II. The Early Buildings of the Palace and the Wall Paintings. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Stuart, David. 1993. Breaking the Code: Rabbit Story. In Lost Kingdoms of the Maya, by G. Stuart and G Stuart, pp. 170-1. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society.

_________. 1997. Kinship Terms in Maya Inscriptions. In The Language of Maya Hieroglyphs, ed. by M. J. Macri and A. Ford, pp. 1-11. San Francisco: Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute.

Taube, Karl A. 1994. The Birth Vase: Natal Imagery in Ancient Maya Myth and Ritual. In The Maya Vase Book, Volume 4, pp. 650-685 New York: Kerr Associates.