Bending Time among the Maya

by Stephen Houston

Visitors to Japan, if they make it to Mie prefecture, will wonder at the Ise Grand Shrine. Rebuilt every 20 years, it is said to be exactly similar to buildings first made over a millennium ago (Wada 1995). By the tenets of Shintoism, the shrine is forever new yet perennially old, a replacement that somehow remains the same, regardless of how many times it has been rebuilt. For Mayanists, the example of Ise and its implied concern for the joining of past and present rumble into familiar terrain. After all, every Maya date is relational, existing only in reference to a point in the distant past (the Long Count) or with respect to other positions in a cycle (the Calendar Round and other counts). A present does not exist without a backloaded past and a future that gives it some framing.

A recent book, Anachronic Renaissance, by Alexander Nagel and Christopher Wood (2010), prompts further reflection on the meaning of old and the new in Maya texts and images. The main task of the volume is to examine the paradox of Renaissance art, namely, the simultaneous revival and replacement of the past during a crucial period of Western history. Nagel and Wood use a variety of terms and phrases that will resonate with Mayanists: “plural temporality….[the] doubling or bending of time…[the] cultural project of time management,” and “the temporal instability of the artwork” (Nagel and Wood 2010:8, 9, 10). The latter is a precarious state that, despite the reality of replication—think of the renewed beams and thatch at Ise–coincides with the “ontological stability” of certain objects or buildings (Nagel and Wood 2010:30). This “stability” rests on the direct claim that the essence and identity of the shrine remain intact despite the fact that not one scrap of it survives from previous versions.

A more ambitious aim of Anachronic Renaissance is to chart two modes of representation. Both can co-exist as explanations of origins, although they might also “interfere…with one another” (Nagel and Wood 2010:49). The first mode: “substitution,” a process of creation by which artifacts replace earlier, authoritative ones in a “chain of replicas” (Nagel and Wood 2010:30). Thus, in a “mystical…substitutional logic,” “[m]odern copies of painted icons were understood as effective surrogates for lost originals….and new buildings were understood as reinstantiations…of prior structures” (Nagel and Wood 2010:29, 33). By this means, “a material sample of the past could somehow be both an especially powerful testimony to a distant world and…an ersatz for another, now absent artifact” (Nagel and Wood 2010:31). The well-known propensity of the Maya to replicate and improvise new buildings atop older ones would be solid examples of “substitutes.” Although commissioned by particular kings, the buildings were probably viewed as “reinstantiations…of prior structures.” Indeed, their packaging within later construction hints at the sacred bundles of the Maya, who found no contradiction between ritual centrality and the exclusion of sacred things from sight (e.g., Christenson 2006:237). Continuity is an obvious motivation, but there may have been sociological reasons as well. In other settings, as in the Saite 26th dynasty of Egypt, acts of quotation, citation or whole-scale borrowing flourished at times when Egyptian identities were under threat by “increasing numbers of foreigners” (Der Manuelian 1994:xxxv, 402, 409). They glorified, extolled, an ethnic identity that seemed to be in danger of dilution. Yet, in these works, there was no intent to deceive, and many of these productions expressed a “contemporary originality” (Der Manuelian 1994:409). The state of being poised in two times, invoking one period while residing in another, suggests in precise parallel the “multiple” or “plural temporality” described by Nagel and Wood. (fn 1) They appeal to the past–define it as something distinct—yet nullify their distance from it.

In contrast, Nagel and Wood’s second mode, the “performative” or “authorial,” highlights the historical singularity of an object, its placement in linear time, its novelty and capacity to make fresh, unexpected connections, its attention to the “time of manufacture” and the people behind it (Nagel and Wood 2010:30, 94). This, more than the first, is a mode that finds a lodging for “forgery” or “pastiche,” “the invention of a new work in a plausible past style” (Nagel and Wood 2010:289). Some of these were definitely meant to hoodwink, especially with objects prized by collectors. Yet, many “copies,” seldom exact, had their own value (Welch 2005:288).

These modes serve as a backdrop to the role and meaning of “archaicism” in certain Maya objects. The most striking are those that display Preclassic imagery (>1700 ya) with glyphic texts that are unlikely to date to that time. Alfonso Lacadena and I have long believed, for example, that the so-called “Hauberg Stela” (now in the Princeton University Art Museum) combines an archaic presentation of the body (wide, rounded hips, narrow waist, profile legs that barely overlap) with glyphs that seem to come from some centuries later (cf. Schele 1988, who opted for an early date of AD 199). In much the same way, one Terminal Classic monument at Ceibal, St. 13, appears to have glyphs—“quotations” or “citations”?—from an earlier time (CMHI 7:37). In both cases, the “time-bending” is in the temporal slippage between image and text, albeit with different forms of latching. By means of its image, the Hauberg Stela “bends back” to earlier periods; Ceibal St. 13 does so via the style and contents of its text. At the stuccoed temple of El Diablo, which forms part of El Zotz, Guatemala, my colleague, Edwin Román, and I have found an image of the sun god, surmounted by a glyph, that appears to be far earlier than the probable date of the building, c. AD 350-375. The eyes of the god have slotted eyes that recall Preclassic models. The glyph block above, perched over the forehead, includes a face with down-turned mouth (a Preclassic feature generally, with roots in the Olmec), and an unexpectedly archaic yu sign.

The best example of “substitution” or “bending back” may be the “Diker bowl” (Coe 1973: pl. 1), now in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (; Figures 1-3). The form of the stone vessel is of a Preclassic chocolate pot, the spouted handle being used to froth the liquid within (e.g., McAnany and Murata 2006; Powis et al. 2002). Not surprisingly, the style of the iconography is pure Preclassic, too. There are two deities, one an avian creature, the other with features of the Maya maize god. The figures float below a skyband marked by Ik’ or “wind” signs, alternating with the sloping lines associated with such bands in Preclassic contexts. Both gods seem to carry their name glyphs above their heads, of which a clear cross-tie appears at A3 in the vertical text on the handle.

Fig. 1. Diker Bowl, with avian god (drawing by Diane Griffiths Peck, from Coe 1973:Pl. 2).

Fig. 2. Diker Bowl, with probable maize god, perhaps AJ BIH in forehead (drawing by Diane Griffiths Peck, from Coe 1973:Pl. 2).

Fig. 3. Diker Bowl, with archaic skyband (drawing by Diane Griffiths Peck, from Coe 1973:Pl. 2).

The text is difficult. Nonetheless, through the kindness of Justin Kerr, I have obtained a photograph that reveals some of its details (Figure 4a, 4b). This is where interest mounts: against expectation, the glyphs appear to be fully Early Classic, not Preclassic, in date (n.b.: it is almost certain that the text and image are contemporary, in that the handle has the same relief as the images and could not have been added later). Position A1 may contain a version of the TI’ logograph identified by David Stuart, and in a schematic form that is securely Early Classic. A sign for “mouth” accords with what was surely a drinking vessel, although it is unlikely to read “drink,” uk’, in this context because of the prefixed u pronoun. Just beneath it lies what may be a reference to the vessel itself, with body and neck somewhat visible. The probable t’abayi sign that composes part of A2 conforms to this dates, as does what appears to be an admittedly aberrant spelling of a transitive verb at A4: u-K’AL-wa TUUN, doubtless in reference to the stone-bowl and its dedication. (The name of the god is, as mentioned before, at A2.) An unusual form of tu, a preposition with ergative pronoun, may figure in A5. To my knowledge, spellings of transitives come exclusively from the Classic period.

Fig. 4: Diker Bowl, with close-up photograph, (a), by J. Kerr (copyright J. Kerr), and, (b), pencil sketch by S. Houston.

What does the Diker Bowl tell us? This: that the Maya were fully capable of executing temporally disjunctive texts and images when they needed to do so. The ease with which they accomplished this task is, in the case of the Diker Bowl, surprising, at least for me. But it fits well with the facility the Maya showed in juxtaposing (and thus hybridizing) images of radically different style. Consider the Teotihuacano “text” on the summit of Temple 26 at Copan, ably drawn by David Stuart, and now reconstituted in the sculpture museum at the site, or the various Tajinesque, Veracruz elements that interweave with Maya designs on Maya vessels (e.g., K1446). Was the invocation of ancient gods the main motivation in showing them in archaic guise, on a cult object that may purportedly have “belonged” to one of them? Whatever the answer, the ability to step out of time, to exist in two periods or two regions all at once, suggests an effortless repositioning….and an expressive domain that we have yet fully to explore.

Footnote 1: Some of these originals were not so much lost as magically created. Examples would include the acheiropoieta (“not handmade”) icons of Byzantium and elsewhere—namely, the images crafted by non-human, divine hands, as in the Shroud of Turin or the painting of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in Mexico. Such objects possessed a kind of “absolute singularity”—they could not transmute into “substitutables” for the reason that they uniquely and irreplaceably expressed the shaping hand of God (Nagel and Wood 2010:72; their uniqueness makes them ideal foci of pilgrimage, Nagel and Wood 2010:72)—indeed, the thought come to mind that some Maya god effigies, especially the small, hardstone ones in of Chahk that Karl Taube and I have been noting for some time, were considered acheiropoieta (or something like them) among the Maya.

Acknowledgement: Justin Kerr showed his customary generosity in sharing the photograph reproduced here.


Christenson, Allen. 2006. Sacred Bundle Cults in Highland Guatemala. In Sacred Bundles: Ritual Acts of Wrapping and Binding in Mesoamerica, edited by Julia Guernsey and F. Kent Reilly, pp. 226-246. Barnardsville, NC: Boundary End Archaeology Research Center.

Coe, Michael D. 1973. The Maya Scribe and His World. New York: Grolier Club.

Der Manuelian, Peter. 1994. Living in the Past: Studies in Archaicism of the Egyptian Twenty-sixth Dynasty. London: Kegan Paul.

McAnany, Patricia, and S. Murata. 2006. From Chocolate Pots to Maya Gold: Belizean Cacao Farmers through the Ages. In Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao, edited by Cameron McNeil, pp. 429-450. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Nagel, Alexander, and Christopher Wood. 2010. Anachronic Renaissance. New York: Zone Books.

Powis, Terry G., Fred Valdez, Jr., Thomas R. Hester, W. Jeffrey Hurst and Stanley M. Tarka, Jr. 2001. Spouted Vessels and Cacao Use among the Preclassic Maya. Latin American Antiquity 13(1), pp. 85-106.

Schele, Linda. 1985. The Hauberg Stela. Bloodletting and the Mythos of Maya Rulership. In Fifth Palenque Round Table, 1983, edited by M.G. Robertson and V. Fields, pp. 135-150. San Francisco: PARI.

Wada, Atsumu. 1995. The Origins of the Ise Shrine. Acta Asiatica: Bulletin of the Institute of Eastern Culture, 69, pp. 63-83.

Welch, Evelyn. 2005. Shopping in the Renaissance: Consumer Cultures in Italy, 1400-1600. New Haven: Yale University Press.

4 thoughts on “Bending Time among the Maya

  1. AB June 24, 2011 / 10:54 PM

    Thank you for bringing these thoughts and ways of thinking to Maya images. This kind of temporal fluidity and specificity in Maya image-making is reminiscent of the way they shape and point to identities from all realms.

  2. Stephen Houston June 24, 2011 / 11:16 PM

    I almost used the title “New Things are Old Again.”

    Dave Stuart, Karl Taube, and I applied/devised a word, “concurrence” (‘The Memory of Bones’, 2006), to describe acts of god impersonation: two beings in the same space, the same time, i.e., “concurrent.”