New Captive Sculptures from Tonina

Within the past few months important inscriptions and sculptures have been recovered during excavations near Tonina’s ballcourt overseen by archaeologist Juan Yadeun. Nothing has been presented formally, but two well preserved captive sculptures have recently been featured in the news, alongside the claim that one beautifully preserved sculpture depicts a bound warrior from distant Copan (Figure 1). As I present here, the Copan connection seems dubious, with a Palenque affiliation for the prisoners far more likely, based on comparative evidence from Tonina’s written history.

Figure 1. The captive "Buk' ?" of Palenque. The Tonina sculpture is as yet un-numbered (AP photo by Moyses Zuniga).

Eight glyphs grace the captive’s body — one on each shoulder and a vertical column of six blocks running down the chest and loincloth. The shoulder glyphs mark the beginning and end-point of the text.


uxlajuun(-eew) buluch winikij
k’altuun ta Juun Ajaw
i uht ochk’ahk’ ta ?n
Buk’ ? bolon eht?

“Thriteen-and-eleven score days (before)
the stone binding on 1 Ahaw,
then occurs the fire-entering at the ballcourt.
(It is) Buk’ ? of the nine companions(?).”

The final two glyphs present an interesting question in term of discourse and syntax. The captive’s name (Buk’ ?) at the base of the loincloth seems to “hang” somewhat relative to the surrounding syntax and the fire-entering verb — how would be be connected with that event as either an agent or patient? As my translation above indicates, one might cosnider a rhetorical transition occurring after the ballcourt term, with the personal name serving as a simple caption for the figure, much like we see in other Tonina captive sculptures. It’s possible, too, that the name is cited in this context as part a supplemental clause of some sort, in the sense that the fire-entering at the ball-court takes place “with regard” to the named prisoner. In any case, it’s a rare structure.

The text juxtaposes two dates that can be easily identified. “1 Ahaw” is surely the period-ending 1 Ahaw 3 Pop (February 15, 697 AD), cited here as a future anchor to the contemporaneous event, the ritual dedication of the ballcourt. The distance number that opens the text would place this earlier och-k’ahk’ event at 2 Manik’ 15 Yaxk’in (June 27, 696). This same date is cited also on M. 140 (at pBa and pCb), although the associated event description is missing (see Graham and Mathews 1999:171).

Figure 2. Monument 145 from Tonina, citing the capture of "Buk' ?" on the day of battle with Palenque (CMHI photo by I. Graham).

The captive Buk’ ? is cited also on Monument 145 (Figure 2), which states that he was taken prisoner (chuhk-j-iiy) on 3 Ak’bal 11 Keh (October 2, 692) (see middle glyph block of bottom row).  This is the same date given on Monument 172 as the military defeat of Palenque, when the captive K’awiil Mo’ was captured by the Tonina ruler K’inich Baaknal Chahk (see Miller and Martin 2004:185; Graham, Henderson, Mathews and Stuart 20o6: 117). Evidently, then, Buk’ ? was another prominent prisoner taken in this same battle with Palenque.

Despite claims in the media, I doubt Copan was part of this Tonina-Palenque conflict, at least on the evidence available. The confusion here may lie in the fact that a name that is visually similar to Buk’ ? occurs in a number of Copan texts. There a name is spelled k’u-yu-?-AJAW (K’uy ? Ajaw) and refers to a patron deity of the Copan kingdom. The two names are utterly distinct, however, and on present evidence there is little reason to draw any connection between Copan and the prisoners so vividly depicted at Tonina.


Graham, Ian, and Peter Mathews. 1999. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 6, Number 3: Tonina. Cambridge: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

Graham, Ian, Lucia Henderson, Peter Mathews and David Stuart. 2006. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 9, Number 2: Tonina. Cambridge: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

Miller, Mary Ellen, and Simon Martin. 2004. The Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya. New York: Thames and Hudson.

19 thoughts on “New Captive Sculptures from Tonina

  1. Yuriy Polyukhovych July 8, 2011 / 12:41 PM

    Thanks, David! Do you have any information regarding restoration of the sculpture’s face? Is the lower part is original or just modern addition by restorers?

    • Stuart, David S July 8, 2011 / 1:30 PM

      Karl Taube pointed out to me that the face is restored; I hadn’t noticed it before. It is obviously a modern job, and especially visible in some of the video footage I’ve seen.

      This raises some strong feelings in me. Personally I don’t understand why this sort of thing is ever done. Modern additions like this take so much away from the aesthetic value of ancient sculpture. Indeed the compulsion to “restore” in Mesoamerican archaeology, whether we’re doing so with sculpture or architecture, is inherently problematic and, in the end, often even wasteful. So much time, effort and money is put into beautifying archaeological artifacts and sites according to our own standards and aesthetics, usually when precious little is done to preserve, document and care for materials that have long been exposed to the elements. All of that is for another discussion, I guess.

      It’s important to realize, too, that the ancient damage to the mouth and nose could well have been intentional, and therefore culturally “of the piece.”

      I hope someday the facial restoration on the sculpture is carefully reversed and removed so we can see it in its original excavated state.

      – Dave

  2. Bryan R. Just July 8, 2011 / 2:58 PM

    Thanks for the quick clarifications about the inscription!

    I couldn’t agree more about the restoration. David, from what you’ve seen, do you think the sculpture was decapitated? The incisions on the paper strips in the ears end abruptly right around where I’d expect the break-line to be. Of course, most Tonina captive sculptures lack their heads.

    • David Stuart July 8, 2011 / 3:04 PM

      Hi Bryan, Yes, the head was found separately and reattached. This is visible in one of the INAH PR videos that I’ve seen concerning the find.

  3. Yuriy Polyukhovych July 8, 2011 / 4:54 PM

    Thank you for your comments, Dave! From the available pictures and videos it seems that the sculpture’s head had been restored not far too long after excavating and then it was put on the body. It reminds me famous Throne 1 from Piedras Negras where faces of two individuals also were restored not so accurately as we would wish.
    Do you have any information regarding the inscription also excavated by the same time which looks exactly like already known Mon. 31, 52, 72 and 65? I could see from available video only some details including ya-ja-K’UH-na or y-aj-k’uhu’n. As far as I could figure out from available video it seems that the inscription of “marcador” has the same structure as mentioned above monuments. I did a very tentative transcription (it can be incorrect in some parts due to the bad quality of video): 9-EHT tzo’-no …-…-… ya-ja-K’UH-na JANAHB?-pa?-ka?-la? u-pi-tzi AJ-OHL-la BAAK-la-AJAW-wa. I would expect AJ-pi-tzi-la-la o-OHL as on Mon. 65 but it seems different.

    • David Stuart July 14, 2011 / 9:38 PM

      Yes, from what I was able to see it looks like the text on the rectangular shield shows the name of (K’inich) Janab Pakal, following y-aj-k’uhuun. I haven’t seen a good image, so if anyone out there has one, let us know. This monument and its partners date to the reign of K’inich Baaknal Chahk, and soon after the varied wars he waged with Pakal’s son, K’inich Kan Bahlam. So the captive once depicted here, being an ajk’uhuun affiliated with Pakal, must be from an earlier war episode or otherwise an old-timer who kept his personal connection to the deceased king. If the latter, we have a possible parallel at Copan’s “Harvard Bench,” where an priest or court member cited himself as the ajk’uhuun of the dead Ruler 15, even though Ruler 16 was then in power.

      • Yuriy Polyukhovych July 15, 2011 / 8:48 AM

        Thanks for your comments! It seems that Juan Yadeun mentions the name of Buk’ “Nik” while reading the text carved on this new “marcador” in the video available online on INAH website. Thus according to Don Juan just after 9-EHT tz’o-no goes bu-k’u-“NIK” name. So this individual was an aj-k’uhu’n of K’inich Janahb Pakal. But at the end of inscription Don Juan mentions Popo EG. In any case I hope that good picture will be available sooner or later and we can prove or disprove our tentative conclusions. Have a nice day, David!

  4. Yuriy Polyukhovych July 8, 2011 / 4:55 PM

    sorry, it has to be tz’o-no

  5. Rogelio Valencia July 11, 2011 / 3:27 AM

    I include here a link to the pictures published by INAH. The sculpture seems to have been found in three pieces and along another one. By the way, there is another number in the shoulder not shown in the picture included in this post. You can see a little bit of it in picture 13.

  6. Rogelio Valencia July 11, 2011 / 3:28 AM

    Sorry, the link:

    • Marc Zender July 15, 2011 / 6:39 PM

      The INAH video that Yuriy mentions can be found here:

      The camera lingers for some time on that rectangular shield, but I think the best image I’ve yet seen is “foto 5” of the set in Rogelio’s link above. Still not clear enough to make out many important details though.

  7. Khris Villela July 26, 2011 / 2:53 AM

    It is remarkable how the Tonina sculptors and their patrons depict the Palenque captive: in sculpture meant to be viewed in the round, and conceived in 3D space. Utterly alien to Palenque sculpture style, even counting the stela from the TC. It is as if the lords of Tonina decreed that it was essential to the captive experience to be shown in the local style of rendering the body. Perhaps an additional maker of abjection for Palenque captives.

  8. Cliff Richey August 17, 2011 / 3:17 AM

    It is likely that the “captives” are not statues of captured enemies but are rather statues related to the warrior cosmology. Note that the bars on either side of the neck contain the “water” sign. The position on the head (the hair) is marked by the sign (the Strands of hair) for “a flowing of water.” The combination of the position of the hair and the flowing equate to a cleansing or purification of the spirit that has been “captured” by death. The sitting position is part of the cosmology for waiting for re-birth or resurrection. That these statues may have been colored with red oxide, the color associated with the rising Sun and re-birth reinforces the above.

    That these statues were defaced and broken and subsequently given a careful and honorable burial also gives credence to the idea that these statues did not repesent enemy captives.

    • David Stuart August 17, 2011 / 3:34 AM

      No, these are kneeling, bound captives whose personal identities are explicit, and known from the written hIstory of Tonina. Their position and mode of presentation follows the standards for representing captured warriors established since early days of Maya art. No need to over-interpret them.

  9. Cliff Richey August 17, 2011 / 5:55 AM

    The photo shows the “captive” sitting cross legged not kneeling. Where are the Mayan written standards for the presentation of captured warriors? The statues are art but the glyphs are linguistic? Where was it written that the Maya made that distinction? That sounds more like a western orientation or perception than a indigenous American one.

  10. Lynne Rabuse March 31, 2012 / 2:27 PM

    Thanks for the interesting blog…my students have watched Cracking the Maya Code and other videos on the Maya. One question pops up that perhaps you can shed light on? In one video the archeologist says that fingers were cut off and put in the graves…but there isn’t much mention of the “why?” behind this action. Do you have any insights on what folks were thinking? One student asked what would happen if you had 11 relatives die–no fingers left?? Thanks for your help.

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