The Unusual Glyphs of Calakmul’s Stela 52

Figure 1. Calakmul, Stela 52 in its original state. After Rupert and Denison (1943)

by David Stuart

Some years ago I paid a visit to the Museo Dolores Olmedo in Mexico City, and spent a good portion of my time viewing one of its treasures — the scarred and eroded remains of Stela 52 from Calakmul. It’s a far cry from the gorgeous, well-preserved releif that was first photographed in its original setting by one of intrepid Carnegie Institution expeditions of the 1930s (Ruppert and Denison 1943). Looters armed with band saws attacked Stela 52 and other nearby monuments in the 1960s, removing the front carving for transport and eventual sale. As I looked over the stela it dawned on me that I once had an encounter of sorts with those very same looters. In 1999 Ian Graham and I spent two weeks at Calakmul recording many of its monuments, and we one day came upon the clear vestiges of the looters’ camp abandoned over three decades earlier in the woods in front of Structure 1, not far from where Stela 52 and its partner, Stela 54, once stood. The large and rusted band saws lay on the forest floor amidst cans and debris, a scene of an old archaeological crime. Years later, as I took in the stela at the museum, it dawned upon me that those old rusted cutting tools must have been the very ones used on the magnificent sculpture.

Despite the cutting and the weathering, the monument still bears its powerful regal image of a king dressed in an elaborate deity costume, most likely for a ritual dance. The nearby Stela 54 with its similar portrait of a woman is surely the partner of Stela 52, forming a male-female stela pair like others at Calakmul and some of its ally states, such as El Peru (Stelae 33 and 34, for example) (see Marcus 1987). A band of five glyphs runs above the portrait of the Calakmul ruler, and several more along the right side.

Taking a closer look at the text, it is clear that the date is 4 Ahaw 13 Yax, or, as Ruppert and Denison deciphered decades ago. The same date was inscribed as an Initial Series on the stela’s side, although this is now invisible. The event glyph in the fourth block of the front text is “scattering,” with the name of the ruler in the last block of the vertical band. His name and titles evidently continued in the other blocks below, although these were considerably more weathered. As Simon Martin has shown, this must be a reference of some sort to the ruler known as Yuknoom Took’ K’awiil, who reigned at Calakmul for several decades in the early eighth century (Martin and Grube 2008; Martin 2005).

Fig. 2. Stela 52's upper text. Sketch by D. Stuart

Something curious stands out in these glyphs. On close inspection one sees that a small sign consisting of two small semicircles of dots — much like a TOK or to sign — has been added to each glyph block. On the 4 Ahaw day record these dotted curls form a superfix, and on the Yax month they sit atop the YAX logogram. In the K’atun record, the same element seems to be between the number 15 and the k’atun sign itself. It even appears on the scattering (CHOK-wi-ch’a-ji) verb glyph, above the hand, as well as on the royal name.

The constant presence of the dotted curls sign should indicate that it cannot be a readable element, at least in the conventional sense that we understand Maya writing. The word TOK or the syllable to has no role to play, for example, in the spelling of a day or month glyph, nor in the writing of a verb. In the case of the scattering glyph, one could supposedly entertain the possibility that the “to” is an odd form of the pronoun sign u; however, the -wi suffix markes this form as an anti passive verb, and a prefixed pronoun can only exist in a transitive construction. Surely there is something odd going on here.

The pattern may well continue with all of the other glyphs on the stela’s front. The first set of three smaller glyphs set into the portrait look to be a k’aloomte’ title, with the “to” sign resting atop the head of the deity main sign. Likewise it seems to appear in the next glyph, in a numbered “successor” expression (see Martin 2005).

Why are these elements here? I suspect that the “to” signs that appear throughout Stela 52’s inscription are in no way phonetic, but instead serve as a purely visual devices, designed to integrate the look of the glyphs to the larger iconographic program of the stela. The effect is subtle, however, since no dotted curls appear on the king’s outfit. Demonstrating the link requires a bit of background discussion, and comparisons with similar ritual costumes on other monuments, and other sites.

The distinctive costume worn by the ruler includes an elaborate deity mask integrated with a large mosaic war helmet (perhaps a ko’haw). We see the same garb worn by many of the performing rulers depicted on the monuments of Dos Pilas, for example, where we also find the same dotted curls atop the same helmets and with very similar elaborate masks (see Figure 3). I suspect that this one detail is hidden by the other extra headdress elements shown on Stela 52, but is there nonetheless. So, while the dotted curls are not visible in the headdress on the Calakmul stela, the iconographic consistency of the costumes worn by the Dos Pilas and Calakmul rulers implies their presence.

Figure 3. Detail of Dos Pilas stela, showing similar ritual costume. Note the dotted curls atop the mosaic helmet. Photo by D. Stuart.

The glyphs, then, wear their own outfits in a way. This example of a Maya glyphic “font” is unique to my knowledge. The only comparable example that comes to mind is the remarkable Teotihuacan-inspired text from the upper temple of Structure 26 at Copan, where the full-figure signs are given a central Mexican look and feel (Stuart 2005). But there the oddball glyphs are paired with legible Maya ones, in order to make the text readable. Here on Stela 52, the glyphs are in an elegant Maya style, yet visually tweaked to make them conform to the dress and performance depicted. It’s probably significant that the glyphs on the stela’s sides don’t show the dotted curls anywhere; this may make sense once we realize that the royal portrait wouldn’t have been visible to readers of those texts. The side glyphs might therefore be taken as exceptions that prove the rule.

If my assumptions hold true, it seems that the hieroglyphs on the front of Stela 52 were “costumed” in their own way and, like the king’s dancing persona, came to be infused with a particular deified identity on the occasion of the important period ending.

References Cited

Marcus, Joyce. 1987. The Inscriptions at Calakmul: Royal Marriage at a Maya City in Campeche, Mexico. Ann Arbor: Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan.

Martin, Simon, 2005. Of Snakes and Bats: Shifting Identities at Calakmul. The PARI Journal, vol. VI, no. 2.

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2008. The Chronicles of Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. 2nd edition. London: Thames and Hudson.

Ruppert, Karl, and John H. Denison, Jr. 1943. Archaeological Reconnaissance in Campeche, Quintana Roo and Peten. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Pub. 543. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Stuart, David. 2005. A Foreign Past: The Writing and Representation of History on A Royal Ancestral Shrine at Copan. In Copan: The History of An Ancient Maya Kingdom, ed. by E. Wyllys Andrews and William L. Fash. pp. 373-394. SThe School of American Research Press.

6 thoughts on “The Unusual Glyphs of Calakmul’s Stela 52

  1. Stephen Houston November 9, 2011 / 3:34 PM

    Nice! …and wonder, too, if the “agnathous,” blood-letting element plays into this as well, in a conflation with two attributes: the “sparks” (almost cloud-like or textural at Dos Pilas?), and the “consumer-of-blood.” So: E1, F1, F3. That is, when a deity is shown, he not only takes the [to]-semblant but the marker of habitual consumption. As you say, beautifully para-textual or extra-textual.

    • David Stuart November 10, 2011 / 12:55 AM

      Yep, something I actually forgot to mention in the posting, though fairly obvious in many of the glyphs. I even think the element under the Ahaw day sign is a blood mouth emanation, tacked on rather awkwardly. My guess is this all has to do with some aspect of the Water Serpent, who is reflected in many of these PE costumes.

      • Steve Houston November 12, 2011 / 7:23 PM

        Maybe under the month and ‘k’atun’ too? Don’t have a good photo of this stela, so can’t check….

  2. Memo Kantun November 10, 2011 / 11:11 PM

    Seems to me that the “to” element is visible in the costume wear by the ruler, just that it looks slightly different from the Dos Pilas examples. It is immediately under the scattering glyph. Or am I mistaken?

    • David Stuart November 14, 2011 / 10:12 PM

      Hi Memo, That’s a good idea. I checked the other photos I have, taken in the Museo Dolores Olmeda, and I think the row of circles you point to are actually “death eyes,” connected in some way to the skeletal centipede(?) headdress he’s wearing over his helmet. Those dotted curls might still be somewhere, so have keep looking. Enjoy the Mesa Redonda. Best, David

  3. Stanley Guenter December 2, 2011 / 8:54 PM

    Very interesting! I wonder if the to- element wasn’t added as an allusion to the name of Yuhknoom Took’ K’awiil. At Dos Pilas his name appears identical to that of Ruler 3 (who may have adopted the Calakmul king’s name in deference to this higher king), and reads …n Ti’ K’awiil, with the first element being a human face with to-like elements emerging from the top of the head. This cryptic reference to elements of the name of the king could also have been part of the choice to use a non-standard name for this king in Glyph 5.

    Alternatively, it could be an allusion to and evocation of Yopaat, who may have been a god particularly worshipped at Calakmul on this Period Ending. At Copan the same period ending saw the king Waxaklajuun Ubaah K’awiil dress as the JGU and Mo’ Witz Ajaw. I do not know of Yopaat being especially prominent at Calakmul, though.

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