Panel 1 from Piedras Negras

by David Stuart

Panel 1 from Piedras Negras, Guatemala. Photo by D. Stuart
Panel 1 from Piedras Negras, Guatemala. Photo by D. Stuart

Hanging on my living room wall is a plaster cast of a small but beautiful fragment of a Maya relief panel, Panel 1 from Piedras Negras, Guatemala (see photo). The original was discovered by Teobert Maler in the 1890s, and his black and white photograph was published soon after in his classic report on Peidras Negras and nearby ruins (Maler 1901). Despite being published long ago, Panel 1 is not terribly well known, and the original is not often on display at Harvard’s Peabody Museum, where it is currently housed. This afternoon, as I sat on my living room sofa, I looked up to see a peculiar beam of winter light glowing directly onto the cast, and couldn’t resist a taking this quick photo.

Panel 1 is the corner of what was a much larger relief depicting the inner space of a court or palace. At upper left a man is carved in full relief, leaning informally against a wall or doorjamb with one leg lazily crossed over another — in my mind one of the great images from Maya sculpture. In the center we see a another standing figure in shallow foreground relief, seen from behind. According to the text caption by his kilt, he is Siyaj K’in Chahk, a priest or religious functionary (ajk’uhuun) presumably associated with the court of Piedras Negras. He also takes the title aj bik’al (or aj bik’iil), “he of Bik’al,” perhaps referring to his town of origin. The title, common in a number of court names at Piedras Negras, appears also at the top of the fragment, perhaps as part of the caption for the leaning man. Based on the style of the carving and of the glyphs, I suspect Panel 1 dates to the reign of Ruler 7.

So, I have no great insights to offer here on Panel 1 — only a nice photograph of a copy of a great, though obscure, Maya artwork.


Maler, Teobert. 1901. Researches in the Central Portion of the Usumacintla Valley: Report of Explorations for the Museum, 1898-1900. Peabody Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

9 thoughts on “Panel 1 from Piedras Negras

  1. Stanley C. Sargent January 7, 2013 / 5:18 AM

    Didn’t you actually mean to say the man depicted in the upper left has his arms crossed rather than his legs? That’s what it looks like to me.

    • David Stuart January 8, 2013 / 3:02 AM

      No. Both his legs and arms are crossed. The informal pose of the legs is highly unusual in Maya art, whereas crossed arms appear elsewhere with some frequency, usually viewed from the side.

      • Stanley C. Sargent January 8, 2013 / 10:55 PM

        David, thanks for setting me straight on the crossed arms/legs. It is difficult for me to make out how the legs are depicted in the photo you posted, but I was pretty sure the arms were crossed. I very much enjoyed your book on PALENQUE as well as your ORDER OF DAYS volume. I met Linda S. and Peter M. (and got drunk with them at the hotel) in Guatemala City in the mid-’70s while attending a convention on the glyph decipherment. It was the convention thrown by Nicholas Helmuth. I got to spend more time with Linda than with Peter, and I learned a lot. I’m very proud I got to meet them. You were a kid at that time, and I don’t recall seeing any 7- or 8-year-old boys hanging around Linda or Peter, so I guess you weren’t there. Keep up the great work! We amateur Mayanists can’t get enough of it!

  2. Jorge January 7, 2013 / 2:08 PM

    There also is a much larger glyph at the upper right corner of this fragment. Given the difference in treatment (this one is carved “out” rather than incised), I would suspect it was part of the main text (as opposed to the name captions you describe). I would venture it looks like 3 Sots’, but I may be pushing it too far.

    • David Stuart January 8, 2013 / 2:50 AM

      I’m not sure what to make of that glyph in relief, so I left it open, not having a whole lot to say. I agree it’s likely part of the main text. It could well be a Sotz’ month, as you say, although the suffix looks to be -wa.

  3. Jesse Simms January 9, 2013 / 2:27 AM

    hey any idea on what the b’ikal title actually is? could it be refering to a generaL class (artist, etc.) as opposed to a location?

    keep up the great work love the blog!

    • David Stuart January 9, 2013 / 2:51 AM

      Good question. Well, the title AJ-bi-k’i-la only shows up in the inscriptions of Piedras Negras and environs, which has long led me to think it’s a place name of some sort. If the title were something more general I would expect to find it at some other place, at least once or twice. Being so localized, I have to think it’s a place.

  4. ablume39 January 10, 2013 / 2:16 PM

    I too find this to be a stunning image of two figures juxtaposed. The smaller background figure boldly faces us, while enigmatically the larger foreground figure has his back to us, face turned in profile similar to figures in a Vermeer portrait.

  5. Jan Szymanski February 2, 2014 / 2:57 AM

    The person in the front appears to be displaying a customary gesture for submission (palm over shoulder), meanwhile the person in the back has his arms folded, much like the legs, in an informal, relaxed pose. He also appears to be looking to his right, towards the centre of the scene. The whole fragment resembles a lot the scene on Kerr vase 1728 (note the smoker’s pose). Both might bed displaying, among other things, a subtle differentiation in the courtiers’ status. Some stand in awe and submission, meanwhile others show off their being-at-home and familiarity with the ruler. Favorites vs. clients?

Leave a Reply