REPORT: Tonina’s Curious Ballgame

by David Stuart

Narrative scenes in Maya art are not always as simple as they might seem. Take for example this image of a ballgame on Monument 171 from Tonina, Chiapas. This small relief sculpture was discovered some years ago in the site’s acropolis, and is now on display near the entrance to the Sala Maya in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City.

Figure 1. Monument 171 from Tonina, now in the Museo Nacional  de Antropología (Photograph by D. Stuart).
Figure 1. Monument 171 from Tonina, showing the king of Calakmul, at right, playing ball with the deceased ruler of Tonina K’inich Baaknal Chahk, at left (Photograph by D. Stuart).

Like many scenes of the Maya ballgame, the Tonina relief shows two players in action with knees on the floor and a large ball between them. Three text panels are integrated within the scene and identify the actors and the time-frames of the game depicted. The central and right-hand sections form one continuous text, with the text at the the far left as a stand-alone caption for the left-hand figure. (Note: In the accompanying illustration I have re-lettered the columns to reflect the true reading order, so that columns A-B are at the center of the composition, above the large ball; columns A-B in the Corpus publication are here given as F-G).

Figure 2. Drawing of Monument 171 by Ian Graham, with new column designations to reflect true reading order.
Figure 2. Drawing of Monument 171 by Ian Graham, showing new column designations to reflect true reading order. (Adapted from Graham, et. al. 2006)

The date opening the main caption (A1-A2) is  7 Eb 5 Kankin, or October 31, 727 AD, during the reign of the Tonina ruler known as K’inich Yich’aak(?) Chapat, who had assumed the throne a few years earlier in 723 (See Mathews 2001 for a useful tabulation of Tonina’s dates and history).  The event phrase (B2-A3) is very clear as u baah ta pitz, “(it is) his image in (the act of) ball-playing,” repeating a sequence of glyphs found also in the secondary caption at the far left (a curious echoing of phrase that is meaningful, and which we will return to).

So who’s playing ball? One might think that the text would simply name the two players, but in fact there are three people named in the accompanying glyphs. As I hope to explain, the added complexity reveals interesting aspects about how Maya artisans sometimes layered narrative history and manipulated text-image relationships in order to point emphasize certain important narrative elements involving actors and time-frames that might otherwise be obscure.

The subject of the main ball-playing expression is named in blocks B3-C1, and here we find something of a surprise. This is not the name of the local Tonina king, but instead looks to be that of the king who was ruling at distant Calakmul, an important character known in the literature as Took’ K’awiil (a provisional nickname; see Martin and Grube 2000:112). His name phrase is quite clear, reading across the body of the right ballplayer to highlight his identity, and identical to examples known from Calakmul and surrounding areas. After the name and the accompanying kaloomte’ title (C1) we come upon an undeciphered glyph — clearly a possessed noun (U-ma-?-li) (D1) — followed by the name of the local ruler K’inich Yich’aak(?) Chapat (E1-D2) and his two royal court titles (emblem glyphs), followed in turn by another example of the honorific term kaloomte’. The undeciphered glyph at D1 must express some relationship between the ballgame or the Calakmul king and the contemporary Tonina ruler, although the nature of this connection still remains unclear (I recall seeing one other example of this same odd relationship glyph in another Tonina inscription that remains unpublished).

The ballplayer to the left is named in the caption behind him. This reads, in loose translation:

He is playing ball, the one k’atun kaloomte’, K’inich Baaknal Chahk, the Holy Lord of Po’

Here we have another ruler familiar from the Tonina’s history. However — and this is the truly odd aspect of the scene — at the time of the ballgame K’inich Baaknal Chahk had not been a ruler for nearly twenty years. He had been an important king who waged several notable wars against Palenque and its allies, but who died probably around the year 709, shortly before his young successor, Ruler 4, came to power on 9 Etznab 6 Muan. The next ruler after him, in turn, was K’inich Yich’aak(?) Chapat. So we have an odd situation at hand: a scene from the year 727 depicting a long-deceased Tonina ruler playing ball with a foreign Calakmul lord, with the current king named but not even shown.

So what gives? I believe we have here an excellent example of a common but little known convention in Maya art where times and identities can intentionally “merge” for narrative effect. One might even call it a form of visual poetics used by artists to carefully draw parallels and connections that, while not explicit on the surface, were nonetheless readable and knowable to those familiar with the conventions of Maya imagery. The 727 ballgame was probably real, a ritual contest involving the ruler of Calakmul Took’ K’awiil and the Tonina king who was alive at the time, K’inich Yich’aak(?) Chapat. Such royal ballgame scenes were frequently commissioned as a means of documenting long-distance alliances and hierarchical connections, and were used especially in the sphere of the Calakmul (Kaanal) court (examples are known from La Corona, Uxul and Hixwitz, among other places). The point of adding K’inich Baaknal Chahk’s image to this scene is, I think, to collapse this 727 event with a similar ballgame of a prior generation, involving the same Calakmul king and a deceased Tonina hero. The Calakmul ruler Took’ K’awiil was alive and on the throne in both time-frames, having acceded to the throne in 698. I suspect that he may held some important role in the complex geopolitics of Chiapas at the end of the seventh century, perhaps turning his attention westward after the defeat of the Kaanal kingdom by Tikal in 695. It’s probably no accident that Calakmul would find an ally in Tonina, who had for years been in conflict with its northern neighbor Palenque, itself an old enemy of the Kaanal kingdom. At any rate, the connection between the two ballgame events isn’t described textually or in conventional narrative fashion, yet it seems implicit in the juxtaposition of time with the actors shown.

Similar depictions of two subjects “out of time” with one another appear with some frequency in Maya sculpture. For example, La Corona Panel 1 shows two standing figures facing one another, each identified as the same ruler, K’inich ? Yook, on different ritual occasions. The scenes of the three tablets of the Cross Group at Palenque offer a similar juxtaposition of two inward-facing portraits of one king, K’inich Kan Bahlam, at different stages of life (as a young boy and as a middle aged man). A better parallel perhaps comes from the bench tablet of Temple XXI from Palenque, showing the deceased ruler K’inich Janab Pakal overseeing the bloodletting rites of his grandsons. In many of the Palenque narratives, earlier events and subjects are presented on the left, with later or contemporaneous protagonists on the right (the more “dominant” side of a composition).

I suggest that the Tonina ballgame scene presents a similar artistic stratagem. The written date and the subjects are carefully specified but are historically incompatible, a incongruence that serves to highlight the artist’s underlying message, linking an episode of current history with something parallel and similar in the past. I suspect this is why we have the apparent redundancy of two repeating phrases in the scene that simply state “he is playing ball” — each is needed because they serve in different historical moments. In Maya texts, the rhetorical links between such like-in-kind episodes are extremely common, and I would argue that Maya artists were just as keen in showing such connections, though perhaps not so linearly or directly. This then is a figurative ballgame, documenting to a old alliance between Tonina and the Kaanal court during the reign of K’inich Baaknal Chahk, and collapsing it with a more current relationship during the reign of K’inich Yich’aak(?) Chapat.

So this small elegant carving gives us with a fine example of how the ancient Maya conveyed layered and complex meanings involving time and identity, offering much more than first meets the eye.


Graham, Ian, David Stuart, Peter Mathews, and Lucia R. Henderson. 2006. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 9, Part 2: Tonina. Peabody Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2000. Chronicles of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. Thames and Hudson, London.

Mathews, Peter. 2001. The Dates of Tonina and a Dark Horse in Its History.  The PARI Journal 2(1):1-5. Link to pdf here.

21 thoughts on “REPORT: Tonina’s Curious Ballgame

  1. Jorge Pérez de Lara June 11, 2013 / 5:29 PM

    Hi, David. Wouldn’t it be a little counterintuitive that a waning Calakmul would still have the power to reach all the way South to faraway Toniná, across much hostile territory? I was thinking that perhaps the imagery in TNA. M.172 might be more either a like-in-kind record (me, Yich’aak(?) Chapaat am a ballplayer, just like Took’ K’awiil) or perhaps an indirect reference to an earlier ballgame played by Took’ K’awiil with Baaknal Chaajk in better times for both?

  2. David Stuart June 11, 2013 / 5:54 PM

    Hola Jorge, This is a good question, and something I didn’t have space to go into. One of the things we really need to consider is how we discern the nature of any kingdom’s power and influence over long distances, or the relative weakness or strength of courts, politically or militarily. It’s somewhat subjective, and Inscriptions don’t ever help us much on these issues. Because of the inherent ambiguities, I’m not convinced the Kaanal kingdom was all that weakened after the Tikal defeat in 695. Took’ K’awiil was a remarkably powerful ruler in his own right, named in texts at El Peru and Dos Pilas, and he erected many of the most gorgeous monuments at Calakmul itself (those up on Structure I). So I don’t see evidence that the Kaanal alliance network collapsed or suffered too much in the early 700s.

    I agree that the scene could be hearkening back to better times, but that too is hard to judge given the lack of a bigger historical context. The date is very specific, and the actors are as well. So any way one looks at it, the artist has to be playing around with time-frames and identities in some way.

  3. karenbassie June 11, 2013 / 9:44 PM

    I agree with your basic interpretation of the panel, but I would read the text in a different order. Most texts begin in the upper left of a composition. The glyphs in the left block of text are larger than the center and right caption texts, thus, the eye is naturally drawn to the left text first. If you begin the narrative with that caption text, then the story begins with K’inich B’aaknal Chahk’s playing ball. He is positioned with his back to the viewer which might suggest that his action is in the past. The viewer then moves to the center text which changes the time frame to a contemporary ball game played by Took’ K’awill. Took’ K’awill is positioned facing the viewer. These two images form a visual couplet just like the presentation of Kan Bahlam on the Cross Group. On the Cross Tablet, the junior Kan Bahlam stands on a sky band marked with a night signs while the senior Kan Bahlam stands on a sky band marked with a day sign which emphasize their complementary opposition.
    As you and others have noted, couplets that form complementary opposites are readily seen in hieroglyphic writing in the tz’ak “whole, complete” glyph (Hopkins 1996, Hull 1993, 2003, 2012; Knowlton 2002; Stuart 2003). The standard form of this sign is often replaced with a pair of signs such as day-night, star-moon, etc. As Gary Gossen noted, formal language, that is, sacred language is thought to be hot. The principal element that gives a discourse its formality, its “heat” or holiness, is the use of the couplet, a pair of lines that differs minimally. These can occur in every day conversation, but the density of couplets increases through heated speech, including court language, and reaches its maximum in sacred speech and prayer, where virtually the entire discourse is in couplet form. To sanctify ritual space, prayers are said in couplet form. The same kind of duality was created in Río Azul Tomb 12 where the glyphs painted on opposite walls are complementary opposites of each other: day/east (A); night/west (A) and moon/north (B); star/south (B). Counter clockwise ritual circuits are common in Maya culture. Beginning with the east wall and moving in a counter clockwise motion, the Río Azul glyphs form alternating couplets (A-B-A-B) of day-east (A), moon-north (B), night-west (A) and star-south (B). The edge of the Copan Structure 66C bench has similar pairs of couplets carved on its edge. From left to right are portraits of One Ixim as a lunar patron (A), an ak’bal deity representing night (ak’bal) (B); the sun god representing day (k’in) (B); and a scorpion deity representing Venus (A). This is the well-known chiasmus or “nested couplet’ form of A-B-B-A. These couplets transform the Copan bench and the Río Azul tomb into proper quadrilateral ceremonial spaces for a lord to sit on and to be buried in, respectively.
    Another example of these k’in-ak’bal and sun-moon couplets is found on a large earring in the Kislak Collection. The rim of this earring has four glyphs carved on it. Each glyph is composed of a bird head and one of the four elements (k’in, ak’bal, moon and star). Moving counter clockwise from the top, the glyphs are k’in bird, ak’bal bird, moon bird and star bird. These glyphs do not follow the directional order of the Río Azul glyphs, but when viewed as a poetic construction, they form the well-known couplet of AA-BB.
    So if you read the Tonina panel from left to right, then K’inich B’aaknal Chahk’s ballplaying event forms a couplet with Took’ K’awill’s ballplaying.

  4. Jorge Pérez de Lara June 12, 2013 / 4:09 PM

    I don’t know, Karen. K’inich Baaknal Chahk’s text is merely a caption that identifies him and seems completely disconnected from the formal narrative that clearly states the date and actor (Took’ K’awiil), so I do like Dave’s proposal that the main text starts in the middle. From the inscription, it is not clear who Took’ K’awiil is playing against, although visually it appears to be Baaknal Chahk… which clearly would be impossible for the date stated. So there appears to be a visual juxtaposition of two different events… if indeed there is any event, since no actual ballgame is made reference to: just a mention that these two rulers are “shown as ballplayers/at ballplaying”. Given that Baaknal Chahk is very important in Tonina’s history and that Took’ K’awiil is accorded some sort of ally (if not overlord) status, it seems likely that Yichaak’ (?) Chapaat is invoking them both for the purpose of bolstering his own standing (and, in fact he does accord himself the same status -kaloomte’- as the other two). It would, perhaps, help to know what kind of relation D1 is alluding to here.

  5. karenbassie June 12, 2013 / 8:41 PM

    I strongly disagree with the notion that caption texts are disconnected from the narrative. If the story begins with the middle text, then once the viewer finishes reading the middle text and the conclusion of that episode in the right text, they would then have to switch all the way over to the left text to finish reading the story. However, if the narrative begins with the left text, then the placement of K’inich Baaknal Chahk’s text at the beginning of the narrative can be interpreted as the common convention in Maya writing known as fronting. As an example, the caption texts on the Palenque Cross Tablet and Sun Tablet begin with the pre-accession event of Kan Bahlam, but on the Foliated Cross Tablet (which is the climax of the story) Kan Bahlam’s accession is fronted, that is, it is moved to the start of the episode to emphasize its importance. Kathryn Josserand pointed out numerous other examples of fronting in various narratives. So I agree with Dave’s interpretation of the Tonina scene as representing two separate ball playing events, but my point is that these two events form a couplet.

  6. Nick Hopkins June 12, 2013 / 8:59 PM

    Jorge, I agree that D1 is critical here. Since it isn’t clearly marked as a verb, it may be a relationship, e.g. (a wild guess) u majchil, ‘the relative of’. In that case, the two ballplayers could be Baaknal Chahk and Took’ K’awiil, during the reign of the former. They are, after all, the two people named as playing ball. Yich’aak Chapat just associates himself with the latter. In any case, there is no reason why the text can’t start on the upper left. When normal order gets disturbed, it’s for emphasis, and this may just be the “fronting” of an event to highlight the earlier Tonina ruler’s game with the distinguished foreigner, who is still a ballplayer after all these years.

  7. David Stuart June 12, 2013 / 9:31 PM

    Interesting discussion going on here. I may well have jumped the gun is re-lettering the columns of the inscription, but I actually don’t see a whole lot of difference between these different approaches to the narrative. I also don’t have a problem with Karen’s view of the left hand text as a fronted caption, meant to be read first. Even so, in terms of the larger narrative I would still see that initial self-contained information about K’inich Baaknal Chahk as somewhat secondary to the main topic of the monument — i.e., the ballgame of Took’ K’awiil. There are different ways of “fronting” a text visually, and it need not always involve right-to-left movement. Centrality is a very important means of emphasizing images and texts, too, especially in compositions like this that rely so much on bilateral symmetry to make a point. Here the eye of the viewer is drawn very strongly toward the centerline, with the ball and the text above. It’s there that we find the date and the emphasis on contemporary history. Even if the small caption is read first, the meaningful context for the composition is provided by the longer text at the middle and at right. So I agree that it’s a visual and narrative couplet, but I also can’t help but see a hierarchy in the two-part information being presented (right being dominant) just as there might be a hierarchy to the two rulers depicted.

    I do enjoy the subtlety of these issues — it just goes to show the elegance and genius behind the Maya design ethos.

    • Nick Hopkins June 12, 2013 / 9:58 PM

      I couldn’t agree more with David’s last statement. I can remember a time when if we saw something unusual in an inscription we assumed it was a mistake! Well, it WAS a mistake–OUR mistake!

  8. karenbassie June 12, 2013 / 10:47 PM

    Dave, I do agree that the right scene is the dominant one. In my 1991 volume, I discussed how emphasis in the image was accomplished through frontal pose and elaboration of costume, and that is certainly the case on this Tonina monument where Took’ Kawiil is shown in the frontal pose with a more elaborate costume. It would be interesting to know where this monument was originally situated.

  9. Jens Rohark June 13, 2013 / 2:14 AM

    I believe that D1 reads u ma-MAMAK-il, for “u mamakil”. The main sign MAMAK seams to be a woven structure, like a spiders web or woven cloth. But “mamakil” means “relative”. Just as Nick Hopkins has suggested a while ago… only with another, but similar vocabulary….
    Look at these entries of the Diccionario Porrua: mambil – primo hermano, mam – primos hermanos, mamak – trama de la tela, urdimbre, mamaktah – tejer la tela de la araña, mamakil – pariente en afinidad, consanguíneo o pariente, mi pariente.
    So my guess is, that the contemporaneous rulers Took´ K´awiil of Calakmul and K´inich Yich´aak Chapat of Tonina were cousins.

  10. David Stuart June 13, 2013 / 3:18 AM

    We will need far more evidence to posit a reading for the logogram in D1 (U-ma-?-li). Before any word value can be confidently assigned to it, we’ll need a much better sense of the sign’s semantic range. The handful of examples we have don’t really allow for that. All we can say on M.171 is that it expresses some sort of relationship where Yich’aak Chapat is the “owner” (i.e., the referent of the possessive pronoun). Keep in mind, too, that the term need not relate the two people named; it could just as easily refer to the ballgame event in some way, connecting it to the Tonina king.

    The other one or two Tonina inscriptions I’ve seen with this same unusual glyph still remain hidden away in the site bodega, but they should eventually help us out once they see the light of day. Also, the sign in question has a strong visual resemblance to the so-called” bone-throne,” a curious motif that can be a seat or surface for offerings, among other uses. That may eventually enter into the mix of evidence as well.

    As far as phonetic clues, the ma- superfix is perhaps a phonetic complement. In at least one other example, in a personal name, it shows a -na suffix (CHAK-?-na). I’ve considered MAN “buy” or MATAN “gift” as possible values, but I can’t really see how these readings would work in the case of M.171.

    For me, it’s simply a case of needing more examples in order to make any compelling line of argument for the sign’s value.

  11. Nick Hopkins June 13, 2013 / 10:02 PM

    For the record, my suggestion of u-majchil ‘the relative of’ is based on the Chol term in Aulie and Aulie, “majchil, s., 1. pariente; 2. clan (Tila), familia extendida.” This is a reflex of the now defunct patrilineal clan system that I have discussed elsewhere (6th Palenque Round Table, Estudios de Cultura Maya 17:87-121). While now defunct, the clan system is still reflected in the language: The question “Who (is he)?” is majch-ki?, literally “what clan?.” The relationship doesn’t have to be close; two people with the same surname can be considered to be kinsmen somehow.

  12. Stephen Houston June 13, 2013 / 11:24 PM

    Useful discussion, with two small morsels for thought: (1) the IL-ni, il-n-i, “he sees,” at your B3, presumably in reference to the ruler of Calakmul as a witness; and (2) a vacant span some 20 yrs after Chapaat’s reign. Given the 1 “k’atun” reference to the right, is there a chance that this young fellow is simply a namesake who recycles an earlier royal name? …i.e., someone after Ruler 5 who is otherwise unattested? Of course, there is a little evidence, as at BPK, for tanist-like usage of k’uhul titles.

  13. David Stuart June 14, 2013 / 8:13 PM

    That name phrase with the 1 k’atun title, etc. is pretty much identical to the one used on that “kot” wall with the stucco glyph column, and with dates falling right in the reign of K’inich Baaknal Chahk. So I’m pretty sure its the same guy here on M.171.

    I have wondered too about that IL-ni glyph, right before the name in the central text, but could it be something else besides “witness” (which is usually spelled differently as ila’)? One possibility is that it’s a demonstrative element, “now” or “this one here.” In Ch’olan we have these forms, all based in the “see” root:
    CH’OL ili – este, esta
    CH’ORTI’ irah – here, this place, now, present moment, moment of time
    CH’OLTI’ ila – este, esto; aquel, aquello
    Perhaps there was an earlier form ili(n) with similar functions? It’s a rare glyph, but one example on the Pomona “k’atun panels” is fascinating, spelled IL-ni-ya and paired with the pronoun ha’i in reference to an early ruler who reigned ca. Maybe this can be in fact a verb, then, some sort of anti-passive derivation, ha’i il-n-iiy.

  14. lornahuff June 18, 2013 / 3:17 AM

    HI David, Thank you for this interesting report. I’m curious about the manner in which the two Tonina players on bent knees stare intently at the ball at near eye level. This stance is evident in other ball game scenes such as on a La Corona staircase riser where one of the players is leaning on one elbow on the ball court floor staring directly at the ball on a bottom stair. Several Yaxchilan hieroglyphic stair panels show the players (eg.Bird Jaguar, his father, his grandfather) on their hands and knees staring at the ball near eye level. It seems the large ball on M.171 is the focal image of the scene although it is apparently devoid of design or in-fixed glyphs seen in other ball depictions. You mentioned the event phrase in the caption above the ball reads, u baah ta pitz, ” (it is) his image (in the act) of ball playing”. It seems the text describes the action of the Tonina rulers who are portrayed as looking at ” his image” (of their common Calakmul overlord?) on/in the ball?

  15. Nick Hopkins June 18, 2013 / 3:55 PM

    Lorna (et al.)– While all the major epigraphers have adopted the “his image” reading for the “u ba(a)h” phrases, I (among others) continue to take it as an auxiliary verb in a “ti construction,” as discussed in the 4th Palenque Round Table report (1985). There are instances of “u bah” in texts where there is no image, but where the auxiliary verb role would be appropriate. From this point of view, the sentence can be read as “Playing ball is So-and-so.”

  16. David Stuart June 18, 2013 / 4:27 PM

    I’m not sure about “all the major epigraphers” (is there a club I’m unaware of?) but I would translate baah based on its attested meanings – “persona, body, self” and sometimes “image.” When u baah is used to introduce a figure caption it’s simply a stative expression, and any of these translations would work fine, but I find “his/her image” a pretty good parallel. Certainly there are examples of u baah embedded in longer texts that don’t serve as captions per se, but the function isn’t all that different, as in u baah u huntahn, “his body/person is the precious one of…” . Those ti- or ta- constructions are elaborations on the same idea, adding a prepositional phrase with a verbal noun. English doesn’t have a straight literal translation for these phrases (u baah ti ak’ta, “his persona in the act of dancing,” sounds kind of forced and awkward), so “dancing is so-and-so” would certainly be an OK translation in my book. So whether we classify them auxiliary verbs, stative expressions, or whatever, I think we all agree on what they do.

    • Nick Hopkins June 19, 2013 / 4:14 PM

      I agree with that last statement, David. One of the paradoxes of Maya epigraphy is that we can agree on the essential meaning of a phrase without agreeing on why it means that.

  17. mayoid June 20, 2013 / 12:28 PM

    Yet, sometimes, too, hieroglyphs can actually be read. …we can agree, for example, that what I am writing is a concatenation of signs, and that it is generally communicating a message. But, since this is interpretable script, the sense and sound of what I am writing are being communicated precisely. That is the goal of decipherment, the way forward. There is no paradox that I can see, only positive increments of knowledge.

    • Nick Hopkins June 20, 2013 / 5:10 PM

      Mayoid: In this particular case, we can in fact “read the hieroglyphs.” We agree the “sound” would be “u baah ta pitz” (altho we might argue about that long vowel). We differ in taking “u baah” to be (1) a nominal phrase, “his image,” or (2) verbal, an auxiliary verb, “he is [doing something].” From contexts external to the text (the images), we can agree on the “sense” or meaning of the sentences that contain this phrase, however: the protagonist is (pictured) ballplaying, dancing in costume, etc. What I meant by “paradox” is that we can agree on the meaning without agreeing on the grammar, and for me, as a linguist, that is paradoxical.

  18. lornahuff June 21, 2013 / 2:20 PM

    My question was confusing. NIck, maybe the phrase could be interpreted in both a verbal and nominal sense so that meaning is condensed in a few words? When looking at the visual elements in this scene my thought is that the ball is the central image on which the players and the viewer are focused.and seems to represent the 3rd player identified in the text on top of the ball; the players are gazing at the ball as if it somehow signified or revealed the presence of the 3rd important player.