REPORT: An Earful of Glyphs from Guatemala

by Stephen Houston and Alexandre Tokovinine

A by-product of giving public talks is that, at times, a member of the audience will introduce themselves and offer an unexpected image: a glyphic text not seen before or since. This happened to Houston in 1994, at a Maya Society meeting in Washington, DC. The chat was brief, the name of the owner escapes us now (if it was ever noted), and the photos settled into one of many piles in Houston’s office. Yet such finds are always worth sharing, whatever their current location.

Figure 1. Photograph of earspool set and “hair-ornament” (Photographer unknown)
Figure 1. Photograph of earspool set and “hair-ornament” (Photographer unknown)
Figure 2. Same photograph with enhancement (Photographer unknown, enhancement courtesy of Simon Martin).
Figure 2. Same photograph with enhancement (Photographer unknown, enhancement courtesy of Simon Martin).
Figure 3. Drawing of set by Alexandre Tokovinine.
Figure 3. Drawing of set by Alexandre Tokovinine.

The attached images and drawings—the latter by Tokovinine, with slight suggestions by Houston—show a set of earspools and what might be a perforated jade bead to gather a ponytail or serve as a forehead ornament (Figures 1, 2 and 3). There was no scale in the photograph, but the assumption is that the earspools were fairly large, perhaps 7 to 9 cm across, at least to judge from similar examples with known measurements (e.g., K1365, K3166). Carved by the same lapidary artist, the pair clearly forms a coherent whole. One depicts the so-called “baktun” bird, perhaps a celestial eagle. Its pectoral indicates some close but unspecified tie to the Principal Bird Deity. The other displays, not a bird in full flight, but a swimming lizard with scutes running up and down his front and back legs. The central design, a quadripartite element with four lobes, appears to represent a cavity at the center of each creature. Was this a witty reference to the central perforation or an allusion to their emergent state?

Cosmic layering must have related in some poorly understood manner to the display function of such earspools, one to either side of a ruler or nobleman’s face (Carter et al. 2012; The creatures on our earspools do not, however, show any evidence of complementary orientation. Rather than facing into the royal visage, as in some ornaments with human bodies or faces, they appear to face in the same direction. The position of the glyphs on the reptile or turtle suggests that it was oriented so that the text could be viewed in vertical position. The “Baktun” bird is less clear in placement.

The site from which these objects came is uncertain. Two possibilities come to mind:

(1) On the reptile earspool, the main sign of the Naranjo emblem occurs with the number 4, at the beginning of that text (the number “6” also occurs with this sign on Naranjo Stela 45 and a stucco frieze found by William Saturno at Xultun and reported at the 2013 Texas Maya Meetings). The presence of the number hints at cosmic directional symbolism. Perhaps the following glyphs designate a place within a particular location. Presumably, the first glyph reads AHK-ku or AHK-TUUN, followed by a toponymic sequence that is well-attested in Maya inscriptions (Stuart and Houston 1994:figure 9). Indeed, the reptile on the earspool may refer to the toponym in some way.

Figure 4.  Name of Naatz Chan Ahk on Naranjo Stela 45 (Field Drawing by Alexandre Tokovinine).
Figure 4. Name of Naatz Chan Ahk on Naranjo Stela 45 (Field Drawing by Alexandre Tokovinine).

There are other dynastic links on the “Baktun” bird, close to another earspool discovered in Tomb 2 of Río Azul 1 At the back of the bird, carried notionally on its back (cf. K2131, of the Principal Bird Deity), is na-tzu-[CHAN?]AHK, a ruler of Naranjo, Naatz Chan Ahk (Martin and Grube 2008:70-71). The chan (or kan) glyph seems to be missing here, but it may have been elided or incorporated into the ahk head, as on Naranjo Stela 45 (Figure 4).

(2) A similar name occurs at Río Azul, also from the Early Classic period. The name appears in two places. The first is on a looted vessel in the Detroit Museum of Fine Arts (#1984.12.A, formerly Peter Wray collection, see also K1446; Taylor 2000). The Detroit vessel likely originated in the sacked Río Azul Tomb 12, which contains the second example: na-tzu-AHK (Adams 1999:Figure 3-16). The Detroit vessel shows the turtle with gaping mouth and pronounced beak. In an email, David Stuart wonders whether this creature is a snapping turtle, that ferocious consumer of human toes and fingers. After all, the snapper is, in Stuart’s memorable phrase, the “badass of turtles”!

Figure 5. Incised turtle shell with name highlighted in grey-tone (Drawing by Linda Schele).
Figure 5. Incised turtle shell with name highlighted in grey-tone (Drawing by Linda Schele).

The parallel with the earspool from Tomb 2 at Río Azul is suggestive. The living lord appears, not on the tail of the bird, but on its head. Our suspicion is that the name on our earspool is a hitherto undetected ruler of Naranjo or, perhaps less likely, of Río Azul. The glyphs are difficult to read with any precision, but may have included a WAHY(IS) — note the characteristic percentage sign on the forehead of the spelling on the turtle shell. In all likelihood, the same ruler owned, as a MAM, “grandfather/ancestor,” an incised turtle shell that is also unprovenanced (Figure 5, note the highlighted glyph). Could this object have come from the same deposit as the earspools?

Incidentally, it is intriguing that the turtle shell was called a yu-k’e-sa?, “weeper,” a tag found in another context by Marc Zender (2010:84, pl. 43; cf. the so-called “Pearlman Conch,” now in the Chrysler Museum of Art, #86.457, Coe 1982:123, with its unambiguous yu-k’e-sa). Clearly used in music making, these objects might have been less about joyful celebration than a different intent, to make the sounds of mourning or the keening summons of spirits. Indeed, many Maya objects, especially of ancestral shells, might have been rough equivalents to the jet mourning jewelry of the Victorians: a reminder and fetishized evocation of the deceased.

As for the bead or hair- or forehead ornament, there is little to be said: a K’AWIIL above the head of a human being with K’IN earspool.

Any addition to the corpus of texts is welcome. These finds, taken illicitly from Guatemala, remind us of how little is known about Maya ornament. Of small size but large meaning, they invite closer study and broader comparison.


Note 1. This earspool is on display in the Museo Nacional in Guatemala City, with the name of a local ruler, JOL-BAHLAM, on its head. The same name occurs on Temple Structure A-2 at the site, reproduced in a lamentable drawing by R. E. W. Adams (1999:Figure 3-19, B7).


Adams, R. E. W. 1999. Río Azul: An Ancient Maya City. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Carter, Nicholas P., Rony E. Piedrasanta, Stephen D. Houston, and Zachary Hruby. 2012. Signs of Supplication: Two Mosaic Earflare Plaques from El Zotz, Guatemala. Antiquity 86:Project Gallery;

Coe, Michael D. 1982. Old Gods and Young Heroes: The Pearlman Collection of Maya Ceramics. Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

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

Stuart, David, and Stephen Houston. 1994. Classic Maya Place Names. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology 33. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C.

Taylor, Dicey. 2000. A Chocolate Cup for Eternity in the Road of Awe: The Detroit Cylinder Tripod. Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts 74(1-2):4–19.

5 thoughts on “REPORT: An Earful of Glyphs from Guatemala

  1. David Stuart July 14, 2013 / 6:50 PM

    I find it fascinating that we could have AHK-TUUN as part of the place name on the reptile spool. Of course this is likely to be the familiar word aktun “cave (with water).” We find the same term only in one other place in Maya texts that I know of, as part of a small caption the incised stalactite or stalagmite erected in front of Structure 33 at Yaxchilan, spelled a-ku-TUUN-ni. On the spool, might the line of glyphs (such-and-such ahktuun place”) be naming the reptile shown, with the quatrefoil body? We know quatrefoil-shaped holes and “portals” overlap greatly with turtle carapaces in the iconography, so I’m willing to bet that the ancient term ahktuun alludes directly to this connection.

  2. David Stuart July 14, 2013 / 7:17 PM

    BTW, I just found in my files a roll-out drawing of the smaller bead-like object, I think done a number of years ago by Barbara Kerr. On the opposite side is another glyph — a GI head, merged with a hand, a heron, and a NAAH-“AJAW” atop his head. This is clearly that expanded GI-related phrase that often goes with female names in the Early Classic. I suspect the glyph we see here is a woman’s name, perhaps IX-K’IN-K’AWIIL, IX-K’AWIIL-K’IN(ICH), or some variation on these.

  3. karenbassie July 17, 2013 / 1:45 PM

    I have a comment to make regarding complementary opposition that is pertinent to this discussion of earrings. In Maya world view, humans are thought to be both male and female, the right side is male and the left is female. However, in order to be complete, adults must be married. Husbands and wives complement each other just as the right hand complements the left. A metonym is a term in which two typical members of a class are juxtaposed to stand for the whole domain. The two members of a metonym are usually the best examples of the domain and are often complementary or contrasting opposites. For example, the metonym “mother-father” occurs in many Maya languages and refers to ancestors. In the Popol Vuh, mountain and valley are paired to describe the earth; sky and earth are paired to describe the world; and Heart of Sky (the three thunderbolt gods) and Heart of Earth (the creator grandparents) are paired to describe all the creator deities. The Popol Vuh also pairs a golden eagle with a vulture which contrasts raptors that eat freshly killed prey with those that consume carrion. It is a poetic reference to all birds of prey. In a similar manner, various Epiclassic cultures pair a golden eagle with a jaguar which is a pairing of a quintessential predatory bird and predatory mammal.
    Right and left complementary opposition is inherent in many Maya metonyms such as tok-pakal “flint-shield” which pairs an offensive weapon with a defensive weapon, and which is likely a reference to all weapons including those composed of stone, flint and obsidian. A weapon is held by the right hand while the shield is held by the left. Earrings have this same inherent complementary opposition because they are worn on the right and left side of a person. The earrings under discussion pair the celestial bak’tun bird with a terrestrial reptile.
    And a final note, Nick Hopkins and I recently wrote a paper on predatory birds that is part of our larger study of Maya birds. We discussed Bardawil’s proposal that all supernatural birds with serpent wings and hooked beaks were variations of the same creature (the so-called Principal Bird Deity). Although he noted that his Principal Bird Deity could have the head of Itzamnaaj, the deity GIII or an owl, he concluded that these were celestial and underworld manifestation of the same deity. More examples of deities with serpent wings have emerged over the years such as the avian form of One Ixim, the vulture deity, hummingbirds and numerous water birds. Lumping together all avian supernaturals into one category is simply wrong, and in our opinion the term Principal Bird Deity should be permanently retired. Furthermore, although golden eagle imagery and references are present in Epiclassic cultures that were influenced by Central Mexico, we questioned whether any of the Classic Maya predatory bird images refer to eagles of any species.

  4. Marilee July 21, 2013 / 11:22 PM

    Hi, I love your site. I was looking at the drawing of these earspools and I thought they were displayed upside down. But no, I think they should be oriented 90 degrees to the left.

    Like this spool from Rio Azul shown on this website:

    the wings of the bird are on top and bottom, not side to side