by David Stuart, Department of Art and Art History, The University of Texas at Austin
Among the still-undeciphered signs in Maya writing is the so-called “bent-cauac” element (Figure 1). Most epigrpahers seem to agree that it is a logogram (a word sign), but its precise reading has so far remained elusive. In this note I would like to put forth some evidence that points to a possible reading KA’, with the meaning “metate” or “grinding stone.” The reading, if correct, may ultimately help us to understand a key place name cited in historical records of the Classic period.
The bent-cauac sign is perhaps best known as part of an important place name in early Maya history, mentioned in the inscriptions from a number of different sites, including Copan, Tikal and Dzibanche. as well as depicted on a few codex-style ceramics (Grube 2004) (Figure 2). Here it is combined with the hand sign chi, which some years ago led to the nickname “chi-witz” (Grube 2004:127) apparently based on the bent-cauac’s imperfect resemblance to the WITZ, “mountain,” logogram identified a number of years ago (Stuart 1987). Clearly it is a different sign, however.[Note 1] More recently, some epigraphers have opted to refer to the place name as “chi-altar,” seeing a connection instead to the large table-like altars sometimes depicted in Maya sculpture and painting (see for example Stone and Zender 2012:93). This visual connection to a stone object seems closer to the mark, yet I believe the “altar” designation remains vague and even problematic. One reason for my hesitance is the distinctive and consistent bent form of the sign’s main element — something altogether different from the flat altar stones with two supports. Moreover, a hieroglyphic sign that actually does depict such stone altars or tables already exists in the texts of Tikal and Copan. Significantly, one inscription at Tikal includes both the the “bent-cauac” and “stone table” signs, easily demonstrating the distinction of the two elements (See Tikal Stela 26, blocks zA7 and yB2). Thus there is good reason to see the bent-cauac as neither a hill nor an altar, but representing some other type of stone object or feature.
If we look at the bent-cauac’s visual history, we see that the sign changes somewhat over time. Its earliest known cases show two small stone elements below the larger bent sign (Figure 2a). Later scribes usually opted to place small stones at the upper left and lower right corners of the sign (Figure 1, Figure 2c, Figure 4), lending the sign aesthetic and visual balance. In some instances, the smaller stone elements are omitted altogether (Figure 2b). In the iconographic parallels from codex-style vases, we see that the original early form is retained, showing an irregular, sloped large stone atop two supports (Figure 2d).
In considering what the bent-cauac sign really depicts, we can be sure of a couple of things. One, it is a stone object of irregular shape, sloping downward on one end. Second, it can have “supports” of stone, but not always. What might it be? I suggest that it probably represents a metate, or a grinding stone — an identification that seems to agree well with the depictions of such objects in Maya art (Figure 3). In the fuller examples of bent-cauac logogram (see Figure 1), the placement of a stone on top may allude to the hand-held “mano,” with the other stone serving as a support beneath.
Some phonetic evidence may help determine the sign’s value. In various instances we see the bent-cauac sign with an -a suffix (Figure 2c, Figure 4). This is a sign that in its origin represented a parrot’s beak, abbreviating the fuller parrot head sign also a, also seen conflated with the metate glyph in cases from the Hieroglyphic Stairway at the site of Resbalon. In this context the –a suffix sign can be taken in a couple of ways. The –a element might conceivably be providing the common place name ending –(h)a’, “water,” as it clearly seems to do in the Yaxha toponym and emblem glyph (YAX-a) (Stuart 1988). Alternatively, the –a may provide a telling phonetic clue to the reading of the logogram, serving as a phonetic complement.
I prefer this second possibility, since it seems to be an optional sign added onto the metate sign in at least two separate contexts. If the -a is indeed optional, there is a good likelihood that it serves a phonetic complement to the reading of the metate logogram. In this light, it is interesting to see the various terms for metate in lowland Mayan languages, as listed by Kaufman in his Preliminary Mayan Etymological Dictionary (Kaufman 2003). There the form reconstructed for proto-Mayan is *ka’, and for Proto-Ch’olan it is *cha’. I therefore suggest this may be a good working decipherment for the bent cauac sign, either KA’ or CHA’, “metate.”
Metates were, of course, basic implements in domestic food production used throughout the ancient Americas. In Mesoamerica we usually think of stone grinders being used for processing maize, but they were key implements in many different types of food preparation. Interestingly, metates were used for the grinding of maguey and other agave plants in the manufacture of mescal, pulque and perhaps other fermented drinks important in Mesoamerica.
We might now have a reasonable interpretation of the mysterious place glyph once called “chi-witz.” If I were to propose a phonetic analysis of the compound, something like chi-CHA’ (chi(h) cha’) or chi-KA’ (chi(h) ka’), the “maguey grinder (place),” looks like a workable possibility.
It is important to stress that the geographic frame of reference for this “maguey-grinder” place name still remains very unclear. Some have argued that it might refer to El Mirador or Nakbe, given its early historical connections (see Grube 2004:13-131; Zender and Stone 2012:234). While such connections are tantalizing they still remain circumstantial, and without further evidence it is difficult to know. Perhaps this better semantic understanding of the place name will help us one day in resolving the issue.
It is also important to note that not all appearances of the supposed metate sign are easily understood, even if KA’ or CHA’ turns out to be a correct reading. On Tikal Stela 26 the sign appears in what might be a verbal context (U-KA’-ji) but the surrounding text is obscure. Hopefully these and other issues can be clarified with further analysis.
Thanks to Stephen Houston, Simon Martin and Karl Taube for some very useful feedback on this proposal.
Note 1. Part of the confusion seems to have stemmed from an example from Stela 1 at Arroyo de Piedra (see Grube 2004:130), where the sculptor of the monument bears the title CHIH-WITZ AJAW, “Deer-Mountain Lord.” There is no reason to connect this isolated example of the “Deer Mountain” place name to the “chi-witz” or “chi-altar” glyphs under discussion here, however.
Note 2. The difference in these two readings rests on whether one prefers to transcribe the sign using the reconstructed Ch’olan-Tzeltalan form cha’, or the more “archaic” ka’. Until recently I would have opted strongly for the latter, given the secure position of Classic Mayan language in the Ch’olan-Tzeltalan group. But it is important to point out that many glyphic spellings point to a more complex scenario of areal diffusion of the k > ch sound change, and that the supposed innovation is not as regular as was earlier assumed (Law, et. al., in press). Until further clarification comes about, KA’ or CHA’ seem equally plausible readings.
Grube, Nikolai. 2004. El origin de la dinastia Kaan. In Los Cautivos de Dzibanche, edited by Enrique Nalda, pp. 117-132. INAH, Mexico D.F.
Kaufman, Terrence. 2003. Preliminary Mayan Etymological Dictionary. On-line resource at http://www.famsi.org/reports/01051/pmed.pdf.
Law, Danny, John Robertson, Stephen Houston, Marc Zender, David Stuart. In press. Areal Shifts in Maya Phonology. Ms. accepted for publication in Ancient Mesoamerica.
Stone, Andrea, and Marc Zender. 2012. Reading Maya Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Maya Painting and Sculpture. Thames and Hudson, New York.
Stuart, David. 1985. The Yaxha Emblem Glyph as YAX-A. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, 1. The Center for Maya Research, Washington, D.C.
_________. 1987. Ten Phonetic Syllables. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, 14. The Center for Maya Research, Washington, D.C.