Notes on a Sacrifice Scene

by David Stuart, The University of Texas at Austin

The Late Classic cacao vase K8719 (from Justin Kerr’s The Maya Vase Database) depicts one of the more grisly scenes of human sacrifice known from Maya art. (Happy Halloween!). The surrounding imagery and texts provide some interesting tidbits of information about the timing and setting of such events, and also how they related to the pomp and circumstance of royal performance in the courts of the Classic era.

Figure 1. Rollout of vase K8719  (Photograph by Justin Kerr).
Figure 1. Rollout of vase K8719 (Photograph by Justin Kerr).

In the scene we see a king seated upon what looks to be a portable throne and looking on a scene of decapitation sacrifice.  The victim, perhaps a war captive, lies prone upon a stone altar and before a small stela. His head lies atop the stone monument, placed on a surface of amate paper-cloth (huun) and suggesting some sort of corporeal metaphor involving the upright stone (see Stuart 1996 for a further discussion of stela-body symbolism). Judging by similar scenes (see K8351), the familiar stela-altar pairing one so often see at Maya sites was often a formal place for human sacrifice. Indeed, I suspect that most stelae-and-altars erected in the plazas (Figure 2) were conceived as settings for the execution of prisoners, much as we see on this vase. To the left of the dead victims are two performers in fantastic animal costumes, wearing red scarves. As Elliot Lopez-Finn points out to me, similar portly animal performers are depicted on other vessels (see K1835, K4947. K4960). And elsewhere many similar clawed figures with red scarves are explicitly identified as wahy beings, who I have interpreted as the spooky embodiments of witchcraft and dark forces wielded by Maya rulers and elites (Stuart 2005). On this vessel the costumed figures are performing in an extraordinary setting of courtly sacrifice, perhaps as executioners that embody the animated forces of the king’s power and control over life and death.

Figure 2. Uncarved stelae and altars at Tikal.
Figure 2. Uncarved stelae and altars at Tikal.
Figure 3. Main text caption from K8719. (Photograph by J. Kerr)
Figure 3. Main text caption from K8719. (Photograph by J. Kerr)

A lengthy text runs down the middle of the image above the slain victim (Figure 3). Unfortunately it shows considerable modern repainting and “touching up” by someone who knew nothing of hieroglyphs. Nevertheless, we can see that it is a complex name caption for the seated king, opening with a CR date and then perhaps the possessed noun u baah, “the person of…” (A2 and B2). The date looks to me to be 4 Ahau 13 Yax, correspond to the k’atun ending (August 16, 731 A.D.). The royal name and accompanying titles extend down into the vertical column. At B3 we see the well preserved sequence CHAN-na-K’INICH, after an initial name glyph that is largely illegible. This may well be the name Tayel Chan K’inich, in reference to the Late Classic king of the Ik’ polity who is named on a number of other vessels (Just 2012:102-123, Reents-Budet, Guenter, Bishop and Blackman 2013, Tokovinine and Zender 2013). A possible Ik’ emblem glyph might be at block A7, though again much garbled by the vase’s “restorer.”

A date of 731 A.D. agrees well with Tayel Chan K’inch, who we know from other sources to have been in power by 726 and seems to have ruled for at least a decade afterwards, perhaps a good deal more (Tokovinine and Zender 2012: 43). The k’atun ending would have been among the major ceremonial event of his reign, and I suggest that the scene on this vase depicts at least one of the ceremonies from that very day.

Ascribing this vessel to the Ik’ polity and its workshops also is in keeping with the general style and color palette of the scene. Orange-colored glyphs are known from other pots of this style. We also see elaborate animal costumes worn by rulers and other performers on many other Ik’ vessels (K533, 1439, among others). As already noted, I suspect that this pair of weird-looking performers are the sacrificers responsible for the beheading. The white color here, also worn by the king, may be significant, as we find white sacrificers also shown on K2781 and K8351.

Figure 4. The glyph aj laj, “finished one,” near the victim. (Photo by J. Kerr)

Placed near the stela and just above the legs of the sacrificial victim is a lone hieroglyph (Figure 4) readable as AJ-la-ja, for aj laj. This presumably is an agentive noun based on the root laj, meaning “end, finish, die,” found throughout lowland and highland Mayan languages (Kaufman [2003] reconstructs the common Mayan form as *laj or *laaj). The connections of this word to death are widespread, and are particularly acute in colonial Tzotzil, where we find laj meaning “be dead” and the nominalized form lajel, “death” (Laughlin 1988,I: 241). There can be little doubt that here we are meant to read the glyph on the pot as a somewhat obvious descriptor of the slain figure as “the finished one, the deceased.” As far as I am aware this is a unique example of such a title used to refer to a sacrificial victim.

Overall this vessel offers a remarkable and maybe even surprising look into the nature of Maya calendar ceremonies. Written records of k’atun endings, for example, feature the ritual acts of kings who “bind the stone” or “cast the incense.” They never directly mention human sacrifices nor the bloody anointing of stelae, and why they don’t raises an interesting issue worth pondering further. The wider canvas of a portable cylindrical vase perhaps allowed for such grisly displays, more so than the stiff and narrow face of a stone stela set in a plaza. For whatever reason, cacao vases that circulated at the courts of the Late Classic period were deemed a more appropriate media for the display of some darker subject-matter, including the gorier aspects of royal ceremony and performance.

Sources Cited:

Just, Bryan. 2012. Dancing into Dreams: Maya Vase Painting of the Ik’ Kingdom. Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton.

Kaufman, Terrence. 2003. A Preliminary Mayan Etymological Dictionary. PDF ms.

Reents-Budet, Dorie, Stanley Guenter, Ronald L. Bishop and M. James Blackman. 2013. Identity and Interaction: Ceramic Styles and Social History of the Ik’ Polity, Guatemala. In Motul de San Jose: Politics, History, and Economy in a Classic Maya Polity, edited by A. E. Foias and K. F. Emery, pp. 67-93. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Stuart, David. 1996. Kings of Stone: A Consideration of Stelae in Ancient Maya Ritual and Representation. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, nos. 29/30, pp. 148-171.

___________. 2005. Glyphs on Pots. Sourcebook for the 2005 Maya Meetings. Department of Art and Art History, The University of Texas at Austin.

Tokovinine, Alexandre, and Marc Zender. 2013. Lords of Windy Water: The Royal Court of Motul de San Jose in Classic Maya Inscriptions. In Motul de San Jose: Politics, History, and Economy in a Classic Maya Polity, edited by A. E. Foias and K. F. Emery, pp. 30-66. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

11 thoughts on “Notes on a Sacrifice Scene

  1. Megan O'Neil November 2, 2014 / 2:43 AM

    And of course Piedras Negras Stela 11 has a human sacrifice on a circular altar in front of the scaffold where Ruler 4 celebrates a k’atun ending. The presence of the human sacrifice on the PN stela suggests there were sacrifices in front of stelae at PN as well. Notably, the date of PN Stela 11 is, the same one you cite as the date on this vessel.

    • David Stuart November 2, 2014 / 12:07 PM

      Right, Meghan. I should have mentioned that scene and also the one on PNG Stela 14 (a bit eroded but there). These look to be child heart sacrifices. Yaxha Stela 13 has one as well, showing an infant.

  2. Luna Simms November 9, 2014 / 8:38 PM

    do you think the collocation aj laj has any semantic relation to the famous ik’ artist Mo??ni Buluch Laj. the beginning part of his name is unique as far as i can tell. any thoughts?

    • David Stuart November 13, 2014 / 4:25 PM

      I guess that the la-ja spelling in that artist’s name is probably spelling the same word, laj, “finish, end.” But his overall name is hard to analyze and parse semantically. Beyond having a shared word I’m not sure of a connection.

  3. talk2winik November 13, 2014 / 3:41 PM

    Always great to see that our Ik’a’ chronology holds! This vessel is yet another example of how some private collectors actually treat priceless masterpieces of ancient Maya art, dispelling certain myths about the practice. The dedicatory text is barely legible and atrociously modified.

  4. Anna Vanichkin November 15, 2014 / 12:22 AM

    Could it be that laj “end, finish, die” is responsible for skeletal features of numeral head variants?

  5. macaw3 November 16, 2014 / 6:12 PM

    I would like to offer a different perspective on why this particular date, 4 Ajaw 13 Yax, assuming it is, involves blood sacrifice. In a recent presentation on meteor showers at the Maya@Playa conference, I noted that on this particular date, 19 August 731 (Julian)(more precisely the evening of 19 August or the early morning hours of 20 August, based on the Martin-Skidmore correlation constant of 584286) it was possible a meteor outburst could have occurred. I based this possibility on a comparison with 16 historically observed annual meteor showers recorded in records from China, Japan, Korea, Europe and other places not in the New World*. Though likely only fortuitous that a meteor outburst would have occurred on a period ending date, it is still possible. My talk also offered the possible connection of some of the niche stelae at Piedras Negras being connected to pre-era long count, 1 Etz’nab 6 Yaxk’in, 3298 BC March 17/18 (Palenque Temple XIX) by virtue of the fact that an annual Eta Aquariid shower would have occurred on dates inscribed on some niche stelae (6 and 33) and, the text of which involves the decapitation of the Starry Deer Crocodile, blood sacrifice and drilling of fire, as does the iconography on the niche stela as David discusses. The Temple XIX text where Ahkal Mo’ Nahb II receives the crocodile cosmological throne (O4P4) occurs on an Orionid meteor shower date and relates to pre-era by an integral number of Jupiter sidereal cycles (i.e., Jupiter appeared in the same constellation [Virgo] on both dates). As Megan mentioned above, Piedras Negras stela 11, also a niche stela, also records Granted at this point without raw specific data from early Maya records it is conjecture to say that the Maya were actually recording meteor showers/outbursts on these particular dates, however there is some physical evidence to support some showers with various degrees of probabilities.

    *Kinsman, J.H., 2013, Meteor Showers in the Ancient Maya Hieroglyphic Codices, Meteoroids 2013, Proceedings of the International Conference held at the Adam Mickiewicz Universtiy in Poznan, Poland, August 26-30, 2013, pp. 110-124. Eds. Jopek, Rietmeijer, F.J.M., Watanabe, J., Williams, I.P.. (on line at

  6. macaw3 November 16, 2014 / 6:14 PM

    “Macaw3” is Hutch Kinsman

    • macaw3 November 16, 2014 / 11:32 PM

      One quick correction: That should be Ahkal Mo’ Nahb III (not II as I stated above) that received the “Starry Deer Crocodile” head sign at O4 (ya-AHIN) on the Temple XIX text. Ahkal Mo’ Nahb II “entered the road” in 570 (interestingly enough on a Perseid meteor shower date where Jupiter was also in the constellation Virgo, an integral number of Jupiter sidereal cycles from pre-era

  7. lornahuff November 18, 2014 / 4:31 AM

    On a different note, it’s interesting how the victim, positioned on all fours over the alter, resembles the portable throne the king is seated on. The throne is covered with spotted jaguar skin while the victim is spotted with blood so they both appear jaguar-like.(The spotted loincloth garment worn by the victim looks rather like a jaguar tail but maybe that’s a stretch!) Their very close proximity to each other on the same level seems pointed and lends almost a mirror-like quality. The victim is somewhat reminiscent to me of the human-jaguar figure depicted on a ball court marker at Cobá.
    Another impression is on how the stiff upright stela and rows of text form a partition between the costumed wahy beings and the king’s space, while the victim on the alter extends into both “realms” merging with the jaguar throne the king is sitting on.