The Royal Headband: A Pan-Mesoamerican Hieroglyph

by David Stuart (The University of Texas at Austin)

Note: This unpublished paper was written back in 2008 on honor of the late Henry B. Nicholson, the great scholar of Aztec history and culture who was a good friend and eager supporter of my work back when I was just starting out in the Mesoamerican field. I post my old paper here with minimal edits, and with the caveat that some lines of thinking have changed in the seven or so years since this was written. For example, I am currently rethinking issues on early Mesoamerican script history, as reflected in some recent public talks (Stuart 2014a and b)) and in a book now under preparation on the Pre-Classic Maya texts from San Bartolo. The age of this paper is reflected also in parts where I attempted to describe the nature of Aztec (Nahua) writing, in recognition of Nicholson’s seminal contributions to the study of highland Mexican scripts. Soon after this was written, several colleagues produced important works on the Aztec hieroglyphic system, most notably Lacadena (2008), Zender (2008) and Whittaker (2009).

For Nick

This essay focuses on a hieroglyphic sign that shows a remarkable geographic, temporal and linguistic spread throughout ancient Mesoamerica. It might seem unusual to treat the main Mesoamerican writing systems (Olmec, Maya, Teotihuacan, Isthmian, Zapotec, Mexica-Aztec, etc.) together in this way, but there do exist a handful of signs and elements shared among these traditions, holding similar if not identical semantic values and therefore reflecting some profound historical historical and cultural connections. The sign in question is what I call the “royal headband,” representing the simple paper-cloth device worn by Mesoamerican rulers and nobility (Figure 1). As we will see, this sign appears in several of the major Mesoamerican scripts with the semantic value of “lord” or “ruler.” It is most likely a logogram with a firm phonetic value corresponding to the words for “lord, ruler” in the writing systems where it occurs.

Figure 1. The royal headband sign in Zapotec, Maya and Aztec writing.
Figure 1. The royal headband sign in Zapotec, Maya and Aztec writing.

As background to this discussion, it is important to note that the conventions of all Mesoamerican writing systems share a few essential features and characteristics. These commonalities are rarely considered in any broad comparitive way, for they are very general and small in number. Their existence reflects, I believe, something of a common history and origin to Mesoamerican writing, traceable to the Middle Preclassic era if not earlier, near to the time when the formal conventions of Mesoamerican art and representation first coalesced, giving rise to what is commonly known as the “Olmec” style. Some of these deep-seeded features of Mesoamerican script traditions include:

  • Signs that are visually and perhaps linguistically anchored to and part of a larger and codified artistic and iconographic system. Understanding and using one system necessitates knowing the other.
  • Signs generally occupy a roughly square or rectangular field, either a single elements or in stacks, accretions, etc., often in association with other iconographic programs.
  • Signs tend toward profile views of heads and various objects, but not always so.
  • Basic logography, where word signs, usually visually or iconographically transparent, easily join others to emblematically represent proper names (people, calendrical units, places).
  • Logograms by nature have a set, standardized word value in a particular language. In this sense all Mesoamerican scripts are language-based, and so-called “ideographs” are of minor importance, if even at all present.
  • In some scripts the use of some pure phoneticism, where signs can be used just for their sound values, to specify pronunciation or clarify ambiguity.

Not all of these are equally relevant to the present discussion, and surely others can be brought to bear on the complex question of historical connections among various scripts. Suffice it to say for now that he royal headband glyph, appearing in texts sopanning two millennia, provides a compelling comparative set for looking at such deep historical and artistic connections. Over this long history, the headband sign displayed a remarkable visual consistency (Figure 1), perhaps giving some indication of the importance of kingship as a social and political institution in both time and space.

The royal headband in most if not all these scripts served as a logograph, bearing a specific word-value corresponding to “lord” or “king.” Thus, in the Maya script, it was always read AJAW; in Nahua systems of the Late Postclassic and Early Colonial period the very same sign, representing the so-called “turquoise diadem,” was read TEŪCTLI. We can trace this element back to the very beginnings of Mesoamerican script and symbolism, as far back as the the Early and Middle Formative Olmec traditions. The headband was, therefore, one of a few “elemental” symbols in early Mesoamerican visual communication, and apart from some obvious animal heads used in calendrical notations (day signs such as “Jaguar” or “Deer,” for example) I can think of no other single visual form that had such a widespread appearance in the history of Mesoamerican writing. In my case-by-case overview that follows, I will begin with late and well-documented examples from the Nahua and Maya traditions, and then trace its appearance in the more opaque and early scripts of Oaxaca and in Olmec writing and iconography.

I. The Headband in Nahuatl Writing (TEŪCTLI)

The writing systems of the Nahua-speaking communities of Late Postclassic Mexico were, I believe, more highly developed and phonetically representational than many scholars have supposed. Henry Nicholson went far in demonstrating this linguistic dimension in a brilliant essay that still stands, I think, as one of the most insightful treatments of Mexica-Aztec writing and its capabilities as a partially phonetic system (Nicholson 1973). Few authors have built on Nicholson’s ideas in this regard, although Lacadena and Wichman’s (2004) recent work has since gone far toward developing a truly systematic understanding of the phonetic dimensions of Nahua writing and its known sub-traditions (Lacadena 2003, n.d.).

These phonetic approaches to understanding the Nahua script (or scripts) run counter to a widespread view that highland Mexican writing was functionally indistinguishable from other modes of pictorial representation. In this way, according to Boone, “in the semasiographic systems of the Mixtecs and Aztecs, the pictures are the texts. There is no distinction between word and image” (Boone 1994:20). In assessing the nature of script in Postclassic Mexico, Boone elsewhere notes that “if one defines writing narrowly as spoken language that is referenced phonetically by visible marks, the Mexican system clearly does not fit” (Boone 2005:29)

I disagree somewhat with such characterizations, based on my own different assumptions and understandings of what constitutes writing in these late highland traditions. Whereas many would tend to collapse the categories of text and image, especially in the setting of manuscript painting, I see a greater distinction at work, where pictorial images interact intimately with a separate category of hieroglyphic elements anchored strongly in linguistic representation. In this sense, following Nicholson’s earlier insights, highland glyphs are very much phonetic, although usuallly employed for the spelling of proper names — short and direct labels for actors, places, or dates. But they are writing (linguistically encoded) nonetheless, and I believe that ancient painters and scribes were quite conscious of their special language-based role in the wider but integrated visual system of communication.

The difficulty in discerning a category of “true” writing in highland Mexico stems partially from the basic representational nature of all Mesoamerican scripts. But the issue may also involve a common misunderstanding of the Nahuatl word, tlahcuilohtli, often translated as both “escritura” and “pintura” (Molina 110r) (Note 1). This double meaning would seem to blur any distinction as well, but its literal meaning is “a thing which has been painted,” derived from the transitive verb ihcuiloa, “to paint something.” That is, tlahcuilohtli is a technical term that is equally applicable to the production of writing and pictorial images; it reveals little about indigenous conceptual categories. More helpful perhaps is the word machiyotl, generally meaning “sign,” “symbol” or “mark.” If there is one word in Nahuatl that approaches the notion of “hieroglyph,” this is it. It is based on the irregular root mati,”to know something,” and literally machiyotl “a thing by which something becomes known.” It conveys the idea of a visual form that conveys information. Notice how in the Florentine Codex machiyotl or machiotl appears in contexts that leave no doubt it refers to a date hieroglyph:

Injc ce capitulo, itechpa tlatoa, injc centetl machiotl in jtoca ce cipactli, ioan in qualli tonalli in quimaceoaia, in vncan tlacatia, in toqujichti, in cioa…

First chapter, in which telleth of the first sign, which was named One Crocodile, and of the good fortune which they merited who were born then — men or women… (Dibble and Anderson 1979:1)

Note that Dibble, Anderson and others often translate both machiyotl and tonalli as “day sign,” but these are in reality very different words: machiyotl refers to the visual form of the day sign’s glyph, whereas tonalli refers to the more abstract essence of the day name as a label for one’s soul or fortune in life.

Molina’s dictionary specifies the connection to writing even more directly with the entry machiyotlahtoliztli, “letra” (Molina 77v). Taken literally, this is “the act of speech in the form of a symbol.” This term appears in a colonial dictionary and may reflect an attempt to describe alphabetic writing in an indigenous framework. But it is also possible that these are older expressions that point to a more sophisticated indigenous notion of Nahua writing than has been previously supposed (Bridget Hodder, personal communication, 1995).

These complex issues about the nature of Nahua writing and pictography can be addressed in far more detail at another time, but I bring them up here as necessary background for identifying the headband sign as a logogram – a sign that in the Nahuatl writing systems was wedded to a particular word-value, namely TEŪCTLI. The point may not seem terribly important for the overall discussion the sign and its appearances throughout Mesoamerican visual systems, but it serves to emphasize that Nahuatl writing was much like other scripts in Mesoamerica in not being loosely “ideographic,” but highly systematized and tightly anchored to a particular language.

Figure 2. The xiuhhuitzolli headband on a royal portrait of Ahuizotl, from the Mendoza Codex (Drawing by the author).
Figure 2. The xiuhhuitzolli headband on a royal portrait of Ahuizotl, from the Mendoza Codex
(Drawing by D. Stuart).

As has long been known, the royal headband sign is found in numerous pictorial manuscripts, always as part of a proper name incorporating the root teūc(tli), “lord, noble, ruler.” The form of the glyph is usually described as a diadem, and in simple representations it is white-colored and tied at the back, clearly made of cloth or paper and stiffened and wide in the front. It’s most elaborate form is known as the xiuhhuitzolli (often spelled xihuitzolli), a standard and diagnostic marker of supreme royal status in numerous portraits (Figure 2). Literally the name of this headgear means “a turquoise pointed thing” (xihuitl, “turquoise,” huitzolli, “pointed thing), describing its pointed front and mosaic turquoise surface. As a hieroglyphic sign the headband can be simplified somewhat without the jewel. Several place glyphs in the Mendoza Codex show this basic usage standing as the word TEŪCTLI. For example, it is used in the place glyphs for the town Tecalco, “At the Noble House” (TEŪC[TLI]-CAL[LI]), and Tecmilco, “At the Noble Field” (TEŪC[TLI]-MIL[LI]). The sign also appears in the Mendoza combined combined with an arrow sign above, for the warrior’s title tlacochteūctli, “dart lord” (TLACOCH[TLI]-TEŪC[TLI]).

Figure 4. Name glyphs of Moteuczoma [TEŪC(TLI)-ZŌMA]
Figure 3. Name glyphs of Moteuczoma [TEŪC(TLI)-ZŌMA]
One of the most important contexts for this sign is in the name glyph for the Mexica ruler Moteuczoma II, numerous examples of which have been identified in manuscripts and in Precolumbian sculptures from Tenochtitlan (Figure 3). Although the significance of this glyph was debated for many years, Umburger’s (1981) analysis of its appearances on monuments demonstrated its function as a name glyph for the historical ruler Moteuczoma Xocoyotzin. In rare cases, it also appears with the name of the earlier ruler Moteuczoma Ilhuicamina (Figure 4b).  For the later ruler’s name the headband usually takes a few additional elements, including a representation of human hair, a gold nose-plug (teoyacatl), and, in the most elaborate versions, an atl-tlachinolli symbol and a warrior’s breastplate. The headband here is clearly for TEŪCTLI, the semantic core of the proper name Moteuczoma, literally “He who Angers Like a Lord.” The bellicose symbolism conveyed by the full-blown examples of the name, including the atl-tlachinolli breath-scrolls, perhaps serve to convey the emotional semantics of the root zōma(h), “to anger, frown.” Some examples of Moteuczomah’s name in fact seem to show upright darts above the hair, evoking the tlacochteuctli military title noted above. The pattern suggests that an “angry lord” is by nature a warrior full of rage and in battle. At any rate, the name is based on the noun teūctli and therefore features the headband logogram as its visual base.

Tlaxcala scene
Figure 4. The twisted headband element as hieroglyph and headgear. A scene from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala showing Moteuczoma and his entourage.

The xiuhhuitzolli headband, with its pointed form and turquoise adornment, does not appear outside of Mexica-Aztec writing and iconography, but it has clear parallels in other visual systems of Late Postclassic highlands. In the manuscripts of the Tlaxcallan tradition we find a simpler twisted headband as a sign for royalty, used as well for the hieroglyph TEŪCTLI in the name of the Aztec emperor (Figure 4). Such examples from outside the Valley of Mexico demonstrate an important degree of formal variation among sub-traditions of Nahuatl script and symbolism. That is, TEŪCTLI is written as a royal xiuhhuitzolli headband in the Mexica-Aztec sources, but it takes a more familiar local look when rendered by Tlaxcallan artists and scribes. We will see that some degree of similar regional variation was common in the appearance of this same royal headband sign among distant and far older Mesoamerican cultures.

 II. The Headband in Maya Writing (AJAW)

When many years ago I traced the uses of the TEŪCTLI sign in Nahuatl writing, mostly following the insights by Umberger in her discussion of Moteuczomah’s name, I was struck by the fundamental similarity of the headband to the forms and uses of a similar Maya sign, read AJAW, “lord, noble, ruler. Its a common hieroglyph, of course, given the frequency of noble titles in ancient Maya inscriptions. As we will see, the similarity in the uses and forms of the Nahuatl and Maya glyphs are strong and telling, suggesting the existence of some historical connection we will explore further on in this study.

We today recognize two principal forms for AJAW, both completely interchangeable in the script (Justeson and Mathews 1984) (the glyphs used to spell the twentieth day sign Ahau are not always the same, although there is considerable overlap the signs used to spell the title). One is an abstract form sometimes called the T518 variant (citing the sign number from Thompson’s [1963] catalog), which came to be abbreviated in most instances as a superfix (T168), especially in Late Classic texts. Visually this glyph may have originated as a representation of jade jewels, specifically the “flares” and beads seen in some early details of royal costume. The other form of AJAW is a head variant representing a young man with a wide scarf or headband tied at the back (Figure 5). Typically he has a spot on his cheek — a distinctive marking for the mythical figure known in Classic sources as Juun Ajaw (One Ajaw). He is is young hunter who emerges among the later Post-Classic K’iche’ as Hunahpu (or One Hunahpu), one of the so-called Hero Twins whose exploits in defeating the lords of the underworld were recounted in the epic narrative of the Popol Vuh (Coe 1990). He is the central figure in one key story emphasized in both the Popol Vuh and in earlier Classic depictions — the shooting of the fantastic prideful bird known as Seven Macaw in the Popol Vuh or, in Classic texts, possibly as Muut Itzamnaaj (see Christenson 2003:97-100; Zender 2005; Stuart n.d.). In Classic Maya art both Juun Ajaw and this Principal Bird Deity (Bardawil 1973) served as basic symbols of kingship and authority, a role easily seen in the very name “One Ajaw,” with its slight extended sense of “first lord” or “primary lord.”

FIgure *. AJAW head forms. (a, b) as day signs, (c, d) as a royal title, (e) portrayed of the mythical hero Juun Ajaw.
FIgure 5. AJAW head forms. (a, b) as day signs, (c, d) as a royal title, (e) portrayed of the mythical hero Juun Ajaw.

The forest hunter Juun Ajaw, despite his modest attire, thus served as a quintessential type, a visual template for the image of rulership. His distinctive headband of cloth paper is not a marker of his noble status; very much the opposite is true. In the scenes of Hun Ajaw on pottery, for example, the headband seems a standard part of one’s tropical work attire, either as a lining for a straw hat or useful covering for carrying of heavy loads on a tumpline. One gets the impression that the ideology of the kingship and its mythological foundation had some roots in these more everyday activities.

The headband seen on Juun Ajaw’s glyphs and portraits is typically colored white or red, or may even be white with red coloring on its front. Its proper term was evidently sakhuun, “white headband,” mentioned in many inauguration expressions in the historical records, as in k’ahlaj sakhuun tubaah, “the white headband was tied upon his head.” A very important feature also was a small jewel attached to the very front, either in the form of a shiny bead-like element, a so-called “jester god” (Schele 1976), or as an face-like “ajaw” sign, probably representing a flower in origin. All of these are representations of small jade attachments to the headband, transforming what might otherwise be seen as modest attire into a kingly crown. The frontal jewel, with its strong floral symbolism, can be traced back to Preclassic representations in Maya art, where it may have strong symbolic connections also to maize (Fields 1991, Taube 1996). As we will soon see, this same headband with a forehead jewel also is easily traced in Zapotec and Olmec imagery. It strongly suggests furthermore that the xiuhhuitzolli turquoise diadem of Aztec royalty is a variation on the same idea, evoking the coloration and adornment of an otherwise simple cloth or paper headgear.

Figure 7. The headband alone (a) as AJAW in Maya Script: (b) in the Copan royal title, and (c and d) in two variants of the AJAW logogram from Palenque's Tablet of the 96 Glyphs.
Figure 6. (a) The headband alone as AJAW in Maya Script. (b) In the Copan royal title, and (c and d) in two variants of the AJAW logogram from Palenque’s Tablet of the 96 Glyphs.

In the Maya script we see that the headband sign by itself can be used alone to write the word AJAW, in combination with others head signs to which it can be attached (Figure 6a). In the emblem glyph of Copan, for example, we see this visual play at work, where the bat element “wears” the headband sign around its forehead (Figure 6b). Similarly, in one instance of the Palenque emblem we find the BAAK skull wearing the AJAW headband, for the conflated form (BAAK-AJAW), “the Baak(al) Lord” (Baak or Baakal being the ancient name of the Palenque royal court) (PAL:TIw, D5).  We see elsewhere that the addition of the Maya headband on certain animals, such as vultures and raccoons, transforms them into AJAW signs as well (Figure 6c,d). Since the visual cannons of Maya script favored rounded or rectangular elements, the headband alone became a convenient way for scribes to combine any other head with AJAW. The jeweled headband therefore serves alone as the most important characteristic of the AJAW head, as could be used in pars pro toto for the larger portrait sign representing Juun Ajaw.  The individual headband even takes on a somewhat pointed appearance on its front, giving a slight indication of the form it would take in late Nahuatl script.

Such visual abbreviation, using a distinguishing part of a complex sign for the whole, was common throughout most of the history of Maya writing. It was also, we know, a much older convention in Olmec iconography (Joralemon 1971). The visual cannons of Maya script favored a rounded or rectangular elements, so we can see how the headband alone became a convenient way for scribes to combine any head with AJAW. As we will now see, however, the lone headband was more than an abbreviated form, for it can be readily traced also in the history of early Zapotec script and even Olmec writing and iconography. Maya scribes who made use of the headband for writing AJAW were in this way not being so playful or innovative; in fact they were following a long convention established centuries earlier among other Mesoamerican cultures.

 III. The Headband in Zapotec Writing

Zapotec hieroglyphic writing, used throughout the Valley of Oaxaca during the Late Preclassic and Classic periods, remains largely undeciphered. Most scholars assume it was logo-syllabic in nature and that its language was Zapotecan, although details are still unclear, and virtually no signs can be securely linked to a particular word (Urcid 2001). The calendar of the inscriptions has long been the most studied and fruitful aspect of Zapotec epigraphy, and numerous dates are recorded in the panels of Monte Alban and neighboring sites, many probably with historical significance.

FIgure *. Zapotec headband signs. In the third example it is combined with a Year bearer hieroglyph.
Figure 7. Zapotec headband signs. In the third example it is combined with a Year bearer hieroglyph.
Figure 8. Zapotec urn depicting a person with a headband, possibly the deity Cocijo. Drawing by D. Stuart.
Figure 8. Zapotec urn depicting a person with a headband, possibly the deity Cocijo. Drawing by D. Stuart.

The calendrical work began with Caso’s seminal recognition of several day signs, including the four year-bearers used in the system (Caso 1928). His early efforts brilliantly demonstrated that only four day glyphs were accompanied by what he called a headdress symbol, clearly similar to the signs we have so far discussed in the distantly related Nahua and Maya systems (Figure 7). These, he reasoned, must be the four year-bearers, the four days on which a new year can falls in the interlacing mechanism of the 260- and 365-day calendars. Caso originally identified the headband as the headdress of Cocijo, the deity of storms and lightning. This seemed to have been based in part on iconographic evidence, where similar headbands appear on decorated many urns thought to depict this god (Figure 8). It is worth pointing out that Cocijo was also a rain spirit associated with the four world quarters, and thus overlapped conceptually with the structure of the four Year Bearer.

The Zapotec headband is rigid-looking in its early forms (Figure 7a), and shows a remarkable overall similarity to the Nahua and Maya variants we have seen so far — the same knot and dangling straps, for example, as well as a frontal “jewel,” in these cases a cross-like element often topped by either a flower or maize-like image. The cross was long ago interpreted by Caso and others as the sign for turquoise (Urcid 2001), referring to a frontal jewel, suggesting that we have another variant of the jeweled headband sign. This jewel must clearly have maize associations, since it is clearly also overlaps with depictions of maize stalks.

At first the Zapotec use of the headband sign to mark Year Bearer dates seems very different from the uses of other headbands described thus far in the Nahua and Maya systems, where all simply read as words for “lord” (TEŪCTLI or AJAW) in various proper names and in titles. The Zapotec use of the sign on date glyphs is indeed presents a far more restricted context, and it presumably signifies something more precise in meaning; in this light Caso’s specific attribution of the headband as “Cocijo’s headdress” would seem to make more sense.

FIgure *. Directional Juun Ajaw figure from the San Bartolo murals. Photogrpah courtesy of Ken Garrett.
FIgure 9. Directional Juun Ajaw figure from the San Bartolo murals. Photograph courtesy of Ken Garrett.

But an explanation from Maya evidence may allow us to consider an alternative scenario, where the Zapotec Year Bearers were seen simply as “lords.” In the Classic Maya calendar the Year Bearers were the very same set of four Caso proposed in the Zapotec system: the 2nd, 7th, 12th, and 17th days of the 20-day sequence (Stuart 2005). Throughout Mesoamerica, of course, the concept of the four Year Bearers was intimately tied to the four spatial divisions of the cosmos, which in turn overlapped a great deal with other sorts of directional gods and spirits — for example, deities of rain, wind, and storms (Caso’s Cocijo). Other patrons of the four directions were important as well, such as the so-called Pauahtun entities mentioned in contact-period Maya sources of Yucatan. In the New year pages of the Maya Dresden Codex we see that the four Year Bearer days become associated with still other gods who make offerings with world trees at the four world directions. And the remarkable Pre-Classic mural paintings of San Bartolo, Guatemala, dating a dozen or more centuries earlier, show a distant precursor to this concept, with its depiction of four world trees, each with a directional god who is an aspect of Juun Ajaw (Figure 9). Together these are the four “lords” of the directions. The San Bartolo scenes paintings are probably depictions of Year Bearers, for in Late Classic Maya sources we find mention of the “Four Youths” or the “Four Lords” in connection with New Year dates dates. The “lords” were, in essence, the Maya versions of the Year Bearers concept (Stuart 2005). For this reason, I speculate that the headband glyphs marking Zapotec New Year dates may also serve to mark them as “lords” of the years, much in the way the Maya seem to have believed. It is surely a leap to derive meanings from one culture to another, but I do sense we are dealing with basic and long-lasting concepts that may have had wide-ranging importance in early Mesoamerican thought.

FIgure *. The headband sign with calendar glyphs in Ñuiñe writing. After Moser (1977).
FIgure 10. The headband sign with calendar glyphs in Ñuiñe writing. After Moser (1977).

If the Zapotec headband is a sign for “lord” — and I stress this is tentative identification — one might reasonably posit a Zapotecan word for “lord,” “noble” or “king” as a likely reading for the headband at Monte Alban and environs. My own knowledge of Zapotec historical linguistics is miniscule, but I do find the root xan appears in Zapotec as a word for “dueño, jefe,” generally with the meanings we find for ajaw in Mayan; I will leave this for future consideration, by those who are more informed on the history of Zapotecan languages and script.

In the Late Classic Ñuiñe system of writing we see elements that are clearly related to the Zapotec script, combined with other visual features that strongly resemble Classic period hieroglyphic forms found at Xochicalco (Moser 1977). The year-bearer days on several Ñuiñe tablets also look to be headbands, the back-knot clearly shown, although now conflated with the round cartouches of the day signs themselves (Figure 10). There is good reason to think that the “looped cords” used as a year symbol on day signs at Xochicalco, discussed by Nicholson (1966), may also have had an origin in the headband image, but the connections perhaps less obvious.

 IV. The Headband sign in Olmec and Isthmian Symbolism

No matter how we might interpret the headband sign in Zapotec inscriptions, its form seems to be descended from an isolated headband glyph that appears in some very early settings, on “Olmec” celts dating roughly to the Middle Formative period. Whether these objects can be said to “true” writing is difficult to establish, for the celts are without archaeological context, removed from their geographical point of origin (Guerrero or Veracruz?) and so stripped of any larger artistic context. But the visual links seem clear, and have been noted by others before now (Justeson 1985: 36-37).

Figure *. Two Olmec celts with examples of the headband sign.
Figure 11. Two Olmec celts with examples of the headband sign.

One incised celt said to be from the Guerrero region and probably dating to the Middle Formative period shows a very clear example of our headband glyph, placed above a group of other signs, among them a leg and a possible ground-line (Coe, et. al. 1995:231) (Figure 11a). The back-knot is clearly visible, but there is no obvious frontal jewel. The double merlon motif on the band may serve some similar symbolic purpose, as might also the whisp-like lines above. The isolated placement of this headdress, without any head, seems in every way similar to what we have seen in Maya, Zapotec and Nahua writing, suggest that here too the entire group may incorporate a word for “lord.” If so, the lower signs may stand for a proper name, perhaps a personal or place name.

The same headband again appears one time as well on the well-known Humboldt Celt, another Olmec object likely of Middle Formative date (Figure 11b). There the placement is somewhat more complex, for it looks to be one of four sign related clusters arranged around a central “kan cross” symbol. Each cluster has an inverted u-shaped element at its foundation, each in turn attached by its base to the central cross; these inverted u forms are surely related to the “ground line” device seen in the example just described, perhaps an indication that they are toponymic in nature. The right side of the cross shows the headband sign, isolated without any head, with a clear frontal jewel or maize cob. Another possible jewel or cob is repeated at the top of the headband. Needless to say, the great age of the Humboldt Celt prevents any assertion of direct continuity with later scripts, yet it seems reasonable to suppose that the sign represents a visual precursor to the Zapotec and Maya forms, one of which is clearly a “lord” glyph.

Figure *. Royal headbands(?) on signs from La Mojarra, Stela 1
Figure 12. Royal headbands(?) on signs from La Mojarra, Stela 1

Moving forward several centuries in time within the “Olmec heartland” we come to a more fully developed script system, called “Epi-Olmec” or Isthmian. It’s most important example is found on La Mojarra, Stela 1 (Winfield Capitaine 1988; Kaufman and Justeson 1993), which contains several complex head signs that seem to wear a variation on the royal headband (Figure 12). In their analysis of this and related inscriptions, Kaufman and Justeson have pointed out that these heads, while different in some details, seem to semantically relate to ideas of “noble” or “king,” evidently because of the similarity of their headdresses or royal headgear in Isthmian iconography.  The complex headdress seen in these signs include a number of variable elements — reduced glyphic signs, it seems — all resting on a simpler knotted band. Here, the rear strap seems to point upwards rather than dangle, but the headband overall bears a strong resemblance to the devices thus far described in Zapotec, Maya and Olmec imagery. The frontal jewel is absent in the glyphic examples, but it does appear on headbands in the iconographic depictions of rulers at Cerro de las Mesas and related scenes. No examples of an isolated headband sign without the head are known in Isthmian texts, so perhaps the best comparison would be to Maya head variant forms of AJAW.

V. Conclusion

This paper has had a simple aim to trace the existence of a single hieroglyphic form through the major script traditions of Mesoamerica, spanning a two thousand year period. Of course several other glyphs in these various systems show close similarities with one another, including many shared day signs among Mesoamerican calendars. The headband form is something different, it seems, operating mostly independently from the rigid context of the calendar and presenting a unusual and distinctive form, traceable in at least two major Mesoamerican scripts (Maya and Nahuatl) with the specific phonetic value meaning “lord.”

I devoted a few paragraphs in this study to a debate that currently exists about about the nature or Nahua writing itself. Obviously this discussion wthat requires far more time and space, and it will continue among many scholars. I hope, however, that I was able to make a case for orienting Nahuatl writing as a participant in the larger tradition of phonetic (logographic) scripts in Mesoamerica. Some will debate the scope and rigidity of my definitions and presumptions, but at least for the sake of the present discussion we can see that the headband sign of Nahuatl glyphs is a word sign, functionally akin to distant cousins on other scripts.

The visual connections among all of the many headband signs seem clear enough, but establishing their shared semantic sense in all cases is not always clear. I nevertheless feel that the reappearance of this sign over the course of two thousand years offers a small indication of some commonality among them, and perhaps of a remote shared history. Even more tellingly, the constant and widespread use points to the basic importance of the word “ruler” in the history and development of Mesoamerican civilization.


(1) The problematic translations of Nahuatl terms relating to writing and painting was first pointed out to me by Bridget Hodder in 1995. She was primarily responsible for developing the more nuanced distinction between Nahuatl terms for “painting” and “marking.”

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