Classic Collaterals

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

Among the great surprises of epigraphy was the discovery of “parentage statements” by Christopher Jones (1977). With this breakthrough, relationships of descent between dynastic figures could be identified and strung into longer sequences. Yet much remains unclear. A more recent study questions the broad distribution of such relationships—was there only one, rather static Maya system (Ensor 2013:57-58)? There is always, too, a set of fundamental uncertainties. Did such terms correspond to real or fictive relations? Did they extend laterally or by generations?

Answering these questions is well-nigh impossible. But at least we have some new data. Royal kinship among the Classic Maya became a bit clearer, and another sprig added to the family tree, when David Stuart (1989:5–7, 8, fig. 7) noted a term for “maternal uncle” in glyphic texts at Yaxchilan. The possessed form, spelled yi-cha-ni, y-ichaan, descended, according to one reconstruction, from Common Mayan *ikaan (see Kaufman and Norman 1994:120). At Yaxchilan, this term for collateral kin most likely appeared for unusual dynastic reasons. The uncle probably served as an éminence grise, acquiring unusual prominence for someone of sajal (high noble) rank. His sister was the mother of the king, his nephew a mere teenager at time of accession to the throne. Under these circumstances, a calculating uncle could rise far indeed.

Two other bonds (or claims to them) can now be discerned in glyphic texts.

One is a rare and highly localized expression that is nonetheless repeated on nearly identical, molded texts from the Alta Verapaz of Guatemala (Pérez Galindo 2006; also Dieseldorff 1926–1933). It occurs in a little-studied corpus of glyphs on broken ceramics collected over a century ago by Erwin Dieseldorff. A German immigrant to Guatemala, Dieseldorff was the scion of a family with longstanding mercantile ties to Central America (Náñez Falcón 1970:36–63). His own business concerned coffee cultivation and export. (A descendant firm still operates, with an aptly named website, In the 1880s, travels with the explorer and linguist Karl Sapper awakened Dieseldorff’s interest in archaeology, leading him to do a grubbing sort of archaeology to the east of Cobán, Guatemala. There he found “a series of broken idols during the excavation of a temple (cúe) in Chajcar, to the east of San Pedro Carchá, Alta Verapaz” (Pérez Galindo 2006:9). Evidently, most if not all came from a single building.

I first saw this collection of texts in 1984 while exploring the stygian basement of the Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología (MUNAE) in Guatemala City. In a later, well-documented study, Mónica Pérez Galindo [2006:fig. 35], then employed at the MUNAE, presented an admirable record of that collection, noting, as part of her research, that other such glyphs occur in the (former) Museo Príncipe Maya in Cobán. As I understand it, that collection has since passed to the Fundación Ruta Maya.

Glyphs on these fragments range from pseudo-writing to legible signs (Figure 1). Many refer to literate skill. There are glyphs for “raising up” (t’abayi) and “molding/carving/shaping” (the so-called lu-“BAT,” which eludes, I believe, any confident reading), SAK-wo-jo, sak woj, “white, pure signs,” tz’i-ba, tz’ihb, “painting”; ma-xi, ma’x, “spider monkey; AJAW-wa, ajaw, “lord”; u-wi-WINIK, u winik, “his man, servant”; ya-na-bi-IL SAK-CHUWEEN, probably specifying the “owner” or master of a particular sculptor. There is even a Calendar Round, 10 Imix 19 Yaxk’in, perhaps assignable to, a date close to a momentous Period Ending and the “end of Yaxk’in” position that fascinated the Classic Maya (I have long wondered if this had something to do with seasonal observances, such as the beginning of the rainy season; for images, see Pérez Galindo 2006). To judge from style, the general date of these texts is at the very end of the Late Classic period, extending into the 9th century AD.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Legible texts in the Dieseldorff Collection, MUNAE (top row, photographs by Stephen Houston, 1984; bottom row, photographs by Mónica Pérez Galindo; not to scale but widest fragment is ca. 4-5 cm).

Several molded texts embellish small ceramic thrones. These votive objects measure—at least in surviving elements—16 cm long, 12.5 wide, and about 14 high (Grube and Gaida 2006:#24). The presence in MUNAE of broken-off embouchures, all of about the right size for edge breaks on some thrones, raises the chance that the effigies were in part musical. They could have been “performed” as whistles with keening notes. Otherwise, their dimensions, well beyond that of most figurines, suggests a more steady repose, perhaps in small shrines or other places of cult veneration. A few bear vestiges of paint. There are bold yellows, intense Maya blues, all post-fire. At first glance, several go so far as to resemble plumbate, so-called because of its similarity to lead-based glazes. Their surfaces glisten with a metallic sheen. But that appearance is more likely to result from spot scorching of post-fire pigments, a point I have discussed with plumbate experts like Hector Neff and Katie Williams.

At one time, all thrones had at least one seated figure on top, perhaps a young lord, of which fragments occur in Berlin’s Museum für Völkerkunde, the other repository for many of Dieseldorff’s pieces (Figure 2). To the side, almost at the top and front corner, sits a male companion in cross-legged, “tailor” position. Shattered pieces of larger figures are in the Dieseldorff collection, and it seems reasonable to link them to the thrones. Each side of the thrones shows a seated figure. Both have fire or solar attributes. The long sides feature a blunt-nosed person. Bordering on the grotesque, he leans over with a double-headed centipede “bar.” As noted by Karl Taube, the Classic Maya equated centipedes with beams of sun-light, a trait readily seen in the ancestral solar cartouches on stelae at Yaxchilan, Mexico. The figure wears a distinct headband with extruded curls. These traits help to identify a ch’ajoom,“incenser” (Scherer and Houston 2014). The shorter side of the throne, its figure now in profile, has the solar, centipede attributes highlighted in the depiction of 18 Ubaah K’awiil on Copan Stela A. The spear and shield hint that this is a more martial aspect of the Sun God. Heat and fire inflect the iconography. The later indications of scorching point to similar emphases in the ritual use of the thrones.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Sides of fragmentary ceramic throne collected by Dieseldorff, Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, Ident.-Nr IV Ca 21058 (photograph, Grube and Gaida 2006:#24).

Most relevant here, however, are the molded glyphs below the ch’ajoom figure: ba tz’a-ma yi-cha-k’a SAK-ki-nu-chi k’u K’UH ? (Figure 2). The first glyph is surely baah tz’am, “head [person of the] throne,” a title elucidated in other contexts by Marc Zender. The reference reveals an unambiguous tie to the molded throne. What follows is y-ichak’ along with a second name. Widespread in Mayan languages, ichak’ corresponds to “nephew” or even “cousin,” with attestations in all Ch’olan languages (Kaufman 2003:120). The unusual spelling of sak, which implies vowel complexity, is harder to understand, although a comparable spelling occurs on a Tepeu 1 plate in the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art (#G83.1.120, Zender 2000:1044, fig. 10, fn. 7). The k’u syllable may reinforce the term for “god,” k’uh, but that is less clear. As on other texts in the assemblage, the strong degree of syllabicity draws our attention. Logographs exist, yet the overall tendency is to emphasize phonic transparency. In a comment to me, David Stuart wonders if rarer terms such as ichak’ needed to be spelled out precisely because they were uncommon. By contrast, logographs served as effective markers of parent-child relationships. It may also be that a high level of syllabicity reflected the challenges of recording a Ch’olan/Ch’olti’an language–the local speakers may have been Q’eqchi’.

Figure 3

Figure 3. Close-up of throne text in the MUNAE (photograph, Stephen Houston, 1984).

A second collateral relation occurs on a Tepeu 1 text from the area of Tikal (K5452, Figure 3). Dating to the reign of Wak Chan K’awiil (fl. AD 537-562), it appears on a pot that may record a rare example of multiple possession. The second owner is a royal youth, with a less likely possibility that this name simply referred to the first. (In my view, the presence of a full, second “dedicatory” text makes this unlikely.) What follows the name of Wak Chan K’awiil is yi-TAHN-na. I interpret this as spelling y-ihta’n, “her brother,” preceding the titles of a female. Ihta’n is the possessed form of a word reconstructed by some scholars as “man’s sister” (e.g., Kaufman and Norman 1985:121). However, in Ch’orti’, the term was “used between a man and a woman and vice-versa, but not between men nor between women” (my translation Pérez Martínez, García, Martínez, and López 1996:66). “Cross-sex sibling” fits the reference on the vase.

Figure 4

Figure 4. Vase from area of Tikal, Guatemala, c. AD 550 (K5452, photograph copyright Justin Kerr).

Such expressions are useful, even intriguing. But their rarity is obvious. Explicit labeling of collaterals seemed of little interest to scribes of the Classic period.

Postscript, Nov. 21, 2016:  Simon Martin urged me to study a higher resolution version of K5452, which I have just obtained from Justin Kerr. The sign in front of TAHN is, I now believe, an unusual version of 1, preceded by an equally rare u sign (note its resemblance to the u in spellings of u tz’i ba li, all free-standing glyphs). This would make the woman on the vase the mother of the first owner, her relation being specified by u 1-TAHN-na.



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Stuart, David. 1997. Kinship Terms in Mayan Inscriptions. In Martha J. Macri and Anabel Ford, eds., The Language of Maya Hieroglyphs, 1–11. Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute, San Francisco.

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