Watery War

by Stephen Houston

For Héctor Escobedo Ayala, my friend of decades  

Violence and water do not mix. Weighted down by armor, the Emperor Frederick I drowned in the Göksu river on his way to the Holy Land. A similar drama enfolded the American G.I.s landing on Omaha Beach. Dodging bullets, the soldiers sank, choking, under heavy packs. “[F]loating in the water… they didn’t know they were in the water, for they were dead” (Pyle 1986:280).

Rimmed by seas, living along rivers and streams, the Classic Maya must have fought in this way. Yet the evidence is surprisingly thin and late. There is a gold disk from the Cenote of Sacrifice at Chichen Itza that shows warriors on canoes, others on plank-like craft, a naked figure floating belly-down between them (Lothrop 1952: 51, fig. 35; see also the linked port of Isla Cerritos, Yucatan, an island endowed with a seawall, Andrews et al. 1988; Clark 2015: fig. 3.4). Murals from the Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itza supplement that scene with an array of canoes—the warriors’ shields just visible in surviving paint—and a single, light-haired figure floating in water: his legs splay out as intestinal gases bloat the body (Figure 1). The jade beads in the hair recall an earlier image, from the early eighth-century AD, of a captive incised on a bone found in Burial 116 at Tikal. That figure is at once humiliated and beautified (Moholy-Nagy 2008: fig. 200a, c). By common Maya convention, he anticipates his defeat by appearing, dressed for failure, in sacrificial garb.


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Figure 1. Floating captives and war canoes (renderings by Jean Charlot; Morris et al. 1931: pls. 145 [left], 147 [right]). 


In the murals, the captives’ hair is blond. This may be less from Viking blood—an actual suggestion by fantasists (Vikings at Chichen)—than because it has been bleached for the Sun God, a figure with the same color of hair (Ishihara-Brito and Taube 2012:466). Perhaps the captives were intended for his eventual consumption or they came from the east, a direction associated with the deity; or, to make a final stab at an insoluble puzzle, their hair signaled some unknown ethnic distinction. In paintings at Chichen Itza, bodies and canoes alternate with a rich, ethno-classification of sea life, including turtles, mollusks, crustaceans, and fish, one stingray extending its barbed spine (Finamore and Houston 2010: pl. 69).

In the so-called “Codex-style” images on Classic ceramics, there are images of the maize god in surging, unsettled water up to his chest (K1333, 1338, 1343, 1346, 1365, 1366, 1395, 1489, 1562, 2011, 2096, 3428, 4117, 5002, 8201; also Robicsek and Hales 1981: 70–74). He is met by mythic warriors and, to his back, figures holding the tokens of royal tribute. These remain an enigma, relatable, presumably, to some agricultural trope or even the seasonal timing of war. Yet, in the Maya region generally, with local variations, rainy seasons do not correspond to an increased incidence of conflict in the historical record. Indeed, quite the opposite seems to be true, from glyphic evidence in the form of secure dates and practical considerations of movement and manpower (Simon Martin, personal communications, 2014, 2019, and in work soon to appear). The pots are also without provenance (for an exception, see García Barrios 2011: 85–86, fig. 11) and, with a few exceptions, retouched by restorers. Reliable examples (Robicsek and Hales 1981: Vessels 95, 98, 99) vary in their glyphic dates (1 Ik 15 Sak in one example [Vessel 98], 7 Ajaw 2 K’ayab in another [Vessel 95]). One names an assailant as the “great youth” (Chak Xib [Vessel 98]), and the event itself is described as a “chop-water” (CH’AK?-?-HA’ [Vessel 95]). Some ferocity, it seems, fell directly on the liquid. In a number of images, the warriors’ line of sight inclines to the water, not to other figures.

A vessel from northern Guatemala provides unexpected evidence. It also obeys Houston’s First Law of Epigraphy: “glyphs thought necessary for decisive interpretation shall be eroded or missing.” (Even less cheery than the Runologists’ “for every text there shall be 20 specialists with 21 different views.”) There are two images, both provided by the ever-generous Justin Kerr. One is in color, the other black and white. Blessedly, the latter is unretouched, heightening confidence in details (Figures 2 and 3).


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Figure 2. Watery conflict, in color, retouched surface (K8592, © Kerr Associates).


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Figure 3. Watery conflict, unretouched surface (K8592, © Kerr Associates).


The slightly corpulent or full bodies, figural dynamism, long eyelashes, and stylistic range of the mid- to late-eighth-century AD indicate a probable origin in the Ik’ kingdom of western Lake Peten Itza and areas just to the west (Just 2012: figs. 93–96, 141–144, pls. 6, 16, 17). A closer match, with a similar dark rim that contains asterisms, was excavated by Takeshi Inomata in Str. M7–35 at Aguateca, Guatemala (Inomata 1997: fig. 15). Equipped with named, courtly figures, that vessel must date to the final half or quarter of the eighth-century AD.

Despite the erosion—looters or low-end dealers tend to over-clean sherds—the scene is almost certainly historical. There is a Calendar Round (possibly 10 *Chuwen 14 ‘Color Month’), but that is less telling then the absence of any mythic figures. Instead, there are warriors with body paint and two captives with matted and disheveled hair. Two glyphic captions, each highlighted by an almost pink hue, tag figures in the scene. One identifies the warrior at the prow of a canoe, poised to strike with his atlatl: the crooked spur is fully evident (Figure 4; Simon Martin, personal communication, 2019). The tag may also refer to a second warrior in the water, just off the prow, but flaked paint makes this difficult to resolve.


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Figure 4. Atlatl with dart, close-up, unretouched surface (K8592, © Kerr Associates).


The other caption is more securely tethered. It applies to a captive who is up to his thighs in the lake, stream or river below the canoe (Figure 5). A warrior pins his arms back. Another, more important figure grasps his hair in the standard chuk, ‘seize, grab’, pose. Presumably, he was responsible for the capture. He may also have jabbed or pummeled the captive in the face, for blood spills out in copious flow. Enticed, a crocodile and a turtle with k’an sign swim close to this possible meal. (The k’an and size of the chelydrid suggest he is the daunting snapper turtle, a creature found by David Stuart in many royal names.) In the canoe, another captive cowers. Perhaps he has just been hoisted onboard. A bare-headed figure holds a spear in one hand and gestures with the other. Was this intended to still or reassure the captive? An unlikely outcome. Looking away, a standing warrior paddles the boat into position.


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Figure 5. A turtle paddles close to the captive’s blood, close-up, unretouched surface (K8592, © Kerr Associates).


The similarity is obvious to the battle scene in Room 2 of the mural building in Bonampak, Mexico. Asterisms perch above that dark tableau of violent conflict. There are body blows, trampled warriors, trumpets, and, at the end, a human harvest of captives (Miller and Brittenham 2013: 105–106); in Room 2, the darkened solar disks above may correspond to eclipses, a dire omen. The night-time scene on the vessel from Aguateca—a jaunty figure smoking a cigarillo cues the time of day (Inomata 1997: fig. 15, right)—had star signs too. The eroded vase goes one better with a scorpion whose back carries a direct analogue to scorpion asterisms at Cacaxtla, Mexico, Copan, Honduras, and elsewhere (Brittenham 2015: 99–104, fig. 138; Fash 2011: 167). The flaming snouts hint at the passage of comets or meteors, a smoking asterism found in the skyband on Piedras Negras Stela 11 (David Stuart, personal communication, 1998; Stuart and Graham 2003: 57).


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Figure 6. Celestial scorpion with star sign on its body, close-up, unretouched surface (K8592, © Kerr Associates).


The text is illegible and its participants unknown. In all likelihood, the setting was some watery part of Peten, Guatemala, in the later eighth-century AD, and possibly within or near the Ik’ kingdom. But the overall image, an historical battle in and on water, is unique for the Classic Maya.

Karl Taube raises another possibility, that the captives were thrown into the water for sacrificial spearing (personal communication, 2019). They did not so much “sleep with the fishes,” in Mafia argot, as feed them. The captive in the boat cowers because he is next in line. This grim alternative has a certain plausibility given the presence of what may be sacrificial pools in some royal courts (Barrientos Quezada 2014: 604–619). At Cancuen, Guatemala, one such basin, with a step-in and stairways to facilitate use, contained at least 38 bodies; another, to the north of the site, had at least 15 (Barrientos Quezada 2014: 616, 619). Most bones exhibited trauma by unspecified “sharp instruments” (Barrientos Quezada 2014: 617). The excavators have interpreted this as a massacre, but a sacrificial pool, fed by springs—and perhaps equipped with ravenous creatures—adds a vivid if unpleasant ritual to Classic Maya practice. Blood spreads quickly in water, and, in links to agricultural or seasonal rituals, similar trauma may have awaited captives in flooded ballcourts or other sacred receptacles fed by natural springs (Taube 2018: 266, 282, 298). I have personally seen small crocodiles in small, temporary ruts in jungle roads, well away from lakes or streams. How on earth did they get there? Where did they come from? It would not take much for crocodiles and snappers to crawl to an inviting pool.

For the moment, perhaps, the chuk gesture on the pot, as well as the canoe and precise date, suggests a more martial interpretation—that this is a specific, datable conflict on water. But there is simply not enough text to confirm this. Yet I do think of a feature that has puzzled many Mayanists. This is a mid-river structure near Yaxchilan, built on bedrock out of carefully laid masonry and lying some meters from the western banks of the Usumacinta River (Figure 7). Roughly triangular in form, the “point” of the pier carves into the flow of water, deflecting debris and giving solidity to the whole. One theory is that the feature supported an immense suspension bridge (O’Kon 2005). I doubt this completely. The opposite bank, in Guatemala, has no such support. A visit in low water indicates that the pier, the probable base of a small platform, was more about monitoring traffic (for taxation?) and throwing atlatl darts at unwelcome visitors. In low water, spears and darts from Yaxchilan would fall short of the opposite bank. With the pier in place, a small citadel mid-stream, the weapons would hit with force. Watery war lay within reach.



Figure 7.  Likely fortification, low-water, looking southeast, Usumacinta River, Yaxchilan, with Dr. Héctor Escobedo as scale (photograph by Stephen Houston, 1995). 



Acknowledgements Justin Kerr kindly sleuthed his files for a rollout, and, as always, past and present, Simon Martin, David Stuart, Karl Taube provided useful comments. Figure 7 shows how good and patient a friend Héctor has been, including our years of adventure and mis-adventure on the Usumacinta. The martial theme is equally consistent with his distinguished family. I dedicate this essay to him.



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