A Northern War: Coba vs. Oxkintok

by Simon Martin, University of Pennsylvania

The past three decades have seen a transformation in our understanding of the history of the southern Maya lowlands. A wealth of new data has allowed us to track the political fortunes of individual polities, revealing much about the distribution of power across an ancient landscape and how it changed through time. These impressive advances in the south, however, stand in stark contrast to the situation in the north, where knowledge of this sort remains very meager.Fig.1 COB St.1 Whole

The inscriptions of the northern Maya lowlands are restricted in both their number and their thematic range: showing the usual emphasis on calendrical rituals and building dedications, but very little in the way of historical events and site interactions. Northern sites also suffer from poor preservation—the limestone of this region seems particularly prone to erosion—and many have suffered considerable later disturbance to their monuments. To assess the macro-political realities of this zone we can often do no more than draw inferences from the imposing scale and sculptural splendor of sites such as Coba, Edzna, Xcalumkin, Oxkintok, Santa Rosa Xtampak, Ek Balam, Uxmal, and Chichen Itza, taking them to be the counterparts of better-known southern players such as Tikal, Calakmul, Piedras Negras, Palenque, Naranjo, and Copan.

Such is the vacuum of information that the epigraphic evidence we do possess acquires a disproportionate significance, and every addition is a valuable gain. Such an addition comes, I believe, in a short text on Coba Stela 6 (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Coba Stela 6 (drawing by Ian Graham, Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Harvard University)

Like those in the south, Coba stelae often show images of prisoners, their wrists bound or their arms tied behind their backs. However important they are as individuals, these unfortunates are the symbolic reductions, the pars pro toto embodiments, of military triumphs against rival polities. The seated captive at lower left on Stela 6 is in relatively good condition and accompanied by a two-glyph caption (Figure 2a, b). The first of these signs is not especially clear, but the second shows the number “7” followed by a human head with a couple of internal lines.

Fig.2 COB Str.6 Details

Figure 2a, b. Detail of Coba Stela 6 showing a captive and his caption at H1-H2 (photograph and drawing by Ian Graham, Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Peabody Museum, Harvard University).

This same combination can be found at Oxkintok, some 230 km due west of Coba, where it serves as an important political title (García Campillo 1992:196, Fig.13, 1994) (Figure 3a, b). At least 10 examples can be identified there (Graña-Behrens 2006:117), a number of them associated with baahkab status and the exalted rank of kaloomte’. Such contexts suggest that it represents a “problematic” emblem glyph: one that lacks the standard k’uhul x ajaw structure but serves much the same role (ibid.; see Houston 1986). It appears not only on monuments but on a few Chochola-style ceramics naming Oxkintok lords (García Campillo 1992). In most cases the numeral “7” is clear, though it is replaced on one occasion by its head variant, the Jaguar God of the Underworld (Lacadena García-Gallo 1992) (Figure 3c). In well-preserved examples the head has the curved internal lines and cheek spot we find in XIB “(young) man.” That spot is divided by one or two lines, possibly a diagnostic feature, and the whole head can be replaced by a simpler form showing the spot alone, a unique convention if xib is indeed the target term (Figure 3d).

Fig.3 Oxkintok EGs NEW

Figure 3. The “7 Title” at Oxkintok: (a) Hieroglyphic Stairway 2, Step 1 (from Graña-Behrens 2002:Table 108; (b) Structure MA-11 Stucco Text (from García Campillo 1992:Fig.12); (c) Ballcourt Ring, Side B pU (drawing by the author); (d) Chochola-style vessel K4931 (drawing by the author)

On this evidence we have very good reason to think that the captive hails from Oxkintok. Indeed, it seems highly probable that he was the ruler of that distant site. The timing of the conflict presumably fell sometime between the two dates recorded on Coba Stela 6, 613 and 623 CE, when Coba and Oxkintok were two of the most important centers in the region. It would be many years before Ek Balam, Uxmal, and Chichen Itza rose to supersede them. It is interesting that the only other recognizable inter-polity conflict in the north also involves Coba, although this time it was on the losing side. Edzna Stela 19, from 692, shows a captive whose lengthy name-phrase concludes with a-ja ko-ba or “Coba person” (Grube 2003:360; Pallan Gayol 2012:97). That title precludes the possibility that this was a captured king and he must instead have been a noble or military specialist. Edzna, almost 280 km west of Coba and 110 km south of Oxkintok, was another thriving center of the seventh century and a fitting adversary. While Coba clearly engaged with these northern neighbors, it retained a distinctive character, not least in its ceramic complex (e.g. Esparza Olguín 2016:Fig.2.11, 2.12-2.15). Indeed, a number of features suggest that it was just as closely connected to the “Peten” culture of the south.

We can take it that these violent encounters reflect jockeying for power between important regional centers, but isolated captures don’t shed much light on the particular context in which they take place. Who was the aggressor? Where did the clash take place? What were its ramifications? Without a miraculous haul of new texts it is unlikely that we will never know the history of the northern Maya lowlands to any meaningful extent. By necessity, therefore, we will have to continue to give weight to quantitative and qualitative assessments. Here the extraordinary 98 km causeway linking Coba to Yaxuna, explicitly described as a SAK bi-hi “white road” (Stuart 2006), is a compelling argument for the huge power of the Coba kings. Much like Calakmul and Tikal, Coba was surely the architect of its own hegemonic “imperium”—one maintained or enhanced by military conflict with rival polities right across the peninsula.



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