A New Variant of the Syllable k’o in Maya Writing

by David Stuart (The University of Texas at Austin)

Figure 1. A new variant of the k’o syllable

This brief note presents evidence for the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphic sign syllable k’o in Maya hieroglyphic writing (Figure 1). While not a common element of the script, it has enough appearances and varied contexts to allow for a number of significant new textual readings and understandings, some of them touched upon here. Seeing this sign as a CV syllable represents a change of heart in my own thinking regarding the sign’s function, which earlier I had assumed to be a logogram of unknown value (Stuart 2012). Its syllabic function now seems clear however, based on substitution patterns and in light of the discovery of Altar 5 from La Corona, where it appears in a previously unknown verb spelling that strongly indicates a k’o value (Stuart, Canuto, Barrientos and Gonzalez 2018).

First a word on the sign’s graphic form. At first glance it appears to be composed of two elements and in fact Thompson, in his well-known sign catalog (1963), designated its components as two separate signs: T174:530. However, from its varied contexts it is clear that that it is a single element whose form varies little of the course of several centuries. The sign appears in both Early and Late Classic contexts, and as far as I am aware it does not appear in the codices. Its graphic or iconic origin is difficult to discern, but it seems to reflect a “stony” substance, given the common “cauac” markings on both lower and upper part. It is important to distinguish the sign under consideration from the similar combination of T174:528, where the lower part is the standard “cauac.” The upper element (T174) appears in a variety of other signs, including the logogram SIBIK (“ink, soot, charcoal”) proposed long ago by Nikolai Grube, and in the sign representing ink within a shell inkpot, possibly the syllable t’o (Zender 2004:260).

Figure 2. The “fist” variant of k’o. (a) stand alone example, (b) in a spelling of the name a-po-k’o chi-hi (Aj Pok’ Chih), K5722, (drawing by D. Stuart) (c) in yo-k’o-lo, Copan, Str. 9N-82 bench (drawing by B. Fash) (d) in the name YAX-k’o-jo a-AHK (Yax K’oj Ahk), Chancala-area panel (Drawing by C. Prager)

The sign in question is not the first k’o syllable identified in Maya writing. Another k’o representing a closed hand or fist was proposed a number of years ago by Linda Schele (Figure 2a). Her reasoning was based on the sign’s appearance with -jo in contexts that suggested the reading k’oj, “mask,” including the spelling of the personal name YAX-k’o-jo a-ku, Yax K’oj Ahk, which I would translate as “Green Mask Turtle” (Schele 1992:122-123) (Figure 3c) (Schele at the time advocated for a mythical role of this name, whereas I prefer to see it as a historical personage, associated with the court near Chancala, Chiapas). Her identification of the fist variant of k’o came to be widely accepted, especially in light of its consistent appearance with other Co value signs (Figure 2b-d). This sign is perhaps best known in the spellings k’o-ba or k’o-jo-ba that appear as part of the so-called “era expression,” a standardized sequence of terms usually associated with the supposed start date of the Long Count, 4 Ahau 8 Cumku (Figure 3).  There has long been a temptation to see these pointing to the root k’ob found in the Yucatecan word for “hearth,” k’óoben, but such an analysis seems unlikely, as it is cognate to an original root k’uub found in Eastern Mayan languages (see Kaufman and Justeson 2003: 438). As we will see, its range of contexts and the occasional inclusion of jo suggest a more likely connection to the root k’oj or k’oh and related words for “mask, image,” as in the spellings first noted by Schele. 

Figure 3. The “fist” k’o syllable in possible spellings of k’o(h)ob or k’ojob, “mask, image”. (a) Quirigua, St. C, (b) Copan, CPN 19469. (Drawings by D. Stuart)

As shown in Figure 4a below, this hand variant of k’o appears in a woman’s name on Tortuguero Monument 8 (Figure 4a), spelled IX-ya-na-k’o-jo, perhaps Ix Yan K’oj (the fist is oriented differently, but this is a known pattern of variation of k’o signs at nearby Palenque). In an alternate version of the name on Monument 6, the fist looks to be replaced by T174:530 (Figure 4b). These appear in parentage expressions for the  local ruler Bahlam Ajaw (see Gronemeyer 2004), so there can be little doubt they refer to his mother, as alternate spellings of the same name. In the case of Monument 6 (Figure 4b), the form of the final jo sign first identified by Houston (1988) appears more elaborate than what we usually see, with the addition small u-shaped nubbins to one side and a “ma”-like element above. I believe that these are features of the jo sign’s original and unabbreviated form. Figure 5 shows a range of jo forms over time. Working from the idea that the final element in the name on Monument 6 is jo, I then considered the possibility that T174:130 might be an alternate version of k’o.

Figure 4. Comparison of two female names at Tortuguero, both perhaps read Ix Yan K’oj. (a) Mon. 8, (b) Mon. 6. (Drawings by D. Stuart)
Figure 5. Four examples of the jo syllable arranged chronologically, showing their graphic range. (a) Tortuguero, Mon. 6, (b) Piedras Negras, Pan. 2, (c) Copan, CPN 19469 (disc altar), (d) Dresden 6b. (Drawings by D. Stuart)

A similar substitution also appears in spellings of a term found on several small stones that evidently served as censer stands or pedestals. These appear to be based on the same “image, mask” term noted above k’ojob ~ k’o(h)ob), where we see the “fist” k’o alternating with the new form under discussion here (Figure 6). The spellings are either U-k’o-ba li, possibly for u k’o(h)ob-il,”the image of…,” or the slightly more elaborated U-k’o-ba-TUUN-li, for u k’o(h)ob tuun-il, “the image-stone of…”.  This agrees with Schele’s early ideas on k’o-ba or k’o-jo-ba in other contexts. K’ojob or k’o(h)ob are based on the noun root k’oj or k’oh, “mask, image” (note Chontal k’oh-op, “mask”), and they are fitting terms of reference for these small stone pedestals carved with personal portraits. I suspect these sculptures may have served as the bases for ceramic effigies or burners. At Palenque, these inscribed censer stands assume a more elaborate form as upright, three-dimensional heads (Figure 6c), stone versions of the massive ceramic stands found throughout the Cross Group and elsewhere (Cuevas García 2008).  It seems reasonable to suppose that, at Palenque at least, a k’o(h)ob tuun is a stone version of a k’o(h)ob, an “image” or “mask” that would refer to the ceramic forms of such portraits.

Figure 6. Small “image stones,” possibly called k’o(h)ob or k’o(h)ob tuun. (a) La Joyanca disc altar (drawings by M. Forné and D. Stuart), (b) Edzna, Hieroglyphic Altar 1 (drawing and photo by C. Pallán), (c) Palenque, stone censer stand (drawing by D. Stuart, photo by L. Schele)
Figure 7. The text of Altar 5 from La Corona, with the verb k’otoy in Block 9. (Drawing by D. Stuart)

Taken together, the evidence suggests a value of k’o for the single sign T174:130, and its appearance on Altar 5 of La Corona, in a previously unknown spelling, adds what I take to be a final confirmation (Stuart, et. al. 2018) (Figure 7). This verb appears at block 9, a CVC-Vy intransitive spelled ?-to-yi, where the initial sign is T174:530. We can assume, on the basis of synharmony, that we have a verb with the shape Cot-oy, indicating that the first sign is syllabic Co. As far as I can determine there is really only one attested intransitive root in Ch’olan languages that fits this pattern: k’ot, as in Ch’orti’ k’otoy, “to arrive (there)”. What immediately follows in the second part of block 9 ought to be a place name, and it seems to be written with the skeletal head variant of BAAK before TUUN-li. I’m guessing this is a name for a place where a local lord named Chak Tok Ich’aak journeyed to celebrate the Period Ending. The narrative here is highly unusual, but it seems to fit the well-known pattern we see in later La Corona texts, where local lords are often on the move to other locales.

Figure 8. (a) Spelling of lo-k’o-yi on a vase from Uaxactun, (b) a standard logographic form LOK’-yi from Dos Pilas, HS 2 (drawing and photo by D. Stuart)

The k’o reading is further strengthened by its appearance in yet another spelling of another distinctive –Vy verb, this time on a lidded tripod excavated long ago in Burial A19 of Uaxactun (Smith 1955:fig.8j) ceramic report (Figure 8a). This looks to be lo-k’o-yi, as a fully syllabic version of the familiar verb lok’oy, “he leaves, exits,” that is otherwise spelled as a logogram despicting a snake emerging from a hole (Figure 8b). The context of the verb makes it difficult to confirm its semantic role, but the syllabic combination is nonetheless highly suggestive, lok’-oy being one of the very view possible correlates. 

Figure 9. ya-k’o-ka, y-ahk’ol, “above, on top of.” (Drawing by D. Stuart)

One common setting for this new k’o syllable is in the glyph that I had previously analyzed as a noun meaning something like “effigy,” even though its phonetic reading was then unclear (Figure 9). Its uses at Palenque, Copan and Quirigua suggested that it refers to an object that is venerated, associated with deceased rulers or patron deities — what I called a “commemorative thing.” It was in this environment that I originally supposed that T174:130 functioned as a logogram, but I was mistaken in retrospect. As Stephen Houston has pointed out to me, if we analyze this grouping of signs as ya-k’o-la, we may well have the possessed noun y-ahk’ol, which we know is a relational noun for “above” or “on top of” in lowland languages (pCh *ahk’ol, Yuk *ok’ol).  In the main inscription on Copan’s Altar Q, y-ahk’ol appears before the name of the dynastic founder, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’. Here it seems that the dedication of an object (perhaps of a K’awiil effigy?) occurred “above” the deceased king — an apt physical description of the altar’s placement before Structure 16, atop Copan’s deep architectural stratigraphy, on the general axis point of the Hunal tomb where the founder was buried. Houston and I are presently completing an article that explores the important spatial aspects of the term ahk’ol, and its archaeological implications at Copan, Quirigua and elsewhere (Stuart and Houston, n.d.).

Figure 10. The raising of the headband “atop” the Triad deities of Palenque. From the Middle Tablet of the Temple of the Inscriptions (Drawing by D. Stuart).

In the tablets of Palenque’s Temple of the Inscriptions, this same term occurs in passages pertaining to the dressing and bejeweling of the three local patron deities known as the Palenque Triad (Macri 1990). There the ya-k’o-la glyph occurs as part of a repeating phrase u k’alhu’n yahk’ol…, “(it is) the paper (headband)-raising above…,” followed by the names of the Triad gods. This would seem to be in reference to the ritual adornment of gods or god-effigies with hu’n paper-cloth, perhaps headbands or headdress streamers much like those attested in the presentation of Aztec deity images. 


This informal note provides a quick outline of the evidence behind the new k’o variant. I believe it emerges from the varied settings as a firm reading, forcing me to change my earlier thinking on the sign’s possible role as a logogram.  One question that remains is whether this k’o syllable can be reduced to T174 by itself. I suspect this may prove to be the case, but I have yet to come across a definitive example. Also, there are a few other contexts of this k’o sign at Copan, Holmul, and other sites that remain to be fully analyzed and explained, and these may await further discussion in Maya Decipherment


I thank Tomás Barrientos, Dimitri Beliaev, Marcello Canuto, Stephen Houston, Simon Martin and Marc Zender for their help in the research leading up to this note.

References Cited

Cuevas García, Martha. 2008. Los incensarios efigie de Palenque. Mexico, D.F.: UNAM and INAH.

Houston, Stephen D. 1988. The Phonetic Decipherment of Mayan Glyphs. Antiquity, 62(234), 126-135.

Gronemeyer, Sven. 2006. The Maya site of Tortuguero, Tabasco, Mexico: Its History and Inscriptions. Acta Mesoamericana vol. 17. Markt Schwaben, Germany: Verlag Anton Saurwein.

Macri, Martha. 1990. Prepositions and complementizers in the Classic Period inscriptions. In Sixth Palenque Round Table 1986, ed. by V. Fields, pp. 266-272 (Merle Greene Robertson, series editor). Norman: University of 0klahoma Press.

Schele, Linda. 1992. Workbook for the XVIth Maya Hieroglyphic workshop at Texas, March 14-14, 1992. Department of Art and Art History and the Institute for Latin American Studies, The University of Texas. 

Smith, Robert E. 1955. Ceramic Sequence of Uaxactun, Guatemala, Vol. II: Illustrations. MARI Publication no. 20. New Orleans: MARI, Tulane University. 

Stuart, David. 2012. On Effigies of Ancestors and Gods. Maya Decipherment, January 20, 2012. https://mayadecipherment.com/2012/01/20/on-effigies-of-ancestors-and-gods/

Stuart, David, Marcello Canuto, Tomas Barrientos and Alejandro González. 2018. A Preliminary Analysis of Altar 5 from La Corona. The PARI Journal XIX(2):1-13. http://www.mesoweb.com/pari/journal/archive/PARI1902.pdf

Thompson, J. Eric S. 1963. A Catalog of Maya Hieroglyphs. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Zender, Marc. 2004. A Study of Classic Maya Priesthood. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Archaeology, University of Calgary.