A Captive’s Story: Xub Chahk of Ucanal

by David Stuart (University of Texas at Austin)

The written history of the Classic Maya names many important war captives, most of whom are only vague to us as historical figures. Typically they appearin terse statements such as “so-and-so was captured,” with little if any historical context. For example, we know precious little about “Jeweled Skull,” the celebrated prisoner of Yaxuun Bahlam IV (Bird Jaguar IV) of Yaxchilan, nor do we know the backstory of K’awiil Mo’, the Palenque lord taken by the king of Tonina. This shouldn’t be too surprising, since many of these obscure characters were warriors or junior members of rival courts, not terribly prominent even in the records of their home communities. Exceptions come about when high kings are defeated and taken, such as the Copan ruler Waxaklajuun UBaah K’awiil, who was famously defeated in war by his Quirigua rival.

Here I point to another interesting exception, a prisoner who seems to have had an eventful life both before and after he was taken as a prisoner of war. His name was Xub Chahk (or perhaps Xuxub Chahk, “Whistling Chahk”), and he ruled at the present-day site of Ucanal during the late eighth century (Note 1). In 796 CE he was captured by the king of Yaxha, K’inich Lakamtuun, during a time of unusual political instability and warfare in the eastern Petén, spurred by the wars of an aggressive ruler of Naranjo named Itzamnaaj K’awiil. A handful of inscriptions of the period highlight these wars, especially Naranjo’s Stela 12 and the recently excavated “Komkom Vase” from Baking Pot, Belize. Xub Chahk (as we will call him) was on the losing end of the conflict with Yaxha, but from there his story continued and took on new complexity. As I will explore here, he was later displayed as a prisoner of Caracol’s king, years after his capture. Somehow he was “transferred” from one kingdom to another and perhaps even had a longer life than most war captives. Xuxub Chahk’s complex story consists of short, terse episodes of written history, and the means by which we can interpret them relies (as is usually the case) on circumstantial evidence and a good deal of reading between the lines. Nevertheless, his narrative seems unique in the annals of Classic Maya history, as a ruler of one realm who became a prisoner of two others.

Yaxha Stela 31 and the Capture of Xub Chaak

Figure 1. Front of Yaxha Stela 31. Drawing by I. Graham, Photo (replica) by D. Stuart

What we know of Xub Chahk’s story begins in 796 CE with Stela 31 of Yaxha, a Late Classic monument that was erected in that site’s Plaza E, just to the south of the impressive North Acropolis (Figure 1). The front of the stela displays a complex scene of what might be called “ritual capture,” with a richly dressed warrior-king – clearly a god-impersonator – standing above a diminutive captive who is stripped of nearly all clothing. The inscription of six glyph blocks (A1-B3) provides some key historical information about the scene (Figure 2).

The Calendar Round (CR) date is 13 Ix 2 Zac, followed by a playfully conflated spelling of the verb chuhkaj, “(he) was captured” (chu-ka-ja, with the first and third syllabic elements graphically combined). Using a date recorded on the left side of the stela (to be discussed momentarily) we can narrow down the CR date to 12 Ix 2 Zac CR date to 9.18.5.16.14, or August 11, 796 CE. The name of the captive comes in the following two blocks followed by what seems to be a title at B3, with a damaged glyph topped by AJAW.

Figure 2. Main caption from Yaxha’s Stela 13. Photo by D. Stuart

Inspection of the details on the original monument shows that the name is spelled xu-bu (B2) CHAHK-ki (A3), and the final glyph is surely K’AN-na-WITZ-NAL-AJAW(B3). This is the place or emblem glyph we know to be associated with the archaeological site of Ucanal, Guatemala, located approximately 22 kilometers to the south of Yaxha (first identified by Peter Mathews) (See Stuart 1987). The text on the stela’s front is therefore a simple and direct statement of a conflict with Ucanal and of Xub Chahk’s capture.

We also find two small glyphs within the scene, placed just above the head of the small captive (see Figure 1). The two glyphs are somewhat eroded but they clearly seem to constitute another Calendar Round date. Visible is the day 12 Ben and an eroded month sign that is surely one of the Sihoom months (Ch’en, Yax, Zac, and Ceh). I suspect that this msut be 12 Ben 1 Zac, exactly one day prior to the date recorded in the main caption, thus 9.18.5.16.13 12 Ben 1 Zac. Why would it be included here as a “secondary text”? We can speculate that the smaller date, more integral to the scene that the larger caption above, gives us the specific time of the defeat in battle, whereas his formal capture and tying-up came a day later. Whatever the case, it is interesting that the ancient historian and designer who composed this complex scene decided to differentiate the two events.

The inscribed sides of the monument begin with a Calendar Round for the Period Ending 9.18.7.0.0 9 Ahau 3 Ceh, which is most likely the stela’s dedication date. Some hieroglyphs are difficult to make out due to erosion and damage, but the last three on the left side, following the date, seem to record one or more ancient place names corresponding to the location of the stela. One of these locational glyphs reads hi-HIX-BIH-TUUN-ni, hix bihtuun, “Jaguar Causeway(?),” perhaps the proper name of the plaza or alternatively of the long sacbe feature running roughly north-south from Lake Yaxha towards the Maler Group. Stela 31 is located directly on this path, just to the east of the site’s massive E-Group. Several hieroglyphs on the right side of the stela are also damaged or missing, but clearly at the end we find mention of a scattering ceremony and the recognizable name of K’inich Lakamtuun, one of only a handful of historical names we can associate with Yaxha’s dynasty (Figure 3). This ruler, the last we know from Yaxha’s history, is otherwise known from his portrait on Yaxha Stela 13, dedicated a few years earlier on 9.18.3.0.0, and, as we will see, also through several mentions in historical texts from Naranjo and Baking Pot, Belize, where he appears as the victim of military attacks against Yaxha in the year 799 (Helmke, Hoggarth and Awe 2018:70-71). We can be sure that K’inich Lakamtuun is the victorious warrior depicted on Stela 13 a few years before this own defeat at the hands of Naranjo’s ruler.

Figure 3. The name K’inich Lakamtuun, from Yaxha Stela 13 (drawing by D. Stuart)

Stela 31 is an unusual sculpture. K’inich Lakamtuun wears a massive ornate headdress and he seems to move with a bit more dynamism than we usually see in a Maya king. His spear appears as a diagonal line running toward the prisoner, clearly indicating the moment of capture. Depictions of captives are common on stelae, of course, but such scenes of violence and defeat are exceedingly rare on the monuments of the central lowlands. Far more common are the standard portraits of kings or queens in their ritual attire, overseeing a Period Ending and from time to time accompanied by a depiction of a bound prisoner.

The scene is also highly unusual among other capture scenes in Maya art in being overtly mythologized. K’inich Lakamtuun is far more than an armed warrior; he displays the features of the Jaguar God of the Underworld, and his massive headdress looms above, replete with cosmological and ancestral imagery. The three large hieroglyphs at the very bottom of the scene emphasize the ruler’s divine attributes, stating that the capture “is the work of Chak ? Ik’ Chiwooj?,” a name that corresponds nicely with the jaguar attributes of the portrait. We can assume that this is the supernatural identity of K’inich Lakamtuun, given he is the protagonist of the stela and the side inscription.

Stela 31’s record of a war between the rulers of Yaxha and Ucanal is the first known historical connection between these two important centers of the eastern Peten. Their relationship must have been eventful over the course of the Classic period, however, given their close proximity, yet this history is largely missing due to the relative lack of legible texts at both sites, despite their importance, have very few legible inscriptions. Those of Yaxha are badly fragmented and date mostly to the Early Classic era. Of its Late Classic monuments, only Stela 13 and 31 have any legible contents and both date to the reign of our protagonist K’inich Lakamtuun. Ucunal’s surviving texts are small in number as well, and cluster more toward the Terminal Classic era, without a single identifiable mention of Yaxha. One of its prominent rulers of the Classic period was Itzamnaaj Bahlam, who would later be captured by K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Chahk of Naranjo in 701 CE; presumably he was Xub Chahk’s distant predecessor on the throne, and likely a royal ancestor.

K’inich Lakamtuun’s own personal history as a ruler of Yaxha provides a good case study of the political infighting among kingdoms in the region at the end of the eighth century. We have direct indications that he ruled at Yaxha in 793 (Stela 13) and in 796 (Stelae 31), but he was defeated by Naranjo’s king Itzamnaaj K’awiil only short time later, in 799, as recorded as part of a very complex historical narrative recounted on the back of Stela 12 of Naranjo (see Figure 6). In that inscription Yaxha is repeatedly cited as a target of attacks and conquests throughout the summer of that year, seemingly led by Itzamnaaj K’awill against his enemy K’inich Lakamtuun, who ultimately was captured on or before September 4, 799 (9.18.9.0.13 1 Ben 6 Ceh). K’inich Lakamtuun’s capture of Xub Chahk was only a short-lived victory, therefore, for he himself was forced to flee Yaxha on at least two occasions before being captured only three years later. But what was the fate of his own illustrious prisoner?

Caracol Altar 23 and the Display of Xub Chahk

Altar 23 of Caracol was dedicated on the Period Ending 9.18.10.0.0 10 Ahau 8 Zac (August 16, 800 CE), just shortly after the accession of the new local ruler K’inich Joy K’awiil (Figure 4). It was one of several monuments dedicated on this date, representing a time of significant political and artistic revival at the site after a number of years of relative quiet. The well-preserved sculpture presents two bound captives who each sit upon large table-like stones or “altars” in a bilateral composition, surrounded by text captions (Chase, Grube and Chase 1991:7-11). It is likely that Altar 23 itself was once such a pedestal monument, and that the carved image is self-referential, depicting two unfortunate prisoners who were separately displayed on Altar 23 as part of the celebration of the new king’s Period Ending.

Figure 4. Caracol Altar 23. Xub Chahk of Ucanal is depicted on the right. Drawing by N. Grube, A. Chase and D. Chase (from Chase, Grube and Chase 1991)

The main text of the altar is placed in a vertical band between the two prisoners, opening with a record of the 10 Ahau 8 Zac (A1-B1) or 9.18.10.0.0. The ensuing two glyphs note that the Peried Ending is u k’altuun, (U-K’AL-TUUN) “his stone-raising,” ti tahnlamaw, “at the half-diminishing” (a half-period). The name of the ruler K’inich Joy K’awiil comes next at C1 (K’INICH-JAY-K’AWIIL-li), followed by the standard Caracol emblem title at C2 (k’uhul k’antu[?] maak). The main passage continues with a second verbal statement directly related to the scene, opening with chuhkaj, “he is captured” and a non-specific subject, simply given as U-BAK-ka, u bak, “his prisoner(s).” The owner of the captives is then given with the following three blocks as a lord named Tum Yohl K’inich (C4: tu-mu-OHL-K’INICH), accompanied by the titles “three k’atun lord” (B4) and baahkab (B5: ba-ka-ba). It is noteworthy that Tum Yohl K’inich – no longer the king at this time — lacks the distinctive Caracol emblem glyph we found earlier with K’inich Joy K’awiil. The final glyphs of the main passage tell us that the capture episode was “overseen” by K’inich Joy K’awiil (D1), who does take the emblem (D2) and an additional bahkaab title (D3). Evidently we have a complex relationship to ponder here, between the current Caracol king and another person who bears a familiar name found with several other Caracol rulers. We will return to this question momentarily.

Each of the captives is identified by name and place of origin. The short glyph caption behind the figure at left reads LEM?-TI’-BAHLAM, probably for Lem Uti’ Bahlam, “Shining is the Mouth of the Jaguar.” He also has an emblem glyph title, labelled as the k’uhul ajaw or ruler of a dynasty or place bi-TAL or BIH-TAL. No archaeological site has been ideitified as yet with the name “Bital” (as I will provisionally refer to it) but we know of three other mentions of the site, two from war records at Naranjo (see Chase, Grube and Chase 1991:9), and another from an Early Classic vessel more recently excavated in a tomb at Caracol. The place named Bital presumably exists somewhere in the area of these two sites. The caption continues with ye-te, a relationship term perhaps based on et or eht (y-et, “his companion”[?]), and then with the name we have already seen, Tum Yohl K’inich or Tutum Yohl K’inich.

Turning to the portly captive shown at the right on Altar 23, his caption reads xu-bu-cha-ki (G1) and he carries the Ucanal emblem glyph (G2: K’UH-K’AN-WITZ-NAL-AJAW). This of course repeats the prisoner’s name on Yaxha Stela 31. He again is named as the y-eht, “the companion(?) of” Tum Yohl K’inich (G3, G4). Given the proximity of the dates, the two mentions of “Xub Chahk, the Holy Lord of K’anwitznal (Ucanal)” at Yaxha and Caracol must refer to the same individual. On Stela 31 his capture by K’inich Lakamtuun was given as August 11, 796, and on Caracol Altar 23 we see him presented — and also “captured” — nearly four years later to the day, on August 16, 800.

To my knowledge this this the first attested example of one captive being portrayed as a prisoner at two sites, and it naturally raises a number of interesting questions. These center not only on Xub Chahk’s unfortunate history, but to some extent on the nature of Maya warfare and history during this turbulent period at the beginning of the Terminal Classic.

The Wars of 799

How did Xub Chahk, captured by Yaxha’s king, end up four years later on display at Caracol? As with much of Maya history this is impossible to answer through direct evidence. Apart from Stela 31 and Altar 23, no historical sources at our disposal make reference to Xub Chahk, nor do any texts fill in the blanks about his apparent “transfer” or movement from one site to another. However, it is important that we view his story in the larger historical context of those times, and specifically within the setting of wider political instabilities at the very end of the eighth century.

As we have seen, this was an era of frequent conflict and strife in the region of the eastern Petén, as especially revealed by two important sources — Stela 12 of Naranjo and the extraordinary “Komkom” Vase recently excavated at Baking Pot, Belize (Helmke, Hoggarth and Awe 2018). Stela 12’s very long text (Figure 5) focuses on a series of military engagements waged by the Naranjo king Itzamnaaj K’awiil against Yaxha (Stuart 1993:414-5), leading up to the Period Ending 9.18.10.0.0 (Note 1). This important narrative has gained renewed attention based on fascinating parallels between it and the lengthy text on the Komkom vase, which Helmke has found to repeat much of the same historical informatiot with a slightly different “spin” and perspective (see Helmke, Hoggarth and Awe 2018:82-86). The vase was produced much later than the history its text recounts, in the early ninth century, as a record of retrospective history – perhaps as a gift or “momento” of wars in the recent past.

Figure 5. The back of Naranjo Stela 12, with two passages relating the “fleeing” of K’inich Lakamtuun. Photo by T. Maler, drawings by D. Stuart.

Stela 12’s long storyline contains a nine very closely grouped dates, beginning in February 15, 799 and leading up to the Period Ending 9.18.10.0.0 on August 16, 800 (the same date we saw recorded on Caracol’s Altar 23). A number of war-related events such as conquest and “fleeing” are mentioned over these eighteen or so months, several involving attacks on Yaxha. The first of these occurs on 9.18.8.8.16 12 Cib 9 Uo, or February 18, 799, when we read of a conquest of some unknown locale named Ux K’awiil, said to be “within Yaxha” (tahn ch’een yaxa’) (see Helmke, Hoggarth and Awe 2018:68) (Figure 5b). Part of the passage is damaged, but it continues with a verb reading ahn-i “he flees” (AN-ni, using an interesting logographic variant of the more common syllabic a-ni spelling also found in this text), suggesting an event of conquest or disruption (Note 2). The subject is effaced, but given patterns later in this same text and parallel metnions on the Komkom Vase, it was surely K’inich Lakamtun who “fled” on this day (Helmke, Hoggarth and Awe 2018:70-71). An accompanying verb of movement t’ab-iiy, “goes up (to)” appears next on Stela 12, with an unclear place name and subject. Again we find a parallel on the Komkom Vase, where the a place name is preserved, spelled u-su-la, possibly for Usu’l (ibid.:71). Even these ambiguities and unclear participants, it is clear that this passage on Stela 12 features an attack on Yaxha and the displacement K’inich Lakamtuun as a result. And it is the first of several such statements, each echoing the same general pattern.

Fifty-five days later, on 9.18.8.11.11 2 Chuen 4 Tzec, we read:

2-KAj?-yi K’INICH-LAKAM(TUUN) YAX-a-AJAW ?-?-?K’AWIIL?-li MUT-AJAW-wa
cha’ kahji k’inich lakamtuun yaxha’ ajaw u kabjiiy(?) k’awiil mutul ajaw
He settled(?) again, K’inich Lakamtuun, the Yaxha Lord, by the doing of ?, the Mutul Lord.

This statement (not illustrated here) is important in bringing Tikal into this complex political mix, as the overseer or patron of the K’inich Lakamtuun. The main verb at the beginning of the text refers to the establishment or “founding” of ruling centers, and perhaps reads KAJ, for kaj, “start, begin, settle,” as suggested by Dimitri Belaiev (personal communication 2015). Evidently K’inich Lakamtuun had been in exile from Yaxha, perhaps having fled at the time of the initial attack recorded against Yaxha, on 12 Cib 9 Uo. This new statements suggests that he may have returned from exile after a period of 55 days, or was otherwise somehow reinstated, under the watchful eye of Tikal’s own ruler. Tikal’s role here is fascinating, for the use of the term u kabjiiy implies a hierarchical relationship as the political superior of Yaxha – a relationship that resonates also in the archaeology and architectural layout of Yaxha, with its Twin Pyramid group. And it is worth noting that around 799 CE Tikal’s own dynastic record is largely invisible. No monuments of the time appear at Tikal, so that the royal name on Stela 12, while damaged and unreadable, would have filled an important gap in the later portions of Tikal’s dynastic sequence.

Stela 12 continues by noting that 91 days after K’inich Lakamtuun’s possible re-enstatement at Yaxha he was again attacked by Narnajo on 2 Ik 15 Ch’en (9.18.8.16.2)(Figure 5c). The verb has the numerical adverb cha’, “two,” or “again,” and his destination is different, though unclear. The first glyphs of the passage read:

2-CH’AK-ja YAX-a a-ni K’INICH-LAKAM(TUUN)-ni T’AB-yi ya-?-?
cha’ ch’ahkaj yaxha ahni k’inich lakamtuun
“Again Yaxha was attacked and K’inich Lakamtuun fled”

As Helmke, Hoggarth and Awe (2018:69) note, a parallel episode is recorded on the Komkom vase, coming four days later on 9.18.8.16.6 6 Ik 19 Ch’en. On this day K’inich Lakamtuun (with a misspelled name) was the victim of an attack. The common phrasing and circumstances suggests that this must refer to the same overall episode as recorded on Stela 12, although on a slightly different historical time-frame.

K’inich Lakamtuun’s fate gets worse, as we continue to read the account on Stela 12. On 9.18.9.0.13 1 Ben 6 Ceh he falls victim to yet another “axe” event, a defeat at an unknown locale when for a third time the Yaxha ruler must flee (ahn-i) to another place. Subsequent passages on Stela 12 go on to refer to the Naranjo’s sacking and taking of Yaxha’s wealth (in the final columns of the text we read y-ikaatz yaxa ajaw, “the load ([of jade] of the Yaxha lord”), an extraordinary statement regarding the material consequences of Maya warfare (Note 3).

The day 1 Ben 6 Ceh appears to represent the culmination of prolonged warfare by Naranjo against Yaxha.  In fact the same date is highlighted as a single, freestanding event in the fascinating inscription on Naranjo’s Stela 35, a monument dedicated on the same Period Ending as Stela 12, but couching the conflict in more mythological terms. There war is described as a like-in-kind recurrence of a primordial “burning” of a god, or group of gods, whose names look identical to those cited on Stela 31 of Yaxha as the supernatural identities of K’inch Lakamtuun. The attack on Yaxha’s king on 1 Ben 6 Ceh involves the “axing” of a temple and the defeat of K’inich Lakamtuun’s god, clearly a historical reflection of that earlier myth. Thus Stela 12 and Stela 35, both dedicated on the same day, serve complimentary roles as historical and mythic records of warfare.

These two Naranjo texts can be analyzed in far more detail, but I need not go over them here, especially given the excellent new comparative analysis of Stela 12 by Helmke and his colleagues. Suffice it to say that Xub Chahk’s capture and subsequent “transfer” must be understood in terms these unusually detailed records of conflict in the year 799, when his own captor was constantly on the run across the eastern Peten.

The attacks against Yaxha by Naranjo’s king in the 790s apparently involved some degree of inter-familial strife, given the close dynastic connections between the two centers. Several mentions of Itzamnaaj K’awiil’s mother in the texts of Naranjo refer to her with the royal title Ix Yaxa’ Ajaw, “The Noblewoman of Yaxha,” revealing that she was married into the Naranjo dynasty as the wife of Itzamnaaj K’awiil’s father, K’ahk’ Kalaw Chan Chahk. Itzamnaaj K’awiil’s wars were therefore against his mother’s home community, and presumably against some fairly close relatives, who might have included K’inich Lakamtuun himself. And the conflicted connections between these two neighboring centers appear to have run very deep. Earlier in Naranjo’s history we read of another conquest or defeat of Yaxha on 9.13.18.4.18 8 Etznab 16 Uo (March 20, 710), given as the Initial Series date on the side of Naranjo, Stela 23. The young king K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Chahk, the grandfather of Itzamnaaj K’awiil, was the agent of this war. That was a particularly destructive episode, involving the “burning” of the city of Yaxha (its “cave,” ch’een) and the opening and defilement of the tomb of its deceased king, Yax Bolon Chahk. Just a few years later another Yaxha lord participated in a dance performance by K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Chahk, in 714, as recorded in the opening passage of Stela 30. The wars against Yaxha at the end of the eighth century exhibit a rupture within a complex family network that existed throughout most of the previous decades.

Xub Chahk is nowhere to be found in Naranjo’s own detailed narratives of the Naranjo-Yaxha war. Was he taken by Naranjo’s court? Or was he set free by Naranjo’s king, as an enemy of an enemy? There is no satisfactory answer at present, but we should keep in mind that Ucanal had itself once been a long-standing enemy of Naranjo, conquered, as we have seen, by Itzamnaaj K’awiill’s grandfather earlier in the seventh century. This might suggest that Xub Chahk would not have met a friendly fate at the hand of the Naranjo king when he defeated K’inich Lakamtuun. By 820 CE Naranjo’s relationship with Ucanal seems to have warmed, as indicated by the ritual visit of a subsequent Naranjo king to that site as recorded on Stela 32. In short, we can’t know the nature of political relations between Naranjo and Ucanal in 799, whether they were amicable or not.

The immediate fate of Xub Chahk is unclear, at least until he reappears at Caracol. It is surely significant that Xub Chahk’s display occurred only a very short time after the accession of its new king K’inich Joy K’awiil on 9.18.9.5.9 6 Muluc 2 Kayab, or December 9, 799. This came after a noticeable gap or hiatus in Caracol’s own history, and within a short time K’inich Joy K’awiil erects a number of new and ambitious monuments, evidently reviving Caracol’s dynasty, at least for a time. We know little of his own family history or genealogical connections, but one possible key in our consideration of Xub Chahk is this new Caracol ruler’s relationship to the person named Tum Yohl K’inich, the “owner” of the captives mentioned three times on Altar 23. That altar says very little regarding Tum Yohl K’inich’s status, only that he was a “three K’atun Lord” and a baahkab. It might seem natural to assume that he was the predecessor of K’inich Joy K’awiil, as Martin and Grube (2000) suggest. Significantly, his name appears also on Caracol, Altar 12, perhaps in association with 9.17.10.0.0 12 Ahau 8 Pax (November 29, 780). The event there seems to refer to the “return” of someone at Ucanal, apparently in the wake of the latter’s defeat by Ixkun (Note 4).

Xub Chahk’s story, framed by these complex and vague interactions between Yaxha, Naranjo and Caracol, represent an especially belligerent moment in Classic Maya history when distinct conflicts, perhaps inter-related in some way, raged over much of the southern lowlands. The wars of the eastern Peten in 799 and 800 seem unusual in their character, at least rhetorically, compared to previous time periods (some earlier Naranjo narratives do anticipate it, however) . Naranjo’s Stela 12 and the Komkom Vase illustrate this interest in the presentation what might be called “concentrated warfare,” with its remarkably detailed narrative presentation, containing numerous dates and episodes of war spanning a remarkably short span of time. Of the ten dates recorded in Stela 12’s inscription, eight are concerned with the narrative of the Yaxha conflict and the ultimate victory over the desperate K’inich Lakamtuun. The similarly unfortunate Xub Chahk was an unwilling companion in the content movements of his captor.

Here it is also important to recall how Stela 31’s scene of violent, mythologized capture also falls well outside of the local traditions of stela design and thematic content. Before 800 or so, such overt images of war are virtually non-existent in Yaxha’s own monuments, nor are they very present in the overall artistic traditions of monument production in the central Petén. Such active depictions of capture simply don’t exist at Tikal, Uaxactun, Naranjo, and nearby centers. They are of course more standard in sculptures of the Usumacinata region, where reminiscent scenes of violent encounters occur at the centers of Dos Caobas (a regional vassal of Yaxchilan) and Moral-Reforma, also in the western region. Yaxha’s Stela 31 may possibly reflect some influences from western modes of sculpture, and at the very least represents an important departure in subject matter, much in the same way as the narrative presentation of war seems different and more intensified in the case of Stela 12, dating to just a few years later.

Conclusions

This lengthy note shines a spotlight on a curious group of events from Maya history when a prominent captive seems to have been kept and displayed at two different centers within the span of a few short years. The political context of Xub Chahk’s capture and transfer remains murky, despite the detailed war records references that come from his time. That his troubled captor was “on the run” during this time is surely part of that larger story, and may well account for Xub Chahk’s own curious movement and displacement. His situation was not unique, perhaps, but it represents a previously under-reported aspect of captives and prisoners in Maya history – that even as prisoners of war, they could have their own complex stories and biographies.

Notes

Note 1. Stela 12’s narrative has been studied by several epigraphers since my first notes on its connections to Yaxha in 1993. Most important are Helmke’s excellent consideration of its close parallels with the Komkom Vase, as well as the detailed reading of the texts presented in Beliaev and de Leon (2016:50-60). All of these studies have reached similar conclusions about the inscription’s historical content.

Note 2. The syllabic reading a-ni for ahn-i, “he ran, fled,” was first suggested to me by Stephen Houston in the late 1990s, in connection with its occurrence in the painted cave text of Yaleletsemen, Chiapas. The logographic form showing two legs and a lower torso was first identified by Alfonso Lacadena.

Note 3. In my previous brief study of Stela 12 (in Stuart 1993) I suggested that the mention of y-ikaatz on Stela 12 pertained to bundles of tribute paid by Yaxha as a consequence of its defeat. However, Dmitri Beliaev has shown me (personal communication 2019) that the verbal statement associated with the term is likely baak-w-aj, an alternate term for “capture” that indicates that the bundles were considered war booty.

Note 4. Ucanal’s own history during the Late Classic is extremely patchy, but it seems to have been regularly venerable to military attacks during the eighth century. According to the text on Ixkun, Stela 2, Ucanal (K’anwitznal) was “burned” on 9.17.9.3.4 2 Kan 12 Pop, or December 19, 779. This is probably a statement of military defeat, although the possibility ought to be considered that this also refers to a ceremonial fire of some sort being lit at K’anwitznal. This event came fifty days after Ixkun itself was burned by a ruler of Ucanal, probably indicating a military tit-for-tat between these centers (see Carter 2016). All of this came two decades before Ucanal’s defeat at the hands of Yaxha. The date of Ucanal’s possible defeat in 799 came less than a year before the 9.17.10.0.0 (780) Period Ending recorded as a retrospective date on Caracol, Altar 10, when Tum Yohl K’inich was involved in some sort of noteworthy ceremony at Ucanal. We must wonder therefore if Caracol was somehow indirectly involved in Ucanal’s “burning” in 779. We find no mention of Xub Chahk being present at Ucanal in connection with the events of 779 and 780, perhaps because he was not yet an adult actor.

Sources Cited

Beliaev, Dmitri, and Mónica de Leon. 2016. Informe Técnico de Piezas Arqueológicas del Museo Nacional de Arqueología e Etnología. Proyecto Atlas Epigráfico de Peten, Fase III. Centro de Estudios Yuri Knorosov, Guatemala.

Carter, Nicholas P. 2016. These are are Mountains Now: Statecraft and the Foundation of a Late Classic Maya Court. Ancient Mesoamerica 27: 233-253.

Chase, Arlen F., Nikolai Grube and Diane Z. Chase. 1991. Three Terminal Classic Monuments from Caracol, Belize. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, no. 36. Center for Maya Research, Washington, D.C.

Helmke, Christophe, Julie Hogarth and Jaime Awe. 2018. A Reading of the Komkom Vase Discovered at Baking Pot Belize. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press Monograph 3. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2000. The Chronicle of Maya Kings and Queens. Thanks and Hudson, New York.

Stuart, David. 1993. Historical Inscriptions and the Maya Collapse. In Lowland Maya Civilization in the Eighth Century A.D., edited by Jeremy A. Sabloff and John S. Henderson, pp. 321-354. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C.

New Publication of the Komkom Vase Reply

An important new publication is out on the fabulous “Komkom Vase,” written by Christophe Helmke, Julie Hoggarth and Jaime Awe. Their excellent study provides a detailed epigraphic and historical look of this important Maya vase dating to the early ninth century. Beautifully published by Precolumbia Mesoweb Press.

Precolumbia Mesoweb Press presents A Reading of the Komkom Vase Discovered at Baking Pot, Belize, by Christophe Helmke, Julie A. Hoggarth, and Jaime J. Awe. Monograph 3. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco. Paperback, 144 pages, fully illustrated in color.

Available for purchase via www.mesoweb.com

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The Komkom Vase (Photo by David Stuart)

Preliminary Analysis of La Corona, Altar 5 Reply

A new article has appeared in The PARI Journal on the recently discovered Altar 5 from La Corona, Guatemala, written by David Stuart, Marcello Canuto, Tomas Barrientos and Alejandro González. The altar is significant for being the earliest known monument from the site, and its historical reference to a previously unknown local king points to connections to nearby El Peru (Waka’) and, by extension, to the Kaanul dynasty. There is also an interesting spelling of a verb never before seen: k’o-to-yi for k’otoy, “he arrives there.”

Link to article here: A Preliminary Analysis of Altar 5 from La CoronaThe PARI Journal 19(2):1-13.

La Corona, Altar 5, now on display at MUNAE, Guatemala City. (Photograph by D. Stuart)

An Update on CHA’, “Metate” Reply

by David Stuart (University of Texas at Austin)

Metate-a

In an earlier post on Maya Decipherment I proposed a reading KA’ or CHA’ for a long-elusive sign known as the “bent cauac” (at right). I suggested that it derived from the representation of a metate, or grinding stone, the word for which is *kaa’ in proto-Mayan and cha’ in all Ch’olan languages, including modern Ch’orti’. The occasional –a sign suffix found in a few examples, as shown here, seemed to offer good support for the identification, pointing to the presence of a glottal-stop after a in the logograph’s root, therefore Ca’. The widespread word for metate would certainly fit the bill.

I’ve come across another occurrence if the “bent cauac” that may offer confirmation of the reading, indirectly pointing to its precise logographic value as CHA’.  But the context is highly unusual, for the sign seems to operate as a syllabic sign, in clear substitution with chi in a familiar spelling of the title k’inich. This raises some larger epigraphic issues about how CV syllables and logograms of similar phonetic shape (CV’, in this case) may have sometimes blurred in function and usage, at least during a certain stage of Maya scribal history.

chaforchi

Figure 2. Name phrases from the vases, showing alternation of chi and ‘metate’ sign in the third block. (Photos: J. Kerr)

The substitution comes from two Late Classic vases in the “Ik’ style,” produced in the region around Lake Peten Itza in what is now northern Guatemala (Just 2012). The two vessels (K533 and K8889 in Justin’s Kerr’s database) were clearly painted by the same artist/scribe – an important point that we will return to later. A royal name, Yajawte’ K’inich, is written in the rim texts of each, referencing a local king who is depicted in the scenes below. His name is common throughout the corpus of Ik’ vessels (Tokovinine and Zender 2102:44-45). If we look closely at the extended name phrases themselves, we see obvious parallels (Figure 2). First we have u-baahil ahn(?) introducing a deity’s name, a version of the so-called “deity impersonation phrase” I have described before, found numerous other inscriptions (Houston and Stuart 1996). This serves to link a historical individual (named later) with a deity or supernatural with whom his/her identity is fused. Here it clearly names the solar deity Wuk Chapaht Tz’ikiin(??) K’inich (Ajaw), first identified in the 1980s in the inscriptions of Copan and other sites. The ruler’s name then follows, written as Yajawte’ K’inich, then the title “the captor of Ik’ Bul.” On K533 we find a fairly standard and recognizable form of the sun god’s name, with a K’INICH logogram followed by chi (see Just 2012:164)However, in the parallel sequence from K8333 the chi hand is replaced by our metate sign, making for a very strange combination. The bent cauac element, no matter what its value, plays no role in what is otherwise a very standard name for the sun god. There seems little choice but to analyze it here as a direct substitution for the syllable chi, where the metate element now takes on a syllabic role, presumably as cha (K’INICH-cha …weird!). The scribe of K8333 uses the conventional cha sign in spelling U-cha-nu, in the penultimate glyph of the illustrated phrase, perhaps as a way to highlight the playful nature of his earlier spelling,

If true, this phonetic function for the metate sign leads to a couple of interesting points.  First, it offers good evidence that the base value of the sign is indeed CHA’, not KA’. This makes sense given the presence of cha’ as “metate” throughout Ch’olan (*KA’ or *KAA’ seemed possibilities as more archaic forms, but less likely). Second and more broadly, it indicates a degree of playfulness on the part of a scribe who opted to steer clear of old, established spellings and introduce something completely outside of convention. Elsewhere the metate never appears syllabic cha, and I suspect its use as such here would have struck any ancient reader (like a modern epigrapher) as odd, even to the trained eye of a fellow Maya scribe of the period. In addition, the use of cha in spelling k’inich falls well outside the familiar rules of synharmony and disharmony, a set of conventions that was came to be tweaked anyway by the end of the Classic period. With K’INICH-cha we seem to have an example of individual scribal innovation, and a very playful one at that.

Crossovers between syllables and logograms occur throughout the history of the Maya script – BIH, “road,” can very often serve as bi, and CH’OH(OK), “rat,” is the basis for the syllable ch’o, and so on.  I believe that the painter of these vases used this familiar precedent to come up with his playful idea to use CHA’ as cha. In certain settings (calligraphic, less formal ones?) scribes may have felt a bit more freedom to draw upon these possibilities and display their creative skills as glyphic composers. For any courtly scribe the act of writing was an act of designing, often creatively and unexpectedly. In any event, all this highlights once again that the spellings found in Maya hieroglyphs were seldom truly “fixed,” as long as scribes conformed to the established rules of graphic variation. The example from the two Ik’ vases demonstrates how at least one ancient painter may have pushed some of these boundaries and conventions, and others no doubt did the same, in different ways. Epigraphic studies will always explore and refine the nature of scribal rules, but it would seem that, at least for some scribes, some leeway was possible in bridging the categories of logograms and syllables.

K8889

Figure 3. Two Ik’-style vases with parallel rim texts, K533 and K8889. (Photos: J. Kerr)

References Cited

Houston, Stephen D., and David Stuart. 1996. Of Gods Glyphs and Kings: Divinity and Rulership among the Classic Maya. Antiquity 70:289-312.

Just, Bryan R.. 2012. Dancing into Dreams: Maya Vase Painting of the Ik’ Kingdom. Princeton University Art Museum and Yale University Press.

Tokovinine, Alexander, and Marc Zender. 2012. Lords of Windy Water: The Royal Court of Motul de San Jose in Classic Maya Inscriptions. In Motul de San Jose: Politics, History and Economy in a Classic Maya Center, A.E. Foias and K.F. Emery, eds., pp. 30-66. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Finding the Founder: Old Notes on the Identification of K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ of Copan Reply

KYKM name

Figure 1. Name of K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, from Altar Q of Copan (Photo by D. Stuart).

by David Stuart (The University of Texas at Austin)

One of the most famous of ancient Maya rulers is K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ (KYKM) (“Solar-Green-Quetzal-Macaw”), the Early Classic founder of the Copan dynasty (Figure 1). He was celebrated by ancient Copanecos throughout the site’s 400 year history, and his legend lives on today in the key sources on Copan’s archaeology (W. Fash 2001; B. Fash 2011:35-47). He was even the subject of a 2001 PBS documentary, The Lost King of the Maya.

Given KYKM’s notoriety it’s interesting to reflect on how little we knew of his history before the mid-’80s. By that time archaeologists and epigraphers had a general outline of Copan’s Late Classic dynasty, and KYKM’s glyph had even been recognized as a personal name of some sort (the K’inich prefix being a strong indication, given its established use as a pre-posed title on late royal names at Palenque). But whose name? Proskouriakoff identified the glyph as a title, a reference to “certain ‘parrots’ that seem to turn up in troubled times” (Prouskouriakoff 1986:129). And both Gary Pahl (1976) and Lounsbury (corresponding in 1978) were closer to the mark, each seeing the glyph as a personal name but still unsure as to its exact nature. Pahl proposed it to be a variant name of the sixteenth ruler, whereas Lounsbury couldn’t commit to any historical identification, but thought it to be in reference to a Late Classic figure as well.

KYKM note

Figure 2. Stuart’s 1984 notes on identifying KYKM as an Early Classic ruler

COP St J back

Figure 3. Back of Copan, Stela J. (Photo by D. Stuart, 1987)

In retrospect this ambiguity is understandable, for the name glyph was in those years known only from much later inscriptions dating the reigns of the last five or six Copan kings (very early texts from close to KYKM’s reign finally appear in excavations during the 1990s, such as the “Xukpi Stone” and the “Motmot Marker”). It’s no wonder therefore that Proskourikoff surmised the glyph to be a general title for troublesome parrots (are there any other kind?), and not that of a definable historical figure.

This all changed in the mid 1980s, when KYKM’s true role in Maya history finally came into focus. In 1984 I became convinced that he was not a Late Classic protagonist at all but rather an early king, probably the founder of the dynasty and the first in the long line of sixteen rulers. I recently came across my old notes from that time (Figure 2), showing my line of thinking in proposing his early placement at or near the beginning of the dynasty (Note 2). The famous mat-shaped text on Stela J (Figure 3) offered the most important clue, for it showed that KYKM’s accession could be linked to the much earlier Bak’tun ending of 9.0.0.0.0, in 435 AD. Another piece of the puzzle came a couple of years after these scribblings when, in the summer of 1986, Linda Schele and I recognized that the the first figure depicted on Altar Q wore on his headdress an elaborate combination of the sings K’IN-YAX-K’UK’-MO’, placing  him at the very beginning of the famous sequence of sixteen kings (Figure 4) (Stuart and Schele 1986).  The inscription atop Altar Q soon made more sense as well, for it became clear that that the opening three dates belonged to this same Early Classic time-frame, narrating KYKM’s ch’am-k’awiil accession rite at Teotihuacan in September 6, 426 followed by his arrival back at Copan 152 days later. The last two dates of the altar’s text concerned its dedication centuries later in 775, early in the reign of the sixteenth ruler, Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat (Note 3).

KYKM Alt Q name

Figure 3. The name-headdress of K’inich Yan K’uk’ Mo’ on the west side of Altar Q (Photo by D. Stuart).

Of course we have learned a good deal more about KYKM since the 1980s. Soon after he was properly placed in Copan’s dynastic sequence, some archaeologists still expressed informal doubts about his historical veracity, positing that he might not have been a true ancestral king but a character in some constructed, questionable history (a strangely cynical outlook on Maya histories in general, I think). But then in the 1990s his tomb and resting place were identified deep within Copan’s acropolis by the University of Pennsylvania excavations, within the so-called Hunal building phase directly under Structure 10L-16 (see Bell, Canuto and Sharer [2004] for an excellent overview of early Copan archaeology and history). Since then, one epigraphic clue suggested that KYKM may originally have been from the site of Caracol, Belize. KYKM’s story remains enigmatic in many ways, but we know that he settled at Copan in 427, probably in anticipation of the great Bak’tun ending that came less than a decade later. After several generations he was remembered as the singular cultural and political hero of ancient Copan, and after nearly twelve centuries of obscurity he’s emerged once again as a great figure in Maya history.

Notes

Note 1. In my overview of early Copan history I mistakenly noted that the identification of KYKM’s role as the dynastic founder came in 1983 (Stuart 2004:227). The dates on surrounding pages in my notebook make it clear it was in 1984.

Note 2. Looking at my old notes, students of epigraphy will see that I make use of old sign readings that are rejected today and may even seem unfamiliar – Thompson’s “hel” reading for the TZ’AK sign, for example, and Lounsbury’s “mak’ina” for what we know to be K’INICH. In fact, on the right margin of the notes here illustrated, one can see the clear inklings of the K’INICH decipherment, noting the K’IN-ni-chi substitution found on Copan’s Hieroglyphic Stairway and in a few other texts. This was confirmed around the same year.

Note 3. In my hand-written notes I botched the Long Counts for the Early Classic dates on Altar Q, even though I correctly placed them roughly 17 k’atuns before the altar’s dedication. I wasn’t using a computer program, and I was thrown-off by the mention of “17 k’atuns” which I took far too literally as a precise expression of elapsed time. It did not take much time to realize that this was instead a rare rounded Distance Number, used from time to time in Copan’s inscriptions. The actual dates on Altar Q’s top are: 8.19.10.10.17 5 Caban 15 Yaxkin (“takes k’awiil”); 8.19.10.11.0 8 Ahau 18 Yaxkin (“comes from the ‘wite’naah'”); 8.19.11.0.13 5 Ben 11 Muan (“arrives”); 9.17.5.0.0 6 Ahau 13 Kayab (PE dedication); 9.17.5.3.4 5 Kan 12 Uo (unknown). On the west face we find the isolated record of Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat’s accession on 9.16.12.5.17 6 Caban 10 Mol, placed between his portrait and that of the founder.

References

Bell, Ellen E, Marcello Canuto and Robert J. Sharer (eds.). 2004. Understanding Early Classic Copan. Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Museum.

Fash, Barbara. 2011. The Copan Sculpture Museum: Ancient Maya Artistry in Stucco and Stone. Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum Press.

Fash, William L. 2001. Scribes, Warriors and Kings: The City of Copan and the Ancient Maya. New York: Thames and Hudson.

Pahl, Gary. 1976. A Successor-Relationshop Complex and Associated Signs. In The Art, Iconography, and Dynastic History of Palenque, Part 3, edited by M.G. Robertson, pp. 35-44. Pebble Beach, CA: Robert Louis Stevenson School.

Proskouriakoff, Tatiana. 1986. Maya History. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Stuart, David. 2004. The Beginnings of the Copan Dynasty. In Understanding Early Classic Copan, ed. by E. Bell, M. Canuto and R.J. Sharer, pp. 215-248. Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Museum.

Stuart, David, and Linda Schele. 1986. Yax K’uk’ Mo’, the Founder of the Lineage of Copan. Copan Notes no. 6. Proyecto Acropolis Arqueologico Copan.