New Book: Ancient Maya Politics

Ancient Maya Politics: A Political Anthropology of the Classic Period, 150-900 CE by Simon Martin. From Cambridge University Press, 2020.

2020 has seen the arrival of an important new book by Simon Martin, a frequent contributor to Maya Decipherment. It’s no exaggeration to say that Ancient Maya Politics is a pivotal work, crucial for both archaeology and epigraphy. A must-read and re-read for students, scholars, and anyone keenly interested in how we access and interpret the political world of the ancient Maya.

From Cambridge University Press:

The Classic Maya have long presented scholars with vexing problems. One of the longest running and most contested of these, and the source of deeply polarized interpretations, has been their political organization. Using recently deciphered inscriptions and fresh archaeological finds, Simon Martin argues that this particular debate can be laid to rest. He offers a comprehensive re-analysis of the issue in an effort to answer a simple question: how did a multitude of small kingdoms survive for some six hundred years without being subsumed within larger states or empires? Using previously unexploited comparative and theoretical approaches, Martin suggests mechanisms that maintained a ‘dynamic equilibrium’ within a system best understood not as an array of individual polities but an interactive whole. With its rebirth as text-backed historical archaeology, Maya studies has entered a new phase, one capable of building a political anthropology as robust as any other we have for the ancient world.

Yesterday’s Moon: A Decipherment of the Classic Mayan Adverb ak’biiy

by David Stuart (University of Texas at Austin)

Deciphering the Adverb Ak’biiy, “Yesterday”

Maya inscriptions contain a few terms or phrases that we can classify as temporal adverbs, helping to specify the timing of events relative to the text’s internal time-frame. One such term is sahm-iiy, spelled sa-mi-ya, “earlier today,” which I identified some years ago in two moon age records at Palenque (Figure 1) (first presented in Houston, Robertson and Stuart 2000). In this context, before the verb hul-iiy, sahm-iiy simply states that the new moon appeared only within a day of some notable event in the narrative “present.” The full phrase illustrated here can be translated as sahm-iiy hul-iiy, “earlier today it arrived.” Its suffix -iiy is the Classic Mayan form traceable to proto-Mayan *-eer, “ago, before,” and is an extremely common deictic suffix found on most if not all of these adverbs that mark a point in the past. It can appear on intransitive verbs, adverbs, as well as on some enumerated nouns. Grammatically, sahm-iiy and its relatives work in a way similar to standard day-counts that reckon a span of time from some earlier event to up to a present one. For example, we find in other lunar day-counts the expressions jo’lahuun-ij-iiy (15-ji-ya),  “fifteen days ago…”, or wuk-bix-iiy (7-bi-xi-ya), “seven days ago.”

sahmiiy glyph
Figure 1. Parallel examples of sahm-iiy hul-iiy, “earlier today it arrived.” (a) PAL: Palace Tablet, Q10-R10, (b) PAL:T.XXI bench edge. Drawings by D. Stuart.

Here I identify another temporal pronoun that I read as ak’b-iiy, “yesterday,” or “the night before.” Like the examples just cited, these occur in records of moon ages, where short-term temporal expressions of less than thirty days are routinely found. The first instance comes from Stela F at Qurigua (Figure 2a), as part of the moon age record accompanying the Long Count 1 Ahau 3 Zip (March 14, 761 CE). Here before the verb hul-iiy (hu-li-ya), “it arrived,” (Macleod 1990), we find a glyph consisting of a turkey’s head with the suffix sign ya. Infixed into the turkey is a bi syllable. The second case comes from Zoomorph O’ (Figure 2b), where the same glyph appears but now with the prefix a-, also before hul-iiy. These related glyphs have remained undeciphered until now, but they have generally been recognized as indicating new moon, or the start of the lunar month.

ak'biiy glyphs
Figure 2. Two examples of ak’b-iiy hul-iiy, “yesterday it arrived.” (a) QRG Stela F, F6, (b) QRG: Zoo O’, J1-I2. Drawings by D. Stuart

There is good evidence to show that the turkey head is read AK’, based on the noun ak’ or ak’ach, “turkey hen.” In the inscriptions of La Corona, the very same sign appears in the spelling of the personal name Chak Ak’ Paat Kuy, where it alternates with the syllabic comination a-k’a (Figure 3) (Houston, Stuart and Zender 2017, Stuart and Zender 2018). The same turkey sign also occurs on Stela 1 of Dos Pilas in a variant of the “dance” verb AK’-ta-ja (Figure 4b) (see Grube 1990), suggesting it may be a head variant or a graphic elaboration of the more abstracted AK’ sign we find more frequently in that position (we will return to the connection between these signs a little further on).

Ckak ak'
Figure 3. The AK’ turkey logogram in a name from La Corona. (a) CRN: Elem. , (b) CRN:Elem. 56, pB1, (c) CRN: Elem. 56, pF2. Drawings by D. Stuart

ak'taj verbs
Figure 4. Substitution of AK’ in AK’-ta-ja, ak’t-aj, “he dances” (a) DPL: Stela 11, (b) DPL: Stela 1. Drawings by D. Stuart.

On Quirigua Stela F we therefore have a plausible reading AK’-bi-ya for the glyph before hu-li-ya. On Zoomorph O’ we have the very same expression, but with an a added as a prefix on AK’. The bi infix again looks to be present (photos are murky), so the full form here seem to be a-AK’-bi-ya. There can be little doubt that these two glyphs spell the temporal adverb ak’b-iiy, a form found in Ch’olan languages meaning “yesterday,” or “last night,” based upon the noun ahk’ab, “night.” Note its use in these sentences from from Ch’orti and Ch’ol:

ak’bi patneen, yesterday I worked (Wisdom 1950)
ac’bi tsa’ huliyon ilayi, yesterday I arrived here (Aulie and Aulie 1978)

In the last example cited, it is interesting to see that Ch’ol ac’bi serves as an adverb before a derived form of hul, “to arrive,” much as we find in the case of the Lunar Series examples from Quirigua. The same term can be traced more widely throughout lowland Mayan languages (all shown in their original orthographies).

Ch’olti’: acbihi, yesterday (Moran 1935)
Ch’orti’: ak’bi, yesterday, of yesterday (Wisdom 1950)
Ch’ol: ’ak’-b’i, yesterday; ayer (Hopkins, et al 2008)
Ch’ol: ac’bi, ayer (Aulie and Aulie 1978)
Chontal: ?äk’-bi, yesterday, before (Knowles 1984)
Chontal: äc’-bi, ayer (Keller and Luciano 1997)
Tzeltal: ahkab-ey, anoche (Polian 2020)
Tzotzil: ak’ub-e, anoche (Kaufman and Justeson 2003)
Yukatek: ak’be’, anoche, la noche anterior (Barrera Vásquez 1980)

In the two contexts from Quirigua the full verbal expression is therefore ak’biiy huliiy, “yesterday it arrived,” the subject being the lunar month of 29 or 30 days. This might be roughly understood to saying that the moon is simply one day old. However, we should exert some caution in assuming so, and reflect further on the descriptive language the Maya used in such records. The moon’s “arrival” is not simply the astronomical new moon, which corresponds to its dark, invisible phase. “Arrival” should be understood as referring to the moon’s first visibility, as a thin waxing crescent in the darkened sky. Landa made this point in his Relación, wherein he states that “they counted (the lunar month) from the time at which the new moon appeared until  it no longer appeared”  (Tozzer 1941:133). This is confirmed, I believe, by the form of the HUL logogram used in the vast majority of moon age records, which depicts a hand pointing at the crescent (see Houston 2012). The “pointing at the moon” form of HUL is especially clear in its Early Classic examples (Figure 5). All of this is to say that first visibility would fall a two or three days (depending on timing) after astronomical new moon. Thus ak’biiy huliiy can be best analyzed as an explicit statement about first visibility happening “yesterday,” falling two or even three days after the astronomical new moon.

HUL signs
Figure 5. Selection of Early Classic HUL logograms, emphasizing its origin as a hand pointing at the crescent moon. (a) RAZ: Tomb 1, (b) COP: St. 63, (c) CLK: Celt, (d) PNG: St. 30, (e) RSB: HS 3. Drawings by D. Stuart.

ak'biiy Coba
Figure 6. Alternate spelling of ak’biiy huliiy from COB: Panel D. Drawing by D. Stuart.

Apart from Quirigua, there may be one other example of ak’biiy in a text from Coba. This is Panel D, the unusual rectangular panel or altar with a spiral-shaped inscription. This text opens with a Lunar Series, probably a continuation of a calendrical text now lost. The initial glyph of the text (Figure 6) is “Glyph D” of the Lunar Series, incorporating the verb hul-iiy (HUL-li-ya). Before this we have a glyph shows an infixed bi element and a ya suffix. I suggest the main sign here is the alternate logogram for AK’, known from the frequent dance verbs mention above (AK’-ta-ja) (see Figure 4a). At first I wondered if this could be a spelling of bix-iiy, using a logogram for BIX that I identified in 1996 (Stuart 2012). However, it is possible to distinguish that form from the somewhat similar AK’, which consistently shows two darkened elements along the internal curved line. BIX seems to regularly feature a single darkened element, with an infixed bi. I suspect that this AK’ is graphically related to the turkey head variant, perhaps originating as a pars pro toto of it.

The use of the turkey AK’ in these spellings brings up a couple of interesting points regarding hieroglyphic orthography. First, we have here the rare use of a logogram for purely phonetic purposes (the adverb ak’biiy having nothing to do with turkeys). It also reflects a high degree of phonetic sensitivity in Maya script. As we have seen, the derived form ak’b-iiy results from two morphophonemic process that work on the underlying noun ahk’ab, “night.” The first is vowel syncope. In Ch’olan languages, any stem of more than two syllables, such as that formed by the combination of ahk’ab and -iiy, sees the loss of its penultimate vowel, in this case a (Kaufman and Norman 1984:86). The second process is the loss of the h before a cluster of two consonants. The root for “turkey” is ak’, lacking the internal h we find in ahk’ab. As Marc Zender has pointed out to me (personal communication, 2020), a spelling such as a-AK’-bi-ya appears to be a remarkably precise means of representing the phonetic result of these standard processes. A similar situation presumably exists in the spellings of the verb for “dance,” usually spelled AK’-ta-ja (see Grube 1990), at times with the very same AK’ turkey sign. The proto-Ch’olan verb root is ahk’ot, and the addition of the intransitivizing suffix -aj necessitates the same two processes just described, the result being ak’t-aj, “(s)he dances.”

Thus far I have not encountered the temporal adverb ak’biiy outside of the context of moon age records. This is not terribly surprising, given how Lunar Series passages focus on short-term time frames involving less than thirty days, sometimes focused on time changes within a single day, as in sahm-iiy.

Moon Ages and Correlations

The ak’biiy huliiy statements may be significant in considering the astronomical correlations of certain Maya calendar dates. For example, the Long Count on Quirigua, Stela F is 1 Ahau 3 Zip, falling on March 11, 761 according to the 584283 correlation. This is astronomical new moon, which occurred in the pre-dawn hours of that day.

YEAR 0761
New Moon          First Quarter       Full Moon         Last Quarter
Mar 11 05:43      Mar 18 01:19        Mar 25 04:59   Apr 2 05:49
(dates and times in Universal Time minus 6 hours).

It should be emphasized that astronomical new moon describes a phase of complete invisibility before the first sliver of the crescent is visible. Yet we know in Maya terms that the moon’s “arrival” was its first appearance to the naked eye, as discussed above, and as indicated by the visual forms of several HUL logograms (Prager 2020).  It is very difficult to see the young waxing crescent of the moon within 24 hours of astronomical new moon, in fact, suggesting that visibility with the naked eye during the night spanning March 11 and 12 would have been extremely unlikely. The night of March 13 is a more likely time for the moon’s true “arrival” and visibility. If we align these lunar phenomena with the different correlation constants for, we have:

584283, night of March 11, 761 – Astronomical new moon (invisible)
584284, night of March 12, 761 – initial waxing crescent, minimal visibility
584285, night of March 13, 761 – waxing crescent, newly visible
584286, night of March 14, 761 – one day after visibility

Here we see that the moon record on Stela F, explicitly stating that the moon “arrived yesterday,” accords best with either the 584285 (March 13) or perhaps even more so with the 584286 correlation (March 14) proposed by Martin and Skidmore (2012).

The ak’biiy huliiy date on Zoomorph O’ is the accession of the ruler we know as “Sky Xul,” on 9 Edznab 1 Kankin. In the 584283 correlation this falls on October 9, 785. New moon, the period of invisibility, had occurred just before midnight on October 7, into October 8, and would have continued for another 24 hours. First visibility would most likely have been no earlier than the night of October 10 or 11.

YEAR 0785
New Moon          First Quarter       Full Moon         Last Quarter
Oct 7 23:02        Oct 15 17:35         Oct 22 08:42    Oct 29 12:08
(dates and times in Universal Time minus 6 hours).

Using the 584285 constant, the accession date is October 11, and with the 584286 it falls on October 12. The ak’biiy statement on Zoomorph O’ therefore is in keeping with either of these correlations, but not so much with the 584283. Of the two, the 584286 may even seem more fitting, marking the arrival of the moon, or first visibility, on October 11. Zoomorph G celebrated the Period ending 5 Ahau 3 Muan, only 22 days after the accession of Sky Xul. Its moon age is recorded is recorded as 23 days, precisely what we would expect if we reckon from Zoomorph O’ and its ak’biiy statement of the moon being first visible on October 11. It is worth noting that these two uses of ak’biiy at Quirigua also correlate well with the probable eclipse record at Santa Elena Poco Uinic Stela (July 16, 790), which seems best anchored in the 584286 correlation, as discussed by Martin and Skidmore (2012).

These are only cursory observations about the correlation issue, and far more thought needs to go into these questions. The main point to stress is that, until recently, Maya epigraphers simply classified the two glyphs we can now read as ak’biiy and sahmiiy as general indicators of “new moon.” Now we can be more precise about their meanings. One is “earlier today,” and another is “yesterday.” The implications of these decipherments should be pondered further, for they might help in fine-tuning the correlation of the ancient Maya calendar with our own.

Note: Moon phases are from the historical lunar tables available on (

References Cited

Aulie, William H., and Evelyn W. de Aulie. 1978. Diccionario Ch’ol-Español, Español-Ch’ol. Mexico City: Instituto Lingüistico de Verano.

Grube, Nikolai. 1992. Classic Maya Dance: Evidence from Hieroglyphs and Iconography. Ancient Mesoamerica 3(2):201-218

Hopkins, Nicholas A., Ausencio Cruz Guzmán, and Kathryn Josserand. 2008. A Chol (Mayan) Vocabulary from 1789. International Journal of American Linguistics 74(1).

Houston, Stephen. 2012. Heavenly Bodies. Maya Decipherment, July 16, 2012.

Houston, Stephen, David Stuart, and Marc Zender. 2017. The Lizard King. Maya Decipherment, June 15, 2017.

Kaufman, Terence, and John Justeson. 2003. A Preliminary Mayan Etymological Dictionary.

Kaufman, Terrence, and William Norman., 1984. An Outline of Proto-Cholan Phonology, Morphology and Vocabulary. In: J.S. Justeson and Lyle Campbell (eds.), Phoneticism in Mayan Hieroglyphic Writing, 77-166. Institute for Mesoamerican Studies Publication No. 9. SUNY, Albany.

Keller, Kathryn, and Plácido Luciano G.. 1997. Diccionario Chontal de Tabasco (Mayense). Serie de Vocabularios y Diccionarios Idígenas “Mariano Silva y Aceves,” Número 36. Tucson: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Knowles, Susan Marie. 1984. A Descriptive Grammar of Chontal Maya (San Carlos Dialect). Ph.D. Dissertation, Tulane University.

Martin, Simon, and Joel Skidmore. 2012. Exploring the 584286 Correlation between Maya and European Calendars. The PARI Journal 13(2):3-16.

MacLeod, Barbara. 1990. Deciphering the Primary Standard Sequence. Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Texas, Austin, TX.

Morán, Pedro [sic]. 1935. Arte y diccionario en lengua cholti. Edited by William Gates. Maya Society publ. 9.

Polian, Gilles. 2020. Tseltal-Spanish multidialectal dictionary.
Dictionaria 10. 1-8109. DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.3660891 (Available online at, Accessed on 2020-08-01.)

Prager, Christian. 2020. A New Logogram for “to Arrive” – Implications for the Decipherment of the Month Name Cumku. Textdatenbank und Wörterbuch des Klassischen Maya, Research Note 13. Universität Bonn.

Stuart, David. 2012. The Verb Bix “Go, Go Away.” Maya Decipherment, January 23, 2012.

Stuart, David, and Marc Zender. 2018. Epigraphy and History at La Corona: Contingency and Surprise in Epigraphic Discovery.  Paper presented at the 83rd Annual Meetings of the SAA, Washington, D.C.

Toxxer, Alfred M. 1941. Landa’s Relación de las Cosas de Yucatan: A Translation. Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, vol. XVIII. Peabody Museum, Cambridge, MA.

Wisdom, Charles. 1950. Materials of the Chorti Language. Middle American Cultural Anthropology Microfilm Series 5, Item 28. University of Chicago Library.

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.

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.

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.

A Parallel Long-Reckoning between the Chilam Balam of Chumayel and a Hieroglyphic Inscription from Yaxchilan

by Jorge L. Orejel (Infosys Limited)

Editor’s Note:

In 1990 Jorge Orejel, then a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, made an important contribution to Maya epigraphy with his decipherment of the “axe/comb” hieroglyph as ch’ak, “to chop” (Orejel 1990). This glyph appears in the Dresden Codex as well as in historical inscriptions where it represents a term for conquest and military defeat, as we have explored recently in the complex chronicles of warfare on Naranjo’s Stela 12. Jorge wrote his decipherment in the series Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, published by The Center for Maya Research and its later iteration, the Boundary End Archaeological Research Center. Several years ago he submitted another study on the fascinating text on Step VII of Yaxchilan’s Hieroglyphic Stairway 2, where the same ch’ak verb occurs three times in a mythological context. My father George Stuart, the editor of the RRAMW since it inception, was ill around the time Jorge submitted his second contribution, and with my dad’s passing in 2014 the paper failed to appear as part of that long-lasting series. The Research Reports may yet be re-conceived as an ongoing publication, but in many ways its function has been supplanted by other outlets, including this Maya Decipherment blog. In that spirit we here present Jorge’s paper at long last in on-line form, without further delay, appearing many years after it was first written.

I would like to thank Jorge for his infinite patience, and to Jeff Splitstoser for his hard work in getting the article formatted.

– David Stuart


Orejel, Jorge L. 1990. The “Axe/Comb” Glyph as ch’ak. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, number 31. Center for Maya Research, Washington, D.C.

Click here for A Parallel Long-Reckoning between the Chilam Balam of Chumayel and a Hieroglyphic Inscription from Yaxchilan, by Jorge L. Orejel.

Step VII of Yaxchilan Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 (Drawing by Ian Graham, Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Program, Peabody Museum, Harvard University)


A New Drawing of the Tablet of the Foliated Cross from Palenque

by David Stuart (The University of Texas at Austin)


One of my current projects is to update and prepare for publication my transcriptions and analyses of the art and inscriptions of the Cross Group temples at Palenque, Mexico. These three shrines (the Temples of the Cross, Foliated Cross and Sun) were major elements in the architectural landscape of the site, known in ancient times by the name Lakamha’. The integrated design and narratives of these temples is conveyed through a triadic framework of space and time, integrating the dynastic history of Palenque with a primordial mythology involving the so-called Palenque Triad, the deities who were the patron gods of the city. The three temples were dedicated on January 8, 692, in anticipation of the looming k’atun ending, and at a time of major political change at Palenque, in the wake of the passing of K’inich Janab Pakal. My preliminary transcriptions and analyses of the inscriptions were presented in raw form a number of years ago at the 2006 Maya Meetings at UT-Austin; the current book project will present this data in a more analytical and interpretive way, looking at architecture, landscape, art and narrative in terms of a holistic design.

As part of this project I made the decision to produce new drawings of the main Cross tablets – the first to be made in over four decades. Here I post my newish rendering of the Tablet of the Foliated Cross, the large panel placed in the back of the inner shrine of the Temple of the Foliated Cross. It is based on a variety of sources, including stunning new photographs kindly provided by Jorge Pérez de Lara. Working with these tablets over many years, it became increasingly clear to me and colleagues that earlier drawings had many subtle but important inaccuracies. Redrawing them has very time consuming, but I think worthwhile effort, given new digital rendering methods. And rather than sit on this while I very slowly churn them all out, I thought I would share it for others to use for study. I will be making corrections and tweaks (and more stipples) to this and and other drawings from time to time, so it will be updated at some point.

DSC_5434 lo res
Palenque’s Temple of the Foliated Cross in 2012 (Photograph by D. Stuart)

It’s almost imposssible to summarize the significance of this image in a few sentences, but here goes:  the tablet shows a central icon of bejeweled maize, a symbol of the deity Unen K’awiil, a personification of young maize and the most important of the three Triad gods. The corn plant is flanked by two portraits of K’inich Kaan Bahlam, Pakal’s eldest son, corresponding to important moments in his life as adult king (left) and as six-year old heir (right). The inscription links Unen K’awiil’s mythic birth with the making of his new god effigy to be housed in the temple (a rebirth of sorts), offering parallels to K’inich Kaan Bahlam’s own biography, including his own birth and accession. It’s a masterful presentation of narrative symmetry, especially when viewed in relationship to the art and texts of the two neighboring shrines.

The drawing is for free use, but please contact me for any use in publications, or if higher-res versions might be needed. Any reproductions for teaching, etc., can simply include the credit “Drawing by David Stuart.”

Back in 1977 I helped my mentor Linda Schele make corrections to her own drawings of these same beautiful tablets. Making fresh versions has taken me back to our long afternoons together in the Cross shrines 42 years ago, where I learned so much about Maya art and writing.

TFC tablet drawing