Preliminary Analysis of La Corona, Altar 5

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 The altar is significant for being the earliest known monument from the site, and its historical reference to a previously unknown local king points to connections to nearby El Peru (Waka’) and, by extension, to the Kaanul dynasty.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”

by David Stuart (University of Texas at Austin)


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.

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.

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

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, 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.


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: 5 Caban 15 Yaxkin (“takes k’awiil”); 8 Ahau 18 Yaxkin (“comes from the ‘wite’naah'”); 5 Ben 11 Muan (“arrives”); 6 Ahau 13 Kayab (PE dedication); 5 Kan 12 Uo (unknown). On the west face we find the isolated record of Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat’s accession on 6 Caban 10 Mol, placed between his portrait and that of the founder.


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.

New Book: The Gifted Passage by Stephen Houston


The Gifted Passage: Young Men in Classic Maya Art and Text
by Stephen Houston
Yale University Press, 2018

“Deep, smart, and thoughtful, this book should be read by every scholar of Mesoamerica.”—Mary Miller, Yale University

“Lucid and engaging, with a secure grasp of the wider anthropological issues at hand, this volume is without question a significant contribution to Maya studies.”—Simon Martin, University of Pennsylvania MuseumFrom Yale University Press:

In this thought-provoking book, preeminent scholar Stephen Houston turns his attention to the crucial role of young males in Classic Maya society, drawing on evidence from art, writing, and material culture. The Gifted Passage establishes that adolescent men in Maya art were the subjects and makers of hieroglyphics, painted ceramics, and murals, in works that helped to shape and reflect masculinity in Maya civilization. The political volatility of the Classic Maya period gave male adolescents valuable status as potential heirs, and many of the most precious surviving ceramics likely celebrated their coming-of-age rituals. The ardent hope was that youths would grow into effective kings and noblemen, capable of leadership in battle and service in royal courts. Aiming to shift mainstream conceptions of the Maya, Houston argues that adolescent men were not simply present in images and texts, but central to both.

Stephen Houston is Dupee Family Professor of Social Science and Professor of Anthropology at Brown University.

Order here from Yale University Press.

A quick video look at the book from Yale University Press.

The 2018 Mesoamerica Meetings


January 9-13, 2018

The 2018 Mesoamerica Meetings are coming soon! Please join us in Austin next month for our stimulating series of workshops and our two-day symposium, focused on “Mesoamerican Philosophies.” Registration for the Meso Meetings is open to the public and all are welcome. Presenters include Chris Beekman, Linda Brown, David Carrasco, Michale Carrasco, Andrew Finegold, Patrick Hajovsky, Chrisptophe Helmke, Lucia Henderson, Julie Hogarth, Nick Hopkins, Zack Hruby, Danny Law, Elliot Lopez-Finn, Leonardo López Luján, James Maffie, Barbara Macleod, Alexus McLeod, Osiris Sinuhe Gonzalez Romero, David Stuart, Alex Tokovinine, Karl Taube, and Marc Zender.

Workshops, Symposium Program and Registration Information


Forty years ago, in 1978, UT Austin hosted the first Maya Hieroglyphic Workshop by Linda Schele, and an institution was born. Over the years the annual event grew as an open and vibrant gathering of scholars, students and others, sharing in the newest research in (mostly) Maya art, archaeology and related disciplines. 2018 brings exciting new changes, marking not only the beginning of our third k’atun, but also our new identity as the UT Mesoamerica Meetings, emphasizing the interconnectedness of all Mesoamerican cultures. To celebrate our anniversary and our new direction, we will devote our 2018 conference to a novel topic: Mesoamerican Philosophies: Animate Matter, Metaphysics, and the Natural Environment.

Ancient Mesoamerican religion and worldview hinges on a special understanding of “matter” and the metaphysical expression of the sacred. The world and what inhabited it – landscapes, buildings, objects, illnesses, even time itself — were considered animate and “living” in some sense, creating a dynamic system of interactions and relationships between people, gods, and things. These ideas found a constant expression, at different scales, in the region’s art, imagery, architecture, and ritual deposits, yet it is fair to say that these elemental notions have not been organized as a cohesive philosophy in any systematic way. At the 2018 Mesoamerica Meetings scholars and students will bring ancient Mesoamerican philosophy and religion into sharper focus, looking at how the ancient Maya, Aztecs, and other Mesoamerican cultures communicated these important ideas, and developed many notions of their own. In short, the conference will be looking at some of the most foundational but least articulated concepts of a cohesive ancient Mesoamerican worldview.

Among the questions we will be asking are: How do we refine our picture of Mesoamerican ideas as a cohesive system, a philosophy that might be placed alongside other ancient traditions worldwide? How did Mesoamerican peoples represent and interact with “living” things, spaces, materials and landscapes to express their understanding of human action in an animate world? Can we come up with a more accurate idea of “animism” in describing aspects of the Mesoamerican worldview? In what ways do such ideas have direct bearing on archaeological interpretation? These are large issues, and other related questions will no doubt arise during the conference. We see it as the beginning of a new and necessary foray into defining Mesoamerican thought as a set of philosophical traditions with key repercussions in scholarly research and cultural understanding.

Workshops, Symposium Program and Registration Information