Design Transfer and the Classic Maya

Stephen Houston (Brown University)

Printing designs on textiles goes far back in time. An example at the Hunan Provincial Museum in China dates to the Western Han dynasty in the 2nd century BC. Likely produced by stencil, it reveals the ease of reproducing designs in this way but also the need, in places, for hand-coloring and fussy adjustment. More than just hastening the process, it yields a pleasing consistency, an orderly repetition of pattern. But it was seldom the act of one person.

Think of a Japanese print, be it an ukiyo-e (Edo-period) or shin-hanga (Meiji and post-Meiji Japan). Despite many museum labels, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, by Hokusai, was not literally by his hand. Hokusai made the original drawing, which was destroyed when a carver attached it to a board and set to work, highlighting the original inkwork while shaving down the background. Another person, a printer, then created what we see today, building on the help of assistants of varying status, in a production supervised by a publisher who took most of the profit (Salter 2002:11, 37, 60, 64).[1] Such complexities must also have entered into textile printing at the time of Hokusai, and earlier still in China and India (Riello 2010:8-9).  

The question is, did block-printing or, more broadly, design transfer occur among the ancient Maya? Evidence of a direct sort is poor. Bark cloth, which must have been abundant, judging from implements to make it, is almost impossible to find archaeologically, although it is well-attested among groups such as the Lacandon of Chiapas, Mexico (Moholy-Nagy 2003:figs. 101-105; Soustelle 1937:60-62, pls. ID, VA, VIC; Tozzer 1907:fig. 1, 129; see also Tolstoy 1963). For their part, early Maya textiles are only preserved under exceptional circumstances. They might occur in water-logged deposits, well-aerated caves, or endure by contact with metal or as decayed impressions visible on other objects (e.g., Johnson 1954; Lothrop 1992; Morehart et al. 2004; Ordoñez 2015). This means that Maya textiles survive in limited samples, although they are frequently depicted in ways that reflect their cut, color, and kind of weave (e.g., Halperin 2016). The quantities of such cloth must have been staggering, and not just for dress, costume or sacrificial offerings. Renderings of textiles on walls at Xelha, Quintana Roo, and suspension holes for cloth at Palenque, Chiapas, point to the wide use of such materials as changeable wall hangings (Anderson 1985; Ruiz Gallut 2001:lám. 13). When exposed, such textiles could not have lasted long. Soon mildewed, soggy, and faded, they would need replacement on a regular basis.

The direct and indirect evidence is that textile threads were colored with dyes, and, as added decoration, when weaving was finished, with freehand and resist painting, a technique attested in cave finds from Chiapas, Mexico (Figure 1, Johnson 1954:fig. 16; see also Filloy Nadal 2017:36). There is no question that the Classic Maya painted textiles and, in a few instances, tagged the calligraphers or the owners of clothing….if in coy ways that never identified such people. Names curl out of view or hide behind other items of dress (see Miller and Brittenham 2012:230, 233 [Captions I-5B, I-5C, I-49B]; Tokovinine 2012:70-71, figs. 32-33; note that such labels probably marked garments passing through tributary networks).

Figure 1. Textile from Chiptic Cave, Chiapas, Mexico, with use of resist paint (Johnston 1954:fig. 16).


There is a paradox, however. Surviving textiles and images show few clear signs of block-printing and its tidy repetitions. Yet there are archaeological objects, all of rugged or durable ceramic, that must have been used for printing or stamping.[2] Several are cylinders, with step-fret designs that are common on textiles and well-suited to the warp-weft constraints of weaving. Such cylinders extend deeply into the Mesoamerican past (Field 1967:22-38). That these cylinders were used in body painting seems improbable. If charged with pigment, they would have left messy or indistinct patterns with their expansive fields of color, and the designs on the cylinders are step-fret or of fragrant blossoms attested on other textiles (e.g., Filloy Nadal 2017:fig. 34). In any case, all images of body painting involve brushes (e.g., K1491, K4022).

Three cylinders occur in the probable tomb of a princess or queen at the site of Buenavista del Cayo, Belize; the tagged weaving bones in that burial hint that such designs might also have been rolled over textiles created by high-ranking women (Figure 2, Ball and Taschek 2018:485-487, fig. 14; see also Moholy Nagy 2008:fig. 219l).

Figure 2. Ceramic roller-stamps, Burial BV88-B13; note that each design could also be applied in inverted orientation (drawings by Jennifer Taschek, in Ball and Taschek 2018:fig. 14).


Others were flat stamps that, more than the cylinders, would have been ill-suited for use on human bodies. A large set was discovered in Tomb 6, a royal burial in Structure II, Calakmul, Mexico (Figure 3, Carrasco Vargas 1999:31). With their figuration, the Calakmul examples are anomalous in comparison to other stamps, a hint of varied, more narrative or setting-oriented imagery on stamped materials. As at Buenavista del Cayo, this less well-reported tomb contained weaving bones and was said unequivocally to hold the remains of woman, perhaps the spouse of the ruler. These finds of weaving implements and stamps, flat or cylindrical, suggest that stamping was a gendered activity among the Classic Maya. Its tools were linked to the process of finishing textiles, and large areas of cloth or barkpaper could be decorated with both speed and care. Nonetheless, as in Japan and elsewhere, more than one person presumably wove, made stamps, concocted pigments, and pressed them onto textiles. The volume of production and need for varying expertise may have demanded it…and an elite or royal lady would not have operated without servants. There is also a suspicion, challenging to prove, that the stamps at Calakmul and at other sites formed part of a much larger inventory during the Classic period. In India, at least historically, most stamps or blocks were of wood, and these would have disappeared long ago in the Maya Lowlands (Lewis 1924:1-2; see [2]).

Figure 3. Flat stamps with water lily creature, hummingbirds over cavity, Venus sign, spirals, and full-frontal images of Teotihuacan-style warrior; from possible burial of royal woman, Tomb 6, Structure II, Calakmul, Campeche; on display, Museo Arqueológico, Fuerte de San Miguel, Campeche, Mexico (photograph by Stephen Houston).


A unique illustration of direct transfer exists in the collection of the Museo Regional de Yucatán, Palacio Cantón (Figure 4); see Mediateca INAH, CC BY-NC). It has no provenience but appears to be a slateware, possibly Muna or Dzitas Slate, the latter associated with Chichen Itza, Yucatan–the dish would need closer study to establish its precise affiliation (George Bey, personal communication, 2023). The central element is a sign for k’in, “sun,” but also, more telling here, for NIK[TE’] or NICH[TE’], “flower.” An extraordinary touch is that the interior rim has a series of designs in which, not a brush, but a flower has been dipped in ink and repeatedly pressed into the surface. The flower itself is difficult to identity yet could relate to the Asteraceae family of plants (Shanti Morell-Hart, personal communication, 2023). The double reference in image and mode of decoration is likely to be deliberate. Perhaps this flowery ceramic was intended to contain flowers, as seen in one mythic scene with an anthropomorphic hummingbird and a youthful God D (K8008). The repeated design itself might have triggered a synesthetic sense of fragrance. The flower on the dish served as its own instrument of depiction; the central glyph nailed the floral reference and standardized it into canonical form.

Figure 4. Painting with flowers on a dish, Museo Regional de Yucatán, Palacio Cantón, Mérida. Mediateca INAH, CC BY-NC.


Whether this object has any parallels remains unclear. There are two images that show scribal gods dipping (or having dipped) an undulating, near-vegetal “brush” into a conch inkwell (Figure 5). They cannot be conventional brushes but do open unexpected possiblities for the toolkit of Maya painters.

Figure 5. Two scribal deities dipping or flourishing near-vegetal “brushes” (images from Justin Kerr Maya archive, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, DC, CC BY-SA 4.0).


Acknowledgments   My new colleague at Brown, Shanti Morell-Hart, assisted with the flower identifcation, and George Bey and William Ringle helped to type and possibly date the plate in the Palacio Cantón, Mérida. Joanne Baron kindly forwarded a high-resolution image of a Kerr photograph.


[1] An exception would be the sōsaku-hanga (“creative-prints”) of the early 20th century in Japan. These were painted, carved, and printed by a single artist, often inflected by Western art and its focus on individual production (Binnie 2013:65).

[2] These were probably not the only such blocks. As in India, examples in wood may have been far more numerous (Lewis 1924:1-2).


Anderson, Michael. 1985. Curtain Holes in the Standing Architecture of Palenque. In Fourth Palenque Round Table, 1980, edited by Elizabeth P. Benson, pp. 21-27. San Francisco: Pre-Columbian Art Institute.

Ball, Joseph W., and Jennifer T. Taschek. 2018. Aftermath A.D. 696—Late 7th and Early 8th Century Special Deposits and Elite Main Plaza Burials at Buenavista del Cayo, Western Belize: A Study in Classic Maya “Historical Archaeology.”Journal of Field Archaeology 43(6):472-491.

Binnie, Paul. 2013. The Legacy of Shin Hanga, by an Artist Working in the Tradition. In Fresh Impressions: Early Modern Japanese Prints, by Carolyn M. Putney, Kendall H. Brown, Koyama Shūko, and Paul Binnie, pp. 64-73. Toledo: Toledo Museum of Art.

Carrasco Vargas, Ramón. 1999. Tumbas reales de Calakmul. Ritos funerarios y estructura de poder. Arqueología Mexicana 7(40):28-31.

Field, Frederick V. 1967. Thoughts on the Meaning and Use of Pre-Hispanic Mexican Sellos. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology 3. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks.

Filloy Nadal, Laura. 2017. Mesoamerican Archaeological Textiles: An Overview of Materials, Techniques, and Contexts. In PreColumbian Textile Conference VII / Jornadas de Textiles PreColombinos VII, edited by Lena Bjerregaard and Ann Peters, pp. 7–39. Lincoln: Zea Books.

Halperin, Christina. 2016. Textile Techné: Classic Maya Translucent Cloth and the Making of Value. In Making Value, Making Meaning: Techné in the Pre-Columbian World, edited by Cathy Coastin, pp. 431-463. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Johnson, Irmgard Weitlaner. 1954. Chiptic Cave Textiles from Chiapas, México. Journal de La Société Des Américanistes 43: 137–47.

Lewis, Albert B. 1924. Block Prints from India for Textiles. Anthropology Design Series 1. Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History.

Lothrop, Joyce M. 1992. Textiles. In Artifacts from the Cenote of Sacrifice, Chichen Itza, Yucatan, edited by Clemency C. Coggins, pp. 33-90. Memoirs, 10(3). Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.

Miller, Mary, and Claudia Brittenham. 2013. The Spectacle of the Late Maya Court: Reflections on the Murals of Bonampak. Austin: University of Texas Press; Mexico City: INAH and CONACULTA.

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Sun Shadows and Maya Stelae

Stephen Houston (Brown University)

For the ever-sunny George Stuart, on his birthday

Humans have long been intrigued by the sun, its shadows, and the ways of monitoring them over time. The reasons for that interest are obvious: by paying attention to the effects of the sun, observers could tell the time of day, determine the seasons, and separate or mark parts of the year. But how does one do such tasks precisely? In antiquity, this was mostly made possible by that “simplest” of “scientific instrument[s],” the gnomon (Isler 1991:155). Often little more than a vertical stick or pole, the gnomon cast little shadow at midday. But when the sun rose or fell, shadows extended considerably, and, if observed at equinoxes, aligned with reasonable accuracy to “true” east and west (Isler 1991:180; see also Dash 2017). In China, gnomons (gui biao) showed another innovation. Holes in them would be used to project shadows onto horizontal scales laid out north-south in relation to the vertical gnomon (Li and Sun 2009:1380, fig. 2).

A sundial focuses on the direction of shadows to establish the time of day.[1] More elaborate gnomons target the length of shadows, for this allows the time of year to be determined. In some cases, as in imperial China and early India, measurements of shadows were tabulated over centuries (Yano 1986:26), and the instruments to measure them could be large or even monumental. At Denfeng in Henan province, China, the horizontal scale ran over over 31 m (Li and Sun 2009:fig. 2). Places to observe the positions of the sun have been proposed for much of Mesoamerica, including: caves with overhead openings to permit the entry of sunlight; the celebrated “E-groups,” in part with solar orientations, that coalesced in the Preclassic period; buildings oriented towards sunrise events; and solstitial alignments in doorways at Yaxchilan, Mexico (e.g., Anderson 1981; Aylesworth 2015:787–789; Espinasa-Pereña and Diamant 2012:table 2; Zaro and Lohse 2005:89–93; Tate 1992:94–96). These involved observations, but whether they were “observatories” per se depends on whether a particular feature is “performative rather than practical, a theater rather than a laboratory, a planetarium rather than an observatory” (Aveni 2003:163). In other words, they might have borne witness to solar events, those almost miraculous synchronizations of light, shadow, and place. But they were not “scientific” instruments collecting data over time.

The focus on the sun and its diurnal passage may elucidate an unusual stela erected at the city of Machaquila, Guatemala. Dating to Dec. 2, A.D. 711 (Julian), this monument is, on its front and back, an almost square carving with a head protruding from its top (Figure 1, Graham 1967:87–88, figs. 33). At the bottom is a witz or “hill” element, an emblem of fixity. Just above floats the local king as the embodiment of lordly time at the close of a katun (20-year) period. The glyphs frame that day sign portrait of the ruler with a relatively unembellished, angular sky band that once contained glyphs, now in a poor state of preservation. (Many stylized sky bands take this shape, suggesting a rather rectilinear view of that part of the cosmos.) As for the head, it shows many characteristics of the Classic Maya Sun God: the large “eagle eyes,” possibly crossed (pupils closer to the nose), and a polished mirror-like element in the forehead. Notably, this is the first datable monument at Machaquila, and Andrés Ciudad Real and colleagues have wondered if this carving came just after the movement of the Machaquila dynasty from another location on the Pasión river to the southwest (Ciudad Ruiz et al. 2013:77). The ruler of this time was one Sihyaj K’in Chahk, or Chahk [being] Born from the Sun, a fact inferred from a statement of parentage on the all-glyphic Stela 11 at Machaquila (Graham 1967:fig. 63). Stela 11 dates 30 years after Stela 13, and the reference to this individual by a sequent ruler fits the chronology. That this ruler was “born” from an entity highlighted on the carving is unlikely to be a coincidence. Stela 11 faces west, so viewers would see the Sun God rising from the east, framed above the sky and the floating image, doubtless a portrait, of the current ruler. Much like Chahk, his namesake, the king grasps an axe. He evidently hovered above or was about to land on the firmament of Machaquila itself.

Figure 1. Machaquila Stela 13 (Graham 1967:figs. 66, 67).

A superb visualization by Andrés Ciudad Ruiz and colleagues reveals the setting of Stela 13  (Figure 2). To the west is a sunken quatrefoil, found on excavation to contain incensario fragments, whistles, and other ceremonial artifacts (Cuidad Ruiz et al. 2010:133–141). As Stuart and Houston noted long ago, this quatrefoil matches the place name of Machaquila (Stuart and Houston 1994:33, fig. 37). On another carving, Stela 10, Chahk looks up from that quatrefoil, in the face-up position assumed by newborns (Graham 1967:fig. 60). This could be another allusion to the first-known ruler at the city, a figure whose very name refers to birth (sihyaj). We do not know for certain, but the quatrefoil could have been basin that filled with water; after all, its excavators note that it was probably plastered at one time, an effective means of keeping water in place (Ciudad Ruiz et al. 2010:133). Behind Stela 13 is an arrangement of two buildings, Structures 17 and 16, numbered from north to south. The cleft between them aligns closely with the top of Stela 13.

Figure 2. Central Machaquila, showing Plaza A, Altar 4, Stela 13, and Structures 16 and 17 (reconfigured and emended from Ciudad Ruiz et al. 2012:figs. 6, 8).


This is where the Sun God’s head comes into play. It was not just a deity above a sky band but possibly a gnonom, in the narrow sense of a vertical device used to cast shadows. The sun would rise between the buildings behind the stela, and the shadow of the head thereby reach to quatrefoil in the plaza. For its part, the head would be surrounded by an aureole of light in the early morning. In a straight line from there to the other side of the plaza was a stone model of a cosmic turtle: Altar 4, a conventional representation of the terrestrial world (Graham 1967:92–95, figs. 71–74). The carvings and plaza must have been planned with this alignment in mind. As a sequence of carvings and hollows, Plaza A at Machaquila enchained the sun, time, water, and the earth’s rocky surface (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Map by Ian Graham, with emendations, of Stela 13 in relation to the mythic turtle, Altar A; the sunken quatrefoil lies in between (Graham 1967:fig. 42, with emendations).


The shape of Stela 13 has parallels in other sites that are relatively close by. Stela with such everted “tangs” are also documented at the related site of Cancuen, Guatemala, where the Machaquila Emblem is attested in joint use with another, more local title. That second Emblem might have first been used at Tres Islas, a small settlement between the two, larger communities of Machaquila and Cancuen. It was also a place evincing close attention to solar alignments. The three Early Classic stelae at Tres Islas clearly form a single composite image of a central figure over a cave with an ancestral female (Stela 2), flanked by two figures in the dress of Teotihuacan warriors (Stelae 1 and 3); the layout in turn evokes the composition and content of the front and sides of Tikal Stela 31, with the main difference being the separation at Tres Islas of one overall image into  three separate carvings. More to the point, the stelae at Tres Islas have been credibly tied to solar alignments (Barrios and Quintanilla 2008: 215–217; Tomasic et al. 2005:392–396). A viewing point from an altar just to the west would look east to the stelae. Behind them, the sun would rise at “true” east for the central stelae, at the equinoxes (or quarter year) for the other two.

At Cancuen, the tanged sculptures include Stelae 1 and 2 (both carved), and Stelae 5 and 8 (both “plain” or unadorned, Tourtellot et al. 1978:227–231). In all cases, these carvings were oriented with one side to the east, another to the west (Maler 1908:fig. 8; Morley 1937:pl. 196b; but note that Gair Tourtellot and colleagues [1978:fig. 5] situated Stela 1 facing south, a fact countered by earlier sources reporting on the site before its carvings were disturbed or moved). Much like Machaquila Stela 13, the tangs on the carvings could also serve as gnomons on an east-west orientation. Indeed, according to Sylvanus Morley, who visited Cancuen in 1915, Stelae 1 and 2 were placed in an east-west line with respect to each others (Morley 2021:230). Stela 1 has another relevant feature (Figure 4). The east side depicts a local queen, the west a later ruler of Cancuen (Maler 1908:pl. 13). Yet the stela also has two quite distinct holes made with obvious care by the sculptor(s); he (or they) visually accommodated the holes by surrounding them with smoky volutes. In addition, there were smaller holes along the side, prompting Maler to speculate that “victims were bound …to these stelae, the sacrifice probably being usually performed with the victim in an upright position” (Maler 1908:44). Such perishable attachments are known in imagery and on Stela 1 from Ixkun, Guatemala (Houston 2016; Stuart 2014), but the main holes hint at conduits for sunlight, in ways that recall the deliberate, calibrated perforations of Chinese gnomons. In China these were arranged north-south, so the parallel cannot be exact. Yet the orientation at Cancuen suggests at least some solar motivation for the holes. At dawn or sunset light would pass through, to shine on some surface in front or behind the stelae, and perhaps on each other.

Figure 4. Cancuen Stela 1, east and west (viewer’s left and right respectively, Maler 1908:pl. 13).


The suggestion that the Sun God head at Machaquila, the “tangs” at Cancuen, or the perforations on Stela 1 at that site operated as gnomons for light and shadow accords with their position, orientation, and imagery, especially at Machaquila. If gnomons, they could have been performative, even providing a kind of cosmic theater, but the play of light perhaps helped with observations too. A careful study of them is impeded by looting and displacement of carvings; many monuments are no longer in their original position. Nonetheless, it seems possible that, at sites far beyond Machaquila and Cancuen, the Maya choreographed and manipulated beams and shadows from the sun. Stelae were freestanding, yet, by such displays, in ways not yet fully studied or understood, they interacted with spaces and surfaces nearby.

[1] In a recent email, Walter Witschey, a Mayanist colleague, informs me that, for a time, he held the record for the largest analemmatic (graduated scale) sundial ever made: “for size (1/3 acre)[,] gnomon height (25′)[,] and accuracy (30 sec midday and 5 sec early morning and late afternoon).” Clearly, this is not an exhausted skill or art form. After this was first posted, Kristin Landau also drew my attention to an intriguing paper on Copan Stela D as a possible gnomon (Pineda de Carías et al. 2017). 


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Captains of the Team

Stephen Houston (Brown University) and David Stuart (University of Texas, Austin)


Sporting events are much in mind these days, as we watch the end of the Tokyo Olympics. There is exhaustive training that leads to heartbreak or a medal and coveted position on the podium. But it is the team events that crowd with social drama, including athletes who languish on the bench and others, the captains, who toss the coin, lead the charge, and argue with referees. Not surprisingly — there is much money and prestige involved — scholars of sports give occasional thought to who might be chosen captain. The tasks are heavy, and selection cannot be undertaken lightly (Cotterill and Cheetham 2016), yet bonds of affection and kinship, a mistaken evaluation of someone for leadership, tend to operate more often than not (Fransen et al. 2019). The wrong person is put in charge, bungles things, and is kept there only by social pressures. Yet prowess comes into play as well. Leadership might be bestowed, as in soccer, on stars who manage better than others to dribble around opponents and land a shot, or, in the sports that involve horses, bring a team of them past the finish mark. Many dead Romans are forgotten, but not so Gaius Appuleius Diocles, who, in the early 2nd century AD, raced his chariot to many victories and a fortune greater than that of many Roman senators (Bell 2014:498; Struck 2010). A cunning and aggressive competitor, Diocles might lead from the beginning of the race (occupavit et vicit), dart around in the final moments (eripuit et vicit) or accelerate from far behind to swift victory (successit et vicit; Devitt 2019:186 fn.488).

For Maya ballplay, there is growing awareness of how big rubber balls might be — very big, as pointed out by Michael Coe (2003) — and the various acts by which they were thrown, yahlaj or possibly tz’ohnaj(?) being two such motions (see Beliaev and Houston 2020:fn.1; Stuart 1997; for an alternative reading of the second as jatz’naj, see Taube and Zender 2009:202–203, fig. 7.24; Zender 2004). There may even be an expression for the kneeling that takes place when a player is about to strike a ball, as on the Colonia La Esperanza marker from Chiapas, Mexico (Figure 1, Kowalski 1989:22fn.1). The text reads u-BAAH ta-OCH-K’AHK’ ta-ke-hi-na?, u baah ta ochk’ahk’ ta kehiin?, “his image/body in [the act] of fire-entering, in [the act] of… That final element recalls colonial Tzoztil, kejan ba, “bow, kneel” and kejel, “to be kneeling,” along with kehi, “kneel,” kehleh, “kneeling,” and kehuh, “genuflect” in present-day Tzotzil (Laughlin 1975:171; 1988, I:22); for its part, Tzetal has kejaj, “kneel,” and kejel, “kneeling” (Berlin and Kaufman 1997:35). The ballplayer is both dedicating the marker (or its court[?]) through the ritual of och-k’ahk’, “fire-entering” (Stuart 1998:387–389), and referring to the kneeling shown on the stone.

Figure 1 Colonia La Esperanza Ballcourt Marker (right, cropped photograph by Wolfgang Sauber, Creative Commons; close-up, lower center, photograph by Stephen Houston).

An important essay by Karl Taube and Marc Zender (2009) details the many acts of violence that took place in Maya ballcourts. An equally useful essay by Christophe Helmke and colleagues (2018) studies the equipment for the game. As scholars have long noted, a divide appears to exist in such gear. To one side are perishable originals, including the apparent “yoke” (yugo) or hip-protector found by chance as a cavity left by decay in the fine matrix of Burial 195 — this was the probable tomb of “Animal Skull” (K’inich Wawa’n[?] Ahk Bahlam) at Tikal, Guatemala (Guillemin 1968; Moholy-Nagy, with Coe 2008:66, fig. 231b, #12U-106/27; its plaster and gesso would lighten weight but presumably also flake and crack under vigorous use). Then there are the skeuomorphs, the imperishable versions in stone of which several have been found at Maya sites (Cruz Romero 2012; Shook and Marquis 1996:27–59). The “yuguitos” or “small yugos,” for example, appear to reproduce the knee pads worn by players while kneeling. If used, however, they would quite smash, in patellar agony, the body part they were supposed to protect (Helmke et al. 2018:12–13, fig. 6). There is a proposal that stones were worn but in slower ritual movement, in evocations of actual ballplay but without its actual, herky-jerky violence (for debates on wearability, see Alegría 1951:349; Clune 1963; Ekholm 1946, 1961). Gordon Ekholm notes that, despite their 18 to 27 kilo weight, many yokes might be worn around the hips provided the user were “not an exceptionally large person and still retains a certain athletic slimness… [of] non-civilized peoples” (Ekholm 1946:596). The most fetching illustration of this comes from an article by Stephan De Borhegyi, which shows a suitably slim man and woman — the author and his wife, Suzanne? — decked out in such gear (Figure 2).

Figure 2 Stone yokes and manopolas (saps) in use, in photographs from 1948 (a) and 1959 (b); equipment from El Baúl, Guatemala (De Borhegyi 1964:fig. 1).

Looking at all ballgear is beyond the reach of a blog. But a glyphically embellished find from the site of Bolonk’in, not far from Chilón, Chiapas, raises the question of what to call the yoke (Figure 3, Shesheña and Lee Whiting 2004; the image, although missing a few glyphs, such as a 7 Imix day sign, is beautifully redrawn in Helmke et al. 2018:fig. 5). The shell glyphs on the yoke were inlaid (Shesheña and Lee Whiting 2004:fig. 1) and leave little doubt, as others have explained, that this is a name-tagged object belonging to the subordinate of a ruler of Tonina, Mexico (Helmke et al. 2018:11–12). The key element is the first glyph block in the text below. On the basis of a recent decipherment, it must read u-ya’-tuun, not u-tun-‘a or some other possibility (see Grube 2020:fig. 7). A proposal by Stuart, YA’ or ya’, is securely tied to concepts of “pain” in some readings, and this meaning seems valid in many contexts (Beliaev and Houston 2020; see also Grube 2020). But Maya glyphs also employ homophones. That principle of substitution may operate here.

Figure 3. Text of shells on a yugo reputed to be from Bolonk’in, Chiapas, Mexico; u-[YA’]- ‘a-TUUN-ni ya-ja-K’UH-na ya-AJAW-TE’ pi-tzi-la K’INICH-CHAPAAT-BAAKNAL-CHAHK (drawing by Christopher Helmke [Helmke et al. 2018:fig. 5).

A perusal of Mayan dictionaries reveals an entry of *jol ya’ for “cadera” or hip in Ch’ol (Aulie and Aulie 1998:121; see also b’äkel ya’ “cadera” in Hopkins et al. 2010:15). The use of “head” (jol) to preface body parts, or rather, parts of body parts, occurs in Ch’orti’ as well: jor-b’aker, “hip,” and jor-pik, “waistband area of a skirt” (Hull 2016:178; see also Wisdom n.d.:471 [hor uya’, “hipbone, hip”], 477 [ikar uor uya’, “aigre (night air, malady) of thigh or hip”], and  577 [bahk uya’, “hip joint”] with thanks to Dmitri Beliaev [personal communication, 2022] for recalling the Wisdom sources to us). The term ya’ for “hip” is probably also documented as ‘o’il, “hip” in Tzotzil, a language with well-attested variance between /a/ and /o/ phonemes (Laughlin 1975:452), and in Ch’ol terms for “thigh,” i ya’ (Warkentin and Scott 1980:116), and a,”muscle/thigh” in Ch’olti’ (Robertson et al. 2010:331), to which might be added, from Tzeltal, a’, “thigh (muslo in Spanish [Polian 2020, a source also recalled to us by Beliaev). Thus, the term on the yoke is not “pain” but “hip”—indeed, a “hip-stone,” as shown in De Borhegyi’s playful image.

The reading opens many possibilities. An issue with reading ya’ as “pain” is that objects were clearly involved in a number of texts. There were things taken or received, ch’am, or, in one instance, name-tagged to a long-decayed backing (Beliaev and Houston 2020:figs. 4c, d). The exquisite shells from Piedras Negras offer a test-case of this. Found by Héctor Escobedo in the first days of a multi-year project with Houston, these proved eventually to come from the tomb of a ruler at the city, Itzam K’an Ahk, a.k.a. “Ruler 4” in the ordering of Tatiana Proskouriakoff (Figure 4, Escobedo 2004:279). Further study of these shells led to the realization that they mentioned Yopaat Bahlam, the “missing” king of Yaxchilan who was recorded on Panel 3 at Piedras Negras (Martin and Grube 2008:149; Martin 2020:134). The date in the first glyph is likely, Jan. 3, AD 747, one of the few calendrical records for a lord otherwise erased from Yaxchilan’s official history. But it is the name tag that is relevant here, for it displays ya’ with its prefixed (and purely iconic) obsidian blade, along with a subfixed ‘a to reinforce the reading.

Figure 4. Shells from Burial 13, Structure O-13, Piedras Negras; glyph to lower right from Panel 3:J2 (drawings by Stephen Houston, photograph from the University of Pennsylvania Museum Archive, use courtesy of Jeremy Sabloff).

In the same tomb is the mosaic, also in Spondylus shell, of a ballplayer pieced together by Zac Hruby, the lithicist for the Piedras Negras Project (Figure 5). It seems plausible that the glyphs pertain to this image, and that the shells once fitted either into a perished tableau of ballplaying or, as seen enduringly in the Bolonk’in piece, a long-disappeared yoke. The ya’ simply referred to “hip” but also to the “yoke” that simulated and protected this body part. (In English, by a similar convention,”girdle” refers to the pelvis but also to an item of clothing encircling the waist.) Yopaat Bahlam came to visit Piedras Negras — did he also play there or provide a piece of ballgame gear to the local king? Or was it won as a trophy in play? It was certainly valued enough to be included in his host’s tomb.

Figure 5. Mosaic ballplayer in Spondylus shell, Burial 13, Piedras Negras, along with relevant glyphs, T’AB[yi]-YA’-‘a (photograph to left, Jorge Pérez de Lara, to right, Kenneth Garrett).

Dos Pilas, Guatemala, also has ya’ spellings that cue a concrete, portable object and affirm a link to ballplay (Figure 6). The earliest known monumental inscription at the city, Hieroglyphic Stairway 2, Center, refers to a ch’am “take, receive” event with a probable yoke at 4 Muluk 2 Mak, Oct. 29, AD 643. At this juncture, the local Lord, Balaj Chan K’awiil, was 18 years old and, a few years before, at, had been involved in some bloody event, perhaps ‘i-LOK'[yi] ti-ta-ji, taaj being a well-known term for “obsidian.” That is, he was surely mature enough for rough activity. The text referring to the yoke is partly eroded, but the reference is followed by a title string associated with “ballplay,” ba-TE’ pi-tzi (cf. Dos Pilas Hieroglyphic Stairway 4, Step IV:K1–L1). This is unlikely to be a coincidence. The other allusion to “receiving/taking a yoke” appears on Dos Pilas Hieroglyphic Stairway 1. Although an unfinished text, especially its upper riser (which may date later), the stairway adjoins this reference to a scene of ballplayers in full gear. They are evidently in some ritual in which gear is being broken out or balls unwrapped.[1] As at Piedras Negras, the juxtaposition of text and image is unlikely to have arisen by chance.

Figure 6 . Ya’ as “yoke” on two texts from Dos Pilas, one with ballplayer title (bate’ pitz), the other with ballplayer scene (top image, PARI; bottom, drawing by Stephen Houston, image from PARI).

In sum, there is evidence that YA’ functioned as a homophonic sign. In a few examples it also occurs as a title, usually of subordinate lords, even princes at court. YA’ is prefixed by BAAH or ba, doubtless for baah, “head, first.” Similar constructions occur in Maya texts, where that prefix creates a title by attaching itself to the name of an object, a flint (took’), shield (pakal), staff (te’) or throne (tz’am, Houston 2014:27–28, fig. 17). The title implies habitual service; the adjective “head” or “first” denotes salience in those duties. They apply to people in principal charge of — or most skilled at — the care or use of an object at dynastic courts. Examples in Figure 7 attest to a similar pattern with yokes. Young princes of royal houses appear to be the “Head Yoke” or “Head [Person of the] Yoke.”[2] The ballcourt ring from Oxkintok refers to the local ruler in the company of “youths” (ch’oktaak) and may then give two names in succession, concluding with baah (or ba) ya’, the “head yoke” or “head person of the yoke. The very setting points to an overt association with ballplay. The other examples hint that they too were given distinction in this sport. Perhaps the Baah Ya’ were victorious athletes or, as leaders, “captains of the team.”


Figure 7. “Head Yoke” as a title of princes and subordinates: Oxkintok Ballcourt Ring (left, position pZ1, García-Gallo 1992:fig. 2); Yaxchilan-area panel (upper right, photograph by Stephen Houston); and carver or owner’s tag on stone mace (photography courtesy of Justin Kerr [for shape of artifact, see Robicsek and Hales 1981:fig. 38).

[1] Dressing scenes in Maya imagery tend to be anticipatory, not about packing up afterwards; see Bonampak Room 1 and K2695, in which royalty is being prepared for dance.

[2] Marc Zender (personal communication from 2018) wonders whether there might be an implicit agentive ‘a or aj in such spellings. That is a real possibility, as hinted at in Figure 7, BAAH-‘a~AJ[YA’] by one reading. But it would not shift the general meaning here.



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Queenly Vases

Stephen Houston (Brown University)

In her classic book on women in preindustrial America, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (2001) unspools stories about things that were spun, woven, lashed, coiled, twined, stitched, embroidered or otherwise coaxed into wearable and usable form. Cloth and clothing, baskets and bedcovers: all appear to embody American ideologies of womanhood from colonial times to the 19th century. In processing thread or making textiles, mutual support tangled with competition, and helpful, sisterly gestures brushed up against tournaments of skill. Ulrich’s carefully chosen objects go deeper still. They attest to a young republic’s wish for economic autonomy, but they balance that against very personal matters of identity and ability, ambition and need.

The industrial revolution and its brick buildings would soon come along. There would be more concentrated settlements. Mills and congregant housing would jeopardize health and impose unfair demands on those within. Yet women’s work—fulfilling work—continued. There would be quilting bees, home-sewn dresses, knitting, and embroideries; there would be nods to a rural past that was in part imagined or idealized. Ulrich proves that large events live through small things. With scholarly attention, textiles and baskets from early America can be made to disclose “enduring habits of possession, and the mnemonic power of goods” (Ulrich 2001:418). In doing so, they provide unexpected glimpses of slighted people.

A volume of this quality gets one thinking. By now, Mayanists know of several objects owned by Classic Maya women. Such pieces, all of elites, carried practical utility, and, via glyphs, they discharged a certain “mnemonic power.” This is hardly surprising. Ulrich’s most telling objects have written labels or narratives, often tied to people who can be accessed through contemporary descriptions or their own diaries or letters. Such detail does not exist for the Classic Maya, yet there are gendered patterns to be discerned. Glyphically tagged weaving pins (puutz’ baak) occur at Buenavista del Cayo, Belize (Ball and Taschek 2018:fig. 13, linked to women from Naranjo, Tikal, and “9 Kab”), Dzbilchaltun, Mexico (Taschek 1994:fig. 32a, owned by IX tz’u-nu-*nu le ke), and the area of Holmul (Dacus 2005:figs. 27–39; Houston and Stuart 2001:64, fig. 3.2; a woman known as IX yo-OHL-la CH’E’N-na; to be sure, many pins or bodkins do not attest to male ownership, and a large number in Burial 116 at Tikal refer to figures and events in the distant past [Moholy-Nagy 2008:fig. 193c–f, figs. 194–196]). A jar for makeup or unguent has been found in the tomb of a queen at El Perú, Guatemala (Navarro-Farr et al. 2021:fig. 8), a women’s hair pin comes from Santa Rita, Belize (Helmke 2020:fig. 10), and a royal lady’s earspool from the area of Lake Petén Itza, Guatemala, later imported by some unknown mechanism to Altun Ha, Belize (Helmke 2020:fig. 7). The celebrated Spondylus shells from Burial 5 at Piedras Negras may refer to a number of foreign women, one from Namaan (La Florida, Guatemala), another, maybe, from Palenque, in contacts occurring over at least two generations. Yet the shells found their way into the tomb of a king (W. Coe 1959:figs. 53, 64). The few images of textiles with glyphs seem never to mention females, a surprise given the likelihood that women produced them.

The intense portability of the finds tagged glyphically to women leads to the suspicion that some of these pieces were not found in their place of manufacture. Royal women moved for political reasons, the pawns of dynastic alliance (Martin 2020:194–195, who also stresses the evidence for endogamous unions within kingdoms). Perhaps their possessions moved with them or, as heirlooms or precious goods, passed through multiple networks before insertion into a tomb or cache. Royal and noble women are frequently depicted in Maya imagery, and many of their names documented. The overriding impression, however, is that few objects were said overtly to belong to them. Either glyphs did not serve that purpose, for reasons of textual decorum, or the deprivation was real, a feature of a world in which elite men tended formally to possess prestigious objects and to deny those “habits of possession” to others. Indeed, a certain stinginess about dowries, and the complete or partial restriction of inheritances to men, struck Diego de Landa while commenting on early colonial Yucatan (Tozzer 1941:99, 101; but see Christensen and Restall [2019:79, 82, 123] for female ownership of looms, jewelry, animals, and some property in the 18th century).

The tendency holds true for tagged ceramics. According to glyphic texts, almost all belonged to men, and a considerable number to young men in particular (Houston 2018:67–82; but see K2695 for a vase owned by a queen— excavated at Tikal, it may depict the woman interred in this burial [Laporte and Fialko 1995:82, fn60, fig. 70]). The food and drink presumably prepared by women or served by them were not in ceramics they owned (see S. Coe 1994:141, for frothing of cacao by goddesses; or Houston et al. 2004:fig. 3.3, for a woman grinding maize—although mythic, the figures may have been perceived as normative exemplars). Men, usually a central male, seem to have done all the talking, eating, and drinking, aside from the mischief of a cheeky dwarf (K1453, Australian National Museum 82.22.92). In the rhetorical register of elite images,”royal needs and royal satiety” appear to be the main focus (Houston et al. 2004:130).

A notable exception comes from Xultun, Guatemala (for the history of the site, see Garrison and Stuart 2004; Houston 1986; Krempel and Matteo 2012; Rossi and Stuart 2020; Saturno et al. 2015). In a relatively short time, at least three royal ladies, two with the exalted titles of ba(h)kab and the female version of Emblem of the city (Ix Baax Witz Ajaw [Houston 1986; Prager et al. 2010)], have vases and elevated plates (jawte’, ajalhib) tagged with their ownership (Luin et al. 2018; Polyukhovych and Looper 2019). One vase (K8007) is unusually delicate and narrow, 6.5 cm in width—the better for a female grip (Figure 1)? A similar delicacy, of 6 cm in width, marks a vase from Tayasal, Guatemala (K2707). It is not tagged with female ownership but accords unusual prominence to two women. The queen whose name was probably read Ix Yax We’n Chahk, “Lady First/New Eating Chahk,” was also linked to a numbered succession of k’awiil, “13” in this case (Rossi and Stuart 2020:14). That was most likely a designation of a ruler’s sequence within a dynasty, in what Simon Martin (2005:7-8) has called a “short dynastic count.” Franco Rossi and David Stuart (2020:14) not only make a strong claim for such regnal status but point to a row of stelae belonging to this queen in front of Xultun’s Structure 11K17 (formerly Structure A-23, see von Euw and Graham [1984:79–89]). That building faced north to a key sakbih or causeway at the city, connecting two main clusters of Xultun. Her centrality was worked into the very fabric of the city.

Figure 1. A chocolate vase owned by Ix Yax We’n Chahk, Queen of Xultun (K8007).

The other queen was known as Ix We’n(?) ‘Om Yohl Ch’e’n (Polyukhovych and Looper 2019). Her tagged ceramics include a plate in the FUNBA collection (Fundación Nacional para las Bellas Artes y la Cultura) of La Antigua Guatemala (Figure 2), and a vase in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (M.2010.115.616, K5976). The name is suspiciously close to that of the owner of the weaving bones above (Ix Yohl Ch’e’n). Perhaps there was some family association between the two.

Figure 2. Plate on triple supports, with name of Ix We’n(?) ‘Om Yohl Ch’e’n (courtesy of Matthew Looper and Yuriy Polyukhovych, FUNBA collection, La Antigua Guatemala).

But these were not the only women who potentially owned pots at Xultun. An eroded passage on one chocolate vase contains a name that could be female designator (K2324). Another may, by one interpretation, belong to a female lord, with an image below of a server who happens to be, in a highly unusual touch, a royal lady of Xultun (Figure 3). The text above refers to a drinking vessel yu-UK’IB, but the head in that spelling is plainly that of a woman, not the more usual male; what follows in turn may be a ta-IX?-*AJAW-wa, i.e., a drinking vessel “for a royal lady.”

Figure 3. Royal lady of Xultun serving lord (de Smet 1985:pl. 16c, from a photograph by Nicholas Hellmuth, Foundation for Latin American Anthropological Research).

Another vase in a similar hand, if more loosely executed, highlights a lightly erotic scene with a female and a male (Figure 4). Such touching is rare in Maya imagery, as is the whimsical appearance of what may be a tethered pet (an insect?) below. [Note 1]

Figure 4. Eroticized scene of female; the ba il spellings resemble those on a different part of the vase in Figure 3 (de Smet 1985:pl. 39, from a photograph by Nicholas Hellmuth, Foundation for Latin American Anthropological Research).

The Xultun ceramics, at least one of which belonged to a (probable) regnant queen, underscore their sheer anomaly. One of the few other such vases comes from Yucatan (Figure 5). Almost certainly from the area of Oxkintok, it refers to a vase (jaay) that belongs to a queen who makes an elegant appearance in a watery frame nearby. Outside of large carvings, a possession that depicts its owner is rare indeed in the Maya canon. High titles attach to her person, including a kaloomte’ and an under-spelled, directional bakab. Lower-ranking men might have owned pots, but it was a privilege accorded to only a few women of highest, even regnant rank, with a special emphasis at one site in particular, Xultun. An opening may have occurred there because of local dynamics of power and succession, or possibly because of the dominant personality of one woman: a Catherine the Great or a Cixi could exist elsewhere.

Figure 5. Vase belonging to high-ranking lady, area of Oxkintok, Mexico (courtesy Justin Kerr, K4463).

But, for most of the Classic Maya, “enduring habits of possession, and the mnemonic power of goods” seem to have been, for prestige ceramics, skewed towards explicit possession by males. Ultimately, this may say less about what women did or did not own—that could lie beyond empirical evidence—as to how glyphs obeyed conventional inequities of citation or reference.


Matthew Looper and Yuriy Polyukhovych were most helpful with the image from the FUNBA collection. Andrew Scherer, David Stuart, and Karl Taube shared leads on bugs.

Note 1 Andrew Scherer, David Stuart, and Karl Taube drew my attention to such pets in Yucatan today: the makech bugs, often bejeweled and pinned to clothing. That the Motul dictionary refers to such creatures in the late 16th and early 17th centuries attests to some time depth for this interest: Macech [Makech], “vnos escarauajos sin alas y con conchas, los quales, quando secos, ponen las indias a los niños en la garganta y en las muñecas por dixes” (Acuña 2001:378). Dried, dead bugs could have been mere ornament—shells glimmering with color and iridescence, inexpensive bling on young necks or wrists. Perhaps there was also a therapeutic or apotropaic function when mothers (las indias) attached them to children. Further searches show a thriving trade and support industry for such insect pets in Japan. Bugs participate in mini-gladiatorial bouts and, according to Ryohei Takatsuchi, one of Taube’s students, may even have inspired components of samurai armor. There could be worse analogies for warriors than the carapaced truculence of beetles.


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Maya Creatures VI: A Fox Cannot Hide its Tail

Albert Davletshin (Russian State University for the Humanities, Moscow) and Stephen Houston (Brown University)

The Chinese proverb, “A Fox Cannot Hide Its Tail,” bears the same meaning as the English adage, “The Devil Cannot Hide His Cloven Hoof”—i.e., certain beings incline inescapably to mischief or worse. [1] The Chinese expression emphasizes the mischievous character of the canid, known for its ability to escape hunters and trick hens. Fox stories are told in many places over the world. There are Chinese fox-spirits that transform into beautiful women, the Fox-Woman Next Door of Russian tales, and the eponymous Reynard the Fox (Mish 1954:329–330; Stevens 2013:153–154; Ting 1985:41–44). Attitudes can be extreme. The English upper class harbored a special loathing for the animal, to judge from fox-hunting and its export throughout the British Empire (Robb 2020:65–67). In some traditions, two related species of canids, the jackal and the coyote, take the place of the fox (Berezkin 2010:135; 2014:349). The Coyote of Native North America is an exemplary trickster who plays pranks or disobeys social rules with impunity (Radin 1956). By contrast, the wolf, a more threatening being, ends up badly.

One species, the gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), is known in the Maya area (Figure 1; Ceballos 2014:514–515). There, the role of the trickster who cheats everyone and ends foolishly trapped is delegated to Rabbit and Coyote. Foxes, however, receive the most attention. Among the Tzotzil people of Chiapas, we learn that “it is a very evil animal,” “its skin is stuffed and used on the fiesta of St. Sebastian to represent the president of Mexico,” “its bark is believed to announce disputes, sickness, broken bones, or murder on the road,” and that they are “the companion animal spirits of stupid people, especially Chamulas” (Laughlin 1975:368, see also Laughlin with Haviland 1988:327). Surprisingly, foxes are eaten by some Maya, and, in a curious detail given that practice, the animals are also said to consume the corpses of the dead (Hunn 1975:218). Such malevolent characteristics and local interest in them may explain why at least four Proto-Mayan names can be formally reconstructed for the same creature: *ch’umak, *waʔx, *weet, and *yaak (see, e.g., Kaufman and Justeson 2003:567-568). This implies many borrowings and, possibly, the operation of word taboos, resulting in several widespread cognate sets that nonetheless denote the same species (Emeneau 1948). Two of the reconstructed words have already been identified in the script. One is a personal name, ch’amak; another applies to a spirit companion, waax (Schele and Grube 1994:56; Grube and Nahm 1994:700). The aim of this note is to present a tentative identification of one more term for “fox” in the Maya script.

Figure 1. The Gray Fox, Urocyon cinereoargenteus (

A sandstone slab from Tonina features a unique emblem glyph or royal title (Figure 2). We are grateful to Ángel A. Sánchez Gamboa and Guido Krempel for the opportunity to show this drawing and to consult a photo of the inscription, only a part of which was known through an unpublished field sketch by Ian Graham. Recently, in the course of Tonina conservation and documentation project, led by the Coordinación Nacional de Conservación de Patrimonio Cultural (CNPC) of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), this fragment was joined to another, smaller one. (These pieces will be published in a catalogue of the Tonina monuments by the CNCPC-INAH Project; more precise designations of these fragments are to come.) The title under discussion consists of a canine head with a syllable we and, above, a logograph ʔAJAW “lord, king” (for the we syllable see, Zender et al. 2016). The head sign features a canine tooth, trilobed ear, and dog’s nose, which can be observed in the logographic signs of other canids: TZ’Iʔ, tz’iʔ, “dog”, ʔOOK, ʔook, “dog (calendrical term),” CH’AMAK “fox,” and TZ’UTZ’, tz’utz’, “coati.” Recently, Christian Prager has also identified a logograph WAAX “gray fox” on a painted vessel, also with a fox head featuring the traits of canids (Prager 2020). Guido Krempel (personal communication, 2020) suggested to us that the fox’s head includes a spot at the corner of its mouth, which marks gray foxes and is attested in depictions of the animal on Classic Maya ceramics. This may well be the case, although the photo shows erosion in that part of the glyph. The title follows two blocks of ambiguous meaning: ʔu-TEʔ [yi]-ʔIHCH’AAK?-NOJ-la. These can be interpreted asʔu-teʔ yihch’aak nojool,the stick (bailiff[?]) of Yihch’aak Nojool” (see Houston 2008). The word teʔ is highly polysemous in Mayan languages, various denoting “plant (of any kind),” “tree,” “wood,” “stick,” and by extension, “staff,” “official holding a staff,” “spear,” and “person possessing a spear,” i.e., “spear-carrier, warrior.” In this context, “official holding a staff, bailiff” is perhaps the most likely reading, “spear-carrier” being less probable. If this interpretation is correct, the name of the bailiff was likely in the lost part of the inscription together with the verb referring to the described event, possibly, although it is speculative, chuhkaj, “he is/was captured.” A distantly related cognate for the word “south” in Yucatec, nòohol (Bricker et al. 1998:199), suggests a short final vowel; because of the disharmonic spelling, we reconstruct the long vowel yet remain open to the presence of a glottalized variant. [2]

Figure 2. Two joined fragments of a sandstone slab from Tonina. W 22cm, H 30cm, TH 12cm.
Preliminary drawing by Guido Krempel, courtesy of CNCPC-INAH.

The name of the Fox lord, literally “His Paw(?), the South,” can be understood as either “The Paw(?) of the South,” “His Paw(?) is to the South” or “His Southern Paw(?).” However, in truth, these interpretations are somewhat unsatisfactory from a syntactic point of view. The title is followed by a partially preserved distance number that led to the lost record of another event—mi-HEEW-mi-WINAAK-ji-[ya] …, “no days, no months, … thence.” The numeral classifier for the “count of days” is written here with a rare version of the logograph HEEW, which depicts a deer head under two bones; to our knowledge, the only other example occurs on Bonampak Sculptured Stone 1:C1. It differs slightly from other versions that display a deer head with two crossed bones over the eye (e.g., Pestac Stela 1:D6; Palenque Palace Tablet:B18; Quirigua Stela H:T2) or a deer head with two bones that frame the head (Tonina Monument 162:A, Monument 170:A, Monument 175:pJ). Possibly, these relate to images of deer covered by mantles with crossed bones and eyeballs (e.g., Ek’ Balam Mural of the Deer; K2785). Excepting a few examples (Bonampak Sculptured Stone 1:C1; Quirigua Stela H:T2), the sign is usually complemented by a syllable wa. This surely cues a complex vowel in a logograph read HEEW. Importantly, the sign under discussion is not attested in other contexts, which excludes its interpretation as a syllable he. Cognates of the suffix have not yet been found in modern Mayan languages, so the long vowel is tentatively reconstructed here by means of the disharmonic spelling; the alternative reconstruction would contain a glottalized vowel.

.Figure 3. Different variants of the logograph HEEW, each depicting a deer head with two bones (from left to right, Bonampak Sculptured Stone 1, Tonina 162, and the Palenque Palace Tablet). Drawings by Albert Davletshin.

Few Mayan words start with the consonant-vowel combination of we- (see, Kaufman and Justeson 2003:passim). That rarity is helpful here, as it suggests a likely candidate for the animal head at Tonina: (we)-WEET?, weet, “fox.” Several Mayan languages employ this word, including some spoken in the vicinity of Tonina. A relevant point is that Spanish gato montés, “forest cat,” and gato de monte, “cat of forest,” designate “wildcat (Felis silvestris)” and “bobcat (Lynx rufus),” but, in the Spanish of Southern Mexico, they unexpectedly refer to “gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus)” (Schoenhals 1988:584). The list below makes the orthographies consistent so as to facilitate comparison.

Proto-Mayan: *weet “gray fox” (for similar cognate sets, see Kaufman and Justeson 2003:567, Wichmann and Brown n.d.)

Teco: x=weʔch “fox” (Kaufman 1969:173)

Mam: weech “gato de monte” (Kaufman and Justeson 2003:567)

Popti: wech “gato de monte” (Kaufman and Justeson 2003:567)

Mocho: weech “gato de monte, zorra gris (Urocyon cinereoargenteus)” (Kaufman 1967:567)

Tuzanteco: weech “zorra, lobo, onza” (Kaufman and Justeson 2003:567)

Tojolabal: wet “gato de monte (Urocyon cinereoargentus)” (Lenkersdorf 2010:634)

Tzeltal: wet “a rare synonym of wax (Urocyon cinereoargentus), probably a loan from Tzotzil” (Hunn 1977:219)

Tzotzil: vet “gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus)” (Laughlin 1975:368)

Guided by the gloss in Tzotzil, Guido Krempel (personal communication, 2020) independently arrived at (we)-WEET. The development of *t into ch is regular in Mam, Mocho, Teco, and Tuzanteco, signaling the considerable antiquity of the reconstructed word. Nevertheless, other cognates imply a relatively shallow time-depth and multiple acts of borrowing. The glottalized vowel in Teco x=weʔch is irregular, as is the final consonant in Popti wech; the latter shows the final ch in the place of the regular t and looks to be a borrowing from Mam (for correspondences involving dental stops and palatal affricates, see Campbell 1984:6).

Another reconstructed word, *weech, “armadillo,” may be related to this set. However, this interpretation requires two scenarios in order to be accepted. First, the original term for “fox,” weet, was lost in Yucatecan languages yet preserved as a part of a compound term “turtle-fox” or “shell-fox,” a term for “armadillo” that later became simplified. Second, the word was borrowed into Tila Chol and perhaps Ch’orti’, leading to the irregular final ch, where t might be expected. The alternative interpretation is that two animal names *weet “fox” and *weech “armadillo” are unrelated and that their similarity arose solely by chance.

Proto-Yucatecan: (plus, Chol) *weech “armadillo” (for similar cognate sets, see Kaufman and Justeson 2003:567 Wichmann and Brown n.d.):

Chol (Tila dialect): wech, x=wech “armadillo” (Aulie and Aulie 1998:139)

Ch’orti’: aj=wech “tatugo/armadillo-like animal’ (Wisdom 1950; this entry may not belong here; note the verb root wech’-, “to untwist, unfold, unbraid, roll down”)

Mopan: wech “armadillo” (Schumann 1997:284)

Itzaj: wech “armadillo” (Hofling and Tesucún 1997:662)

Yucatec: h=wèech “armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus), small pig” (Bricker et al. 1998:301)

Lacandon: weech “armadillo” (Hofling 2014:381)

It has been suggested that Proto-Mayan *weet, “gray fox,” is a loan from Proto-Zoquean *weetu, “fox,” also borrowed into Colonial Mixtec <vidzu> “fox (calendrical day name)” and Xinka weeto “fox” (Campbell and Kaufman 1976:86). Although the word is found in only one published dictionary of Zoquean languages (Harrison et al. 1981: 192; see also Gómez Domínguez 2003:163), there are now cognates that may be added thanks to Roberto Zavala (personal communication, 2020).

Zoque de Santa María Chimalapa: wetuʔ “especie de comadreja, color café (tiene dibujo como zorrillo; tiene olor como de waku; delgadito; parecido de kuru; come muertos)” 

Jitotolteco: wetu[weru] “gato montés”

Zoque de Copainalá: wetu “gato montés, lince”

Zoque de Ocotepec: wetu [wedu]“gato montés”

These cognates allow us to reconstruct the Proto-Zoquean *wetuʔ, “gray fox”; as yet, no cognates occur in Gulf Zoquean languages. In his comparative work, Søren Wichmann (1995:158) suggested that the final glottal stop was irregularly inserted in Chimalapa Zoque disyllabic nominals. In fact, new data indicate that these glottal stops are retentions and that Chiapas Zoque dialects regularly lost final glottal stops in disyllabic nominals (see the sets for “new,” “short,” “star,” “white,” “woman,” etc.). Proto-Mayan *weet is a phonological adaptation of the Zoquean word with the loss of the final vowel and compensatory lengthening of the first vowel (Mayan languages tend to have monosyllabic lexical roots of the type CVC). The lowering of the final u to o in Jumaytepeque Xinka weeto, “fox,” is due to Xinka vowel harmony (Campbell 1972:187). The borrowing of the medial voiceless dental stop t of Proto-Zoquean *wetuʔ as a voiced dental fricative ð in Mixtec <vidzu> “fox” and as a lateral l in Proto-Huave *wìlɨ “fox, tail” can be explained by allophonic realizations [d] and [r] of the word-internal dental stop in Zoquean languages (for Proto-Huave, see Suárez 1975:116). Different patterns of phonological adaptation indicate that the Proto-Zoquean word was independently borrowed into Mayan, Mixtec, Xinka, and Huave languages.

These etymological data allow us to identify weet, “fox,” as a dialectal word at Tonina. Tzotzil, Tojolabal, Popti, and Chiapas Zoque are likely donors. The syntactic opacity of his name also lies outside the norm for Classic Ch’olt’ian. It is known that Tonina texts show some features shared by the closely related languages of Tzeltal and Tzotzil, of which the positional verbs marked by –h-…-aj seem to be the strongest examples (Lacadena and Wichmann 2005:35). As a further detail, the hieroglyphic name of Tonina, Popoʔ, has been interpreted as Zoquean in origin, ultimately derived from *Popoʔ Tzatɨk, “White Cave” (Lacadena and Wichmann 2005:46). The name of the Fox Lord may be another visitor from such languages.

The example of (we)-WEET raises two intriguing questions. Why was this word written with the initial phonetic complement? Such spellings are relatively infrequent in the script (Grube 2010). And why was the word written, not with a combination of two syllabic signs, but with a logograph, perhaps improvised for just this occasion? To answer the first question, distinguishing the image of the fox’s head from other canids may have posed special challenges for scribes. The syllabic prefix clarified visual overlaps with other canids and contrasted with waax, the more common name for “gray fox.” To answer the second, logographs plainly operated as an enduring emphasis in Maya script. Continuous, phrase-long sequences of syllabic signs seldom replaced them. In glyphs, logographs carried a decided semantic and existential weight, standing as evident proxies for perceptible things.

At Tonina, there was also a special pleasure, maybe, in drawing a creature with so many nuances…in reference to a lord whose very title connoted moral ambiguity.

[1] For other entries in the “Maya Creatures” series, see MuskDragonsMosquitoesDogs, Teeth.

[2] In this essay we include complex vowels in logographic transcriptions; the alternative convention is to avoid such notation, reserving it for transliterations into language.


We are grateful to the Tonina conservation and documentation project, led by the Coordinación Nacional de Conservación de Patrimonio Cultural of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, for the opportunity to use unpublished materials. Many thanks go to Guido Krempel, Ángel A. Sánchez Gamboa, and Roberto Zavala who generously shared their data with us. We are also grateful to Terrence Kaufman, Evgeniya Korovina, Guido Krempel, Christian Prager, Sergei Vepretskii, Søren Wichmann, and Mikhail Zhivlov for their valuable comments.


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