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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Maya Creatures V: The Peccary’s Teeth, the Jaguar’s Bone

Stephen Houston (Brown University) and Sarah Newman (University of Chicago)

The elephant arrived in July 802. [1] Captured in Africa, or perhaps offered by a raja in India, the creature had come first to the Abbasid Caliph, Hārūn al-Rashīd (r. 786–809 [Dutton 2004:59–61; Scholz, with Rogers 1972:82]). From there, carried by an imperial fleet and then slogging by foot over the Alps, the elephant walked, we presume, all the way to Aachen, into the court and presence of the Emperor Charlemagne. For the Caliph, the animal was a diplomatic gift, along with rich textiles and other goods (Brubaker 2004:176). For Charlemagne, the pachyderm was a specific request. The elephant’s name: Abul Abaz (Abū ‘l-ʿAbbās?), of uncertain meaning but possibly “the Father of Frowns” or “Wrinkles.” The elephant was clearly meant to impress on many levels, but perhaps above all as a link between the orient and a ruler intent on forging ties to that region. According to an Irish monk, “everyone in the Kingdom of the Franks” saw him (Dutton 2004:62). Abul Abaz was to die eight years later in a war expedition along the banks of the Rhine (Dutton 2004:189–190; Scholz, with Rogers 1972:92). One can imagine the regret. A replacement would be hard to find.

Abul Abaz was a creature of dislocation. He was out-of-place, singular if symbolic in import, nonpareil like the Emperor, and brought with great and obvious effort from his natural setting. For centuries, stories were told about him. At Aachen and elsewhere, imperial menageries were also known (Davis 2015:327), and the assembly of exotic and unexpected beasts must have reflected and buttressed Charlemagne’s narrative of global dominion. But what resonates here is that the elephant had a name, a suggestion of steady, even compliant personality—being led hither and yon hints as much. People cared about him. He meant something as a symbol but also as the one and only Abul Abaz. Large, imposing, and awesome, he would prefigure another elephant, Jumbo, the show-spectacle of P. T. Barnum. Jumbo would become, after his accidental death in 1885, a byword for very large things (Chambers 2008:207–208).

Although a distant analogy, Abul Abaz bears on the Classic Maya and Mesoamerica. The Florentine Codex, which reveals Aztec practice, tells of houses where exotic animals were kept. In a “house of birds” (tо̄tocalli), “eagles, red spoonbills, trupials [Icterus sp.], yellow parrots” could be found (although evidence is scarce, stone circles have also been interpreted as pens for captive birds at Maya sites [Hamblin 1984: 93]). As Bernardino de Sahagún explains in a marginal gloss, a casa de las fieras, a “house of wild beasts,” was filled with “ocelots, bears, mountain lions, and mountain cats” (Sahagún 1979:45, fn15; Figure 1). The description is curiously lumping of humans and animals, yet it also attentive to precious objects and fine skill. Animals are gathered with slaves and captives and situated near workshops where precious goods were produced. All were closely controlled and of high value. Sahagún’s reports echo other Spanish accounts in terms of the variety of birds and beasts, though first-hand observers like Bernal Díaz del Castillo also recalled “the infernal noise when the lions and tigers roared and the jackals and foxes howled and the serpents hissed, it was horrible to listen to and it seemed like a hell” (Díaz del Castillo 2000:145).

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is screen-shot-2021-01-05-at-11.52.51-am.png
Figure 1. An imperial menagerie, with possible keeper, Florentine Codex, Book 8, fol. 31v.

Where was this menagerie? The Nuremberg Map of 1524, a woodcut prepared to accompany a Latin version of Hernán Cortés’ second letter to the Emperor Charles V, provides the best clue. The map was almost certainly based on an indigenous document, if shaped by Cortés’ self-presentation and as further embellished by European buildings, Latin letters (with abbreviations to accommodate the cramped space on the map), and a waving Imperial banner (e.g., Boone 2011:31–35; Mundy 1998:25). There are confusions in orientation. West is plainly to the top, yet the larger, almost portolan-map of the Caribbean (not of indigenous origin) should logically be to the bottom; it is not, perhaps because the particular page trim of the woodcut would provide no space for it. The central precinct has remarkable details, many shown to reflect actual buildings or even equinoctial alignments (Aveni and Gibbs 1976; Boone 2011:35). But it too has the Templo Mayor at the top, facing east, precisely the opposite of its true orientation. Doubtless this had to do with enhancing the centrality and graphic visibility of the Templo Mayor: page-center, temple summit to the top of the map.

Of interest here is the placement of the Dom[us] a[n]i[m]aliu[m], “House of the Animals” (Figure 2). If situated with respect to the central precinct, it would have been off the northwestern corner of the temple precinct; if with respect to the overall map, off the southeastern. Nearby, at a diagonal, was the Dom[us] D. Muteezuma, “House of Don Moteuczoma.” According to excavations in the La calle de Moneda, the “New Houses of Moteuczoma” lay to the southeast of the Templo Mayor, implying a (more-or-less) correct orientation in relation to the overall, regional map. If accurate, this would place the “House of the Animals” in the same general area, more to the north, yet closer to the Templo Mayor. Andrés de Tapia and Pedro Mártir de Anglería also located the “House of the Animals” close to, and even within, the palace of Moteuczoma, specifying, somewhat implausibly, a group of 600 people in service to the animals alone (for an excellent compilation of descriptions, see Blanco et al. 2009:29-32; those authors put the House in what is now the Convent of San Francisco, Madero Street, Blanco et al. 2009:34–35). [2] Only excavations will establish the actual location.

Figure 2. The Dom[us] a[n]i[m]aliu[m]
House of the Animals, in Tenochtitlan [Cartas. Carta 2a]
Praeclara Ferdina[n]di. Cortesii de noua maris oceani Hyspania narratio sacratissimo. ac inuictissimo Carolo Romanoru[m] Imperatori semper Augusto, Hyspaniaru[m], [etc] Regi Anno Domini. M.D.XX. Impressa in celebri ciuitate Norimberga … : Per Fridericum Peypus, Anno D[omi]ni. M.D.XXIIII (John Carter Brown Library, B524 C827p / 1-SIZE).

Whether to call this “House” a “zoo” threads through scholarship (Nicholson 1955). There is certainly some sort of ordering in the visual sources. The Nuremberg woodcut assigns each animal to an individual cell or cage, jaguars tend to pair with puma, and birds dominate as might be expected from tо̄tocalli, a “House of Birds.” The two darker figures may be animals, but could also be gendered captives or allusions to the keepers described in various sources. There seems little doubt that the animals were not only for general viewing or diversion, hence the disquiet with the term “zoo” (Blanco et al. 2009:35–36). But a life of pleasure and leisure did form part of the imperial and elite experience. What appears equally undeniable is that the animals thus gathered served ritual purposes too, as well-tended, (mostly) inedible, cosmically arranged sacrifices for the Templo Mayor or, earlier still, in Teotihuacan (Blanco et al. 2009:36; López Luján et al. 2014:35–36). The evidence from Teotihuacan is notable for its isotopic assays of such animals, suggesting that many were tended for some time in captivity, including “felids [that were] fed a mixed diet of maize-raised lagomorphs [rabbits or hare] supplemented with dog and/or human meat” (Sugiyama et al. 2015:10), as well as for the remains (only by impression) of wooden cages (Sugiyama and López Lujan 2007:130, Figure 4).

The wild and wildly out-of-place—a jaguar in the midst of an imperial capital, but also bears, wolves, and diverse other creatures—raise an intriguing parallel with two pieces of evidence from the Classic Maya. The first consists of a set of peccary teeth uncovered at the island of Jaina, Campeche, Mexico (Figure 3; INAH Mediateca, #82–20140130-123000:7553). There is no certainty absent direct physical examination, and ancient carving and shaping can eliminate diagnostic features. But the top tooth appears to be a maxillary canine from the right side (note the cross-section shape of the junction where the root meets the enamel and the groove running along the lingual surface of the root). The second and fourth in the image are probable mandibular canines. Each has a small facet or flattening at the tip of the enamel, and the root is more slender than the maxillary canine just below the point where the enamel and root join. A credible case thus exists that these come from one peccary, not four—a complete set. In a unique touch, the very peccary from which these came may be depicted on each of the teeth. In spirited self-reference, the images emphasize the canines on a canine. Each tooth has been drilled for suspension, twice in two instances, presumably as part of a single necklace (excavation data are lacking) or, as Karl Taube suggests (personal communication, 2021), to carver’s gouges on twin-bladed instruments used for sculpting; this second proposal would need scrutiny of wear, and the alternation of single and double perforations hints at some other, joint arrangement of the canines. The sense projected here is less of generic peccaries than one in particular, lying on its stomach. Was this a trophy from the hunt or was it some other, more sentimental set of tokens? That peccaries were kept and even bred by the Classic Maya is a possibility that has been raised in the past (e.g., Dillon 1988), especially if the young are removed at young age from their mothers (Sowls 1984:105–106). Indeed, peccaries may become so tractable as to be, in the words of an anonymous author, “domesticated with more facility than the wild hog” and “troublesome from [their] familiarity” (Sowls 1984:105). The intimacy of these images and their placement on a prominent item of dress hints at an emotional tie, though whether with prey or a pet remains unclear.

Figure 3. Peccary teeth with images of peccary, from Jaina, Campeche, Mexico (© Archivo Digital MNA).

The second piece of evidence is unprovenanced, but the glyphic text leaves little doubt about where it came from: the dynastic capital of Naranjo, Guatemala. The text reads: u-ba ke-le BAHLAM-ma AJ–TOOK’-TI’ SAK-CHUWEEN-na K’UHUL-?sa-?-AJAW, u ba[a]kel bahlam Aj Took’ Ti’, Sak Chuween, K’uhul ?sa-? Ajaw, “it is the jaguar bone of He-of-Warlike Speech (Houston 2016), White Monkey, Holy Lord of Naranjo.” Ruling from AD 755 until about 784, this king usually went by another name, K’ahk’ Ukalaw Chan Chahk, a relatively common practice in certain places such as Naranjo and as far north as Ek’ Balam. The fact that other objects with his name have appeared on the art market suggests that his tomb was opened by looters some decades ago. The title on the bone may be youthful moniker or perhaps a title of martial, angry demeanor (Houston 2016; see also Martin and Grube 2008:80-81). The use of the -el suffix confirms, at least linguistically, that this is the bone of a jaguar (Houston et al. 2001:30–32, Figure 14) [3] As for the bone itself, it is securely identifiable as a felid fibula from the right side (the proximal end present, the distal end cut off), and from a juvenile, with evidence that the bone was still fusing. The size is compatible with a larger cat, yet distinguishing between feline species is notoriously difficult (Sugiyama et al. 2019:416). The cutting and reshaping of this bone means that only DNA tests will be able to distinguish whether it is a jaguar (Panthera onca) or mountain lion (Puma concolor). The explicit text predicts what that result will be.

Figure 4. Right fibula from large felid, 8.5 in. length; maximum width, .582 in. (photographs courtesy of Justin Kerr, K7747).

The origins of the peccary’s teeth or the (probable) jaguar’s bone will be difficult to resolve. Many scenarios come to mind: trophies, trade items, extraction from a decaying animal found in the forest. But there may be self-referential images and glyphic tags on creatures known to—and perhaps esteemed personally by—the high-status owners of these faunal remains. Such animals might have been rarities, as curious as the occupants of Moteuczoma’s menagerie or Charlemagne’s elephant. But evidence grows for them nonetheless. To judge from its isotopic signature, a Late Classic peccary from Ceibal, Guatemala, may have been raised in captivity with a diet of maize or other δ13C plant; the same possibly obtained for a large feline at the site (Sharpe et al. 2019:3–4). At Copan, too, isotopic analysis reveals exotic animals (including jaguars and pumas) kept in captivity and transported across long distances (Sugiyama et al. 2018). These creatures were out-of-place, singular, remarkable, and memorable, in ways accentuated, as in the cases here, by minute portraits in bone or an expert text incised for a king.


[1] For other entries in the “Maya Creatures” series, see Maya MuskDragonsMosquitoes, Dogs, and Fox.

[2] Similar confusions of orientation occur in the Santa Cruz Map of 1555, now in the Uppsala University Library. It shows the precursor of the current cathedral facing east when it should be looking south. The Santa Cruz map does display, in a position close to La calle de Moneda, a cluster of buildings with the distinct frieze of jewel-like circles linked to royal residences and, by extension, to the Toltecs. In this case, at Tenochtitlan, it would have been a huēyi tēcpan, a “Great Palace,” because of the number and complexity of its buildings. For such a frieze at Tula itself, if equipped with Doric columns, arches, and ashlar masonry, see the Florentine Codex, Book 8, fol. 11r. The Mixtec Codex Colombino (fol. 13) likewise displays ascension rites (nose-piercings) at a building with such features, the so-called Frieze of Rushes. In the Santa Cruz Map isolated palaces of provincial lords contrast with the two stories, multiple windows, and grouped structures shown for palaces in epicentral Tenochtitlan.

[3] There is a parallel spelling for a human bone (Ek’ Balam Miscellaneous Text 7) that identifies its human donor, a subordinate lord or perhaps a captive (Lacadena García-Gallo 2004:79–83, fig. 29). Andrew Scherer (n.d.) notes the same for the celebrated peccary skull from Copan, Honduras, itself depicting peccaries.


Andrew Scherer provided useful comments and a citation. As usual, Justin Kerr was most generous with his photographs, as was Dicey Taylor in assisting him.


Aveni, Anthony F., and Sharon L. Gibbs. 1976. On the Orientation of Precolumbian Buildings in Central Mexico. American Antiquity 41:510–517.

Blanco, Alicia, Gilberto Pérez, Bernardo Rodríguez, Nawa Sugiyama, Fabiola Torres, and Raúl Valadez. 2009. El zoológico de Moctezuma ¿Mito o realidad? AMMVEPE 20(2):28–39.

Boone, Elizabeth H. 2011. This New World Now Revealed: Hernán Cortés and the Presentation of Mexico to Europe. Word & Image 27(1):31–46.

Brubaker, Leslie. 2004. The Elephant and the Ark: Cultural and Material Interchange across the Mediterranean in the Eighth and Ninth Centuries. Dumbarton Oaks Papers 58:175–195. doi:10.2307/3591385

Davis, Jennifer R. 2015. Charlemagne’s Practice of Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Díaz del Castillo, Bernal. 2000. Bernal Díaz, from The True History of the Conquest of New Spain. In Victors and Vanquished: Spanish and Nahua Views of the Conquest of Mexico, edited by Stuart B. Schwartz, pp. 133-155. Boston: Palgrave MacMillan.

Dillon, Brian D. 1988. Meatless Maya? Ethnoarchaeological Implications for Ancient Subsistence. Journal of New World Archaeology 7:59–70.

Dutton, Paul E. 2004. Charlemagne’s Mustache and Other Cultural Clusters of a Dark Age. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Hamblin, Nancy L. 1984. Animal Use by the Cozumel Maya. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Houston, Stephen. 2016. Tough Talk and Maya Kings. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography.

——, John Robertson, and David Stuart. 2001. Quality and Quantity in Glyphic Nouns and Adjectives. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing 47. Washington, D.C.: Center for Maya Research.

Lacadena García-Gallo, Alfonso. 2004. The Glyphic Corpus from Ek’ Balam, Yucatán, México. Report to FAMSI.

López Luján, Leonardo, Ximena Chávez Balderas, Belem Zúñiga-Arellano, Alejandra Aguirre Molina, and Norma Valentín Maldonado. 2014. Entering the Underworld: Animal Offerings at the Foot of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan. In Animals and Inequality in the Ancient World, edited by Benjamin S. Arbuckle and Sue Ann McCarty, pp. 33–61. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2008. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. Second ed. London: Thames and Hudson.

Mundy, Barbara E. 1998. Mapping the Aztec Capital: The 1524 Nuremberg Map of Tenochtitlan, its Sources and
Meanings. Imago Mundi 50:11–33.

Nicholson, Henry B. 1955. Montezuma’s Zoo. Pacific Discovery 8(4):3–11.

Sahagún, Bernardino de. 1979. Florentine Codex, General History of the Things of New Spain: Book 8—Kings and Lords, translated by Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble. Monographs of The School of American Research 14(IX). Santa Fe: The School of American Research/Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

Scherer, Andrew. n.d. The Death Within: Maya Perspectives on Bone, Material, and Being. Manuscript in possession of authors.

Scholz, Bernard W., with Barbara Rogers. 1972. Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Sharpe, Ashley E., Kitty F. Emery, Takeshi Inomata, Daniela Triadan, George D. Kamenov, and John Krigbaum. 2018. Earliest Isotopic Evidence in the Maya Region for Animal Management and Long-Distance Trade at the site of Ceibal, Guatemala. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115 (14):3605–3610. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1713880115

Sowls, Lyle K. 1984. The Peccaries. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Sugiyama, Nawa, William L. Fash, and Christine A.M. France. 2018. Jaguar and Puma Captivity and Trade among the Maya: Stable Isotope Data from Copan, Honduras. PLoS ONE 13 (9): e0202958. https://doi. org/10.1371/journal.pone.0202958

——, ——, and ——. 2019. Creating the Cosmos, Reifying Power: A Zooarchaeological Investigation of Corporal Animal Forms in the Copan Valley. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 29(3):407–426.

——, Andrew D. Somerville, and Margaret J. Schoeninger. 2014. Stable Isotopes and Zooarchaeology at Teotihuacan, Mexico Reveal Earliest Evidence of Wild Carnivore Management in Mesoamerica. PLoSONE 10(9): e0135635. DOI:10.1371/journal.

Sugiyama, Saburo, and Leonardo López Luján. 2007. Dedicatory Burial/Offering Complexes at the Moon Pyramid, Teotihuacan. Ancient Mesoamerica 18(1):127–146.

New Book: The Adorned Body

The Adorned Body: Mapping Maya Dress, edited by Nicholas Carter, Stephen D. Houston, and Franco D. Rossi. From the University of Texas Press, 2020.

A new volume—a project arising from a seminar at Brown University—is just out. It offers a comprehensive review of the meaning, layers, and intersections of Maya clothing over time…and should be of keen interest to readers of this blog.

From the University of Texas Press:

How we dress our bodies—through clothing, footwear, headgear, jewelry, haircuts, and more—is key to the expression of status and identity. This idea was as true for ancient Maya civilization as it is today, yet few studies have centered on what ancient Maya peoples wore and why. In The Adorned Body, Nicholas Carter, Stephen Houston, and Franco Rossi bring together contributions from a wide range of scholars, leading to the first in-depth study of Maya dress in pre-Columbian times.

Incorporating artistic, hieroglyphic, and archaeological sources, this book explores the clothing and ornaments of ancient Maya peoples, systematically examining who wore what, deducing the varied purposes and meanings of dress items and larger ensembles, and determining the methods and materials with which such items were created. Each essay investigates a category of dress—including headgear, pendants and necklaces, body painting, footwear, and facial ornaments—and considers the variations within each of these categories, as well as popular styles and trends through time. The final chapters reveal broader views and comparisons about costume ensembles and their social roles. Shedding new light on the art and archaeology of the ancient Americas, The Adorned Body offers a thorough map of Maya dress that will be of interest to scholars and fashion enthusiasts alike.

Canonical Space and Maya Markets

Stephen Houston (Brown University)

In his account of the great Aztec market at Tlatelolco, Bernal Díaz del Castillo spoke of its varied merchandise. Among the wonders were gold, precious stones, rope, deer skin, wild animals, honey cake and tripe, pottery, pitch-pine, human excrement for salt and curing of skins, paper, timber, boards, metal axes, gourds, flint knives—Díaz almost grew weary of their description, “porque es para no acabar tan presto de contar por menudo todas las cosas” (Díaz del Castillo 2011:96–99). But there were also male and female slaves, many lashed to long poles across their necks. The slaves were brought and sold in such quantity as to recall, for Díaz, the Portuguese trade of Blacks in “Guinea” (Díaz del Castillo 2011:97–99). Free and enslaved people were so plentiful at Tlatelolco that they could be heard, he said, a league away.

A joint description in text and image comes Fray Diego de Durán, in a manuscript now in the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid (Figure 1). Probably written in his hand, albeit drawn from varying sources, this document of c. 1574–1581 drew on illustrations that were in part cut from another document and then glued on the page before relevant passages (Milne 1984:3; Robertson 1968:343). This is one of those images, as can be seen from the distinct color of its paper, slightly skewed placement, and overlap with previously written text. Puzzling out where Durán and his associates got their information is to grapple, perhaps fruitlessly, with the fusions, rejections, authorial complexity, and tumult of the era. Was the document and its kin informed by biblical history (Driggers 2020:184–185; Milne 1984:384), previous books or oral history (Milne 1984:381), pre-Columbian or early Colonial pictorials of assured skill and knowledge (Driggers 2020:189) or adorned with paintings taken from Franciscan workshops under the supervision of Bernardino de Sahagún (Milne 1984:393)? What can be assumed is that the preparation of this document was thoughtful. Mutual reinforcement took place between text and image.

Figure 1. Market, Historia de las Indias de Nueva España e islas de la tierra firme (Durán 1579:301v,

The written description is, at times, focused on physical attributes. “The markets of this land were all closed (off) by large (standing) walls and facing (opposite) the temples of the gods or to one side” (Durán 1880:217, my translation). Durán also emphasized the orderly timing and specialization of markets, so that, for example, dogs could be had in Acolman, slaves in Azcapotzalco and Izocan [Itzocan] (Durán 1880:219). Slaves, some taken in war, demonstrated grace of movement by being forced to dance or sing. (One can imagine the heaviness of heart.) Others had committed crimes, fallen into debt from gambling, disobeyed parents or become so hungry from want that slavery seemed the only recourse for their families. There would be fewer mouths to feed (Durán 1880:220–222). “Collars” of wood or metal kept the slaves symbolically marked, psychologically disadvantaged, and physically manageable. Grabbing a person’s arm or leg risked injury; grabbing a neck-stick kept the slave at safe distance (Durán 1880:220). [1] These sticks go far back in time, appearing in a Late Classic stucco of captives or slaves from the Maya city of Tonina, Chiapas (Houston et al. 2006:fig. 5.13). Presumably, sticks could double as garrotes, if not to execute then to control by restricting air and blood flow to the brain.

Payment for slaves was in textile mantles, gold jewelry, and greenstone (Durán 1880:224). The denial of liberty extended to cages or wooden chambers, evidently to house slaves or those castigated by law (Durán 1880:222). Relative freedom of movement may have accorded with the kind of slave. Enemy warriors or intended sacrifices for priestly “olocaustos” (Durán’s word) were let loose at peril. They might fight or flee. A child or debtor posed less risk. Colonial sources indicate that market stalls (“a house, a post”) could be personal property (Johnson 2018:100–101). Regulating the whole were ordinances and religious orientations, the latter of special disdain to Durán (1880:215-216; for “directors” of markets, see Sahagún 1979:67–69).

Durán’s focus on slaves may account for the image. Was this some glancing allusion to the Babylonian captivity of the Old Testament, or to the benighted state of the Aztecs? By the thinking of the day, they were, after all, a “lost tribe” of Israel, Christianity their redemption (Driggers 2020:184). Or was he placing emphasis on such trade because it was in fact a dominant concern? That emphasis can be overstated in view of the stupendous inventory of trade goods at Aztec markets. At the same time, by many accounts, human trafficking was undoubtedly present. Some comments on the scene identify three buyers and six sellers (Russo 2005:73). That is unlikely. Two of the latter, a male and a female, bear wooden staves at the neck, marking their status as slaves. This would mean that all the sellers—there are four, two of higher status to judge from their mats—happen to be women. This gendering contrasts strongly with slave merchants elsewhere in the world, especially the male slavers of ancient Rome or the horrors of Price, Birch, and Co. in Alexandria, Virginia (Harris 1980:129–132;

Durán highlights payment in mantles, gold, and greenstone. These occur throughout the scene, some in baskets. They could simply have been precious objects for sale (Driggers 2020:52). If the focus were on slaves, they might also have been payments from past transactions. The small squares resemble 1/5 tablets of gold (although their white color fails to fit that view) or, from a tablet superimposed on mantles in the Tribute Record of Tlapa, a unit of 400 textiles (Gutiérrez 2013:fig. 6.3). Perhaps the female slave is spinning for the vendor’s needs or displaying a valued skill to a buyer.

Durán (1880:215) also stressed “round stones worked as large as a round shield and in them sculpted a round figure as a figure of the sun with some paintings in the manner of roses around them with some round circles.” In Aztec writing, this corresponds to the sign for TIĀNQUIZ, “market” (Peñafiel 1895:pls. 79, 99). The buyers and sellers sit within the sign. Yet another emblem, perhaps a stone marker or altar (momoztli), appears dead center. That sign contains an inner, gold circle, a token of the sun, affirming a proposal that the celebrated Calendar Stone of the Aztecs was such an altar, albeit in Tenochtitlan rather than Tlaltelolco (Stuart 2018:214-215). In Durán’s words, it was “a figure of the sun” but ensconced within a market, its circular outline tied to both meanings.[2] A perceptive study of these carvings and their relation to markets has recognized several such “disks” in the corpus of Aztec sculpture (López Luján and Olmedo 2010).

Glyphs or stylized and condensed depictions of markets occur in several manuscripts of Colonial date (Figure 2). The sign itself has an almost flowery, jewel-like fringe and roseate glow but above all a circular outline (Mundy 1996:fig. 67). The visual overlap with the fans of merchants, pōchtēca, and the main disk in the place name of Pochtlan is probably no coincidence (Peñafiel 1895:pl. 59). Others point to a connection, common among the Aztecs, between war, trading, and similar insignia among high-ranking soldiers (López Luján and Olmedo 2010:18; a suspicion also gathers around the so-called La Ventanilla “Composite Stela” at Teotihuacan as a publicly mounted disk—of foreign merchants?—in the style of El Tajín, Veracruz [Cabrera Castro 2-17:108, fig. 14.2]). At times, the TIĀNQUIZ shows the dotted circumference of a formal “wall,” TENĀN/TENĀM (Figure 3b, c, d, e, cf. Codex Mendoza signs for the towns of Teotenanco [folio 10r] and Tenançinco [folio 10v]; Karttunen 1983:224). Some glyphs feature a confused welter of footprints, a sign of dense movement (Figure 3b, d); the “sand,” XĀL, in Xaltianquizco, may be both lexical and practical, a surface suited to shuffling feet (Figure 2b).

Figure 2. TIĀNQUIZ signs and depictions: (a) Codex Mendoza, c. 1541 (folio 67r, © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford); (b) Codex Mendoza, Xaltianquizco, c. 1541 (folio 16v, © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford); (c) Lienzo de Quauhquechollan, c. mid-16h-century (Museo Regional de Cholula [Museo Casa del Alfeñique]; Asselbergs 2008,, photograph by Bob Schalkwijk); (d) Matrícula de Huexotcinco, c. 1560 (folio 541r, National Library of France,; (e) Relación Geográfica map of Tetlistaca, 1581 (JGI xxv-12, Benson Latin American Collection, The General Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin); and (f) Relación Geográfica map of Muchitlan, 1582 (JGI xxv-13, Benson Latin American Collection, The General Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin,

Echoing Durán, there is some pairing with temples, including Christian churches, or in many instances—depictions of Conquest-period Guatemala come to mind—walled precincts that contrast with cleared circular places (Figure 3c; Asselbergs 2008:figs. 24–27). As Durán notes, such areas were suitable for dance, and, in one source, lightened circles without walls denote markets: i.e., some were more formal than others (Figure 2c, Asselbergs 2008:fig. 12). The Lienzo de Quauhquechollan, as in Codex Mendoza, show them pierced by roads or with routes passing nearby. A more daring idea is that the circularity was cosmic in intent, to fix markets “in the center of the universe” (Russo 2005:75). That might have been reflected in the walls and four-part entrances of an unusual, rectangular depiction of a market in the Relación Geográfica of Cempoala, Veracruz (Figure 3). The object or place in the center with scalloped edge is the target of movement, a focus within a broader precinct.

Figure 3. Market with four entrances, Cempoala, Veracruz, 1580 (JGI XXV-10, Benson Latin American Collection, The General Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin,

A vignette from the Codex Mendoza injects a certain pathos. Fathers instructed 6-year old boys to go to the market so that they might collect spilled maize or “beans and other miserable things that the traders left scattered” (Berdan and Anawalt 1997:120). The Codex is notorious for its austere model of parenting. Some punishments involved beating, jabbing with maguey spikes; dry chile was forced into the nostrils of immobilized children. A less literal view of the vignette is that it concerned “the disciplining of material and domestic space in order to achieve cosmic order” (Driggers 2020:119fn24). The raw nopal tuna gnawed by one child mirrors, in a symmetry of human and vegetal states, “their shared ‘rawness’ in Mexica thought” (Driggers 2020:119fn24). But I see a harsher reality. It is possible the scene reveals the depth of food insecurity in the Mexica metropolis—recall Duran’s mention of hunger and enslavement. Every bean or grain counted. Moreover, the scratching, plucking, and furtive chewing affect the archaeological study of markets. They might well have been intensively scavenged. What was dropped by vendors or buyers on the floor of the market did not necessarily stay put.

Figure 3. Scavenging in the market at age six, Codex Mendoza, 1541 (folio 58r, © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford).

A major concern in Mesoamerican studies is how later material, or that far away, relates to other reaches of its vast sprawl. This applies to markets. After much debate, most Mayanists concede the presence of such facilities during the Classic Period (e.g., Cap 2015; Dahlin et al. 2007; King 2015; Martin 2012). As one example of many, what had seemed to be unrelated features—a proposed water-conservation measure for agriculture at Ixtutz, Guatemala—can now be reinterpreted as market stalls (Chase and Chase 1983; cf. Chase et al. 2015:230; Jacobo 1993, who detected unusual concentrations of phosphate in this zone).

In 1984, equipped with a preliminary map from Ian Graham, I did a compass survey of Dos Pilas, Guatemala, a Classic Maya city with many inscriptions. Graham was a superlative mapper, a legend with limited resources yet boundless gumption. But he had not noticed that certain low walls on his plan went over masonry. They connected as a system of concentric walls, not just in its main plaza but around the pyramid of El Duende about 1 km to the east. Theodolite mapping in 1986 for my doctoral research laid these out in far greater detail (Figure 4; Houston 1987:Maps 3, 5; reproduced in Houston 1993:Site Maps 1, 3). In my dissertation, I interpreted the small, rectangular features marked in pale red as a “squatter” settlement and the walls, here in light blue, as “defensive bulwarks” of late date; these consisted of material obviously robbed from preexisting buildings (Houston 1987:383, 386).

Figure 4. Concentric walls at Dos Pilas, Guatemala (Houston 1987:Map 3).

There was always a problem. The walls went directly over buildings, in ways that did not make any practical defensive use of the elevated palace to the south. The layout seemed instead to be planar or geometric, designed to preserve a regular concentricity, a determined circularity. Nor, being chock-a-block, did the “squatter” settlement conform to any clear pattern of contemporary communities. I also had doubts the section to the north was ever finished. The builders appear to have piled up field stone at regular intervals, a standard practice for lengths of masonry, but they failed to connect them. Excavations by Joel Palka in these deposits, as part of a wider project by Vanderbilt University, later found abundant trade goods (Fine Grey) and confirmed the density of platforms (Palka 1980; Palka et al. 1991).[3] In 1984, guards at the site had shown me pieces of jade beads recovered from the “squatter” village. They had disturbed the alignments and low walls to make it easier to cut grass in the plaza. Loose stones dulled their machetes and were thus collected and piled up at the base of trees. The small platforms were probably far more numerous in the past.

My doubts grew when, decades later, I visited the site of Pueblito, Guatemala, with my former student, Sarah Newman. In important research that has yet to be followed up, Juan Pedro Laporte and his team discovered what appeared to be market stalls and identified them as such (Laporte and Chocon 2008). During my stay, I saw and walked the same sorts of concentric walls that I knew well from Dos Pilas, but here concentrated on the monumental plaza with plain stelae; the area with stalls lay a few meters away. Market stalls seem also be present at nearby Ixtutz, Guatemala (Chase and Chase 1983; Chase et al. 2015; Jacobo 1993). The pattern of relatively late, c. 8th-9th century walls occurs at a number of sites, a few with the concentric walls that baffled me at Dos Pilas (Figure 5). As at Dos Pilas, Xuenkal, Yucatan, excludes a major construction; a wall at Cuca, also in Yucatan, climbs over a substantial platform; and there have been suggestions that the walls at Ek Balam, Yucatan—their thickness is greater than elsewhere—tend to be more symbolic than defensive (Lundy 2016:100, citing William Ringle and George Bey, the original mappers and excavators of the ruin).

Figure 5. Walls, some concentric, at Ek Balam (Houck 2004:fig. 2, map provided to Houck by William Ringle), Cuca (Webster 1978:fig. 5), and Xuenkal (Manahan et al. 2012:fig. 2).

A lidar survey confirms that these concentric systems are found far beyond settlements in Yucatan, appearing also in southwestern Campeche (Figure 6; Ruhl et al. 2019). The discoverers believe that these settlements, which they identify as markets, are distinct from the “hastily erected defensive walls…or more carefully constructed fortifications” of sites such as Cuca or Dos Pilas (Ruhl et al. 2018:88). But perhaps the concentric arrangements are closer than first apparent: all have a post-hoc quality, look (at least superficially) to be Late Classic or Terminal Classic in date, abut or pass over preceding construction, and selectively exclude monumental architecture. At times, the estrangement from past dynastic rituals could be acute. At Dos Pilas, as I saw from mapping in 1984 and 1986, the rupture was blunt and brutal. Walls elsewhere were more seamlessly integrated with preexisting buildings.

Figure 6. Concentricity and probable markets, G-LiHT transects, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (Ruhl et al. 2018:fig. 3, excerpt).

“Symbolic” is an expansive yet loose term. But, to come full circle (so to speak), these finds could reflect a particular moment in Classic and Terminal Classic history. Spaces and planar shapes deemed canonical—appropriate to this or that function—arose from pragmatic choices. If these were markets, a matter to be confirmed by close study on the ground, then they closed off access, protected stored goods (what vendor leaves a stall unsecured?), afforded a sense of security for economic transactions, and assisted regulation, monitoring, and even taxation. Goods moving in and out could be monitored. Nor is there reason to exclude defense, for marketing and warfare were known companions in Postclassic Mexico. But there was also a strong sense of signaling. As hinted by the TIĀNQUIZ sign, markets should, by broad understanding, be notionally circular: they are, as much as any square or rectangular plaza, a canonical space. Accordingly, a later emblem of centrality and orderly trade may have arisen from a Maya precedent in the final years of the Classic period, or at least from eastern Mesoamerica in general.[4] Links with the Aztec or speakers of Nahuatl are documented by several Maya gods that tie into central Mexican ones; reciprocally, the Dresden Codex, a Maya book, records several Mexican deities (Taube and Bade 1991; Whittaker 1986).

Possibly, the walls also kept people in. This is the most speculative and disquieting part of the argument: some of these facilities may have been pens, the corrals of people. The degree to which the Classic Maya slaved is unclear. The non-locals (11–16%) found by chemical studies of bone at Tikal—the samples are not large, however—could reflect this practice (Wright 2012). Aztec neck-sticks are almost copies of those on the much-afflicted, Late Classic captives at Tonina (see above). Pietro Martire d’Anghiera mentions that a native canoe encountered by Columbus was “drawn by naked slaves with ropes around their necks,” and Diego de Landa leaves no doubts about the abundance of slaving, often to trade for cacao, and attributed “this evil” to a particular group, the Cocom, i.e., he historicized it, fixed it as a development in time (Tozzer 1941:36, 36fn175, 94). For the Classic Maya, Mary Miller notes many ceramic figurines, including finely dressed women, with what appear to be slave-ropes around their necks (personal communication, 2019).

Was this, as Andrew Scherer suggests to me, the darker side of the Terminal Classic? Dynasties might raid, but they could also shield. Their unraveling, the evident movements of people, and the new ethnic presences documented by Simon Martin (2020:290–294, 296–297, fig. 73) led potentially to vigorous profit and a frayed social contract. This might have been especially the case for the “internationalization” of slaving, a trade highlighted by early Colonial sources. In Africa, according to a chilling appraisal by two economic historians, the “marginal value of people as captives [rose] above their marginal value as producers to be taxed…[with an] incentive to produce ‘outsiders’ who can be raided” (Whatley and Gillizeau 2010:573). For the Yoruba in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, war yielded slaves, slaving drove war, with no small capital outlay required to mount campaigns and to house slaves in enclosures known as ita (Ojo 2008:80–81). Brokers, chiefs, warriors—all profited from human misery. For a time, and perhaps among the Terminal Classic Maya, fluid trade could coexist with fragmenting societies.

[1] The term for “slave” in Nahuatl (TLĀCOH-TLI) is a near-homophone for “staff, pole” (TLACŌ-TL, David Stuart, personal communication, 2020; see Karttunen 1983:256). This may have been a metonym, an object standing for (and even depersonalizing) its referent or perhaps, because of the divergent vowels, the association was fortuitous.

[2] Durán refers to another altar that has yet to be discovered by urban excavation (Stuart 2018:23). The distant analogy of Maya altars suggests a logical dyad, the moon. Altars or ballcourt markers with moon deities include Caracol Altar 25, Tenam Rosario Altar 1, and Quirigua Altar Q.

[3] The broader mesh of trade in the region has since been emphasized to the south, in and around the upper and middle reaches of the Pasión River, Guatemala (Kovacevich 2006; Demarest et al. 2014).

[4] The operative concept is probably the pan-Mayan word pet, “circular” or “round” (Kaufman and Norman 1984:128). To my knowledge, the glyphic version of this, a circle within a circle, was first deciphered by Nikolai Grube. The graphic origin is doubtless that of a hard stone ear spool, an object of great value and patient manufacture. The sign is employed as a verb to indicate the creation of some rounded thing and, less literally, as the completion of a carving. See K1180, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (#1988.1182), in which a monkey-scribe holds up a rounded object near a verb PET-ta-ja, pehtaj, “it is rounded” (photograph courtesy of Justin Kerr). The insertion of the hand and rounded object into the vertical, glyphic passage is probably a self-conscious integration of text with image.


My thanks go to Charles Golden, Takeshi Inomata, Simon Martin, Mary Miller, Joel Palka, Andrew Scherer, David Stuart, and Karl Taube for useful discussion, and to Oswaldo Chinchilla and Nicholas Dunning for help with figures. Sarah Newman defrayed the costs of our productive visit to Pueblito and was, as ever, full of insight and energy. For Nahuatl words, including those spelling in hieroglyphs, I use the spellings with vowel length in the authoritative dictionary by Karttunen (1983). The online dictionary edited by Stephanie Wood is also a wide-ranging tool for scholars (


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All the Small Things

Stephen Houston

For the small people in my life, and for those soon to arrive

In his study of the sublime, Edmund Burke observed that, “[i]n the animal creation, out of our own species, it is the small we are inclined to be fond of; little birds, and some of the smaller kinds of beasts (Burke 1757:97). These creatures are beautiful; they inspire affection and pleasure. Then there are the things that are gigantic, uncontrolled, unbalanced, even monstrous. Marked by excess, they trigger awe, fear or distaste: “[a] great beautiful thing, is a manner of expression scarcely ever used; but that of a great ugly thing, is very common” (Burke 1757:97). Smallness pleases, largeness overwhelms. A feeling of vulnerability besets the viewer of that “great ugly thing” disliked by Burke (Mack 2007:54). For him, beauty and delight came in petite guise.

Among the Classic Maya, life-sized images were reserved for stone or perhaps wood, a material mastered by Maya sculptors but now largely gone because of tropical decay (Doyle and Houston 2014, 2016). The only clay effigy of comparable size dates later. A foot survives from a Postclassic statue found in 1921 at Mound I, Tayasal, Guatemala. Clearly of unusual size, it might once have sat in a temple. [1] For their part, stone carvings drew close to—or even exceeded—”one-to-one-ism,” a mimetic approximation of an actual human frame (Houston 2019; see below).

Yet the Maya made many small things. Abundant at some sites, scarce at others, “figurines” are described by a diminutive, very much a reduced version of what they depict (Halperin 2014:37–43). This is no less true of so-called “miniature” vessels or containers (Figure 1). [2] Varied in form and surface treatment, they tend to have restricted openings, if with slightly everted lips around the rim. Stoppers of perishable material held the contents in place. Whether the vessels were small so as to enhance portability, house a valuable substance, or made for some other reason remains the issue here.

Figure 1. Miniature ceramics, Magdalena, Guatemala, note ko-lo ch’o-ko on ‘a’ , to upper left (A. L. Smith and Kidder 1943:fig. 52).

Smallness has many motivations. The diminutive implies an innate comparison with the human body, “the gold standard in the realm of measurement” (Mack 2007:53; see also Hamilton 2018:28). The object being seen or held is related visually and experientially to the person doing the beholding. That gamut of size can run, in two whimsical examples, from the smallest Hebrew Bible, on a 0.5 mm2 chip, easily blown off a finger tip by a puff of air (Jaffe-Katz 2009), to, somewhere out on the Plains, a ball of twine so large it would flatten any fool trying to lift it—competition heats up over where that ball might be (Hwang 2014). The small, regardless of time or place, is also right for small people. Conceptually, the small-scale is to full-scale as a child is to an adult. For practical reasons too: in little hands, a doll is easier to grasp than a baby, the consequences less dire if dropped. There is playful imitation, a rehearsal for later roles. Caring for a doll or using a small tool helps to prepare for the local norms of adult work (Mack 2006:139–157).

The hand-held nurtures a feeling of intimacy. Holding an object pleases the viewer, a point made long ago by Claude Lévi-Strauss (1966:23–24). Large and “formidable” things put the viewer at a disadvantage; a mental image can only be pieced together after multiple views, one angle at a time. But more than pleasing, small objects lend themselves to eroticism. In 18th and 19th-century Anglo-America, miniaturists painted on ivory a lover’s eye with arched eyebrow or a full-lipped mouth. The images went into a locket or a slim tablet the size of a wallet. Private, kept close to the heart, they were at once a recollection of past contact and a promise of future raptures. And, contrary to Lévi-Strauss, they were small yet partial. The task of imagining the whole was less an unpleasant or onerous effort than the main point of such reverie.

Sometimes the painter was the lover. In 1828, Sarah Goodridge, a celebrated miniaturist, depicted her breasts for the statesman Daniel Webster (Figure 2; Barratt and Zabar 2010:125, fig. 12, #256). The painting highlighted, among other attributes, a single mole at the midline. It is a visual billet-doux, and the recipient must have known of this blemish. But the painting also idealized Goodridge’s body. She was nearly 40 years old, and these were the breasts of a younger woman. Perhaps the reception was not what Goodridge hoped for. Recently widowed, Webster soon married another.

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Figure 2. “Beauty Revealed,” by Sarah Goodridge, 1828, 6.7 x 8 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006.235.74, CC0 1.0.

In such images, the meanings are non-general, the recipients targeted. This is where tactility comes into its own, in that the effects occur at close distance. The hand can and should hold them (Goldring 2019:2). Smallness also draws attention to the finely made, to a surfeit of detail, to precious material whose minute working asks for a second or third look. An opulent housing may attract the attention of others, and a private statement becomes (nearly) public by its glittering package (Goldring 2019:2). The Phoenix Jewel, designed by Nicholas Hilliard for Queen Elizabeth I of England, astonishes because of its flamboyance and, as a big part of its allure, the fine chasing and enameling, the summit of craftsmanship in this period (Goldring 2019:114–115). [3] Objects like this condense time, so great was the care that went into them. The viewer understands and enjoys that investment. And in what must be a cross-cultural impulse, exquisite things invite repeated visits. Minoan seals astound by their microscopic excellence, surely the focus of the makers and owners who handled them, and a revelation to those lucky enough to visit the Heraklion Museum in Crete (Weingarten 2012). Much later, Lorenzo the Magnificent spent hours scrutinizing his collection of gems and stone vases (Dunkelman 2010; Hellenstein 2013), and some of the largest collections of Russian Fabergé exist in the collections of the British royal family, who exchanged these bibelots as gifts ( If there is such a thing as court culture, the small but sensational played an important role within it.

But the emotions are not always about pleasure. Writing of “tiny stone animals” in the Andes, Catherine Allen discerns “love, awe, reverence, gratitude, and, yes, anxiety and fear” (Allen 2016:416). The last two arise because the pebbles or carved rocks are, in a sense, persons with their own powers, or they relate to grand forces brought, as small sized objects, into the household (Allen 2016:419; see also Mack 2006:162–181). Smallness can be potent and microcosmic, relating to landforms and overall structures of the universe (Dehouve 2016:507–512). In the Andes, for example, families prosper by collecting and shaping stones imbued with the spirits of mountains (Allen 2016:418, 429). Yet with that use comes risk. A power strong enough to assist can slip out of control, and a blessing becomes a peril.

In sum, small things give pleasure by being hand-held, appreciated at one glance (if part of an imaginative process that ripples wider), and exemplary in skill and artful use of precious materials. These features make them precious, coveted, collectable, hoardable. As toys for children, they are literally playful. But by scale, by being smaller versions of much larger things—and inherently non-normative—they inspire a certain awe. What they represent lends some essence of the original to its copy. In some cases, they house spirits that make even the small seem powerful. And, above all, the small inspires a response, along with a range of wishes, emotions, and creative results (Stewart 1993).

Size is an absolute, characterized loosely or by precise measurement. Scale is inherently about comparison, a suggestion made by Andrew Hamilton (2018:27) in his invaluable study of Inca scale, size, and proportion. For him, scale can be loosely descriptive (“tiny, small, large, gigantic”), but has to be in relation to something else. Some are: (1) “reduced,” being smaller than their presumed original (a llama, house model, terraced fields with huaca, water courses, and puma, a textile with Inka checkerboard); (2) “enlarged,” being larger than their natural inspiration (an Aztec grasshopper or chapulín some 47 cm long); or (3) “commensurate,” being the same size as an original (Hamilton 2018:31, 244, pl. 70)—in other words, examples of “one-to-one-ism” (see above). There are, in some instances, ritual or spiritual implications to the relations thus established. A “co-activity” occurred in which “humans coordinate[d] their activities with nonhuman agents” (Pitrou 2016:479). This insight does need detail, however. The size and scale of a llama in gold or silver, or a grasshopper of lustrous stone but monstrous proportions, are not simply aesthetic in origin. They are not made just because they could be made. There were reasons and meanings behind them, a panoply of manufactures and uses, patrons and makers, an intended placement, either concealed or in view, along with names, identities, essences.

Maya data are deeply concerned with smallness. There are contemporary texts, rich resources from Mayan languages, and many relevant objects. The Ch’olan languages have the following: Ch’olti’, the language closest to may Classic-period inscriptions, has com (kom), as in com aic, “small thing,” com uinic, “small man,” coman, “idol,” comcom, “a little pot with a neck,” se-se, “small,” and tzitic tzitic (tz’itik?), “very small” (Ringle n.d.). Or, in Ch’orti’, there are b’ik’it, “small, little,” chuchu’, “small, little, young,” or the negation ma noj, “not big” (Hull 2016:70, 108, 144, 265); Ch’ol provides b’ik’it, “small,” ch’ok, “young, small, and tz’ita’, “a little bit” (Hopkins et al. 2010:22, 53, 249). More distantly related languages offer: Colonial Tzotzil bik’it, “little, narrow, thin, humble,” ch’am, “little, small, trifling,” or machal, “modest, even phlegmatic” (Laughlin 1988:166, 196, 253), or present-day Tzoztil ‘unen, “small, young, unripe, new (moon), leaf, rising (sun)” (Laughlin 1975:74). Tzeltal records bik’it, “pequeño, chico,” ch’in, “pequeño, chico,” ch’ujch’, “pequeño, menudo, diminuto,” pek’el, “bajo, pequeño,” tut/tutu’, “pequeño, chico (Polian 2017:156, 225, 234, 491, 577). Yukatek, lush with words, yields chan, chan chan, kom, ma’ noh, ts’e, and so on (Barrera Vásquez et al. 1980:83, 84, 334, 498, 880).

What is clear from this incomplete list is that: (1) the terms can apply to things, humans, and idols alike; (2) they can negate by overt comparison with their opposite (ma’ noh, “not large”); (3) words can intensify by means of reduplication (se-se [tz’e-tz’e?], tzitik tzitik [tz’itik tz’itik?], chuchu, tutu’, chan chan); (4) cognates exist across several languages (bik’it, chuchu’/ch’uhch’); and (5) bio-metaphors exist, or an expansive reference from one thing, a small or young being, to a new moon or rising sun, and vegetal growth that is small, and likened reciprocally to a child (ch’ok). Diminutives themselves have, in some Mesoamerican languages, a self-deprecatory quality, sometimes combined with honorifics (Romero 2014:69). They might also affirm a mode of polite, careful address (Brown 1993). Tzotzil projects the use of diminutives as part of story-telling or entreaty (Laughlin 1975:17–19). Tenderness and delicacy are there, but also an almost humble (even wheedling) tone if to a social superior or a supernatural. That Latin American Spanish makes pronounced use of diminutives raises the possibility of indigenous influence on such usage (Eddington 2017; Walsh 1944).

From the Classic period, an inventory of reduced-scale objects would include (Figure 3): a temple (wayib) for a dynastic god at Copan, Honduras (Fash 2011:160, fig. 184); a micro-stela from Tikal, Guatemala (Moholy-Nagy, with Coe 2008:fig. 218, gg); another said to be from Uaymil, Campeche (photograph from John Bourne; Zender and Reents-Budet 2012:103–102, #83); and a city precinct of limestone, also from Tikal, with small holes that may represent chultunes or storage cavities (Laporte and Fialko 1995:fig. 74; n.b: this model, not a maquette for builders, shows a degree of architectural compaction that would be impossible in Maya cities; it does not correspond to any known sector of Tikal). These are consistently smaller, both absolutely and at reduced scale, in comparison to their inspirations. The micro-stelae do not have the long, deep bases of actual monuments—without such “espigas,” real stelae would list by imbalance or soil creep or topple with gusts of hard wind. The Copan temple model, a dwelling for a deity, is set apart by its smallness. By its marked, notable reduction in scale, it offers a hint of “co-activity” with the humans living nearby. Although crudely executed, a miniature stela said to be from Uaymil, Campeche, appears to bear the name of its carver. Evidently, despite its regrettable opacity, the stela was valued. A closer reading of its text could tell us much about the meaning of smallness among the Classic Maya.

Figure 3. Reduced scale among the Late Classic Maya: House “model” for god, Copan, Group 10L-2 (photograph by Barbara Fash, Fash 2011:160, fig. 184); miniature stela, Tikal, Op. 20D–72/43 (7.5 cm high, Moholy-Nagy, with Coe 2008:fig. 218, gg); Uaymil, Campeche Mexico (56.5 x 12.8 x 9.7 cm, photograph from John Bourne, TL 2009.20.196); Tikal “maquette,” Structure 5C-54 (Laporte and Fialko 1995:fig. 74).

Scalar inventions are in some ways the basis of Maya writing. The glyphs are, in a word, “calibrated.” They are images adjusted to a glyphic domain where variant scale cannot be accommodated within a single band of writing (Andréas Stauder, personal communication, 2019). The glyphs for a pyramid platform, a frontal stairway leading to its summit, and a stone-pedestaled altar on the Copan Hieroglyphic Stairway are nowhere near their relative scale—they have passed through a graphic process that makes them equivalent in size (Figure 4). Such calibration is necessary to all hieroglyphic systems. They must obey linearity, a language-based sequencing, but be framed within an area set off as writing. They are “reduced” but clarified further by a second adjustment in which relative size no longer mattered. Each glyph was probably central to Maya concepts of civic settlement. These were the places where ritual duties were performed. In what seems a necessary duality, platformed buildings existed with open-air altars used for sacrifice, sometimes of humans (see Caracol Altars 22 and 23; Grube 2020:fig. 13). To judge from glyphic reading order, the platforms took rhetorical precedence over the altars.

Figure 4. Stepped platform of two levels and pedestaled altar, Copan Hieroglyphic Stairway, Honduras, upper portion (Gordon 1902:pl XII, H).

Reduced scale ceramics are found on Maya sites, if not in great number. But they do appeal to collectors, as in the large troves in the Kislak Collection at the Library of Congress (Dunkelman 2007:11, 12, 13, 42, most descriptions by John B. Carlson) and a set of unprovenanced examples in the Museo de Antropología e Historia de Guatemala, most in its storerooms. Simply put, they are highly collectable. They are a discrete category of small size and, on a piece-by-piece basis, modestly priced on the art market. Their use and formal composition show evidence of variety and playfulness. Not at few at Uaxactun, Guatemala, display what might be called “componential inventions.” In trompe l’oeil fashion, they appear to fuse two distinct shapes, an open bowl with a water jug. They are small yet, even at that size, playing with much bigger forms.

Figure 5. Componential inventions, “bowls” with inserted “tinaja,” Tzakol or Early Classic miniatures, Uaxactun, Guatemala (R. Smith 1955:66, A10, 11).

The metaphors in such miniatures vary greatly. They can be versions of trophy heads or skulls, one at the Library of Congress with pummeled, swollen eyes and lips (Figure 6a; for larger examples, see Chase and Chase 2018:fig. 75; Inomata et al. 2010:fig. 8.46, likely modeled as a deceased captive). A piece from the Aguateca palace complex appears to show a figure in which the miniature becomes its satchel held by tumpline (Inomata et al. 2010:fig. 8.28f); another exhibits a small bug, probably a firefly, on a small vase (Inomata et al. 2010:fig. 8.27g). Others are skeuomorphs—cross-media transfers—from perishable to non-perishable materials, as in a gourd-shaped miniature from Uaxactun or flat, canteen-like flasks that might have reflected leather or wooden originals (Figure 6b; cf. flat, horizontally elongated flasks in Eppich 2011, a shape well-suited to figural scenes), or the small houses common in square shapes, sloping roofs with fringed thatch or leaves (Figure 6c). Churned out in large number, these last exemplify the mold-made productions that heightened access to hieroglyphic texts and high-style images (Card and Zender 2016; Matsumoto 2018, 2019). Curiously, many seem to have been produced in the area of Copan, the Motagua River Basin, but with eventual find spots in areas that had little evident literacy in glyphs: readable texts that were unread if admired. What is worth noting too is that many miniatures have counterparts in larger pots, but not all do, especially the “flat” or “canteen-like” flasks. For unclear reasons, the imagery is largely decoupled from the probable function of the miniatures, one of the few exceptions being a flask with a tobacco plant (e.g., Houston et a. 2006:fig. 3.9b).

The wit here is notable, a skull like a receptacle, a “house” that stored limited contents, a gourd that did the same. They resemble, and are likened to, things they are not, but with a looser semblance of function. That marking of special shape and small holdings—tobacco is one likely content (Houston et al. 2006:114–116, figs. 3.9–3.10; see also Loughmiller-Cardinal and Zagorevski 2016)—may explain their inclusion in special deposits or caches at Caracol, Belize (e.g., Chase and Chase 2018:fig. 72a), and Tikal (Problematic Deposits 116, 169, Culbert 1993:figs. 114b, 148g, 155b), or in the Barranca Escondida chasm at Aguateca, Guatemala (Inomata et al. 2010:fig. 8.59). These are variant sizes in symbolically marked spaces. The presence of copal or resin in some such miniatures hints at other sacred offerings to be combusted by fire (R. Smith 1955:figs. 9k, 12n).

Figure 6. Miniatures and metaphors: (a) swollen, bleeding head, perhaps with eyes removed (Kislak Collection, Library of Congress); (b) a “gourd” (A. L. Smith and Kidder 1943:fig. 52d); (c) “house” with God D, quetzal bird, and dwarf, Tazumal, El Salvador (Card and Zender 2016:fig. 4); and a “house” flask with ballplayer scene (Yale University Art Gallery, 2018.12.8, gift of Peter David Joralemon).

A few, up on four supports, are more likely to be sedan chairs. A creature sprawls on its roof, and four feet elevate it for resting on an uneven or muddy surface. Both are portable, one by a single hand, the other, judging by the handbars, by at least two heaving porters (see also K6759). Other miniatures have two small “ears” for lashing the stopper or suspension around the neck—if with tobacco powder, a short distance to the nose (Inomata et al. 2010:figs. 8.15c, 8.16a, 8.19a, b, 8.25h, 8.27g).

Figure 7. Miniature as sedan chair, Magdalena, Guatemala (left, see Figure 1a, above), and Late Classic vase (right, K767, courtesy Justin Kerr).

In fact, an image of a male rat or pocket gopher may display a unique image of a miniature in use. The rodent clutches a small object that may be self-referential, the flask in use, close to the face (Figure 8).

Figure 8. Miniature shown in possible use, Bodega, Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología (photograph Stephen Houston).  

The glyphs on the flasks and miniature jars need their own study. A few refer explicitly to tobacco snuff (see above), but, notably, the owner is not always specified: in flexible phrasing, “the dwelling [yotoot] of his or her snuff [may]” applies to the first owner all the way to the last. One who is specified carries almost a casual, stripped-down record, a-ku MO’-‘o, “Turtle Macaw,” without the titles that would further identify him.

Most texts are, if legible, highly formulaic, with glyphs repeated and reordered into what seems a jumble. One has an upside text (American Museum of Natural History 30.2/ 6083). These glyphs are generally syllabic, perhaps a nod to consumers unfamiliar with the language: ko-lo, che?-ye/HA’?-ka, AJAW, AJ-cha?-la, XOOK?, and, most clearly, ch’o-ko (e.g., K7122; one molded text may even allude to a “great youth,” CHAK ch’o-ko). The presence of this, a term for “youth,” could refer to these as flasks intended for young men as gifts in rites of passage (Houston 2018:80–81). At the least, their broad occurrence suggests a certain degree of impersonality, a more generic sort of reference. Yet the biometaphors for small things may indicate an alternative: the ch’ok are the objects themselves (Figures 1, 7). A flask with incised, post-fire text reinforces this possibility with a name-tag that simply reads, u-ch’o-ko ch’a-jo?-ma, u ch’ok ch’ajoom, “[this is] the ch’ok of the incense [priest]” (Coe 1971:137, pl. 76).

That there was aesthetic and emotional regard for miniature vases seems undeniable. Metaphors informed their shape and decoration. They may have satisfied cravings if filled with snuff, or served rituals as handy places for copal (tobacco might also be burned on such occasions). They were not just lowly and workaday but could find their way, votive-like, into sacred caches or, testifying to royal use, on the floors and benches of a rapidly abandoned palace. Like a locket, they could be kept on one’s person. The beauty of other small things invoked yet other metaphors. A small conch of unknown provenance has on it a text that spells out “[this is] his hummingbird conch” (Figure 9). [4] Not because any such bird cavorts on its surface, but because “hummingbird” was an expression—and is so used today—for a “very small” thing in Ch’orti’ Maya (Hull 2016:462). In that language, superbly documented by Kerry Hull, it concerns living things, a turkey (or, today, a chicken), a dog, rooster (gayu, from Spanish gallo), a person or, in this example, a small conch cradled in the hand. A tiny bird, anomalous in many ways—fragile yet fierce, of shocking speed and wayward flight—extends to a once-living shell that was probably a rarity in the place it was made.

Figure 9. Small conch, u-tz’u-nu2 HUB-nu, u tz’unun hub, “his hummingbird conch” (photographer unknown).

Reduced scale has many meanings, not all, for the ancient Maya, explicable on available evidence. The allusions could be “playful,” even if to a scooped-out head. (Amusement is a universal but not what prompts it.) And if affection and humility are discernible a millennium out, those feelings may also have enveloped small things. The small and the large appear to intensify responses to them. Some objects were crude, perhaps modeled by children, but there is no proof that the young were involved other than, perhaps, as recipients. Moreover, Burke’s conviction that only large things inspired awe has grounds for disbelief. From the Preclassic period on, the stone effigies of Chahk, the ferocious storm and rain god, were mostly small: powerful in ways that could split trees and blast rock yet rest in the hand; wielders of lightning some decimeters high at most; cut with care, brought to high polish, each quite tactile (e.g., Coe 1973:25, pl. 1, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, ANT.236866; Princeton University Art Museum, y1990-74; American Museum of Natural History 30.3/ 2507). Where these were kept in Classic or earlier times cannot be known. Yet, although things of awe, they could, by human contact, by their small, holdable size, come under human control.

[1] For the Tayasal image: The Hollis repository also contains a photograph of a large seated figure from Laguna Cilvituk, a fired effigy that also dates to the Postclassic period (58-34-20/53638). The Tayasal statue might have had the same pose, the legs drawn up in throned position.

[2] As a label, “miniature” comes from the practice of limning small paintings. It derives from Latin minium, “red lead” or “cinnabar (see the Trésor de la Langue Française informatisé,;s=1921873545;).

[3] On the Phoenix Jewel:

[4] The term for conch may lose vowel complexity over time: hu[bi] and, in possessed form, yu-bi are attested (, position D1, the other from a photograph kindly shared by David Stuart). The example here contains a logograph HUB and a subfixed bu. For incisive discussion: Zender (2017:16–17, fn32), who proposes, for future discussion, a spelling less about vowel complexity than “selected [so as] to minimize orthographic variation in possessed contexts.”


My thanks go to Simon Martin for organizing a session, on Feb. 25, 2020, at the Kluge Center, Library of Congress, where I first presented some of these ideas. The meeting was stimulating, and a warm memory from just before the pandemic. Karl Taube was helpful in discussing little gods who were also “big,” and Christina Halperin and David Stuart were supportive too.


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