Mythic Prototypes and Maya Writing 2

by Stephen Houston and Simon Martin

A perennial attraction of Maya writing to the modern eye is its playful balance between convention and observed detail. A recent work does rich justice to the wit and fun that arose from Maya minds and hands (Stone and Zender 2011). But there may be another element to the creation of signs, of a sort that needs definition and testing. This is the conceptual connection that exists in ancient Maya thought between a unique exemplar and a more general class of thing or being.

John Milton would have understood the issue. For him, every man contained the essence of Adam, a singular prototype. Adam was Man but also a man. His companion in the Fall, Eve, was by that same logic both a woman and Woman. These beings were at once unique and susceptible to generalization. There is a reason, too, that Adam and Eve appeared in book called “Genesis.” They animated an explanatory story of origins and accounted for why descendants are as they are, ever willful by some views, ever disobedient to heavenly instruction.

There may be a more subtle matter at stake. For decades, ethnobiologists have considered the nature and hierarchical patterns of Maya classification (e.g., Berlin et al. 1974:153-157). What is missing, however, is the process, familiar to Plato, by which humans thought with equal effort about ideal forms and concrete reality. This might involve, to offer one case, an exemplary concept of “Tree” versus the many ways in which arboreal vegetation might exist, flourish, wither, scar or flower. To George Santayana (1915:ch. 1), “[t]he Platonic idealist is … so wedded to perfection that he sees in everything not the reality but the faultless ideal which the reality misses and suggests.”

But it is unlikely that the ancient Maya were Platonists. The originals were not ideals, but, as argued here, for a number of examples, highly specific things or creatures that were extended to identify a general class. Reciprocally, the general class of such things might fold back in reference to a mythic prototype. Robert Laughlin comes closest to this groove with his stories of Tzotzil plant lore. Weeds, “the ancestors’ corn and beans, were so fussy and complaining that Our Lord banished them to the wilds” and “[c]hili sprouted from the drops of Christ’s blood” (Laughlin 1993, 105, 106). Implicit in such stories are theories of origins and causation, but also of first things and their inescapable bearing on the present.

Much of this is intuitively obvious to Mayanists. The Ajaw face, a youthful, male profile, headbanded, check with distinctive spot, is both every lord read AJAW, and a particular being of mythic stamp and story, often paired with a similar figure, but with jaguar pelage. As Karl Taube (2003) showed so cogently, the first exercises dominion over humans, the second over animals, although the name of the latter remains elusive. The head for woman, IXIK, may similarly refer to a First Woman. The clearest cases are where glyphic terms are those of natural categories of animal—as confirmed by full phonetic spellings or complemented forms—yet the logographic versions of the same depict supernatural beasts. A partial list would include the following (illustration below):

—the jaguar: both general, for the “jaguar,” BAHLAM, and eponymous, as a water-lily jaguar sprouting a water-lily from its forehead (Figure 1a). (A few such cats appear to be read HIX, as on Copan St. 13:E5, or to be depicted as this, possibly more generic feline, as in the jade from Tikal Burial 196; Coe 1967:65.)

—the Xook shark: both general, for a fearsome “shark,” XOOK, and eponymous, as monstrous fish speared in primordial times (Figure 1b).

—the crocodile: both general, for the reptile AHIIN, and eponymous, as a being with cross-bands in its eye, a mythic, sacrificial prototype (Figure 1c).

—the snake: both general, for the reptile KAAN/CHAN, and eponymous, as a specific being with flower-like element in its forehead (Figure 1d). —the trickster rabbit with marked ear: both general, as T’UHL, and eponymous, as an oversexed and cunning creature who, among his many deeds, bests the god of trading (Figure 1e).

—the eagle/bird: both general, as TZ’IKIN/MEEN?,” as an everyday category of avian, and as supernatural bird linked to the sun (Figure 1f). This is part of a larger phenomenon of words and concepts that are ostensibly prosaic, yet always realized in mythic or metaphysical terms.

—the so-called “Patron of Pax”: both general, the glyph TE’, most often as a numeral classifier, and eponymous, as the base of a mythic world tree, te’, perhaps the primordial ceiba (Figure 1g; see David Stuart, 2007,

—the sky-eagle: both general, in reference to a denizen linked to the sky, CHAN, and eponymous, as a bird that defines the lustrous arc of the sky. Or, in a related form, a solar eagle associated with war-flints, as at Tonina (Mon. 91:pB1, Karl Taube, pers. comm. 1985; Figure 1h).

A reasoned proposal might be made that each of these, some more secure than others, are not merely a set of generic words signs. In tandem they evoke a singular mythic prototype, a First Exemplar—implying a compendium of etiological, causational stories—along with everyday incarnations of that prototype. To see and depict such things and beings might have been, for the ancient Maya, a binocular process. It perceived the specific in the general, and the general amidst the wondrous particulars of ever-present myth.

Figure 1. (a) Copan Altar K:J1 (drawing by Barbara Fash, CMHI Project, Harvard University); (b) Tikal Cache 198:F1, Str. 5D-46 (drawing, University of Pennsylvania Museum); (c) Tikal Stela 31:F11; (d) Copan Stela A:H5 (drawing by Barbara Fash, CMHI Project, Harvard University; (e) K1340:C1 (photograph by Justin Kerr, Kerr Associates); (f) Río Azul Tomb 12, north wall (photograph by George Mobley, courtesy, George Stuart); (g) Copan Hieroglyphic Stairway (photograph from Barbara Fash, Copan Hieroglyphic Stairway Project, Peabody Museum, Harvard); and (h) Copan Stela A:G3 (drawing by Barbara Fash, CMHI Project, Harvard University).

References Cited

Berlin, Brent, Dennis E. Breedlove, and Peter H. Raven. 1974. Principles of Tzeltal Plant Classification: An Introduction to the Botanic Ethnography of a Mayan-Speaking People of Highland Chiapas. New York: Academic Press.

Coe, William R. 1967. Tikal: A Handbook of the Ancient Maya Ruins. Philadelphia: University Museum, University of Pennsylvania.

Laughlin, Robert M. 1993. Poetic License. In The Flowering of Man: A Tzotzil Botany of Zinacantán, by Dennis E. Breedlove and Robert M. Laughlin, pp. 101-108. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology No. 35. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Santayana, George. 1915. Egotism in German Philosophy. New York: Scribner’s.

Stone, Andrea, and Marc Zender. 2011. Reading Maya Art : A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Maya Painting and Sculpture. London: Thames & Hudson.

Taube, Karl. 2002. Ancient and Contemporary Maya Conceptions of the Field and Forest. In Lowland Maya Area: Three Millennia at the Human-Wildland Interface, edited by A. Gómez-Pompa, M. F. Allen, S. Fedick, and J. Jiménez-Moreno, pp. 461-494. New York: Haworth Press.

Bending Time among the Maya 4

by Stephen Houston

Visitors to Japan, if they make it to Mie prefecture, will wonder at the Ise Grand Shrine. Rebuilt every 20 years, it is said to be exactly similar to buildings first made over a millennium ago (Wada 1995). By the tenets of Shintoism, the shrine is forever new yet perennially old, a replacement that somehow remains the same, regardless of how many times it has been rebuilt. For Mayanists, the example of Ise and its implied concern for the joining of past and present rumble into familiar terrain. After all, every Maya date is relational, existing only in reference to a point in the distant past (the Long Count) or with respect to other positions in a cycle (the Calendar Round and other counts). A present does not exist without a backloaded past and a future that gives it some framing.

A recent book, Anachronic Renaissance, by Alexander Nagel and Christopher Wood (2010), prompts further reflection on the meaning of old and the new in Maya texts and images. The main task of the volume is to examine the paradox of Renaissance art, namely, the simultaneous revival and replacement of the past during a crucial period of Western history. Nagel and Wood use a variety of terms and phrases that will resonate with Mayanists: “plural temporality….[the] doubling or bending of time…[the] cultural project of time management,” and “the temporal instability of the artwork” (Nagel and Wood 2010:8, 9, 10). The latter is a precarious state that, despite the reality of replication—think of the renewed beams and thatch at Ise–coincides with the “ontological stability” of certain objects or buildings (Nagel and Wood 2010:30). This “stability” rests on the direct claim that the essence and identity of the shrine remain intact despite the fact that not one scrap of it survives from previous versions.

A more ambitious aim of Anachronic Renaissance is to chart two modes of representation. Both can co-exist as explanations of origins, although they might also “interfere…with one another” (Nagel and Wood 2010:49). The first mode: “substitution,” a process of creation by which artifacts replace earlier, authoritative ones in a “chain of replicas” (Nagel and Wood 2010:30). Thus, in a “mystical…substitutional logic,” “[m]odern copies of painted icons were understood as effective surrogates for lost originals….and new buildings were understood as reinstantiations…of prior structures” (Nagel and Wood 2010:29, 33). By this means, “a material sample of the past could somehow be both an especially powerful testimony to a distant world and…an ersatz for another, now absent artifact” (Nagel and Wood 2010:31). The well-known propensity of the Maya to replicate and improvise new buildings atop older ones would be solid examples of “substitutes.” Although commissioned by particular kings, the buildings were probably viewed as “reinstantiations…of prior structures.” Indeed, their packaging within later construction hints at the sacred bundles of the Maya, who found no contradiction between ritual centrality and the exclusion of sacred things from sight (e.g., Christenson 2006:237). Continuity is an obvious motivation, but there may have been sociological reasons as well. In other settings, as in the Saite 26th dynasty of Egypt, acts of quotation, citation or whole-scale borrowing flourished at times when Egyptian identities were under threat by “increasing numbers of foreigners” (Der Manuelian 1994:xxxv, 402, 409). They glorified, extolled, an ethnic identity that seemed to be in danger of dilution. Yet, in these works, there was no intent to deceive, and many of these productions expressed a “contemporary originality” (Der Manuelian 1994:409). The state of being poised in two times, invoking one period while residing in another, suggests in precise parallel the “multiple” or “plural temporality” described by Nagel and Wood. (fn 1) They appeal to the past–define it as something distinct—yet nullify their distance from it.

In contrast, Nagel and Wood’s second mode, the “performative” or “authorial,” highlights the historical singularity of an object, its placement in linear time, its novelty and capacity to make fresh, unexpected connections, its attention to the “time of manufacture” and the people behind it (Nagel and Wood 2010:30, 94). This, more than the first, is a mode that finds a lodging for “forgery” or “pastiche,” “the invention of a new work in a plausible past style” (Nagel and Wood 2010:289). Some of these were definitely meant to hoodwink, especially with objects prized by collectors. Yet, many “copies,” seldom exact, had their own value (Welch 2005:288).

These modes serve as a backdrop to the role and meaning of “archaicism” in certain Maya objects. The most striking are those that display Preclassic imagery (>1700 ya) with glyphic texts that are unlikely to date to that time. Alfonso Lacadena and I have long believed, for example, that the so-called “Hauberg Stela” (now in the Princeton University Art Museum) combines an archaic presentation of the body (wide, rounded hips, narrow waist, profile legs that barely overlap) with glyphs that seem to come from some centuries later (cf. Schele 1988, who opted for an early date of AD 199). In much the same way, one Terminal Classic monument at Ceibal, St. 13, appears to have glyphs—“quotations” or “citations”?—from an earlier time (CMHI 7:37). In both cases, the “time-bending” is in the temporal slippage between image and text, albeit with different forms of latching. By means of its image, the Hauberg Stela “bends back” to earlier periods; Ceibal St. 13 does so via the style and contents of its text. At the stuccoed temple of El Diablo, which forms part of El Zotz, Guatemala, my colleague, Edwin Román, and I have found an image of the sun god, surmounted by a glyph, that appears to be far earlier than the probable date of the building, c. AD 350-375. The eyes of the god have slotted eyes that recall Preclassic models. The glyph block above, perched over the forehead, includes a face with down-turned mouth (a Preclassic feature generally, with roots in the Olmec), and an unexpectedly archaic yu sign.

The best example of “substitution” or “bending back” may be the “Diker bowl” (Coe 1973: pl. 1), now in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (; Figures 1-3). The form of the stone vessel is of a Preclassic chocolate pot, the spouted handle being used to froth the liquid within (e.g., McAnany and Murata 2006; Powis et al. 2002). Not surprisingly, the style of the iconography is pure Preclassic, too. There are two deities, one an avian creature, the other with features of the Maya maize god. The figures float below a skyband marked by Ik’ or “wind” signs, alternating with the sloping lines associated with such bands in Preclassic contexts. Both gods seem to carry their name glyphs above their heads, of which a clear cross-tie appears at A3 in the vertical text on the handle.

Fig. 1. Diker Bowl, with avian god (drawing by Diane Griffiths Peck, from Coe 1973:Pl. 2).

Fig. 2. Diker Bowl, with probable maize god, perhaps AJ BIH in forehead (drawing by Diane Griffiths Peck, from Coe 1973:Pl. 2).

Fig. 3. Diker Bowl, with archaic skyband (drawing by Diane Griffiths Peck, from Coe 1973:Pl. 2).

The text is difficult. Nonetheless, through the kindness of Justin Kerr, I have obtained a photograph that reveals some of its details (Figure 4a, 4b). This is where interest mounts: against expectation, the glyphs appear to be fully Early Classic, not Preclassic, in date (n.b.: it is almost certain that the text and image are contemporary, in that the handle has the same relief as the images and could not have been added later). Position A1 may contain a version of the TI’ logograph identified by David Stuart, and in a schematic form that is securely Early Classic. A sign for “mouth” accords with what was surely a drinking vessel, although it is unlikely to read “drink,” uk’, in this context because of the prefixed u pronoun. Just beneath it lies what may be a reference to the vessel itself, with body and neck somewhat visible. The probable t’abayi sign that composes part of A2 conforms to this dates, as does what appears to be an admittedly aberrant spelling of a transitive verb at A4: u-K’AL-wa TUUN, doubtless in reference to the stone-bowl and its dedication. (The name of the god is, as mentioned before, at A2.) An unusual form of tu, a preposition with ergative pronoun, may figure in A5. To my knowledge, spellings of transitives come exclusively from the Classic period.

Fig. 4: Diker Bowl, with close-up photograph, (a), by J. Kerr (copyright J. Kerr), and, (b), pencil sketch by S. Houston.

What does the Diker Bowl tell us? This: that the Maya were fully capable of executing temporally disjunctive texts and images when they needed to do so. The ease with which they accomplished this task is, in the case of the Diker Bowl, surprising, at least for me. But it fits well with the facility the Maya showed in juxtaposing (and thus hybridizing) images of radically different style. Consider the Teotihuacano “text” on the summit of Temple 26 at Copan, ably drawn by David Stuart, and now reconstituted in the sculpture museum at the site, or the various Tajinesque, Veracruz elements that interweave with Maya designs on Maya vessels (e.g., K1446). Was the invocation of ancient gods the main motivation in showing them in archaic guise, on a cult object that may purportedly have “belonged” to one of them? Whatever the answer, the ability to step out of time, to exist in two periods or two regions all at once, suggests an effortless repositioning….and an expressive domain that we have yet fully to explore.

Footnote 1: Some of these originals were not so much lost as magically created. Examples would include the acheiropoieta (“not handmade”) icons of Byzantium and elsewhere—namely, the images crafted by non-human, divine hands, as in the Shroud of Turin or the painting of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in Mexico. Such objects possessed a kind of “absolute singularity”—they could not transmute into “substitutables” for the reason that they uniquely and irreplaceably expressed the shaping hand of God (Nagel and Wood 2010:72; their uniqueness makes them ideal foci of pilgrimage, Nagel and Wood 2010:72)—indeed, the thought come to mind that some Maya god effigies, especially the small, hardstone ones in of Chahk that Karl Taube and I have been noting for some time, were considered acheiropoieta (or something like them) among the Maya.

Acknowledgement: Justin Kerr showed his customary generosity in sharing the photograph reproduced here.


Christenson, Allen. 2006. Sacred Bundle Cults in Highland Guatemala. In Sacred Bundles: Ritual Acts of Wrapping and Binding in Mesoamerica, edited by Julia Guernsey and F. Kent Reilly, pp. 226-246. Barnardsville, NC: Boundary End Archaeology Research Center.

Coe, Michael D. 1973. The Maya Scribe and His World. New York: Grolier Club.

Der Manuelian, Peter. 1994. Living in the Past: Studies in Archaicism of the Egyptian Twenty-sixth Dynasty. London: Kegan Paul.

McAnany, Patricia, and S. Murata. 2006. From Chocolate Pots to Maya Gold: Belizean Cacao Farmers through the Ages. In Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao, edited by Cameron McNeil, pp. 429-450. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Nagel, Alexander, and Christopher Wood. 2010. Anachronic Renaissance. New York: Zone Books.

Powis, Terry G., Fred Valdez, Jr., Thomas R. Hester, W. Jeffrey Hurst and Stanley M. Tarka, Jr. 2001. Spouted Vessels and Cacao Use among the Preclassic Maya. Latin American Antiquity 13(1), pp. 85-106.

Schele, Linda. 1985. The Hauberg Stela. Bloodletting and the Mythos of Maya Rulership. In Fifth Palenque Round Table, 1983, edited by M.G. Robertson and V. Fields, pp. 135-150. San Francisco: PARI.

Wada, Atsumu. 1995. The Origins of the Ise Shrine. Acta Asiatica: Bulletin of the Institute of Eastern Culture, 69, pp. 63-83.

Welch, Evelyn. 2005. Shopping in the Renaissance: Consumer Cultures in Italy, 1400-1600. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Let Thy Glyphs be Few: Abbreviations in Maya Writing 6

by Stephen Houston and Simon Martin

“Let thy words be few,” says the Bible.  Yet concision is not a description that ordinarily applies to Maya texts.  Some inscriptions preserve the lush cadence and structure of formal orations. A few stretch across a dozen columns or more. But, undeniably, many Maya inscriptions are terse.  This feature arises from several things: a reliance on set formulae that communicate little more than essential information (date, event, “arguments” in the linguistic sense); restrictive formats that are inhospitable to prolix writing; the role of ancillary images in fleshing out a story, especially in descriptive detail; and the basic, innate challenge of being too prosy in bas-relief carving.

Terse texts can also be understood as ways to achieve “textual completeness,” i.e., the state resulting from the question, “what information is necessary and sufficient in this particular text?” What set of words in sequence is neither too much nor too little, in this place, at this time?  Someone had to make that deliberation as part of the compositional process. If textual economy were a consideration, there might be a further impulse to shorten the text. For clarity, however, the compositor might still signal the presence of a particular element by the expedient of abbreviation. By this orthographic alchemy, a word or sound is removed yet its presence implied.  A vacancy exists that the compositor asks the reader to fill.

English is full of abbreviations.  Presumably, these helped save expense at the typesetters or, in the yet more remote past, reduced copy-time for scriveners and economized on expensive materials like vellum. Thus, in English, a university might record “A.M.” for the degree of artium magister, and more formal writing would employ “et al.” (et alii, “and others”) or “e.g.” (exempla gratia, “for the sake of an example”).  Such abbreviations serve as sociolinguistic gates, at multiple levels. The reader must decode the notations by connecting them to words and meanings in fuller form. Ideally, in a fine display of erudition, that act would link one language, Latin, to another, English. In point of fact, few readers today would recognize the ablative case or masculine plural in Latin. The terms have become word- or idea-signs that launch directly into English.  But they still convey a surface gloss of more refined knowledge.

An ongoing debate in Maya glyph studies is the extent to which there were “underspellings” in the writing system. These would be examples where the compositors could not be bothered to add a final consonant or to include a certain pronoun or verbal suffix.  Such underspellings certainly existed—the variable presence of the ergative U in Glyph F is a case in point—but another essay would be needed to address whether they were rampant or systematic.  Interestingly, they are most common in personal names—in many cases surely because their local recognition factor was high, although this could not be true where foreigners were concerned.

What interests us here is an example of abbreviation that appears to date to the final years of the Late Classic period (c. AD 769 to 799).  This is an underspelling at the level of an inflected word.  It elides a pronoun and focuses on a relatively late homophone or near-homophone, the terms for “4” (kan/chan), “sky” (ka’n/cha’n), and “snake” (kaan/chaan) (Houston 1993; Robertson et al.  2007:43, 44) (Endnote 1). The context is the still-enigmatic “captor/guardian/master” expression that specifies a relationship between a captive and a captor. In two cases, it identifies a person looking after a royal youth, rather like our terms, “governor” and its female equivalent, “governess” (Dos Pilas Panel 19, and, on K7055, with a woman).

There are several examples of this abbreviation. The favored form always uses “4” or, in one case, ‘SKY’ in place of U-‘SNAKE’. To put this another way, the marked, more unusual forms (‘4’ and ‘SKY’) occur in these shortened spellings, not the older, more established glyph (‘SNAKE’). One kind of marking, for near-homophones, lends itself to another kind of marking, for abbreviation:

1) Tonina Monument 159 (F5) gives ‘4’-AJ-chi-hi, the name of a person from Pomoy who was captured on 2 Muluk 12 Ch’en (Julian July 13, AD 789). The name recurs on Tonina Monument 152 at A1-A2 as ‘SKY’-na-AJ chi-hi and in an unabbreviated spelling on Tonina Monument 20 at E8-F1 of U-‘SKY’-na AJ-chi-*hi (Figure 1). These forms make it clear that the captive was himself the captor of another figure known as Aj Chih.  Monument 159 itself dates to AD 799, Monument 20 to AD 790 (Monument 152 is undated).  See discussion in Martin and Grube (2008:188-189) (Endnote 2).

Fig. 1. Captor of Aj Chih from TNA Mons. 159, 152, and 20 (photograph by Stephen Houston, inkings by I. Graham and L. Henderson, Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project, Harvard Univ.).

2) An unprovenanced panel from the kingdom of Yaxchilan (at A4) gives ’4’-TAJ-MO’ (Stuart and Houston 1994:Fig.89). This text is dated to 1 Kawak 2 Wo (Julian Feb. 18, AD 769), although the date of carving may well be rather later. The same form is also found on El Kinel Monument 1 at A6 with ‘4’-TAJ-MO’ (Golden and Scherer 2006:fig. 13), this time placed to, Julian Oct. 7, AD 790 (the same date as Tonina Monument 20). Both refer to Shield Jaguar IV’s most notable captive Tajal Mo’, and can be contrasted with several texts at Yaxchilan and Bonampak where the name is rendered with the ergative pronoun—illustrated here by a fragment of Yaxchilan Stela 29 (Mathews 1997:Fig.7-12) (Figure 2).

Fig. 2. Captor of Tajal Mo’ on an unprovenanced panel, El Kinel Mon. 1 (drawings by S. Houston), and Yaxchilan St. 29 (drawing by P. Mathews).

3) Room 2, Bonampak, in a building dated to AD 791, Captions RM II-23, 26, 30; cf. a fuller version on a shield RM II-13 (Figure 3).  These can now be seen as abbreviated versions of “captor” expressions, as in the example of RM II-30, *U-‘4’ BAAH-AJAW. Most occur in Room 2 of the Murals Building, the chamber dedicated to martial exploits.

Fig. 3. Captions from Bonampak Structure 1 (Murals Building), II-13, 23, 30. (Infrared images by S. Houston and G. Ware, painting by H. Hurst after sketch by S. Houston, Bonampak Documentation Project, M. Miller, Director, Yale Univ.).

What is striking about this set of abbreviations, all seemingly restricted to displays of relations to captives, is their narrow chronology. Aside from the outlier on the unprovenanced panel from the area of Yaxchilan, all date to within a little more than a 10-year span.  For unknown reasons, the Maya sought concision in these cases, at this time, and let their glyphs be few.


Endnote 1. In an unpublished paper, still in progress, Daniel Law and others (n.d.) propose from glyphic and linguistic evidence that the shift from the velar stops k/k’ to the affricates ch/ch’ was fairly late, an areal diffusion rather than a shared inheritance. A more established model places the shift at the inception of “Greater Tzeltalan,” presumably many centuries prior to the Classic period (Kaufman and Norman 1984:83).

Endnote 2. David Stuart (personal communication, 2010) suggests that a similar construction with ‘4’ may occur at Tonina: ‘4’-ma-su, with a captive, perhaps from La Mar (Monument 72:A2 and Monument 84:G1, CMHI 6:114).  The agentive AJ, rabbit-head of the pe? sign, and the ‘e are quite clear in both spellings, although the TUUN is missing, likely because of breakage in the inscriptions. Monument 91 at Tonina also records a conflict with La Mar, in this case against a higher-ranking lord of the site, one NICH-TE’-MO’ (CMHI 6:119). Monuments 72 and 84 are probably from c. AD 700, decades prior to the other examples cited here.  Monument 91 is not securely dated.


Golden, Charles, and Andrew K. Scherer. 2006. Border Problems: Recent Archaeological Research along the Usumacinta River. The PARI Journal 7(2):1-16.

Houston, Stephen. 1984. An Example of Homophony in Mayan Script.  American Antiquity 49(4):790-805.

Kaufman, Terrence S., and William M. Norman. 1984 An Outline of Proto-Cholan Phonology, Morphology, and Vocabulary. In John S. Justeson and Lyle Campbell, eds., Phoneticism in Mayan Hieroglyphic Writing, 77-166. Publication No. 9. Albany: Institution for Mesoamerican Studies, State University of New York at Albany.

Law, Daniel, John Robertson, Stephen Houston, David Stuart, and Marc Zender. N.d. Drift, Diffusion, or Genetic Inheritance? The Notorious Case of Velar Palatalization and Fronting in Certain Mayan Languages.  Unpublished ms. in revision.

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2008. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. 2nd ed. Thames and Hudson, London.

Mathews, Peter. 1997. La escultura de Yaxchilán. Colección Cientifica 316. México City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.

Robertson, John S., Stephen D. Houston, Marc Zender, and David Stuart. 2007. Universals and the Logic of the Material Implication: A Case Study from Maya Hieroglyphic Writing. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, Number 62.

Stuart, David, and Stephen Houston. 1994. Classic Maya Place Names. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology 33. Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Maya Musk 4

by Stephen Houston

Maya imagery often reminds us that it is ethereal and aristocratic, yet, at times, ribald, witty, earthy. The discovery of ritual clowns and buffoonery in Maya art, along with some very detailed views of male genitalia, makes it clear that the Classic Maya had a lively side (e.g., Taube 1989). Their world was not only about the delicate scent of flowers and a decided prudery about royal and noble bodies (Houston et al. 2006:141-152).

Think of smells. Most of us live in sanitized societies with germ phobias, air-fresheners, and sport deodorants. Yet, any visit to a tropical settlement opens the nostrils. Trash rots and cooks slowly in the sun. (And not only tropical settlement: in Medieval France, the stench of charnel houses and malodors of executed criminals was said to permeate the food stalls of city markets [Corbin 1986:24-31, 48-56]). There are smells in the rainy season, too. My least favorite episode of fieldwork–mapping at Dos Pilas, Guatemala, in 1986–took place during Biblical downpours. The mildew was ineradicable. No amount of scrubbing would remove its smell from clothing, boots, bags or, it seemed, my person. For this reason, to search for a community in Colonial Yukatek was “to smell it like a dog,” presumably because of the mighty odor (Houston et al. 2006:141).

A relevant aside: on two occasions I have seen peccary in the wilds of northern Guatemala. Once, I smelled them first. Only after some minutes did the brush shake, sticks break. Two Collared Peccary (Tayassu tajacu) ran across the forest path. The second encounter was near the site of Bejucal, Guatemala. On three sides shuffled a very noisy herd of White-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari). Their teeth clicked at fast pace. But, above all, there was that same smell, coming in wafts, potent, pressing into my nose.

If such musk exists—and it must have existed centuries ago, too–the Maya, so observant of nature, surely noted the odor. There is now some hard evidence of it.

Figure 1. A peccary support, Early Classic tetrapod, Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, 1988.82.A-B, photograph by Jorge Pérez de Lara, copyright, commissioned by the Peabody-Essex Museum.

A long-standing puzzle in Maya iconography is the peccary. On a bowl in the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, the heads of four of these beasts do work as tetrapod supports (Figure 1). Their snouts plunge into the “ground,” probably in witty allusion to the way that peccary (and other pigs) eat by rooting around with their noses in jungle dirt and leaves. Such supports are relatively common in the Early Classic period, so the wit was widely understood.[Note 1] On the foreheads of the Dallas peccaries is a sinuous line that epigraphers call the “Kaban curl” after its appearance in the Kaban day sign (Taube 2010:193). Eric Thompson, not always of unerring instinct, followed Eduard Seler in seeing this as the “lock of hair” worn by the Moon goddess (Thompson 1971:86). That lock is, of course, reversed, with a very different orientation. It is not clearly linked to the day sign at all.

A more likely view, perhaps: the Kaban curl invokes a heady, glandular, earthy odor, the musk of the peccary or other mammal, thus joining many other cues in Maya imagery to the nature of smells, both strong and delicate. As a glyph, the sign is securely read KAB, “earth,” as shown by direct substitution with [ka-ba] in texts at Palenque and elsewhere. But, in imagery, “musk, strong odor” helps to explain a number of other features. Many of us have noticed the common appearance of the Kaban curl within the ears and, more rarely, the faces of deer, some of which occur as day signs (Figures 2 and 3, probably Kaban; see examples on panels proved by David Stuart to have come from La Corona in northern Guatemala).

Figures 2 and 3. Figure 1 (left), Deer, K0414, copyright, Justin Kerr and Kerr Associates; Figure 3 (right), La Corona, HS 2, Block XIII:pC2, drawing by D. Stuart.

Of the two types of deer in the Maya world, the White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) is known for its glandular odor. Emitted from the forehead and in front of the eye, the smell is so powerful that it can be detected by the human nose. The chances are high that the presence of the Kaban curls on the face and ears of deer refers to this musk. [Note 2]
A second feature is the presence of the Kaban curl with one of the Hero Twins, 1 Ajaw. The “spotted” twin, with large dark circles on his body and cheeks, is the hunter par excellence—indeed, a possible etymology for his name in K’iche’ is “One, He of the Blowgun” (see also Christenson 2007:fn. 163). In rare cases, the spotted Twin appears with deer ear and antlers (Figure 4a). Other scenes show him

Figure 4. (a) Hero Twin on Late Classic vase, photograph by D. Stuart; (b) Hero Twin, on Late Classic, codex-style vase, K1248, copyright, Justin Kerr and Kerr Associates; (c) Kneeling Twin, on Late Classic, codex-style vase, K2772, copyright, Justin Kerr and Kerr Associates.

as a warrior, with deer headdress also marked by a Kaban curl; notably, the same curl is not only on his face but floats in front of his nose (Figure 4b). Even without the headdress, the Twin may have these markings, in a pairing that makes it clear he is a variant of 1 Ajaw—his companion in this instance is the Classic version of Xbalanque, his expected Twin (Figure 4c). The curl in front of the face underscores the ethereal nature of the mark as a scent to be exhaled or smelled. In fact, there seems room for doubt whether the Kaban curl is really about “dirt” or “earth” per se, as opposed to the pungent smell of fresh, fertile, manured soil: in other words, by itself, the curl is an attributive mark, not a directly indexical one. From its earliest examples, the Kaban sign includes stone-markings, too, curving lines with dotted outline. A composite sign, it contains more than the single curl. I am not convinced that the Kaban curl alone is fully equivalent to the day sign in all its particulars.[Note 3]

What to make of the curl and 1 Ajaw? I was raised in (what was then) rural Pennsylvania. As such, I am more than familiar with deer-hunting and its various equipment. For city dwellers, the strangest practice must be the purchase and liberal application of either scent-maskers–to most animals, human odor is quite penetrating and likely to alarm–or scent-attractors, which concentrate or mimic the odor of female deer so as to attract a buck. The 1 Ajaw may both identify with his prey in ways we do not fully understand and exude or smell the odor of his quarry. 1 Ajaw is a musky one, connected to strong, glandular scent. The act by which hunters paint their bodies, as on K1373, from about AD 600, may be mere camouflage. But one wonders whether odors had been prepared and applied according to the time-honored custom of hunters.

To those of us from northerly, colder climes, the Maya world has–and had–its own extremes: hot, humid, wet (or dry, depending on season), and, in final summation, strongly odorous as well. For the Classic Maya, musk appears, not surprisingly, to have infiltrated their elite imagery, offering yet further evidence of close, playful attention to tropical nature.


[1] A wahy or supernatural being on some Maya vases displays a “fire-breathing” peccary, as first studied by Nikolai Grube and Werner Nahm (1994:698). A plausible interpretation is that this reflects a mythic gloss on the snorting of peccary. The peccary herd in the upper mural of Room 2, Bonampak, situates the beast in a cosmic context, in an apparent reference to a Maya constellation, as pointed out long ago by Mary Miller.

[2] Several deer ears contain a crossed element, rather like two sticks, a feature found in a number of images (e.g., K1230, 1248, 1991, 2794, 8927). I have no explanation for them, but they must be in some opposed or complementary relation to the Kaban curls.

[3] Against this interpretation, however, is a point made by Michael Coe, that the curlicue is similar—but not identical–to the Postclassic Central Mexican sign for “excrement” (Coe 1973:100). It is reasonable to think that musk would be depicted as one of the smelliest products of the human body. The smell of excrement is one of the first odors encountered in life, and the disposal of ordure remains a ceaseless problem in all settled existence. Another complication here is the use of the Kaban curl in references to wax or the excrescence of bees (honey, e.g., Houston et al. 2006:fig. 3.11a). Did this allude to the idea that honey, like musk, was a waxy secretion, or did it relate to the strong smell of the balche’ drink that would have been brewed from honey?


Christenson, Allen J. 2007 Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Coe, Michael D. 1973. The Maya Scribe and His World. New York: The Grolier Club.

Corbin, Alain. 1986. The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Grube, Nikolai, and Werner Nahm. 1994. A Census of Xibalba: A Complete Inventory of Way Characters on Maya Ceramics. In The Maya Vase Book: A Corpus of Rollout Photographs of Maya Vases, Volume 4, edited by Justin Kerr, pp. 686-715. New York: Kerr Associates.

Houston, Stephen D., David Stuart, and Karl Taube. 2006. The Memory of Bones: Body, Being, and Experience among the Classic Maya. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Taube, Karl A. 1989. Ritual Humor in Classic Maya Religion. In Word and Image in Maya Culture: Explorations in Language, Writing, and Representation, edited by William F. Hanks and Don S. Rice, pp. 351-382. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

_________. 2010. Plate 66. In Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea, edited by Daniel Finamore and Stephen D. Houston, pp. 192-193. New Haven: Yale University Press, in cooperation with the Peabody-Essex Museum.

Thompson, J. Eric S. 1971. Maya Hieroglyphic Writing: An Introduction. 3rd ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Dead Bugs and Olmec Writing 1

by Stephen Houston

The difficulties of working with an undeciphered writing system are many. The first hurdle is simply that of sorting out the reading order, i.e., determining the ways and directions in which signs are to be read–up-down, top-bottom, right-left, and all the possible variations in laying out a text. The absence of this understanding is fatal. If there is no known reading order, there can be no possibility of penetrating syntax and all the functional attributes implied by the arrangement of signs. At some point, writing must, as a record of language, reflect the organization of language and sequenced sound.

Figure 1. The Phaistos Disk

Yet, there are some navigational aids—all is not lost! For example, with hieroglyphic systems, even undeciphered ones, there is strong evidence that signs obey the strictures of iconography. Sign “behavior” in a text—the ways in which scribes orient signs–tends to conform to its disposition in imagery. Consider the human head or body. The unmarked position shows them much as we would see them, head aloft, feet where they should be. The marked position inverts them, blood rushing to the head, feet jerked aloft in high state of discomfort. Marked signs occur, but they are often rare. To judge from evidence in scripts as diverse as Maya, Aztec, and Egyptian, faces and bodies also orient towards the scanning or reading eye. As I have suggested elsewhere, there is almost a conceit—and perhaps a perceived reality–of social interaction between the reader and the sign. In unmarked form, a face or body addresses the approaching interlocutor. The marked form reverses them, and the face and body look away from the scanning eye. A case in point is the Phaistos Disk (Figure 1), cynosure of every traveler along the bumps and byways of decipherment. Little is known—or knowable—about this system, stamped on a clay disk some 3500 years ago. But there can be little doubt that the faces and bodies are directed to the reader. They almost certainly show the reading order of the disk, with passages that run from right-to-left, from outer edge and spiraling inwards to the center. The right-to-left orientation may have something to do with the fact that the signs were stamped into the clay, with the first typeface known to humanity.

The reason for this near-universal in hieroglyphic systems—the notable fact that such texts conform to the behavior of unmarked imagery–probably has to do with script origins. Codified imagery may well have been a necessary and sufficient condition for codified script (Houston 2004:288-293). In hieroglyphs, there may also have been a need to retain the legibility of iconic referents, well beyond the time of origins, when script coalesced from images. By definition, signs in hieroglyphic systems convey the notion of a discrete object, oriented in much the same way as that object would appear in imagery. For this reason, cursivity tends not to occur, as it would bruise the notion of a separable, distinct thing, slicing through or diffusing sign boundaries. (Of course, Maya script dealt with the need to compress text by the expedient of merging of infixing elements.)

This brings us to Dead Bugs. A recent effort to reexamine the celebrated Cascajal Block, of Olmec affiliation, and perhaps as early as 1100 BC in date, perhaps a few centuries later, proposes a radical reworking of the reading order in the block (Mora-Marín 2009). There is some accompanying PR to add brio to the claim, now available in a peer-reviewed journal ( The original publication suggested that the orientation was of a rectangular text, longer than wide (Rodríguez Martínez et al. 2006). The new, proposed reading order places it on its side, 90 degrees off, wider than it is long. By this view, the text must be read in columns, left-to-right, and with the necessity of a new numbering of the text (Figure 2; Mora-Marín 2009:404).

Figure 2. Contrasting Orientations of the Cascajal Block

Since publishing the Cascajal Block, we have received many suggestions about the text. Some can only be described as bizarre—that the block records Chinese, that it tabulates the conditions of crops, that it shows human dentition or a chart of chromosomes. Perhaps the best and most reasoned comment comes from John Wood of Australia, who, in an unpublished paper, argues that there is more columnar organization in the top of the block than we had recognized—the slight disorganization of the text, with some irregular spaces and alignments, makes the text a difficult piece to parse, even under the best of circumstances. Wood’s views may well be correct, however. They would make sense of several peculiar irregularities in the layout of the text.

But it is highly improbable that the block should be viewed on its side.

First, as noted in the original publication, many of the signs, even though undeciphered, conform to codified elements in Olmec imagery. There are the famed “knuckle-dusters,” maize cobs, probable bloodletters, even a throne. Several excellent compilations of Olmec images attest to their usual positioning (e.g., Guthrie 1995: passim). The claim for side-ways orientation would pivot these elements on their sides, in violation of all known canons of Olmec imagery. Quite simply, there would need to be a radical disconnect between representational conventions and the signs that securely descend from Olmec imagery. Curiously, when the author responsible for the new theory lays out sequences for comparison, he re-positions them from his claimed orientation, fitting them into a display that conforms precisely to the orientation he disputes (e.g., Mora-Marín 2009:Figures 10-13). One proposed example, intended to show that such counter-intuitive orientations are relatively common, is etched on the belly of a raptor, scratched in turn on an obsidian core from La Venta. What the author does not emphasize is that he has had to reverse the image to force a resemblance to the Cascajal sign (Mora-Marín 2009:Figure 14c-f). The similarity is weak in any case. Another drawing of the obsidian fails to show the same internal details (e.g., Joralemon 1971:Figure 197; cf. Mora-Marín 2009:Figure 15c; Kent Reilly’s updated rendering, done after study of the original, also departs from Mora-Marín, cf. Reilly’s Figure 11, in

Figure 3. Incised Vase, Snite Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame (Kerr Photograph 6441, copyright Kerr Associates).

Second, some of the Cascajal signs, such as a possible bottle gourd, are also found on images such as an incised vase, c. 900 BC, from the Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame (Figure 3, Karl Taube, personal communication, 2007). Taube demonstrates that these are essentially the same fetishes, albeit with a slightly leaning quality to fit into the spaces on the side of the vessel. They are not shown on their sides, as the new theory would predict, yet the orientation of the vessel is patent. There can be no question here of their correct positioning.

Figure 4. Dwarf from “area of Teotihuacan,” Covarrubias notebooks (Joralemon 1971:Figure 19).

Taube has also shown that a small carving of an Olmec dwarf, in standing position, has two signs in the Cascajal system on either side of his head—and, crucially, the glyphs are placed in an orientation that is not on its side (Figure 4, Joralemon 1971:Figure 19). A paired set of glyphs on the Cascajal Block (glyphs 21-22

Figure 5. Cascajal couplet and orientation of same elements in eyes of Monument 1, Laguna de los Cerros, Mexico (Joralemon 1971:Figures 125, 153).

in the original numbering) occurs within the eyes of a sculpture from Laguna de Cerros, again in a position that runs counter to the sideways proposal (Figure 5, e.g., Joralemon 1971:Figures 125, 153). The observations by Taube augment the corpus, further link the block to Olmec imagery, and confirm that the correct orientation of the signs on the Cascajal Block corresponds to the presentation in the initial publication. It is likely that similar signs will appear with closer study of existing collections, as in this quick sketch of what appear to be glyphs on display at the Walters Museum of Art (Figure 6); exciting finds by David Cheetham of Arizona State University are forthcoming from Cantón Corralito, Chiapas.

Figure 6. Sketch of possible signs in Cascajal-system, vase on exhibit at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

Finally, a side-ways reading order would also take the insect in the Cascajal Signary (glyphs 1, 23, 50) and put it on its back, feet in the air—quite dead, unprecedented in contemporary imagery, and far different from the semblant creature found in Monument 43 at San Lorenzo, Mexico (Figure 7, Coe and Diehl 1980, I:Figures 481-482).

Figure 7. San Lorenzo, Monument 43 (Coe and Diehl 1980, I:Figures 481-482, drawing by Felipe Dávalos)

The points have to be put as plainly as possible:

– in all cases where the Cascajal signs appear in iconography, they do not correspond to the claim for a side-ways orientation of the block;
– in all cases where the Cascajal signs appear in text-formats, or in paired, couplet-like form, they do not correspond to the claim for a side-ways orientation of the block.

The new claim is thus incorrect. The perceived “repeated sequences” do not exist (e.g., Mora-Marín 2009:Figures 6, 7), and they have no bearing on any patterned syntax in the text. However, even if mistaken, the proposal has created a useful occasion to reaffirm the close ties in Mesoamerica of imagery to texts. When those ties are disregarded, confusions ensue. The block must be placed back in its correct position, in the vertical orientation it craves. The Dead Bugs live!


Coe, Michael D., and Richard Diehl. 1980. In the Land of the Olmec. 2 vols. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Guthrie, Jill. 1995. The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership. The Art Museum, Princeton University, Princeton.

Houston, Stephen D. 2004. Writing in Early Mesoamerica. In The First Writing: Script Invention as History and Process, ed. S. D. Houston, pp. 274-309. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Joralemon, Peter D. 1971. A Study of Olmec Iconography. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology 7. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C.

Mora-Marín, David F. 2009. Early Olmec Writing: Reading Format and Reading Order. Latin American Antiquity 20(3):395-412.

Rodríguez Martínez, María del Carmen, Ponciano Ortíz Ceballos, Michael Coe, Richard Diehl, Stephen Houston, Karl Taube, Alfredo Delgado Calderón. 2006. Oldest Writing in the New World. Science 313:1610-1614.