Dead Bugs and Olmec Writing

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.

Maya Multilinguals?

by Stephen Houston

The story of Malinche tells us that, in some places, at some times, Mesoamericans spoke several languages: Malinche’s control of Nahuatl and Chontal [Acalan] Maya (and eventually Spanish) provided the conquistadores with essential information in their wild journey to dominance.

Malinche’s tale leads me in turn to reflect on what the Maya called their languages. The Paxbolon papers in Acalan refer to t’an [than] when describing the sum totality of a language (Smailus 1975:173), a term found across the Maya lowlands, including colonial Yukatek (Cuidad Real 2001:559) and as reconstructed in Kaufman and Norman’s valuable study of proto-Ch’olan (1984:133)[Note 1]. Colonial Tzotzil follows a similar line by calling “language” k’op (“word”) or, in the case of itself, batz’i k’op, “real,” “fine,” “true” or “pure word” (Laughlin 1988, I:162, 234-235; II:415). This accords with the common perception that all other languages — i.e., those spoken by people other than my own! — have some suspect or degraded quality. The linkage of these terms to broader notions of reason or sense, equally attested in these sources, and to social congress (including sexual relations) places such words squarely in the realm of meaningful and socially bonding vocalization. T’an represents the essence of what it was to be human.

The emphasis, then, was not on Ferdinand de Saussure’s langue, an abstract notion of language distinct from utterance. Rather, it stressed parole, the ordered, sensible vocalizations themselves. For this reason, the “mouth” or even “lips,” ti’ in Tzeltalan and Ch’olan languages, chi’ in Yukatekan, plays and played an unavoidable role in their formation. And hence, of course, labels for languages like Ch’olti’, “mouth [utterance] of the milpa,” or its descendant Ch’orti’. The former is known by at least in the seventeenth-century as a reference to the language of such crucial importance to Maya decipherment (Robertson et al. in press). Further, as has been known for some time in Maya epigraphy, words for “mouth” are documented syllabically with ti-i and as a logograph first identified in the early 1990s by David Stuart: TI’, a sign of a human face that became progressively stylized through time.

It is the latter glyph that interests us here. The Museo Príncipe Maya in Coban, Guatemala, contains a fragmentary panel showing a bound captive, with clothing perforated in the manner usual with such figures (Figure 1). He is probably kneeling, but his legs are concealed behind what appears to be an architectural element. His face is hacked away, too, like so many other Maya sculptures. The text to the bottom right captions the figure, u-KAN-na YAX-to-ko BAHLAM, “his guardian [?], New/First/“Grue”-Cloud Jaguar.” The inscription to the top, of less certain referent, reads: u-KAN-? AJ-?-TI’-‘i…K’AHK’-*AJAW-wa.

When shown my photograph of the panel, David Stuart pointed out its similarity to a sculpture I had drawn at Dos Pilas back in 1984—this is Panel 2, to the south side of Hieroglyphic Stairway 1 (Figure 2). (At many sites in the Pasión River drainage, hieroglyphic stairways display such panels to either side of their outset steps.) Panel 2 had the same kind of caption, the same captive theme, and approximately the same dimensions. Moreover, as I recall, a more eroded panel nearby, Panel 3, suggested a more elaborate tableau, stretched across several sculptures. I have little doubt that Dave is right, and that the Museo Príncipe Maya panel was extracted from near Hieroglyphic Stairway 1, perhaps from its northern side, and from a building I mapped in 1986 and designated Structure L4-35. To my knowledge, the structure was never excavated by the later Dos Pilas/Petexbatun Project. It deserves far closer study.

There is more, taking us back to Malinche. With a credible connection to Dos Pilas, the Príncipe Maya panel presents the opportunity to scan for related names of historical personages. It is highly likely that such a name occurs to the top of the panel, in the area reading u-KAN-? AJ-?-TI’-‘i…K’AHK’-*AJAW-wa. The final title (or a linked one) has been studied by Dave and separately by Marc Zender as a courtly, even priestly epithet employed by secondary lords at sites like Palenque. The recognizable sequence, however, is that between a captioned secondary figure on Dos Pilas Panel 19 (Figure 3) and the Príncipe Maya panel. The latter example is eroded or chipped in part, but enough remains to discern what is probably the same name, “guardian [?] of he of the nine [or many] mouths,” followed by a title consistent with secondary status. Even the style of the glyphs is similar, especially the “snake” version of the “guardian [?]” expression. The Príncipe Maya panel must date to the approximate time of Ruler 4, the final known ruler of Dos Pilas and the king who commissioned Panel 19.

When Panel 19 was excavated in 1990, Stuart and I commented on its intriguing content. In this instance, “guardianship” (the term has remaining ambiguities) seemed to relate to two figures attending the heir of Ruler 4. On Panel 19 they hover protectively as the heir undertakes what is presumably his first bloodletting. Thus, guardianship was not always about war captives, as elsewhere on the Príncipe Maya panel, but rather about “governorship” or “tutorship” of a key figure at the royal court. Moreover, the other “guardian” seemed from his title to come from Calakmul, by this point a long-standing ally of Dos Pilas. Notably, that figure is described as the “guardian [?] of the youth [ch’ok].”

Better preserved detail would deepen the story. Yet, plausibly, a guardian figure at Dos Pilas described his young charge as a “person of the nine [many] mouths.” Or, to extend that meaning, a “person of many languages.” (In the inscriptions, “nine” might have communicated a good plurality, without the overwhelming, nearly “countless” connotation of “8,000,” more properly applied to gods.) Could this have been one of the duties of a tutor from a distant capital, to impart several languages to his charge? I propose this mindful of other readings, such as “he of the many words,” a suitable description for an orator…and many a windbag professor!

Despite the proviso, this may be a unique allusion in Maya inscriptions to the very concept of multilingualism in the Classic world, and to its role as a particular accomplishment of elites.

Note 1. I follow John Robertson in preferring a label like “common Ch’olan,” in that it captures the hypothetical derivation of the “language” from what is held in common among its descendants, with due regard for shifts over time. As an adjective, “proto-” may be too assertive in implying an existential integrity beyond the limits of reconstruction.

Figure 1. Museo Principe Maya panel, with detail (Photograph by S. Houston)
Figure 1. Museo Príncipe Maya panel, with detail (Photograph by S. Houston)
Figure 2. Dos Pilas, Panel 2 (drawing by Stephen Houston)
Figure 2. Dos Pilas, Panel 2 (drawing by Stephen Houston)
Figure 3. Figure from Dos Pilas, Panel 19, with detail enlarged (drawing by David Stuart)
Figure 3. Figure from Dos Pilas, Panel 19, with detail enlarged (drawing by David Stuart)


Ciudad Real, Antonio de. 2001 Calepino maya de Motul, ed. R. Acuña. Mexico City: Plaza y Valdés.

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.

Laughlin, Robert M. 1988 The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of Santo Domingo Zinacantán. 3 vols. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology 31. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Robertson, John, Danny Law, and Robbie Haertel. In press Colonial Ch’olti’: A Translation and Analysis of the 17th Century “Morán Manuscript”. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Smailus, Ortwin. 1975 El Maya-Chontal de Acalan: Análisis lingüístico de un documento de los años 1610-1612. Centro de Estudios Mayas Cuaderno 9. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

What Will Not Happen in 2012

by Stephen Houston

Epigraphers await 2012 with trepidation. There will be ill-founded claims, bad Hollywood movies (one now in production), silly reportage, and much distortion of what 2012 meant for the ancient Maya. Every imaginable anxiety will apply to this key event in the Maya calendar. If we are candid, too, there will be renewed interest in our field, which scholars can shape to positive result…if the public ever bothers to listen. A rich ethnography of misunderstanding awaits those who wish to peruse the web.

Such an ethnography is not my purpose here. Rather, I present a mea culpa and a rectification. In 1996, Stuart and I discussed part of the text on Tortuguero Monument 6, suggesting that, on 4 Ajaw 3 K’ank’in, Julian Dec. 10, AD 2012, a god will “descend,” ye-ma or yemal, in what was held to be a nearly unique example of Classic-era prophecy. Why unique? …because when the Classic texts refer to the future, they typically encompass “impersonal temporal events that are safely predictable” (Houston and Stuart 1996:301, fn. 7). Stuart and I left a small escape chute, admitting that “there are some technical problems with this translation” (ibid.).

The relevant, final portions of Monument 6 record a Distance Number that counts from the principal event in the inscription (Fig. 1). The earlier event is the dedication (EL?-le-NAAH-ji-ja) of the building that doubtless housed this T-shaped panel (mentioned at E6-F6, []). The future events are described as tzuhtzjoom u 13 pih 4 Ajaw 3 Uniiw utoom, all “impersonal” and “safely predictable” insofar as they are straightforward references to the conclusion of a major cycle at a particular Calendar Round. What follows is the discourse marker ‘i-, an eroded glyph, and ye-? 9 YOOK-TE’ ta … By one reading of the text, whatever takes place after the ‘i– elaborates and extends this future sequence of events.

Or that is what we wrote in 1996. It happens that two others texts encapsulate a very similar pattern of dates. One comes from Naranjo, Guatemala, and is now in the Museo Popol Vuh in Guatemala City (Fig. 2, Graham 1978:103). The second, recently found at La Corona, Guatemala, by Marcello Canuto of Yale, has been drawn in pencil by David Stuart. (Avid bibliophiles will discover that a recent coffee-table book published in Guatemala has full photographs of the La Corona texts as well.)

The final portion of the Naranjo text ends by counting forward to a future date, 7 Ajaw 18 Zip [Julian March 11, AD 830], with a rare future of a mediopassive verb, subfixed, apparently, by –[yi]mo. Thus, the inscription vaults into the future, many decades after the final contemporary date on the monument, and then, at the end, shifts back to that earlier date, (9.) 5 Ajaw 3 Ch’en [Julian Aug. 22, AD 593]. This is when the current ruler scattered incense, presumably at the dedication of the text and, according to Stela 38, the consecration of two other stones as well, probably Stelae 38 and 39, both found near Structure D-1 at Naranjo. The text accordingly situates itself in present time, leaps to a future presented in highly schematic terms, and then reverts to the present.

The final passages of the La Corona panel do much the same (Fig. 3). The base date is the dedication of the panels themselves, their last truly contemporary date: 4 K’an 7 Mak, Julian Oct. 24, AD 677. Almost in yo-yo effect, the inscription lurches forward to (Julian May 7, AD 682), then, from the 4 K’an base date, forward again to (Julian April 11, AD 687), and, in like manner, forward yet again from that base date to (Julian March 15, AD 692), one of the most vivid times for the Classic Maya because of its evocation of a 13th cycle. The relevant part of the text terminates the inscription: i-u-ti/tu? 4 K’an 7 Mak. The parallel with Tortuguero Monument 6 is clear, in that a future date jolts back to the present, as marked by a phrase beginning with i-.

Whatever Monument 6 has to tell us pertains to the dedication of the building associated with the sculpture. It has nothing to do with prophecy or the supposed, dread events that await us in AD 2012. About that the Maya are notably silent…or, truth be told, a bit boring.

Note – 9 Yookte’ (Bolon Yookte’) is an enigmatic expression. When postfixed by K’UH, it appears to identify some collective totality of gods. This is evident in the sequence of deities assembled or placed in order at the beginning of the last great cycle, as attested on the Ranieri “square” vessel and its counterpart, the so-called “Vase of the Seven Gods” (Coe 1973: pl. 49). Where understood, the other references to deities in this text signal the presence of pluralities, including the “Palenque Triad” (or its varying multitudes) and the “celestial” and “terrestrial gods.”

Fig. 1 Portion of Tortuguero Monument 6:pI5-pL5 (drawing by Sven Gronemeyer)


Fig. 2 Portion of Naranjo Altar 1:J5-J11 (drawing by Ian Graham)

Fig. 3 Portion of new La Corona, Panel 2:V5-V8 (drawing by David Stuart)


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

Graham, Ian
1978 Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 2, Part 2: Naranjo, Chunhuitz, Xunantunich. Cambridge MA: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.

Houston, Stephen D., and David Stuart
1996 Of Gods, Glyphs, and Kings: Divinity and Rulership among the Classic Maya. Antiquity 70: 289-312.

The xa syllable as an example of onomatopoeia?

by Stephen Houston

A well-known feature of language is onomatopoeia, the practice of creating and using words to imitate a sound. “Wham!” and “bang!” appear in cartoons, and various languages refer to a dog’s bark as anything from vov vov (Swedish) to bow wow (English).  In Swedish, the language of my childhood, a dog was for this very reason a vov, at least to the very young. Such words can be unearthed in all Mayan languages. Modern Tzotzil, for example, has pom for “bong” or “beat,” ‘o’ for the sound of gagging, even tzan for the sound of a ringing bell (Laughlin 1975:64, 89, 282). Fun, whimsical, evocative: onomatopoeia creates many chances for linguistic play and expression.

It unsurprising, then, that the ancient Maya drew on onomatopoeia in devising their writing system. One possible example is the syllable xa, deciphered by the editor of this blog, after an early, exhilarating view of the newly discovered cave paintings at Naj Tunich. The pa-xa in one text, along with another spelling in the Dresden Codex, nailed the reading of the month name, pax (or, we now know, a harmonic spelling of it, as disharmonic spellings, pa-xi, are also attested).  From the outset, the xa sign probably operated as a syllable, especially when placed within YAX-xa – the earliest versions of “grue” (green-blue, yax) do not have the infix, and, in my judgment, the sign ought to be transcribed as a two-part spelling, at least until the xa became, by Late Classic times, an almost unconscious additive to the logograph.

In the 90s, I began to notice odd ornaments on a few xa syllables, especially at Tikal.  There was, for example, MT30, with what appeared to be YAX-xa-NAL-la (see Figure 1, above left) (see Endnote 1).  Or we had MT9 (above, right), which, as Dave Stuart suggested from the position of the sign, simply spelled “again” or “more,” xa, perhaps in reference to drinking – an early record of a toast?  Another example (Figure 3, below), a probable adjective xa-k’a-la, was recently found at Palenque, on the Temple XXI bench excavated

by INAH and now on display in the Palenque Museum. The depictions of Maya rattles, as on the so-called Deletaille Tripod (Fig. 4, below; Hellmuth 1988:fig. 4.2), make it clear that the xa is, at least in these versions, a rattle with handle. It has tufts at the end, and is pierced by slits to allow the release of resonant sound, rather like the F-hole on a stringed instrument.

The problem is, Mayan languages do not use xa for “rattle.”  Highland languages employ other onomatopoeic terms, like *chij.chijtzojtzoj, and tzujtzuj, (“Eastern Mayan,” K’iche’ and Mopan, respectively, Kaufman 2003:752) or chinchin in Ch’orti (Wisdom n.d.).  A glyphic label is known, too: chikab, attested in Ch’olti’, the target descendant of most linguistic matter in the inscriptions, and on the handle of a rattle looted in all likelihood from or near the site of Naranjo, Guatemala, and now in the Ethnographic Museum in Berlin (Grube and Gaida 2006:213). The musicians in the murals at Bonampak affirm that rattles were usually held in pairs. It can be no coincidence that the examples from the area of Naranjo are in a paired set, the better to perform a syncopated cha-cha-chá with maracas. In modern Mexican examples, I understand that the pairs tend to be configured for different pitches, hence the need for two rattles.

How to explain the xa sign as a rattle?  I conjecture that the glyph could reflect some lost term for rattle or, as a more basic explanation, onomatopoeia itself. The sound of a Maya maraca could easily be imagined as xa, a susurration like the swish of beans or seeds in a rattle. Curiously enough, shac-shac is the traditional name for maracas in Trinidad, so the sound has registered as such in some ears around the Caribbean basin. A glance at other Maya syllables raises the possibility of yet other examples of onomatopoeia. A few years ago, Marc Zender pointed out to me the ‘o bird mentioned in the Ritual of the Bacabs (Roys 1965:138 ) – clearly the source of the syllable with its bird head and tufted feather above the beak. I now wonder about syllables like the pi bird or the ‘i that devours the eyes of jaguars (also mentioned in the Bacabs [Roys 1965:134] as a kind of hawk), and terms like k’uk’, “quetzal,” and mo’, “macaw,” all explicable as Maya perceptions of the squawks, croaks, and cries of bird life in the jungle.

Endnote 1:  The text is on a rattle handle, one of set. (The rattles themselves were almost certainly of gourd and have long since rotted away.) This complicates the reference, in that the sign could be a logograph here, perhaps in reference to a mythic location. I suspect the texts on Tikal MT29 and 30 are central to any understanding of Classic Maya music. They refer to mythic events, including the burning and death of the deity of wind and music. Karl Taube remains the essential source on this being, as discussed in a variety of papers (e.g., Taube 2004).


Grube, Nikolai, and Maria Gaida. 2006. Die Maya, Schrift und Kunst. Berlin: SMB DuMont.

Hellmuth, Nicholas M. 1988. Early Maya Iconography on an Incised Cylindrical Tripod. In Maya Iconography, eds., E. P. Benson and G. Griffin, 152-174. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kaufman, Terence. 2003. A Preliminary Mayan Etymological Dictionary. Accessed June 16, 2008.

Laughlin, Robert M. 1975. The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of San Lorenzo Zinacantán. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology Number 19. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution.

Roys, Ralph L. 1965. Ritual of the Bacabs: A Book of Maya Incantations. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Taube, Karl A. 2004. Flower Mountain: Concepts of Life, Beauty, and Paradise among the Classic Maya. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 45: 69-98.

Wisdom, Charles n.d. Materials on the Chorti Language. University of Chicago Microfilm Collection of Manuscripts of Cultural Anthropology 28. Chicago.

te-mu and te-ma as “Throne”

by Stephen Houston

In the early 90s, I happened to be looking at one of Justin Kerr’s most beautiful rollouts, of a fragmentary stuccoed scene (K1524). In it, the Maize god (or some comely youth) sits on a throne, entreated by an aged god — this last is, of course, none other than the deity who helps paddle the Maize god on his watery journey. To the side, other youths dress (?) a dancer, who is, perhaps, a version of the figure on the throne. The loss of the text is regrettable, as it might have helped to explain the scene. There may well be a connection to the dressing and paddling of the Maize god on related images, such as the Museo Popol Vuh vase.

Despite its ruined state, the vessel is a masterwork. The pooled paint and gently blurred outlines impart a truly pulsing energy to the surface, a quality seen on few other vessels. It continues to be one of my favorites.

However, what really drew my attention were the glyphs in red outline that ran along the throne. The scribe had highlighted these with a dark blue wash, making the glyphs somewhat difficult to read. But I could make out the so-called alay (still a problematic reading, in my view), t’abayii (as we would now decipher it, thanks to Dave Stuart), then, [u te mu…]. A quick look at the relevant dictionaries showed that tem was a perfectly acceptable name-tag, and of rather broad distribution among lowland Mayan languages:

Yukatek (Barrera V., p. 783): “poyo o grada, altar o poyo”
Ch’olti’ (Moran source, #2711, 2712 in Bill Ringle’s reworking): “asiento, banco”
common Ch’olan (Kaufman/Norman list, #511): “seat” …with common Mayan *teem

The final term became interesting a few years later. This was because of our much reviled but–let it be said!–obviously correct publication on disharmony, done with fellow co-conspirators David Stuart and John Robertson. The vowel length was predictable, given the final, if somewhat unusual, -u in the spelling. (Our colleagues Alfonso Lacadena and Soren Wichmann have come to prefer a te’m spelling, but we are not yet convinced of it.) I then remembered another such name-tag, on a masonry throne excavated by Eric Thompson in the 30s, at San Jose, Belize (then British Honduras, see Thompson’s 1939 CIW monograph, pl. 9 in particular). Here, too, was a dedicatory context, including a clear indication that the “bat” glyph pertained to the working of stucco. One can just make out a probable u-te-*ma?/*mu. I have since seen paintings of a secure u-te-mu in a similar, if earlier, context from Calakmul, as photographed by Simon Martin. A similar spelling was probably on K5388. Unfortunately, the relevant parts of the text are in bad shape.

The finds on the pot and at San Jose were useful at the time, and continue to be so. They augmented our list of name-tags, contributed a probative, disharmonic spelling, as predicted by a prior linguistic reconstruction, and helped remove–for me anyway–any lingering doubts about Landa’s te as a sign with roots in the Classic period. (Whether the “tree/wood” TE’ ever functions syllabically is quite uncertain.) The question remains of how to read the stray “throne” logographs that appear in the inscriptions, as on the Temple XIX platform so nicely reported by DS (e.g., P4) or, for that matter, the so-called “palanquin” signs that pepper the inscriptions. Their readings are surely different. The palanquin attaches a final syllable that, I sense, triggers disharmony, thus: CVht, CVVt or CV’t — I recall that Dmitri Beliaev suggested pit or, perhaps more likely, pi’t, as the most viable reading.