An Early Classic Cave Ritual 5

by Steve Houston

A few months ago, I happened to visit the Museo Principe Maya in Coban, Guatemala. It is an impressive (and now registered) collection, with dozens of important objects. Few visitors go there, however. The museum lies on a side-street and is unknown, it seems, to the local office of tourism. The staff was baffled when asked about it.

But find it we did, with some pleasant surprises.

The image below comes from a piece of cave flow-stone — under a cm. thick, and obviously cut from a cave, with carbon black painting and a thick, daubed white, perhaps some kind of kaolin. (I vaguely recall seeing this object in an issue of Mexicon but cannot find that reference now. Stanley Guenter was certainly there before me, and had prepared a number of written descriptions of objects, all out in nice, bilingual display.) The entire object is close to a meter high, perhaps a little more than that from side to side. Unfortunately, it’s also behind glass, which makes photography somewhat difficult. For all that, the flow-stone is one of the most important cave texts found in the last 20 years. It’s not on a par with Naj Tunich, of course. But it still provides fascinating glimpses into Early Classic ritual and gives us some notion of a pan-Maya event celebrated in at least two caves.

The iconography on the flow-stone shows two figures, both lords, at least to judge from the jaguar pelts. They are probably not people of the highest rank, as can be seen by their distinctive gathered headdresses, of a type that sometimes occurs with subordinate lords. (Dave Stuart has a full discussion of the headdress in his book on the Palenque Temple XIX texts, esp. figs. 106-107, 108-110.) I would guess that the figures are, in fact, priests of some sort. The animals above the headdresses are doubtless their personal names. The reading of the title for such lords is still under discussion, but *abaat, “worker, servant,” is one possibility. (The term is cognate with a documented expression for “messenger,” noticed by Dave in the 90s and presented in our book with Karl Taube, The Memory of Bones.)

What’s important here is that the date can be worked out — it has to be ( 9 Ajaw 3 Muwaan, Jan. 31, AD 426, Julian. The event is clearly one of the censing. Small nodules of ch’aaj sprinkle from the hand of the person to the left, down to what may be an incense burner.

So, a high-end cave text, painted expertly on thin flow-stone, comemmorating a major period-ending. It involves one of the earliest images of figures with a distinctive headdress (another of comparable date is known from Rio Azul, as illustrated in Dave’s discussion).

It gets even more interesting: Dave pointed out to me that what is probably the *exact same date* also occurs in a painting from the Jolja cave, and with two people as well. At Jolja, the figures have black body-paint, just as on the Coban stone, and one of them holds a torch, of the sort used in burning offerings, like incense or paper. The gesture of the figure to the left is that of incense-sprinkling, again like the figure from the Principe Maya. Karen Bassie has done an excellent, e-report on the Jolja finds, at:

In any case, comparable events of great ritual importance took place in at least two caves, separated by what I presume to be quite a distance — the artifacts in the Coban museum tend to come from the Peten, not Chiapas. The quality in both instances is high, even of royal commission, and the dates are both 9 Ajaw, itself suggestive of the underworld or cthonic settings — I’m thinking here of the 9 Ajaw house on Tikal Altar 5, which specifies the burial place of Lady Tuun Kaywak. In the Early Classic, the date at Jolja and on the Coban flow-stone would only fall on major Period Endings (katun or lahuntun endings) at fairly rare intervals, as in, and then again (aside from our date), at Dave and I have to wonder if the cave rituals were prompted in some way by preparations for the change of the Baktun a few years later.