If…Alabaster Could Talk

by Stephen Houston (Brown University), David Stuart (University of Texas, Austin), and Marc Zender (Tulane University)

Among the most valued objects in a Maya court must have been bowls of an almost sugary white stone. Some are opaque, especially those from the Early Classic period. Others, of Late Classic date, consist of a thin-walled, translucent travertine (Tokovinine 2012:128–129; see also Houston 2014:258; Luke 2008). The challenge of shaping such material into drinking bowls presented difficulties across Mesoamerica (Diehl and Stroh 1978; Saville 1900). For us, the obstacle is of a different sort, that of determining the precise origin(s) of this rare stone. Banding in several examples suggests crypto-crystalline deposits from caves, possibly even manufacture of bowls in one general area (Tokovinine 2012:129)—although, if that were true, inscriptions on some bowls would confirm reworking or subsequent carving by local literates (Houston 2014:259). Seasonal oscillations in water flow and accretion resulted in the bands (Kubler 1977:5 fn1), opening the possibility of direct dating and, with further study, clues to climate change (Douglas et al. 2016; Wong and Breecker 2015).

Hieroglyphs and imagery point to the use of the travertine bowls for chocolate drinks and, in one case, from the Ethnologischen Museum, Berlin, as receptacles for alcohol poured into clysters for enemas (Grube and Gaida 2006:Abb. 3.1). Fragments occur in Classic Maya palaces, as at Aguateca Structure M7-22, the so-called “House of Masks,” and on the summits of pyramids, such as Dos Pilas Str. L5-49. Whole bowls—a rarity given the delicacy of travertine and its tendency to breakage—come mostly from tombs savaged by looters (Houston 2014:249). Years ago, in the first weeks of the first season at Caracol, Belize, Houston saw, with Arlen and Diane Chase, a travertine bowl  in a looter’s tunnel behind Structure B20 (Chase and Chase 1987:fig. 15a; see also Prager and Wagner 2013). In a tearing hurry, looters cleared out Tomb 3 of that building, leaving the bowl just days if not hours before we arrived.

An inscribed travertine bowl has just flashed briefly on the internet, the image now gone, the find spot unknown. The text, on a small bowl with sharply everted rim, contains two dates, one with a Calendar Round of 8? Eb 10 Zac, perhaps corresponding to (Julian Date, August 26, AD 770), and a future event of, 11 Ahau 18 Mac (Julian Date, October 8, AD 790). In a final passage, it also records, for the first time, a term in Maya glyphs for “alabaster”:  [‘i]T’AB[yi] u-xija-yi, ‘i-t’ab-y-i u-xix-jaay (Fig. 1).


Figure 1. Glyphic passage on alabaster vessel (drawing by David Stuart). 


The passage is fully legible. The verb, based on t’ab, “rise, go up” (Stuart 1998:417), harbors an infixed ‘i particle that, in temporal terms, folds the text back to the earlier date (Houston 2012). A probable yi infix signals the intransitive, change-of-state nature of the verb as well as a conjectural marker of single-argument predicates (-i; John Robertson, personal communication, 2000). What follows is a possessive pronoun, to be expected after such a verb, then a doubled xix (cued by two dots above the xi syllable). In a separate glyph block, but clearly linked to the xix, are the syllables ja-yi, spelling a term for “thin vessel, cup,” often in reference to vessels with slightly everted rims (Hull 2016; Lacadena and Wichmann 2004:144; Martin 2012:67, figs. 16, 17). The xix must be an adjective that describes the cup.

Mayan languages offer a suite of related words for “alabaster,” including an entry, “white xix,” from the Motul Dictionary of Yucatec compiled, probably, by Antonio de Ciudad Real in the final decades of the 16th century or the beginning of the 17th (Fig. 2, Table 1). Xix accords neatly with a label for an alabaster bowl, and this is its first known attestation in glyphs. What remain to be explored are subtleties of ethnogeology. Here is a term for a milky-white, nearly glowing stone (depending on quality and direction of light), sugary to the touch, coveted by elites and royalty. Yet it might also be applied to rough, commonplace materials: pebbled, sedimentary “gravel” (gravilla, cascajo) or “round rocks” (rocas….redondeadas) redeposited from elsewhere. Some skein of thought, perhaps of stone affected by water (cave flowstone accords with that class), might bind these terms together, as shaped by an etiology of stone conceived over centuries and across languages.


Screen Shot 2018-07-06 at 5.00.00 PM.png

Figure 2. Dictionary entry for çac xix [sak xix], ‘alabastro’  or “white xix” (Motul Dictionary, folio 94r, John Carter Brown Library, facsim. Codex Ind 8). 


Table 1. The root Xix in Greater Lowland Mayan languages.

Colonial Yucatec       <çac xix>        alabastro                         Dicc. Motul, folio 94r

Modern Yucatec        ch’áak-xìix      stalactite                        Bricker et al. 1998:79, 259

Itzaj                                xixil tunich      cascajo de piedra         Hofling with Tesucún 1994:676

Colonial Tzeltal        <xiximton>     cascajo                            Ara 1986:417 [folio 123v]

Modern Tzeltal          xixinton          rocas y gravilla redondeadas provenientes de una                                                                                         roca conglomerática previa Polian 2017:670

                                         xixim=ton       grava, cascajo                Kaufman & Justeson 2003:441

Colonial Tzotzil        <xixibton>     pebble                              Laughlin 1988:302

Modern Tzotzil          xixibton           river pebble                   Laughlin 1975:322


Note: The title is taken from a poem by Yusef Komunyakaa about Sir Harold Acton’s pleasure palace in Florence, “Blackamoors, Villa La Pietra,” 2016, Alabaster. The opulent setting seemed fitting here.



Ara, Fray Domingo de. 1986. Vocabulario de Lengua Tzeldal Según el Orden de Copanabastla. Edited by Mario Humberto Ruz. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Bricker, Victoria R., Eleuterio Po’ot Yah, and Ofelia Dzul de Po’ot. 1998. A Dictionary of the Maya Language as Spoken in Hocabá, Yucatán. Salt Lake City:University of Utah Press.

Chase, Arlen F., and Diane Z. Chase. 1987. Investigations at the Classic Maya City of Caracol, Belize: 1985–1987. Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute, Monograph 3. San Francisco: Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute.

Diehl, Richard A., and E.G. Stroh, Jr, 1978. Tecali Vessel Manufacturing Debris at Tollan, Mexico. American Antiquity 43(1):73–79.

Douglas, Peter, Mark Brenner, and Jason Curtis. 2016. Methods and Future Directions for Paleoclimatology in the Maya Lowlands. Global and Planetary Change 138:3–24.

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

Hofling, Charles A., with Félix Fernando Tesucún. 1997. Itzaj Maya Dictionary. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

Houston, Stephen D. 2014. Miscellaneous Texts. In Life and Politics at the Royal Court of Aguateca: Artifacts, Analytical Data, and Synthesis. Aguateca Archaeological Project First Phase Monograph Series, Volume 3, edited by Takeshi Inomata and Daniela Triadan, 258–269. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

Hull, Kerry. 2016. An Analysis of Jaay Vessel Usage among the Ancient and Modern Maya. Unpublished ms.

Kaufman, Terrence, with John Justeson. 2003. A Preliminary Mayan Etymological Dictonary. Kaufman with Justeson

Kubler, George. 1977. Aspects of Classic Maya Rulership on Two Inscribed Vessels. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology No. 18. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University.

Lacadena, Alfonso, and Søren Wichmann. 2004. On the Representation of the Glottal Stop in Maya Writing. In The Linguistics of Maya Writing, edited by Søren Wichmann, 103–162. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

Laughlin, Robert M. 1975. The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of San Lorenzo Zinacantán. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

— 1988. The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of Santo Domingo Zinacantán, Volume 1, Tzotzil-English. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Luke, Christina. 2008. Carving Luxury: Late Classic Maya Stone Vase Traditions in Mesoamerica. In New Approaches to Old Stones: Recent Studies of Ground Stone Artifacts, edited by Yorke M. Rowan and Jennie R. Ebeling, 298–319. London: Equinox.

Martin, Simon. 2013. Hieroglyphs from the Painted Pyramid: The Epigraphy of Chiik Nahb Structure Sub 1-4, Calakmul, Mexico. In Maya Archaeology 2, edited Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore, 60–80. San Francisco: Precolumbian Mesoweb Press.

Polian, Gilles. 2017. Diccionario Multidialectal del tseltal. Ms. in possession of authors.

Prager, Christian, and Elizabeth Wagner. 2013. A Possible Hieroglyphic Reference to Yax K’uk’ Mo’ at Caracol, Belize. Mexicon 35(2):31–32.

Saville, Marshall H. 1900. An Onyx Jar from Mexico in the Process of Manufacture. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 13:105-07.

Stuart, David. 1998. “The Fire Enters His House”: Architecture and Ritual in Classic Maya Texts. In Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture, edited by Stephen D. Houston, 373–425. Washington, D. C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Tokovinine, Alexandre. 2012. Fluted Bowl, Fluted and Incised Bowl. In Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Number 4: Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks, edited by Joanne Pillsbury, Miriam Doutriaux, Reiko Ishihara-Brito, and Alexandre Tokovinine, 120–129. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Wong, Corinne I., and Daniel O. Breecker. 2015. Advancements in the Use of Speleothems as Climate Archives. Quaternary Science Reviews 127:1–18.





What Writing Looks Like

by Stephen Houston (Brown University)

Beginning as puffs of air, channeled and shaped by the throat and mouth, words travel out from the body to reach other human ears. After cognitive processing, the puffs release their message, and communication ensues. [1] But words create their own problems. How is an assortment of meaningful exhalations, clicks, articulations, bellows, flutings, and affrications made more permanent and their recollection preserved beyond the memory of speakers and listeners? As many have observed, that is exactly what writing does. It takes ephemeral and invisible words and transforms them into fixed and visible graphs, to be seen as much as any picture. [2]

The ability to picture language creates its own kinds of play. Other graphic possibilities present themselves, other ways of linking with images. Other sorts of information become available. The claim that writing only concerns a phonic or linguistic message is a partial understanding at best, misleading at worst. Frolics with graphs, a luxuriation in their visible, material nature—these can be as important as any representation of sound. For Classicists, there is a relevant scene painted by Douris in Athens, at c. 490–485 BC (Fig. 1). In it, a schoolmaster holds a partly opened scroll, whose text reads: MOIΣAMOI AΦIΣKAMANΔPON EYPΩNAPXOMAI AEINΔEN. Translations of this sentence seem to vary by the translator, but it concerns a Homeric appeal to a muse and a reference to a good place for singing by the banks of the fast-flowing Scamander (Skamandros, the modern Karamenderes River in Turkey).



Figure 1. A schoolroom scene by the painter Douris, red-figure kylix, c. 490–485 BC, Athens, (Berlin, Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen 2285).


One theory suggests that we are looking at a bemused schoolmaster and a botched text from an “F” student: a subtle joke about dullards (Sider 2010:548). A representation (a painting by Douris of a scroll and a schoolmaster) embeds a second representation (a record of sound and meaning in an addled text). But the eye darts between the two levels. It reads the text, yet it also depicts those phrases as something physical, an inking on papyrus that opens up within a picture. In other instances, such as a vignette in an illuminated manuscript from c. AD 1450–1475, there can be a mind-bending mix: a representation of a representation of a representation (Fig. 2, Houston 2018b). An image of a northern Italian apothecary’s shop shows jars rimmed with pseudo-Hebrew or pseudo-Kufic characters, the latter a simulation—a representation—of legible writing.

Figure 2. Ibn Sina/Avicenna, Canon Medicinae, Bibliotheca Universitaria, Bologna, Italy, MS 2197, fol. 492.


Some pictured texts come close to trompe l’oeil, that clever trick by which the viewer or reader is led to confuse and blur materials (Fig. 3). In this way, a two-dimensional image triggers the perception of a three-dimensional object (Houston 2014:61, 62, 147fn.40). Miriam Milman (2009:22–23) explains how to activate the ruse: make the object as close as possible in size to the original it replicates; blend it into surroundings; limit depth; avoid live subjects that move; and create edges that do not compromise the deception. As one case of many, a painter, perhaps Ludger tom Ring the younger (1522–1583), created an open missal (a book for saying mass) that offers a tantalizing glimpse of a gilded page (likely a Crucifixion), surrounded by columbine, insects, corn flowers, and musical notation. The pages flutter slightly, about to be consulted, and a leather strap marks the first passage that is about to be read (Loeb Open Missal). There must have been some market for these ingenious deceptions, for a nearly identical painting is in the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence (N. Cat. 00124048, Inv. 1890, 6191). Other than a possible signature under the music (“Ludevi rinki”) no part of the text is readable. The work itself may have been an amusing surprise that lay on a sloping stand in a bookseller’s shop (Stirling 1952:33). Glossy and expensive, it hinted at knowledge that could never be accessed.



Figure 3. The Open Missal, attributed to Ludger tom Ring the younger, c. AD 1570, Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, 1956.5).


A later painting, by Laurent de La Hyre (1606–1656), also displays a text as though in three-dimensional space (Fig. 4). A literate audience was the intended target, one that would recognize the figure as a liberal art (“Grammar”), watering a plant that is out-of-scene—thirsty growth stands for young minds. On its ticker tape, there reads in Latin: “a meaningful utterance which can be written down, pronounced in the proper way.” The whole was inspired by an illustrated book, Iconologia, 1603, by Cesare Ripa (Wine et al. 1993:23–25). It formed part of a larger set of seven half-length panels extolling each of the liberal arts. A bookish audience, smug its own accomplishments, would have appreciated the painting and wanted its message multiply among the young. The letters seem to move in real space. They distort, and some of the letters disappear in part. The back of the text occurs too, the letters washed out in a brown-tinged reversal. An artful ploy simulates what the eyes might actually see in a hand-held scroll.



Figure 4. Allegory of Grammar, Laurent de La Hyre, 1650 (National Gallery of Art, London, NG6329, photograph by Stephen Houston).


The Classic Maya showed writing in the same way: as representations of representations, on physical objects in pictorial space. [3] For example, most Maya books are shown, as first suggested by Robert Sonin and amply documented by Michael Coe, in the form of leporellos or screenfolds (Coe 1973:91; Coe 1977:332–33, figs. 4–7). A few are unopened or about to be read (Fig. 5).



Figure 5. Opossum scribe (K’IN-ni ya-sa u-chu) with Maya codex and vulture accountant (k’a?-na u-su) holding single sheet with numbers, perhaps a mythic Long Count date of (BAMW Photography). 


Others are folded up tidily, two pages viewable at a time (Fig. 6). A curious feature, not often noted, is that the books are being examined or painted in an impossible manner. The scribe sits perpendicular to the correct position for writing, for the folds are always vertical in a book, not horizontal as shown here. Doubtless this was for clarity of presentation. A scribe in front of a book would obscure it to the viewer.



Figure 6. Trickster rabbit-scribe, northern Guatemala/southern Campeche, c. AD 725 (K511, Princeton University Art Museum, y1975–17, photograph © Justin Kerr, used with permission).


Another feature is that, with one exception, such pictured books never disclose their contents. Viewers can readily identify a codex by its sumptuous jaguar-pelt covering and the thin, smoothed excellence of its page-edges (usually 4 to 10 visible, i.e., rather terse works by the standards of surviving examples). But they are not given any view of the glyphs within. The exception is late, a vessel from the final decades of the Classic period (a vase by the same artist may be found in the Museo Popol Vuh, Guatemala, #5335, Chinchilla Mazariegos 2005). It shows a mythic tableau of animals bringing offerings of food and drink that are presumably being tallied in an open book by two monkey scribes (Fig. 7). The deity receiving these treats may be a high god known to specialists as “God D,” but with unusual touches, for he is borne aloft by a coiled snake (on the combinatory complexity of this character, see Martin 2015:214–215, fig. 37). Unexpectedly, the book shows, at slight angle, in awkward display, some bars, cross-banded signs, and a few dots. These offer a casual hint of content, rapid flicks of ink to suggest writing, but not its detail. On present evidence, all such scenes are mythic, the participants gods or supernaturals. Not a one appears to be dynastic. Indeed, historical images are decidedly phobic about depicting books, despite the undoubted presence of many such tomes in Maya cities (a lone dynastic image may include a codex, but, oddly, it serves only as a support for the mirror of a preening lord, K6341).



Figure 7. Monkey scribes, scene of food tribute or serving, Peten, Guatemala, c. AD 800 (K3413, photograph © Justin Kerr, used with permission).


Far more evident are glyphs on depictions of ceramics (Figs. 8, 9, 10). They appear where they should, as rim bands, but largely as pseudo-script, ovoids with thickened outlines and interior features in more delicate, thinner lines (Houston 2018b). They offer a graphic primer of what Maya scribes thought the formal attributes of writing should be.



Figure 8. Vessel with (pseudo-)glyphs, c. AD 700 (K2800, photograph © Justin Kerr, used with permission).

The tributary scene mentioned before revels in such labels on ceramics (Fig. 9). Each animal—as a whole, they constitute a near-complete typology of Maya mammals and quadrupeds—offers up a drinking vessel with prominent glyphs on the side visible to the viewer. The lucid presentation seems not to involve legibility, however, for they appear to repeat pseudo-glyphs (a large sign with appended suffixes) that resemble the glyph for “sky,” ka’n. The scribe, a painter with a hand for inventive scenes roiling with energy, was probably someone with only a light grip on glyphic literacy. His two works demonstrate a familiarity with a few signs and their customary arrangement as suffixes and larger glyphs, but he had little understanding beyond graphic display. His writing was pure picture.



Figure 9. Animals serving food, Peten, Guatemala, c. AD 800 (K3413, photograph © Justin Kerr, used with permission).


The tenuous line between legibility and pseudo-writing is less a necessity than a strategy for other scribes, as in the fully literate Akan Suutz’, a painter of a vessel now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Fig. 10, M.2010.115.12, see also K1599). The main text on the vessel is legible, even bold and confident. This is someone who understood, as do illustrators today, the impact of the la ligne claire (Clear Line; Ligne Claire). Small vessels throughout the scene have glyphs that appear to repeat, if with the usual alternation or juxtaposition of “affixes” and larger signs. Yet there is also an expert execution of a “12 Ajaw” on a jar for pulque. That may correspond to a date of, in the Maya Long Count system, (an ending for a 20-year span often commemorated with Ajaw signs written in this way, without months), or, in the Western calendar, a Julian Date of Jan. 21, AD 771.



Figure 10. Polychrome vessel from area of Tikal or even Aguateca or Dos Pilas, but likely made near Lake Peten Itza, Guatemala (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, M.2010.115.12, see also K1599). 


The lively scenes of marketing found in Structure Sub 1-4 at Calakmul, Mexico, offer both examples of glyphs painted on textiles (a possible u chu-?, u chuy, “sewing”?), but also, in another panel, a cup lifted to the lips of an atole drinker (Fig. 11, Carrasco Vargas and Cordeiro Baqueiro 2012:fig. 8, close-up fig. 33; Martin 2012:64–65, fig. 6). A different technique intruded here, “a minutely incised inscription” with yu-li (Martin 2012:64) that may refer to atole or maize-drink, ordinarily spelled ul, or to the act of carving or incision itself, yul-il (Houston 2016:424–425, fn9). Post-fire texts do not occur Late Classic pottery, especially in such a prominent position, but, with this enhancement, the legible text evoked the direct action and presence of a scribe.


incised CLK.jpg

Figure 11. Glyphs on blue-painted atole bowl, Structure Sub 1-4, Calakmul, Mexico (Carrasco Vargas and Cordeiro Baqueiro 2012:close-up fig. 33, photograph by Rogelio Valencia Rivera, Proyecto Arqueológico Calakmul). 


Glyphs on textiles afford an insight about gender. By common belief—the assertion is plausible yet hard to prove—most weavings were done by women (Halperin 2016:435). Yet there is also overwhelming evidence that the scribes and literate sculptors were men (Houston 2016). The occurrence of pseudo-writing on some textiles (Fig. 12, left), but legible texts on others (Fig, 12, right, Laporte and Fialko 1995:82, fig. 69), may have several explanations. If an actual textile is being shown, then this may reveal variable literacy among those painting textiles. Note that few appear to be woven into the fabric, i.e., they were added later. Or, if the painter of the pot is the relevant party, then it simply speaks to their representation of textiles.



Figure 12. Polychrome vessels with glyphs on textiles: (left) sash around waist, with pseudo-writing (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, M.2010.115.12, see also K1599); and (right) vase from Tikal, Burial PNT-007, with seemingly legible signs (K2697, photograph © Justin Kerr, used with permission).


The glyphs on a vessel from Tikal inspire confidence that literate productions appeared in some of these images, including a possible reference to a male youth (Fig. 13ch’o-ko? CHAK-la-ya ‘a?).



Figure 13. Close-up of glyphs, vase from Tikal, Burial PNT-007, with seemingly legible signs (K2697, photograph © Justin Kerr, used with permission).

A conundrum for any person looking at ancient art is that divide, at times close, at times yawning, between depiction and the depicted. These are no snapshots. They express a considered view of what to show and how to show it. But the occlusions, partly visible in several images (Fig. 12, leftFigs. 13, 14, 15), along with Laurent de La Hyre’s, Allegory of Grammar (Fig. 4), reinforce a view that an ocular effect is being entertained here, that painters and carvers are displaying not what they know to be there but what they can see (Houston 2016:fig. 13.5). Occasionally, glyphs are obscured by another piece of cloth or ornament (see also a partial sculptor’s name, in the Princeton University Art Museum, #2012–78, Houston 2016:fig. 12.5, in a lead from Bryan Just). The glyphs painted at the end of Classic period in the Bonampak murals refer explicitly to “cloth” in one case (u bu ku), but to secondary painting in another (u tz’i ba-li), to the medium of transmission, line-like paint applied after weaving, and to the intended display surface. These probably operated in a setting of tributary offering (hence the T’AB-yi, “raise up,” in Fig. 14, Room 1, Caption 5c; Houston 2018a:152). Texts specified that someone painted them, that they were offered, and that the textile belonged to someone, perhaps a maker, perhaps an owner.



Figure 14. Pictured texts on textiles, Bonampak Murals (images by Stephen Houston and Gene Ware, drawing by Stephen Houston, courtesy of Bonampak Documentation Project).


This pattern has also been attested in a carving now in the Dumbarton Oaks collection,  Washington, D.C. (Fig. 15Tokovinine 2012:69–71, fig. 32, 33). It refers to the painting on the cloth and to the ownership (or making) of that cloth, but by someone whose name disappears behind a (now-eroded) belt ornament. The statements are almost coy in providing the phrasing of possession but not any particulars about personal identity.



DO Chancala overlay.jpg

Figure 15. Chancala-area panel, Chiapas, Mexico, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, PC.B.537 (drawing by Alexandre Tokovinine, with added highlighting in red of text on textile).


The art historian Meyer Schapiro paid close attention to pictured text in Western art. Some of his observations are parochial, as in his categorical insistence that writing consisted of “arbitrary marks” violating the “unified whole” of a pictorial work (Schapiro 1996:119). In the Maya case, sundering imagery and writing hardly makes sense for an iconically based script. But, to useful extent, Schapiro was concerned with the “material reality of the spoken and written word” (Schapiro 1996:120) and with the problem of viewpoint. Was inserted text to be “read” by a figure within a picture, a seated Evangelist examining a Gospel oriented to his “gaze”? Or was the pertinent observer “outside,” looking at that same Gospel but now laid out for clarity, not as any real book would be? Evolutionism creeps in: for Schapiro the latter was “an archaic object-oriented attitude,” to be contrasted with “the foreshortenings and overlappings that transform the constant shapes of objects,” crafting “an image coherent to the eye with a unifying perspective” (Schapiro 1996:121, 132, 141, 181).

“Archaic,” “ordered,” “whole,” “coherent,” and “unifying” are words of prejudicial intent. Schapiro’s voting record is clear. Yet pictured writing among the Classic Maya recalls similar patterns and a roughly parallel contrast of “attitude.” During a few decades in the Classic period, perhaps over a century, and in certain kingdoms or ateliers only, the need for presentational clarity gave way, in playful experiment, to what the eye could see, not what was known to be there. (Codices seemed strenuously off-limits.) This could be understood by the culturally laden term of “realism,” but it points more to a privileging of viewers, a means of summoning direct experience, and bringing observers into physical communion with acts on record. For the Maya, this was what writing looked like.


Note 1.  “Communication” is sometimes not quite the right label. Speaking to oneself can be seen as a disorder in Western psychiatry, which orders up lithium and other drugs to control such an impulse. To more recent thinking, chatter without an audience helps to organize the brain and to direct the tasks we perform (Kirkham et al. 2012). Moreover, in communicating with others, lip-reading offers a non-phonic option, provided that labial movement can be clearly seen (Auer 2010).

Note 2. Tactile scripts like braille and the “night writing” of Charles Barbier de la Serre present another story of sensory messaging. They are, as relatively recent innovations, far more restricted in use (Weygand 2009: 39, 299).

Note 3. Left to the side is an unusual occurrence: glyphs that appear as objects when they are most unlikely to have been seen in this way (e.g., K771, in which an “8 Ajaw” day sign “sits” on a surface, much like seated figures—all supernaturals—posed nearby). Year-bearers, numbered days marking the shift of years, also perform in this way (Stuart 2004:fig. 4).


Acknowledgments  Megan O’Neil kindly shared an image of the vessel at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.



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Chinchilla Mazariegos, Oswaldo. 2005. Cosmos and Warfare on a Classic Maya Vase. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 47:107–134.

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

Coe, Michael D. 1977. Supernatural Patrons of Maya Scribes and artists. In Social Process in Maya Prehistory: Essays in Honour of Sir Eric Thompson, ed. Norman Hammond, 327–47. New York: Academic Press.

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Houston, Stephen D. 2018a. The Gifted Passage: Young Men in Classic Maya Art and Text. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Houston, Stephen D. 2018b. Writing that Isn’t: Pseudo-Scripts in Comparative View. Unpublished ms., www.academia.edu.

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The Ugly Writing

by Stephen Houston (Brown University)

In Western thought, much rests on Greek precedent. “Calligraphy” or “beautiful writing,” to give one example, descends from the condition of κάλλος “beauty” and -γραϕος “written” (“calligraph” and “calligraphy,” OED Online 2018). To notorious extent, “beauty” exists in the eye of the beholder. For the ancient Greeks, its meanings might slip and slide between “noble,” “well-done,” and “virtuous,” if with “the kind of appeal that inspires desire” (Konstan 2014:170). The aesthetic dimensions of “beauty” would await the Renaissance, for the Greeks of Classical times rarely applied the term to a work of art (Konstan 2014:179). When aesthetics took over, critics like Pierre Bourdieu came to see “beauty” and “taste” as “ascetic, empty…the renunciation of pleasure,” a withered husk of delight (Bourdieu 1984:493; see also Konstan 2014:186). Or, as a concept, “beauty” became a quality divorced from “sensual, practical, and ethical issues” (Nehamas 2007:3).

Calligraphy as “beautiful writing” makes sense on many levels, if couched within different traditions of practice. In China, the focus on brushstrokes led to joint evaluations of text and painting.  A vast corpus of critical literature assisted that endeavor, including glosses added to the paintings themselves (Bush and Shih 1985; Cahill 1997:5–6). The Aztecs, for their part, thought of good scribes in terms of their internal properties (“honest, circumspect, far-sighted, pensive”) but above all as “judge[s] of colors” (Dibble and Anderson 1961:28).

But what of “ugly writing”? A suitable term, “cacography,” derives from a Greek word for “ugly,” “vile,” “useless,” or, by evocative, etymological link, to excrement (Liddell and Scott 1940:124)? The Aztecs knew of such works too, made by scribes who were “dull, detestable, irritating” (Dibble and Anderson 1961:28). Painting “without luster,” a bad scribe “ruins colors, blurs them, paints askew” (Dibble and Anderson 1961:28). Interior failings resulted in bad work, sloppiness betrayed an unworthy maker. Some ugly writing might reflect biography: arising at times of apprenticeship, when learning takes place, or in old age as the hand loses muscular control. Neophytes create uneven, awkward displays of signs (Fig. 1). Or, quite simply, more general standards might lapse when larger shifts happened to convulse society. Mastery of execution, regularity of sign use, a disciplined placement of writing in relation to picture, careful choice of color, sustained evidence of confident practice—perhaps these become less important when the minds of patrons or readers weigh down with other challenges. Their discernment atrophies or fails to develop in the first place.



Figure 1. Writing board of an apprentice scribe, Dynasty 11, c. 2030 BC, wood, whitewash, and ink, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 28.9.5.


These are the attributes of some Egyptian writing during Intermediate Periods (Figures 2, 3). Hieroglyphs: baselines that swoop, askew in layout, each sign variable, lop-sided, nary a straight line in sight. Resembling crude ostraka, the underlying stone bulges or fractures with inadequate preparation and smoothing. Epigraphers usually suspend judgment. As in wise parenting, there can be no favorite children, no period better than any other. In fact, a Classic Mayanist learns this to their peril when talking to specialists in other periods. At the Brooklyn Museum, one such text is said to be, in upbeat description, “simple but lively” (Brooklyn Museum 39.1). Yet these examples distill the essence of ugly writing. The patrons must have been satisfied, for they had accepted the work and affixed them to their tombs. But broader comparisons give them failing grades. They illustrate aesthetic and scribal decline, a systemic lapse in standards, problematic writing for problematic times.



Figure 2. Stela of Khuu, Gebelein area(?), First Intermediate Period, c. 2100 BC. Turin, Museo Egizio, S.1276, acquired by Ernesto Schiaparelli about 1905 (photograph by John Baines). 



Figure 3. Stela of Tetu and Nefertjentet, First Intermediate Period, El-Assasif, Thebes, Egypt, c. 2124–1981 BC. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, Rogers Fund 1919, 19.3.33. 


Ugly writing exists among the Maya. Rich in content, basically, even fully, legible in its deciphered signs, the Codex Madrid in the Museo de América has its admirers but also some detractors (Fig. 4): David Kelley (1976:15) described its “frequent errors” and many a “dyslexic lapse” across its lime-sized, Ficus-bark pages. Several scribes, perhaps up to 9, were involved in its making (Lacadena 2000:56). One, labeled “Scribe 5” by Alfonso Lacadena, is seemingly unbothered by sagging glyph-lines, and another two, his “Scribe 3” and “Scribe 8” respectively, invert spellings (mu-ti > ti-mu, nu-tz’u for tz’u-nu-*nu). A “hand” is, of course, an invention of connoisseurship (Houston 2016). If cautiously defined, it presents a reasoned hypothesis, a statistical chance, that certain attributes mark a particular artist or scribe. Here, Kelley’s “dyslexic” lapse affects at least two scribes and probably more, indicating that these “errors” of reading order reflect a variant, more opaque pattern of spellings in the place and time when the Codex Madrid was composed. Heavy, almost disproportionate lines mark some pages, the ink poorly or erratically controlled (M19, 21), and sign or glyph block size varies widely (M35). This differs strongly from the taut, minute execution of the Dresden Codex, also by more than one scribe (Coe and Kerr 1997:178–179). Again, the point does not concern the message, which might be perfectly serviceable. It is the vehicle of transmission that wants for disciplined regularity and able execution.



Figure 4. “Errors” and compositional irregularity in the Codex Madrid, with scribal “hands” discerned by Alfonso Lacadena García-Gallo (2000).


Book-writing involved an intimate act. Much hinges on the use of brush or quill and their steady control by the hand in artful pose, pinky aloft (David Stuart has called this the “pretty hand,” an exquisite gesture that might also be used by dancers; personal communication, 2014). Monumental carving had a different, far more muscular dynamic, and was far slower in execution. It could be ugly indeed. A carving from Chuncan on display in the Baluarte de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad Museum [Museo de la Arquitectura Maya] in Campeche shows a distended body, one outsized hand doubtless casting incense, the other holding a pouch for that offering of pellets (Fig. 5). The stone is not exceptionally well-preserved, but the glyphs sag, exhibit variant sizes—they almost certainly named the figure, but one wonders if they were ever crisply sculpted or appeared as more than suggestive shapes. Long-gone paint might have clarified some of the signs on other sculptures in the Baluarte Museum—not a few, as in a scene of a deity riding a skeletal deer, appear almost to block out glyphs yet supply no discernible detail. The one readable sign is an Ajaw below, possibly tied to a katun (20-year) ending of 2 Ajaw 13 Tzec, in AD 751.



Figure 5. Chuncan Stela 1, Museo Baluarte de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad [Museo de la Arquitectura Maya], Campeche (photograph by Stephen Houston). 


A later example is Calakmul Stela 50, said by its discoverers to be “rather crude” (Ruppert and Denison 1943:111). That is an understatement. The lower torso has been drastically reduced, the glyphs made surprisingly large given the size of the main figure. A face on the belt is scratched out or lightly incised, as is a pectoral. This must be one of Calakmul’s latest monuments, at the tail end of its royal line. Irregular spacing famously occurs on another late carving, Yaxchilan Lintel 10 (Graham and von Euw 1977:31). The sculptor crammed glyphs into the final passages of the text, and its overall grid of signs curved away from any neat regularity. As at Calakmul or with the Codex Madrid, the evaluative milieu had changed from earlier times. Ugly writing is not solely about execution—it is also about reception. Earlier readers would have recoiled from Stela 50 at Calakmul; clearly, at its time of carving, patrons and viewers did not. Or, if they did, they no longer enjoyed access to the carving standards of Stela 51, a masterwork of modulated surface and light (ironically enough, this carving is reproduced on the same page as Stela 50; Ruppert and Denison 1943:pl. 50c).


Calakmul Stela 50.png

Figure 6. Calakmul Stela 50 (Ruppert and Denison 1943:pl. 50b).  


Some ugly writing must have come from faltering, initial steps in training. While excavating the Acropolis at Piedras Negras, a team led by Linton Satterthwaite uncovered masonry blocks that, on closer look, proved to have trial designs on them (Fig. 7, Satterthwaite 1965:figs. 2, 6). These would have been reused not long after their carving, hinting that monumental work did not take place in ateliers but on-site. Several scenarios suggest themselves. This might have been an opportunistic gathering of apprentices at a location where flattened stone was abundant. Or, perhaps, the training was motivated by another task nearby, the carving of wooden lintels over doorways in the Acropolis. Their wide span could only have been covered by wood, now long-gone, their decay causing most of the masonry vaults to collapse. Yaxchilan is celebrated for its sculpted lintels; Piedras Negras might have had just as many if not more, but of a material that did not last.

Miscellaneous Stone 3 shows a laborious incision of a grid—one can nearly hear the master: “start with this!” The glyphs, perhaps placed later, out-of-grid, occur in varying sizes. One sign might just be a term for “strong youth,” keleem, a suitable autograph for a young carver. Did this self-absorbed man-boy incise his own name? Miscellaneous Stone 8 labors with a grid, if one that is poorly aligned. The sequence seems secure, commencing with the grid, then come the major glyph outlines, and a trial excision of recessed areas. The most finished block, at C2, experiments with suffixes that are out of proper position, the ni, wa, and AJAW topsy-turvy in relation to glyphs in other blocks. The carver might have pivoted around the stone, probing different lines of attack and alternative ways of handling a chisel or burin. The haptics of sculpting may be on display here. There were no disappointed patrons with this piece (although maybe an annoyed master), only slabs that would soon pass into the bulk of a palace.



Figure 7. Trial pieces at Piedras Negras, mid-8th century AD (Satterthwaite 1965:figs. 2, 6), both from Court 2, Acropolis (MS 3, Structure J-9; MS 8, Structure J-12). 


By any measure, the Copan Hieroglyphic Stairway, now under intensive study by Barbara Fash and David Stuart, contains glyphs of the highest quality. Those in the first-phase, bottom risers are especially accomplished (Houston, Fash, and Stuart 2014/2015:26–27). They may not have been carved by the same person—their sheer number makes that unlikely—but they do exhibit a tendency towards “homography,” a uniform style in riser after riser. By contrast, the upper stairway is highly “heterographic,” with a multitude of different hands, possibly as many as 45 (Houston, Fash, and Stuart 2014/2015:35). There is much to admire in those blocks, and one glyph that inspires a contrary emotion: a day sign, properly pedestaled, but with a singularly inept Ajaw-face (Fig. 8). Was this a trial piece by an apprentice or the results of a rushed commission? There is a perceptible disparity between the lower part of the day sign cartouche, plus the adjacent wa under the month name Tzec, and the cramped, slovenly, flat parts above. Did two different carvers operate within a single glyph block? General standards were competent-to-high at this time. The day and months signs occupy the bottom reaches of that range.



Figure 8. Day and month sign on the upper Hieroglyphic Stairway, Copan, Honduras (Gordon 1902:pl. V, F2).


Scholarship is seldom advanced by subjectivity. Yet, in all probability, for Maya writing, declines in standards are perceptible and isolable. Socially meaningful, they also reveal much about training, conduits of access, and evaluative milieux. The beholding eye can detect some of their defects: a thorough-going irregularity in glyph size or shape of grid; signs that lose their capacity to establish contrasts; in painting, a poorly controlled charge of the brush; and, when compared with other examples, an idiosyncratic variation that reduces the influence of precedent or scribal tradition. These are not the same as “pseudo-glyphs,” signs that become pictures of texts, a stylistic evocation, an ornamental place-holder with little to no content (Calvin 2006, 2013; Houston 2017). A decline in standards expresses, probably, a broader fraying in the transmission of information, a problem in society itself (Houston 2008). Ugly writing offers lessons worth studying. By their indirect example, they define achievement and rare excellence. By awkward stumbles, they help us to discern shifting standards and the reasons behind them.



Acknowledgements   John Baines was most helpful with an image of regrettable writing from Egypt. Karl Herbert Meyer supplied a lead about the stela from Chuncan.



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Bush, Susan, and Hsio-yen Shih, eds. 1985. Early Chinese Texts on Painting. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cahill, James. 1997. Approaches to Chinese Painting, Part II. In Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting,  Yang Xin, Richard M. Barnhart, Nie Chongzheng, James Cahill, Lang Shaojun, and Wu Hung, 5–12. New Haven: Yale University Press.

“calligraph, n.1”. OED Online. June 2018. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/26430? (accessed June 16, 2018).

“calligraphy, n.”. OED Online. June 2018. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/26437?redirectedFrom=Calligraphy&amp; (accessed June 16, 2018).

Calvin, Inga E. 2006. Between Text and Image: An Analysis of Pseudo-Glyphs on Late Classic Maya Pottery from Guatemala. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Colorado, Boulder.

Calvin, Inga E. 2013. A Different Discourse: An Analysis of Late Classic Period Maya Pseudo-Glyphs.” Paper presented at “More than an Utterance: Indecipherable Scripts and the Materiality of Communication,” organized by Alice Yao, Chicago, Nov. 24.

Coe, Michael D., and Justin Kerr. 1997. The Art of the Maya Scribe. London: Thames & Hudson.

Dibble, Charles E., and Arthur J. O. Anderson. 1961. Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, Book 10—The People. Santa Fe Salt Lake City: School of American Research/University of Utah Press.

Gordon, George B. 1902. The Hieroglyphic Stairway, Ruins of Copan: Report on Explorations by the Museum. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnologyy Vol. 1, no. 6. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Houston, Stephen. 2008. The Small Deaths of Maya Writing. In The Disappearance of Writing Systems, eds. John Baines, John Bennett, and Stephen Houston, 231–252. London: Equinox.

Houston, Stephen D. 2016. Crafting Credit: Authorship among Classic Maya Painters and Sculptors. In Making Value, Making Meaning: Techné in the Pre-Columbian World, edited by Cathy L. Costin, 391–431. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C.

Houston, Stephen. 2017. Writing That Isn’t: Pseudo-Scripts in Comparative View. Ms. for publication in volume at the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, ed. Christopher Woods.

Houston, Stephen, Barbara Fash, and David Stuart. 2014/2015. Masterful Hands: Morelli and the Maya on the Hieroglyphic Stairway, Copan, Honduras. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 65/66: 15–36.

Kelley, David H. 1976. Deciphering the Maya Script. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Konstan, David. 2014. Beauty: The Fortunes of an Ancient Greek Idea. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Graham, Ian, and Eric von Euw. 1977. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 3, Part 1: Yaxchilan. Cambridge, MA; Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.

Lacadena García-Gallo, Alfonso. 2000. Los escribas del Códice de Madrid: Metodología paleográfica. Revista Española de Antropología Americana 30:27–85.

Liddell, Henry G., and Robert Scott. 1940. A Greek-English Lexicon. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Nehamas, Alexander. 2007. Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in the World of Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Ruppert, Karl, and John H. Denison, Jr. 1943. Archaeological Reconnaissance in Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Peten. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication 543. Washington, D.C.

Satterthwaite, Linton. 1965. Maya Practice Stone-Carving at Piedras Negras. Expedition Winter:9–18.

Touching Text in Ancient Mexican Writing

by Stephen Houston (Brown University) and Marc Zender (Tulane University)

“Pictography…complicates discussions of both writing and artistic practice in a global sense” (Boone 2016:32)

In a perceptive comment, James Elkins once remarked on “the recurring fantasy that there might be such a thing as a purely visual picture, a page of writing uncontaminated by nonverbal meaning, or a chart or graph dedicated utterly to the propagation of data” (Elkins 1999:91). Posing extremes, if only to make a point about the challenges behind these categories, Elkins zeroed in on the zone of collisions between writing as a linear notation of language, meaningful notations or graphs that scholars call “semasiographs” (think of mason’s marks), and pictures that play havoc with linearity. Some images tell or allude to stories, but mostly they avoid any demand that depictions be accessed in a fixed order.

Of course, how a graph occupies space is less clear than one might think. As something to be seen, a picture does not have to be two-dimensional (reflect on Rodin’s Les Bourgeois de Calais [1884–89], whose miseries, to be fully absorbed, must be viewed from several vantages). And what script other than Morse code, when registered visibly as dots and dashes, fails to splay out laterally? To map out these frontiers, Elkins used Venn diagrams that interlock like love rings, one of “writing,” with two others of “notation” and “picture” respectively (Elkins 1999:85–86). “Hieroglyphs,” a kind of writing bridging picture and text, occupies two overlapping circles. These systems are both pictorial and linear, referencing things in the world but also, because they express language, insisting on a particular order of reading.

There must have been some evolutionary foundation to all of this. The making of images and the cognitive networks that facilitate the recognition of objects rest on primate origins. There was, according to Stanislas Dehaene, “the partial or total invasion of a cortical territory initially devoted to a different function,” as “coded by single neurons in the primate’s visual cortex” (Dehaene 2009:72–74, 183, and fig. 2.6, for the suggestive proximity in the human brain for areas responding to rooted things [e.g., houses], faces, written words, and separable objects; n.b: Dehaene [2009:184] comments on Maya writing but only with respect to “faces…[that] denote syllables”). An unmet need in scholarship is to have laboratory imaging, by computed tomography, of responses to hieroglyphic systems, rather than the “stroke-based” scripts, the majority in the world, that attract the preponderant attention of research on the reading brain (e.g., Changizi and Shimojo 2005; Changizi et al. 2006). For them, the alphabet remains “A Great Leap Forward” (Dehaene 2009:190), with implied negative comment about hieroglyphic writing that endured, in the Egyptian case, for almost 3,600 years or, among the Maya, for 1,800 or more.

The pleasure, perhaps even the neuronal frisson of hieroglyphs, is their resolute “thingness.” They have edges, interiors, exteriors. They represent things in the world; they have perceptible mass, weight, texture, color; they toggle, in their cognitive processing, when apprehended by the brain, between image, sound, and meaning. Rather than defects, these attributes surely delighted users and readers of hieroglyphic script. The features bore social import as well, in that the solidity of things, plainly evident to the eye, lent factual assertiveness to the messages conveyed by writing. By offering playful ground for virtuosity, hieroglyphs did something else—they abetted a drive towards prestigious and assertive display in unequal societies (see Baines 2007, for ample comparison from Egypt).

Nonetheless, picture and writing operate in their own domains, as made clear by one of the principal functions of script, to label or caption images. By their nature, hieroglyphs and images are pictorial, but the writing is strongly codified as to size, spacing, regularity, albeit with scope for fun flourishes. The relation between the two is more “dialogic…each relates to the other without absorbing or being subsumed by it” (Bedos-Rezak and Hamburger 2016:2). Two examples illustrate this point. The first, from Egypt, in the Middle Kingdom tomb of Khnumhotep II at Beni Hassan (BH 3), shows captioning that may be categorized by function and content: as added by the Egyptologist Claus Jurman, light grey rectangles indicate titles, dark grey personal names, ovoids “labels of action” (Fig. 1, Jurman 2018:111, fig. 2). Such tagging tends to occur when the tomb owner appears in the scene and may be enlivened by quotations of speech. The hieroglyphs occupy the same figural field as the pictures of diligent laborers, duty bound for eternity, earnest, energetic too, but they are clearly separable. Their contiguity is what establishes the relationship between text and image. The placement of texts above the figures may also signal some of their priority in parsing the scene. The figures function almost like unread determinatives. Their final positioning (where determinatives occur in hieroglyphic phrasing) and facial orientations (the same as their labeling signs) accord with that view.


Figure 1.png

Figure 1. Tomb of Khnumhotep II, Beni Hassan (BH 3, Jurman 2018:fig. 2, adapted from Kanawati and Evans 2014:pl. 121, bottom). 


A more recent example, in The Uncourtly Lovers from c. 1484 (and now held by the Gotha Museum in Germany), shows a couple (Fig. 2). Thought at one time to be a bridal pair, the painting highlights a medieval count and his concubine, the looping scrolls above describing both the “unlawful” nature of their love and its obvious ardor—he was about to depart for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, perhaps never to return (Camille 1998:157–159). Sound is made visible here, but in elegant hand, accompanied by no open lips: here is interior, impassioned sentiment broadcast to viewers, possibly modeled on the prophetic or celestial utterances emblazoned on earlier scrolls in Western imagery (Schapiro 1996:157). In the tomb of Khnumhotep II, the texts are close by if spatially separate from the people and actions they caption; in The Uncourtly Lovers, the text is set apart on writing material. Yet both float impossibly, as though in thin air, a trait of such labeling in general. That physical impossibility tells the viewers that they are looking at a distinct kind of messaging. Labeling takes a generic image—workers laboring with energy and care, a profession of mutual devotion—and doubles down on the specifics of that scene, giving it weight, reality, grounding in a time and place, establishing who is whom, what is what, and by principles of labeling that were non-random in placement, content, and selection.


Screen Shot 2018-06-02 at 11.29.09 AM.png

Figure 2. The Uncourtly Lovers, Master of the Housebook, c. 1484, Stiftung Schloss Friedenstein Gotha (SG 703). 


Captioning in Maya writing has only just begun to be studied in formal and comparative perspective (e.g., Houston 2018:140–152; Zender 2014:63–67). Captives may bear labels on their bodies, as though these were inscribed into unwilling flesh; connecting text to people’s lips, voluptuous lines appear to indicate a record of actual speech (Houston et al. 2006:153–163). Yet these lines are relatively rare. It is in the writing of Mexico, including the Basin of Mexico, Oaxaca, and intermediate areas, that lines exist, and with telling implications for text-picture relations in the Postclassic and early Colonial periods.

As Elizabeth Boone (1994:53) notes in her useful discussion of the scene of departure from Aztlan on page 1 of the Codex Boturini, of the three individuals depicted on this page only one, the priestess Chimalman, is named by “a round shield (chimalli) attached by a line to her head.” She further mentions that, “[e]xcept for the glyphs composing personal and place names, the graphic components on this page convey meaning without a detour through speech” (Boone 1994:54). Boone (2000:48) also highlights regional variation in the use of this convention, observing that “[i]ndividuals in the Mixtec codices are always identified by their calendrical names, which appear as a date either attached to the individual by a line or unattached nearby” (Boone 2000:48). In the Aztec case,  the principle admitted more flexibility. The lines were more optional, linking portraits with both calendar names and personal name glyphs (Boone 2000:48). This important distinction between phonetic hieroglyphs and pictorial art received relatively little attention before Boone’s work. Charles Dibble (1955:301) mentions the convention only in passing, noting that Aztec name glyphs were “attached to the nape of the neck” and that, “when the individual’s name was of secondary importance and his tribal affinity was of paramount concern, the tribal hieroglyph was attached to the neck,” as in the ethnonyms associated with the captive deities of the Stone of Tizoc (see also Zender 2008:27, Note 4). Similarly, Nicholson’s (1973:23) state-of-the-field discussion of phoneticism in Aztec writing takes the principle largely for granted, largely following Dibble’s analysis.

First, a point of evidence. Maya glyphs always had context, in that they might occur on this or that building or object. However, they also possessed a strong graphic autonomy, appearing in long columns without any image nearby. The overwhelming sense from Mexico is that hieroglyphic writing did not have the same degree of separability, in part because of the intrinsic brevity of such records: i.e., if signs were painted or carved, they had to accompany a person, place, scene or three-dimensional figure. Images found explanation and specification by hieroglyphs, yet texts were, in essence, secondary to pictorial display. The few “free-floating” signs probably related to things in close proximity. Glyphs on stone boxes (tepētlacalli) may have glossed the contents, presumed in some examples to be mortuary (see McEwan and López Luján 2009:cat. 15, 16). Other signs embellished stone plaques affixed to buildings, a palpable, massive reference if there ever was one (e.g., Matos Moctzeuma and Solís Olguín 2002:cat. 172–174), or, when combined with other day signs, arranged into four-part patterns, they represented a compact, almost emblematic totality of time and space (Matos Moctzeuma and Solís Olguín 2002:cat. 226–227; for examples from other non-Maya writing, see Chinchilla Mazariegos 2017:43, 45, with similar emphasis on direct contact).

A second observation concerns the use of lines to link text and image. In Mexican systems of writing, lines occur exclusively on flat, painted surfaces. To our knowledge, not one of these tethers exists in carved form on stone or other hard material. Such links served as a purely painterly device, and of books at that—Aztec paintings do not yield such lines either (e.g., Contreras 1994; Sisson and Lilly 1994:fig. 4). In many cases lines seem also to be optional or non-existent, so that the entire “Borgia group” of Aztec codices fails to show a single instance of such tethers. Indeed, the first demonstrably Pre-Columbian usage is from the Mixtec region of Oaxaca where, as among the Aztec, there were three ways to link text and its referent: (1) the absence of referential line; (2) a partial tethering of person to non-calendrical name sign or some part of a numbered calendrical name sign; and (3) direct contact between text and its referent. All of these options may be found in the Codex Vienna: as highlighted in Figures 3 and 4, a green circle shows a tether, a yellow circle employs direct contact to link text and pictorial referent or to enchain internal components of a text (subitized numbers and day sign; for “subitization,” see Chrisomalis 2010:376–379).



Figure 3. Referential lines contrasted with direct contact in the Mixtec Codex Vienna (c. AD 1350). 



Figure 4. Referential lines between bodies and nominal day signs, Codex Nuttall (c. AD 1400). 


Direct contact as a means of linking a text and its pictorial referent is not limited to Mixtec sources, for it appears commonly in early Colonial documents. Figure 5 juxtaposes a Pre-Columbian example, from the Codex Vienna, each day sign brushing against its specifying number, and a Colonial example from the Codex Azoyú from Guerrero, Mexico, that employs both tethers and, in three mummy bundles below, direct, almost frictional contact between name signs and bundles.




Figure 5.  Direct contact (yellow circle) as alternative to referential line (green circle), Codex Azoyú (c. 1565), Codex Vienna (c. AD 1350).


What may be Colonial in date, and an expression of cross-cultural explanation, are lines that link two different textual systems, one indigenous, the other European (Fig. 6).  A page from the Primeros Memoriales prepared by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún and his native collaborators portrays the Aztec Emperor Huitzilihuitl (1391–c. 1417), his name bolded in red by the painter (as <Vitziliui>), a red line leading to his name sign, but with a black tether shooting down to his head. In the Codex Mendoza, the amount of food apportioned to a youth is displayed as two tortillas and then, rather redundantly, explained further by making two lines leading to dos tortillas, “two tortillas.” Such lines permit a ready consultation between two contrastive systems of graphs. One is European (i.e., Latin in origin), the other indigenous, although, in the Primeros Memoriales, both record the same language. (This may reflect Sahagún’s encyclopedic motive, to clarify through over-specification.) A celebrated image from the Codex Vaticanus A/Ríos, p. 54r, uses such lines to connect day signs with afflicted body parts, in a supposed aid to healing (Boone 2007:109–108, fig. 61). Yet, in addition to its Mexican component, this image has clear precursors in Medieval Europe and into the ancient Near East, where astrological signs map onto the human body. In many such diagrams, lines extend from zodiacal figures to a limb or organ (Zodiac Man; see also Clark 1979, esp. fig. 45, which mentions the Aztec example; for European input into the Codex Vaticanus A, Nielsen and Reunert 2009).



Figure 6. Concurrent, cross-cultural coding after the Spanish Conquest, Primeros Memoriales (c. 1558–1585), Codex Mendoza (c. 1542).


What may be another Colonial innovation is the use of lines as effective, rapidly accessed notations of constituents in taxable households. The Codex de Santa María Asunción lays out the name of the owner (glyphic TESKAkaPOK, for Martin Tezcapoc), hitched by a black line to a household conceived of (and depicted) as a “house” (Fig. 7).  But the rest of the diagram shows martial pairs (opposed male and female heads linked by red lines), their offspring (descending by lines at approximate midpoint of their parent’s tether), gender by use of an upper-body garment, age by relative size and whether, as with little “Joseph,” he lies in a cozy crib (Williams and Harvey 1997:72). The Christian names demonstrate a sweeping conversion of the family, which comprises, over two generations, a head of household, two brothers, a sister, and their respective families. Yet the proximity to the conquest—it took place only 23 years before—hints that this use of lines may be Pre-Columbian in origin.



Figure 7. Referential lines to the name of a pater familias and, in contrastive color, to highlight genealogical relations within a residential unit of taxation, Codex Santa María Asunción (c. AD 1544). 


A more exalted version of this genealogy comes from the Codex Cozcatzin (Fig. 8). It  employs the same red line—does this signal blood relations?—to link Moteuczoma Xocoyotzin and his two offspring by different wives (no love lost here: the children loathed each other and squabbled for decades over inheritances [Boone et al. 2017:122–123, in a section written by David Tavárez]).



Figure 8. Red-lined genealogy in the imperial Mexica family, and with red lines to individual name signs, Codex Cozcatzin (c. 1572). 

Referential lines had other uses in Mexican writing. Time and agency might be denoted by dotted or dashed lines, as in several images from the Codex Osuna  (Fig. 9). Skilled workers were linked by dark lines to their craft (e.g., albañiles, “masons,” carpinteros,  “carpenters,” etc.), and their number carefully tabulated by individual heads or, if mere brute-force labor (peones, “laborers,” by a banner for “20” in direct contact with the body of the worker—in contrast to the skilled craftsman, all brawn, little brain?). This seems to have been done on a particular day, lunes, “Monday,” as connected by dashed line to the 20 peones in the first image. Staff in hand, the Oidor Doctor Vasco Puga points with his right hand and, presto!, three natives go off to the stocks.



Figure 9. Dotted or dashed lines for ties to time and agency, Codex Osuna (c. AD 1565). 

Color performed admirably in tying a royal death and a succession in the Tira de Tepechpan (Fig. 10). The green line corresponds to one lord’s reigning years, limned in the same color, to be replaced by those in yellow for his successor (Diel 2008:47, 67).



Figure 10. Color as tether to time and event, contrasted with black line for nominal referents, Tira de Tepechpan (c. AD 1596). 

The links to time can have an almost pedantic precision, as in the Codex Mendoza, where a New Fire ceremony in the reign of Huitzilihuitl does not just reach to the square cartouche of a year sign but to the day sign itself (Fig. 11).



Figure 11. Hyper-specification of events tied to a year sign by lines, Codex Mendoza (c. AD 1542). 


The Codex Telleriano-Remensis elects for greater looseness. Year signs have an efficient, single tether leading to the mummy bundle of Huitzilihuitl and the accession of his imperial successor, Chimalpopoca (Fig. 12, left). Both events took place in the same year, so why not load one line with that shared function? The death of Bishop Juan de Zumárraga in 1548 seems to have led to slight confusion, with lines passing to the subsequent year as well (Fig. 12, right, note the error in the text, which refers to this death in “1549”). A skull dangling by line from the head of the supine bishop provides a portion of his name: TZOM/TZON “head” for the first syllable of Zumárraga (there being no u in Nahuatl, and tz often being substituted for /ṣ/ in Spanish loanwords and foreign names).


Figure 12. Joint reference with single line to tie people, events, and time, Codex Telleriano-Remensis (c. AD 1550).

Indeed, tethers may be used to provide marginalia or some clarifying afterthought. Having written na-MOL for the name Namol, the scribe (or later individual?) reconsidered the possibility of ambiguity with the “bowl” sign, which has several different readings (e.g., XIKALKAXMOLKAX, etc.), and annotated the glyphs with a second tether to the “rubber” sign, OL (Fig. 13). The pronunciation was now clear. There are numerous other examples, one being the name of Lady Ilancueitl in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis 29v. Her name glyphs, ILlakwe, are attached to her portrait by a tether, and then, perhaps as afterthought, an additional tether links the name glyphs to KOLPLACE, yielding an abbreviated reference to her city of origin, Colhuacan (see Nicholson 1978:23; Whittaker 2009:66–67; Zender 2013). Similarly, on f.46r of the Telleriano-Remensis, Don Antonio de Mendoza initially receives an abbreviated glyphic label of TOSA, attached to his portrait by a tether, only for this to be later annotated with an additional tether to the syllable me (Zender 2008:28-40). Finally, an elaborately pictorial glyphic toso on f.147v of the Calendario Tovar is directly attached to the Roman gloss Toçoztōntli to clarify its glyphic (rather than iconographic) identity (Zender 2013).


Pedro Namol_CSMA.jpg

Figure 13. Second tether in the Codex Santa María Asunción, pp. 53r and 77b (c. AD 1544). 


Referential lines were not always thought necessary—again, the important Borgia group of codices eschews them altogether. But they fulfilled a practical function by showing which parts of a visual field were textual, i.e., those that did not exist solely as pictures. There is probably deeper meaning. Lines, dashes, dots, black or colored, reveal an abiding attention to disciplining the pictorial field, showing which names, actions, times, people pertain to each other. Text can hover nearby, but it was thought better by far, in some examples, to affirm that tie to pictures. Pictures had autonomy, texts did not. Images were authoritative, texts explained and undergirded that authority.

Aside from the Codex Xolotl (c. AD 1542), a document from Texcoco, Mexico, with stray marks for war, peremptory royal commands sensory action (speech cued by volutes, sight by eyeballs), the comprehensive absence of verbs in Mexican writing made this relation necessary (Boone 2016:43–44, fig. 2.9). Action is pictorial, names, places, and time glyphic, hinting that distinct systems operate here, not, perhaps, blurred or blending ones (Boone 2000:33): they afford mutual strength, a joint undertaking that works well, if one that imposes strong exegetical burdens on the reader.

Although still insufficiently theorized (see, e.g., Zender 2014:69–72), Plains Indian pictography has long been known to employ remarkably similar conventions. Thus, Garrick Mallery (1894:168) reproduces a drawing of the Hidatsa/Minitari Chief Lean Wolf (Fig. 14), observing that “[h]is name is…added with the usual line drawn from the head.” Mallery cites Lean Wolf’s own explanation of his name glyph as indicating “the outline character of the wolf, having a white body with the mouth unfinished … to show that it was hollow … i.e., lean” (Mallery 1894:168; see also Zender 2014:69–70). Similarly, the famous Hunkpapa-Lakota Chief Sitting Bull (Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake) is depicted in the ledger book of the Cheyenne artist Howling Wolf (Fig. 15), a long tether attaching his portrait to the strongly-stylized sign of a seated buffalo. Here, as in the texts of Postclassic Oaxaca and Central Mexico, the lack of verbal hieroglyphs puts the burden of narrative squarely on the pictures, thereby making a necessary distinction between them and the highly pictorial glyphs. Texts do not levitate in thin air like Middle Kingdom labels in Egypt or a curling scroll about forbidden love in late Medieval Germany. Intensely physical, unambiguous, they gather text and picture into the same space by direct, nominal, and indexical reference.



Figure 14. The Hidatsa/Minitari Chief Lean Wolf (Mallery 1894:168, fig. 74).


Fig Ledger

Figure 15. Sitting Bull Shooting Another Warrior, 1874-1875, ledger book, Howling Wolf, Southern Cheyenne (1849-1927), Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, AMAM 1904.1180.4.



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Mosquitoes and Maddening Noise

by Stephen Houston (Brown University)

The sound comes before the sighting: that high-pitched, oscillating whine mosquitoes make as they hover nearby. The naturalist E. O. Wilson (1984) claims that humans are predisposed to “biophilia,” a pleasing sense of affiliation with the lush, evolutionary miracle that surrounds us. With these creatures, biophilia surely gives way to different reactions—rage, a desire to destroy, yes, E. O. Wilson, even “bioanimus”: “where is that pest, when will it bite, can I kill it before it does?”

Few would dispute that the mosquito makes a most maddening noise, foretelling pain, itching, vexation, disease. Captain Haddock, beloved curmudgeon of the Tintin books, could not agree more—note the artist, Hergé (Georges Remi), and his idea of what these critters sound like, later proved to be the clamor of a descending helicopter (Fig. 1).


Screen Shot 2018-05-19 at 6.54.25 PM.png

Figure 1. What mosquitoes sound like (Hergé 1960:29).


Sounds of animals are, in most languages, understood in terms of echoic mimicry, a perception, influenced by varying motivations, of what noise is seemingly heard from this or that animal: bow-wow for speakers of English, vov-vov in Swedish, the language of my youth. Perhaps, according to some researchers, the size of an animal makes a difference too, high tones associating with smaller creatures, such as birds (tweet-tweet), low tones and back vowels with bigger, lumbering beasts like cows (moo; Bredin 1996:567; see also an early formulation by Jespersen 1922:402).

The Maya region does not lack for mosquitoes. Some are small, others equipped with white-tipped legs or they may shimmer with blue iridescence—their bites can be dainty, often unnoticed pricks, or, in larger ones, they may feel like painful drillings. Long ago, Karl Taube pointed out to me how striking, even beautiful, mosquitoes can be when depicted in Maya vase painting (Fig. 2; see also K1223, K2759). Rich in plumage, with dark wings (that marking was first studied in other creatures by Marc Zender), they excreted blood, and, in a curious feature, showed long proboscides perforating a single flower.

This last doubtless accorded with close observation of nature, but not too close, for it is based on gender confusion. The males nourish themselves with juices or nectars, while the females require blood to sustain their eggs. These respective attributes were not, it seems, minutely understood by the Maya. An overriding feature is the emphasis on the skeletal, even exoskeletal, nature of such insects, along with an extra eye on the forehead, and, at times, leaking or smoking protuberances at their bottoms. An example from the Princeton University Art Museum, pointed out by Bryan Just, combines a mosquito with the features of a bird (PUAM 2003-291, MS2089), probably a gloss on a shared capacity for flight. But, for the mosquitoes, the key component is a set of two volutes, identified some time ago by David Stuart as blood scrolls. Evidently, the mosquitoes were sloppy eaters, and the excess spilled messily from their jaws.


figure 2.png

Figure 2. Dazzling mosquito feeding repeatedly on a cormorant(?)—an image of sustained agony (K2668, photograph by Justin Kerr, used with permission).


Such noxious creatures are not unique in Maya imagery. There may also be depictions of ticks or lice with hook-like talons, bloody mouths, and a disturbing profusion of eyes, perhaps a comment on the complex visual apparatus of insects (Fig. 3). In Maya imagery, these afflict a bloated mammal, an association pointed out to me some years ago by Karl Taube, but comparison with another vase demonstrates a seemingly free alternation with mosquitoes, K1223; see also Chinchilla Mazariegos 2017:12–15, who suggests that the mammal combines jaguar and tapir). In both cases Chahk, the Storm God, poises to strike these bloodsuckers. With axe in hand, he takes ferocious aim at them.


Untitled 2.png

Figure 3. Possible ticks or lice (K555, photograph by Justin Kerr, used with permission).

This essay began with a reference to sound. Echoic mimicry—that deeply annoying sound of mosquitoes—may explain a variant form of the ya syllable in Maya writing (Fig. 4). It is clearly skeletal, has a long beak, and disgorges bloody volutes. What is different in this example is that the creature is supplied with wings (one thrusts horizontally to viewer’s right) and, on its proboscis, is  a probable flower or gout of blood. The ya variant is likely a mosquito.


Screen Shot 2018-05-19 at 8.06.02 PM.png

Figure 4. A mosquito in place of the syllable ya (Yaxchilan Throne 2, photograph provided by Ian Graham), compared with blood-drooling, blood dripping mosquito (K9225).


Captain Haddock may have heard BZZRRBZR, but it takes little imagination to see yayayaya (and so forth) as the perceived sound of Maya mosquitoes, segmented into a front vowel, i, gliding into a low front a and back again, along a long stream of torment foretold. Alternatively, the basis for the syllable ya was simply a term (a mimetic one too, from ya!, the sound of misery?)  for “pain” or “sickness,” as in Chontal yaj (Keller and Luciano 1997:292), perhaps linked in Maya minds with the vexing bite of mosquitoes.


Acknowledgements   Thanks go to Karl Taube for discussing many nasty creatures over the course of our long friendship. Oswaldo Chinchilla posed a useful question about the tick/louse-infested beast, as did Bryan Just about a piece under his care at the Princeton University Art Museum.



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