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.


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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).


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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.



Bredin, Hugh. 1996. Onomatopoeia as a Figure and a Linguistic Principle. New Literary History 27(3):559–569.

Chinchilla Mazariegos, Oswaldo. 2017. Art and Myth of the Ancient Maya. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Hergé [Georges Remi]. 1960. The Adventures of Tintin: The Calculus Affair. London: Methuen.

Jespersen, Otto. 1922. Language: Its Nature, Development, and Origin. London: George Allen and Unwin.

Keller, Kathryn C., and Plácido Luciano G. 1997. Diccionario Chontal de Tabasco. Tucson: Instituto Lingüístico de Verano.

Wilson, Edward O. 1984. Biophilia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


by Stephen Houston (Brown University) and Joshua Schnell (Brown University)

Maya ruins, if excavated well (and if preservation allows), yield a variety of bone tubes (Fig. 1). Some are only a few cm in length, others longer—the size of the animal and its long bones placing obvious limits on dimensions (e.g., Franco C. 1968:18, lám. III; Inomata and Emery 2014:132, fig 8.4.a–d, fig. 8.9, fig. 8.11; Lee 1969:163–165, fig. 122; Moholy-Nagy, with Coe 2008:fig. 214; Taschek 1994:fig. 37). Tube production is well-understood. Epiphyses must be removed and surface irregularities trimmed or polished, leaving a “shaft core” for further working (Emery 2008:211; Emery 2009:fig. 6).


Screen Shot 2018-05-12 at 8.50.58 AM.png

Figure 1.  Variety of bone tubes from Aguateca, Guatemala (Inomata and Emery 2014:fig. 8.4c, d [left]) and Uaxactun, Guatemala (Kidder 1947:fig. 81b [upper right, fig. 81c [lower right]).


Yet the use of such tubes remains unclear. A few may have been left at an unfinished stage, on their way to becoming bone needles, rings, pointed awls, snuff spoons, weaving pins, hair ornaments or slivers and plaques (some appear to be on sale in a market scene from the murals of Str. Sub 1–4 from Calakmul, Mexico [Martin 2012:76, fig. 40]). Marked by transverse grooves, others may have operated as musical rasps, although few of these show expected wear from percussive abrasions (e.g., Coe 1959:fig. 55n, o). “Tubing,” the use of bone cylinders in the Maya past, needs more thought, if only to enlarge the range of possible functions.

Consider curing. Maya healing involved many concepts, from the restoration of unstable, wayward souls or breath-force to the neutralization of noxious spirits, all the while accompanied by incantations, movements, and offerings (Vogt 1069:425–446). Anciently, as among Nahuatl speakers, gods relevant to certain maladies must have been propitiated by “flattery, promises, threats, warnings…and word magic” (Ruiz de Alarcón 1984:25). “Sucking” by specialists to extract objects from patients formed one component of traditional healing, with references attested in Nahuatl as early as the great Molina dictionary, tlacuicuilia [tlacuihcuīliā],chupar el hechizero al enfermo” (Molina 1571:36v; for vowel length, Karttunen 1983:259).

How this was done might have depended on gender. Fifty years ago, among the Totonac of Veracruz, Mexico, “female shamans use[d] the lips or fist to suck, whereas male shamans use[d] a reed” (Dow 2001:87), the object so extracted being either real (pebbles or blades) or merely notional—the distinction did not seem to matter much. Today, specialists performing this task are known as chupadores, “suckers,” who heal alongside healers setting bones, working with herbs, and cleansing and curing with herbs, copal or eggs (Rubel and Browner 2001:302).

Healing tubes are widely known in indigenous North America and even in the toolkit of rain-making shamans (Hopkins et al. 2012:fig. 3; see Hernando Alarcón’s account, from 1540, of such “blowing” in the lower Colorado River [Alarcón 1970:21]). During the Spanish period in California, healers “sometimes sucked and at other times blew, but both as hard as they were able” (McGuire 1899:386–387; for Eastern groups, see Holliman 1970; Olbrechts 1929). Most such bones were thin (an internal diameter of some 10–12 mm), and often, as among the Cherokee, cut from trumpet weed (Olbrechts 1929:21). A decoction of poplar bark might be blown on or over the patient, at a distance if the curer were a male, the patient a female (Olbrechts 1929:272, 279; this account is equally intriguing for linking scarification and skin-pricks by blades and thorns to acts of healing). Accounts are also recorded, in Amazonia, of “each in turn blowing this powder (ground parica or Anadenanthera peregrina) with great force through a hollow cane into the nostrils of his friend” (McGuire 1899:402).

Tubing, then, might have played similar curative roles among the ancient Maya or at least that possibility needs to be entertained. At the least, composite tobacco pipes of straight outline appear throughout the images of the Colonial Aztec Florentine Codex (e.g., Book 4). Used in feasts but also for religious rituals, tobacco might also have been ingested through bone tubes slotted into a second section charged with combustible plant (Wilbert 1987). Being detachable, the tube might have been less subject to fire damage, providing fewer indications of its function to archaeologists.

Then there are handles for rattles (Houston 2008; Taube 2004). Indeed, examples with small holes in Figure 1 might have served to fasten a long-gone gourd, nut or wooden rattle. The most secure examples come from Tikal Burial 116, the tomb of Jasaw Chan K’awiil, a Late Classic ruler of that city (Moholy-Nagy 2008:fig. 198b). The term for “rattle” was, as confirmed by one hieroglyphic spelling, chikab, a word for such instruments in Ch’olti’ and Ch’orti’ Maya (Grube and Gaida 2006:213–214; n.b.: the text, which ran across two, paired handles—the usual for Maya maracas—was on bone tubes only 4.1 cm high, meaning that the handles must have been longer and detachable, perhaps of some other, more perishable material).

Yet that term, chikab, possibly based on an onomatopoeic chik sound, is not clearly present on the Tikal handles, which refers, with its paired rattle, to the burning and death of a young deity of music (MT 29 [Moholy-Nagy 2008:fig. 198a]; see Yukateko chi’ik, “shake the head as when rattles sound” [Barrera Vásquez et al. 1980:87]). The opaque narrative may recount some story about the deity, his ties to the first music, with allusions to travails, even death, insofar as deities can die (Houston 2008:endnote 1). Yet, in their grimmer details, these events cannot be matched to any known iconography. The more usual associations are, not death after severe burns, but dance and euphonious performance.

Figure 2 MT30.png


Figure 2. Handle of rattle, with reference to Young God of Music (or Wind), and YAX-‘Rattle’-la-WINKIL[li], “First ‘Rattle’ Person,” with possible supervision by a hummingbird (tz’u-nu) in the company of a celestial being (ti-KA’N-la-WINKIL[li]), (MT 30 [Moholy-Nagy 2008:fig. 198b], reading of WINKIL suggested by David Stuart, personal communication, 2014).


Then there is consumption. Bone tubes might well have been inserted into enema clysters, a proposal made long ago by Michael Coe (Coe 1988:230; Furst and Coe 1977; see also Heizer 1939:86, writing of the New World generally, who describes “a hollow cylindrical bone…used for the [enema] tube”; see also Barrera Rubio and Taube 1987:12). But there are alternative uses. A Classic-era painting from Bonanil Actun, Loltun, Yucatan, shows all the features of good and riotous living (Fig. 3). The young music god appears to the left, followed by a distinctive, lashed jar with protruding cylinder, and the probable head of Ahkan, a deity tied to inebriation (Stone 1995:fig. 4–29; see also Grube 2004; Nielsen and Helmke 2017:153–156).



Figure 3. Bonanil Actun, Loltun, Yucatan (photograph by David Hixson, Hood College).


In Postclassic and early Colonial Mexico, the jars containing pulque (octli), an alcoholic drink from the sap of the agave or maguey plant, are often shown with such lashings (Figure 4; see also Nielsen and Helmke 2017:fig. 9). More to the point, at feasts, the collective and sociable practice was to suck out the drink from long tubes, perhaps evoking the extraction, by sucking through an acocote tube of aguamiel sap from the maguy itself (Parsons and Parsons 1990:43–44, figs. 39–42; such sucking of pulque is also highlighted in Nielsen and Helmke [2017], who have discerned such consumption in the “Realistic Paintings” of Tetitla, Teotihuacan). Such a tube could be precisely the object sticking out of the lashed olla at Bonanil Actun. Drinking might have made sense in the inner recesses of that cave, the better to accentuate disorientation. The sequence of the God of Music, then the olla, then a supernatural of inebriation scans almost like a prescriptive ordering of actions, sound to set the stage, drink to lubricate it, then a release into wild-haired drunkenness, impulses barely contained if at all. (In early Colonial Mexico, imbibing that fifth cup was thought to lead to an unseemly loss of self-composure [Córdova 2015]).


Screen Shot 2018-05-12 at 10.43.18 AM.png Figure 4. Pulque jars or ollas and feasting with long tubes (Mural 5, Room 12, Conjunto del Sol, Teotihuacan, with distinctive markings of pulque in three gouts of liquid, perhaps marked with “cotton” textures to denote a white substance [personal communication, Karl Taube, 2018, upper left, Nielsen and Helmke 2017:fig. 3b, photograph by Christophe Helmke]; Florentine Codex, Book 4, Chapters 4–5 [lower left]; and Codex Magliabechiano f. 85r [right]). 


Yet the image with tube from Bonanil Actun is unique. All other Maya images of drunkenness, almost always of youths or elderly debauched gods and their paramours, show jars of pulque (chi in Classic Ch’olti’an) with agave leaves stuffed in—a possible means of intensifying the drink (Houston 2018:128–132)? The scenes are not common, to be sure, but this raises another possible use: that some tubes were about spuming chocolate. For example, a theme found in the figural imagery of West Mexico consists of a figure, tube in mouth, leaning over a proffered cup (Fig. 5).


Figure 5. Jalisco. Seated Couple, ca. 100 B.C.E.-300 C.E. Ceramic, 17 1/2 x 151/4 x 10 in. (44.5 x 38.7 x 25.4 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Coltrera Collection, 2010.23.1. Creative Commons-BY (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 2010.23.1_PS6.jpg).

The usual explanation is that pulque is being delicately sipped in this fashion, a reasonable thought given such tubes among the Aztec and the emphasis in other local imagery on parts of the maguey plant (Butterwick 1998:102–105). Nonetheless, West Mexico has a well-attested focus on cacao production, if in selective areas (Mathiowetz 2011:543–569). By now, it is a commonplace in Maya archaeology—the thought goes back as far as Thomas Gann working in then-British Honduras during the 1910s— that vases with constricted necks and built-in, vertical or slightly everted tubes were employed in achieving a chocolate spume that appealed to ancient peoples of Mesoamerica (Houston 2017; see also Powis et al. 2002). This practice, perhaps thought decidedly unhygienic, was then replaced by pouring liquid back and forth to attain a fine bubbly head (S. Coe 1994:141–142).

But what if this account of culinary history were partial and other forms of spuming continued? A cumbersome tube on a pot might have been, in a sense, “detached” and applied more broadly to any manner of ceramics or gourds with chocolate. If the head settled, it might be refreshed by vigorous blowing down a tube.  And then, giving shudders to archaeologists, that same tube might have been used for multiple purposes, for sucking, blowing, smoking, perhaps even attached to a rattle. The ingenuity of Maya tubing requires its own inventive response, with a directive to look for telling residues, where relevant, and tentative experiments, where possible, to assay ancient function.

Acknowledgements   Christopher Beekman was most helpful with comments and encouragement, as were Karl Taube and Leonardo López Luján.


Alarcón, Hernando. 1979. Explorations of Hernando Alarcon in the Lower Colorado River Region, 1540. Journal of California and Great Basin Archaeology 1(1):8–37.

Barrera Rubio, Alfredo, and Karl Taube. 1987. Los relieves de San Diego: Una nueva perspectiva. Boletín de la Escuela de Ciencias Antropológicas de la Universidad de Yucatán 14:3–18.

Barrera Vásquez, Alfredo, Juan Ramón Bastarrachea, and William Brito Sansores. 1980. Diccionario Maya Cordemex. Mérida, Yucatan: Ediciones Cordemex.

Butterwick, Kristi. 1998. Food for the Dead: The West Mexican Art of Feasting. In Ancient West Mexico: Art and Archaeology of the Unknown Past, ed. Richard F. Townsend, 88–105. Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago.

Coe, Michael D. 1988. Ideology of the Maya Tomb. In Maya Iconography, eds. Elizabeth P. Benson and Gillett G. Griffin, 222–235. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Coe, Sophie D. 1994. American’s First Cuisines. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Coe, William R. 1959. Piedras Negras Archaeology: Artifacts, Caches, and Burials. Philadelphia: University Museum, University of Pennsylvania.

Córdova, James M. 2015. Drinking the Fifth Cup: Notes on the Drunken Indian Image in Colonial Mexico. Word & Image 31(1):1–18.

Dow, James W. 2001. Central and North Mexican Shamans. In Mesoamerican Healers, ed. Brad R. Huber and Alan R. Sandstrom, 66–94. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Emery, Kitty F. 2008. Techniques of Ancient Maya Bone Working: Evidence from a Classic Maya Deposit. Latin American Antiquity 19(2):204–221.

Emery, Kitty F. 2009. Perspectives on Ancient Maya Bone Crafting from a Classic Period Bone-Artifact Manufacturing Assemblage. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 28(4): 458–470.

Franco C, José Luis. 1968. Objetos de hueso de la época precolombina. Mexico City: Museo Nacional de Antropología, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.

Furst, Peter T., and Michael D. Coe. 1977. Ritual Enemas. Natural History March:88–91

Grube, Nikolai. 2004. Akan—the God of Drinking, Disease, and Death. In Continuity and Change: Maya Religious Practices in Temporal Perspective, eds. Daniel Graña Behrens, Nikolai Grube, Christian M. Prager, Frauke Sachse, Stefanie Teufel, and Elizabeth Wagner, 59–76. Acta Mesoamerican 14. Markt Schwaben: Verlag Anton Saurwein.

Grube, Nikolai, and Maria Gaida. 2006. Die Maya: Schrift und Kunst. Berlin: Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin-DuMont.

Heizer, Robert F. 1939. The Bulbed Enema Syringe and Enema Tube in the New World. Primitive Man 12:85–93.

Holliman, R. B. 1970. Evidence of a Prehistoric Physician in Virginia. Virginia Medical Monthly 97(10):642–644.

Hopkins, Jerry N., Gerrit L. Fenenga, Alan P. Garfinkel, Samantha Riding-Red-Horse, and Donna Miranda-Begay. 2012. Further Reflections on California Rain-Making Shamanism: “The Other Half” of the Tübatulabal Shaman’s Rain-Making Bundle. Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology 32(2):127–140.

Houston, Stephen. 2008. The xa Syllable as an Example of Onomatopoeia? Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography Xa syllable

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

Inomata, Takeshi, and Kitty Emery. 2014. Bone and Shell Artifacts. In Life and Politics at the Royal Court of Aguateca: Artifacts, Analytical Data, and Synthesis, eds. Takeshi Inomata and Daniela Triadan, 127–157. Monographs of the Aguateca Archaeological Project First Phase Volume 2. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

Jolly, Fletcher, III. 2004. Early Woodland Tubular Pipe from Eastern Tennessee: “Medicine Tube” or Smoking Pipe. Central States Archaeological Journal 51(4):13–15.

Kidder, Alfred V. 1947. The Artifacts of Uaxactun, Guatemala. Publication 576. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Lee, Thomas A., Jr. 1969. The Artifacts of Chiapa de Corzo, Chiapas, Mexico. Papers of the New World Archaeological Foundation 26. Provo: Brigham Young University.

Martin, Simon. 2012. Hieroglyphs from the Painted Pyramid: The Epigraphy of Chiik Nahb Structure Sub 1–4, Calakmul, Mexico. In Maya Archaeology 2, eds. Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore, 60–81. San Francisco: Precolumbia Mesoweb Press.

Mathiowetz, Michael D. 2011. The Diurnal Path of the Sun: Ideology and Interregional Interaction in Ancient Northwest Mesoamerica and the American Southwest. Ph.D., Department of Anthropology, University of California, Riverside.

McGuire, Joseph D. 1899. Pipes and Smoking Customs of the American Aborigines, Based on Material in the U.S. National Museum. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.

Moholy-Nagy, Hattula, with William R. Coe. 2018. Tikal Report 27, Part A: The Artifacts of Tikal: Ornamental and Ceremonial Artifacts and Unworked Material. University Museum Monograph 127. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Molina, Alonso de. 1571. Vocabulario en lengua castellana y mexicana. Mexico City: Antonio de Spinoza.

Nielsen, Jesper, and Christophe Helmke. 2017. Los bebedores de Tetitla: representaciones del consumo ritual en los murales de Teotihuacan. In Las pinturas realistas de Tetitla, Teotihuacan: estudios a través de la obra de Agustín Villagra Caleti, eds. Leticia Staines Cicero and Christophe Helmke, 135–163. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia Secretaría de Cultura; Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Olbrechts, Frans M. 1929. Some Notes on Cherokee Treatment of Disease. Janus Revue Internationale de L’histoire des Sciences, de la Médicine, de la Pharmacie et de la Technique 33:271–80.

Parsons, Jeffrey R., and Mary H. Parsons. 1990. Maguey Utilization in Highland Central Mexico: An Archaeological Ethnography. Anthropological Papers No. 82. Ann Arbor: Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan.

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Cotton, Snow, and Distant Wonders

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

Dedicated to our dear friend, Alfonso Lacadena

We seldom think of wintry wonderlands when considering mostly tropical Mesoamerican landscapes. But parts of the Maya highlands in Guatemala sometimes see very occasional snowfall during the winter months, always exciting curiosity and wonder, if not a little consternation and concern over crops (Figure 1). Whenever snow falls and coats the ground, public media must explain the phenomena to local readers, describing its distinction from hail (see Prensa Libre 4/21/2017; also Prensa Libre 12/18/2016). Recently, the national disaster agency (CONRED) even thought it necessary to report that snow can be “associated with precipitation and low temperatures” (Boletín Informativo No. 3046). While rare and noteworthy, snow was ever-present in a few select areas of the central Mexican highlands, atop prominent volcanic peaks such as Orizaba, Popocatépetl, and others.



Figure 1. A rare snowfall in Cerro Cotzic, Ixchiguan, San Marcos, Guatemala, Jan. 25, 2013 (Creative Commons 2.0 Generic). 


For those who have never experienced snow, it might come as a challenge to describe verbally its many sensations and textures — slushy, clump-flaked, powder-dry, and so on. Then there is the messy residue as it melts, along with its endurance, over months, at altitude or to the far north. At root, to show distant wonders or to talk about them is an imaginative task, drawing on all the tools of the story-teller and the wiles of visual artists. For this, analogies or metaphors work well, especially when distances are great and the unfamiliar acutely strange.

As one example, taking us closer to the Precolumbian past, an unknown maker of woodblock prints devised the first known European image of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. Published, probably, in Augsburg, Germany, in 1522, it refers to the city of “dem konig Madotzoma…herr von grossen Venedig,” displaying the causeways or dikes of that city as arching bridges, sailboats passing underneath, and the many temples as turreted buildings (Figure 2; Newe Zeitung). Square-shoed burghers with hose stockings, flat caps, belt purses, and fur collars would have dumbfounded the Mexica Aztec they depict. But they do at least try to describe the unfamiliar. There are settlements like European ones (if walled and likened to Venice, a frequent comparison of the time, going back to Cortés and others [Kim 2006]), and people dressed in the everyday garb of Augsburg.


Screen Shot 2018-01-26 at 8.13.56 AM.png

Figure 2. Earliest European depiction of Tenochtitlan (Unknown 1522:5, John Carter Brown Library, Providence, RI).


The Classic Maya may have been no different. Among the texts linked to contact with the civilization of Teotihuacan, and almost surely with Teotihuacan itself, is the famous  “Marcador” of Tikal, found during excavations overseen by Juan Pedro Laporte south of the Mundo Perdido Group (Figure 3, Laporte and Fialko 1995:66–70). This object is strikingly similar to so-called “ball markers” from Teotihuacan, ranging from one depicted in the murals of Tepantitla (perhaps a goalpost for a stick game) to a carving with separable components at La Ventilla; the latter is well-garnished with yet other cultural references, to the volutes of El Tajín, Veracruz (Solís 2009:#124). The semantic layering in these images and carvings is rich and only partly understood, as there must also have been a reference to standing, banner-like shields (e.g., Taube 2009:figs. 2b, c). The Tikal find, from Group 6C-XVI, potentially bears another link to ballplay. A large raised area nearby, thought by earlier investigators to be a natural hill, is revealed by LiDAR to be eerily close in orientation and layout, if at halved-scale, to the Ciudadela at Teotihuacan (processing and interpretation by Houston and Thomas Garrison of Ithaca College). As if by cue, the Ciudadela has just been shown to contain, in an earlier phase of its existence, a large ballcourt (Gómez Chávez and Gazzola 2015).



Figure 3. Tikal Marcador, Group 6C-XVI, on display in the Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología de Guatemala (photographer unknown). 


In part, the historical links between Tikal and Teotihuacan (or its proxies) have been understood for some time (Proskouriakoff 1993:8–9; Stuart 2000; see also Martin and Grube 2000:29–31). An enigmatic personage whose name was probably Sihyaj K’ahk’, “Born from Fire” (coming from a fiery war dart to boot), “arrived” (huliiy) or “completed” a journey (tzutzyi) to Tikal on 11 Eb 15 Mac in the Maya calendar, or Jan. 16, AD 378 in the Maya-Christian correlation we favor. His presence was clearly martial, as indicated by the Marcador glyph that situates the arrival in terms of conquest, using the familiar term och ch’een, “to cave-enter”  Most likely too, Sihyaj K’ahk’ galvanized or even reorganized the political geography of much of what is now northern Guatemala. Every few years or so a new reference to him comes to light, suggesting that many more are to be found (e.g., Estrada-Belli et al. 2009; Stuart 2014; note that the Maya could also hint at later ambivalence about Teotihuacanos [Houston et al. 2016]).1

The Marcador text is relevant for another reason. In addition to the “arrival,” which highlights the first part of the inscription, the second side of the monument reaches back to two dates: (1) May 5, AD 374 [, 11 Ajaw *3 Wayeb, an unusual, perhaps dire date, presumably, as it falls in the five final days of the year], the evident accession of another figure associated with Teotihuacan, “Spearthrower [ja-tz’o?-ma] Owl” (Martin 2003:13; Stuart 2000:483); and (2) Jan. 24, AD 414 [, 12 Muluk 12 K’ank’in], the dedication of Marcador itself (Figure 4).


Fig. 4.png

Figure 4.  Tikal Marcador, E1–H9 (rubbing provided by Juan Pedro Laporte, with heightened contrast). 


In part, the Marcador remains a highly opaque text. Yet an apparent place name tied to Spearthrower Owl contains recognizable elements, including the number 5, a glyph known since the time of Eric Thompson to represent the downy texture of “cotton” (Thompson 1972:83–83), a syllabic ma (shown in its fuller form, as a prefix and suffix framing the main sign), and the well-known WITS, “hill, mountain” (Figure 5). Thus: the “5 ‘something’ Hills/Mountains,” and as locations or a single place affiliated in some way with a person tied to Teotihuacan or its proxies.


5 snow mountains

Figure 5. Place name associated with Spearthrower Owl, Tikal Marcador, E4, G6 (drawings by Linda Schele).


The one undeciphered sign is probably a representation of “cotton.” The rows of small “u”-shapes are standard in Mesoamerican art as markers for spun cotton or cotton as shown by iconographic clues assembled by Karl Taube and others (e.g., Taube 1993:657). In Maya art we also see the same “u”-shapes on cloth, as on the panel fragment from Palenque shown in Figure 6, depicting the ruler K’inich Ahkal Mo’ Nahb aiding with what might be a cotton bundle containing tribute goods (Stuart 1998:413).


PAL tribute panel

Figure 6. Panel fragment from Palenque, showing large cloth tumpline bundle with “cotton” markings (Drawing by David Stuart).

John Dienhart suggested that the hieroglyphic sign with these same u-shapes reads NOK’, “clothes, cloth” (Dienhart 1986:53). Almost epigraphers have accepted, from multiple sets of evidence, a syllabic value of no, derived, following Dienhart’s lead, from nok’, “clothes, cloth” in Common Ch’olan (Kaufman and Norman 1984:127). The decipherment makes sense. It explains expressions with antipassive suffixes such as ‘a-AK’-no-maak’-n-oom, in the area of Cancuen (Príncipe Maya Panel:E5), ‘a-k’a-no-ma, ak’-n-oom, at Palenque (Temple of the Inscriptions, West Tablet:C6) or the “shaker” title employed frequently by later rulers of Calakmul (yu-ku-no-ma, yuk-n-oom, Martin 2017).

Dienhart may have been both wrong and right: wrong because the “cotton” sign, as a logograph, was perhaps incorrectly deciphered as NOK’ (“cloth”), but right because it did correspond to a word for “cotton.” The logical candidate we propose here is tinam, read TINAM as a glyph, a term well-attested as meaning “cotton” in Common Ch’olan and all its descendant languages (Norman and Kaufman 1984:132). On the Marcador, the term explains the ma syllable—here serving as a reinforcement for TINAM. A no syllable would not account for this usage, yet there can be little doubt that, as a visual form, the glyph corresponds to that fluffy substance.

There may even be a more general protocol in place for generating signs. A Maya innovator (it is hard to see this as anything other than a singular, intentional act) first extracted a syllable no from nok’, the former no longer having any meaning. The scribe then used that sign to record a distinct if conceptually related term, one for the material itself. The motivating word had been left behind, to be replaced in logographic usage by another, loosely linked term. To our knowledge, a “fish” sign, a ka syllable, never references its motivating word, kay, a to syllable fails to deliver tok, “cloud, fog,” and so on. One of the few exceptions may be bi and BIH, “road,” a handy term for a people who liked to move in processions and on various journeys.

But why “cotton” mountains? Why “5” of them, why the tie to Teotihuacanos? And how is this an evocative, analogical description, of the unfamiliar made familiar to readers in a tropical zone?

Central Mexico, the general setting for Teotihuacan, is a far colder place than steamy Tikal, Guatemala. Peaks in visible range of Teotihuacan—at least in times prior to urban pollution—are girt with snow, some of it seasonal, some few examples perennial. A poetic analogy for someone describing this distant, fantastical land might be to reach for the familiar (cotton) to picture the radically foreign (snow). The scribe composing the Marcador text, masterfully proficient in Maya writing, knew much about Spearthrower Owl’s civilization—the text of the Marcador contains several non-Maya signs, and the overall carving exhibits many Teotihuacano elements. It may thus have been referring to a place he had not visited but could describe in terms of fluffy white “down” on high mountains, five of them in fact, perhaps Popocatépetl, Iztaccíhuatl, Orizaba, and others. (One of the authors [Stuart] is collaborating with David Carballo in a future study that will consider these specific connections in more detail.)

The analogy might have been familiar in parts of Mexico. In Oaxaca, the Codex Nuttall, a Mixtec pictorial book from the 14th century, portrays a couple between two peaks (Figure 7). They are a pair, Lady 1 Flower and Lord 1 Jaguar, who founded a particular Mixtec dynasty (Anders et al. 1992:108). Cotton marks, a spread of small “u”-shapes, cover and streak down the peaks, and a small cotton spool at the base of the mountain to the right both accentuates this conceit and employs, according to one interpretation, a Mixtec homophone, yuhua, “cotton spool” or “snow” (Anders et al. 1992:107fn5). A commentary on the Nuttall describes these as the “Montes Nevados” (the snowy mountains), and possibly as a particular location, Icpantepec Nieves in the Mixteca Baja of Oaxaca, Mexico (Anders et al. 1992:33). Snow may have been as unfamiliar to them as to the Lowland Maya of the Early Classic period, but, as on the Marcador, they invoked a metaphor that worked with wit to excite the imagination.


Nuttall 11.png

Figure 7. “Cotton-covered” mountains, possibly Icpantepec Nieves, Mixteca Baja, Codex Nuttall, p. 11, detail, British Museum ADD.MSS 39671 (© Trustees of the British Museum, Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0). 


  1. In 1983 or so, Houston saw another text referring to Sihyaj K’ahk’. It was on an exquisitely inlaid shell in the temporary keeping of Gordon Ekholm, then a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Etched lightly with glyphs, the shell displayed areas of jade and Spondylus, inserted by some clay-like adhesive into drilled areas of the surface. A scene of emergence, with a single head looking upwards through a symmetrical effusion of foliage, served as the principal image. At the time, Houston made a quick sketch of the text, including an evident statement of overlordship by Sihyaj K’ahk’. The object, considerably damaged by erosion in its hollow, has since disappeared. It may have been in the process of evaluation by Ekholm and his associate, Robert Sonin, an authenticator and former curator at the Brooklyn Museum, who came to Ekholm’s office during Houston’s visit.

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Acknowledgements  This essay has benefitted greatly from discussions with David Carballo, Karl Taube, and Marc Zender.



Anders, Ferdinand, Maarten Jansen, and Gabina A. Pérez Jiménez. 1992. Crónica Mixteca: El rey 8 Venado, Garra de Jaguar, y la la dinastía de Teozacualco-Zaachila, libro explicativo del llamado Códice Zouche-Nuttall, Ms. 39671 British Museum, Londres. Madrid/Graz/Mexico City: Sociedad Estatal Quinto Centenario/Akademische Druck-u. Verlagsanstalt/Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Aveleyra Arroyo de Anda, Luis. 1963. La Estela teotihuacana de La Ventilla. Cuadernos del Museo Nacional de Antropología I. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, México.

Beliaev, Dmitri, David Stuart, and Camilo A. Luin. 2017. Late Clasic Maya Vase with the Mention of Sihyaj K’ahk’ from the Museo VICAL, Casa Santo Domingo, Antigua Guatemala. Mexicon XXXIX(1):1–4.

Dienhart, John M. 1986. The Mayan Glyph for Cotton. Mexicon 8(3):52–56.

Estrada-Belli, Francisco, Alexandre Tokovinine, Jennifer Foley, Heather Hurst, Gene Ware, David Stuart, and Nikolai Grube. 2009. A Maya Palace at Holmul, Peten, Guatemala and the Teotihuacan ‘Entrada’: Evidence from Murals 7 and 9. Latin American Antiquity 20(1):228–259.

Gómez Chávez, Sergio, and Julie Gazzola. 2015. Una posible cancha de juego de pelota en el área de la ciudadela, Teotihuacan. Anales de Antropología 49(10):113–133.

Houston, Stephen, Simon Martin, and Karl Taube. 2016. Xenophobia and Grotesque Fun. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography Xenophobia

Kaufman, Terrence, and William M. Norman. 1984. An Outline of Proto-Cholan Phonology, Morphology and Vocabulary. In Phoneticism in Mayan Hieroglyphic Writing, Institute for Mesoamerican Studies Publication 9, eds. John. S. Justeson and Lyle Campbell, 77–166. Albany: State University of New York.

Kim, David Y. 2006. Uneasy Reflections: Images of Venice and Tenochtitlan in Benedetto Bordone’s Isolario. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 49/50:81–92.

Laporte, Juan Pedro, and Vilma Fialko. 1995. Un reencuentro con Mundo Perdido, Tikal, Guatemala. Ancient Mesoamerica 6(1):41–94.

Martin, Simon. 2003. In Line of the Founder: A View of Dynastic Politics at Tikal. In Tikal: Dynasties, Foreigners, and Affairs of State, ed. Jeremy A. Sabloff, 3–45. Santa Fe/Oxford: School of American Research Press/James Curry.

Martin, Simon. 2017. Secrets of the Painted King List: Recovering the Early History of the Snake Dynasty. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography Secrets

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2000. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. London: Thames and Hudson.

Proskouriakoff, Tatiana. 1993. Maya History. Rosemary Joyce, ed. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Solís, Felipe (ed.). 2009. Teotihuacan, Cité des Dieux. Paris: Musée du Quai Branly.

Stuart, David. 1998. ‘The Fire Enters His House’: Architecture and Ritual in Classic Maya Texts.” In Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture, ed. S. D. Houston, 373–425. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Stuart, David. 2000. ‘The Arrival of Strangers’: Teotihuacan and Tollan in Classic Maya History. In Mesoamerica’s Classic Heritage: From Teotihuacan to the Aztecs, eds. D. Carrasco, L. Jones, and S. Sessions, 465–513. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.

Stuart, David. 2014. Naachtun’s Stela 24 and the Entrada of 378. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography Naachtun’s Stela 24

Taube, Karl A. 1994. The Birth Vase: Natal Imagery in Ancient Maya Myth and Ritual. In The Maya Vase Book, Volume 4, ed. Justin Kerr650–685. New York: Kerr Associates.

Taube, Karl. 2009. La religion à Teotihuacan. In Teotihuacan, Cité des Dieux, ed. Felipe Solís, 152–159. Paris: Musée du Quai Branly.

Thompson, J. Eric S. 1972. A Commentary on the Dresden Codex: A Maya Hieroglyphic Book. Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 93. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society.

Unknown. 1522. Newe Zeittung. Von dem Lande. Das die Sponier funden haben ym 1521. Iare genant Jucatan.; Newe Zeittung vo[n] Prussla, vo[n] Kay: Ma: Hofe 18 Martze. 1522.; Newe Zceyt von des Turcken halben von Offen geschrieben. Augsburg? [John Carter Brown Library, J522 .N543z]

How to Identify Real Fakes: A User’s Guide to Mayan “Codices”

by Michael Coe (Yale University) and Stephen Houston (Brown University)

Forgeries have long been a scourge to archaeology and art history alike, rearing up whenever money mixes with “excessive desire and bad judgment” (Meyer 1973:103, see also Lapatin 2000:45). According to Ascanio Condivi, even Michelangelo got into the act by passing off one of his carvings as a valuable antiquity (Holroyd 1903:21–22). Yet fakes also serve as fascinating evidence in the history of crime, especially for that special con by which the cleverness of a forger matches wits with scholars.

Fakers may win for a time—think of the “Etruscan warriors” concocted by the brothers Pio and Alfonso Riccardi and later sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (von Bothmer and Noble 1961). But mostly they lose. No one can look today at van Meegeren’s banal paintings and think, as Hermann Göring did, that Vermeer had a hand in their making (Godley 1967). Scientific techniques play a role in separating fakes from genuine pieces, along with a systematic probing of provenience, outright confessions—proudly made in some cases (Beltracchi and Kunst)—and the mere fact that every generation draws on greater knowledge. Faking becomes harder and harder, and the myth, say, that a forger knows more than specialists in Maya art and writing is scarcely credible. The wise analyst must also ask the standard gumshoe questions: who was the victim, who the perpetrator, was there any intent to deceive, was harm done as a result (Chappell and Polk 2009:3, 16)?

There are, no doubt, works that continue to puzzle. The Getty Kouros, for example, is either a fake that deeply skews our understanding of Greek art or it is a revealing anomaly that shows our “imperfect understanding of what remains, and the limits of our perspectives, preconceptions, and comprehension” (Lapatin 2000:46). And then there are the stunningly terrible fakes that do not so much represent a “crisis of criteria” (Lapatin 2000:43), a tough decision to be made between competing claims, as obvious forgeries that would fool no scholar.

Think about Maya fakes. There are many of them (Eberl and Prager 2000; Eberl and Prem 2011), some published, to our amazement, in important traveling exhibits (Gallenkamp and Johnson 1985:pls. 62, 63, 69, 72, 74). A few have needed further research. Typically, the more challenging cases are colonial, with only a few purported signs or images of indigenous nature (Hanks 1992; Jones 1992). But, under hard scrutiny, they too eventually yield their secrets. As for “Pre-Columbian books,” the tell-tale indicator is whether they exist as a pastiche, a rough assortment of glyphs or pictures. Often in nonsensical order, and mostly lifted from well-known sources, the glyphs and images tumble out in combinations that are, to expert eyes, anachronistic, stylistically inconsistent or incoherent, and contrary to recent decipherments of Maya writing.

With Maya books, of which only four intact examples remain, there is no real “crisis of criteria.” Quite simply, the fakes are glaring, at times laughable: who would be fooled by them today? In truth, few scholars ever were. The first such studies were done by Frans Blom (1935a, 1935b; 1946) and by a sprinkling of others (Brainerd 1948; Wassén 1942).

The “codices” tend to have a number of attributes, including:

(1) recognizable day and month signs, sometimes interspersed with wishful squiggles intended to simulate glyphs (Figure 1; compare with Figure 3, below);


Figure 1. Comparison of faked codex with source image in Dresden 19a. 


(2) a crudely polished leather base, with follicles clearly evident, or on what appears to be amate (fig-tree bark) or even coconut fiber (Figures 2, 3);



Figure 2. Faked leather codex and source image (K594, photograph copyright Justin Kerr, used with permission).


(3) little to no confidence of line, the “hand” being ill-practiced in calligraphy (Figure 3);



Figure 3. Unpracticed handling of paint, illegible signs and crude leather base.

(4) overbold and liberal use of polychromy (Figure 4; see also Figure 5, from the Peabody Museum at Yale University);


Figure 4. Bright polychromy: source image to right, “Pellicer Vase,” Museo Regional de Antropología Carlos Pellicer Cámara (photograph to right: Stephen Houston). 


Yale PM fake obverse.jpg

Figure 5. Garish polychromy on the Yale Peabody Museum Codex (photograph by Michael Coe); note also the copying from Dresden 56b.

(5) transparent copying from widely available sources, especially the Dresden Codex and sundry illustrations from general books.

A few of these examples will suffice. One smuggles in a poorly interpreted vulture from a page of the Dresden Codex (Figure 1). The hammock and courtly figures on the so-called “Pellicer vase” from the Museo Regional de Antropología Carlos Pellicer Cámara, Villahermosa, Tabasco, transfer neatly to another “codex” (Figure 4; vase published in Covarrubias 1957), and a Late Classic image of a mythic figure from a polychrome vase excavated at Uaxactun Guatemala finds an inept copy on yet another leather codex (Figure 6). Mixing periods–—the mural dates to the late 300s, early 400s—the faker also quoted freely from the well-published Ratinlixul Vase, excavated in 1917 by Robert Burkitt near Chamá, Guatemala, and now in the University of Pennsylvania Museum (UPM No. NA 11701, Danien 1997:38, Fig. 1).

What is abundantly evident is the sheer laziness or uninventive mentality of forgers. Sylvanus Morley’s The Ancient Maya (1946), first edition, was a particularly generous source for them, as it contained a handy list of Maya day glyphs (fig. 18), month signs (fig. 19), glyphs for time periods (fig. 22), Initial Series (fig. 25), and thorough coverage of the Maya calendar (pp. 265–295). The Ratinlixul Vase had its own line drawing too (pl. 88b). Of slightly earlier date was the useful, inexpensive, and widely available edition of Maya codices by the Villacortas in Guatemala (Villacorta and Villacorta 1933).



Figure 6. Copy of images from Uaxactun and the Ratinlixul vase on a forged leather codex (photograph to lower left, copyright Justin Kerr, used with permission).

A final example shows how blatant such copying can be (Figure 6). This codex lifts half of the center ballcourt marker from Copan Ballcourt BII (excavated by Gustav Strømsvik in the 1930s), as well as a frontal image from Palenque’s Temple of the Skull (upper left) and a smattering of full-figure glyphs from Copan Stela D (center left; see Stuart Temple of the Skull); Maudslay 1889–1902:pl. 48).



Figure 6. Fake codex and, at center, image taken from Copan Ballcourt II, center marker (drawing by John Montgomery). 

A few of these documents are in institutions (American Museum of Natural History, no. 30–9530, in a gift of c. 1901–1904, from the Duc de Loubat [Glass 1975:204]; Peabody Museum, Yale University [No. 137880]; Världskulturmuseet, Göteborg [Glass 1975:305]), but most are only known to us by way of unsolicited communications or, for one manuscript, via a glossy facsimile published in Guatemala (Benítez 2005; said to be from Chichicastenango, Guatemala, it even has a supposed radiocarbon date of “BP 200 + 28,” which, by odd arithmetic, the author pushes back to “1650 A.D.” [Benítez 2005:4–5]). Most fakes had two episodes of preparation, beyond the painting itself. Immersion in dirt or (we suspect) cow patties provided the right patina, and then a hurried cleaning gave some visibility for the dupe being invited to purchase the book.

A striking element is that many share elaborate “origin” stories. As a random selection, these concern a now-deceased relative who had traveled in Mexico/Guatemala, etc., a stray find in a Maya town in Guatemala, caves, scuba-diving or, in an example seen by one of us (Houston) in Provo, Utah, an heir wishing to donate the manuscript to a worthy public institution. A few seem to have gone through the hands of the late Pablo Bush Romero, “Mexico’s distinguished diver, self-made scholar and restless millionaire-at-large” (Sports Illustrated 1964). The presence of others of far earlier date, as in that acquired by the Duc de Loubat, show multiple hands behind their manufacture: the temptation to fake such codices clearly had deep roots (Glass 1975:305–306; for the Duc, Loubat obituary). The Yale forgery is described on the museum website as: a “Maya codex purchased in Mexico City, 1905, from an old priest around the corner from the southeast corner of the Alameda. This codex was first shown in 1887; he then declined to sell it, but in 1905, having been so ill that both his legs were amputated, and not expecting to live longer, he offered to sell the codex (to a friend?) of his in Merida who was then a druggist. This codex was examined by Dr. Alfred Tozzer of Harvard University, who considered it a reproduction, partly because the…various day signs were not in the proper Maya order” (Yale codex).

At this point, one of us (Coe) has seen over a dozen such codices. All are supremely unconvincing to the trained eye. The inept painting, ignorance of Maya coloration, slavish (yet scrambled) copying of well-known sources, anachronisms, inattention to decipherments, improvised, ad hoc “signs,” rough preparation and obvious attempts at artificial aging—all characterize these examples, without exception. It is unthinkable that any in this corpus of pictorial failure would pass muster, technical analysis or glyphic and iconographic exegesis.

To understand what is not a fake, as in the Grolier Codex (Coe et al. 2015), we are well-advised to study what is a fake. This rogues’ gallery shows that compelling deceptions of ancient Maya books are easier to claim than to create.



Benítez, Henry. 2005. Códice Chugüilá (1650 d.C.). Guatemala: Editorial Piedra Santa.

Blom, Frans. 1935a. A Checklist of Falsified Maya Codices. Maya Research 2(3):251–252.

______. 1935b. The ‘Gomesta Manuscript’, A Falsification. Maya Research 2(3):233–248.

______. 1946. Forged Maya Codex. The Masterkey 20:18.

Brainerd, George W. 1948. Another Falsified Maya Codex. The Mastery 22:17–18.

Chappell, Duncan, and Kenneth Polk. 2009. Fakers and Forgers, Deception and Dishonesty: An Exploration of the Murky World of Art Fraud. Current Issues in Criminal Justice 20 (3):393–412 (pp. 1–20, online).

Coe, Michael, Stephen Houston, Mary Miller, and Karl Taube. 2015. The Fourth Maya Codex. In Maya Archaeology 3, eds., Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore, 116–167.San Francisco,: Precolumbia Mesoweb Press.

Covarrubias, Miguel. 1957. Indian Art of Mexico and Central America. New York: Knopf.

Danien, Elin. 1997. The Ritual on the Ratinlixul Vase: Pots and Politics in Highland Guatemala. Expedition 39(3):37–48. Danien 1997

Eberl Markus, and Christian Prager. 2000. A Fake Maya BoneMexicon 22(1):5.

Eberl, Markus, and Hanns Prem. 2011. Identifying a Forged Maya Manuscript in UNESCO’s World Digital Library. Ancient Mesoamerica 22(1):155–166.

Gallenkamp, Charles, and Regina E. Johnson. 1985. Maya: Treasures of Ancient Civilization. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

Glass, John B. 1975. A Catalog of Falsified Middle American Pictorial Manuscripts. In Handbook of Middle American Indians, Volume 14: Guide to Ethnohistorical Sources, Part 3, ed. Howard F. Cline (assoc. eds., Charles Gibson and H. B. Nicholson), 297–310. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Godley, John R. 1967. Van Meegeren: A Case History. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Hanks William F. 1992. The Language of the Canek ManuscriptAncient Mesoamerica 3:269279.

Holroyd, Charles. 1903. Michael Angelo Buonarroti. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Jones, Grant D. 1992. The Canek Manuscript in Ethnohistorical PerspectiveAncient Mesoamerica 3:243268.

Lapatin, Kenneth D. S. 2000. Proof? The Case of the Getty Kouros. Source: Notes in the History of Art 20(1):43–53.

Maudslay, Alfred P. 1889–1902. Biologia Centrali-Americana, or, Contributions to the Knowledge of the Fauna and Flora of Mexico and Central America, vols. 55–9, Archaeology. London: R. H. Porter and Dulau.

Meyer, Karl E. 1973. The Plundered Past: Traffic in Art Treasures. New York: Athenaeum. 

Morley, Sylvanus G. 1946. The Ancient Maya. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Villacorta, J. Antonio C., and Carlos A. Villacorta. 1933. Códices Mayas: Dresdensis— Peresianus—Tro-Cortesianus. Guatemala: Tipografía Nacional.

Von Bothmer, Dietrich, and Joseph V. Noble. 1961. An Inquiry into the Forgery of the Etruscan Terracota Warriors in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Papers 11. New York.

Wassén, S. Henry. 1942. A Forged Maya Codex on Parchment: A Warning. Etnologiska Studier 1213:293–304.