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.


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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.



Forgetting Chocolate: Spouted Vessels, Coclé, and the Maya

by Stephen Houston (Brown University)


The Romans and the Greeks before them cherished the taste of a particular resin. Tapped from silphium, a wild plant growing along the coast of North Africa, the flavoring went well with roast meat, brought savor to tripe, udder, and sow’s womb, partnered nicely with vegetables, salted tuna, and sea squirt (an invertebrate anchored to ocean floors), helped digestion, and even went into eye-drops (Dalby 2000:17–19). But its popularity and fussy conditions of growth undid the plant. Grazing sheep displaced its natural habitat, and the last root went down the gullet of the Emperor Nero (Dalby 2000:18).

Beloved foods come and go. How many Europeans still consume garum, that smelly fish sauce—Pliny the Elder called it a “secretion of putrefying matter”—traded throughout the Mediterranean and into the furthest reaches of the Roman empire (Curtis 1983:232)? Legionnaires in a British or German military camp doubtless grumbled if they failed to receive their ration or special issue of oil. In the United States, molasses, a viscous treacle resulting from cane refining, sweetened many foods in the 19th century, but gradually gave way to refined sugars. Boston’s Molasses Disaster of 1919, in which a burst tank released a brown tsunami 15 feet high, killing 21 people, would be unthinkable today, for a variety of reasons (Molasses Disaster; I am told that on hot days a cloying odor still fills the neighborhood). Mostly, though, such quantities are not needed. Shoofly pie, of gooey molasses, is no longer much on the menu, although it was in my Pennsylvania childhood.

Consider, if one can, another unthinkable: forgetting chocolate or cacao, from a plant found wild and later cultivated in ancient America. Avid debate surrounds the pharmacological effects of this “chemical kaleidoscope”—whether it serves as an anti-depressive or libido enhancer cannot be easily shown (S. Coe and M. Coe 1996:28–34). But craved it was, in many forms. As a liquid, for example, chocolate “introduce[d] Europe to the pleasures of alkaloid consumption” (Coe and Coe 1996:31). Yet there are grounds for believing that, as an elite consumable, it did indeed drop out of use in one area, the Grand Coclé of Panama. Mortuary deposits in that area, as excavated by Samuel Lothrop and J. Alden Mason—as well as looters and “amateur archaeologists”—revealed staggering wealth, especially in gold but also hundreds of vessels and other goods (Lothrop 1937, 1942; Hearne and Sharer 1992). An element of that wealth, flaunted in feasts, may have been the consumption of chocolate by techniques imported from northern Central America or Mesoamerica, and perhaps indirectly from the Maya.

The main clue is a particular shape of ceramic. In his final opus, James Ford, striving for a grand synthesis of New World diffusion—heroically, for he was dying of cancer—charted the movement of ceramic “complexes” across “Formative” America (Ford 1969). One diagnostic: the “jar with bridge spout” or “teapot vessel,” long-understood by most specialists in Mesoamerica and northern Central America to characterize early agricultural settlements (Figure 1; Ford 1969:19, 21, 116, 120–123, Chart 16; on Ford and his diffusionist interests, see Willey 1988:68–70). Not all spouted jars or vessels are the same, of course. These evinced a consistent shape: a bulbous body (sometimes with a well-defined circumference at the mid-line); a vertical if slightly inclined neck; a flattened eversion around the rim; and a straight or gently inclining spout often, but not always, connected to the rim by a ceramic bridge. Volume varied, as did the presence of paint or modeling into effigies.


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Figure 1. Bridge spouts and “Formative” America, esp. Chiapas, Tehuacan, and Veracruz, as excerpted from a chart by James Ford (1969:Chart 16). Dark squares mark time, visible here in 500 year increments from bottom to top, 1500 BC to AD 500. 


A notable strand in Mayanist archaeology is a claim for function. Thomas Gann, working in what was then British Honduras, called one example “the usual Maya chocolate pot” (Figure 2; Gann 1918:77, 128, fig. 74, quotation on p. 128). Mostly he seemed skeptical. Another had “a curious upturned spout” so configured “that it would be impossible either to drink or pour out the contents therefrom” (Gann 1918:77). And: “they were supposed” to have been used for chocolate “but drinking from them must have been a feat of legerdemain” (Gann 1918:77). Where did Gann get the idea? Who had “supposed” this use in the first place? One suggestion is that it came from a description of chocolate vessels “with spouts” by the “Anonymous Conqueror,” among the few Spaniards to leave an eyewitness account of the conquest of Mexico (Spouts; see Merwin and Vaillant 1932:64fn2).

The finest to survive may be an archaicizing object, the stone “Diker Bowl” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the text appears to refer to drinking from the vessel, and possibly to a glyph for seed or grano (pulverized beans?, Houston 2011). Not surprisingly, some of these—and other, even earlier ceramics—have tested positive for theobromine, a key constituent of chocolate (Henderson et al. 2008:18939–18940; Joyce and Henderson 2007:649–651; Powis et al. 2002:97–98; Powis et al. 2011:8597–8599). Whether these drinks were alcoholic or not is an intriguing proposal. Some suggest the first such drinks arose from fermented cacao pulp, i.e., they were inebriants, not a frothed, non-alcoholic beverage made from water and ground beans (e.g., Joyce and Henderson 2010:170). But using residues to distinguish the two remains a challenge.




Figure 2. Chocolate pots among the Maya: (left) “Mound 31,” near the Río Nuevo, Belize (Gann 1918:fig. 74); (right) the “Diker Bowl,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, #1999.484.3 (Diker MMA, photograph courtesy of Justin Kerr, pencil drawing by Stephen Houston, see Houston 2011 Diker Archaicism). 


More recent scholarship takes the reasonable tack that the spout helped in spuming chocolate drinks, a well-known practice in Mesoamerica (McAnany et al. 1999:138; Powis et al. 2002:94). To prepare the drink, someone blew into the spout, in contrast to later practices in which liquid chocolate was beaten with a stick or poured back and forth to raise a head of spume (S. Coe 1994:141): pure taste as the bubbles burst, leaving flavor behind. It is impossible to prove, but this might have followed shifts in perceived hygiene. Did some find it disagreeable to drink chocolate touched, perhaps, by another’s saliva…particularly that of a servant? Or was the change motivated by a need for heightened drama? I have seen this myself. On the north coast of Asturias, Spain, while gorging on razor clams, I once admired a waiter pouring cider from beaker to cup. Not a drop spilled as he drew the beaker further and further away, attaining at last an arc over a yard long.

Generations ago, in a time of diffusionist thought, the broader link between the “chocolate pots” and points south seemed self-evident. Raymond Merwin and George Vaillant (1932:64) noted that the form was “common at Coclé in Panama,” and, in his doctoral dissertation of 1921, published in 1926, Samuel Lothrop observed similar shapes in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, “related to the group of Maya pottery usually known as chocolate pots,” if of far later date (Figure 3; Lothrop 1926:117). The comparison made sense, for Lothrop was one of the last archaeologists to work in all parts of the Americas and, with colleagues, had looked closely at early links across the region (Lothrop 1927; Willey 1976). 


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Figure 3. Turkey effigy jar, Bolsón, Guanacaste, Costa Rica (Lothrop 1926:pl. XIII).


The Coclé vessels are notable for their quantity and quality (Figure 4). Yet, the chance that these held chocolate and that such drinks were of intense interest to Coclé elites appears to have faded away. Over the last decades, the archaeological literature shows little to no mention of chocolate in early Panama. One specialist expresses skepticism about much contact with Mesoamerica (Cooke 2005:155; but see Coggins and Shane 1984:pls. 44–50; Lothrop 1952; Pendergast 1970; Pillsbury et al. 2017:#164, for secure evidence of Coclé gold at Altun Ha, Belize, and Chichen Itza, Mexico). In another essay, he targets “rank” and “status” in the Grand Coclé region, commenting on prestigious drinks in the balsería “ritual game” of the Guaymí of Panama but not, at least in that paper, extending such ties back in time (Cooke 2004:274). Nor do drinks make an appearance in a recent, elegant synthesis of evidence from the Grand Coclé (Cooke 2011).



Figure 4. Spouted jars from Grave 26, Sitio Conte, Panama (Lothrop 1942:fig. 197). 


The diffusionist tendency of earlier archaeology has been a migraine from which some areas have only just recovered: localism, in-situ process, the dignified integrity of regions—these are all concerns that merit a sympathetic response. But then there is chocolate. In a classic study of the Bribri, a Chibchan group along the border of Costa Rica and Panama, Alanson Skinner recorded drying platforms for cacao and the consumption of cacao with plantains, the latter to sweeten the former (Skinner 1920:55, 93, 94). Lothrop (1942b:113) himself mentions Nahua (or Nahuatl?) groups in Panama, evidently engaged in the production or trade of cacao. That account also gives them a “tail more than a third of a yard long,” so one wonders a little about its reliability.

Girolamo Benzoni’s Historia del Mondo Nuevo (2017[1565]:75) does report on the widespread use of cacao in “Muhammad’s Paradise” (a.k.a, Nicaragua): “The fruit is like an almond and grows in a shell about the size of a pumpkin…When it is ripe, the seeds are removed and placed in the sun to dry. When they want to drink, they roast the seeds in a pan over the fire, and then they use the stones they use to make bread to grind them. They put this paste in vases (which are like gourds grown in a certain tree that is found in every part of the Indies) and add warm water bit by bit.” Obligingly, he illustrates a cacao tree, dry seeds, and, of rather less relevance, a woman making fire—was this image about roasting seeds (Figure 5)? To be sure, there is a view that cacao in Nicaragua was of relatively recent origin, having been brought there by Nahua speakers migrating from the north (Stanislawski 1983:8, citing Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, cronista de Indias). Not all agree. The widespread mention of such cultivation down into Panama suggests far greater antiquity, especially for the processing of beans rather than simply the fermentation of pulp (Steinbrenner 2006:265, 267; see also Young 1994:15, for a line between these methods as far south as Colombia).



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Figure 5. A cacao tree (cacauate) under sheltering arbor, with probable seeds drying in the background (Benzoni 1565, Lib. II:103, Benzoni scan). 


Has the cultivation and use of cacao by Coclé elites been forgotten or overlooked, by both archaeologists and later chiefs? Is cacao the silphium or garum of ancient Panama?

The jars at Sitio Conte and elsewhere have an almost startling similarity to those of the Preclassic Maya and other peoples in northern Central America. In colonial times, not far from Coclé, cacao was processed into beans, presumably for liquid consumption. And there is demonstrable if perhaps indirect contact attested in the form of gold work brought north well before the Spanish conquest. A comment found on-line hints that similar thoughts about cacao have occurred to the curators of the “Beneath the Surface: Life, Death, and Gold in Ancient Panama,” a 2015 exhibit from the University of Pennsylvania Museum (“Straws” for Chocolate).

The main puzzles are the dates. Local specialists suggest that such spouted ceramics in the Grand Coclé must be at least 3–4 centuries after they ceased to be used in the Maya region (Cooke 2011, esp. 158, at c. AD 750–900). Yet, oddly enough, in the Huastec region of Veracruz, Mexico, that same shape is roughly the same date or just before Sitio Conte (Huastec AMNH; Harner Collection). Too much can be made of formal resemblances. Similar jars could service divergent functions, distinct recipes or drinks. But the charge should also be clear: that the Grand Coclé spouted vessels need testing for theobromine. If the alkaloid is present, they will join gold, emeralds, and sperm whale teeth as luxurious items, chocolate vessels, used long ago in Panama.


I thank John Hoopes and Jeffrey Quilter for discussions about spouted pots from Panama; Claudia Brittenham, Charles Golden, and Andrew Scherer offered helpful comments too.


Benzoni, Girolamo. 2017. The History of the New World: Girolamo Benzoni’s Historia del Mondo Nuevo, edited by Robert C. Schwaller and Jana Byars. Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park.

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

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. 1996. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, London.

Coggins, Clemency C., and Orrin C. Shane, III, eds. 1984. Cenote of Sacrifice: Maya Treasures from the Sacred Well at Chichén Itzá. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Cooke, Richard G. 2004. Rich, Poor, Shaman, Child: Animals, Rank, and Status in the ‘Gran Coclé’ Culture Area of Pre-Columbian Panama. In Behaviour behind Bones: The Zooarchaeology of Ritual, Religion, Status and Identity, edited by Sharyn O’Day, Wim van Neer, and Anton Ervynck, 271–284. Oxbow, Liverpool.

Cooke, Richard G. 2005. Prehistory of Native Americans on the Central American Land Bridge: Colonization, Dispersal, and Divergence. Journal of Archaeological Research 13(2): 129–187.

Cooke, Richard G. 2011. The Gilcrease Collection and Gran Coclé. In To Capture the Sun: Gold of Ancient Panama, by Duane H. King, Richard G. Cooke, Nicholas J. Saunders, John W. Hoopes, and Jeffrey Quilter, 129–173. Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, OK.

Curtis, Robert I. 1983. In Defense of Garum. The Classical Journal 78(3):232–240.

Dalby, Andrew. 2000. Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Ford, James A. 1969. A Comparison of Formative Cultures in the Americas: Diffusion or the Psychic Unity of Man. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology 11. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.

Gann, Thomas, W. 1918. The Maya Indians of Southern Yucatan and Northern British Honduras. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 64. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Hearne, Pamela, and Robert J. Sharer, eds. 1992. River of Gold: Precolumbian Treasures from Sitio Conte. University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Henderson, John S., Rosemary A. Joyce, Gretchen R. Hall, W. Jeffrey Hurst, and Patrick E. McGovern. 2007. Chemical and Archaeological Evidence for the Earliest Cacao Beverages. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 104 (48): 18937–18940.

Houston, Stephen. 2011. Bending Time Among the Maya. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography Bending Time

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Joyce, Rosemary A., and John S. Henderson. 2010. Forming Mesoamerican Taste: Cacao Consumption in Formative Period Contexts. In Pre-Columbian Foodways: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Food, Culture, and Markets in Ancient Mesoamerica, edited by John E. Staller and Michael Carrasco, 157–173. Springer, New York.

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Lothrop, Samuel K. 1942a. Coclé: An Archaeological Study of Central Panama, Part II. Pottery of the Sitio Conte and other Archeological Sites. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Vol. VIII. Cambridge, MA.

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McAnany, Patricia A., Rebecca Storey, and Angela K. Lockard. 1999. Mortuary Ritual and Family Politics at Formative and Early Classic K’axob, Belize. Ancient Mesoamerica 10:129–146.

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Powis, Terry G., Fred Valdez, Jr., Thomas R. Hester, W. Jeffrey Hurst, and StanleyM. Tarka, Jr.  2002. Spouted Vessels and Cacao Use among the Preclassic Maya. Latin American Antiquity 13(1):85–106.

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Young, Allen M. 1994. The Chocolate Tree: A Natural History of Cacao. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.


A Universe in a Maya Lintel I: The Lamb’s Journey and the “Lost City”

by Andrew Scherer (Brown University), Charles Golden (Brandeis University), Stephen Houston (Brown University), and James Doyle (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The most complex images often require multiple sets of eyes (and minds) to probe their creation, meaning, and afterlives. Lavished with care at their making, they may, if excavated or looted, embark on journeys to far times and places, beyond any possible imagining by the patrons who commissioned them. This four-part series—on discovery, Classic-era history, color use, and cosmology (Maya Lintel II; Maya Lintel IIIMaya Lintel IV)—targets an enduring enigma in Maya archaeology: a set of two lintels, notable for their preservation and elaborate iconography, seen and photographed by a colorful adventurer, Dana Lamb, in 1950 (Lamb and Lamb 1951:332). The find was of sufficient interest to appear in Ian Graham’s memoir (Graham 2010:462–467), which commented tartly on Lamb’s elastic, even tenuous relation to fact: “[t]he tale [of their discovery] is, of course, ridiculous” (Graham 2010:463). Lamb compounded that absurdity with the map emblazoned on the endpapers of his book (Figure 1). The “Lost City Area” covers half of Peten, Guatemala, the northernmost slivers of the departments of Huehuetenango, Quiche, and the Alta Verapaz, and, with expansive generosity—why not throw them in too?—parts of Campeche, Chiapas, and Tabasco in Mexico.


Figure 1. The “Lost City Area” (Lamb and Lamb 1951:front endpaper).


Lamb’s photographs, which had been shared with Gordon Ekholm at the American Museum of Natural History, give some savor of the lintels and their condition at the time of discovery (Figures 2 to 4). The rough, load-bearing sections above and below the images (where such sections can be seen) make it certain that the carvings spanned doorways. They were lintels, not wall panels.



Figure 2. Laxtunich Lintel 1, top section, April 1950; the lintel has been lifted from a face-down position, its load-bearing surface still intact to the left (courtesy American Museum of Natural History). 



Figure 3. Dana Lamb with Laxtunich Lintel 1, April 1950 (courtesy American Museum of Natural History). 



Figure 4. Laxtunich Lintel 2, top section, April 1950; note the still intact, load-bearing portion to lower right and stacked stones from a collapsed vault or door jamb to upper right (courtesy American Museum of Natural History). 

The later existence of these sculptures is tragic. They were sawn up, thinned to reduce their weight—the residue most likely discarded in situ—and taken by mule or tumpline from Lamb’s “Lost City,” which he had decided to call Laxtunich, ‘”Lasch-Tu-Nich’ (phonetic spelling), the Place of Carved Stones” (Lamb and Lamb 1951:332; presumably, the neologism derived, after some shredding of phonology, from Lacandon ra’ch, “scratch” [Hofling 2014:285–286]; cf. Ch’orti’ lajchi, “scratch” [Hull 2016:241]).

Their illicit journey from Laxtunich is murky at best. According to Graham (2010:453), a guard at Yaxchilan, Mexico, “had caught sight [in about 1963] of men with mules appearing out of the bush on the opposite [Guatemalan] bank of the river…The men then unloaded the mules’ cargo of sculptured stone panels, concealed them under jungle trash, and departed…the panels remained there for several days before men returned with a boat to take them.” Scholars have long known that the lintels contain clues to their original, general location. The presence of the Yaxchilan Emblem, a supreme title of rulers, and depictions of a later king of that kingdom, Chelew Chan K’inich, places them firmly in some part of Yaxchilan territory (Zender et al. 2016:36).

Were the “panels” seen by the guard from Yaxchilan or were they another set of carvings from Guatemalan territory? What Graham can confirm is that the lintels resurfaced in the collection of the late William P. Palmer III of Falmouth, Maine, or rather, after his death, within a storage facility in Zurich, Switzerland (Graham 2010:465–466). Grainy photographs show them trimmed of their butts and backs, with an occasional scale marked by a European-style, cross-barred “7” (Mayer 1984:98–99, pls. 203, 204). Palmer, who died in 1982, aged 49, was an active collector from about 1958 to 1973 (Palmer as collector). A graduate of the University of Maine, Palmer donated a trove of Mesoamerican material to the Hudson Museum at that institution (Palmer Hudson). [Note 1] The lintels clearly ended up elsewhere. Graham (2010:515n3) believes that Panama was a way-station on their eventual path to Europe, a circuitous route designed “to obscure their source” and, presumably, to facilitate their shipment to buyers abroad. According to Graham, a possible seller might have been the Mexican economist, collector, and dealer, Dr. Josué Sáenz, from whom Palmer appears to have bought a number of pieces. At that time, in the lead-up to the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, Sáenz was the President of the Mexican Olympic Committee, a highly visible position (Witherspoon 2008). He might have had fears of confiscation, electing instead to liquidate some of his investments in Pre-Columbian art. We cannot know but suspect Palmer had these (and other) Maya sculptures by about 1968 if not before.

After their appearance in those photographs, the murk deepened…until 2013 and 2015. Lamb’s carvings have since come to light. Both are now in private collections. The carving we label “Laxtunich Lintel 1,” seen again in 2015, was accessible to the extent that our team could undertake technical assays and detailed photography of its surface (the third in this series reports on that work). The other lintel, “Laxtunich Lintel 2,” was examined by Houston in 2013, if more cursorily. The re-emergence of these storied carvings occasions a fresh evaluation of their images and an inevitable attempt, given more recent fieldwork, to pin down Lamb’s journey to Laxtunich. These thoughts build on the Dana and Ginger Lamb Papers at the Sherman Library and Gardens (Sherman Library) and fieldwork by Golden and Scherer in the Sierra del Lacandόn region of Petén, Guatemala, and Chiapas, Mexico. A superb study has also appeared on the Lambs, who had fascinated, among other people, Franklin D. Roosevelt yet also managed to vex J. Edgar Hoover and his myrmidons (Huffman-Klinkowitz and Klinkowitz 2006:80–81, 83–85).

Dana and Ginger Lamb in Context

As the title suggests, the Lambs’ Quest for the Lost City (Lamb and Lamb 1951), the only primary source on the lintels, capitalized on the Maya-as-lost-civilization zeitgeist in which only the most brave and cunning adventurer-explorers could delve into the dark forests of the Maya lowlands. Certainly, the earliest detailed studies of the Maya were carried out by truly hardy chroniclers—Stephens, Charnay, Maudslay, and Maler, to name a few. These first explorers combined meticulous documentation with a healthy dose of grit to traverse the then-remote jungles of Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. By mid-twentieth century, however, the lone intrepid explorer was largely extinct (the recently deceased Ian Graham being a notable exception). Maya studies was largely in the hands of institutionally supported scientific archaeological teams, such as those supported by the Carnegie Institution of Washington and the University of Pennsylvania. Although these early scientific expeditions advanced our understanding of the ancient Maya, they did little to satisfy public hunger for tales of exotic jungle adventure.

Enter Dana and Ginger Lamb. Almost two decades prior to the publication of Quest for the Lost City, and shortly after their marriage in 1933, the couple set out on a three-year journey in a homemade canoe from California to Panama. They chronicled this voyage in their first book, Enchanted Vagabonds, published in 1938 with the help of a bookseller named June Cleveland (Huffman-Klinkowitz and Klinkowitz 2006:24–25). After its release, they embarked on a successful public speaking tour. Enchanted Vagabonds drew on the long-standing public fascination with adventure-exploration. Yet, in their tale, the Lambs offered something new and appealing. Explorers of yesteryear were for the most part privileged men from the upper crust of European and American society. Dana and Ginger were youthful, middle-class, plucky newlyweds from California, 37 and 26 years old respectively, when Enchanted Vagabonds was first published.

In many respects, Quest for the Lost City, was Enchanted Vagabonds 2.0—a follow-up story of adventure but now in the remote and treacherous forests of southern Mexico, a place populated with “mysterious” natives (the Lacandon Maya) and lost ruins. More than a ten-year gap separates the publication of Enchanted Vagabonds and Quest for the Lost City, at least some of which was spent by the Lambs traveling in Mexico. Quest for the Lost City was finally published in 1951 and remains in print today, its current paperback cover boldly proclaiming “America’s most dangerous couple explores the jungles of Central America…An Adventure Travel Classic.” The book dramatically builds to a final conclusion, the discovery of an entire “lost city,” Laxtunich itself. Quest for the Lost City was followed by a film of the same name in 1954, released by Sol Lesser Productions (Quest for Lost City). Lesser fit the bill: he had guided and promoted the Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weissmuller and later served as American producer (and Academy Award winner) for Kon-Tiki, an account of Thor Heyerdahl’s voyage across the Pacific.

For the layperson, Quest for the Lost City is a gripping page-turner. However, anyone familiar with southern Mexico will realize that, even by the mid-twentieth century, the region travelled and described by the Lambs was not nearly as vast, remote, and unknown as they report. Nearly all scholars (and many a layperson, judging by recent Amazon reviews of Quest for the Lost City), deride the book as a fabrication and the Lambs as charlatans looking to turn a profit from a credulous American audience. This sense is only heightened by the 1955 follow-up film of the same title, in which the Dana and Ginger pass off well-known and traveled sites like Yaxchilan and Palenque as ruins lost deep in the jungle. By this point, too, the heading of their stationery says it all: “Dan and Ginger Lamb, Exploration—Motion Pictures” (AMNH Files, letter to Gordon Ekholm, dated July 6, 1950). Yet there is no doubt the Lambs (or, as we will see, at least Dana) did visit an archaeological site, his “Site 5,” that at the time (and to this day) remains unknown to scholars. His notes offer the only description we have of the site, and he and his companions took the only known in situ photographs of the remarkable Laxtunich carvings.

So what exactly were the Lambs up to in southern Mexico, and where is the so-called site of Laxtunich?

In Search of Laxtunich

Lamb’s own account of visiting the site is, as Graham observed, pure claptrap. It offers swarming bugs, an overwhelming thirst, barely resolved by slurping from bejuco de agua (“we drank too much and were sick”), aqueducts and artesian wells like “miniature ‘volcanoes’,” as well as, towards nightfall, “the frightening, swelling song of a hurricane” (Lamb and Lamb 1951:330–331). And a tree fall that had, after this “titanic, terrific, stupendous, slam-bang show…carried away our beautiful temple” in one final cataclysm (Lamb and Lamb 1951:334; to be sure, on its reverse, a photograph in the AMNH archive refers to a tree fall on the lintel building). All the “beautiful stone carvings had been shattered and tossed to the jungle floor,” and the Lambs, amazed, saw that were now “on an island surrounded by a muddy sea of water” (Lamb and Lamb 1951:335). Despite a bout of malaria—”Dan, I can’t breathe. I’m burning up!”—Ginger soldiered on, trying “to lend a hand” (Lamb and Lamb 1951:332–333). After manfully carving a canoe, Dana Lamb succeeded in paddling them to safety.

Dana’s field notebook, a personal letter he wrote to Ginger, and his hand-drawn maps tell a different story. Our presumption is that, in these records, Dana offers some semblance of accuracy. That he was a compulsive fabulist is reflected in his correspondence with Ekholm a short time after his visit to Laxtunich. Lamb seems to place the discovery sometime in June, at the latest in early May, a date contradicted by his notebook, which assigns the find to April 7 (AMNH archive, letter to Ekholm, July 6, 1950; “We got in yesterday [July 5] after over a month off in the unexplored area in Guatemala”). In a marked photo of Lintel 2, he claimed it has been “found at site #5 [Laxtunich] in Guatemala in June 1950” (AMNH archive). What stratagem lay behind this pointless deceit? Nor was Ginger even present at the discovery. Was the thrill of their narrative—always a marital adventure, a cheerful collaboration of paired souls—more important than any commitment to veracity? One gathers that Lamb tended to self-grandiosity and a compulsion to rework personal experience into high drama: each event would serve its role in the script of his life.

On April 2, 1950, Dana travelled to Agua Azul, a now-abandoned airstrip on the Chiapas side of the Usumacinta River, about 7 km upstream (southeast) from the Guatemalan community of Bethel. Dana received reports of “large ruins on the Guatemalan side of the Yaxchilan Ruins” and that there “is a boy who thinks he knows where they are” (Dana Lamb, Personal Journal, April 3, 1950). On April 4, Dana and a number of local guides headed downstream in a cayuco (a canoe carved from the trunk of a tree) past Yaxchilan to a point then known as Salvamento, an area that corresponds to the first bend in the Usumacinta River north of Yaxchilan (Canter 2007:7). Dana reports the distances by river as 8.5 leagues (the equivalent of 47.2 km) from Agua Azul to Yaxchilan and 3.5 leagues (19.4 km) from Yaxchilan to Salvamento, again by river. The actual distances are closer to 35 km and 16 km respectively, the point being that, while Dana is not a bad judge of distance (it is unclear what maps he had with him when he was writing his journal), he tends to overestimate the distances covered.

After that first day’s travel Dana and his companions established a beach camp on the Guatemalan side of the river, and the next day he reports that “we hiked down river [sic] opposite an arroyo called Enenete [Anaite] then cut a trail inland almost due north” (April 5). What follows is Dana’s description of that day’s journey, edited to remove his vivid commentary on the various accomplishments and shortcomings of his travel companions:

“We found a chicley [sic] trail after going thru heavy bamboo and undergrowth for about a mile. From here the trail lead up and down thru low hills for about two miles. . .the going was not easy in the heat…at noon when we stopped for lunch there was no water…after lunch we continued on. This trail used to be wide and well traveled but has not been used in many years. So we had to cut around the fallen trees and open trail most of the way…After traveling 6 leguas [sic] we stopped for a rest and Jose and Armando said they were going ahead to scout the trail. We waited for over an hour and then they returned with a pot full of muddy water. Instead of scouting trail they had gone off to a Lechugal about a mile away for water.”

Although we do not have personal experience with the inland journey from this point on the Usumacinta River, the route Dana reports is likely the same as that described by Ron Canter (2007:7): “on the Guatemalan shore, a ravine leads east up to a small plateau 80 m above the river. From there it is a relatively easy climb NE out of the river gorge.” On his map, Canter notes the existence of a nineteenth-century trail running between La Pasadita and Centro Campesino, the area across from Yaxchilan that was home to an invader community in the first decade of this century (Figure 5). Teobert Maler (1903:104–105) notes the existence of “forest trails” connecting Tenosique to the Arroyo Yaxchilan (a stream that passes about 4.5 km to the southeast of the site of Yaxchilan on the Guatemalan side of the Usumacinta River). Indeed, our own reconnaissance attests to the existence of many overgrown logging trails running between the area of Yaxchilan and north and northeast towards La Pasadita. In 1998, Golden (et al. 1999) and a group of colleagues made the trip from Yaxchilan to La Pasadita along just such a route.


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Figure 5. Excerpt of Ron Canter’s Río Usumacinta Navigation Survey (Canter).

Scherer and Omar Alcover undertook a similar journey in 2014, reaching and departing from La Pasadita via two separate logging trails. Both paths were relatively clear at the time, having been re-opened by settlers during the illegal invasion at Centro Campesino in the first decade of the new millennium (Figure 6).

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Figure 6. Southern Sierra del Lacandόn National Park showing likely area of Laxtunich in Guatemala. The red path indicates trails used by Scherer and Alcover in 2014 trip between Centro Campesino and La Pasadita. The purple path represents the least-cost route between Salvamento and El Tunel, the hypothetical path walked by Dana Lamb (compare with Figure 8). “W” denotes aguadas. Partly spoked dircle is a cenote at El Tunel. Chevron is a point along the arroyo that traverses the region, illustrated in Figure 5.

Moreover, Scherer and Alcover traveled with guides who had decades of experience in the region, and thus were able to move with relative dispatch on their journey. They traveled at brisk clip, if with heavy packs, along a route that took them 22 km in 8 to 9 hours from Centro Campesino to La Pasadita (Figure 7). From our experience, 20 km is a generous maximum estimate for any distance covered by Dana and his companions while cutting trails.

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Figure 7. Walking a recently opened logging trail south of La Pasadita, Guatemala, 2014, taken near the aguadas in Figure 6 (photograph by A. Scherer). 

Of the two trails travelled by Scherer and Alcover in 2014, the one closest to the Usumacinta River is about 6.75 km northeast of the point from which Dana likely left that body of water. Dana’s own hand-drawn map suggests they moved in a general northward direction (it is unknown, although likely, that he carried a compass, Figures 8 and 9). From Dana’s description, he and his companions travelled about four to five km (three miles) north or northwest before lunchtime. He then suggests they travelled 6 leagues, the equivalent of 18 miles or 33 km, before their next rest after lunch, when two of his companions went ahead to scout the trail and returned with the muddy water. A frustrated Dana writes in his journal, “I was anxious to go on ahead and get to the ruins before dark but Jose said he was not sure of the trail and that we could not make it before dark. Reluctantly we hit the side trail to the Lechugal & slung our hamocks [sic]” (April 5).

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Figure 8. Dana Lamb’s map of trails leading from Salvamento, Guatemala (image from Julie Huffman-Klinkowitz, courtesy Sherman Library and Gardens). 


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Figure 9. Dana Lamb’s notation of his “Site 5” (Laxtunich), with notation “Pictures of carved stones were made here” (image from Julie Huffman-Klinkowitz, courtesy Sherman Library and Gardens). 

Dana is almost certainly mistaken about the 33 km that he and his companions covered between lunchtime and their evening stop at the watering hole. To put this scale in perspective, Piedras Negras is just a bit more than 40 km in a straight line north of Yaxchilan. A starting point around Salvamento and the Arroyo Anaite, 33 km to the north or northwest would simply funnel them into the narrow valley approaching Piedras Negras, while 30 km in any other direction east or northeast would require crossing the arduous and precipitous hills of the Sierra del Lacandón. Dana would surely have noted this in his journal.

Since they were re-cutting an overgrown trail, a more reasonable estimate is that Dana and his companions walked between 6 to 10 km total by mid-afternoon, placing them in all probability somewhere along one of the very same overgrown trails south of La Pasadita hiked by Scherer and Alcover in 2014. According to Lamb’s own map (which has no scale) the water source is at a latitude just north of the Laguna Santa Clara in Chiapas, a distance that would be about 13 km due north. Again, that is likely incorrect in view of the time needed to move such a distance over an overgrown path. On their own return journey from La Pasadita, Scherer and Alcover identified an exceptionally muddy aguada along one of the old logging trails, about 7.5 km in a direct line from the Usumacinta River (longer if following the overgrown trails). This is a potential, although by no means certain, candidate for the watering hole visited by Dana and his companions.

Dana and his companion returned to the trail the next day and, according to him, “hiked three leguas (12 mi) to a dry arroyo then cut a trail about one mile due W. to the ruins” (April 6). Dana then writes and crosses-out: “After we had finished our. After a supper of beans and rice we hit the hamocks [sic].” He finally settles on: “On the Way into the ruins Arnold shot a small deer and we had a late supper of cooked venison [sic]. There is no water in this area so we used Agua de Bejuca [sic]” (April 6). Again, it is highly implausible that Dana and his companions hiked 12–13 miles (19-–21 km) on the second day of their journey. All known logging trails in this area follow a north or northwesterly path. Had they crossed beyond the known northern limits of the Yaxchilan kingdom (Tecolote, La Pasadita, etc.), the party would have slogged through the bajo around the Laguna La Pasadita, and into the formidably rugged terrain to the north. An eastward path would have kept them within the kingdom and brought them into the vicinity of Oso Negro. But, again, the old logging paths they appear to have been traveling do not cut an easterly route. More likely, Dana and his companions travelled 10 km or less that second day.

An important clue to Laxtunich’s location is the dry arroyo recorded by Dana. Although we do not know its precise route over the landscape, Scherer and Alcover twice crossed an arroyo that drains into the Laguna La Pasadita (Figure 10, see Figure 6 for its location along one of the trails). This arroyo passes through the site of Tixan, where it was dammed in ancient times. Similarly, Golden and colleagues camped near an arroyo in this same vicinity in March of 1998, when it held a thin trickle of water. This is likely the same arroyo that flows through the site of El Tunel, apparently passing through a cave (hence the name of the site, Muñoz and Román 2004:20). When Scherer and Alcover crossed the arroyo near Tixan in 2014, it carried little water, although volume increased when they encountered it a second time near its confluence with the Laguna La Pasadita. Dana notes no other arroyos in his journal. If we assume a generally northward route of travel, the arroyo near La Pasadita, Tixan, and El Tunel would have been the first such waterway encountered by the Lamb party. That it was dry offers no surprise in that they were traveling at the very end of the dry season. In contrast, Scherer and Alcover observed the arroyo at the height of the rainy season, and even then it held little water.


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Figure 10. Dam on a partially dry arroyo near Tixan, Guatemala (photograph by A. Scherer).


After a night camping near the ruins, Dana and his companions travelled to “Site 5,” where they spent the entire day exploring. As Dana describes in his journal, in an entry dated April 7:

“At one time this place was a large city. Now all of it is in ruins except one temple which is partly destroyed. There are two beautifully carved temple stones here. The best I have ever seen. They measure about four feet wide and six feet long but are broken in half. We spent all day exploring around and moving the stones so we could get pictures of them. At noon we had more venison and then worked at the Temple. This ruin is completely unknown so we decided to name it the Place of the Carved Stones, in Maya it is Lashch Tu Nich.”

Dana’s descriptions of the monuments accord well with the photographs that were taken at the site (Figures 2–4). Both lintels are in situ, both broken medially, each fallen from the doorway of a collapsed vaulted structure. Dana also drew a sketch of the site center of Laxtunich, though it is exceptionally vague in its detail, showing a series of plazas and ruined buildings (Figure 11). He marks the two lintels as “alter [sic] stones,” indicating they were found in front of the same structure. Another useful feature of Dana’s map is the presence of a “Dry Sonote” [sic] in the upper left corner of the map, a feature that will be key to identifying the site center of Laxtunich in the future.

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Figure 11. Dana Lamb’s sketch map of Laxtunich (image from Julie Huffman-Klinkowitz, courtesy Sherman Library and Gardens).


On April 8, Dana and his companions made their return trip, reaching the Usumacinta River in a single day’s journey. Because Dana and his companions were backtracking on a now-open trail, it is reasonable to suggest they travelled about 15 km or so that day. By April 25, Dana was back in Tenosique where he penned a letter to Ginger (who at the time, and directly contrary to the published account, was in the United States). Here he summarizes the trip: “Enrique Nevelo, Manuel and I went down the Usumacenta [sic] to a place below Yaxchilan then headed deep into Guatemala. We found a beautiful little ruin with some of the finest stone carving I have ever seen. It was a rough trip as there is no water in this area and we had to live off of Agua de Bejuco.”

According to the same letter, Dana made a series of other visits to sites in the area over the next two weeks, including a stop at Yaxchilan on the return from Laxtunich as well as trips to Bonampak and what is likely Lacanja. Photographs of these visits appear in Quest for the Lost City. He concluded his journey at El Cedro, where he took a plane back to Tenosique. Ginger appears to have flown down in early May, and they spent the next month or so again traveling in southern Mexico, presumably shooting additional photos and video for Quest for the Lost City, although with no evidence they returned to the unknown site in Guatemala.

Where is Laxtunich?

Matching Dana’s description of his travels and his maps with our own experience in the region, we believe it highly likely that Laxtunich lies somewhere in the vicinity of La Pasadita and a cluster of poorly explored sites that includes El Tunel, Capukal, and Tixan. It is far less plausible that Laxtunich corresponds to La Pasadita or its twin, Tecolote, located a few kilometers to the west. Tecolote has many collapsed vaulted structures, but its most remarkable feature is a single well-preserved standing structure with fragmentary murals (Scherer and Golden 2009) that Dana would have seen and recorded in his notes. Moreover, there is no cenote at Tecolote nor is it near an arroyo. Similarly, La Pasadita does not have a cenote and its principal structure was still standing in 1950, likely with its own carved lintels and murals still in place. If Dana had visited La Pasadita we can assume he would have made note of such striking images.

Capukal and El Tunel were first visited by archaeologists in 2004 during a brief reconnaissance trip by René Muñoz and Edwin Román (2005; Golden et al. 2005). El Tunel was revisited in 2005 by Juan Carlos Meléndez and Scherer who also managed to reconnoiter the site of Tixan (Meléndez and Scherer 2005; Vasquéz et al. 2006). The archaeologists discerned an abundance of settlement at each of these sites but, owing to a lack of time on both visits, they were unable to identify or pinpoint their epicenters. In that regards it is important to keep in mind that Dana reports only a single monumental structure that was already partially in ruins during his visit in 1950. Thus, even if archaeologists had reached the principal structure of Laxtunich in 2004 or 2005, it is entirely possible they may have overlooked the structure, assuming that by that time its vault was fully collapsed.

Of these named sites, Capukal is the least credible as Dana’s Laxtunich. Muñoz and Román note that the buildings at Capukal disperse into a pattern reminiscent of Fideo, a known Late Preclassic site to the northwest. Further, the only ceramic observed on the surface during reconnaissance at Capukal dated to the Early Classic period (Muñoz and Román 2005:20). In contrast, Tixan and El Tunel possess architecture more closely reminiscent of known secondary centers of Late Classic period Yaxchilan. Tixan was only briefly visited by Meléndez and Scherer in 2005 and they were never able to locate its political and architectural center, if indeed it has one. It exhibits an area of extensive settlement, and further survey is needed to determine to what degree settlement may be more or less contiguous between the areas currently identified as La Pasadita, El Tunel, and Tixan.

El Tunel, on the other hand, was more thoroughly surveyed by both Muñoz and Román and then by Meléndez and Scherer. Meléndez and Scherer (2005:62) observed the careful use of both large block and smaller flat stone similar to details observed in buildings at Tecolote and La Pasadita. These features characterize the well-preserved constructions of the Late Classic period in the kingdom of Yaxchilan (Figure 12). Moreover, defensive walls have been identified in the vicinity of El Tunel, similar to those found at Tecolote and La Pasadita (Muñoz and Román 2004:19).

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Figure 12. Preserved wall on a structure at El Tunel; Juan Carlos Meléndez provides human scale (photograph by A. Scherer).


Even more compelling, Muñoz and Román detected the presence of at least one collapsed vaulted structure at El Tunel with the remains of a looted crypt (Muñoz and Román 2004:19). Vaulted buildings with such crypts have also been identified at Tecolote and La Pasadita, and such patterns similarly echo the sub-floor crypts found in palace structures at Yaxchilan and Bonampak (Miller and Brittenham 2013:24, fig. 33). The collapsed vaulted structure found by Muñoz and Román should be considered a possible contender for the source of the Laxtunich lintels, though they did not observe any monument carcasses during their investigations. Recall that, as noted above, the name El Tunel is in reference to an arroyo that flows near the site. Finally, during their reconnaissance of the site, Meléndez and Scherer observed a dry cenote at El Tunel, although they failed to take detailed notes regarding its relationship to other structures at the site (see its location on Figure 6).

A least-cost path plotted from several starting points in Guatemala opposite the Arroyo Anaite to El Tunel creates a path similar in appearance to Lamb’s sketch map, and seems to cross at or near similar landmarks, including well-used trails (compare Figures 6 and 8). Moreover, this modeled path crosses the real path marked by Scherer and Alcover. near where they encountered two water-holes (aguadas), perhaps the source of Lamb’s “muddy water.” If El Tunel is indeed Laxtunich, and the computer-modeled path is anything like that followed by Lamb and his companions, the actual distance traveled from river to site (barring wayward turns) would be in the vicinity of 13 km (~ 8 mi).



In short, all evidence indicates the site of Laxtunich is located somewhere to the east of Tecolote, to the west of Oso Negro, and in the general vicinity of La Pasadita, El Tunel, Tixan, and Capukal. This is an area of generally dense settlement where much of the Late Classic period architecture conforms to that of the greater Yaxchilan kingdom. Of these, in our judgment, El Tunel is the best contender as the source of the Laxtunich lintels. It has architecture in Late Classic period Yaxchilan style, it possesses at least one collapsed vaulted structure with a looted crypt, has defensive walls, a dry cenote, and is located near an arroyo—all features of Laxtunich noted in Dana’s journal. The chances are high that slabs of sliced limestone are still there, left by looters in the 1960s. It is a shame indeed that Lamb did not follow through, as he had promised to Gordon Ekholm in 1951, on a more scholarly publication for the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s “Notes in Middle America” series (sic, “Notes on Middle American Archaeology and Ethnology.” AMNH archives, letter dated Jan. 25, 1951). The recollections might have been sharper, the details more accurate. But the pledge to Ekholm was probably yet another deception. A factually grounded essay would have undermined the tall tales in his book.

Quest for the Lost City and the two Laxtunich lintels persist as part of a frustrating yet fortunate chapter in Maya studies. The adventures reported by Dana and Ginger are, we now know, fabrications meant to sell a book. They do little to advance our understanding of the ancient Maya. Yet the true, unreported story—of a foreign visitor who spent a few days in the jungle in the company of local guides—is not unlike how we ourselves “discover” new archaeological sites (though such tales hardly make for fascinating storytelling). The Laxtunich lintels are masterworks of Maya art, torn from their source and rarely seen by scholars, much less appreciated by the greater public. Yet Dana’s photographs exist. He drew us maps that give us a general sense of the site’s location and, most important, took detailed notes of his travels to the site. From these clues, we can be reasonably secure in knowing not only the country of origin (Guatemala) but even the 20 km2 area of the Sierra del Lacandόn National Park that likely produced the lintels. Future survey in the region, as aided by remote sensing and the search for thinned remnants, will doubtless transform Lamb’s “lost city” into one that is found.


Acknowledgments  Some of the ideas presented in this series of blogs were first presented at the Center for the Advanced Study of Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art, where Houston held an Ailsa Mellon Bruce Senior Fellowship in 2014–2015 (Houston and Urton 2015), and at the Wayeb Meetings in Moscow (Houston et al. 2016). The Lamb archive at the Sherman Library and Gardens, Corona del Mar, California, was most generous with access, as was Dr. Charles Spencer, Sumru Arincali, Barry Landua, and Kristin Mable at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), New York. Mary Miller first drew our attention to the Lamb-Ekholm correspondence at the AMNH. Ron Canter’s map of the Usumacinta was most helpful, as was Julie Huffman-Klinkowitz, who supplied crucial pieces of information from her collection of Lambiana. Michael Coe provided recollections of that Mayanist “Howard Hughes,” William Palmer III.


Note 1. William Pendleton Palmer III (1932–1982) was an heir to a Cleveland, Ohio, steel and mining fortune. His grandfather, William Pendleton Palmer (1861–1927), had amassed that wealth by working his way up from an apprenticeship to Presidency of the American Steel and Wire Company; along the way, he also served as a Director of the Cleveland Trust Co., H. C. Frick Coke Co., and the Bank of Commerce (WPP), with substantial investments in the Hanna Mining Company of Cleveland (Hanna and Palmer and Hanna). A member of the American Antiquarian Society from 1914 on, and President of the Western Reserve Historical Society from 1913 until his death, the Founder had collected a quantity of Civil War manuscripts and Lincoln memorabilia, indeed, on all aspects of antebellum life, for eventual donation to the Society, “Cleveland’s oldest cultural institution” (Western Reserve and Collection). The Founder would not have known his namesake—he died five years before Palmer III was born. But his acquisitive urges and antiquarian interests had some impact. For a time, Palmer III was one of the most energetic collectors of Maya pieces in the world. Our only account of him, “a bit like Howard Hughes, but on a less extravagant scale, and far more generous,” comes from Michael Coe (personal communication, Aug. 23, 2017; quotation from Coe 2006:199), who met Palmer while preparing “The Maya Scribe and His World” exhibit for the Grolier Club in New York City (April 20 to June 5, 1971). Learning that the collector had a large number of Classic Maya pots, Coe was flown on Palmer’s private plane, piloted by a retired Air Force colonel, to Falmouth, Maine, where Palmer lived. (Palmer was, according to Coe and Graham, the then-owner of Bar Harbor Airlines.) Coe remembers two totem poles from the Northwest Coast lying prone, and somewhat forlorn, outside the main residence. The cellar of a second building was given over to racks of magazines and newspapers curated by an older man. When asked about this surprising hoard, “a quarter century’s worth of old numbers of the New York Times, Newsweek, and other newspapers and journals,” Palmer replied, “I just want to look things up when I feel like it” (Coe 2006:199). Coe did not see the Laxtunich lintels, which might already have been in Switzerland.


Canter, Ronald L. 2007. Rivers Among the Ruins: The Usumacinta. The PARI Journal 7(3):1–24. (Canter)

Coe, Michael D. 2006. Final Report: An Archaeologist Excavates his Past. Thames and Hudson, London.

Golden, Charles, Tomás J. Barrientos, Zachary Hruby, and René Muñoz. 1999. La Pasadita: Nuevas Investigaciones en un sitio secundario en la región del Usumacinta. In XII Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala, 1998, edited by J.P. Laporte and H.L. Escobedo, 390–406. Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala City.

Golden, Charles W., Edwin Román, A. Rene Muñoz, Andrew Scherer, and Luis A. Romero. 2005. Reconocimiento y patrones de asentamiento en la Sierra del Lacandón, Petén. In XVIII Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala, 2004, edited by J.P. Laporte, B. Arroyo y H. Mejía, 284–295. Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala City.

Graham, Ian. 2010. The Road to Ruins. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Hofling, C. Andrew. 2014. Lacandon Maya-Spanish-English Dictionary / Diccionario Maya Lacandón-Español-Inglés. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Houston, Stephen, and Gary Urton. 2015. Incontro. Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., April 2.

Houston, Stephen, James Doyle, David Stuart, and Karl Taube. 2016. Sun, Night, Earth, and Stone: The Politics of Belief on a Classic Maya Lintel. Paper presented at the 21st European Maya Conference, Moscow, Oct. 22.

Huffman-Klinkowitz, Julie, and Jerome Klinkowitz. 2006. The Enchanted Quest of Dana and Ginger Lamb. University Press of Mississippi, Jackson.

Hull, Kerry. 2016. A Dictionary of Ch’orti’ Mayan-Spanish-English. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Lamb, Dana, with June Cleveland. 1938. Enchanted Vagabonds. Harper, New York.

Lamb, Dana, and Ginger Lamb. 1951. Quest for the Lost City. Harper, New York.

Maler, Teobert. 1903. Researches in the Central Portion of the Usumatsintla Valley: Report of Explorations for the Museum – Part Second. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Vol. II, No. 2. Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Mayer, Karl-Herbert. 1984. Maya Monuments: Sculptures of Unknown Provenance in Middle America. Translated by Sandra Brizee. Verlag von Flemming, Berlin.

Meléndez, Juan Carlos, and Andrew K. Scherer. 2005. Reconocimiento en La Pasadita, El Túnel y Tixan. In Proyecto Regional Arqueológico Sierra del Lacandón: Informe Preliminar No. 3, edited by C. Golden, A. K. Scherer and R. Vásquez, 59–72. Informe Presentado a la Dirección General del Patrimonio Cultural y Natural de Guatemala, Guatemala City.

Miller, Mary, and Claudia Brittenham. 2013. The Spectacle of the Late Maya Court: Reflections on the Murals of Bonampak. University of Texas Press, Austin; INAH and CONACULTA, Mexico City.

Muñoz, A. René, and Edwin Román. 2005. Capukal y El Tunel Reconocimiento en el Àrea de La Pasadita. In Proyecto Arqueológico Parque Nacional Sierra del Lacandon, Piedras Negras 2004, Informe 2, Temporada 2004, edited by C. W. Golden, L. Romero, K. Dardón and M. Rangel, 18–21. Direccion General del Patrimonio Cultural y Natural de Guatemala, Guatemala City.

Vásquez, Rosaura, Andrew K. Scherer, Charles W. Golden, Stephen D. Houston, Fabiola Quiroa, Juan Carlos Meléndez, and Ana Lucía Arroyave. 2006. En el reino de Pájaro Jaguar: Reconocimiento arqueológico en el área sur de la Sierra del Lacandón, Petén. In XIX Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala, 2005, edited by J.P. Laporte, B. Arroyo and H. Mejía, 867–877. Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala City.

Witherspoon, Keith B. 2008. Before the Eyes of the World: Mexico and the 1968 Olympic Games. Northern Illinois University Press, DeKalb.

Zender, Marc, Dmitri Beliaev, and Albert Davletshin. 2016. The Syllabic Sign we and an Apologia for Delayed Decipherment. The PARI Journal 17(2):35–56.



Bamboo–A Neglected Maya Material?

by Stephen Houston (Brown University), Karl Taube (UC-Riverside), Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach (UT-Austin), and Timothy Beach (UT-Austin)


Building sites in Hong Kong often show a collision between tradition and modernity: bamboo scaffolds, some thirty stories high, envelop skyscrapers under construction (Figure 1; Waters 1998; also Sky-high scaffoldsBamboo spider-men). The virtues of the material are that it is “primitive without being old-fashioned, time-saving without being insecure, and economical without being impracticable” (Waters 1998:20). Less eloquent explanations are that, unlike scaffolds of metal, bamboo can be stored in the open without risk of theft; the material is also inexpensive, sustainable, flexible, reusable (up to three times, depending on conditions of storage), quickly erected, and cantilevered with relative ease over empty spaces (Waters 1998:26, 30).



Figure 1. Bamboo scaffolding, Causeway Bay neighborhood, Hong Kong (Photograph by Claire Gribbin, Creative Commons License).


Bamboo tends to be seen as quintessentially oriental. Its tender shoots, processed to remove toxins (cyanogenic glycosides, also in cassava), find their way into many dishes, and an entire sub-genre of Chinese painting, the “Four Gentlemen” or “Noble Ones,” focuses on its depiction along with peers like the plum blossom, chrysanthemum, and orchid (bamboo embodies the summer, the others, respectively, winter, autumn, spring; see also Cahill 1997:187–192; see also Bickford 1999:147, on literary and visual traditions of bamboo and other plants; Hsü 1996:25, on links to gentlemanly virtue). The experience of a bamboo forest, as Houston has experienced it on the outskirts of Kyoto, figures among the “100 Soundscapes of Japan” under protection by the Japanese Ministry of the Environment (Torigoe 1999).

But bamboo occurs more widely than that, and with consequences for understanding the ancient Maya. According to one source, “New World bamboos account for approximately half of the total generic and specific bamboo diversity” (Clark 1990:126; for Guatemala, see McClure 1973:88, 105, 106). An ethnobotany of the Tzotzil in Zinacantán, Chiapas, accords a page to them, and gives the plants a full array of local terms: bix (the generic category, “all bamboos, reeds or sprawling, reed-like plants,” Breedlove and Laughlin 2000:150), muk’ta ne kotom, yaxal otot, antzil bix, ton bix, chanib, and k’ox ne kotom (Figure 2; re: muk’ta ne kotom, “large coati tail,” there is a ko-to-ma on La Rejolla Stela 1:I9 [files at the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Peabody Museum, Harvard University], but the context is unclear; note, too, that the term “bamboo,” evidently of Malay origin, did not enter European languages until the 1590s or later, etymology). Some grow to over 20 m long, within “ravines in the understory of tropical deciduous forests in the lower temperate and lowland areas” (Breedlove and Laughlin 2000:150). Others are cut by men but brought home to women for use in looms, or do service as banner poles or the staffs of shamans (Breedlove and Laughlin 2000:150). A vigorous shake of a staff will protect the shaman from watchdogs. Many native species are known in Guatemala (bamboo in Guatemala). Today, in the Peten, the northernmost province, workers on archaeological projects used saplings or bamboo in equal measure, depending on proximity (Andrew Scherer, personal communication, 2017).


bamboo breedlove.jpg


Figure 2. Bamboos among the Tzotzil Maya (Breedlove and Laughlin 2000:plate 10). 


While charged with working on the stuccoes of the Diablo pyramid at El Zotz, Guatemala, one of us (Taube) noted the presence of scaffold images with unusual attributes (Taube and Houston 2015:219–221). Criss-crossed poles had cross-wise stripes (a sign of darkness or even the color red? [see Stone and Zender 2011:124–125]), symmetrical volutes at what appeared to be natural joins in the material, and signs of lashing to keep the frame solid (Figure 3A). It soon became clear that the sign appeared on a variety of so-called “accession scaffolds” ranging in date from the San Bartolo murals of c. 100 BC to stelae at Piedras Negras, Guatemala, of Late Classic date (Figure 3C; Taube and Houston 2015:fig. 5.12). Other such trussed scaffolds exist, as on Stelae 1 and 2 at Cancuen, Guatemala, but there with what appear to be ta/TAJ signs for “pine,” also a lightweight material (Maler 1908:plates 12.2, 13.1; Figure 3B). For the first set of images, Taube conjectured that the vegetal material was none other than bamboo, in which small tufts shoot directly out of the surface (the culm internodes), often at joins (Figure 4).



Figure 3. Bamboo in Maya imagery: (A) Diablo Structure F8-1 Sub IB, with cross-bands indicated (image by CAST); (B) Cancuen Stela 1, east side, with queen, pine struts cued (Maler 1908:plate 13.1); and (C) Piedras Negras Stela 11, base (drawing by David Stuart). 



 Figure 4. Bamboo: (A) trunk with tufts at natural breaks [culm nodes] (Creative Commons); and (B) curling tufts, Sagano Bamboo Forest, Arashiyama district, Kyoto, Japan (photograph by Stephen Houston).


A singular advantage of Maya text and image, where both stand in close relation, is that, if plausibly interpreted, one helps to explain the other. It is possible that two spellings buttress the reading: one comes from a tomb painting at Río Azul, the other from the name of the Temple of the Foliated Cross (or at least its interior temple) at Palenque (Figure 5; see also the spelling on the altar of Temple XXI:G10). The example at Palenque may be our best point of entry, for it appears to contain bamboo struts, as well as two other elements (a snouted being and K’AN crosses). The one missing element, other than the NAAH for “structure,” are three vertical sprouts of vegetation. That is, an epigraphic control exists in which bamboo and its glyphic referent appear to be isolable. In fuller form, as at Río Azul, another part of the sprouted glyph appears, in this case a sign with vertical lines and horizontal dots. This glyph recalls another, a slightly distinct one, with tufts rather than leaf-like extrusions, that carries a proposed reading of AK or AKAN, “grass” (Stuart 2005:180 fn.59).



Figure 5. Bamboo in imagery, possibly in text: (A) East wall of Río Azul Tomb 6 (photograph by George F. Mobley, courtesy George Stuart); (B) glyphs of the Temple of the Foliated Cross, Alfarda:H1 (drawing by Linda Schele, photographer unknown); (C) roof of interior shrine, Temple of the Foliated Cross, bamboo cross-struts with K’AN crosses, corresponding to elements of name glyph (drawing by David Stuart); and (D) wall panel from interior shrine, Temple of the Foliated Cross (drawing by Linda Schele, Schele and Mathews 1979:#302). 


But what to make of the sign that appears to refer to bamboo, the element with three vertical shoots? Pondering this evidence, Houston posited a reading of JAL because of the subfixed la syllable at Río Azul; a second such version, spelling ch’o-ko ?JAL-la yi-?cha-ni AJAW, is far later, from a jamb in Temple XIX at Palenque [Stuart 2005:fig. 20a]). Moreover, the YAX-JAL-la NAAH, “Green-blue Bamboo House” (a notional arbor?), seemed quite similar to the term for “bamboo” in Tzotzil: yaxal otoot (the latter being the word for “dwelling,” see above).

Of further interest were the following entries in Ch’orti’ Maya, the language closest to most of the inscriptions (Wisdom 1950, with the usual substitution in that language of r for l in some contexts):

harar                 ‘reed [generic], carrizo (a tall wild grass), arrow’

harar ak           ‘cane grass, reed grass [generic]; zacate amargo (tall wild carrizo-like                                                grass)’

noxi’ harar       ‘a wild cane’

…and the telling gloss,

mak te’ harar   ‘vara de bambu (lowland dwarfish bamboo)’

Makte’ is simply a term for “fence” (“enclosure-tree/wood”), here specified as to construction material. Note too that, in cognate terms, j substitutes for h in many other Mayan languages, hence har/hal equates in such cases to jal (Kaufman 1983:1158). The usual trajectory of glyphic research is for someone else to have been there first. So too here, in a lexical listing by Erik Boot (2009:26, 82). Boot however, focused on “reed,” when other plants, namely, varieties of bamboo, might have been the actual target here.

The implications for Maya civilization are potentially momentous. Bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants in the world. The Guinness Book of World Records mentions species known to thrust upwards at 91 cm a day (Guinness). The rhizome-dependent pattern of growth in bamboo also makes them, to many a gardener’s dislike, hard to control yet endlessly abundant under certain conditions. Was this, in fact, an overlooked resource in Mayanist research, planted, tended, harvested, and widely employed when other vegetation proved scarce because of deforestation?

In the Orient, bamboo goes into buckets and all manner of receptacles, medicines, building materials, delectable food (again, if processed). A list from a traditional village in China dizzies with possibilities: “They live in bamboo houses, eat bamboo shoots, wear bamboo hats and shoes, cook food in utensils made of bamboo culm internodes, walk over bamboo bridges or cross rivers on bamboo rafts, and farm with bamboo tools” (Yang et al. 2004:161, Table 4). Such broad use, including use in the making of musical instruments, occurs throughout the indigenous Americas (Berlin et al. 1974:131; Judziewicz et al. 1999). Utensils in some Maya imagery might have been made of this perishable material, providing, according to one proposal, the formal source of Maya cylinder vases, later reproduced in fired clay (Bruhns 1994). The segmentation of bamboo also characterizes the depiction of atlatl or spear-throwers at the beginnings of the Late Classic period (Figure 6). Bamboo would have been grown, selected for desired width, and cut to suitable length.



Figure 6. Possible use of bamboo atlatl or spear-throwers (K2036, Photograph by Justin Kerr, © Justin Kerr). 

Other thoughts intrude: were the external holes in walls at Tikal simply for ventilation, or did some serve as footings for bamboo scaffolds? The relentless assault on plaster in the tropics, with the logical need for future repair, might explain these features (Figure 6, upper left; see also Coe 1990:figs. 209, 321; also, Penn Tikal Archive, #C63-004-0021, for close-up views of Temple I and its comparable holes). That is, provision was made for continued refurbishment or washes of lime-plaster. The complete decay of some vault-struts, now seen only as holes, many round, raise the possibility that at least some of them were of bamboo. Moreover, at Piedras Negras, Guatemala, Houston and his team found bushels of bajareque, mud placed on wattle that had baked into near-ceramics by random (or set) fires in buildings. The bajareque often preserves evidence of cylindrical wattle, perhaps also of readily harvested bamboo (unfortunately, few sections are long enough to detect its distinct segmentation); a similar find, wit. Such remains were found with wattle-and-daub at Cerén, El Salvador (Lentz and Ramírez-Soza 2002:34). And if deforestation were at all relevant, as appears to be true in many places, bamboo, with its rapid in growth and varied use, might even have been cultivated.



Figure 7. Upper left, back of Structure 5D-23, 1st-B, rear elevation, holes highlighted in red (Coe 1990:fig. 129), and, lower right, bajareque, Operation PN11A-3-4 (photograph by Stephen Houston).


A chart of biosilicates extracted from the main aguada or reservoir in El Zotz, Guatemala, reveals a possible signature of this cultivation: the abundance, in the Late Classic period, of “native grasses,” which may represent the residue of bamboo (Figure 8; Beach et al. 2015:272). Bamboo has been found in late tombs in Río Bec, Mexico (Dussol et al. 2016:67), as well as in Chinikiha, also in Mexico (Trabanino and Núñez 2014: 156), but it seems also that the “great anatomic homogeneity of the monocotyledons [a flowering plant category to which bamboo belongs], as well as the lack of an anatomic reference collection specific to neotropical bamboos,” complicates their precise detection (Dusoll et al. 2016:67, for quotation, 63). Further, as archaeological residue, bamboos are fragile, preserve poorly, and “rapid combustion [of them] generally does not produce charcoal remains” (Dusoll et al. 2016:66). Another specialist underscores the problems of identification: “Poaceae pollen [in the taxonomic family that contains bamboo] is very plain in appearance via light microscopy, and the palynologist must always be careful not to confuse maize pollen with the similar-looking pollen of other grasses, aquatic grasses, or bamboos” (Morse 2009:177, citing Horn 2006:368). For his part, Kazuo Aoyama (personal communication, 2017), the most expert practitioner of microwear analysis in the Maya region, has actually tested bamboo and found it indistinguishable from other woods and pithy material in its effect on lithics (Aoyama 1989:202; Aoyama 1995:131; 1996:Tables 3.13. 3.14). Its “signature” appears to be ambiguous.

Perhaps, as has been suggested for pine, such plants were more commonly used than supposed, to be grown, moved, and traded as valued resources (Lentz et al. 2005). Its working, if discernible as to family or genus, may yet appear as residue on Maya stone tools (Andrew Scherer, personal communication, 2017). Or, like bamboo in many places, the plants grew to copious extent but became less salient in Maya lives as the forests (and other vegetal materials) recovered, populations declined, and need dropped. Of sufficient importance to appear in Classic art, and in dynastic and godly shrines, bamboo had receded in cultural and practical importance: it had become the stuff of shamans’ staffs yet sidelined from widespread use.



Figure 8. Diagram of biosilicates, including possible bamboo pollen from El Zotz, Guatemala (Beach et al. 2015:Fig. 12.5).


Acknowledgements  This essay benefitted greatly from discussions with David Stuart, who drew our attention to the Boot citation. Our good colleague, Jeffrey Moser, helped with sources on Chinese painting, Kazuo Aoyama commented on bamboo and microwear, Barbara Arroyo provided a key source, and Andrew Scherer offered comments on plant use in Peten, Guatemala.



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