Snake on a Stick

by Stephen Houston

Two things I want to unsee: an eyelash viper (Bothriechis schlegelii) coiled at face level in a low tree (Figure 1); and a “Barba Amarilla” (Bothrops atrox), an aggressive viper, slithering with shocking speed into the upper reaches of a hut (click Snake in rafter for an Amazonian parallel, ending in foul language). The forest poses many dangers, but climbing, venomous snakes induce an unease most of us would rather not feel. Sometimes it is better to forget these experiences.    

Figure 1 Eyelash viper, Cahuita, Costa Rica (photograph by Pavel Kirillov, Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0).

Not surprisingly, the Classic Maya noticed such reptiles and their alarming behavior. Indeed, there is a glyph that shows a snake looping around a horizontal bar, which, in one image (Figure 2, K3844), clearly bears a TE’ or “wood” marking: the bar is a stick, branch or beam. Another feature is that most such spellings begin with a color, “red” (chak, K3844), or “green-blue” (yax, K2752, and an unprovenanced “turtle shell” of jade, doubtless a miniature imitation of a percussive instrument; note the yu-k’e-*se, “noisemaker,” tag [see Zender 2010: 84]; cf. Dumbarton Oaks Flanged Pectoral:B4 [Fields and Tokovinine 2012: 159]). The reading is a little less clear, but, to judge from its spelling—usually by itself, once with ke, an evident syllabic reinforcement—the glyph recorded a word ending in -k.

Figure 2. Snake on a stick sign, with color designations, final example outlined in yellow (“K” photos used by permission of Justin Kerr, © Kerr Associates).

Most such spellings occur in the following sequence: a color (the attribute just mentioned) + “snake on a stick” + a mammal, ranid, even a dove? (K2572, spelling u-ku-na, like ukum?, “paloma” in Yukateko [Barrera Vásquez et al. 1980: 898–899]; for a word sign lacking a color, see K3007). The examples in Figure 3 are assembled with an argument in mind, that “snake on a stick” is not just a word sign ending in -k; it alternates with syllabic le-ke and thus carries a value of LEK. The ke on K3844 suggests this is more than a speculative proposal (note, however, that the examples in K5451 and 5722 are unlikely to cue the same historical figure). If the argument has merit, a sculptor’s name in Figure 3 would add another color, k’an, “yellow.”

Figure 3. Possible substitutions between the word sign, “snake on a stick,” and syllabic le-ke (“K” photos used by permission of Justin Kerr, © Kerr Associates; to right is a sculptor’s signature, pencil drawing by David Stuart from a looted, confiscated piece now in the Pomona Bodega, Tabasco, Mexico.)

The relevant glosses divide into two sets.

Cluster of terms for “good” and its congeners

Western Mayan  *lek “bueno” (Kaufman 2003: 203)

Ch’ol  lek, adj. “good,” “bueno” (Hopkins et al. 2011: 127)

Tzendal  lec(lek), “poseer”; lec(lek), “Hermosa cosa,” “digno” (Ara 1986: 319–320).

Tzotzil  lek, “elegant, gallantly, genteel, graceful, handsome, polished” (Laughlin 1988, I:243); lek, “good” (Laughlin 1975: 208)

Cluster of terms for “hanging over, suspended”

Ch’olti’  lechbun, “hang it, suspend it” (Robertson et al. 2010: 306)

Ch’orti’  lekb’u, transitive positional, “hang, suspend” (Hull 2016: 252); lekwan, positional, “hang over” (Hull 2016: 253)

Pokomam  lekli, participle of leka, “cosa, que esa colgada, como paño” (Feldman 2000: 231)

The first provides a more direct meaning that may attach to animals (“good,” “elegant,” “worthy”). In fact, in the 1990s, David Stuart suggested to me that the syllabic spelling of le-ke might correspond to “good” (see also Houston et al. 2009: 22, fig. 2.4; my thanks to Alexandre Tokovinine for reminding me of this citation). The second recruits a homophone suitable for graphing (“hanging over, suspended”). The terms for “hang,” “hang over” or “suspend” relate plausibly to the unnerving behavior of snakes up in trees or the roof beams of thatched homes. A final entry from a dictionary source ties lek to an actual, transverse house beam: Yukateko lekeb, “viga…el tercer poste transversal, el de más abajo que une a las tijeras” (Barrera Vásquez et al. 1980: 444). Of course, Mayan speakers often refer to a roof beam in traditional houses as the “road of the rat” (Wauchope 1938: Tables 4, 7, 9, 14). In houses, snakes ascend for a reason, to go after meals.

Yet the entry in Ch’olti’ (lechbun), along with the instability and relatively late date of the k/ch transition in Ch’olan languages (Law et al. 2014), raises another possibility. Perhaps lech was the relevant term in modern languages. In Ch’orti’, that word associates with open, snarling mouths (Hull 2016: 251), a nuance that links logically to roaring jaguars and croaking ranids. The toad or frog in K3844 (Figure 3)—or is it a turtle?—gapes noticeably.

As with most proposals for decipherment, the suggestion is now in place, awaiting further tests…and the need to forget about real snakes on sticks.


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

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

Feldman, Laurence. 2000. Pokom Maya and Their Colonial Dictionaries. Report submitted to the Foundation for Mesoamerican Research, Inc.

Fields, Virginia M., and Alexandre Tokovinine. 2012. Winged Plaque. In Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks, edited by Joanne Pillsbury, Miriam Doutriaux, Reiko Ishihara-Brito, and Alexandre Tokovinine, 154–159. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Number 4. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Hopkins, Nicholas A., J. Kathryn Josserand, and Ausencio Cruz Guzmán. 2010. A Historical Dictionary of Chol (Mayan): The Lexical Sources from 1789 to 1935. Tallahassee: Jaguar Tours.

Houston, Stephen, Claudia Brittenham, Cassandra Mesick, Alexandre Tokovinine, and Christina Warriner. 2009. Veiled Brightness: A History of Ancient Maya Color. Austin: University of Texas Press.

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

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

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

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

Law, Danny, John Robertson, Stephen Houston, Marc Zender, and David Stuart. 2014. Areal Shifts in Classic Mayan Phonology. Ancient Mesoamerica 25(2): 357–366.

Maffi, Luisa. 2002. A Tzeltal Maya Dictionary. Report submitted to the Foundation for Mesoamerican Research, Inc.

Robertson, John S., Danny Law, and Robbie A. Haertel. 2010. Colonial Ch’olti’: The Seventeenth-Century Morán Manuscript. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Wauchope, Robert. 1938. Modern Maya Houses: A Study of Their Archaeological Significance. Publication 502. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Zender, Marc. 2010. The Music of Shells. In Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea, Daniel Finamore and Stephen D. Houston, 83–85. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Watery War

by Stephen Houston

For Héctor Escobedo Ayala, my friend of decades  

Violence and water do not mix. Weighted down by armor, the Emperor Frederick I drowned in the Göksu river on his way to the Holy Land. A similar drama enfolded the American G.I.s landing on Omaha Beach. Dodging bullets, the soldiers sank, choking, under heavy packs. “[F]loating in the water… they didn’t know they were in the water, for they were dead” (Pyle 1986:280).

Rimmed by seas, living along rivers and streams, the Classic Maya must have fought in this way. Yet the evidence is surprisingly thin and late. There is a gold disk from the Cenote of Sacrifice at Chichen Itza that shows warriors on canoes, others on plank-like craft, a naked figure floating belly-down between them (Lothrop 1952: 51, fig. 35; see also the linked port of Isla Cerritos, Yucatan, an island endowed with a seawall, Andrews et al. 1988; Clark 2015: fig. 3.4). Murals from the Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itza supplement that scene with an array of canoes—the warriors’ shields just visible in surviving paint—and a single, light-haired figure floating in water: his legs splay out as intestinal gases bloat the body (Figure 1). The jade beads in the hair recall an earlier image, from the early eighth-century AD, of a captive incised on a bone found in Burial 116 at Tikal. That figure is at once humiliated and beautified (Moholy-Nagy 2008: fig. 200a, c). By common Maya convention, he anticipates his defeat by appearing, dressed for failure, in sacrificial garb.


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Figure 1. Floating captives and war canoes (renderings by Jean Charlot; Morris et al. 1931: pls. 145 [left], 147 [right]). 


In the murals, the captives’ hair is blond. This may be less from Viking blood—an actual suggestion by fantasists (Vikings at Chichen)—than because it has been bleached for the Sun God, a figure with the same color of hair (Ishihara-Brito and Taube 2012:466). Perhaps the captives were intended for his eventual consumption or they came from the east, a direction associated with the deity; or, to make a final stab at an insoluble puzzle, their hair signaled some unknown ethnic distinction. In paintings at Chichen Itza, bodies and canoes alternate with a rich, ethno-classification of sea life, including turtles, mollusks, crustaceans, and fish, one stingray extending its barbed spine (Finamore and Houston 2010: pl. 69).

In the so-called “Codex-style” images on Classic ceramics, there are images of the maize god in surging, unsettled water up to his chest (K1333, 1338, 1343, 1346, 1365, 1366, 1395, 1489, 1562, 2011, 2096, 3428, 4117, 5002, 8201; also Robicsek and Hales 1981: 70–74). He is met by mythic warriors and, to his back, figures holding the tokens of royal tribute. These remain an enigma, relatable, presumably, to some agricultural trope or even the seasonal timing of war. Yet, in the Maya region generally, with local variations, rainy seasons do not correspond to an increased incidence of conflict in the historical record. Indeed, quite the opposite seems to be true, from glyphic evidence in the form of secure dates and practical considerations of movement and manpower (Simon Martin, personal communications, 2014, 2019, and in work soon to appear). The pots are also without provenance (for an exception, see García Barrios 2011: 85–86, fig. 11) and, with a few exceptions, retouched by restorers. Reliable examples (Robicsek and Hales 1981: Vessels 95, 98, 99) vary in their glyphic dates (1 Ik 15 Sak in one example [Vessel 98], 7 Ajaw 2 K’ayab in another [Vessel 95]). One names an assailant as the “great youth” (Chak Xib [Vessel 98]), and the event itself is described as a “chop-water” (CH’AK?-?-HA’ [Vessel 95]). Some ferocity, it seems, fell directly on the liquid. In a number of images, the warriors’ line of sight inclines to the water, not to other figures.

A vessel from northern Guatemala provides unexpected evidence. It also obeys Houston’s First Law of Epigraphy: “glyphs thought necessary for decisive interpretation shall be eroded or missing.” (Even less cheery than the Runologists’ “for every text there shall be 20 specialists with 21 different views.”) There are two images, both provided by the ever-generous Justin Kerr. One is in color, the other black and white. Blessedly, the latter is unretouched, heightening confidence in details (Figures 2 and 3).


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Figure 2. Watery conflict, in color, retouched surface (K8592, © Kerr Associates).


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Figure 3. Watery conflict, unretouched surface (K8592, © Kerr Associates).


The slightly corpulent or full bodies, figural dynamism, long eyelashes, and stylistic range of the mid- to late-eighth-century AD indicate a probable origin in the Ik’ kingdom of western Lake Peten Itza and areas just to the west (Just 2012: figs. 93–96, 141–144, pls. 6, 16, 17). A closer match, with a similar dark rim that contains asterisms, was excavated by Takeshi Inomata in Str. M7–35 at Aguateca, Guatemala (Inomata 1997: fig. 15). Equipped with named, courtly figures, that vessel must date to the final half or quarter of the eighth-century AD.

Despite the erosion—looters or low-end dealers tend to over-clean sherds—the scene is almost certainly historical. There is a Calendar Round (possibly 10 *Chuwen 14 ‘Color Month’), but that is less telling then the absence of any mythic figures. Instead, there are warriors with body paint and two captives with matted and disheveled hair. Two glyphic captions, each highlighted by an almost pink hue, tag figures in the scene. One identifies the warrior at the prow of a canoe, poised to strike with his atlatl: the crooked spur is fully evident (Figure 4; Simon Martin, personal communication, 2019). The tag may also refer to a second warrior in the water, just off the prow, but flaked paint makes this difficult to resolve.


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Figure 4. Atlatl with dart, close-up, unretouched surface (K8592, © Kerr Associates).


The other caption is more securely tethered. It applies to a captive who is up to his thighs in the lake, stream or river below the canoe (Figure 5). A warrior pins his arms back. Another, more important figure grasps his hair in the standard chuk, ‘seize, grab’, pose. Presumably, he was responsible for the capture. He may also have jabbed or pummeled the captive in the face, for blood spills out in copious flow. Enticed, a crocodile and a turtle with k’an sign swim close to this possible meal. (The k’an and size of the chelydrid suggest he is the daunting snapper turtle, a creature found by David Stuart in many royal names.) In the canoe, another captive cowers. Perhaps he has just been hoisted onboard. A bare-headed figure holds a spear in one hand and gestures with the other. Was this intended to still or reassure the captive? An unlikely outcome. Looking away, a standing warrior paddles the boat into position.


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Figure 5. A turtle paddles close to the captive’s blood, close-up, unretouched surface (K8592, © Kerr Associates).


The similarity is obvious to the battle scene in Room 2 of the mural building in Bonampak, Mexico. Asterisms perch above that dark tableau of violent conflict. There are body blows, trampled warriors, trumpets, and, at the end, a human harvest of captives (Miller and Brittenham 2013: 105–106); in Room 2, the darkened solar disks above may correspond to eclipses, a dire omen. The night-time scene on the vessel from Aguateca—a jaunty figure smoking a cigarillo cues the time of day (Inomata 1997: fig. 15, right)—had star signs too. The eroded vase goes one better with a scorpion whose back carries a direct analogue to scorpion asterisms at Cacaxtla, Mexico, Copan, Honduras, and elsewhere (Brittenham 2015: 99–104, fig. 138; Fash 2011: 167). The flaming snouts hint at the passage of comets or meteors, a smoking asterism found in the skyband on Piedras Negras Stela 11 (David Stuart, personal communication, 1998; Stuart and Graham 2003: 57).


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Figure 6. Celestial scorpion with star sign on its body, close-up, unretouched surface (K8592, © Kerr Associates).


The text is illegible and its participants unknown. In all likelihood, the setting was some watery part of Peten, Guatemala, in the later eighth-century AD, and possibly within or near the Ik’ kingdom. But the overall image, an historical battle in and on water, is unique for the Classic Maya.

Karl Taube raises another possibility, that the captives were thrown into the water for sacrificial spearing (personal communication, 2019). They did not so much “sleep with the fishes,” in Mafia argot, as feed them. The captive in the boat cowers because he is next in line. This grim alternative has a certain plausibility given the presence of what may be sacrificial pools in some royal courts (Barrientos Quezada 2014: 604–619). At Cancuen, Guatemala, one such basin, with a step-in and stairways to facilitate use, contained at least 38 bodies; another, to the north of the site, had at least 15 (Barrientos Quezada 2014: 616, 619). Most bones exhibited trauma by unspecified “sharp instruments” (Barrientos Quezada 2014: 617). The excavators have interpreted this as a massacre, but a sacrificial pool, fed by springs—and perhaps equipped with ravenous creatures—adds a vivid if unpleasant ritual to Classic Maya practice. Blood spreads quickly in water, and, in links to agricultural or seasonal rituals, similar trauma may have awaited captives in flooded ballcourts or other sacred receptacles fed by natural springs (Taube 2018: 266, 282, 298). I have personally seen small crocodiles in small, temporary ruts in jungle roads, well away from lakes or streams. How on earth did they get there? Where did they come from? It would not take much for crocodiles and snappers to crawl to an inviting pool.

For the moment, perhaps, the chuk gesture on the pot, as well as the canoe and precise date, suggests a more martial interpretation—that this is a specific, datable conflict on water. But there is simply not enough text to confirm this. Yet I do think of a feature that has puzzled many Mayanists. This is a mid-river structure near Yaxchilan, built on bedrock out of carefully laid masonry and lying some meters from the western banks of the Usumacinta River (Figure 7). Roughly triangular in form, the “point” of the pier carves into the flow of water, deflecting debris and giving solidity to the whole. One theory is that the feature supported an immense suspension bridge (O’Kon 2005). I doubt this completely. The opposite bank, in Guatemala, has no such support. A visit in low water indicates that the pier, the probable base of a small platform, was more about monitoring traffic (for taxation?) and throwing atlatl darts at unwelcome visitors. In low water, spears and darts from Yaxchilan would fall short of the opposite bank. With the pier in place, a small citadel mid-stream, the weapons would hit with force. Watery war lay within reach.



Figure 7.  Likely fortification, low-water, looking southeast, Usumacinta River, Yaxchilan, with Dr. Héctor Escobedo as scale (photograph by Stephen Houston, 1995). 



Acknowledgements Justin Kerr kindly sleuthed his files for a rollout, and, as always, past and present, Simon Martin, David Stuart, Karl Taube provided useful comments. Figure 7 shows how good and patient a friend Héctor has been, including our years of adventure and mis-adventure on the Usumacinta. The martial theme is equally consistent with his distinguished family. I dedicate this essay to him.



Andrews, Anthony P., Tomás Gallareta Negrón, Fernando Robles Castellanos, Rafael Cobos Palma, and Pura Cervera Rivero. 1988. Isla Cerritos: An Itzá Trading Port on the North Coast of Yucatán, Mexico. National Geographic Research Spring 1988: 196–207.

Brittenham, Claudia. 2015. The Murals of Cacaxtla: The Power of Painting in Ancient Central Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Clark, Dylan J. 2016. The Residential Spaces, Social Organization and Dynamics of Isla Cerritos, an Ancient Maya Port Community. Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University.

Fash, Barbara W. 2011. The Copan Sculpture Museum: Ancient Maya Artistry in Stucco and Stone. Cambridge, MA: David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, Harvard University.

Finamore, Daniel, and Stephen Houston. 2010. Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea. New Haven: Yale University Press.

García Barrios, Ana. 2011. Análisis iconográfico preliminar de fragmentos de las vasijas estilo códice procedentes de Calakmul. Estudios de Cultura Maya 37: 65–95.

Inomata, Takeshi. 1997. The Last Day of a Fortified Classic Maya Center: Archaeological Investigations at Aguateca, Guatemala. Ancient Mesoamerica 8: 337–351.

Ishihara-Brito, Reiko, and Karl A. Taube. 2012. Mosaic Mask. In Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks, edited by Joanne Pillsbury, Miriam Doutriaux, and Reiko Ishihara-Brito, and Alexandre Tokovinine, 464–474. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Number 4. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Just, Bryan. 2012. Dancing Into Dreams: Maya Vase Painting of the Ik’ Kingdom. Princeton: Princeton University Art Museum.

Lothrop, Samuel K. 1952. Metals from the Cenote of Sacrifice, Chichen Itza, Yucatan. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology 10(2). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

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.

Moholy-Nagy, Hattula. 2008. Tikal Report No. 27, Part A: The Artifacts of Tikal: Ornamental and Ceremonial Artifacts and Unworked Material. University Museum Monograph 127. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Morris, Earl, Jean Charlot, and Anne A. Morris. 1932. The Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itza, Yucatan. Publication 406. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington.

O’Kon, James A. 2005. Computer Modeling of the Seventh Century Maya Suspension Bridge at Yaxchilan. International Conference on Computing in Civil Engineering 2005, July 12–15, 2005, Cancun, Mexico.

Pyle, Ernie. 1986. Ernie’s War: The Best of Ernie Pyle’s World War II Dispatches, ed. David Nichols. New York: Simon and Schuster. 

Robicsek, Francis, and Donald M. Hales. 1981. The Maya Book of the Dead, The Ceramic Codex: The Corpus of Codex Style Ceramics of the Late Classic Period. Charlottesville, Virginia: University of Virginia Art Museum.

Stuart, David, and Ian Graham. 2003. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 9, Part 1: Piedras Negras. Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.

Taube, Karl. 2017. The Ballgame, Boxing, and Ritual Blood Sport in Ancient Mesoamerica. In Ritual, Play and Belief in Evolution and Early Human Societies, edited by Colin Renfrew, Iain Morley, and Michael Boyd, 264–301. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

A “Lost City” in the Heartland

by Stephen Houston (Brown University)

For Andrew Craig Houston and Sarah Newman on their birthdays

A “lost city” evokes mystery and romance. Desirable traits include a remote location, preferably in jungle or underwater, a longstanding, rumored existence that is rich in legend, a sensational name, perhaps some lurid hint of treasure. What specialist does not cringe at “Lost City of the Monkey God,” “Z” or Paititi? (For samples of sane writing, see Grann 2010; Preston 2017.) The Maya lidar revolution, which exposes entire landscapes to view, will eventually “find” all that is now “lost” (Chase et al. 2011; Chase et al. 2014). There can be no legendary cities if lidar manages to detail each bump a meter or more in height. But a visible landscape is not the same as an interpreted one. Communities carried names and history, which can only be retrieved from glyphic evidence.

One of the objectives of Maya epigraphy is a small maneuver with great impact: lifting a city or dynasty from the “lost” category and lodging it among the “found.” Glyphic texts sometimes refer to people or places not otherwise linked to known locations. Growing knowledge tends to depopulate that category, of which several examples come to mind: a trove of unprovenanced sculptures now tied securely to La Corona, Guatemala (Stuart 2001b; see also Canuto and Barrientos 2013); and a group of carvings from El Reinado, hitherto attested on a text at Yaxchilan, lying halfway between that city and the old logging town and chicle station of La Libertad, Guatemala (Stuart 2012). There is also a smattering of cities in southeastern Campeche, all gradually being assigned to this or that ruin (Grube 2004, 2005).

Quite literally, these places lie off the beaten path, with the result that specialists need to use ingenious methods of detection to find them. Think of Sak Tz’i’, “White Dog,” which played a strong historical role in the Usumacinta drainage in Mexico and adjacent Guatemala (Bíro 2005; Martin and Grube 2008:126, 137). “Gravity” models and other techniques of geographical science have been able to estimate its likely location from mention at known sites (Anaya Hernández et al. 2003; Bíro 2005). Yet the mot juste is “estimate.” Proof must await a text in situ, glyphs that record sak tz’i’ as part of a local royal title. Plausible arguments can identify one candidate, Plan de Ayutla, Chiapas (Martos López 2009:73–74). But, to be solved, a glyphic puzzle needs glyphic evidence. In the case of Sak Tz’i’, that is soon to come (Charles Golden and Andrew Scherer, personal communication, 2014).

A second challenge is the potential slippage between place names and royal emblems—i.e., those endowed with ajaw, “lord,” epithets, often prefixed by k’uhul, “sacred.” The Ik’ emblem, for example, almost surely relates to sites in and around the eastern portion of Lake Peten Itza in Guatemala. It does not, as previously believed, simply refer to its assumed location of Motul de San José, a substantial site northwest of the lake. In 2004, I noted the presence of its main title on Stela 1 from Tayasal/Flores, an observation made independently by others (Tokovinine and Zender 2012:fig. 2.8). Dominion or sovereignty may not only cover a single city, no matter how large or impressive. It may also apply to settlements nearby.

In the early 1990s, I began to notice, and to file away, glyphic citations of what appeared to be an unknown city in the vicinity (and, as we shall see, probably to the south) of the sprawling dynastic capital of Tikal, Guatemala. Two references occur at Tikal itself. One is in a graffito from Room 1, east wall, of Structure 5C-49-5, the second largest in this sector and a building that looks south towards the patio in front of the Mundo Perdido complex (Fig. 1, Trik and Kampen 1983:fig. 29c; see also Laporte and Fialko 1995:80–81, fig. 38, 54). According to excavations, the final phase of this structure dated to the late 600s, but caches or interments within it trended somewhat later, to the 700s (Laporte and Fialko 1995:81). Graffiti are notoriously glyph-deficient, but this is a legible exception. The text falls into single columns, an unusual arrangement suggesting some codical model or perhaps an archaizing touch (Houston 2004:286–287); this disposition is also found in caves like Naj Tunich, Guatemala (e.g., Stone 1995:figs. 7–3, 7–6 to 7–11).


Figure 1.jpg

Figure 1. Graffito, Tikal Structure 5C–49 (Trik and Kampen 1983:fig. 29c).


One passage—specialists need to revisit the original—contains a glyphic date. The month number is evidently one more than it should be (see MacLeod and Stone 1995:Table 2, for other instances at Naj Tunich). A plausible correction indicates one of three possibilities by the Martin-Skidmore correlation of Maya and European calendars: 6 K’an *7 Pax, Dec. 22, 697;  6 K’an *7 Pax, Dec. 10, AD 749; or 6 K’an *7 Pax, Nov. 27, AD 801. The closeness of the first to the winter solstice, the shortest date of the year (those thereafter getting steadily longer), gives some reassurance of its relevance. But I have qualms about the accuracy of the published drawing. The reality is that all dates work equally well, assuming, indeed, that 6 K’an *7 Pax does not allude to a more distant past.

As for the event, it is clearly a change-of-state verb, almost certainly lok’oyi, “leave” (Alfonso Lacadena, personal communication, 1998) or even, in dynastic contexts, the more allusive “go into exile,” a usage well-attested on Dos Pilas Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 (Guenter 2002). What follows appears to be ju-t’u?-AJAW, Jut’ Ajaw (Fig. 2). The ju has been understood for some time (Grube 2004:65–66, 72), and the t’u is one of my proposals based on a spelling for “rabbit,” t’u-lu, on a pot in an Australian private collection. That idea was buttressed by David Stuart’s suggested spelling of bu-t’u, “fill,” on the Palace Tablet at Palenque. This passage and its transitive verb (u-bu-tu’-wa) may report on the non-vascular embalming (“filling”) of Kan Bahlam of the city, perhaps on his day of death. The tropics would demand a rapid response to a decaying body, ranging from evisceration to packing the abdominal cavity with herbs. In Medieval Europe, where such elite practices are documented, evisceration was followed by wadding and stuffing with moistened cotton and powders of crushed aloe, rosemary, wormwood, myrrh, and marjoran (Brenner 2014; see also Weiss-Krejci 2005). Allspice (Pimenta dioica) might have served this purpose at sites like Río Azul, Guatemala (Scherer 2015:88). But what of ju-t’u itself? It matches no modern place name in the area, and the form of the word, with final, glottalized t’, is uncommon in Mayan languages. Yukateko employs hut’ to mean “narrow,” plausibly some feature of landscape (Barrera Vásquez et al. 1980:259), but I have little confidence it applies here.



Figure 2. Spellings with the t’u syllable: (a) ju-t’u?-AJAW, Tikal graffito, Str. 5C-49, Room 1, East wall (Trik and Kampen 1982:fig. 29); (b) t’u-lu, polychrome vessel, private collection, Australia (photographer unknown); and (c) u-bu-t’u-wa  (photograph by Mark Van Stone, Mesoweb link).

From the very same building comes another version of the title, but here with prefixed title and personal names. This is on an incised vase, first shown to me by Juan Pedro Laporte in 1990 and found with an adult male in a partly looted tomb from the final phase of Str. 5C-49 (Fig. 3, at top; Laporte and Fialko 1995:81, 81 fn58, fig. 68). The owner of this vessel carries the “wise one” epithet (‘itz’aat) decoded long ago by David Stuart, along with a personal name consisting of yuklaj, a positional verb for “it is shaking” (Stuart 2001a), and ch’a-ka-ta, a word rather more difficult to parse. Perhaps it transcribes some nominalization of an aggressive act of “cutting” or “chopping” (Orejel 1990), including, if I may speculate, a vowel-harmonic –V[V]t that occurs with terms like ebeet, “messenger” or “servant” (Houston 2018:104–105, for discussion of the so-called “headband bird” as a logographic version of this spelling). The incised vase, which dates by style to the eighth-century AD, reveals that this figure was in middle age. His “k’atun” notation shows him to be 40 to 60 years old.


Slide2.jpg Figure 3. Comparison of names at Tikal and Naj Tunich, Guatemala: at top, Tikal PNTA-215, ‘i-tz’a-ti yu-ku-[la]ja ch’a-ka-ta ju-t’u-AJAW (photographs by Marc Zender); and, below, Drawing 88, yu-ku-la-ja ch’a-ka-ta ju-t’u (Stone 1995:fig. 8-88c).  


Precisely the same name, with the same title, embellishes a wall in the upper-level maze passage of the Naj Tunich cave (Fig. 3, below, Stone 1995:230, fig. 8-88c; MacLeod and Stone 1995:fig. 7-3). The “imix”-like t’u sign and its “stone” infix are clearer \than at Tikal. The text at Naj Tunich is even more informative because it forms part of a cluster of texts that, despite the angled, awkward arrangement, displays a certain cohesion of style and continuity of phrasing (Fig. 4; the painter seems to have struggled with the broken, uneven surface). A multitude of people are mentioned, each cued by the yi-ta-ji expression that indicates proximity or close participation. Several have unusual names (ni-chi-?-K’AHK’, “Flower-Fire,” tz’a-ya-ja-K’AHK’, “Watered? [doused?] Fire,” k’u-k’u i-chi-?, “Quetzal Owl?), and one of them (Tz’ayaj K’ahk’) came from the large city of Caracol, Belize (K’AN-tu-ma-ki), about 58 km north of the cave (for the tz’a-ya as a fire expression, see also Caracol Stela 22:A12 [Grube 1994:fig. 9.30]). If these passages do form a single, continuous text, then the date is likely to have been counted back from a future event (‘i-ko-jo-yi) at 8 Ajaw 8 Uo, March 19, AD 692, a few years before the possible assignment for the graffito at Tikal (for another ko-jo-yi, if with a ju-JUL-pi [Sacul?] lord, see Drawing 49; MacLeod and Stone 1995:fig. 7-25; also Carter 2016:239). A distance number (3 winal, 13 heew), segues backwards to a likely 13 Manik’ 0 K’ayab, Jan. 6, AD 692 (MacLeod and Stone 1995:table 3). This date in turn is only a little over a month after a Calendar Round on Tikal Altar 5, (Jones and Satterthwaite 1982:37–38, fig. 23, table 5).



Figure 4. Drawing 88, Naj Tunich, Guatemala (Photograph by Chip and Jennifer Clark, Stone 1995:fig. 8-88). 


The name at Naj Tunich is preceded by an u-tz’i-ba, “his painting,” an indication of authorship (MacLeod and Stone 1995:176; Houston 2016:396–397, fig. 13.3). Is the painter, ni-chi-?-K’AHK’, the same as Yuklaj Ch’akat, the lord of ju-t’u? Or is there an opaque expression in between, thus recording two names? The expression resembles a statement of patronage (ya-na-bi-IL) between sculptors and their masters, but that cannot be shown decisively (Houston 2016:fig. 13.6). My suspicion is that there are two names, not one.

What is clear is that ju-t’u lords make an appearance in the middle years of the Late Classic period. The title may belong to a class of emblems clumsily designated (by me) as “Problematic Emblem Glyphs” (Houston 1986): sites with curious names and aberrant titles, but clearly royal and sovereign. In some cases they are linked to important cities. This zone has many small kingdoms but a limited epigraphic record of fairly late date (Carter 2016). With luck, ju-t’u may someday be identified on a stray monument from a mapped but unstoried ruin—not, as the fairy tale goes, “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” but south of Tikal and north of Naj Tunich.



Anaya Hernández, Armando, Stanley P. Guenter, and Marc U. Zender. 2003. Sak Tz’i’, A Classic Maya Center: A Locational Model Based on GIS and Epigraphy. Latin American Antiquity 14(2):179–191.

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Carter, Nicholas P. 2016. These Are Our Mountains Now: Statecraft and the Foundation of a Late Classic Maya Royal Court. Ancient Mesoamerica 27(2):233–253.

Chase, Arlen F., Diane Z. Chase, Jaime J. Awe, John F. Weishampel, Gyles Iannone, Holley Moyes, Jason Yaeger, M. Kathryn Brown, Ramesh L. Shrestha, William E. Carter, and Juan Fernandez Diaz. 2014. Ancient Maya Regional Settlement and Inter-Site Analysis: The 2013 West-Central Belize LiDAR Survey. Remote Sensing 6(9):8671–8695.

Chase, Arlen F., Diane Z. Chase, John F. Weishampel, Jason B. Drake, Ramesh L. Shrestha, K. Clint Slatton, Jaime J. Awe, and William E. Carter. 2011. Airborne LiDAR, Archaeology, and the Ancient Maya Landscape at Caracol, Belize. Journal of Archaeological Science 38:387–398.

Grann, David. 2010. The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon. Vintage, New York.

Grube, Nikolai. 1994. Epigraphic Research at Caracol, Belize. In Studies in the Archaeology of Caracol, Belize, edited by Diane Z. Chase and Arlen F. Chase, 83–122. Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute Monograph 7. Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute, San Francisco.

—. 2004. Cuidades perdidas mayas. Arqueología Maya 12(67):32–37.

—. 2005. Toponyms, Emblem Glyphs, and the Political Geography of Southern Campeche. Anthropological Notebooks 11:89–102.

Guenter, Stanley P. 2002. The Inscriptions of Dos Pilas Associated with B’ajlaj Chan K’awiil. MesowebDos Pilas

Houston, Stephen D. 1986. Problematic Emblem Glyphs: Examples from Altar de Sacrificios, El Chorro, Río Azul, and Xultun. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing 3. Center for Maya Research, Washington, DC.

—. 2004. Writing in Early Mesoamerica. In The First Writing: Script Invention as History and Process, edited by Stephen D. Houston, 274–309. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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

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

Jones, Christopher, and Linton Satterthwaite. 1982. Tikal Report No. 33, Part A: The Monuments and Inscriptions of Tikal: The Carved Monuments. University Museum Monograph 44. University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

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

Loten, H. Stanley. 2002. Tikal Report 23A: Miscellaneous Investigations in Central Tikal. University Museum Monograph 114. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia.

MacLeod, Barbara, and Andrea Stone. 1995. The Hieroglyphic Inscriptions of Naj Tunich. In Images from the Underworld: Naj Tunich and the Tradition of Maya Cave Painting, by Andrea Stone, 155–184. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2008. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. Second ed. Thames and Hudson, London.

Martos López, Luis Alberto. 2009. The Discovery of Plan de Ayutla, Mexico. In Maya Archaeology 1, edited by Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore, 60–75. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco. Plan de Ayutla

Orejel, Jorge. 1990. The “Axe/Comb” Glyph as Ch’ak. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing 31. Center for Maya Research, Washington, D.C.

Preston, Douglas. 2017. The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story. Grand Central Publishing, New York.

Scherer, Andrew K. 2015. Mortuary Landscapes of the Classic Maya: Rituals of Body and Soul. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Stone, Andrea. 1995. Images from the Underworld: Naj Tunich and the Tradition of Maya Cave Painting. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Stuart, David. 2001a. Earthquake! MesowebEarthquake! Stuart Notes.

—. 2001b. Las ruinas de La Corona, Petén, y la identificación del “Sitio Q.” Paper presented at the XV Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala, Guatemala City, Guatemala.

—. 2012. The Hieroglyphic Stairway at El Reinado, Guatemala. MesowebEl Reinado.

Tokovinine, Alexandre, and Marc Zender. 2012. Lords of Windy Water: The Royal Court of Motul de San José in Classic Maya Inscriptions. In Motul de San José: Politics, History, and Economy in a Classic Maya Polity, edited by Antonia E. Foias and Kitty F. Emery, 30–66. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Trik, Helen, and Michael E. Kampen. 1983. Tikal Report No. 31: The Graffiti of Tikal. University Museum Monograph 57. Univeristy Museum, Philadelphia.

Weiss-Krejci, Estella. 2005. Excarnation, Evisceration, and Exhumation in Medieval and Post-Medieval Europe. In Interacting with the Dead: Perspectives on Mortuary Archaeology for the New Millennium, edited by Gordon Rakita, Jane Buikstra, Lane Beck and Sloan Williams, 155–172. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.


If…Alabaster Could Talk

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colonial Tzotzil        <xixibton>     pebble                              Laughlin 1988:302

Modern Tzotzil          xixibton           river pebble                   Laughlin 1975:322


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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





What Writing Looks Like

by Stephen Houston (Brown University)

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

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



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


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

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


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



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


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



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


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



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


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



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


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



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


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



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

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



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


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



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


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


incised CLK.jpg

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


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



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


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



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

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



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


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



DO Chancala overlay.jpg

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


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

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


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

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

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


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



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