The Universe in a Maya Plate

by James Doyle, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Stephen Houston, Brown University

Expressing metaphors for a constantly shifting reality is a human universal, especially during the mid-8th century AD. At that time, in the center of the Yucatan peninsula, royal courts were on the cusp of political and demographic upheaval. Yet, in a signal irony—and perhaps as a cause?—they managed to sponsor innovative architectural and artistic programs. Consider the vase painters in and around Calakmul, Campeche, at c. AD 750.

The sheer volume of codex-style vessels, produced within a very few generations, suggest that ateliers were scaling up production for the struggling royal court and assertive sub-royals in sites nearby. Lack of archaeological context and legible texts impedes deeper understanding of the circumstances under which such paintings were produced (but see Delvendahl 2008:125-128; García Barrios 2011). A suggestive comparison, though, could be made with the proliferation of lintels and panels in the Usumacinta region within the Yaxchilan and Piedras Negras kingdoms: that is, art was distributed in exchange for loyalty and tribute when such had become, perhaps, more precarious (Martin and Grube 2008:135-137, 153).

Only slightly more than 20 painters are identified by name in the Classic period, far fewer than the ca. 120 sculptors who signed works in stone (Houston 2016; Houston, Stuart, and Fash 2014; Stuart 1987, 1989). Recent studies have traced the oeuvres of individual vase painters in specific temporal contexts (see Just 2012). Without scribal signatures, however, researchers are left to the detailed study of the “hands” of Classic Maya artists. This is an evaluation that rests on habitual, “unconscious” details, as pioneered by Giovanni Morelli, Bernard Berenson, and others for Renaissance masters such as Raphael, or by John Beazley for Classical Greek painters (See Beazley 1911, 1946; Berenson 1901, 1903; Morelli 1900; Wollheim 1974). Such work could be tedious to an extreme, and highly subjective. Morelli himself, founder of such studies, admitted that it required “long practice” and that each eye might see different patterns.

Certain Maya painting styles nevertheless lend themselves to identifying artists’ hands. The limited number of variables and limited palette within the corpus of codex-style painting facilitate that search. This opportunity was recognized by Justin and Barbara Kerr in the early years of their valuable and innovative documentation of Maya ceramics (Kerr and Kerr 1988). The Kerrs proposed the existence of several codex-style masters on the basis of details revealed through close study of brush flourishes or the execution of hands, feet, and other minutiae. We were recently invited by Mary Miller to honor Justin Kerr at a special session in the 2017 College Art Association meeting and decided to revisit this important contribution.

The presentation coincided with the publication of an article celebrating codex-style vessels in the recent Metropolitan Museum Journal, Creation Narratives on Ancient Maya Codex-Style Ceramics in the Metropolitan Museum, and a concurrent Maya codex-style installation at The Met. All depict the Classic Maya rain god, Chahk, in typical codex style. Red bands and black calligraphic line fill a cream or light beige background. Washes embellish figures, fluids, and the hieroglyphic texts that accompany them. In this genre, undulating shapes tend to dominate, along with a decided abhorrence of straight lines. Michael Coe called this “whiplash” calligraphy, endowed with lines that seem to curve and “snap” with vigorous energy (Coe 1973:91). New rollout photos, inspired by the Kerrs’ original work, include a hi-res image of the Metropolitan Vase and its visual narrative pertaining to the birth of a mythological infant jaguar deity. This vessel anchored one of the groups identified by the Kerrs, who identified a workshop controlled by a painter they dubbed the “Metropolitan Master.”

One codex-style masterwork not included in the Kerr’s original study was the unusually large tripod plate studied by Linda Schele and Mary Miller in their landmark exhibition, The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. Nicknamed the “Cosmic Plate” for its dense imagery, cosmogonic themes, and fineness of execution, it is a unique work, with few peers in terms of size, ambition, and care of painting (Figure 1, for a close competitor in quality, see, however, see Coe and Houston 2015:pl. XVIII). In producing a new line drawing of the plate’s great Chahk representation from Justin Kerr’s photos, Doyle quickly realized that advances in knowledge allowed for a fresh study of this masterpiece.

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Fig. 1  Tripod plate showing Chahk as the great progenitor, 7th–8th century AD. Guatemala or Mexico, Maya, Late Classic. Ceramic with red, cream, and black slip, Diam. approx. 16 1/2 in. (42 cm). Private collection, photo by Justin Kerr, ©Kerr Associates.

The monumental plate is an object made for display, likely at feasting occasions in the royal court (in fact, few known Maya plates are so large—one example, impressive in size yet smaller than the “Cosmic Plate,” is a 31 cm-diameter Hutzijan polychrome plate excavated in Structure C-10 at Piedras Negras, see Muñoz 2004:103). A plate like this one could have been a grand diplomatic gesture, a gift between Maya rulers. The codex style is clearly a hallmark of the royal courts and loyal local palaces around the great city of Calakmul, straddling the border between southern Campeche and northern Guatemala (see Hansen et al. 1991; Reents-Budet et al. 2010). In our view, two potential models might explain the circulation of codex-style vessels: (1) non-royal political leaders commissioned them; or, more likely, (2) the most exquisite and elaborate were bestowed by the rulers of Calakmul itself. Perhaps local lords received handsome presents in return for their loyalty, through low-cost rewards distributed by the center. After all, a painted pot reveals deep training, but its making demanded only negligible expense in materials, time, and fuel for firing. Recall the high value that scholars had long-assumed for certain Athenian ceramics. In a provocative argument, Michael Vickers and David Gill (1994) suggested that this was a latter-day projection, one inconsistent with an actual, ancient emphasis on vessels of precious metals.

On the Cosmic Plate, the outer walls of its sloping rim are boldly painted with watery motifs, visible from afar, that include swirls, registers of droplets, and waterlily vegetation (Figure 2). The delicate main scene on the upper surface, however, would only have been visible by those directly above the plate at close range. The potter and painter collaborated on a clever conceit. The three feet of the vessel imitate downpours, a vertical deluge of concentrated form—these occur routinely in the Yucatan peninsula. In this case, columns of rain appear to precipitate from the plate itself and the watery milieu on its exterior.

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Fig. 2. Detail of the outside of the tripod plate and supports. Private collection, photo by Justin Kerr, ©Kerr Associates.

Traits on the Chahk plate—including the form of certain common motifs, the singular aspects of its composition, and the virtuoso brushwork over the large surface—distinguish it from almost all other Maya ceramic paintings. Some have argued that three vessels in the Princeton University Art Museum come from the same hand, executed by the painter ?-n Buluch? Laj, and painted around AD 755 (Robiscek and Hales 1983:249; see Just 2012). Indeed, the portrayal of a jaguar on the largest of those vessels invites close comparison with the howling jaguar growing from Chahk’s head. But the hypothesis that ?-n Buluch? Laj also painted the great Chahk plate raises a number of questions about painterly practice.

Maya vase painters appear to have experimented with different styles. The Princeton vases were likely commissioned by a Peten Itza king in north-central Guatemala. Hypothetically, the Cosmic Plate either came from there or from Calakmul, although still influenced by exemplary works to the south. The renowned “Altar vase,” clearly from the Ik’ kingdom near Peten Itza, proves that such pots traveled far and wide (Just 2012:142-149). Another source of inspiration might have been circulating books or paintings. Imperial China is known to have had such exchange, and scrolls gained uniformity, often over vast areas, by their energetic dispersion, study, and copying (see Miller 1998:216-218).

Whether the plate is the lone known work of a master or not, its unrecorded artist certainly fused the mythic and the historical in microcosmic form. The mythic frame of the narrative describes the context of the sprouting Chahk in deep time and in linked primordial locations. The fictive date of 13 Ok 8 Zotz must be significant to wider Maya myths: that Calendar Round appears in the Dresden Codex, in reference to the planet Venus, a point recognized by David Stuart (Miller and Schele 1986:310-312, pl. 122). Three Venus signs as well as the frontal and rear parts of the body of the celestial “starry Deer Crocodile” appear on either side of the upper scene, signifying the sky as the upper part of the composition (Martin 2015; Velásquez García 2006:Fig. 5). A celestial bird carries what appears to be the month name, 4 Ceh.

On the 13 Ok 8 Zotz date, an event “happened” (utiiy). This form of the verb has been suggested by David Stuart (personal communication, 1992) to refer to actions in remote time. The ancient subject seems to be k’uhul jinaj ? or “sacred milpa/planted-maize water,” perhaps a reference to the sprouting of maize, as part of a phrase consistent with the overall theme of emerging vegetation (Figure 3).

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Fig. 3. Hieroglyphic text describing events in mythological time and the four god names.

The scribe went on to describe the mythological setting in triplet form: it “happened” (utiiy, this time in a more conventional, syllabic spelling) “at the black cenote, at the black water, at the five-flower house (?).” The agents at the event in deep time are probably described as the four gods of matawil (4 ma-ta-K’UH), which could be a reference to a watery paradise (Stuart and Stuart 2008: 211-215). The gods are named as a feline or jaguar (hi-HIX)—he appears here, roaring, head-back—we suspect (the text is eroded), the presence of two other gods in addition to the Chak-Xib-Chahk at the center (Stuart was the first to identify this version of Chahk—others are known in the Dresden Codex and at Itzan, among other places; the connection to “red,” Chak, may be purely coloristic or refer to a direction, East). The text accords with visual clues to that toponymy. The centipede’s jaws, in a reference to the black cenote, frame Chahk’s watery emergence from a heavy register marked with the same hieroglyph for black water. There might also be a specific seasonal aspect to the scene, found in the single glyph blocks that flank the jaguar. These are variants of Wind God and sun-related glyphs, similar to the two glyphs born by characters in the Lamb panel from “Laxtunich” (Schele 1990:2).

Chahk is the undisputed protagonist as he rises waist-deep from the “black water.” He takes the form of an active, dancing character, perhaps a releaser of vegetation, and is shown in other depictions poised to chop with his axe. He wears his characteristic Spondylus earspools and holds the lightning axe symbolic of K’awiil. The main image of the scene is the branching head and left arm of the rain deity, with many sprouting beings (Figure 4). These include the large serpent to the left, the jaguar mentioned above, and a large “jester god” in the upper right that is recognizable by its crossed-bands motif. Th text is eroded and its details uncertain, but some of these could correspond the four gods of matawil mentioned in the text, including Chahk himself. Moreover, to lower right, that god’s left hand sprouts a personified version of obsidian. The branching Chahk with the other gods of matawil cue, as Karl Taube has suggested to us, the fractal forms of eccentric flints or obsidians. The overall being is both “hard” and “soft” in its asserted texture, material, and surface.

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Fig. 4. Drawing of a detail of the plate by James Doyle.

The hieroglyphic text contains a disjuncture. The jump separates mythical events and deity protagonists from a likely historical frame of reference and a human owner (Figure 5). The damaged day sign probably carries the coefficient 12, and the Pohp month may be prefaced by a variant of the number 6, identified long ago at Palenque by David Stuart. Though pinning down the date is speculative, style and proximity to major period endings suggests the following possibilities:

9.12.19.16.18             12 Etz’nab     6 Pohp             Feb. 26           AD 692

9.14.19.8.13               12 Ben            6 Pohp              Feb. 17           AD 731

9.16.5.15.3                 12 Ak’bal       6 Pohp              Feb. 10           AD 757

9.16.19.0.8                12 Lamat        6 Pohp              Feb. 7            AD 770

We find the latter two dates more likely, given the available evidence for the temporal distribution of codex-style ceramics, and the possible connection to the Ik’ painters who were active in the 750s-780s. The misalignment and asymmetry in the two sets of glyph blocks underscore the textual split between ancient time and contemporary events.

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Fig. 5. Historical Text.

The action that follows the date is likely a variant of the verb for ceremonial “raising” of a jawte’, plate (not “death,” as posited by Schele). The execution of the dedication verb on the plate is coincidentally very similar to that on the vessel in the Princeton museum and another cup likely by the same painter from the Ik’ polity, the first dated to approximately AD 755 (9.16.3.13.14  4 Hix 12 Kumk’u). The name and title that follow almost certainly name an actual historic figure (la-ch’a-TUUN-ni si-k’u-AJAW), though this name does not seem to be attested elsewhere in the corpus of Maya writing.

The plate with the mythic scene thus belonged to a living, historical owner who carried the ajaw title. Presumably, maize tamales filled the plate during important meals. By another, clever conceit, the plate would have contained actual maize products atop a scene in which growth is shown at first emergence. The reference to the mythological creation of maize and the depiction of this watery Olympus of quadripartite gods of matawil is indeed cosmic, but with a terrestrial focus. See, for example, the three partially preserved figures between the black water band and the potential representation of the “five-flower house” below (Figure 6).

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Fig. 6. Detail of personified plants: (left) “root” figure, possibly manioc or sweet potato (note sign for “darkness,” a feature first discerned by Marc Zender); (center) dancing Maize God with elongated cranium and breath bead; (right) “tobacco” figure (note sign for “darkness” on body of figure, a possible reference to nocturnal conditions or even a plant disease such as black shank?).

Accompanying the leafy plants is another upside-down figure on the left projecting downward from the water register. The scribe depicted this figure’s headdress as something close to the wi syllable, identifiable as a pan-Lowland word for “raíz, root,” in languages such as Ch’ol, Chontal, and Ch’orti’ (Kaufman and Norman 1984:126). This could refer to a type of indigenous root crop, such as sweet potato or manioc, the latter extensively documented as a staple in places like Joya de Cerén, El Salvador (Sheets et al. 2012). If so, this character may constitute a unique depiction of root crops in Maya art. Much like the vegetation around Pakal’s sarcophagus, these beings correspond to plants of economic import to the Maya, and to key elements of consumption.

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Fig. 7. Comparison of wi syllable from Chahk plate and Palenque’s Tablet of the 96 Glyphs.

The deeper meaning of the plate thus comes into crisp focus. The object would have existed in two time frames, offering both real food and mythic food stuffs. In deep time, lightning and rain came together under the auspices of Venus and stars, at a location in or near the black cenote/black water place, calling together a dream-team of four deities. Chahk, as the central figure from which the other gods are sprouting, wields his axe to strike and release primordial vegetation: root crops, maize, and tobacco, in the form of godly figures. Fast forwarding to the 8th century, one can imagine a recitation by someone seated next to the plate. At a sumptuous feast, he or she would read the image and text and recount distant (yet close!) mythological events. The owner perhaps entreated the very deities pictured within, in earnest hopes for bountiful crops and plentiful rains in a time of impending social upheaval.

Acknowledgments

This post is dedicated to Justin Kerr, who built a life with his wife Barbara devoted to the study and preservation of Maya artworks. Mary Miller kindly invited us to the CAA meeting, where we had fruitful conversations with her, Claudia Brittenham, Bryan Just, Megan O’Neil, and Justin himself. Simon Martin and David Stuart also provided useful and timely comment.

References

Beazley, John D. 1911. The Master of the Berlin Amphora. Journal of Hellenic Studies 31: 276–295.

— 1946. Potter and Painter in Ancient Athens. London, Cumberlege.

Berenson, Bernard. 1901. The Study and Criticism of Italian Art. London, Bell and Sons.

— 1903. The Drawings of the Florentine Painters Classified, Criticised and Studied as Documents in the History and Appreciation of Tuscan Art, with a Copious Catalogue Raisonné, 2 vols., London, J. Murray.

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

Coe, Michael D., and Stephen Houston. 2015. The Maya, ninth edition. London and New York, Thames & Hudson.

Delvendahl, Kai. 2008. Calakmul in Sight: History and Archaeology of an Ancient Maya City. Merida, Mexico: Unas Letras Industria Editorial.

García Barrios, Ana. 2011. Análisis iconográfico preliminar de fragmentos de las vasijas estilo codice procedentes de Calakmul. Estudios de la Cultura Maya 37:67­–97.

Hansen, Richard, Ronald L. Bishop, and Federico Fahsen. 1991. Notes on Maya Codex-Style Ceramics from Nakbe, Peten, Guatemala” Ancient Mesoamerica 2(2): 225–43.

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

Houston, Stephen, Barbara Fash, and David Stuart. 2015. Morelli and the Maya on the Hieroglyphic Stairway, Copan, Honduras. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics. Vol. 65/66, pp. 15-36.

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

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 publ. 9, ed. by John. S. Justeson and Lyle Campbell, pp. 77–166. Albany, State University of New York.

Kerr, Justin, and Barbara Kerr. 1988. Some Observations on Maya Vase Painters. In Maya Iconography, edited by Elizabeth P. Benson and Gillett G. Griffin, pp. 236–59. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2008. Chronicles of the Maya Kings and Queens. London and New York, Thames & Hudson.

Martin, Simon. 2015. The Old Man of the Maya Universe: A Unitary Dimension to Ancient Maya Religion. In Maya Archaeology 3, edited by Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore, pp. 186-227. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

Miller, Mary Ellen, and Linda Schele. 1986. The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. Fort Worth, Kimbell Art Museum.

Miller, Mary. 1998. A Design for Meaning in Maya Architecture. In Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture, edited by Stephen D. Houston, pp. 187-222. Washington, D.C., Dumbarton Oaks.

Morelli, Giovanni. 1900. Italian Painters: Critical Studies of Their Works, vol. 1, The Borghese and Doria-Pamphili Galleries in Rome, trans. Constance Jocelyn Ffoulkes. London, J. Murray.

Muñoz, Arturo René. 2004. The Ceramic Sequence of Piedras Negras, Guatemala: Type and Varieties. FAMSI http://www.famsi.org/reports/02055/index.html

Reents-Budet, Dorie, Sylviane Bouche le Landais, Ronald L. Bishop, and M. James Blackman. 2010. Codex-Style Ceramics: New Data Concerning Patterns of Production and Distribution. Paper presented at the XXIV Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala.

Schele, Linda. 1990. The Site R Panels. http://www.mayavase.com/siterpanel.pdf

Sheets, Payson, David Lentz, Dolores Piperno, John Jones, Christine Dixon, George Maloof, and Angela Hood. 2012. Ancient Manioc Agriculture South of the Ceren Village, El Salvador. Latin American Antiquity 23(3): 259-81.

Stuart, David. 1987. Ten Phonetic Syllables. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing 14. Washington, D.C., Center for Maya Research.

— 1989. Hieroglyphs on Maya Vessels. In The Maya Vase Book, A Corpus of Rollout Photographs of Maya Vases, vol. 1, edited by Justin Kerr, pp. 149–160. New York, Kerr Associates.

Stuart, David, and George Stuart. 2008. Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya. London and New York, Thames & Hudson.

Vickers, Michael, and David Gill. 1994. Artful Crafts: Ancient Greek Silverware and Pottery. Oxford, Clarendon Press. 

Wollheim, Richard. 1974. Giovanni Morelli and the Origins of Scientific Connoisseurship, in On Art and the Mind: Essays and Lectures, pp. 177–201. London, Allen Lane.

Puzzle Writing

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

For Justin Kerr, with boundless admiration

Transparency is not always the aim of writing. Signs can also baffle and please by means of scribal ingenuity. Sometimes the puzzle relates to esoteric matters or “magical” diagrams, as in “Sator Squares” from the ancient world. These devices were four-directional palindromes, read left-right, right-left, up-down, down-up, invoking, perhaps, deities and Latin verbs for “work” and “wheels.” Examples exist in far-flung places like Pompeii, Dura-Europos in Syria (Figure 1, Yale University Art Gallery), and Cirencester, England (Sator Squares). Decidedly pre-Christian, Sator Squares even infiltrated Christian settings of the Early Modern period (St. Barnabas, England). As symbol and puzzle, they clearly had “legs.” Their appeal carried them across millennia.

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Figure 1. Sator Square from Dura-Europos, Syria, c. AD 165–256, Yale University Art Gallery, #1933.298. 

The Classic Maya seem to have had some fun too. The setting is not a slab or painted wall at Pompeii but a pot that is among the most finely painted to survive from the Classic period. Personally, I find it hopelessly subjective to speak of the “greatest Maya painting on a pot.” (It is an exercise in futility to engage in an aesthetic tournament between past and present standards of beauty.) But here, in this instance, the hyperbole fits (for an image, Coe and Houston 2015:pl. XVIII; also Boot 2008, the first to acquire, study, and disseminate images of the ceramic). Dating to about AD 750, the vase has a named calligrapher, ‘RABBIT’-bu (T’ulub?). Such references are rare. Its presence here signals special esteem for the painter. The pot belonged, as do many of the most carefully executed pot paintings, to a youth. In this case, the boy or teenager was associated with the Peten Itza (‘i-IK’-‘a) region of northern Guatemala.

This is not the place to discuss the rich complexities of the pot. Its fascinating spellings deserve separate study. Note, for example, the unusual pronouns (an absolutive -eet for the 2nd-person singular, “you,” another absolutive, –oon, “we” [Boot 2008:12]) and the late collapse or near-homophonic play of distinct words (juun [“one]~ hu’n [“paper, book”] > huun?, highlighted here in 1 pik ka[‘]nal k’uh, 1 pik kabal k’uh, “8,000 Celestial Gods, 8,000 Terrestrial Gods.” (In 1986, I had noted a similar alternation of the number “1” and a sign for “book” on two ceramics, one in a private collection in Guatemala City).

Instead, what draws our attention is a set of four Monkey figures conversing with God D on his throne (Figure 2). A text near God D makes it clear that he speaks to an assembled group of Chuween, doubtless the four Monkeys seated to lower left (Note 1). The TE’, “tree, wood,” probably serves as a numeral classifier for the number “4.” However, as an alternative, the Popol Vuh recounts the transformation of an earlier set of “wood” people into monkeys, for “their flesh was merely wood” (Christenson 2007:90; see also Boot 2008:28). Is that the reference here? Nothing on their bodies would indicate wooden substance. The contrastive appearance of the monkeys is intriguing, veering from human and elderly to simian or deity-like. A few are elderly (as cued by beards), one may be younger. The varied faces, along with the differing headdresses, hint at the poorly understood subtleties of mythic Monkeys.

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Figure 2. Detail of vase (rollout by BAMW Photography). 

The figure to far left, presumably of lowest rank, has a large olla (liquid jar) in front, as does the monkey to the far right. A lively touch is that the small simian head-glyph above the latter combines a glyph for consumption–a small head with water sign in the mouth–and the monkey’s head itself (Figure 3, see Houston et al. 2006:fig. 3.5). He must have been a thirsty fellow.

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Figure 3. The drinking monkey glyph (detail, BAMW Photography).

The lead Monkey is central to our discussion of puzzle-writing (Figure 4). He is the only figure on the vase whose mouth both opens and emits a flow of….what?  One suggestion is that it forms “a stream of red liquid” (Boot 2008:8). In my view, it more likely corresponds to speech scrolls in Maya imagery, a means of showing a forceful if invisible utterance and, at times, of linking it to glyphic text (Houston et al. 2006:154–163). The glyphs are, with a few exceptions, relatively easy to read: yax k’ax winik, “the first jungle/forest men” (aside from its resonance with the Popol Vuh, k’ax being more of a Yukatekan word [Barrera Vásquez 1980:387], uhtiiy, “it happened [at],” a likely independent pronoun, ha’o’b, “those,”a reading first pointed out to me by David Stuart (e.g., Hull et al. 2009:38–39; Mora-Marín 2009:120), for spelling, see Robertson et al. 2007:48); and a mythic place name, possibly featuring the flower of the tobacco plant (Simon Martin, personal communication, 2013; see Stuart and Houston 1994:77, fig. 92). [Note 2] A collection of the independent pronoun appears in Figures 5 and 6. The wa-wa-li is more difficult to interpret, but it may record w-aw-il, “my shouts [howling]?” or “my shouters [howlers?],” aw being a root for hearty vocalizations going far back to the beginnings of Mayan languages (Kaufman and Norman 1984:116; for the pronoun, a pre-vocalic first-person singular, see Law 2014:table 31). A few other texts appear to use this expression, including two versions on a pot with inebriated (and noisy?) youths (Figure 7).

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Figure 4. The main monkey and his text (detail, BAMW Photography). 

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Figure 5. Independent pronoun, ha’o’b, “those,” in Maya texts (Calakmul, upper left, field drawing by David Stuart; rollout, lower left, by Justin Kerr, downloaded from Museum of Fine Arts website, recording the “First Gods, First Lords”; and La Corona Panel 2, drawing by Linda Schele, perhaps referring to multiple sculptors, a suggestion made to me by Dmitri Beliaev).

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Figure 6. Parallel phrase on Copan Stela A, referring to “those, the cache-openers [pasno’m], cache-coverers [makno’m]” (-no’m ending first interpreted by David Stuart, photographer unknown). 

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Figure 7. wa-wa-li/IL spellings (photograph by Justin Kerr, drawing by the Tikal Project, University of Pennsylvani).

The enigma is in their reading order. A conventional view would have them as in the figure to the left: left to right, top to bottom (Figure 8). But that is probably wrong. The speech scroll—in multiple strands to signal the flow of distinct words?—issues from the mouth, then, in the figure to lower right, touches the glyph for “First Forest.” The next glyph, “person,” is directly below, emitting its own scroll that winds its way up to the “it happened [at],” followed by the place name at #4. What do we do with the ha’o’b and wawil/wawal? The looping strands, which go “off-scene” only to reappear, at #6, suggest that the former came before the latter. By the conventions of this pot, strands appear to be start slender, then expand. Of course, it is possible that #5, 6, came prior to the others, but the scrolls from the mouth suggest otherwise. The key is to follow their twists and turns.

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Figure 8. Comparison of two possible reading orders. 

For scholars, writing is serious stuff. Careers collapse or soar on the fortunes of a decipherment or after review of a small, solemn bin of essays. Yet Maya glyphs were about wit too, as playful as any monkey god. Readers would start this text, and…let go. The sinuous red lines carried them away, in a scribal frolic that continues to charm.

Note 1. The che-he-na spelling is not recording, I suspect, the first person “I,” –een, as in “I say” (cf. Hull et al. 2009:36). On ceramic texts and Ceibal Hieroglyphic Stairway 1, among other places, a switch from an involved declaration (“I say”) to the statement of a name may require too many pivots in point-of-view. Not unprecedented, but awkward. For this reason, I prefer an interpretation by Nikolai Grube: “así dice,” akin to Ch’ol che’en (1998:549). Furthermore, unusual pronouns in Maya script tend to involve divine or “mythic” actors, or those operating in a more remote if non-mythic past. Piedras Negras Panel 3 is a pertinent example, for it surely depicts a number of people long-dead at the time the panel was carved. To my knowledge, the first presentation of such pronouns was in a paper for the Society of American Archaeology meetings (Houston and Stuart 1993).

Note 2. The spellings of ha-‘i may not yet be fully resolved. One reasonable view sees them two separate morphemes, ha’ and ‘i (e.g., Hull et al. 2009:36, 38, albeit with provisos; Mora-Marín 2009:fig. 4). This would provide a deictic clitic at the end, an -i, “this, here,” reconstructed for Common Mayan (Mora-Marín 2009:table 4). But a late version from Caracol Ballcourt Marker 3 (ha-‘a?) suggests an alternative: that the earlier form was haa’, as triggered by disharmony and the appended ‘i syllable. By a process well-attested at Copan and Naranjo, this term might later have shortened to ha’.  A challenge is that, on present study, no such length is reconstructible for earlier forms of ha’ (Kaufman and Norman 1984:139).

References

Barrera Vásquez, Alfredo. 1980. Diccionario Maya-Español, Español-Maya. Ediciones Cordemex, Mérida.

Boot, Erik. 2008. At the Court of Itzam Nah Yax Kokaj Mut Preliminary Iconographic and Epigraphic Analysis of a Late Classic Vessel. Maya Vase Essay 

Christenson, Allen J. 2008. Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Coe, Michael D., and Stephen Houston. 2015. The Maya. 9th edition. Thames & Hudson, London.

Grube, Nikolai. 1998. Speaking through Stones: A Quotative Particle in Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions.” In 50 años de estudios americanistas en la Universidad de Bonn, edited by Sabine Dedenbach-Salazar Sáenz, Carmen Arellano Hoffmann, Eva Konig, and Heiko Prumers, 543–58. Verlag Anton Sauerwein Schwaben.

Houston, Stephen, and David Stuart. 1993. Multiple Voices in Maya Writing: Evidence for First- and Second-Person References. Paper presented at the 58th meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, St. Louis.

Houston, Stephen, David Stuart, and Karl Taube. 2006. The Memory of Bones: Body, Being, and Experience among the Classic Maya. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Hull, Kerry, Michael D. Carrasco, and Robert Wald. 2009. The First-Person Singular Independent Pronoun in Classic Ch’olan. Mexicon 31(2):36–43.

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

Law, Danny. 2014. Language Contact, Inherited Similarity and Social Difference: The Story of Linguistic Interaction in the Maya Lowlands. John Benjamins, Amsterdam.

Robertson, John, Stephen Houston, Marc Zender, and David Stuart. 2007. Universals and the Logic of the Material Implication: A Case Study from Maya Hieroglyphic Writing. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing no. 62. Universals

Stuart, David, and Stephen Houston. 1994. Classic Maya Place Names. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology 33. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C.

Tributary Texts

by Stephen Houston, Brown University 

At Calakmul, Mexico, sculptures were not just made by craftsmen who recorded their contribution via “signatures” or “autographs” (Stuart 1989; also Houston 2016). Several sculptures probably came from political subordinates, in offerings shipped by magnates to the overlord (Martin, Houston, and Zender 2015; Zender et al. 2016: 46–47 [link]). [Note 1] Consider one possibility, Calakmul Stela 51, a monument with unusual, almost voluptuous touches. Exuberant volutes roll through the ruler’s hair, in what I take to be a sycophantic nod to royal vanity. The surface puffs out with striking, volumetric handling. And, as though bursting forth, elements of the headdress extend beyond the sculptural frame (see, too, Stela 89, created by the same carvers; Ruppert and Denison pls. 50c, 53b).

This is virtuoso work, meant to impress…perhaps the royal beneficiary above all. As yet, there is no adequate, in toto presentation of the Calakmul monuments. Simon Martin (2014) is, of course, refining the history of the site and its region, and that work is likely to be definitive on current data. [Note 2] But we can say this: Stela 51 was of some size, 4.12 m in overall height, 3.10 m in length of carving. Stela 89, doubtless delivered at the same moment (its recorded date is 274 days after Stela 51’s), is half that, at 1.55 m in length of carving. Did this disproportion have something to do with ease of transport or reducing the physical burden of that transport?  In fact, their stone appears to have been “[h]ewn from a dense, durable limestone, presumably imported from some distance” (Martin and Grube 2008: 113). I am sorry to say that epigraphers, myself included, seldom if ever record quantitative measures of stone hardness. Perhaps we should. Anomalies might reveal themselves, as in the case of the re-carved Panel 10 at Dos Pilas. That sculpture, “evidently of nonlocal material,” a “fine-grained and dense limestone,” is wholly different from the softer stone in other carvings at the site (Houston 1993: 72, fig. 3–1). The re-carving hints that Panel 10 was transported from elsewhere, something that might have been done, as at Aguateca, Guatemala, for the sculptures of vanquished, enemy kingdoms (Houston 2014).

Another tributary text comes to mind. Step IV on Yaxchilan Hieroglyphic Stairway 3 has elicited, at least to me, a sense of anomaly since its publication by Ian Graham (1982:170). The style is notably ham-handed in comparison to other carvings on the stairway (Figure 2). Rather than the tidy layout of other treads, which link thematically to the presentation of important captives, these glyphs appear in slovenly manner. Signs slope and sag, their outlines bulge. The look is less of disciplined carving than painterly “facture,” a reflection of originals rapidly executed in pigment. Few rows follow the same alignment, and some glyph blocks vary greatly in size. Even the final column bows to the right before coming back to its intended vertical alignment. There is also a real chance that the limestone itself differed from other treads. According to Graham (1982: 165), its weathering is quite distinct from the other, lower steps of the stairway. This indicates harder stone or, perhaps, later placement. (Such insertions are known at Yaxchilan: Lintel 21, from the Late Classic period, occurs with Early Classic companions in the lintel series of Structure 22.) Were imported stones usually harder, to avoid damage en route?  Step IV also has it own dedication date of 9.14.11.10.1, and for an unusual “owner,” a ruler, Shield Jaguar III, in impersonation mode.

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Figure 1. Step IV, Yaxchilan Hieroglyphic Stairway 3, drawing by Ian Graham (1982: 170 [Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project, Peabody Museum, Harvard University]).

The concluding phrases of the text are far smaller than those referring to royalty such as Shield Jaguar (B4), his mother (A5–B5), and his father, Bird Jaguar III (B6, Figure 2). They would seem to follow a sumptuary pattern: the ensuing names belong to at least one person of lesser, sajal status. Thus, reduced social importance = smaller signs. The text is unambiguous, stating that the carving was raised up (t’ab but without the usual yi, probably a problem in Graham’s drawing). It belonged to someone named “guardian of Yellow(?) Bat,” in the company of 12 Pat, a term linked to tribute by David Stuart (Stuart 1998: 384, fig. 6).
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Figure 2. Parsing of final phrase in Step IV. “IS” indicates “Initial Sign,” as part of a dedicatory phrase. Original drawing by drawing by Ian Graham (1982: 170 [Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project, Peabody Museum, Harvard University]).
The descriptive for the carving or kind of sculpture (u-k’a?-li) is known elsewhere (e.g., Xcalumkin Lintel 1:G1, Xcombec “St. 1”:C3), although it tends to be rare at sites to the south of the Puuc hills or the Campeche coast. One, for example, may occur at Naj Tunich (u-k’a ha in Drawing 51 [Stone 1995: pl. 11]). Nonetheless, it is fair to say that, after discussions with David Stuart, the reading remains opaque or at least debatable. Stuart and I are both dubious that this relevant glyph for the monument type is simply a syllabic k’a. That matter can be left for later. What commands our attention is that this slab, so wildly discrepant from its neighboring treads, seemingly of different stone, refers to its possession by a subordinate who uses a title of war. [Note 3] Another figure, employing a possibly title for tributaries, comes second. As at Calakmul, the lords of Yaxchilan may have exhibited stones brought at some effort from subordinate sites, either extracted from subsidiary lords or given by them in respectful service.
[Note 1] The shipment of carvings existed in tandem with the option of sending carvers (Houston 2016: 407, fig. 13.11).
[Note 2]  To be sure, there is Marcus (1987). To my critical eye, this monograph is a model of how not to do such a report. It is brief, unreliable, under-cited, and badly illustrated, with a monographic length that results less from quantity of text than creative formatting of pages.
[Note 3] I am mindful that the yatz’in? might include another pronoun, signaling the presence of yet a third name in this text. But I think this doubtful.
Acknowledgements  Thanks go to Simon Martin, Mary Miller, and David Stuart for comments on the ideas herein.
References
Graham, Ian. 1982. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 3, Part 1: Yaxchilan. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
Houston, Stephen D. 1993. Hieroglyphs and History at Dos Pilas: Dynastic Politics of the Classic Maya. University of Texas Press, Austin.
Houston, Stephen D. 2014. Monuments. 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, 235-257. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.
Houston, Stephen D. 2016. Crafting Credit: Authorship among Classic Maya Painters and Sculptors. In Making Value, Making Meaning: Techné in the Pre-Columbian World, edited by Cathy L. Costin, 391–431. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C.
Marcus, Joyce. 1987. The Inscriptions of Calakmul: Royal Marriage at a Maya City in Campeche, Mexico. Technical Report 21. Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Martin, Simon. 2014. The Classic Maya Polity: An Epigraphic Approach to a Pre-Hispanic Political System. Ph.D. diss., University College London.
Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2008. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. 2nd ed. Thames and Hudson, London.
Martin, Simon, Stephen Houston, and Marc Zender. 2015. Sculptors and Subjects: Notes on the Incised Text of Calakmul Stela 51. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography Calakmul
Ruppert, Karl, and John H. Denison, Jr. 1943. Archaeological Reconnaissance in Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Petén. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication 543. Washington D.C.
Stone, Andrea J. 1995. Images from the Underworld: Naj Tunich and the Tradition of Maya Cave Painting. University of Texas Press, Austin.
Stuart, David. 1989. Hieroglyphs on Maya Vessels. In The Maya Vase Book: A Corpus of Rollout Photographs of Maya Vases, Volume 1, edited by Justin Kerr, pp. 149-160. Kerr Associates, New York.
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, pp. 373-425. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington D.C.
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 ©

“Kill All the Lawyers”

by Stephen Houston, Brown University 

…said Dick the Butcher, a miscreant in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part II, act IV, Scene II, Line 73. What Shakespeare meant and whether this was side-splitting to a late Elizabethan audience are matters best left to specialists. (My brother and brother-in-law are lawyers, so I hardly share the sentiment.) What concerns us here is the treatment of scribes, keepers of recondite knowledge and official memories, as well as the clerks, we presume, in adjudications among the Classic Maya. Since the 1980s, Mary Miller has suggested that artists served as tribute or war booty in dynasties of the time (Schele and Miller 1986:219–220; also Miller 2000, Miller and Brittenham 2013: 110, 112). This proposal found favor with Kevin Johnston, who also reported on the possible mutilation of scribal hands. Cruel mistreatment removed, not their skill, but any capacity to apply it in the future (Johnston 2001). [Note 1] Few scholarly studies make their way into a poem for The New Yorker, but this one did, and by a winner of the Pulitzer Prize (Williams 2001). The complex movements and political subordination of sculptors have grown clearer with research into such “loans” and cross-polity transfers of sculptural talent (Houston 2016a: fig. 13.11; see also Zender et al. 2016: 46–47, fig. 10). Some carvings may even have come as tribute from subordinate lords.

That phrase, “kill all the lawyers,” brings us back to the vulnerabilities of Maya kingdoms. Consider the front of Moral-La Reforma Stela 1, now on display in the Museo de Antropología “Carlos Pellicer Cámara,” Villahermosa, Tabasco (Andrews 1943: figs. 13, 27; Pavón Abreu 1945: fig. 3; also Martin 2003: 46–47). Located near the Río San Pedro Mártir, the city of Moral-La Reforma has acquired a bewildering richness of names: Reforma II, Reforma, Moral, Morales, Balancán-Morales, Acalán. By fiat of the Mexican authorities, it is now simply Moral-La Reforma. The city contains at least five stelae and an Emblem that I identified in 1983 but did not have a chance to publish. Stela 1 dates to April 9, AD 756 (Julian, 9.16.5.0.0 8 Ajaw 8 Zotz’), although it offers other, probably earlier dates that are impossible to reconstruct in the absence of better images. As with many Maya sites, the corpus of monuments at Moral-La Reforma is both readily accessible and in bad need of decent rendering. Drawings from the 1940s remain a basic source—not a good sign. To be sure, superb vignettes have appeared in an article by Simon Martin (2003).

Stela 1 in particular has one of the most northerly examples of a sculptor’s signature (front, just by the K’awiil scepter of the dancing ruler), as well as a complex embroidery of dates in addition to its Initial Series. I count at least four. The back of the carving displays what looks to be a capture, the victor in unusually active pose (Figure 1). His foot presses against the groin of the captive, whose mouth opens in agony. He may even howl. Certainly his head pulls back and lower lip juts up. Yet this may not be an image from battle. The closer analogy is to gladiatorial combat (Houston 2016b; Taube and Zender 2009). Both figures grasp what appear to be stone saps. One of the weapons, held aloft by the victor, will soon land on the face or glance off the raised elbow of the victim. A strip of kab or earth signs below, passing along all sides of the stela, provides a sense of firmament. On this side of the stela it would also absorb blood. Why these signs were thought necessary, as, for example, at Dos Pilas and Calakmul, is poorly understood. Did they refer to some specific setting or quality of surface? The event must have been explained by the vertical text to the far right. The text at left names the loser, a figure labeled Itzam K’anahk, a royal epithet at Piedras Negras (Martin 2003: 47). A Piedras Negras affiliation is unlikely here, however, in that the following Emblem does not match its usual form. The name does recall “Itzamkanak,” a large community some 50 km northeast of Moral-La Reforma, visited by Cortés on his way south to deal with rebels in Honduras (Scholes and Roys 1968: 110–111, map 3). Yet the connection is distant in time and involves a toponym rather than a personal name.

Figure 1.jpg

Figure 1. Moral-La Reforma Stela 1, back (photograph shared by Ian Graham, 1983; negative housed in the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project, Peabody Museum, Harvard University).

The combat covers only one surface. The main image curves around the sides. This scene is visually dominant, although, in epigraphic terms, the back carries the Initial Series anchoring all dates on the stela. Here is the nub of the argument. The main figure, whose name may be jo?-wo-KAN-K’AWIIL (Martin 2003: 47), dances between two seated figures, both captives. Each has arms bound behind the back and looks up to the person controlling their destiny (Figure 2). The differential in size is telling. It may represent their relative size, and perhaps the youth (or dwarfishness?) of the figure to the left.

Figure 2.jpg

 Figure 2. Bound captives on Moral-La Reforma Stela 1, front (Andrews 1943: fig. 26).

The truly unusual feature is that both seem to have tails. There must have been a frisson when the viewer saw, at first, human figures and then, glancing around the sides, a wholly non-human attribute. The figure to the left is eroded and thus more tentative. Curving up his back and to the sides of the monument is what may be a scorpion tail. His lips resemble, however, the duck-bill of a wind god. The far clearer example marks the individual to the right. By Maya convention, his position signals higher status. The tail is well-preserved, beginning as a Muwaan bird attached to the area of his tailbone and then looping out as a centipede, ending in its open maw.

Karl Taube has pointed out that this tail occurs on mythic monkeys, howlers or Alouatta pigra, with deep ties to the sun and, by extension, to the count of days, k’in (Taube cited in Newman et al. 2015: 89). He is the harbinger of dawn, then as now. For the Classic Maya, he also existed on a gradient of bestial-to-human, often with visual evidence of scribal skill. An especially early and well-preserved version was found in Burial 9 at El Diablo, an elevated acropolis within El Zotz, Guatemala (Figure 3a, upper; Newman et al. 2015: 88–95). Later versions may humanize him slightly, string the tail with eyeballs, and, most relevant, outfit him with scribal equipment, including books and brushes (Figure 3b). The example on the celebrated “Princeton vase” (K0511, Figure 3a, lower right) expresses, in my view, the decapitation of a humanoid version with snub nose, the muwaan head concealed; the same looping tail is strung with eyeballs. I have long suspected the trickster rabbit, writing in a book to the side, “off-image” below, was up to some mischief. Had his tricks led to the killing of the scribe? The principal executioners appears to include a duck-billed avatar of the wind god. He is the figure leaning over, axe in hand, upper body just out-of-view.

Figure 3b.jpg

Figure 3a. Examples of mythic howler-scribes, two with clear muwaan-bird heads (top, Vessel 1, Burial 9, El Diablo, c. AD 375, drawing by Kallista Angeloff, Proyecto Arqueológico El Zotz; bottom images copyright Justin Kerr, Kerr Associates). 

Figure 3.jpg

Figure 3b. Mythic howler scribe, labeled as Chak Ch’ok, “Great Youth” (photographer unknown). 

The captive on Moral-La Reforma would thus seem to be a person whose identity has been fused with a mythic scribe. That role may well have accorded with his abilities prior to capture. As suggested by Miller and Johnson, scribes could be taken in battle and, in some cases, bound, displayed, and perhaps killed. The chu-ka-ja, chuhkaj, “is grabbed,” expression above his tail (Andrews 1943: fig. 13) may refer to his actual date of capture, although the scene of possible gladiatorial activity on back muddies the story. Could these have been the two captives, forced into combat, as part of a narrative that began on the front of the stela? Or was it precisely the reverse, a bloody melee leading to the display? Adequate drawings may eventually provide an answer.

For the Classic Maya, the existence of two identities, condensed into one person, is well-attested (Houston and Stuart 1986: 297–302). This extended to captives, too, as in this example studied by Simon Martin (Miller and Martin 2004: 182). An historical figure, a lord Yax Ahk from Anaayte’, probably on the Usumacinta River, was dressed as a perpetual loser, an old god of fire and darkness (Figure 4a; his probable name, “Fiery Ear Jaguar,” may occur below, from a vessel in a private collection in Australia). In other scenes, he is crushed with stones or burned with torches held by mythic youths. Framing dynastic conflict with known beginnings, middles, and ends must have had its own sense of inevitability and, to winners, reassurance. At Moral-La Reforma, those roles may have involved human repositories of skill and knowledge, in deprivation of enemy kingdoms.

Figure 4.jpg

Figure 4a. Tonina Monument 155, c. AD 700, note smoking ear (photographer unknown). 

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Figure 4b. Possible name of mythic figure, K’AHK’-chi-ki-ni BAHLAM-[la]ma YAX-‘Cord’-KAN-na, historical name on vessel, private collection, Australia.

Note 1. Visitors to Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow will hear the (probably) apocryphal story of its architect, Postnik Yakovlev, blinded by Ivan the Terrible so that nothing so beautiful would be built again. As for the argument for scribal mutilation among the Maya, I find it plausible but the elements to prove it, i.e., caches of finger bones or a scene of blood-letting from hands in Room 1 at Bonampak, a bit indecisive. It is hard to know who lost their fingers (the deposits are mute on this score) or why a person was slicing at (complete) digits in the Bonampak murals.

Acknowledgments   My thanks go to Simon Martin, Mary Miller, and Karl Taube for discussions of this monument and related images.

References

Andrews, E. Wyllys. 1943. The Archaeology of Southwestern Campeche. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication 546. Contribution 40. Washington, D.C.

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

Houston, Stephen D. 2016b. Gladiatrix. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography Gladiatrix

Houston, Stephen D., and David Stuart. 2006. Of Gods, Glyphs, and Kings: Divinity and Rulership among the Classic Maya. Antiquity 70: 289–312.

Johnston, Kevin. 2001. Broken Fingers: Classic Maya Capture and Polity Consolidation. Antiquity 75: 137–147.

Martin, Simon. 2003. Moral-Reforma y la contienda por el oriente de Tabasco. Arqueología Mexicana 9(61): 44-47.

Miller, Mary. 2000. Guerra y escultura maya: Un argumento en favor del tributo artístico. In La guerra entre los antiguos mayas: Memoria de la Primera Mesa Redonda de Palenque, edited by Silvia Trejo, 176–187. CONACULTA and Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico.

Miller, Mary, and Claudia Brittenham. 2013. The Spectacle of the Late Maya Court: Reflections on the Murals of Bonampak. University of Texas Press, Austin / CONACULTA, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico.

Miller, Mary, and Simon Martin. 2004. Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya. Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, San Francisco.

Newman, Sarah, Stephen Houston, Thomas Garrison, and Edwin Román. 2015. Outfitting a King. In Temple of the Night Sun: A Royal Tomb at El Diablo, Guatemala, by Stephen Houston, Sarah Newman, Edwin Román, and Thomas Garrison, 84–179. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

Pavón Abreu, Raúl. 1945. Morales, una importante ciudad arqueológica en Tabasco. Cuadernos No. 6. Gobierno del Estado de Campeche, Campeche.

Schele, Linda, and Mary E. Miller. 1986. The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth.

Scholes, France V., and Ralph L. Roys. 1968. The Maya Chontal Indians of Acalan-Tixchel: A Contribution to the History and Ethnography of the Yucatan Peninsula. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman. [first published by the Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1948]

Taube, Karl, and Marc Zender. 2009. American Gladiators: Ritual Boxing in Ancient Mesoamerica. In Blood and Beauty: Organized Violence in the Art and Archaeology of Mesoamerica and Central America, edited by Heather Orr and Rex Koontz, 161–220. Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, Los Angeles.

Williams, Charles K. 2001. War. The New Yorker Nov. 5: 80–81.

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

Recrowned Kingdoms

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

In memory of Erik Boot, explorer of ancient Maya history and culture

By wide evidence, kingly lines come to an end. The Rurikids, descended from Vikings, ruled Russia until 1598. After a period of dynastic tumult, they gave way to the Romanovs, whose own story as rulers ended, rather badly, in 1918. (The earlier tumult led to Tsar Boris Godunov…and, by good luck, to a fine play by Pushkin and an opera by Mussorgsky.) At core, kingship relies on a premise of bloodline and lineal continuity. In most cases, it also rests on claims to tangible places. There were human subjects to be sure. Hard effort by others had to underwrite all that high living. But dominion over land and settlements proved equally relevant, according a certain concrete fixity to lordship and real (or notional) control over resources. “Nobiliary particles” reflect that emphasis. German, ‘von + toponymic’ signaled the origin of a family, ‘zu + toponymic’ its current residence. Today, distant relations of the Thai monarch add na Ayudhya to their surnames, alluding to a precursor state that dissolved in 1767 under the onslaught of armies from Burma (Horn 1995). Implicit here is another verity of kingship, that royal lines fail or get driven out, to be replaced by other rulers and systems of governance, or by nothing at all.

Among the many advances in Maya epigraphy is an understanding that dramatic shifts marked certain kingdoms of the Classic period. Simon Martin (2005) has opened the disquieting possibility that the important city of Calakmul was ruled by one royal family and then shifted to another—that of the so-called “Snake” or Kaan kingdom—in the late 500s, early 600s. A perceptive idea tends to find grounding in data. As if by cue, a panel studied by David Stuart at La Corona, fixes the rooting of that dynasty in Calakmul at 9.10.2.4.4 12 Kan 17 Woh (April 9, AD 635 [Julian] in the Martin-Skidmore Correlation). Then, in further support, a panel has come to light at Xunantunich, Belize. It appears to situate some of these shifts in civil wars between two branches of the royal family of the Snake kingdom (Helmke and Awe 2016: 9–11). The losing relative died, perhaps by sacrifice or in battle, on 9.10.7.9.17 1 Kaban 5 Yaxk’in (July 4, AD 640 [Julian]).

In 2007 I presented evidence for another such shift, very much with Martin’s proposal in mind. That was at the annual Maya Meetings at Texas, in a talk of 30-minute duration that may need some fuller record of its contents. The proposal concerns the dynastic seat of Altar de Sacrificios, Guatemala, whose somewhat aberrant Emblem (the supreme royal title, other than the kaloomte’) came to notice in 1986 (Houston 1986). The epigraphy of Altar (as I shall call it from now on) is both fascinating and challenging. When studied by Gordon Willey’s project, it contained a relatively large number of inscriptions, with at least 14 carved stelae and two panels flanking a stairway, labeled ye-buyehb (“St.”4:B11). The panels fronted a presumed mortuary structure with several royal interments (Graham 1972: figs. 12, 14). [Note 1] There were also three glyphically inscribed altars and yet other sculpted panels, including a spolium or re-used block in Structure A-1 (Figure 1; Graham 1972: fig. 60).

The spolium is intriguing. It may be one of those rare texts, like the Caracol hieroglyphic stairway studied by Martin, that found its eventual home in the seat of a hostile dynasty. The final glyph is likely to be a partly eroded kaloomte’, with subfixed ma syllable, a title not otherwise known at Altar. The right side is abraded, but it probably held the TE’ sign of the kaloomte’. Above it, perhaps, is a rare ajaw, “lord,” variant in the shape of an animal head (a vulpine or opossum face?; cf. Palenque Temple of the Inscriptions, East Tablet:K11, although in that text it is almost certainly a le syllable). Was the mutilated block brought to Altar from a foreign kingdom, to be placed on its side, with implied disrespect, in a masonry wall?

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Figure 1. “Sculptured Panel 9,” reused in the masonry of Str. A-1 (Graham 1972: fig. 60). 

In most cases, preservation at Altar is indifferent or poor, making the rubbings by Merle Greene Robertson, done at John Graham’s behest in 1969, somewhat unrevealing. The Altar texts needed a real “autopsy,” i.e., direct consultation with weathered stone, a tactile distinction between carving and its erosive mimics, and then, with much raking light, a set of carefully considered field drawings. At the close of the Harvard Project at Altar, at least one stela seems to have been buried to ensure its protection (A. Ledyard Smith, personal communication, 1982). My letter from Smith–I had asked for more information–is long lost. What I recall is something like a pirate map: “…walk 15 paces from the palm tree,” information of obviously limited use today in a deforested zone. A joint publication by Willey and Ledyard Smith (the latter full-time at the site, Willey being more of an intermittent visitor) mentions the burial of “smaller stelae in Group B…near Str. B-I. Their exact whereabouts are known to the proper Guatemalan authorities” (Willey and Smith 1969:36). Alas, I do not think so! [Note 2] When I visited Altar in 1988, the carvings had been subjected to seasonal burning for milpa (slash-and-burn agriculture). The situation can hardly have improved today. Google Earth shows most of Altar denuded of trees, in full pasture with evident mounds and wall-lines. The Harvard Project must have thought the site would remain remote. There was, as far as I could tell in 1988, no backfilling. Smith’s pits and slot-trenches were still open after 25 years. [Note 3]

The epigraphy of the city has interested me since the early 1980s, when I embarked on a study of glyphs in the Pasión drainage (Houston 1993). Later, Zachary Nelson (1998), then an undergrad under my supervision, prepared a useful BA thesis on the subject. For Altar, we had relied on a basic reference, John Graham’s 1972 redaction of his 1962 doctoral dissertation at Harvard. That work carried its own set of challenges. For some reason, Graham had decided not to incorporate new historical insights from Maya decipherment, although he flagged them as “notable advances” (Graham 1972: v). The oversight is puzzling. A decade had passed since his original study, with several papers in between on epigraphic breakthroughs. While at Harvard, Graham was also in sustained contact with Tatiana Proskouriakoff, principal decoder of Classic Maya history (Graham 1972: v; for a useful list of publications, see bibliography). His main influence or model appears rather to have been Linton Satterthwaite, a resolute student of Maya calendrics and astronomy who “gave [in Graham’s words] so much time and stimulation in discussions and lengthy, detailed letters” (Graham 1972: v). One can understand the diffidence about anything other than dates. The eroded texts do not lend themselves to any decisive reconstruction of royal names, much less a chronicle of local events.

But I must be clear: Graham’s treatise contains much of value. Among his observations was that, in its sculpture, Altar experienced a datable shift in materials, going at about 9.10.5.0.0 (December 30, AD 637 AD [Julian]) from sandstone to limestone (Graham 1972: 118). The sandstone probably came from the “nearest known outcrops, about 9 km up the Pasión River; the closest limestone [being] on the river…21 km. upstream” (Smith 1972: 115). [Note 4] Such distances from quarry to dynastic seat are unusual but not unprecedented—Calakmul Stela 9, a slate monument whose stone came from Belize, is a notable example. At Altar, movement was doubtless facilitated by the downstream location of the city and by the torpid, unthreatening nature of the Pasión. The Usumacinta nearby is the river with the reputation for being, in a local description I have heard all-too-often, a “killer of men.” [Note 5]

Another observation is Graham’s isolation of three temporal blocks in the monuments of Altar (Figure 2).

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Figure 2. Blocks of dates at Altar de Sacrificios.

There is much to say about Altar epigraphy, perhaps for another occasion. What is pertinent here is the contrast between the Emblems of the city at different times. In 1986, I proposed the existence of an unusual title for rulers of the city, one that included a xib, “male,” head within a round cartouche that is indistinguishable from an element in the name glyph of the Sun God (GIII) variant at Palenque (Houston 1986: 2–3). [Note 6] The Altar Emblem is not entirely readable. It appends na and si(?) syllables, and sometimes only a si (Stela 18:C11; also Adams 1971: fig. 53a, glyph “C”). Probable spellings at El Chorro and Itzan hint at different arrangements, with a subfixed si and ni (El Chorro Hieroglyphic Stairway 1, Misc. Block 9; Itzan Stela 17:D13). Had there been a shift from vowel disharmony to synharmony in these later monuments?  For its part, Stela 18 at Altar indicates that the Emblem must have begun life as a place name and only later spread to use as an Emblem.

But this Emblem was not always employed by the local dynasty. The earliest block of dates at Altar reveals consistent use of an entirely different set of glyphs. Each contains an ajaw or “lord” sign, often with pendant la syllable that occurs with some emblems. But the main element appears to be the Yopaat avatar of Chahk, the rain god—he may be the raging form of the deity, a violent storm passing across the afternoon sky. The small, dotted volutes are also found on later versions of his name (Figure 3).

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 Figure 3. A possible earlier Emblem Glyph of Altar de Sacrificios (Graham 1972: figs. 31, 32, 35).

It may be that, in the 6th century AD, Altar went through the same process as other Classic Maya dynasties. Like Calakmul, which appears to have shifted locations in AD 635, Altar did the same only a few years before, just prior to the second block of dates in its sequence, c. 9.9.5.0.0, April 14, AD 618 [Julian]. This shift is roughly coeval with the implanting at Dos Pilas of a branch of the Tikal dynasty (Houston 1993: 100–101). The incursion at Dos Pilas is often linked to Bajlaj Kan K’awiil, a ruler about whom we know a great deal, including his birth in AD 625. Yet Tikal’s presence may go deeper still. A vessel of Tepeu 1 date with the Tikal Emblem and the name of a “great youth” (Chak Ch’ok Keleem) was found in a cave at Dos Pilas (Houston 1993: fig. 4–6). The style of that vessel is far closer to AD 600 than to decades later. Of course, as a portable object it could always have come to the area at a later time.

Tikal may have played a similar role at Altar. In 1990 or so, I noticed that the name of the Tikal ruler, now known as “Animal Skull” (probably some variant of a turtle head), probably occurred on Stela 8 at Altar (Figure 3; Graham 1972: fig. 19, position D2-C3, shown correctly in Robertson’s rubbing, jumbled in a photo mosaic [Graham 1972: fig. 21]). As usual, the text is eroded and in desperate need of an accurate drawing. But even the titles of this lord occur in expected position, just before his name: a color prefixed to a “capped ajaw” and a set of undeciphered logographs; cf. Martin and Grube 2008:40 for the same series of glyphs on a plate form the area of Tikal. A parallel text with syllables, on a Tepeu 1 bowl in the San Diego Museum of Man, suggests that some of the signs equated to …su-mu ‘a-ku-yi). “Animal Skull,” the 22nd ruler of Tikal, was in place by the final decades of 6th century AD (Martin and Grube 2008: 40–41), a date that accords with mention of him on Stela 8 (9.9.15.0.0, February 21, AD 628 [Julian]). There is a plausible suggestion that “Animal Skull” was the father of the Altar ruler who erected the stela, but I suspect the names of the parents followed. The mother’s are clear, and there is room for a father (see D5 in particular), hinting that “Animal Skull” had some other relation to the local lord. Was the Tikal ruler some sort of overlord?

Altar Stela 8 left side.png

Figure 4. Possible name of “Animal Skull” on Stela 8, left side, D2–C3, title cluster at C2 (photo by Stephen Houston, 1988).

More to the point, did this connection have anything to do with the shift in Emblem? Another text, Sculptured Panel 4, dates by style to the early years of the Late Classic period. It may provide an explanation. At pC5–pD5 is a clear Calendar Round, probably 12 Ix 17 Muwaan. Such a combination of day and month, albeit with a different number for the day, also occurs with a “star-storm” event on Dos Pilas Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 (west section, step 3, B2). I suspect the date at Altar was 9.8.16.10.14, Jan. 3, AD 610 (Julian), just prior to the second block of dates at Altar. (A later placement, in AD 661, would accord less well with the style of the ajaw sign.) Terrible things happened. “He of ‘Altar'” (recall: the xib head within a cartouche is a place name) had been attacked, in a phrase with a superimposed KAB sign that echoes the assaults noted on the Dos Pilas stairway. The rest of the text has legible details, but erosion makes it difficult to discern a fuller account. (Houston’s law: “if there is a crucial detail of text, necessary to larger argument, then it shall be in poor and unreadable condition.”)

sculpted panel 1.jpg

Figure 5. Sculptured Panel 4 (Graham 1972: fig. 59).

Here, then, is a story cobbled together from difficult material. There has been a shift of Emblem and dynasty but not of place name. An earlier royal line was replaced by another with an entirely new way of describing itself, now as a family with a direct purchase on land. But the newcomers must have had some illustrious lineage, for Stela 9, at 9.10.0.0.0 (January 25, AD 633 [Julian]), refers to at least 36 rulers in line from a distant founder. As always among the Classic Maya, politics is not so much local as regional or a melange of both—Altar may have had its own bruising encounter with Tikal. Altar lies at a crucial node of interaction, close to a major confluence of rivers. Quite simply, it may not have escaped the machinations of larger powers.

The long-term pattern serves as a coda. The overall region of the lower Pasión reveals similar blocks of time, separated in Figure 6 by vertical green lines. Prior to AD 731, the river served as a conduit of amity, after that to apparent conflict (Figure 7A, B). Physical zones do not determine dynastic behavior but give it affordances, in places where kingdoms found new crowns to wear.

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Figure 6. Textual activity in the lower Pasión region (ALS = Altar de Sacrificios; AML = La Amelia; ITN = Itzan; Pato/El Chorro = PCR; RND = El Reinado, whose dynastic record has been studied by David Stuart, in personal communications).

Screen Shot 2016-12-21 at 12.55.22 PM.png   (A)

 screen-shot-2016-12-21-at-12-55-59-pm   (B)

Figure 7.  (A) relations prior to AD 731; (B) relations post AD 731, with blue lines indicating hostility, yellow lines amity.  Dotted line signals a boundary zone of hostility along the lower Pasión.

Postscript:  Another essay on new blocks at Xunantunich has appeared only a short time after this piece, offering further insights into the establishment of a snake dynasty at Calakmul (Helmke and Awe 2016). The find and its discussion are useful and important, but I differ somewhat in how these events are to be transcribed glyphically and what they might represent. For a future post…

Note 1. Stela 4 (in fact a panel paired with “Stela 5” on the other flank of a stairway) opens with an unusual Initial Series referring to a royal death, at 9.10.3.17.0. The final date, some 12 months later, represents, I presume, the amount of time it took to build the structure behind the panels. That building, Structure A-1, must have been mortuary in function. It is rather surprising how many death references occur at Altar, from yet another panel on Structure A-1 (Sculptured Panels 1 and 2) to Altar 2, found in the South Plaza of the city.

Note 2. Government guards in the 1980s were, when I researched the Pasión in 1984 and 1986, under the control of a corrupt official, Gilberto Segura de la Cruz, a comisionado militar for Ríos Montt’s army and the son of Ledyard Smith’s foreman at Altar de Sacrificios and later at Ceibal. Indeed, it was Smith who gave Segura de la Cruz his start. Segura’s father, the preceding foreman, had died suddenly during fieldwork at Ceibal. As a favor to the family, Smith replaced him with Gilberto, who could not have been much more than a teenager. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, just before my arrival, sculptures were being routinely looted from the Parks and protected animals hunted as exotic meat for restaurants in the regional capital of Flores, Guatemala. I have a vivid recollection, in 1984, of Park guards summoned to do seine fishing in the Aguateca arroyo. Nearby, the comisionado‘s family lolled and picnicked. Few fish escaped that comprehensive slaughter. Of course, I was young and oblivious at the time, somewhat clueless as to what was accepted local practice and what was not. Later, members of the comisionado‘s family, including my provisioner of rice, beans, and kerosene lamps, became capos for the Sayaxche drug cartel. At least one of them was eventually gunned down in the muddy streets of the town (Sayaxche cartel).

Note 3. Jessica Munson, a former student of Takeshi Inomata’s, is starting work at Altar. I am confident that much will come from this valuable research, especially of early periods.

Note 4. Purely local building materials of mud, clay, and mussel shell characterize the earliest Preclassic construction. Altar was a city that required some sweat and medium-distance transport to achieve its eventual bulk.

Note 5. I have an appalling memory of passing, in 1995, with my good friend Héctor Escobedo, the mauled fragments of a boat carrying immigrants down the river to Mexico and beyond. All had perished. Shredded, flimsy life vests, their stuffing ripped out, littered the rocky shore below the Chicozapote falls.

Note 6. A semblant form, with headband, has been found on a shattered vessel at Cuychen Cave, Belize (Helmke et al. 2015: 26, fig. 16, fig. 18). In my judgment, that is not the same sign. The head departs too much from the standard xib.

References

Adams, Richard E. W. 1971. The Ceramics of Altar de Sacrificios. Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology 63(1). Cambridge, MA.

Graham, John A. 1972. The Hieroglyphic Inscriptions and Monumental Art of Altar de Sacrificios. Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology 64(2). Cambridge, MA.

Helmke, Christophe, and Jaime Awe. 2016. Death Becomes Her: An Analysis of Panel 3, Xunantunich, Belize. The PARI Journal 16(4):1 –14. http://www.mesoweb.com/pari/publications/journal/1604/Xunantunich.pdf

Helmke, Christophe, and Jaime Awe. 2016. Sharper than a Serpent’s Tooth: A Tale of the Snake-head Dynasty as Recounted on Xunantunich Panel 4. The PARI Journal 17(2):1–22. http://www.mesoweb.com/pari/publications/journal/1702/Helmke-Awe.pdf

Helmke, Christophe, Jaime J. Awe, Shawn G. Morton, and Gyles Iannone. 2015. The Text and Context of the Cuychen Vase, Macal Valley, Belize. In Maya Archaeology 3, edited by Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore, 8–29. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

Horn, Robert. 1995. Thai Bluebloods Must Work for a Living. Los Angeles Times (Dec. 17). http://articles.latimes.com/1995-12-17/news/mn-15031_1_extended-royal-family

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.

Houston, Stephen D. 1993. Hieroglyphs and History at Dos Pilas: Dynastic Politics of the Classic Maya. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Martin, Simon. 2005. Of Snakes and Bats: Shifting Identities at Calakmul. The PARI Journal 6(2):5-13. http://www.mesoweb.com/pari/publications/journal/602/SnakesBats_e.pdf

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2008. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Classic Maya. 2nd ed. Thames & Hudson, London.

Nelson, Zachary. 1998. Altar de Sacrificios Revisited: A Modern Translation of Ancient Writings. BA honor’s thesis, Brigham Young University.

Smith, A. Ledyard. 1972. Excavations at Altar de Sacrificios: Architecture, Settlement, Burials, and Caches. Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology 62(2). Cambridge, MA.

Stuart, David. 2012. Notes on a New Text from La Corona. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconographyhttps://decipherment.wordpress.com/2012/06/30/notes-on-a-new-text-from-la-corona/

Willey, Gordon R., and A. Ledyard Smith. 1969. The Ruins of Altar de Sacrificios, Department of Peten, Guatemala: An Introduction. Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology 62(1). Cambridge, MA.