Tough Talk and Maya Kings


By Stephen Houston, Brown University

Few conflicts begin with blows. First comes talk. Angry words serve to explain and justify an aggression, rallying friends and taunting foes. They advertise hostility to come–indeed, in part, they are that hostility. Among Maya peoples, such crusty talk was not always a good thing. The dictionary of Santo Domingo Zinacantán, a peerless source on colonial Tzotzil Maya, likens “barbed” speech, tz’i’tz’i-k’opoj, to something dirty, dog-like, and rabid (Laughlin 1988, I:179–80).

Yet, with kings, anger plays a calculated role. Sometimes, a ruler needs to let loose, to flame out. Respect for him should blend with fear. Why? Because a perception of innate aggression keeps people in line, throwing them off-kilter. Subordinates and enemies never quite know what to expect. The Aztecs may have held just this view. Two of its emperors went by Motēuczōma, “Lord frowning in anger,”a name bristling with claimed irascibility (Karttunen 1992:153).

Elsewhere in Mesoamerica belligerence extends explicitly to depictions of speech (Houston et al. 2006:163, 154, figs. 4.5, 4.14, 4.19, 4.20). The Codex Selden, a Mixtec manuscript dating to c. AD 1555, shows two men speaking “words of flint,” apparently while hurling threats at a traveling party (Figure 1, page 7, Band III, Pohl n.d.). Virgules from their mouths denote words; small blades of flints, each half-stained with blood, underscore the truculent message.

Figure 1 Codex Selden Page 7 Band III

Figure 1   Flinty words, Codex Selden, p. 7, band III.

Dating to approximately the same time, the Mapa de Cuahtinchan No. 2, a document from the general area of Cholula, Mexico, displays relatively few virgules. But those that exist, as in Section I, appear to record a “painful moment of schism,” as groups take different paths on their journeys from a cave of origin (Figure 2, Carrasco and Sessions 2007:fig. 15.3). There are violent gestures, pointing, shouting, turned backs–it is quite a row. The scrolls are disconnected, in symmetrical alternation, almost as a sequence of chatter; their color is dark-red. The marks may be, as Davíd Carrasco and Scott Sessions note, “red-hot words” rather than bloody-minded utterances. Yet the color is suggestive.

Figure 2 Mapa de Cuahtinchan no. 2, I26-32Figure 2   Mapa de Cuahtinchan No. 2, Section I (from Carrasco and Sessions 2007:fig. 15.3)

A clearer example occurs on Monument 1, Finca San Cristóbal, from the Late Classic Cotzumalhuapa civilization of piedmont Guatemala (Figure 3, Chinchilla Mazariegos 2011:fig. 4.25). An excellent rendering by Oswaldo Chinchilla displays, in his words, a “verbal performance…with beautiful flowers and sprouts,” but a plausible alternative is that this records less a “performance” than an almost vegetal visualization of dialogue, growth that entwines but never fuses: the blade-like elements to upper right could characterize hostile speech.

Figure 3 Finca San Cristobal Mon 1

Figure 3  Speech scrolls with possible flints, Finca San Cristóbal Monument 1 (drawing by Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariego, with colors added for emphasis)

Tough talk from Maya kings may account for an enigmatic title of the Classic period. The best-known of these is an alternative epithet for the Naranjo ruler K’ahk’ Ukalaw Chan Chahk (Figure 4, Martin and Grube 2000:80–81). The title has been glossed as “He of Flint,” “perhaps his childhood moniker,” as Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube suggest in their masterly study of Maya history. But there is another possibility. Long ago, David Stuart deciphered a semblant of the third element as a logograph TI’, for ti’, “mouth” (personal communication, 1995). By extension, ti’ can mean “language” or “speech,” especially in Ch’orti’, to most epigraphers the richest and most relevant resource for decipherment (Zender 2004:Table 5). Beginning as a human head to signal acts of consumption, the glyph soon reached, Stuart discovered, an extreme state of stylization, transforming into T128 in the Thompson catalogue of Maya glyphs (for lucid discussion, see Zender 2004:212–21, figs. 38, 39, Table 5). One version on a panel at La Corona, Guatemala, now at the Art Institute of Chicago, enlists it to spell the title of a secondary lord. Here, the glyph, a truncated face, achieves an even greater stylization, to the extent that it closely resembles the sign at Naranjo (Art Institute of Chicago, Ada Turnbull Hertle Fund, 1965.407, glyph position H1; Schele and Miller 1986:pl. 101a). Thus, for the Naranjo ruler: AJ-TOOK’-TI’, aj-took’-ti’, “he of the flinty speech.” A tough-talking lord, ready for a scrap.

Figure 4 Naranjo

Figure 4   Alternative names of K’ahk’ Ukalaw Chan Chahk, Naranjo

A similar spelling, from a stairway block found at Anonal, near Ceibal, Guatemala (kindly supplied to me by Takeshi Inomata and Jessica Munson), shows a “fiery mouth,” K’ahk-ti’, as part of the name of the person buried (we presume) in a tomb (muknal) that had once existed behind this block. The TI’ is nearly identical to that on Naranjo Stela 19.

Figure 5

Figure 5  Spelling of K’ahk-ti’, Anonal, Guatemala (image supplied by Takeshi Inomata and Jessica Munson).

There is another lord with what may be the epithet. It derives from the site of Chinikiha, on a tributary of the Usumacinta River in Mexico (Figure 6). (Some years past, I had the good fortune to see it on display at the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City.) The name appears on a large panel—the glyphs are just under 30 cm in height—that records the raising of a headband to the forehead of a new lord (K’AL-?-HU’N tu-BAAH, Schmidt et al. 1998:623, #416; n.b., the dates are difficult to place because of a disconnection between the evident Kib day-sign and the coefficient of the month). In short, an accession to highest office. The name appears to be AJ-TOOK’-ti-TI’, Aj-took’-ti’?, with a probable syllabic reinforcement in the form of a rare version of the TI’ glyph. Regrettably, the panel is broken, and other elements may follow to alter the reading, but this is surely a historical figure. A similar spelling recently noted on a series of limpet shells pertains to gods, who may nonetheless have had ferocious or bellicose natures (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Gift of the Harry K. Wright Collection, 2015.479, and Houston Museum of Natural Science, Loan 48.1997.02; Looper and Polyukhovych 2016:figs. 3, 4, 5).

Figure 5 Chinikiha

Figure 6 Chinikiha Panel (rubbing by Merle Greene Robertson, enhanced here)

The recipients of such tough talk may also have been represented in Maya imagery. Two doleful captives appear on a cylinder vessel of Caana White Incised from Tonina, Chiapas (Becquelin and Taladoire 1990:fig.142a). The base and rim of the vase correspond to usual place for such people, pressed uncomfortably into small spaces, often under the feet of lords. Yet their earspools attract attention here. Each has a clear marking of flint, a recalcitrant material that is unlikely to have been the actual substance of the ornaments. In general, earspools relate to hearing, vocalization, and exhalation, as shown on many examples from the Early Classic period but applicable to later periods as well (Carter et al. 2012; Early Classic Earspools; see also Houston et al. 2004:figs. 4.6, 4.16, 4.17). Perhaps the captives at Tonina showed their warrior-status, their true being, in this way. Or they had to hear, continually and to their dismay, the martial language of victors.

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Figure 7. Incised cylinder vase from Tonina, Chiapas, Mexico (Becquelin and Taladoire 1990:fig. 142a). 

An ideal Maya ruler was not just splendid…he was, on occasion, cantankerous, proud in anger, best left appeased.

Acknowledgements  Takeshi Inomata and Jessica Munson generously shared their photo of the hieroglyphic stairway block from Anonal, Guatemala.


Becquelin, Pierre, and Eric Taladoire. 1990. Tonina, une cité Maya du Chiapas (Mexique). Études Mésoaméricaines, vol. VI, Tome IV. Centre d’Études Mexicaines et Centraméricaines, Mexico City.

Carrasco, Davíd, and Scott Sessions. 2007. “Middle Place, Labyrinth, and Circumambulation: Cholula’s Peripatetic Role in the Mapa de Cuahtinchan No. 2.” In Davíd Carrasco and Scott Sessions, eds., Cave, City, and Eagle’s Next: An Interpretive Journey through the Mapa de Cuahtinchan No. 2, 426–54. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Carter, Nicholas P., Rony E. Piedrasanta, Stephen D. Houston, and Zachary Hruby. 2012. Signs of Supplication: Two Mosaic Earflare Plaques from El Zotz, Guatemala. Antiquity 86:Project Gallery;

Chinchilla Mazariegos, Oswaldo. 2011. “The Flowering Glyphs: Animation in Cotzumalhuapa Writing.” In Elizabeth H. Boone and Gary Urton, eds., Their Way of Writing: Scripts, Signs, and Pictographies in Pre-Columbian America, 43–75. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

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

Karttunen, Frances. 1992. An Analytical Dictionary of Nahuatl. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Laughlin, Robert M. 1988. The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of Santa Domingo Zinacantán. 3 vols. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology, Number 31. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.

Looper, Mathew, and Yuriy Polyukhovych. 2016. “Two Maya Inscribed Limpet Pendants.” Glyph Dwellers Report 42.

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

Pohl, John. n.d. John Pohl’s Mesoamerica. jpcodices/selden/index.html.

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

Schmidt, Peter, Mercedes de la Garza, and Enrique Nalda, eds. Maya. New York: Rizzoli.

Zender, Marc U. 2004. A Study of Classic Maya Priesthood. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Calgary, Alberta.

Xenophobia and Grotesque Fun


Stephen Houston, Simon Martin, and Karl Taube

In the Ming dynasty of China, one document attracted much amused interest. This was the Luochung Lu (臝蟲錄), a treatise on “naked creatures” or barbarians that sold widely at the time (Yuming He 2011:45­–46). Not surprisingly, readers and editors in the later Qing dynasty, itself of foreign origin, found it displeasing in parts.  Intended to be comprehensive, the Luochung Lu organized information about exotic humans into a zoological schema. People could be categorized like so many “bugs, worms, insects, reptiles,” including, as one set of “critters,” those living in the “Country of Japan” or “Dwarf Land,” a place much inclined, it seems, to banditry (Yuming He 2011:50).

The preface of one edition explains the nature of all such exotics: “[b]ecause they do not have ethical principles, love war and battles, take life lightly, and delight in death, they share the nature of tigers and wolves. Because they…are fond of licentiousness, just like the behavior of incestuous deer, their nature and disposition are truly distant from the human” (Yuming He 2011:71).

The pejorative categorization of foreigners is nothing new.  There is, in the recent past, a doubled xenophobia in references, by John Oliver, the comic, to “Drumpf.” Oliver ridicules a xenophobe for the odd-sounding origins of his family name. Or, in the nineteenth century, there are Thomas Nast’s monstrous representations of drunken Irishmen, seen by many in newspapers of the day. We can dig deeper, all the way back to New Kingdom Egypt. The difference is that these depictions mingle contempt for conquered or foreign peoples with an evident pleasure in their exotic beauty.  The canes in the tomb of Tutankhamun show a Nubian and an Asiatic, neither grotesque but obviously non-Egyptian (Figure 1). Tutankhamun probably needed these canes—the pharaoh was not, by latest report, a very healthy person. But even he could rub and squeeze these captives as though he had taken them himself.  A few centuries later, beautiful foreigners of all sorts marched, in terracotta form, across a frieze at Ramses III’s temple at Medinet Habu (Hölscher 1941).  The exotic can be hateful, repulsive but also, in artful hands, appealing and even sympathetic. Their rich clothing and ornament elevated their captor. Such people were worth conquering. Or, as in the Luochung Lu, they might be figures of fun.

Figures _Page_1.jpg

Figure 1   Tutankhamun’s walking stick, 18th dynasty, KV62, Egyptian Museum, Cairo (photograph copyright Kenneth Garrett).

Classic Maya relations with foreigners mostly concern Teotihuacan (see Stone 1989, Stuart 2000, and Taube 2003; contacts with Tajín civilization are grossly understudied, perhaps because the evidence of that contact is, by contrast, material and stylistic, without historical detail).  These references fall into three categories: (1) contemporary contacts between still-vital civilizations (Tikal Stela 31); (2) retrospective accounts of contact long after Teotihuacan went up in flames (Piedras Negras Panel 2); and (3) fusions of royal Maya identities with martial elements of a long-gone city (Bonampak Stela 3).  The positive, even prestigious features of that contact receive most of our attention, with good reason. The accounts are textual, vibrant, and imbued with personality.

Yet not all was positive in the Maya perception of Teotihuacanos. There are hints of xenophobia or, much like the Luochung Lu, a comical distaste for foreigners. The first is on the lid of an Early Classic vessel (Binoche and Giquello 2016:#44; also Berjonneau and Sonnery 1985:pl. 350; said to have been in a private collection in Brussels by 1960). The vase appears to be Balanza Black from northern Peten, Guatemala, but with bright polychromed stucco of an avian in Teotihuacan style. What attracts our attention is the head on the lid. Notably non-Maya, it has dark skin, a broad face with flattened head like so many Teotihuacan masks, matted hair sticking upright, snub nose and open mouth.  Grooves run between the brows, the eyes sit far into their orbits. The lips open slightly in song—in fact, the tossed-back position is more bestial than human.  Because of its date, this pot fits into category #1, evincing contact between a still-vital Teotihuacan and the Maya.

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Figure 2.  Stuccoed vessel, northern Peten, Guatemala, c. AD 500 (Binoche and Giquello 2016:#44).

A second image comes from some 200 years later, on a vase owned by a youth or ch’ok (K6315). There is repainting on parts of this vessel, which comes from the Ik’ kingdom near Lake Peten Itza in northern Guatemala. By this time, Teotihuacan was long past its prime. A Late Classic Maya ruler sits on his throne, conversing with a standing lord. To the front are three other figures. One, in full Maya dress, holds two rattles. Behind him prance two dancers, singers too, to judge from their open mouths. They are slathered in black paint from toe to thick, spikey hair. Hands splay out, the brows are bulbous, noses snubby or retroussé. Their heads and body twist in almost yogic discomfort. The awkward movements are anything but the norm in Maya dance postures. Aside from a red element in the short, dark feathers, the effect is bichromatic, a severe black-and-white. A Teotihuacan emblem, a k’an cross, repeats on their hip-cloths. The glyphs above are difficult to read, but the final element may be ch’o’, perhaps “rat” or “rodent.”


Figure 3a. Late Classic chocolate vessel with scene of dance, Ik’-kingdom, Peten,  Guatemala, c. AD 730 (Jay Kislak Foundation, Miami, K6315, photograph copyright Justin Kerr).

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Figure 3b.  Close-up (Jay Kislak Foundation, Miami, K6315, photograph copyright Justin Kerr).

A third dates to about the same time, consisting of, among other figurines, two boxing dwarves (Figure 4; Freidel, Rich, and Reilly 2010). One has broken-off limbs; the other, more complete figurine, shows a dwarf in blocking motion with its left hand extended. His right hand clutches a round sap or bludgeon. Otherwise identical, the dwarves differ in their headdresses. In Figure 4 one has a simple panache of feathers.  The example on the left displays unmistakably Teotihuacan head-gear, with goggle-eyes and a curving obsidian blade in the style of that city. Perhaps a Maya boxer was matched up against a “Teotihuacano,” in allusion to some broader conflict between east and west in Mesoamerica. To viewers, boxing dwarves were likely to be droll, a diversion at court.

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Figure 4.  Boxing dwarves from Burial 39, El Peru, Guatemala.

For the Classic Maya, Teotihuacan represented, according to most evidence, a refined and forceful polity. It was envied, remembered, extolled, and probably feared.  Yet these images offer another view. In them, Teotihuacanos are notably non-Maya, but unattractively, even repulsively so.  Their faces run counter to all Maya standards of beauty; their movements lurch in awkward, almost clownish twists—the motion comes close to Aztec depictions of the disabled, the “vagabonds” tossed cruelly from home and hearth (see the Codex Mendoza, folio 70r). If performers, were they thought comical? Were they ancient counterparts to stock roles like the Spaniard or lecherous bishop in Highland Maya festivities? Did they babble and speak unintelligibly like the bárbaros of ancient Greece?  At the least, in Maya minds, not all Teotihuacanos were majestic or regal. Some could be grotesque, laughable, to be mocked more than feared.


Justin Kerr showed his customary generosity by sending along a high-resolution image of a rollout.


Binoche, Jean-Claude, and Alexandre Giquello. 2016. De l’ancienne collection Vanden Avenne, importante collection d’art précolumbien, Mercredi 23 Mars 2016. Paris: Drouot.

Berjonneau, Gérald, and Jean-Louis Sonnery. 1985. Rediscovered Masterpieces of Mesoamerica: Mexico-Guatemala-Honduras. Boulogne: Éditions ART 135.

Freidel, David, Michelle Rich, and F. Kent Reilly III. 2010. “Resurrecting the Maize King.” Archaeology 63: 42–45.

Hölscher, Uvo. 1941. The Mortuary Temple of Ramses III, Part I. Oriental Institute Publications, Vol. LIV. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stone, Andrea. 1989. “Disconnection, Insignia, and Foreign Expansion: eotihuacan and the Warrior Stelae of Piedras Negras.” In Richard A. Diehl and Janet C. Berlo, eds., Mesoamerican After the Decline of Teotihuacan AD 700-900, 153–172. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks.

Stuart, David. 2000. “‘The Arrival of Strangers’: Teotihuacan and Tollan in Classic Maya History.” In David Carrasco, Lindsay Jones, and Scott Sessions, eds., Mesoamerica’s Classic Heritage: From Teotihuacan to the Aztecs, 465–513. Niwot, CO: Colorado University Press.

Taube, Karl. 2003. “Tetitla and the Maya Presence at Teotihuacan.” In Geoffrey Braswell, ed., The Maya and Teotihuacan: Reinterpreting Early Classic Interaction, 273–314. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Yuming He. 2011. “The Book and the Barbarian in Ming China and Beyond: The Luo chong lu, or ‘Record of Naked Creatures’.” Asia Major 24: 43–85.


Classic Collaterals

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

Among the great surprises of epigraphy was the discovery of “parentage statements” by Christopher Jones (1977). With this breakthrough, relationships of descent between dynastic figures could be identified and strung into longer sequences. Yet much remains unclear. A more recent study questions the broad distribution of such relationships—was there only one, rather static Maya system (Ensor 2013:57-58)? There is always, too, a set of fundamental uncertainties. Did such terms correspond to real or fictive relations? Did they extend laterally or by generations?

Answering these questions is well-nigh impossible. But at least we have some new data. Royal kinship among the Classic Maya became a bit clearer, and another sprig added to the family tree, when David Stuart (1989:5–7, 8, fig. 7) noted a term for “maternal uncle” in glyphic texts at Yaxchilan. The possessed form, spelled yi-cha-ni, y-ichaan, descended, according to one reconstruction, from Common Mayan *ikaan (see Kaufman and Norman 1994:120). At Yaxchilan, this term for collateral kin most likely appeared for unusual dynastic reasons. The uncle probably served as an éminence grise, acquiring unusual prominence for someone of sajal (high noble) rank. His sister was the mother of the king, his nephew a mere teenager at time of accession to the throne. Under these circumstances, a calculating uncle could rise far indeed.

Two other bonds (or claims to them) can now be discerned in glyphic texts.

One is a rare and highly localized expression that is nonetheless repeated on nearly identical, molded texts from the Alta Verapaz of Guatemala (Pérez Galindo 2006; also Dieseldorff 1926–1933). It occurs in a little-studied corpus of glyphs on broken ceramics collected over a century ago by Erwin Dieseldorff. A German immigrant to Guatemala, Dieseldorff was the scion of a family with longstanding mercantile ties to Central America (Náñez Falcón 1970:36–63). His own business concerned coffee cultivation and export. (A descendant firm still operates, with an aptly named website, In the 1880s, travels with the explorer and linguist Karl Sapper awakened Dieseldorff’s interest in archaeology, leading him to do a grubbing sort of archaeology to the east of Cobán, Guatemala. There he found “a series of broken idols during the excavation of a temple (cúe) in Chajcar, to the east of San Pedro Carchá, Alta Verapaz” (Pérez Galindo 2006:9). Evidently, most if not all came from a single building.

I first saw this collection of texts in 1984 while exploring the stygian basement of the Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología (MUNAE) in Guatemala City. In a later, well-documented study, Mónica Pérez Galindo [2006:fig. 35], then employed at the MUNAE, presented an admirable record of that collection, noting, as part of her research, that other such glyphs occur in the (former) Museo Príncipe Maya in Cobán. As I understand it, that collection has since passed to the Fundación Ruta Maya.

Glyphs on these fragments range from pseudo-writing to legible signs (Figure 1). Many refer to literate skill. There are glyphs for “raising up” (t’abayi) and “molding/carving/shaping” (the so-called lu-“BAT,” which eludes, I believe, any confident reading), SAK-wo-jo, sak woj, “white, pure signs,” tz’i-ba, tz’ihb, “painting”; ma-xi, ma’x, “spider monkey; AJAW-wa, ajaw, “lord”; u-wi-WINIK, u winik, “his man, servant”; ya-na-bi-IL SAK-CHUWEEN, probably specifying the “owner” or master of a particular sculptor. There is even a Calendar Round, 10 Imix 19 Yaxk’in, perhaps assignable to, a date close to a momentous Period Ending and the “end of Yaxk’in” position that fascinated the Classic Maya (I have long wondered if this had something to do with seasonal observances, such as the beginning of the rainy season; for images, see Pérez Galindo 2006). To judge from style, the general date of these texts is at the very end of the Late Classic period, extending into the 9th century AD.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Legible texts in the Dieseldorff Collection, MUNAE (top row, photographs by Stephen Houston, 1984; bottom row, photographs by Mónica Pérez Galindo; not to scale but widest fragment is ca. 4-5 cm).

Several molded texts embellish small ceramic thrones. These votive objects measure—at least in surviving elements—16 cm long, 12.5 wide, and about 14 high (Grube and Gaida 2006:#24). The presence in MUNAE of broken-off embouchures, all of about the right size for edge breaks on some thrones, raises the chance that the effigies were in part musical. They could have been “performed” as whistles with keening notes. Otherwise, their dimensions, well beyond that of most figurines, suggests a more steady repose, perhaps in small shrines or other places of cult veneration. A few bear vestiges of paint. There are bold yellows, intense Maya blues, all post-fire. At first glance, several go so far as to resemble plumbate, so-called because of its similarity to lead-based glazes. Their surfaces glisten with a metallic sheen. But that appearance is more likely to result from spot scorching of post-fire pigments, a point I have discussed with plumbate experts like Hector Neff and Katie Williams.

At one time, all thrones had at least one seated figure on top, perhaps a young lord, of which fragments occur in Berlin’s Museum für Völkerkunde, the other repository for many of Dieseldorff’s pieces (Figure 2). To the side, almost at the top and front corner, sits a male companion in cross-legged, “tailor” position. Shattered pieces of larger figures are in the Dieseldorff collection, and it seems reasonable to link them to the thrones. Each side of the thrones shows a seated figure. Both have fire or solar attributes. The long sides feature a blunt-nosed person. Bordering on the grotesque, he leans over with a double-headed centipede “bar.” As noted by Karl Taube, the Classic Maya equated centipedes with beams of sun-light, a trait readily seen in the ancestral solar cartouches on stelae at Yaxchilan, Mexico. The figure wears a distinct headband with extruded curls. These traits help to identify a ch’ajoom,“incenser” (Scherer and Houston 2014). The shorter side of the throne, its figure now in profile, has the solar, centipede attributes highlighted in the depiction of 18 Ubaah K’awiil on Copan Stela A. The spear and shield hint that this is a more martial aspect of the Sun God. Heat and fire inflect the iconography. The later indications of scorching point to similar emphases in the ritual use of the thrones.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Sides of fragmentary ceramic throne collected by Dieseldorff, Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, Ident.-Nr IV Ca 21058 (photograph, Grube and Gaida 2006:#24).

Most relevant here, however, are the molded glyphs below the ch’ajoom figure: ba tz’a-ma yi-cha-k’a SAK-ki-nu-chi k’u K’UH ? (Figure 2). The first glyph is surely baah tz’am, “head [person of the] throne,” a title elucidated in other contexts by Marc Zender. The reference reveals an unambiguous tie to the molded throne. What follows is y-ichak’ along with a second name. Widespread in Mayan languages, ichak’ corresponds to “nephew” or even “cousin,” with attestations in all Ch’olan languages (Kaufman 2003:120). The unusual spelling of sak, which implies vowel complexity, is harder to understand, although a comparable spelling occurs on a Tepeu 1 plate in the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art (#G83.1.120, Zender 2000:1044, fig. 10, fn. 7). The k’u syllable may reinforce the term for “god,” k’uh, but that is less clear. As on other texts in the assemblage, the strong degree of syllabicity draws our attention. Logographs exist, yet the overall tendency is to emphasize phonic transparency. In a comment to me, David Stuart wonders if rarer terms such as ichak’ needed to be spelled out precisely because they were uncommon. By contrast, logographs served as effective markers of parent-child relationships. It may also be that a high level of syllabicity reflected the challenges of recording a Ch’olan/Ch’olti’an language–the local speakers may have been Q’eqchi’.

Figure 3

Figure 3. Close-up of throne text in the MUNAE (photograph, Stephen Houston, 1984).

A second collateral relation occurs on a Tepeu 1 text from the area of Tikal (K5452, Figure 3). Dating to the reign of Wak Chan K’awiil (fl. AD 537-562), it appears on a pot that may record a rare example of multiple possession. The second owner is a royal youth, with a less likely possibility that this name simply referred to the first. (In my view, the presence of a full, second “dedicatory” text makes this unlikely.) What follows the name of Wak Chan K’awiil is yi-TAHN-na. I interpret this as spelling y-ihta’n, “her brother,” preceding the titles of a female. Ihta’n is the possessed form of a word reconstructed by some scholars as “man’s sister” (e.g., Kaufman and Norman 1985:121). However, in Ch’orti’, the term was “used between a man and a woman and vice-versa, but not between men nor between women” (my translation Pérez Martínez, García, Martínez, and López 1996:66). “Cross-sex sibling” fits the reference on the vase.

Figure 4

Figure 4. Vase from area of Tikal, Guatemala, c. AD 550 (K5452, photograph copyright Justin Kerr).

Such expressions are useful, even intriguing. But their rarity is obvious. Explicit labeling of collaterals seemed of little interest to scribes of the Classic period.

Postscript, Nov. 21, 2016:  Simon Martin urged me to study a higher resolution version of K5452, which I have just obtained from Justin Kerr. The sign in front of TAHN is, I now believe, an unusual version of 1, preceded by an equally rare u sign (note its resemblance to the u in spellings of u tz’i ba li, all free-standing glyphs). This would make the woman on the vase the mother of the first owner, her relation being specified by u 1-TAHN-na.



Dieseldorff, Erwin P. 1926–1933. Kunst und Religion der Mayavölker im Alten Und Heutigen Mittelamerika. 3 vols. Berlin/Hamburg: J. Springer.

Ensor, Bradley E. 2013. Crafting Prehispanic Maya Kinship. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

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

Jones, Christopher. 1977. Inauguration Dates of Three Late Classic Rulers of Tikal, Guatemala.” American Antiquity 42:28-60.

Kaufman, Terrence S. 2003. Preliminary Mayan Etymological Dictionary. Report to the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. On-line resource at

Kaufman, Terrence S., and William M. Norman. 1984. “An Outline of Proto-Cholan Phonology, Morphology, and Vocabulary.” In John S. Justeson and Lyle Campbell, eds., Phoneticism in Mayan Hieroglyphic Writing, 77-166. Publication No. 9. Albany: Institution for Mesoamerican Studies, State University of New York at Albany.

Náñez Falcón, Guillermo. 1970. Erwin Paul Dieseldorff, German Entrepreneur in the Alta Verapaz of Guatemala, 1889-1937. Ph.D. dissertation, Tulane University.

Pérez Galindo, Mónica. 2006. Colección Dieseldorff: Corpus de cerámica del Clásico Terminal proveniente de Moldes. Report to the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc.

Pérez Martínez, Vitalino, Federico García, Felipe Martínez, and Jeremías López. 1996. Diccionario Ch’orti’, Jocotán, Chiquimula. Antigua Guatemala: Proyecto Lingüístico Francisco Marroquín.

Scherer, Andrew, and Stephen Houston. 2015. “Blood, Fire, Death: Covenants and Crises among the Classic Maya.” In Smoke, Flames, and the Human Body in Mesoamerican Ritual Practice, organized by Vera Tiesler and Andrew Scherer, Dumbarton Oaks Fall Symposium, Oct. 9.

Stuart, David. 1997. Kinship Terms in Mayan Inscriptions. In Martha J. Macri and Anabel Ford, eds., The Language of Maya Hieroglyphs, 1–11. Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute, San Francisco.

Zender, Marc. 2000. “A Study of Two Uaxactun-Style Tamale-Serving Vessels.” In Barbara and Justin Kerr, eds., The Maya Vase Book: A Corpus of Rollout Photographs of Maya Vases, 1038–1055. New York: Kerr Associates.

The Woman in Wood: A Reencounter with Tikal’s Queen from Temple II 1


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

In 2014, we investigated a long-lost fragment of a wooden lintel, probably from Tikal, that is now stored in Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The fragment may have derived from one of three lintels in Temple II. Two lintels of that pyramid are missing. But the third, Lintel 2, which spanned its middle doorway, was documented by Teobert Maler, Herbert Spinden, and the Tikal project of the University of Pennsylvania (Coe, Shook, and Satterthwaite 1962:35; Doyle and Houston 2014:143; Jones and Satterthwaite 1982:100, Fig. 71). Lintel 2 survived only in part, in two beams. Yet enough remained to pose a mystery. Was the surviving figure, a woman, the main person in the carving? Or did she stand to the side as a peripheral character?

This was important. The dominant presentation of a royal lady would be unprecedented in the Tikal lintels. It would also lend weight to the argument, made long ago by Clemency Coggins (1975:455, 549-551) and Mary Miller (1985:8), that Temple II housed the remains of a royal consort. That lady would have been the wife of “Ruler A” (Jasaw Chan K’awiil), whose spectacular tomb lay under Temple I, just across from Temple II. For Miller, the Great Plaza at Tikal represented more than a set of buildings. It crystallized social relationships. Consorts “faced” one another, the male to the east, the female to the west. Implicitly, too, a royal son, a king, was there to bury the parents. This would have been “Ruler B” (Yik’in Chan K’awiil), whose final resting spot is still subject to debate. The usual candidate, the gargantuan Temple IV, seems not to have had such a tomb (unpublished excavations by the Centro Universitario de Petén [CUDEP] have penetrated deeply into the building). But there is another option, the extraordinarily rich Burial 196. This lies under Str. 5D-73, some 30 m to the south of Temple II. Notionally at least, his tomb would triangulate with those of his parents’.

There is new evidence. In December 2015, we were able to view the original beam of Temple II Lintel 2, now in the collections of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.


Figure 1. (a) “Tikal: Fragment of Carved Beams from Lintel of Doorway Leading to Second Chamber of Temple II,” photograph by Teobert Maler (1911: Plate 18-2).

Maler had photographed the two fragments of Temple II Lintel 2 at Tikal itself. The second, less well-preserved piece went missing by the time Spinden arrived to collect the carvings for the AMNH (Figure 1). The beams taken to New York, including another from Tikal Structure 10, were on joint display in the 1920s–a photograph exists to prove it. Only the Temple II beam remained on exhibit, however, when the Structure 10 beams were lent for an exhibit at the Museum of Primitive Art in 1966. In response to a loan request, Gordon Ekholm wrote on January 20, 1966, that the “larger one is in storage and the smaller one has been on exhibit.” In her response, Julie Jones (curator emerita from the Metropolitan Museum, then assistant curator of the MPA) confirmed that “the one in the exhibition hall is from Temple II.” In the records of the Museum of Primitive Art exhibition, “Tikal 1956-1966: Excavations in Maya Guatemala,” the Structure 10 lintel is the sole carving to appear in the checklist and installation photos (Figure 2).


Figure 2. “Tikal 1956-1966: Excavations in Maya Guatemala,” Museum of Primitive Art Exhibition 41, Installation Photo. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Museum of Primitive Art-Curatorial Files (AR.1999.3.5).

Thanks to the staff at the AMNH – Senior Scientific Assistant Sumru Aricanli and collections manager John Hansen – we were able to view and re-photograph the Temple II beam. This may be the first time in 50 years that the lintel has been examined by specialists. The surviving fragment is exceptionally well-preserved, and the surface retains a high polish that must have been achieved by applying an abrasive. Close inspection reveals that the ends of the beam had been burned in order to remove the slab from the doorway (Figure 3), a horrifying process described by Maler (1911:43). The beam had been sawn in two pieces of equal length, presumably by Spinden’s team. This would have eased transport out of the site, which could only have been done by mules. A portion of the surface from the lower right-hand corner, depicting part of the figure’s garment, had suffered a loss between the time of Maler’s photograph and the lintel’s arrival at the AMNH. The relief of the carving is 3-4 cm in some places. In several areas, the carvers had blocked out the raised portion and polished or finished the area around it first; only then did they hack into the raised portion for finer detail (Figure 3). This practice is also known on stone carvings at Palenque and elsewhere. A final detail is that the burned ends of the beam show the annular striations of the chicozapote (Manilkara zapote) from which the slab was carved. The inner core was at the center of this beam, its outer rings on its edges, suggesting that a medium-sized log—the wood is staggeringly heavy and unwieldy—had been split across its diameter and then trimmed down (see Figure 3; Ralph 1965: Fig. 2). The AMNH preserves many samples of wood shaved from the lintel. In the 1950s these had been prepared, it seems, for Linton Satterthwaite and colleagues to perform early C14 assays at the University Museum in Philadelphia. The samples hold out the promise for further, more refined testing.



Figure 3. (above) Detail of charred superior end of the beam showing tree rings (below). Detail of outline for deep relief carving. Courtesy of the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History (30.0/ 2955). Photos by James Doyle.


The carver was masterful. The beam depicts a female wearing an elaborately woven textile dress, a quetzal-feather headdress, and fine jade regalia. The headdress also contains knotted cloth and vegetal elements, as well as shorter, spotted feathers. The jade collar consists of plaques, beads, and masquettes. A representation of what could have been a jade hu’n element appears halfway down the body (Figure 4). The garment itself is highly complex. There are alternating fields of geometric brocades and elements of the sky band, including so-called “Zip-monsters,” angular muyal glyphs as symbolic clouds, along with a field that contains a Tlaloc-like visage close to the hem. The Tlaloc designs recall the Central Mexican imagery inserted by woodworkers into a portrait of Jasaw Chan K’awiil in the lintel of Temple I across the Great Plaza.


Figure 4. Details of the textile: (left) Hu’n jewel, (right) Tlaloc. Courtesy of the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History (30.0/ 2955). Photos by James Doyle.

The lady’s identity is impossible to confirm without an accompanying text or a tomb. Most likely, she was the person we now call Ix Lachan Unen Mo’ (“Lady 12 Baby Macaws”), the wife of Jasaw Chan K’awiil, the ruler of Tikal from AD 682-734 (Coggins 1975:455, 549-551; Martin and Grube 2008:46; Miller 1985:8). The late 7th– or early 8th-century date for the lintel accords well with the radiocarbon dates from Temple I’s lintels. Researchers found that one of the beams from Lintel 3 was cut and carved between AD 658-696 (Kennett et al. 2013:4; cf. Satterthwaite and Ralph 1960; Ralph 1965).


Figure 5. Ankle of Ix Lachan Unen Mo’. Courtesy of the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History (30.0/ 2955). Photos by James Doyle.

In the original publication by Pennsylvania (Coe, Shook, and Satterthwaite 1961: Fig. 17), the authors reconstructed the lintel with the help of a new photograph. The damage after Maler’s time was clear, as evidenced by surface losses and the bisecting saw cut. In this photo, too, the ankle is clearly visible where it was not in the original plate from Maler’s publication (Figure 5). Yet William Coe, a superlative draftsman, seems to have relied exclusively on Maler’s photo for his rendering. In it, the queen’s ankle is no longer visible.


Fig. 6. Tikal Str. 5D-2-1st (Temple II): Li. 2., modified by James Doyle after drawing by William R. Coe (Jones and Satterthwaite 1982: Fig. 71), Courtesy of the Penn Museum.

As we confirmed on our recent visit, the queen’s left foot does indeed emerge from the hem of the skirt below the Tlaloc image. What’s more, the ankle and instep of the foot are clearly distinguishable in the relief of the carving, the left foot turning outward (Figure 6). This indicates that the queen stood with splayed feet, a pose used by figures at the center of a composition. Cloaked in sky imagery, the lady was thus the main image of the lintel. Most likely, Temple II pertained to her, and, as Coggins and Miller suggested, the pyramid needs to be understood as a gendered feature of Tikal’s ancient landscape.


Special thanks to Dr. Charles Spencer, Curator of Mexican and Central American Archaeology, and Sumru Aricanli of the AMNH for facilitating a viewing of the lintel and allowing permission to publish the study photographs here.


Coe, William R., Edwin M. Shook, and Linton Satterthwaite

1961 Tikal Report No. 6, The Carved Wooden Lintels of Tikal. The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.


Coggins, Clemency C.

1975 Painting and Drawing Styles at Tikal: An Historical and Iconographic Reconstruction. Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Fine Arts, Harvard University, Cambridge.


Jones, Christopher, and Linton Satterthwaite

1982 Tikal Report No. 33 Part A, The Monuments and Inscriptions of Tikal: The Carved Monuments. The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.


Kennett, Douglas, Irka Hajdas, Brendan J. Culleton, Soumaya Belmecheri, Simon Martin, Hector Neff, Jaime Awe, Heather V. Graham, Katherine H. Freeman, Lee Newsom, David L. Lentz, Flavio S. Anselmetti, Mark Robinson, Norbert Marwan, John Southon, David A. Hodell, and Gerald H. Haug

2013 Correlating the Ancient Maya and Modern European Calendars with High-Precision AMS 14C Dating. Scientific Reports 3 (1597).


Maler, Teobert

1911 Explorations in the Department of Peten, Guatemala. Tikal. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum, vol. V, No. I, pp. 3–91. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.


Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube

2008 Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens (2nd ed.). Thames & Hudson, New York.


Miller, Mary E.

1985    Tikal, Guatemala: A Rationale for the Placement of the Funerary Pyramids. Expedition 27(3): 6–15


Ralph, Elizabeth K.

1965 Review of Radiocarbon Dates from Tikal and the Maya Calendar Correlation Problem. American Antiquity 30(4): 421–427.


Satterthwaite, Linton, and Elizabeth K. Ralph

1960 New Radiocarbon Dates and the Maya Correlation Problem. American Antiquity 26(2): 165–184.

Big Writing

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

The biggest text or inscription, discussed in a post by David Stuart (Most Massive Inscription), prompts another question. What is the largest writing, the most sizable character in any known script?

A recent trip to China revealed the most complex sign in that system (58 strokes, for Biángbiáng, a noodle we slurped by full moon, at Ramadan, in the Muslim quarter of Xi’an). In terms of sheer size, however, there are certain texts worth noting in the People’s Republic of China (Figure 1). Cheery red, an auspicious color for that society, they appear on separate billboards looking out from Xiamen in the People’s Republic. The intended recipient is the island of Kinmen or Quemoy in the Republic of China. Size gets the message across, “Peaceful Reunification” and “One Country Two Systems.” Built to last, a text on Quemoy, written in an older form of Chinese script, counters with its own slogan, “Three Principles of the People Unite China.” The declarations seem to be on auto-pilot, in mindless riposte to each other. Perhaps people read or notice them. I doubt it, though.  

Bigger texts, with bigger characters, occur elsewhere. The Hollywood sign, shaved down to 45 ft from its original height of 50 ft, is the most celebrated example (Figure 2). Also from China, recently spied from a rain-soaked Bund in Shanghai, is a garish nighttime display, I♥SH. Judging from floor height, each pixelated letter is about 100 feet high. Western states in the US insist on their own gigantism. To mark a school or university, they disfigure the sides of mountains with capital letters (Figure 3). The good people of Quartzsite, Arizona, intent on setting a record for Guinness, at least did so in non-permanent form. Using their own bodies, they formed a slightly wayward “Q” (for “Quartzsite”). Yet the unbeatable champions are the most ephemeral, the sky-writing that, having made its point, loses out to the wind (Figure 4). Or, in an example of pure megalomania, found for me by Steve Chrisomalis, there is the name of a sheikh in Abu Dhabi, visible from space (Sheikh’s Name from Space). Each letter is approximately 500 m long. The sheikh, a member of the royal family, has since had the letters removed, apparently at the insistence of his kin. He still owns the world’s largest jeep, built at a scale of 4:1 (Hamad). 

Bigness has a reason. It obtrudes, insists on being read. It imposes. To create or maintain such letters or characters involves a level of control or will that is beyond the ordinary. There is also sheer legibility and the intended size of an audience. The letters had better be big to be seen from Quemoy, the Bund, a valley bottom in Utah or by people spread out across Los Angeles. Yet these observations, all clearly valid, do not quite capture the local decisions or conditions behind big signs. Why should a university be allowed to impair the beauty of a mountain, a developer erect “Hollywood[land]” or the owner of a Chinese skyscraper broadcast a banal saying to thousands?  Is the owner the “I” of that display or is the love of Shanghai a sentiment that each viewer is obliged to share?

Being big, then, is to be unavoidable, to underscore clout, and to be seen by many.  The Maya evidence shows why some of this holds true, but why scale could have other motivations. There is little doubt that the large size of the stucco glyphs on the Temple of the Inscriptions, Tikal, has much to do with ensuring legibility from far below (Tikal Temple VI). Dimensions are about 85 cm across (Martin 2015:2). This also applies, probably, to the abysmally published glyphs of Early Classic date on the roof comb of Structure A-2 at Río Azul, Guatemala (Adams 1999:fig. 3-19; Figure 5). Other glyphs of large size must have had alternative motivations. Río Azul is also known for the large directional witz or “hill” glyphs that adorn the walls of now-decayed tombs (their erosion is one of the scandals of Maya archaeology; Figure 6). Then there are the inexplicably large glyphs on the sides of Yaxha Stela 3–their exact dimensions are unavailable to me now, but, if memory serves, they measure well in excess of 40 cm high (Figure 7). The real Maya champions, however, are not those on Tikal Temple VI, but the “giant ajaw” glyphs and “giant ajaw” altars that concentrate at sites like Caracol, Belize (e.g., Altar 6, Figure 8, Beetz and Satterthwaite 1981:84, fig. 21b). None of these signs ever exceed human height, evidently an operative limit. For those that stand alone, there may have been an existential property at play.  The glyphs are almost figural, glyphic but atextual. Their size reflects a mindset in which practical reasons for large scale–visibility, assertion, intrusion–gave way to signs made big because they existed as places and people.


My thanks go to Steve Chrisomalis, Simon Martin, and Felipe Rojas for their thoughts on Bigness.


Adams, Richard E. W. 1999. Río Azul: An Ancient Maya City. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Beetz, Carl P., and Linton Satterthwaite, Jr. 1981. The Monuments and Inscriptions of Caracol, Belize. University Museum Monograph 45. Philadelphia: University Museum, University of Pennsylvania.

Martin, Simon. 2015. The Dedication of Tikal Temple VI: A Revised Chronology. The PARI Journal 15(3):1-10.