REPORT: An Earful of Glyphs from Guatemala 5

by Stephen Houston and Alexandre Tokovinine

A by-product of giving public talks is that, at times, a member of the audience will introduce themselves and offer an unexpected image: a glyphic text not seen before or since. This happened to Houston in 1994, at a Maya Society meeting in Washington, DC. The chat was brief, the name of the owner escapes us now (if it was ever noted), and the photos settled into one of many piles in Houston’s office. Yet such finds are always worth sharing, whatever their current location.

Figure 1. Photograph of earspool set and “hair-ornament” (Photographer unknown)

Figure 1. Photograph of earspool set and “hair-ornament” (Photographer unknown)

Figure 2. Same photograph with enhancement (Photographer unknown, enhancement courtesy of Simon Martin).

Figure 2. Same photograph with enhancement (Photographer unknown, enhancement courtesy of Simon Martin).

Figure 3. Drawing of set by Alexandre Tokovinine.

Figure 3. Drawing of set by Alexandre Tokovinine.

The attached images and drawings—the latter by Tokovinine, with slight suggestions by Houston—show a set of earspools and what might be a perforated jade bead to gather a ponytail or serve as a forehead ornament (Figures 1, 2 and 3). There was no scale in the photograph, but the assumption is that the earspools were fairly large, perhaps 7 to 9 cm across, at least to judge from similar examples with known measurements (e.g., K1365, K3166). Carved by the same lapidary artist, the pair clearly forms a coherent whole. One depicts the so-called “baktun” bird, perhaps a celestial eagle. Its pectoral indicates some close but unspecified tie to the Principal Bird Deity. The other displays, not a bird in full flight, but a swimming lizard with scutes running up and down his front and back legs. The central design, a quadripartite element with four lobes, appears to represent a cavity at the center of each creature. Was this a witty reference to the central perforation or an allusion to their emergent state?

Cosmic layering must have related in some poorly understood manner to the display function of such earspools, one to either side of a ruler or nobleman’s face (Carter et al. 2012; The creatures on our earspools do not, however, show any evidence of complementary orientation. Rather than facing into the royal visage, as in some ornaments with human bodies or faces, they appear to face in the same direction. The position of the glyphs on the reptile or turtle suggests that it was oriented so that the text could be viewed in vertical position. The “Baktun” bird is less clear in placement.

The site from which these objects came is uncertain. Two possibilities come to mind:

(1) On the reptile earspool, the main sign of the Naranjo emblem occurs with the number 4, at the beginning of that text (the number “6” also occurs with this sign on Naranjo Stela 45 and a stucco frieze found by William Saturno at Xultun and reported at the 2013 Texas Maya Meetings). The presence of the number hints at cosmic directional symbolism. Perhaps the following glyphs designate a place within a particular location. Presumably, the first glyph reads AHK-ku or AHK-TUUN, followed by a toponymic sequence that is well-attested in Maya inscriptions (Stuart and Houston 1994:figure 9). Indeed, the reptile on the earspool may refer to the toponym in some way.

Figure 4.  Name of Naatz Chan Ahk on Naranjo Stela 45 (Field Drawing by Alexandre Tokovinine).

Figure 4. Name of Naatz Chan Ahk on Naranjo Stela 45 (Field Drawing by Alexandre Tokovinine).

There are other dynastic links on the “Baktun” bird, close to another earspool discovered in Tomb 2 of Río Azul 1 At the back of the bird, carried notionally on its back (cf. K2131, of the Principal Bird Deity), is na-tzu-[CHAN?]AHK, a ruler of Naranjo, Naatz Chan Ahk (Martin and Grube 2008:70-71). The chan (or kan) glyph seems to be missing here, but it may have been elided or incorporated into the ahk head, as on Naranjo Stela 45 (Figure 4).

(2) A similar name occurs at Río Azul, also from the Early Classic period. The name appears in two places. The first is on a looted vessel in the Detroit Museum of Fine Arts (#1984.12.A, formerly Peter Wray collection, see also K1446; Taylor 2000). The Detroit vessel likely originated in the sacked Río Azul Tomb 12, which contains the second example: na-tzu-AHK (Adams 1999:Figure 3-16). The Detroit vessel shows the turtle with gaping mouth and pronounced beak. In an email, David Stuart wonders whether this creature is a snapping turtle, that ferocious consumer of human toes and fingers. After all, the snapper is, in Stuart’s memorable phrase, the “badass of turtles”!

Figure 5. Incised turtle shell with name highlighted in grey-tone (Drawing by Linda Schele).

Figure 5. Incised turtle shell with name highlighted in grey-tone (Drawing by Linda Schele).

The parallel with the earspool from Tomb 2 at Río Azul is suggestive. The living lord appears, not on the tail of the bird, but on its head. Our suspicion is that the name on our earspool is a hitherto undetected ruler of Naranjo or, perhaps less likely, of Río Azul. The glyphs are difficult to read with any precision, but may have included a WAHY(IS) — note the characteristic percentage sign on the forehead of the spelling on the turtle shell. In all likelihood, the same ruler owned, as a MAM, “grandfather/ancestor,” an incised turtle shell that is also unprovenanced (Figure 5, note the highlighted glyph). Could this object have come from the same deposit as the earspools?

Incidentally, it is intriguing that the turtle shell was called a yu-k’e-sa?, “weeper,” a tag found in another context by Marc Zender (2010:84, pl. 43; cf. the so-called “Pearlman Conch,” now in the Chrysler Museum of Art, #86.457, Coe 1982:123, with its unambiguous yu-k’e-sa). Clearly used in music making, these objects might have been less about joyful celebration than a different intent, to make the sounds of mourning or the keening summons of spirits. Indeed, many Maya objects, especially of ancestral shells, might have been rough equivalents to the jet mourning jewelry of the Victorians: a reminder and fetishized evocation of the deceased.

As for the bead or hair- or forehead ornament, there is little to be said: a K’AWIIL above the head of a human being with K’IN earspool.

Any addition to the corpus of texts is welcome. These finds, taken illicitly from Guatemala, remind us of how little is known about Maya ornament. Of small size but large meaning, they invite closer study and broader comparison.


Note 1. This earspool is on display in the Museo Nacional in Guatemala City, with the name of a local ruler, JOL-BAHLAM, on its head. The same name occurs on Temple Structure A-2 at the site, reproduced in a lamentable drawing by R. E. W. Adams (1999:Figure 3-19, B7).


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

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;

Coe, Michael D. 1982. Old Gods and Young Heroes: The Pearlman Collection of Maya Ceramics. Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

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

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.

Taylor, Dicey. 2000. A Chocolate Cup for Eternity in the Road of Awe: The Detroit Cylinder Tripod. Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts 74(1-2):4–19.

Diadems in the Rough 9

by Stephen Houston

The ritual role of paper is by now a commonplace in studies of Classic Maya royalty. Kings show their station by wearing headbands, presumably made from the cortex of the strangler fig or amate (Ficus sp.), kopo’ in some Mayan languages.(Note 1)

Much could be written about Classic paper. There is the matter of its manufacture with “bark beaters.” Lashed to wooden handles, these grooved tools helped to mash and fuse fibers for eventual smoothing, sizing with lime-powder, and painting.(Note 2) Epigraphers might pay more attention to the reading of “paper” in Maya texts: hu’n, a term cueing “book,” “headband,” even “diadem” or “crown.” (Note 3) (The material came first, other meanings later.) Yet not all head coverings were Ficus. Some years ago, Michael Coe noted the probable use of henequen fibers in some headdresses (Coe 1973:49). An uncomfortable material, perhaps, but it was also durable, shapable, dramatic in effect, light to wear.

Two glyphic spellings indicate a third material for headgear. A paper, hu’n, it nonetheless seems to consist of something other than Ficus. One example occurs on Aguateca Stela 1, dating to AD 741 (Fig. 1; Graham 1967:fig. 3). The text offers an

Fig. 1. Figure 1. Aguateca Stela 1:A7, with close-up of royal headband (Graham 1967:figs. 2, 3).

unusual lead-up to the accession of a ruler, K’awiil Chan K’inich of Aguateca and Dos Pilas, by referring to an act of ka-cha-ji u-sa-ya-HU’N. The root is doubtless related to “tying,” kach, an event entirely appropriate for a headband (Grube 1992:213). In this spelling, the hu’n itself is visible as a paper bow. The reference comes 22 days prior to enthronement and may represent the pre-accession tying of a headband or the preparation of regalia for the ceremony. Another spelling is on the famed “Princeton Vase” at the Princeton Art Museum (Fig. 2; K511; Coe 1978:pl. 1). An ‘a-sa-ya HU’N-na is clearly visible at positions L2-K3, although the context is opaque. The caption, alluding to a person—note the agentive ‘a (or is it a pronoun, “your”?)—may refer to the scene of God L and his harem.

Figure 2. Princeton Vase, close up of caption (Coe 1978:pl. 1, photograph copyright Justin Kerr).

What can be made of these references to hu’n, once in secure connection to regalia and accession to high office?

An ethnography of the Q’eqchi’ Maya draws attention to a sedge, a grass or rush-like plant known as say (Cyperus sp.; Wilson 1972: 148, 169, 260, Table 19): “Today the principal fiber plant apart from ik’e (maguey) is a sedge, saySay is used by plaiting rather than spinning; the three faces of the stem are split apart and woven into fine mats (sayil pōp) on which to sit or sleep.” Use of say appears to have been gendered among the Q’eqchi’, as it was worked only by women. Say produces a finer product than other plaited or twilled materials, and the Ch’orti’, too, made full use of it (Wisdom 1940:153-154; yet note Ch’orti’ pohp’ for “sedge”). Ground up and mixed with oil for poultice, the sedge was employed by Ch’orti’ midwives, at least until the 1930s, to heal the umbilical wounds of babies (Wisdom 1940:288): soothing, applicable at a key moment in life’s passage. Colonial Yukatek refers to the same material, as in the Calepino Motul: “Çay [say] el coraçón o junco de que hazen petates o esteras” or “the heart or rush from which petates or mats are made” (Cuidad Real 2001:136).

There is another possibility too. Colonial and recent Tzotzil mention a tree called saya-vun [hun], “saya-paper,” a wild mulberry (Morus celtidfolia; Breedlove and Laughlin 2000: 142, 153). A plant from a related plant, like Ficus and the mulberry in the Moraceae family, was commonly used in Polynesia for tapa cloth and throughout Asia as the basis of a resilient and valued paper (Seelenfreund et al. 2010). What is striking in the image on Aguateca Stela 1 is that a lashing around the forehead is cross-hatched. This is either because it is dark—a common Maya convention—or because it renders a rougher, more textured material (Fig. 1).

The Classic Maya wove, plaited, twilled, and otherwise joined materials from the vegetal world around them. Two glyphic examples suggest that some such works were labeled as “paper” yet from fibers that were coarser and tougher than Ficus. Truly: diadems in the rough. A second option is that, as in Asia and Polynesia, where the tradition had great antiquity, the Maya transformed mulberry into a high-quality paper for ritual use.


Note 1. A useful paper by Erik Boot highlights a pot with a text reading, in part, u-ko-po-lo che-‘e-bu (Boot 1997: 64-67, fig. 4, photographed by Justin Kerr as K7786). Boot proposes u-po-ko-lo, from a root meaning “wash,” for the first glyph block. I might suggest a different order, with signs that sequence from upper left to lower left, then pass from upper right to lower right. The relevance here is that kopol could be an adjectival reference to amate, kopol, in connection to che’b, “quill, brush.” Thus, “fig-tree-quill.” Whatever the interpretation, the presence of the term in a name-tag remains enigmatic—at least we know that the owner of this bowl served a higher-ranking ajaw. In my view, a second example noted by Boot, MT347, from Burial 160 at Tikal, possibly with po-ko-lo, is fragmentary and the context uncertain. I am unsure how it relates to the spelling on K7786.

Note 2. For controversy about such objects, there is no beating Paul Tolstoy on barkbeaters, which he understood in pan-diffusionist terms (Tolstoy 1963, 1981). The first discussion of such objects appears in Uhle (1889-90), likening New World examples to comparable pieces from Sulawesi.

Note 3. Excellent discussion of the phonology and glyphic spellings appears in Grube (2004: 65-66, 73). In 1986, Don Federico Fahsen showed me two texts in Guatemala, both from the early years of the Late Classic period, both painted in similar style if not by the same hand. I immediately noticed a sign alternation of the sort that is so productive in decipherment. The number “one” alternated in crisp pattern with a sign combination that, in Glyph F of the inscriptions, represented a Maya book (this last identification was made with great style and insight by Michael Coe [1977]). The unavoidable conclusion, for those ceramics, at the time of their painting: the word for “one,” jun, was a near-homophone of the term for “book,” hu’n. The phonological details of the words were less clear in the 1980s. Now, I would read “one” as juun, “book” or “paper” as hu’n, following the evidence and reasoning in Robertson et al. (2007:7, 48). The scribe or atelier producing these ceramics would have been unusually expansive in their embrace of homophony.

Sources Cited

Boot, Erik. 1997. Classic Maya Vessel Classification: Rare Vessel Type Collocations Containing the Noun Cheb “Quill.” Estudios de historia social y económica de America, vol. 15, pp. 59-76.’Quill’.pdf

Breedlove, Dennis E., and Robert M. Laughlin. 2000. The Flowering of Man: A Tzotzil Botany of Zinacantán. Abridged edition. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.

Ciudad Real, Antonio de. 2001. Calepino Maya de Motul, edición crítica y anotada por Réne Acuña. Plaza y Valdés Editores, México, DF.

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

___________. 1977. Supernatural Patrons of Maya Scribes and Artists. In Social Process in Maya Prehistory: Studies in Honour of Sir Eric Thompson, ed. by N. Hammond, pp. 327-347. Academic Press, London.

___________. 1978. Lords of the Underworld: Masterpieces of Classic Maya Ceramics. Art Museum, Princeton University, Princeton.

Graham, Ian. 1967. Archaeological Explorations in El Peten, Guatemala. Middle American Research Institute, Publication 33. Tulane University, New Orleans.

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, Number 62.

Grube, Nikolai. 1992. Classic Maya Dance: Evidence from Hieroglyphs and Iconography. Ancient Mesoamerica, vol. 3, pp. 201-218. 2004. The Orthographic Distinction between Velar and Glottal Spirants in Maya Hieroglyphic Writing, The Linguistics of Maya Writing, ed. by Søren Wichmann, pp. 61-81. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Tolstoy, Paul. 1963. Cultural Parallels between Southeast Asia and Mesoamerica in the Manufacture of Bark-cloth. Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol. 25, pp. 646–662.

__________. 1991. Paper route: Were the Man the Manufacture and Use of Bark Paper Introduced into Mesoamerica from Asia? Natural History, vol. 100, no. 6, pp. 6-8, 10, 12-14.

Seelenfreund, D., A. C. Clarke, N. Oyanedel, R. Piña, S. Lobos, E.A. Matisoo-Smith, and A. Seelenfreund. 2010. Paper Mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera) as a Commensal Model for Human Mobility in Oceania: Anthropological, Botanical, and Genetic considerations. New Zealand Journal of Botany, vol. 48, pp. 3-4, 231-247.

Uhle, Max, 1889–90. Kultur und Industrie südamerikanischer Völker. A. Ascher, Berlin.

Wilson, Michael R. 1972. A Highland Maya People and Their Habitat: The Natural History, Demography, and Economy of the K’ekchi’. Ph.D. dissertation, Dept. of Geography, University of Oregon.

Wisdom, Charles. 1940. The Chorti Maya of Guatemala. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Heavenly Bodies 10

by Stephen D. Houston

As usual, Shakespeare (or Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons) said it all: “…the moon … new-bent in heaven, shall behold the night of our solemnities.”

That a correspondence might exist between a celestial body and terrestrial events is hardly strange. Every tide shows this to be so. But the relation of humans to celestial motions is less clear. Some scholars find a secure correlation between the moon and menstruation in human females; others dispute it entirely (cf. Cutler et al. 1987; Folin and Rizzotti 2001:542, also Fehring et al. 2006:6-7). We do know that the Maya linked the moon to a young woman of child-bearing age. Her favored company: a rabbit, the light-fingered trickster of Classic Maya thought and an emblem of fecundity.[Note 1]

Maya dynasts had a long stake in the sky. A basic unit of time was, of course, the k’in, meaning “day” but also “sun.” Royalty associated themselves with the Sun God, invoking his name as a key prefix to their own. But what of the moon?  In the late 1980s my colleagues Barb Macleod, Nikolai Grube, and Dave Stuart sorted out the varied glyphs that went into hul, “arrive.” Hearing of this, the obvious hit me. I am sure it did to some others, too. In one such variant, especially in Glyph D of the Lunar Series, the moon-sign was not the verbal suffix I supposed it to be. It cued the moon. This had to apply equally to Glyph C, which also bore the lunar sign.

By now, epigraphers understand the elements of Glyph D. The compound consists of a number followed by a hand with an extended index finger. That finger points to a lunar crescent. (In Maya imagery, extended fingers mark conversation or emphatic declaration.) The position of the crescent to the right side, concavity to the left, is understandable. At first crescent this is precisely the shape and orientation of the moon. Underneath the hand and moon cluster two glyphic syllables, li and ya. Along with certain specialists, I view these as providing a phonic reinforcement for the final consonant in hul, a marker of single-argument predicates (-i), and a past-tense suffix (-iiy).

Figure 1. a) Balakbal Stela 5:A5 (Ruppert and Denison 1943:pl. 56a); b) Tikal Stela 40:A7 (photograph by D. Chauche); c) Piedras Negras Throne 1:B’3 (Thompson 1971:fig. 58); d) “Siegal Mask”:B4 (drawing by author); e) Calakmul celt (drawing by Alexandre Tokovinine); f) NAR Stela 24:C7-C10, and g) E3-D7 (drawings by Ian Graham, CMHI, Peabody Museum, Harvard University).

Finding an early example of this glyph is somewhat difficult. The sample is ragged. One of the first must occur on Balakbal Stela 5:A5, dating to May 16, AD 406 (Julian). Tikal Stela 40, from June 19, AD 468 (Julian), has it too, at position A7 (Fig. 1a, 1b, respectively). For these and other examples the likelihood is that the “arrivals” refer to the sighting of the new moon as crescent. I find this credible. A rare variant sign is a human eye peering out of a moon glyph. Perhaps this refers to first-sighting (Fig. 1c; note, however, that this may be less the eye of an observer than the Moon Goddess within).[Note 2]  I would also speculate that the numbers stray from astronomical predictions—deducible by calculation—because of the difficulties of detection. During the rainy season, bad weather would work mischief with naked-eye astronomy. The example from Balakbal lies about 10 days from its predicted value, the Tikal reference 3 days or so. In both cases, the recorded number is less than the predicted quantity, a pattern consistent with observational error. (One wonders, if this held up, whether weather patterns might be loosely reconstructible for the Classic period! High deviance from prediction would be more likely during rainy seasons.)

The gist of it: at some point, Classic scribes transferred an expression for celestial motion to the arrivals of kings and queens. Heavenly bodies accorded with royal ones. An early version of non-planetary arrival employs the “moon-observation” but to describe the motions of deities—in fact, all such gods on heaven and earth (kanal k’uh, kab[al] k’uh). Their destination is a flowery place (Fig. 1d; Houston and Inomata 2009:fig. 2.3). A later spelling, on a re-used and re-cut jade from Calakmul Tomb 1, Structure 3, carts the expression into a firmly dynastic setting. Somewhat flamboyant—the gesturing hand sports a bracelet, the moon nestles the God or Goddess—the text recounts an arrival at El Zotz, Guatemala, or Yaxchilan, Mexico (Fields and Tokovinine 2012:fig. 99a; the exact site cannot be resolved on present evidence.)

Then there is the celebrated arrival of a princess from Dos Pilas at the site of Naranjo, where she resuscitates the local dynasty (Fig. 1f). About 16 years after the arrival she performs an important sacrifice with the “Stingray-spine” God (a reading first noted by Stuart) and at some point impersonates the Moon Goddess herself (Fig. 1g). That the texts highlight an arrival, the birth of an heir, and the princess’ bloodletting and impersonation as Moon Goddess savors of an overall arc of lunation and cycles of fecundity in females. I doubt it is a coincidence that hula means menstruo o regla de la mujer in Colonial Yukatek. Consider also a term for the Moon Goddess in the Dresden Codex, sak ixik, close to sakal ixik in Yukatek, also for menstruo (Barrera Vásquez 1980:242; also Dresden 18b, 19b).[Note 3] The Dresden may even allude to such cycles in its Moon Goddess pages, which seem unusually concerned with spouses and coupling. On Dresden 21b there is a possible phrase, HUL?-IXIK ya-TA-na, “Ixik arrives, the spouse of…” The HUL is in a late form but notably similar to its Classic precursor. Is the “arrival” metaphoric? A repetitive cycle of xa-HUL?-li KAB-ba > xahuli kab, on Madrid 107 raises the possibility of re-visits. Note the prefix xa, “more” or “again” in Colonial Ch’olti’ (Robertson et al. 2010:180-181, 333).

The merger of celestial and royal movement establishes an intriguing simile. The actions of one might mirror the other. For certain arrivals, the very order of heaven traced out in human activity. Perhaps, to draw a necessary inference, Maya sakbih or causeways need evaluation as the possible correlates of heavenly motion.


(1) Oswaldo Chinchilla (2011:199, figs. 86-87, 89) makes a plausible case for a male Moon god as well, with Maize God characteristics—perhaps, to judge from a text on the extraordinary “Hunal Ye box” (now on display in the Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología in Guatemala City), he was Glyph 10A (30) lunation, the female variant being—to conjecture wildly—Glyph 9A (29). A key image is from a pot (K5166) formerly in the Ranieri collection in Crystal River, Florida. When we visited the collection in 2002 or so, David Stuart observed that the vase highlights a sequence of beings that are surely related to the deities in Glyph C of the Lunar Series. There is a Maize God, along with companions like a Death God and God L, 6 in total, a pattern consistent with the 6-month lunation noted long ago by John Teeple. The male deities are in positions of entreaty, subordination, or with the opposed hands, wrists touching, that mark courtship dance in Maya imagery (e.g., K554)—are they “suitors” of the Moon Goddess, supplicants to a coy Penelope? The pot is the best evidence available that certain images are astral or planetary in nature. Stuart detected the sequence of such heads, including the Moon Goddess, in the Xultun murals (Saturno et al. 2012: 715, fig. 2). There, however, the sequence appears to consist of only 3 deities in order.

(2) By Terminal Classic times, the sign could be used flexibly to convey sound rather than meaning, as on Seibal Stela 9:D2, K’UH-HUL > k’uhul. “Seeing” also plays a role in a rare spelling in the Lunar Series, on the Palenque Palace Tablet:B15 or Copan Stela N:A10. In place of Glyph D it presents three elements: K’UH or K’UHUL, an icon for “seeing,” and a possible ordinal, “first.” I remain agnostic about the precise reading order of these signs, but the overall intent is to describe the first sighting of a god or a first “divine” sighting. Another form of Glyph D, found in the Initial Series Text in Room 1 of the Bonampak Murals, La Rejolla Stela 1:B5-A6, and Copan Stela I:B6, is more opaque: k’i~K’A’?-ji~hi-ya HUL-li-ya. Is this form of a “finished journey,” k’a’ with, perhaps, an epenthetic aspirate, based on the well-known expression for “death”? Or is it a completely different term? A more transparent sense of movement is in a spelling of Glyph D from a Coba altar drawn by Ian Graham: BIX-ya HUL-li-ya, with the sense of a past day and of human passage (Stuart 1987:33).

(3) A recent volume on codical astronomy argues that this supernatural, Goddess I in the Schellhas nomenclature, is unrelated to the moon (Bricker and Bricker 2011:674-679).  One challenge is that the book overlooks the unambiguous reading of her name glyph, Ixik or Sak Ixik, “Lady” or “White Lady.” I suspect the “white” refers to “weaving” or a clear moon (Barrera Vásquez 1980:709, 710). To be sure, there are ambiguities in the overall identification. Some time ago, in a redaction of his doctoral thesis, Taube pointed out that the goddess fails to appear with a moon sign in the Dresden Codex (Taube 1992:64-69). He nonetheless concludes, correctly I am certain, “it is likely ….Goddess I [is] related to the Classic period moon goddess” (Taube 1992:69). The complexity may arise from a complex or layered evocation: a procreative female, not Ixchel, whom Taube has shown to be an aged midwife, healer, and agent of destruction. The young female’s attributes include fertility and links to the moon.

Sources cited:

Barrera Vásquez, Alfredo. 1980. Diccionario Maya Cordemex, Maya-Español, Español-Maya. Ediciones Cordemex, Mérida. Bricker, Harvey M., and Victoria R. Bricker. 2011. Astronomy in the Maya Codices. American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia.

Chinchilla Mazariegos, Oswaldo. 2011. Imágenes de la mitología maya. Museo Popol Vuh, Guatemala City.

Cutler, Winnifred B., Wolfgang M. Schleidt, Erika Freidmann, George Preti, and Robert Stine. 1987. Lunar Influences on the Reproductive Cycle in Women. Human Biology, vol. 59, no. 6, pp. 959-972.

Fehring, Richard, Mary Schneider, and Kathleen Raviele. 2006. Variability in the Phases of the Menstrual Cycle. Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, and Neonatal Nursing, vol. 35, no. 3, pp. 376-384.

Fields, Virginia M., and Alexandre Tokovinine. 2012. Belt Plaque, Plate 18. In Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks, ed. by Joanne Pillsbury, Miriam Doutriaux, Reiko Ishihara-Brito, and Alexandre Tokovinine, Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Number 4, pp. 178-183. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC.

Folin, M., and M. Rizzotti. 2001. Lunation and Primate Menses. Earth, Moon, and Planets, vol. 85-86, pp. 539-544.

Houston, Stephen D., and Takeshi Inomata. 2008. The Classic Maya. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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

Ruppert Karl, and John H. Denison, Jr. 1943. Archaeological Reconnaissance in Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Peten, Publication 543. Carnegie Institution of Washington, DC.

Saturno, William A., David Stuart, Anthony Aveni, and Franco Rossi. 2012. Ancient Maya Astronomy from Xultun, Guatemala. Science, vol. 336, pp. 714-717.

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

Taube, Karl A. 1992. The Major Gods of Ancient Yucatan. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art & Archaeology, No 32. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC.

Thompson, J. Eric S. 1971. Maya Hieroglyphic Writing: An Introduction, 3rd ed. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

A Liquid Passage to Manhood 6

by Stephen Houston

A few years ago I proposed that some of the most celebrated Maya vases were commissioned for young men in Classic society (Houston 2009: 166). My thoughts at the time: “pots with such labels could have been bestowed in the setting of age-grade rituals or promotions, a recognition of feasting and expensive drinks as markers of adult status, even trophies and material honours while in page service, ballplay or war.” The notion appealed to me on behalf of all those ungainly, ever-changing youth in past and present times—as a set, the boys and young men could be seen as an unexpected aesthetic locus, a target for what was arguably the summit of ceramic painting in the ancient New World. But this idea involved a second, very specific expectation. The painted vessels so-named and so-possessed would involve not only young men but youths at times of change, on transit through the rites of passage so familiar to comparative anthropology.

A fresh piece of evidence lends weight to this conjecture. An eroded and shattered cylindrical vessel in the Juan Antonio Valdés Museum in Uaxactun, Guatemala, contains the usual Primary Standard Sequence. The glyphs have a cadenced coloration of two red-painted glyphs followed by one left uncolored. This scheme recalls the Primary Standard Sequences on such luminous vessels as a bowl from the area of Tikal, now in the Museo Popol Vuh (Kerr #3395; the presence of Jasaw Chan K’awiil’s name on the bowl brackets it temporally to AD 682 ~ 734; see also K #595). The vessel in Uaxactun has the following sequence, somewhat occluded by the darkness of the photographs I have seen: ….u-tz’i ba-IL yu-k’i-bi ti-YAX-CH’AHB ch’o-ko AJ-?BAHLAM che-he-na SAK-MO’-‘o ?-?…., the final glyphs surely the name of the painter. Figure 1 reproduces a key passage, the name of the drinking vessel (yuk’ib), just before an expression ti yax ch’ahb, “for the first fast/penance(?).” Then, crucially, the name of the owner, a ch’ok or “youth.”

Figure 1. Passage on a vessel in the Juan Antonio Valdés Museum (drawing by author).

As Stuart and others have noted, the yax ch’ahb refers to a rite of passage for young males, perhaps most eloquently in a text from Caracol Stela 3 (Stuart 2008; also Houston et al. 2006: 131-132, fig. 3.30). There, a young prince, only a few months beyond 5 years of age, underwent this arduous rite. It formed part of his first bloodletting but probably involved much other pain besides, including the denial of food. The import is clear: the vessel at Uaxactun was intended specifically for an age-grade ritual, the first (presumably) of many sacrificial offerings from a noble youth. Did it offer a filling and restorative draft of liquid after penance? Was it a gift to others who might witness his ascent to adult duty? Of these matters we cannot be certain. But the likelihood is now stronger that most such vessels marked and materialized shifts of status: a liquid passage from boyhood to the obligations of elite men.


Houston, Stephen. 2009. A Splendid Predicament: Young Men in Classic Maya Society. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 19 (2): 149-178.

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.

Stuart, David. 2008. A Childhood Ritual on The Hauberg Stela. Maya Decipherment weblog

A Watery Tableau at El Mirador, Guatemala 3

by James Doyle (Brown University) and Stephen Houston (Brown University)

The impersonation of gods abounds in Classic Maya texts and imagery (Houston, Stuart, and Taube 2006: 270-275). Humans donned elaborate masks and costumes to channel deities and to perform dances or reenactments of mythic actions. It is now clear that there were Late Preclassic antecedents to such ritual: for example, Kaminaljuyu Stela 11 displays the “x-ray” view of a lord’s face within the head of the Principal Bird Deity (Fields and Reents-Budet, eds., 2005: Cat. 6, 104-105; see also here). The appearance of a possible masked performer in the Preclassic is hardly surprising. Places for performance and assembly– visible pyramid apices, tiered façades, and plaster-covered plazas — reached their pinnacle size at many Lowland Maya sites.

A recent discovery by the important project at El Mirador, Guatemala, consists of a long set of stucco friezes that depicts two more examples of Late Preclassic deity impersonation (Figure 1). The façades are located in a prominent pathway running east-west in the center of the “Central Acropolis.” They appear to front a large plaza at the base of the “Tecolote” pyramid complex, perhaps adorning part of an ancient water collection system (see map). The figures on the lower frieze have been associated with the Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, protagonists of the colonial K’iche Maya creation story, the Popol Vuh (Hansen et al. 2011: 190). Yet, in our view, these figures represent god impersonators and bear no secure connection to twins in the Popol Vuh.

Figure 1. 3D scans of El Mirador friezes, University of South Florida, Alliance for Integrated Spatial Technologies,

The lower, more prominent façade contains three beings: two humans with large headdresses, and the large profile head. The figure on the left, whose face is partially damaged, wears a headdress and shell ear spools. His one visible eye has the inverted-“L” found on some early gods; his mouth displays a circular outline, his outstretched arms and bent legs conform to the pattern of many diving figures in Maya art (see Taube et al. 2010: Fig. 54A).

The central figure strikes a similar posture but in the opposite direction. Both are framed by the diagonal elements with elliptical or volute decorations that recall primordial, living sky bands. The attributes of these bands mark them as maxillae of the animate sky, complete with curved fangs and other teeth; another well-known example is present in a Late Preclassic frieze from Calakmul (Carrasco Vargas 2005: Figure 3, 4).

Figure 2: Chahk figures with curled foreheads or hair (blue) and shell ear spools (green). (a) Calakmul Frieze (drawing by James Doyle after Carrasco Vargas 2005: Fig. 3, 4); (b) Uaxactun Group H Frieze (drawing by James Doyle after Valdés 1993: Fig. 50); (c) Kaminaljuyu Stela 4 (drawing by James Doyle after Taube 1996: Fig. 16b); (d),(e) Izapa Stela 1 (drawings by James Doyle after Taube 1996: Fig. 15a, e); (f) El Mirador Lower Frieze, detail (drawing by James Doyle and Stephen Houston).

The central figure wears a simple knotted belt with an effigy head attached to his lower back. His headdress and chinstrap form the gaping jaws of what is likely a version of Chahk, the god of rain (see Taube 1996: Fig. 15, 16): the diagnostic elements are the curled forehead (or hair) and especially the Spondylus ear spool (Figure 2). The figure on the viewer’s left shares many of the same features, but with different, tufted forehead, as though referring to another aspect of the rain deity. Other such costumed diving figures with curled foreheads appear on contemporaneous stucco friezes at Uaxactun Group H (Valdés 1993: Fig. 50), and Calakmul (Carrasco Vargas 2005: Figure 3, 4).

The profile head on the far right of the lower frieze resembles the many depictions of mountains as breathing beasts in Preclassic and Classic period iconography, such as the witz depicted on the North Wall at San Bartolo (Saturno et al. 2005: 14-21). Perhaps there was another such head on the opposite side, framing this scene as a mythic, mountainous locale from which clouds emerged. This trope in particular goes back to Chalcatzingo Monument 1 (Grove, ed. 1987:115-117) and highlighted in variant form on the San Bartolo North Wall.

The upper façade is an early water-band that contains two large water birds with outstretched wings. The water-band passes over two bulbous cloud or muy elements with swirling volutes, another, archaic guise of Chahk (see Stone and Zender 2011: 142-143). A fascinating detail of the upper frieze is that the artist(s) gave faces – in an archaic, almost “Olmec” style with a snarling upper lip and a single tooth – to the clouds, as if they are peering upward at the water. The central bird figure has the head of an older deity within its breast. This enigmatic bird-god figure appears on many Classic Maya vessels (e.g., K8538, K6181, K6438, K3536, see Finamore and Houston, eds. 2010: 104; see also a related Spondylus shell creature on stuccoed vessel K2027), and is not well understood. The bird on the left of the upper frieze (see here) is likely a cormorant, which possibly would have held a fish in its beak (see K6218, Finamore and Houston, eds. 2010: 103). The water band, probably representing flowing streams of water, as well as avian themes are also present on a slightly later stucco altar from Aguacatal, Campeche (Houston et al. 2005).

The stucco artists of El Mirador were concerned with rain, clouds, waters, Chahk, and water birds that all flow together in the Maya view of grand, hydrological cycles. Perhaps the friezes show a situational composition – a Late Preclassic view of the rainy sky and the water that swirls around in it. Or, perhaps the artists commemorated a narrative of the first rainmakers and their watery assistants. In this way the rulers of El Mirador, through the mechanism of deity impersonation, presented themselves as supernatural agents who controlled the rain. The lower freeze shows the mountains breathing out water as the Chahk impersonators swim in the lower sky; the upper frieze then shows the high altitude products of impersonation, clouds that embody Chahk, and undulating water.


Carrasco Vargas, Ramón. 2005. The Sacred Mountain: Preclassic Architecture in Calakmul. In Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship. Los Angeles: LACMA/Scala Publishers.

Fields, Virginia M., and Dorie Reents-Budet. 2005. The Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship. Los Angeles: Scala Publishers/LACMA.

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

Grove, David C., ed. 1987. Ancient Chalcatzingo. Austin: University of Texas Press. Available Online:

Hansen, Richard D., Edgar Suyuc Ley, and Héctor E. Mejía. 2011. Resultados de la temporada de investigaciones 2009: Proyecto Cuenca Mirador. In XXIV Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala, 2010. B. Arroyo, L. Paiz Aragón, A. Linares Palma, y A. L. Arroyave, eds. Pp. 187-204. Guatemala: Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología.

Houston, Stephen, Karl Taube, Ray Matheny, Deanne Matheny, Zachary Nelson, Gene Ware, and Cassandra Mesick. 2005. The Pool of the Rain God: An Early Stuccoed Altar at Aguacatal, Campeche, Mexico. Mesoamerican Voices 2: 37-62.

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

Saturno, William, Karl Taube, David Stuart, with Heather Hurst. 2005. The Murals of San Bartolo, El Petén, Guatemala Part 1: The North Wall. Ancient America 7.

Stone, Andrea, and Marc Zender. 2011. Reading Maya Art: A Hieroglyphic Guid to Ancient Maya Painting and Sculpture. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Taube, Karl, William Saturno, David Stuart, and Heather Hurst. 2010. The Murals of San Bartolo, El Petén, Guatemala Part 2: The West Wall. Ancient America 10.

Taube, Karl. 1996. The Rainmakers: The Olmec and Their Contribution to Mesoamerican Belief and Ritual. In The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership. Princeton: Princeton University Art Museum.

Valdés, Juan Antonio. 1993. Arquitectura y escultura en la Plaza Sure del Grupo H, Uaxactún. In Tikal y Uaxactún en el Preclásico. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. 96-121.

More links for El Mirador information:

Mirador Basin Project

Archaeology magazine, 2009

Smithsonian magazine article, 2009

Reuters news article, 2009