Bak’tuns and More Bak’tuns

by David Stuart

As many know, the upcoming completion of the 13th bak’tun on December 21 is represented in the Maya Long Count as It’s an important day in the Maya calendar, to be sure, but not the End of Times of course. The Maya never once said anything of the kind. Nor is the approaching day even the end of the bak’tun cycle, as it has often been described — that idea comes from an old and outdated conceptualization of Maya time. Here I’d like to explain a bit of the actual structure of the bak’tun calendar as we presently understand it, summarizing the work of a number of scholars as well as a few points I made in my 2011 book The Order of Days.

This upcoming date is a repetition of the “base” of the system which fell in 3114 BCE, also represented as Back then, the subsequent bak’tun number was re-set as 1 ( and thereafter their count progressed forward until the reappearance of 13 bak’tuns on December 21 of this year. This repetition of 13s has led some to suppose that a similar re-set of the bak’tun system is upon us now, and that we are destined to go back to in some 400 years from now. This is not true. Based on texts from Palenque that project calendar stations far into the future, we know there will be a linear sequence of bak’tuns from here on, represented as,, and so on. This will run forward still until, about 2,400 years from now.

Here’s an illustration of the sequence of bak’tuns just described: August 13, 3114 BCE December 21, 2012 October 13, 4772

Notice that at the end of this roughly 13,000-year span that the bak’tun changes to 0 and the next higher period, the piktun, turns over as 1. As it happens, the piktun unit before this date was set at 13, although this is left unwritten in the dates above. (Mayanists have long tended to just write five numbers of the Long Count, following the convention of the ancient Maya scribes themselves. But we know that this is a truncated representation, and that there were many more cycles above bak’tun and piktun. The full system I call the “Grand Long Count” encompassed 24 units!)

People often ask me why 13 was chosen as the re-set point for the bak’tun in 3114 BC. Why restart everything at that point? The way I see it, it’s all about two key numbers in Maya math, 13 and 20. For the Maya, both 13 and 20 were seen as key factors in a larger mathematical system, especially with regard to time. The most simple and fundamental calendar unit was a 260-day cycle (13 x 20 days), widely known as the tzolk’in, that was used for divination and had widespread use even among the general populous — one reason why it still holds importance among some Maya today and the Long Count does not. This 260-day span is about equivalent to nine months in our reckoning, the period of human gestation, and the modern Maya of highland Guatemala who still use the 260-day calendar are adamant that it’s specifically tied to the biological clock of human conception and birth. 13 thus emerges automatically as a key factor — and a sacred number — since 20 is simply the basis of the entire vigesimal (base 20) counting system found throughout Mesoamerica. Beyond this, 13 came to be widely applied to other temporal spans and cosmological structures. In fact, the interplay of the two key numbers 13 and 20 turns out to be the basis of other time structures they developed, including the Long Count.

We see this in the list of bak’tuns above, which is comprised of a sequence of 13 bak’tuns followed by 20 bak’uns — i.e., the same two key numbers of Maya time reckoning. So, the bak’tun calendar as I’ve described it shows how these two all-important numbers could relate to one another in another way, now on much bigger temporal scale.

It’s an elegant system, designed to reflect a deep cosmic structure that’s at once cyclical and lineal, as well as mythical and historical. In this way I hope we can appreciate the bak’tun we’re about to enter is a continuation of a time reckoning system that’s been in place for a long time, and that still has a long way to go.

A Podcast on 2012, from The Academic Minute

CRNHS2VfinalpassageA brief take on the 2012 business, recorded for The Academic Minute, a podcast from WAMC radio distributed on a number of college and NPR stations here in the US.

Of course the idea that no actual 2012 prophecy exists gets very little widespread distribution in the media. It hasn’t a chance against the shameless doom-and-gloom, junk-science narratives of The History Channel or, even worse now, The National Geographic Channel.

Notes on a New Text from La Corona

by David Stuart

In April and May of this year the remains of an important hieroglyphic stairway were discovered at Structure 13R-10 at La Corona, Guatemala, during excavations undertaken by the Proyecto Regional Arqueológico La Corona, directed by Marcello Canuto (Tulane University) and Tomás Barrientos Quezada (Universided del Valle de Guatemala). This monument, now designated as Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 (HS 2) of La Corona, had been looted many decades earlier in the mid 1960s, and was clearly the source of many of the blocks long assigned to the “Site Q” corpus. Luckily the looters had missed the bottom-most step of the HS, which was discovered this year in the excavations overseen by Jocelyn Ponce of the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala. Photographs of the excavation and of some of the stones can be found here, on the project’s website.

As project epigrapher I paid a visit to La Corona in May of this year in order to document and study the new texts and sculptures (my first time back there, incidentally, since our first archaeological recconaisance back in 1997). In this post I summarize the preliminary findings about the inscription on Block V of HS 2, which contains a number of important historical information about La Corona’s political history, as well as a curious reference to the upcoming bak’tun ending – something that of course came as a special surprise. This text would have been a noteworthy find in any year, but its revelation now, just months before December 21, is extraordinary timing indeed.

Figure 1. Block V from La Corona, Hieroglyphic Stairway 2. Drawing by David Stuart, PRALC.

First, some important initial points regarding the Block V text:

  • This is the second ancient source known to mention the period ending 4 Ahaw 3 K’ank’in (December 23, 2012). The other, Monument 6 from Tortuguero, Mexico, has been known since the 1980s, and in the last couple of years has received a good deal of attention.
  • The main message of the new inscription is not at all about 2012 – rather it’s the commemoration of a visit to La Corona (Saknikte’) by the important Calakmul ruler Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ on January 29, 696 AD.
  • This inscription also mentions, in an incomplete and damaged passage, the possible establishment of the Kan or Kanul royal court at Calakmul in 635. This agrees very well with the scenario proposed by Simon Martin, whereby the emblem glyph – i.e., court designation — of Calakmul shifted during the Late Classic.
  • While perhaps disappointing to some, the newly found inscription has no prophetic message regarding what will happen in 2012. So why only mention the date but say nothing directly about its meaning or significance? Because it’s a future station of a big calendar cycle and so it was seen as worthy of mention in its own right. Ancient Maya scribes liked to record the comings and goings of various periods in their calendar, including future ones, because they were intimately tied to their political and religious life. In two texts they tied this future bak’tun ending to their contemporary world, mostly because of interesting numerological patterns that seemed cosmically relevant.

Historical Background

The late seventh century was a time of great political turmoil in the ancient Peten region. Calakmul, the seat of the Kan or Kanul royal court, had been an immensely powerful kingdom throughout the seventh century, during which time it continued to develop a long-standing rivalry with Tikal, its large neighbor to the south. Over many years Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’s father, Yuknoom Ch’een, had formed a large and complex alliance network throughout the southern Maya lowlands, surrounding Tikal’s territory and presumably disrupting much of its economic interests. Wars flared up among these rival factions throughout the decades of the seventh century, and culminated in a direct conflict between Calakmul and Tikal on August 3, 695, when Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ lost in battle to Jasaw Chan K’awiil, king of Tikal. Mayanists had long assumed that the Calakmul king died or was captured in this engagement, but the new La Corona text tells us otherwise: Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ was clearly active and on the move, visiting La Corona and perhaps other trusted allies in the wake of his own inglorious defeat. Another newly found La Corona text tells us that Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ died not long afterwards, on March 31, 698.

La Corona had been for decades a prominent ally of the Kan court, and the two centers were bound also through strong family ties. Yuknoom Ch’een’s daughter had married a local La Corona king, whose younger brother, Chak Ak’ach Yuk, was on the Saknikte’ throne in 696. Clearly Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ was visiting more than just political allies after his defeat – he was visiting his close family relations. In carving this small block, the local lord of La Corona was once more asserting and documenting his strong political and familial alliance with Calakmul.

So why the reference to the year 2012? As is usual, the reason mostly has to do with the cosmological dimensions of ancient Maya politics and kingship. Calakmul’s king had only recently celebrated an important ending of 13 K’atun calendar cycle, in the year 692 (, and in this text he is called a “13 K’atun lord.” The scribe has used this important ritual fact to project forward to when the next higher period of the Maya calendar will also reach 13 – a sacred Maya number — which will come on December 21, 2012 ( There is no prediction involved; it is simply a literary device used by the scribe to place local political history in a larger cosmological framework.

Preliminary Comments on the Text

The dates and events recorded on Block V are as follows, in chronological order:

  • (a) 10 Ok 8 Kumk’u – Ballgame at Saknikte’ (La Corona) involving Yuknoom Ch’een of Calakmul
  • (b) 12 Kan 17 Woh – Possible “Founding” of Kan court at Calakmul
  • (c) 13 Chicchan 18 Woh – unknown; event missing
  • (d) 8 Kaban 10 Kumk’u – Visit of Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ to Saknikte’; carving of k’an tuun.
  • (e) 7 Ahaw 18 Sip – Future PE
  • (f) 4 Ahaw 3 K’ank’in – Future PE

Three of these dates (a, c and d) are wholly or partially missing, but they are reconstructable using the Distance Numbers visible in the inscription. A key example is the DN, recorded in blocks E6 and F6, that counts from one such missing date to the future 7 Ahaw 18 Sip Bak’tun ending. The starting point for this calculation is 8 Kaban 10 Kumku. This is surely the date for the visit the Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’, mentioned at C5-D6. It seems likely to me that this same date was mentioned in the opening passage of the text (columns A and B) given how prominent it is featured.

Another Distance Number can be made out at C3 and D3, with “3 k’atuns” just visible in the final position. This leads to the visit from a still earlier episode, recorded in columns A and B. The well-preserved CR date at the bottom of column B is 13 Chickchan 18 Woh, which, in light of the DN, must be The record at B6a of “17 Woh” suggests an event one day earlier, on 12 K’an 17 Woh.

It was on this day that we see a key historical record, written at B6b. This is a verb familiar from other Maya inscriptions, nearly always appearing in association with place names. There is as yet no firm reading for the logogram sign that is the basis for this verb, but we know it seems to refer to the “founding” or “beginning” of rulers or of royal courts at specific locations. For example, it appears on Palenque’s Temple XVII panel before the place name Lakamha’, where it seems to refer to the establishment of an Early Classic king at a new location. Likewise it occurs on Piedras Negras Throne 1 as an Early Classic event, together with the “Paw Stone” place name of Piedras Negras. I have along assumed it refers to the creation of new political seats of power, even despite a firm phonetic reading. Here, it appears above the snake head with a ka- prefix – a distinctive combination we otherwise know to be the Emblem Glyph of Calakmul and Dzibanche. It seems reasonable to suppose that this event refers to the “founding” of the Kan or Kanul (Snake) court at the great center we know today as Calakmul – an interpretation that agrees very well with Simon Martin’s brilliant reconstruction of shifting court identifies Calakmul history (Martin 2005). As Martin noted several years ago:

The “short dynastic count” indicates that Yuknoom Ch’een exercised a pivotal place in the self-definition of the dynasty and its time at Calakmul, consistent with the idea that he was involved in a special “reconstitution” of the polity—apparently involving the relocation of the royal seat to Calakmul by him or his predecessor (emphasis added). The conspicuous success of the Snake kings in extending a network of patronage and military power in the sixth century may have made a more southerly location advantageous—which is not to ignore the potential symbolic value of occupying an ancient site that was once part of the Preclassic “heartland.” (Martin 2005:7)

Martin posited that this establishment of the Snake emblem at Calakmul took place under Yuknoom Ch’een, who we know to have acceded in 636 AD, (or 8 Ok 18 Sip; the 1 k’atun anniversary of this appears on Altar 1 of La Corona). The “founding” event recorded on Block V is on – just over a year prior to the king’s inauguration. I would therefore argue, still somewhat tentatively, that Yuknoom Ch’een’s reign began right on the heels of the Snake court’s transference to Calakmul from Dzibanche. This was without question one of the major political events of Classic Maya history.

Returning to the particulars of Block V, it is important to note that neither of the two Woh dates mentioned at the bottom of columns A and B seems to be the starting point of the damaged DN written at C3, D3, which involves a span of over three k’atuns. I base this assumption on the glyph at C4 (pi-tzi-ji?-ya yu(ku)-CH’EEN) which points to the DN as counting from a ballgame event involving Yuknoom Ch’een. With only this single text to consider we might be left at sea trying to calculate the details of these events and time-spans, but resolution and clarity may come from another text discovered this year in HS 2, which also records a pitz ballgame involving Yuknoom Ch’een. Its date is 10 Ok 8 Kumk’u – just a short few months before the Calakmul founding. If we use this as the baseline for the DN (3.1?.?.?), we will find that it fits very well with the chronological details still to be discussed.

The featured event in the block comes as the result of this DN calculation, linking a ballgame in the distant past to a new, contemporaneous event. The verb (C5a) is a familiar one, i huli (“and then he arrives”), and its subject is named at C6 is Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ (yu-ku-no-yi-ICH’AAK-ki-K’AHK’) – another famous Calakmul king who was Yuknoom Ch’een’s successor (the skeletal head in his name glyph probably relates to a rare (Y)ICH’AAK head variant found in some early inscriptions). The Calakmul ruler also assumes an interesting title in the glyph preceding his name (D5) written as 18-U-BAAH-CHAN-nu. Waxaklahuun Ub’aah Chan is otherwise known as the name for the so-called Teotihuacan War Serpent, found in much militaristic iconography. I suspect that it here refers to a supernatural aspect or identity of the visiting Calakmul king, who was perhaps formally dressed in the trappings of a Teotihuacan-inspired warrior. The same ruler has the title also in Stela 1 from La Corona, in connection with his celebration of the k’atun ending

It is noteworthy that no date is given for this royal visit. We will see that we can reconstruct the date based on the clear DN that follows, but its absence here strongly points to its having been recorded at the beginning of Block V’s inscription, in the opening passage now completely lost. This middle portion of the inscription therefore seems to reiterate the featured event after a sequence of passages that have given it some important context: that the royal visit by Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ occurs 60 years after an earlier ballgame at La Corona involving Yuknoom Ch’een, and about so much time after the seminal events of that king’s reign.

One interesting grammatical feature of this passage is the use of an independent pronoun ha’i (ha-i) immediately after the verb at C5b. I interpret its use here as a means of rhetorical emphasis, marking a subject who is not Yuknoom Ch’een, who has just been mentioned in the preceding phrase. I would translate the passage thus:

i huli ha’i Waxakluhuun Ub’aah Chan Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ k’uhul Kan ajaw.

“…then it is he who arrives, Waxaklahun Ubaah Chan Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’, the holy Kan lord.”

The arrival passage goes on for a number of glyphs, and includes mention of the another name after yi-ta (at C7). This is difficult to identify, but the eroded glyph at E1 looks as though it might be the name of a familiar figure from La Corona history, Chak Ak’ach Yuk, who would in fact have been ruler of La Corona at this time. This seems to be confirmed by the parentage statement at E2 through F5, where we see the names of Chak Ak’ach Yuk’s mother and father, Ix Chak Tok Ich’aak (F3) and Chak Nahb Chan (E5). The son and the parents are well known from other La Corona texts.

The well preserved DN at E6-F6 is, linking the focus of the narrative – the royal visit – to an anticipated Period Ending in the future, recorded at F7-H1 as “7 Ahaw 18 Sip, the tenth Bak’tun.” So now we have the date of the king’s arrival firmly anchored:

9.13. 3.16.17 8 Kaban 10 Kumk’u

+ 6.16. 1. 3

10. 0. 0. 0. 0 7 Ahaw 18 K’ank’in

And taking the earlier ballgame of Yuknoom Ch’een into account, we now can firmly reconstruct the earlier DN as C3 and D3 as:

9.10. 2. 1.10 10 Ok 8 Kumk’u

+ 3. 1.15. 7

9.13. 3.16.17 8 Kaban 10 Kumk’u

The passage from G2-H5 does not pertain to the future bak’tun ending, but instead notes something else that took place on the day of the king’s visit to la Corona — the carving of a k’an tuun stone (at H2, surely Block V itself) at Saknikte’ by the local ruler Chak Ak’ach Yuk (G4). This was witnessed or sanctioned by the visiting Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’, named at G5.

This dramatic leap forward in the narrative timeframe coupled with by a rapid return to the narrative present mirrors a pattern I have discussed earlier. Other texts at La Corona and elsewhere use the same rhetorical “boomerang” to anchor the narrative in terms of Period Endings yet to come, but always with a reiteration of the main event. Tortuguero’s Monument 6 presents another example. The closing passage in that inscription occupies a position parallel to G2-H5 here – not as a description of what will happen, but as a restatement of contemporary events.

As already noted, the Calakmul king takes the very unusual title “the 13 k’atun lord” (H5), clearly in reference to this king’s celebration of in 692, just three years earlier. This title is reminiscent of another I know on an Early Classic celt, where a ruler who celebrated the bak’tun ending is named as a “9 bak’tun lord.” Interestingly, Stela 1 of La Corona notes the date and its ritual celebration by Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’, which was then witnessed by Chak Ak’ach Yuk of La Corona. Again this points again to the tight relations between the two centers.

The placement of the “13 k’atun lord” title is in clear juxtaposition with what comes next – the record of 4 Ahaw 3 K’ank’in (, 3 bak’tuns forward in time. One curious glyph that intercedes is at G6a, apparently ha-jo-ma. I am not certain how to analyze this possible verb or temporal statement, but the ending clearly incorporates the suffixes –Vj-oom, the latter being a common future marker (as in tzutz-j-oom, “it will end” or “it will have ended.”). It occupies the position where we would usually find a DN, before uht-oom, “it will happen.” I wonder if this might be in some way related to the Ch’olan temporal adverb hal, “a long time,” due to its future position in the narrative: “it will be a long time…” Might there be a –la infix in the forehead of the skull, to give ha-la-jo-ma? An attractive possibility, perhaps, but still highly speculative. The record of “3 bak’tuns” at the very end of the text of course tells us that the 2012 PE is three such periods after


This remains a very preliminary assessment of the new La Corona inscription, and a more formal analysis of the block and the other new texts is now in preparation. The basic message of this one text is nonetheless clear: it commemorates a key political event in the life of La Corona’s court, namely the visit by a ruling king of Calakmul just months after he had been defeated in war. No details of the shifting geopolitics of this time are given, but we do have an emphasis on the episode’s temporal and cosmological context. Soon before his defeat at the hands of Tikal, Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ had been the celebrant of the great k’atun ending of the era, His unusual title here “13 k’atun lord” emphasizes this key part of his identity, and is carefully juxtaposed with a mention of the like-in-kind bak’tun ending in order to place the king’s rule and status on a much broader temporal stage. So even in inglorious defeat, Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ was still the King of Time.

Acknowledgements: I would like to express my special thanks to Marcello Canuto and Tomás Barrientos Quezada for their support, insights, and hospitality in the field. My activities at La Corona were supported by PRALC as well as the Mesoamerica Center in the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Austin.

UPDATE: It is important to clarify that the idea of a shift in the use of the Kan or Kanul emblem glyph from Dzibanche to Calakmul was also developed and published by Erik Velasquez Garcia, who presented his findings at the 2004 Mesa Redonda de Palenque. This important article was eventually published in 2008 (Velásquez Garcia 2008).

Reference Cited

Martin, Simon, 2005. Of Snakes and Bats: Shifting Identities at Calakmul. The PARI Journal 6(2):5-15.

Velásquez Garcia, Erik. 2008. Los posibles alcances territoriales de la influencia política de Dzibanché durante el Clásico temprano: nuevas alternativas para interpretar las menciones históricas sobre la entidad política de Kan. In El territorio maya: memoria de la Quinta Mesa Redonda de Palenque, pp. 323-352, edited by Rodrigo Liendo Stuardo. México, D.F.: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.

More on Tortuguero’s Monument 6 and the Prophecy that Wasn’t

Tortuguero’s Monument 6 continue to be the focus of a good deal of scrutiny, and not just among epigraphers and Mayanists. Many of course claim that the last few glyphs of its long inscription contain the only record of what the ancient Maya had to say or prophesize about the coming end of the Bak’tun in late 2012. I’m partly to blame for the attention given to Monument 6, after some years ago when I posted a brief, off-the-cuff analysis of each glyph on a listserv, where I labelled the passage as the “Tortuguero Prophecy” (see below). Little did I know back then this would soon help set off a frenzy on many New Age websites, associated forum discussions, and even a few book chapters.

Figure 1. The final section of Tortuguero Monument 6. See Figure 4 for a general overview of the text's original form. (Drawing by D. Stuart)

To many, the handful of glyphs at the very end of Monument 6’s text continues to form the linchpin for understanding what the ancient Maya thought about the end of the Bak’tun in 2012, even as the readings of the partially damaged glyphs continue to be discussed and debated. Most recently, Sven Gronemeyer and Barbara Macleod presented their own detailed epigraphic analysis (Gronemeyer and Macleod 2010), and in my recent book The Order of Days (Stuart 2011) I spend a few pages on the topic, without delving into much glyph-by-glyph detail (since the book was intended for a general, non-speacialist readership). One prominent New Age author on 2012 seems especially frustrated with the ongoing discussions among epigraphers — me especially — and the inevitable changes of interpretation that come as a result. So here I take the opportunity to clarify my most recent thinking on the significance of the Tortuguero passage.

On the pages of this weblog Steve Houston offered an important insight into the closing passage of Monument 6, noting that the final glyphs might not pertain to the Bak’tun ending after all, as I and others had earlier supposed. He posited that the closing statement instead serves to reiterate a key dedication episode highlighted earlier in the inscription. I’ve pondered Steve’s cogent reassessment for some time, and in The Order of Days I took a neutral stance on the matter, not knowing quite what to think. Much to the chagrin of some adamant 2012ers, I nonetheless spent a few paragraphs downplaying the significance of Monument 6 in general, given the extensive damage and ambiguities of the pertinent glyphs in the final passage. Upon more reflection, and after looking and a number of comparative examples, I now can lend my full support for Steve’s analysis, as well as his assertion that no prophetic statements about 2012 likely exist in Monument 6’s inscription.

The structure of this text was the topic of some detailed analysis and discussions earlier this year during the Advanced Hieroglyphs workshop led by Danny Law, held  at the 2011 Maya Meetings in Austin. While there it became clear that Steve Houston’s analysis is correct, and that the final passage serves as a re-statement or elaboration of the inscription’s main topic, the dedication of a shrine, tomb or some other structure where Monument 6 was said to have been found. (Rumors at the time, Ian Graham once told me, stated that it had been found covering or blocking a tomb entrance). In other words, the mention of 4 Ahaw 3 K’ank’in on Tortuguero Monument 6 is an isolated chronological anchor within a larger narrative, projected into the future in order to make a rhetorical point about the nature of the main historical event. The last few glyphs of the text, rather than being wedded to the section, should be viewed instead as comprising a record of a contemporary episode — the building dedication — that’s the discursive focus of the entire inscription.

Closing the Narrative Loop

For those who are unfamiliar with the more technical aspects of Classic Maya literary structure and discourse, I’ll illustrate this concept using a modern parallel. Let’s imagine that a scribe living in New York back in the year 1950 wanted to immortalize some great happening of that year on a stone monument. One momentous event of the time was the New York Yankees’ four-game sweep of the Phillies in that year’s World Series (it pains me a bit to write this today, being a traumatized Red Sox fan). If our imaginary scribe were to use the particular ancient Maya rhetorical device under discussion, he or she might say something like this: “On October 7, 1950, the New York Yankees defeated the Philadelphia Phillies to win the World Series. It happened 29 years after the first Yankees victory in the World Series in 1921. And so 50 years before the year 2000 will occur, the Yankees won the World Series” (little would the scribe know, unless he was a prophet, that the Yankees would win it all again in 2000). The last sentence of this commemorative statement is a projection forward to a date of calendrical importance — the fifty-year anniversary as well as the near-start of the new millennium — but notice how the writer swings back to highlight the real event at hand — the 1950 sweep. This is precisely how many ancient Maya texts are structured, including Tortuguero’s Monument 6.

Figure 2. The closing passage of Palenque's Tablet of the Foliated Cross, linking the main event of the tablet to the future K'atun ending Photograph by Jorge Perez de Lara.

Let’s look at some specific cases of this text structure in Maya inscriptions. First we can turn to the closing glyphs from the Tablet of the Temple of the Foliated Cross at Palenque (Figure 2). The single main event of this key inscription, as well as it’s two partners on nearby temples, highlights a ritual burning of something called a chitin, perhaps refering to a sweatbath (Houston 1996) or a kiln for ceramic effigies of deities (Stuart 2005). This occurs on 2 Kib 14 Mol. The last nine blocks of the text serve to anchor this date to the soon-to-come K’atun ending 8 Ahaw 8 Woh.

4-12-WINIK-ji-ya / 1-HAAB’ / u-to-ma / 8-AJAW 8-CHAK-AT / U-13-WINIKHAAB’? / i-u-ti 2-“KIB” / i-PAT-la-ja / U-1-TAHN-na / K’INICH-KAN=BAHLAM K’UH(UL)-BAAK-AJAW

chan(-eew?) lajcha’ winikijiiy huun haab’
ut-oom waxak ajaw waxak(-te’) chakat u uxlajuun winikhaab'(?)

i uht cha’ ?(“kib'”) i patlaj u huuntahn k’inich kan b’ahlam k’uhul b’aakal ajaw.

“Four-and-twleve score days and one year, before Eight Ahaw the Eighth of Chakat, when the 13th K’atun ( 8 Ahaw 8 Woh) will occur, then happens 2 Kib ( 2 Kib 14 Mol) when the precious one(s) of K’inich Kan Bahlam, the Holy B’aakal Lord, is/are fashioned.”

This closing passage follows a lengthy description of the significance of the date 2 Kib 14 Mol, taking up all of the previous two columns of the inscription. The purpose of this closing statement is project forward in time to a notable Period Ending and restate the narrative’s focus using somewhat different terms or supplemental information (the king’s relationship to the god(s), in this instance).

From Copan we have a text that bridges present and future over a much greater span of time. Stela J (not illustrated) was dedicated on the period ending 7 Ahaw 3 Kumk’u, and its text mentions in its final section a projection forward to the Bak’tun ending 7 Ahaw 18 Sip. No prophesy or prediction is offered, only a simple statement that “the 10th Bak’tun will end” (tzuhtz-j-oom u lajuun pik). The scribe does so because the upcoming Bak’tun ending, still centuries in the future, will be a recurrence of 7 Ahaw, establishing a “like-in-kind” connection on the cosmic clock. A number of monuments at nearby Quirigua do the very same thing, on occasion projecting to similar Ahaw anniversaries that will occur eons forward in time. As we will see, the same is basically true on Monument 6, with “4 Ahaw” being the common denominator between the narrative “present” and a distant future.

Figure 3. The final passage from Naranjo, Altar 1. The glyphs that project forward from to the future Bak'tun ending are highlighted. Drawing by I. Graham, CMHI.

As Steve Houston has noted, Naranjo’s Altar 1 does much the same thing, and shows even stronger parallels to what we will soon discuss regarding Tortuguero’s Monument 6 (Figure 3). The celebrated event of this text is a Period Ending on, contemporaneous with the inscriptions carving and dedication during the reign of the important early king known to many as “Aj Wosaj” (a misnomer, probably, for what is written as AJ-?-sa-[ji]).

U-K’AL-TUUN-ni / 5-AJAW / 3-IK’-SIHOOM / U-TZUTZ-wa / U-7-WINIKHAAB? / AJ-?-sa / 3-11-PIK-AJAW / ya-AL / IX-?-CHAN / a-bu-lu-pa-a / U-MIHIIN / ?-CHAN-AHK / 9-TZAK-bu-AJAW / 0-K’IN / 0-WINIK-0-HAAB / 12-WINIKHAAB? / TZUTZ / jo-mo / U-10-PIK / 7 AJAW / 18-CHAK-AT / u-to-ma / u-CHOK-? / AJ-?-sa / 5 AJAW / 3-IK’-SIHOOM

u k’altuun jo’ ajaw ux(-te’) ik’sihoom
u tzutzuw u wuk winikhaab'(?) aj ? ux b’uluch pik ajaw
y-al ix ? abulpa'(?) chan, u mihin ? chan ahk, b’olon tzakab ajaw
mih k’in mih winik mih haab’ lahcha’ winikhaab’
tzuhtz-j-oom u lajuun pik
(ta) wuk ajaw waxaklajuun chakat, utoom
u chok aj ?
(ta) jo’ ajaw ux(-te’) ik’sihoom

“(It is) the stone-binding on Five Ahaw the Third of Woh, when ‘Aj Wosaj’, the three-eleven pik lord, completes the eighth K’atun ( He is the child of the woman Ix ? Chan B’ulpa’, and the child of the man ? Chan Ahk, the dynastic lord. (It is) twelve-score years before the tenth B’ak’tun will be finished (on) 7 Ahaw 18 Sip ( ,when ‘Aj Wosaj’ casts incense(?) on Five Ahaw, the Third of Woh (”

Here the subject of the ut-oom verb is the date 7 Ahaw 18 Sip, which is “fronted” beforehand. The chok or “scattering” verb appearing after ut-oom is not a future event, for it initiates a new phrase associated with the earlier base of the forward calculation. This is the ritual that was performed by the contemporary Naranjo ruler on

Figure 4. The Original Form of Tortuguero, Monument 6. (Main section drawing by I. Graham, right wing by D. Stuart)

Tortuguero’s Main Event

Analysis of the entire Monument 6 inscription clearly shows that it’s main thrust is the ritual dedication of a tomb or shrine in the 7th century, specifically on the day 9 Etz’nab 6 K’ayab (January 11, 669). The record of this episode takes up the majority of text’s overall space, running from block I2 through to the very end. That’s nearly half of the entire inscription. In blocks I6-I8 is the initial portion of this commemoration, stating that some 25 years after B’ahlam Ajaw’s inauguration there was a “house-burning” (el-naah) ritual on the 9 Etz’nab day just mentioned. It goes on to say in blocks J8 through J10 that this occurred just over a year (1.8.18) after the period ending 4 Ahaw 13 Mol. Such side references to period endings are common in texts such as this, and they serve again to contextualize the focus event by relating it to the comsic mechanisms of the Long Count. The 4 Ahaw station for this nearby PE was especially noteworthy given its importance in Maya cosmology and time keeping, and no doubt the mention of the future occurrence of 4 Ahaw on 4 Ahaw 3 K’ank’in later on Monument 6 is designed to reflect an essential symmetry between present and future.

Returning to the Tortuguero text, blocks I11 through J13 to record more about the building dedication, giving the buidling or shrine’s proper name at I12 and J12. These follow a highlighting marker (a-AY?-ya) at I11 and a positional verb at J11 reading i-e-ke-wa-ni, for ek-wan or hek-wan, a term difficult to link to any identifiable root in Mayan languages. Evidently this episode had something to do with a “positioning” of the named edifice, at the same time the “house-burning” dedicatory rite occurred. Much of the rest of this passage is missing, but it surely mentioned the ruler B’ahlam Ajaw before the surviving emblem glyph (I16). His parents are named thereafter in blocks J16 through K3.

So, here we come to the thorny part of the text. The pivotal element here is the verb u-to-ma (block  O4) spelling the future participle utoom, “it will happen.” This comes after the date and before the damaged glyphs that close the entire text. The question is what, exactly, is the subject of this verb? Gronemeyer and Macleod believe that the subject must be the following glyph block, which is in turn attached to those that follow. In this sceanrio the final glyphs naturally would contain some description of a happening associated with 2012, as I also suggested some years ago: “… (before) the thirteenth Bak’tun will end (on) 4 Ahaw 3 K’ank’in, EVENT2 will happen” (EVENT2 being a 2102 occurence). By contrast, Steve Houston’s analysis sees an important break after utoom in the discursive structure of the inscription, whose subject must simply be the future date and Bak’tun ending itself. It serves to reinforce the temporal position of the date just mentioned in order to bring the reader back to the narrative present. In this way the glyphs that follow utoom return to the focused event of the larger narrative — i.e., the house dedication. In other words the subject of utoom is understood to be the date, which has been “fronted” syntactically, as in: “… (before) the thriteenth Bak’tun will end (when) 4 Ahaw 3 K’ank’in will happen, then EVENT1.” Here the restatement of EVENT1, the shrine dedication, does not include a mention of the earlier Calendar Round 9 Etz’nab 6 K’ayab. This should not be seen as a problem, however, as other texts are known to do the same.


My purpose here has not been to go over the damaged final glyphs of Monument 6, trying to determine their original forms and reason out what the passage originally might have said. Gronemeyer and Macleod have recently done so in exhaustive and admirable detail, even positing a reconstruction of a phrase describing a future “investiture” of the deity Bolon Yookte’ K’uh. Although I have some questions about the specifics of their analysis, my real intent has been to focus more on the question of whether those glyphs are really at all relevant to 2012 anyway. In doing so I follow closely on the points Steve Houston made a number of months ago, including his claim that those enticing glyphs probably don’t say anything at all about 2012 and its meaning to the ancient inhabitants of Tortuguero. For the reasons given here, I think the evidence seems fairly inescapable that Steve was correct.

Stepping back a bit, it’s important to reiterate that Monument 6 never featured the 2012 period ending, except to refer to the future Bak’tun ending in order to temporally orient a more significant here-and-now happening of Tortuguero’s local history. Above all — and not surprisingly given what we know about Maya texts — Monument 6 was a lengthy document on the historical and ritual life of the local ruler B’ahlam Ajaw, highlighting the building and dedication of some important ritual structure he commissioned. I have no doubt that others will continue to focus on Monument 6 for its supposed prophecy about 2012, but they would probably be misguided in doing so.

* * *

ADDENDUM: Here’s my original post of April, 2006, from the UTMesoamerica listserv. Note that this reflects my mistaken belief at the time that the Bolon Yookte’ K’uh reference on Monument 6 pertained to the Bak’tun ending.

As promised here’s a quick translation of the final passage of
Tortuguero Monument 6, recording the 2012 Bak’tun ending:

Tzuhtz-(a)j-oom u(y)-uxlajuun pik
(ta) Chan Ajaw ux(-te’) Uniiw.
Uht-oom ?
Y-em(al)?? Bolon Yookte’ K’uh ta ?.

“The Thirteenth ‘Bak’tun” will be finished
(on) Four Ajaw, the Third of Uniiw (K’ank’in).
? will occur.
(It will be) the descent(??) of the Nine Support? God(s) to the ?.”

This is it. The term following uht-oom is the main puzzle, and largely effaced. The “descent” reference is highly tentative, too. The enigmatic deity Bolon Yookte’ K’uh has been known for some time from many sources, and I suspect that he (or they) has some tangential relationship to the Principal Bird Deity, as well as war associations. Interestingly, he is a protagonist in the deep time mythology of Palenque, as recorded on Palenque’s Temple XIV tablet. A long-lasting character who’s still around somewhere waiting, I suppose.

– Dave S.


Houston, Stephen. 1996. Symbolic Sweatbaths of the Ancient Maya: Architectural Meaning in the Cross Group at Palenque, Mexico. Latin American Antiquity 7(2):132-151.

________________. 2008. What Will Not Happen in 2012. Maya Decipherment weblog.

Gronemeyer, Sven, and Barbara Macleod. 2010. What Could Happen 2012: A Re-Analysis of the 13-Bak’tun Prophecy on Tortuguero Monument 6. Wayeb Notes Number 34.

Houston, Stephen D. 1996. Symbolic Sweatbaths of the Maya: Architectural Meaning in the Cross Group at Palenque, Mexico. Latin American Antiquity 7(2):132-151

Stuart, David. 2005. The Palenque Mythology. Sourcebook for the 2005 Maya Meetings. Austin: The Mesoamerica Center, Department of Art and Art History, University of Texas at Austin.

_____________. 2011. The Order of Days: The Maya World and the Truth about 2012. New York: Harmony Books.

Reinterpreting a “Creation” Text from Chancala, Mexico

Fig. 1. Sawn section of a panel, probably from Chancala, Mexico (From Mayer 1991:Pl.96).

The incomplete text panel shown in Figure 1, now in a private collection in Florida, has been the focus of some attention since it was first commented upon by Schele, Friedel and Parker (1993:66) in their analysis of ancient Maya creation mythology surrounding the date 4 Ahaw 8 Kumk’u. It was first published by Mayer (1991:Pl. 96) and more recently by Van Stone (2010); a photograph by Justin Kerr also is available. Given the increasing interest in the base-date of the Long Count calendar and its upcoming repetition in 2012, it seems a few words about the interpretation of this partial inscription might be important, especially since widely published readings of the glyphs look to be incorrect in some key details. Others have made similar points in re-assessing this inscription — Steve Houston and Marc Zender in particular — so this is meant to be no more than a summary of more current thinking on the inscription.

The text begins in mid-sentence, with a partion of a Calendar Round date “8 Zip” (8-CHAK-AT). A distance number then follows, written oddly as 18-0-WINIK-ja-ya. These numbers as written simply don’t work, however, and there’s little question that the scribe has here made an error. The date resulting from this calculation is shown later as 4 Ahaw 8 Kumk’u, and the only means of connecting “8 Zip” and “8 Kumk’u” is to make a slight adjustment in the distance number as its written, from 18.0 to *16.0 (“18 Winals” would be an impossibility in any case). So we have the following chronological link between these two dates being the most likely:

[9 Ahaw] 8 Zip
+*16.0 (written in error as 18.0)
4 Ahaw 8 Kumk’u

We have no idea what transpired on the earlier date; that section of the text remains missing.

4 Ahaw 8 Kumk’u will be familiar to many as the Calendar Round for the so-called “Creation” date that serves as the base-line for the shortened Long Count, falling on Here it almost certainly does not correspond to, but instead to a far, far later position in the Long Count, probably near the so-called Terminal Classic era of Maya history. The main reason for thinking this comes from the glyphs that follow the date, which Schele, Freidel and Parker (1993:65) translated as “the first image turtle was seen.” They got it nearly correct, but some key details force us to reassess their interpretation. The verb at pB3 they originally read as IL-la-ji-ya, for ilajiiy, “it was seen,” a passive construction (Schele et al transliterated this as ilahi, following older conventions of Maya epigraphy). However, a closer look at the glyphs clearly shows that this verb takes the initial sign yi-, infixed into the main eye main sign. This would spell the ergative third-person pronoun (u)y- before the initial i- of ilajiiy, meaning that it cannot be a passive verb construction (intransitives, unless they are nominalized, can never take an ergative pronoun prefix). Yilajiiy is well known in ancient texts, functioning either as a derived transitive form, “he saw it,” or as a participial noun “his seeing it” (both interpretations are debated and have merit, although opting for one over the other doesn’t change the meaning of the passage). The subject of this statement comes next in the personal name Yax K’oj Ahk (YAX-k’o-jo a-AHK). Schele et. al., interpreted this as a deity, namely the turtle (ahk) represented in some mythical scenes of the rebirth of the maize god (see Schele, et. al. 1993:65). However, this is far more likely to be a name of a local king or ruler, for the glyph after the name reads Chak K’uh Ajaw, “the Chak K’uh Lord.” Chak K’uh is a known but fairly obscure emblem glyph that I have for some years now associated with the ruins of Chancala, located to the south of Palenque. One fragmentary relief from Chancala bears the same emblem title (see Stuart and Stuart 2008:235), as does a panel that Mary Miller and I long ago posited might be from the same region (Miller and Stuart 1981).

Fig. 2. K'inich Janab Pakal "witnesses" a period ending. PAL:T.I.middle (Drawing by L. Schele)

Yax K’oj Ahk therefore was a historical ruler from the court of Chak K’uh, who “saw” the day 4 Ajaw 8 Kumk’u in his lifetime — not the original “Creation” date, of course, but a recurrence of the same Calendar Round at a far later time. Similar references to the witnessing of period endings and anniversaries are common in Maya texts (Figure 2), and imply some degree of “oversight” of the events and rituals involved with their celebration. As others have noted, there is no reason to consider it a mythical reference.

The text goes on to mention an interval of nine years (9-HA’B-ya) reckoning forward to another date now missing, but which we can easily calculate as 7 Ahaw 3 Pax.

The proportions and style of the glyphs look to me to be late, falling in the so-called Terminal Classic period in early ninth century. Only one placement of the dates in the Long Count seems fitting, anchored to 4 Ahaw 8 Kumk’u (see below for all three positions).

Transcription of Text (designating the two columns as A and B, and the rows by number; the “p” indicates “provisional” given the incomplete nature of the text):
pA1: 8 CHAK-AT
pB1: 0-*16-WINIK-ji-ya
pA2: i-u-ti
pB2: 4-AJAW
pA3: 8-HUL?-OHL-la
pB3: yi-IL-la-ji-ya
pA4: YAX-ko-jo
pB4: a-AHK
pB5: 9-HA’B-ya i-u-ti

Summary of Dates:
[ 9 Ahaw] 8 Zip
[] 4 Ahaw 8 Kumk’u
[ 7 Ahaw 3 Pax]


Mayer, Karl Herbert. 1991. Maya Monuments: Sculptures of Unknown Provenance, Supplement 3. Graz: Verlag Von Hemming.

Miller, Mary Ellen, and David S. Stuart. 1981. Dumbarton Oaks Relief Panel 4. Estudios de Cultura Maya, vol XIII, pp. 197-204.

Schele, Linda, David Freidel and Joy Parker. 1993. Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path. New York: William Morrow.

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

Van Stone, Mark. 2010. 2012 Science and Prophecy of the Ancient Maya. Imperial Beach, CA: Tlacaelel Press.