Early Thoughts on the sajal Title Reply

sajal glyph

Example of the sajal glyph (sa-ja-la) from Stela 12 at Piedras Negras.

by David Stuart

Back in 1985 I wrote an article called “New Epigraphic Evidence of Late Classic Maya Political Organization,” where I proposed the identification of a hieroglyphic title for certain subsidiary lords – basically elite court members who were not high rulers of kingdoms, many of whom seemed to rule at secondary centers surrounding larger capitals. This is the court title familiar today to students of Maya epigraphy and political organization as sajal, although at the time this reading wasn’t yet established.

The paper was circulated to a few fellow epigraphers working at the time, and I had originally intended to submit it to the journal American Antiquity (Freshman year at college soon got in the way, so I put it aside). Looking back nearly thirty years later, I see that the article is a good representative of that distinctive period in Maya decipherment when steady advances were taking place, even if our understanding of many details about Maya script were still a bit murky. For one, the paper hinges on what might be called a functional methodology in epigraphic analysis, without regard to any secure phonetic understanding of the glyph in question. This was a common approach in the 70s and early 80s, when the nature of the script’s visual cannons was not as clear as they would be a decade later. Moreover, in the 1980s the structures of Maya political organization were just coming into clearer focus; in this paper I was attempting to discern patterns in the geographical distribution of the sajal title in order to shed light on the borders between territorial units in the Usumacinta region. In some respects the conclusions drawn — that ancient territorial expanses and borderlands were knowable — anticipated the excellent archaeological surveys conducted in the same area by Charles Golden, Andrew Scherer and their colleagues (Scherer and Golden 2012).

In the original article I mistakenly refer to the sajal title as “cahal,” following the conventional wisdom of the time. This was based on our misreading the initial sign of the glyph as the syllable ka, not sa, as was clarified only a few years later, in 1988. Incidentally, the same misidentification lead to the early mistaken (and oft repeated) reading of the royal name at Copan as “Yax Pac”; today we know this king (Ruler 16) as Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat. There are a number of other points in this old article that I no longer believe, including the simplistic point that emblem glyphs should be seen as “family names” (emblems have various scopes of reference, I think, though they are generally best described as court names or designations).

One aspect of the sajal title that wasn’t treated in this article is its wider distribution pattern outside of the Usumacinta area. While the vast majority of examples of the glyph do indeed come from the Usumacinta region, we now know it was quite widespread geographically, with a number of appearances in texts from Xcalumkin and other southern Puuc centers, and even an isolated example at far off Copan.

The exact meaning of the word sajal has never been very clear, at least to my knowledge. It looks to be a derived noun based on a root saj, not easily traceable in Ch’olan and Tzeltalan. In Yucatec we do find the root sah meaning “to fear,” which I’ve long thought could prove a productive in-road, especially in light of a possible vague parallel from Classical Nahuatl. There the honorific term mahuizotl, “honor, fame, glory” is derived from the verb mahui, “to fear, be frightened.” A stretch to be sure, so much more mulling-over is needed.

New Epigraphic Evidence of Late Classic Maya Political Organization (1985 ms.)


Scherer, Andrew K., and Charles Golden. 2012. Revisiting Maler’s Usumacinta: Recent Archaeological Investigations in Chiapas, Mexico. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

Deciphering the Tikal Emblem Glyph 5

The Tikal emblem glyph, MUT-la.

The Tikal emblem glyph, MUT-la, from the inscription on Tikal, Stela 31 (photograph by D. Stuart).

by David Stuart

Back in 1993 — over a k’atun ago — I circulated a short note to colleagues about a proposed decipherment of the Tikal emblem glyph main sign as the logogram MUT. Around the same time, working independently, my colleague Christian Prager developed much the same argument. The details behind this proposal weren’t ever circulated much more widely or published, so I here share a copy of the original hand-written note (I now must wonder why I wrote it out by hand and didn’t type the thing!).

As one can see in the short note, the evidence for the reading was fairly simple. I first pointed out that the principal variants of the Tikal emblem sign (also used for a time in the Petexbatun region at Dos Pilas and Aguateca) originated as representations of tied hair. This was perhaps best revealed to me by jade figurine I excavated in Copan back in 1987 (in the dedicatory cache of the Hieroglyphic Stairway) and illustrated in the note. The figure wears a tied huun headband, and the back of the figure’s head looks identical to the most familiar variant of the Tikal emblem. I next pointed out that another version of the knotted hair emblem sign used in the Petexbatun region often takes a mu- syllable prefix. Further, in a personal name at Yaxchilan, the emblem sign also takes a -tu suffix, presumably also as a phonetic complement (an eroded text from nearby Dos Caobas my show a full mu-tu substitution, but it’s hard to confirm at the moment). These clues pointed to MUT as a possible reading, and the following entry in the Diccionario Maya Cordemex of Yucatec Mayan seemed to lend support to the possibility: mut pol, rodete hacer la mujer de sus cabellos (a plait or braid women make with their hair).

In the context of the emblem glyph the knotted-hair sign routinely takes a -la suffix (as do a number of other EG main signs, as in BAAK-la at Palenque, KAAN-la for Dzibanche and Calakmul). This would indicate that the court name centered at Tikal and also in the Petexbatun region was Mutal or, more likely, Mutul — forms probably reflected in the historical place names Motul de San Jose and Motul, Yucatan.

The 1993 note on the Tikal emblem glyph decipherment.

ARCHIVES: The syllable sign tza 1

tza signBelow is a page from one of my old notebooks, giving some of the evidence I was considering in 1989 for the decipherment of the tza syllable sign, a version of which is shown at right. The reasoning was pretty tentative back then, but it was bolstered in my own mind by considering more examples of the sign in the spellings of tzu-tza-ja and TZUTZ-tza-ja, for the passive for of the verb tzuhtzaj, “it is finished” (See Stuart 2001). Shortly after this page was jotted down I came across completive forms spelled 2tzu-ji-ya (with the tzu syllable doubled) for tzuhtz(a)jiiy, “it was finished,” which made the tza reading fairly certain.

The tza syllable sign is not a very common sign. It crops up in only a handful of other spellings, such as tza-ka or tza-ku for tzak, “to conjure, manifest (a god)” — a reading otherwise familar for the “fish-in-hand” logogram (TZAK).

Reference Cited:

Stuart, David. 2001. A Reading of the “Completion Hand” as TZUTZ. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, No. 49. Center for Maya Research, Washington, D.C.

DS tza notes

ARCHIVES: Daniel Brinton’s Letter on Landa’s Alphabet 4

Most readers of this blog are probably aware of the fundamental insights of Yuri Knorosov, who in 1952 first published his breakthrough observation that Maya writing was in part phonetic, employing syllabic elements to spell words and grammatical constructions. The key for Knorosov was to see Bishop Diego de Landa’s “alphabet” as a misrepresentation of a syllabary.

Daniel Garrison Brinton, 1837-1899, at age 34, ca. 1871.

Daniel Garrison Brinton, ca. 1871

What few may realize is that Knorosov was not the first to hold this view. I was fascinated to come across clear evidence that Daniel Brinton, the famed American linguist and anthropologist, had pretty much the same view as early as 1879. Brinton’s insight seems to have gone largely unnoticed these days, perhaps because it was published only as an excerpted letter within a somewhat obscure book on Palenque’s Tablet of the Cross by Charles Rau (1879). In fact Brinton was an early advocate of the view that Maya writing was phonetic and quite sophisticated, even if decipherments were few and far between at the time. His thinking evolved over the decades, but at least by 1879 he seems to have had much the same fundamental insight about Landa’s alphabet for which Knorosov is now famous:

Excerpt of letter from Daniel G. Brinton to Charles Rau, dated March 4, 1879:

“My later reading has led me to doubt whether De Landa’s alphabet is really an alphabet in the proper sense of the term, that is, representing elementary sounds of the language by written characters. It appears more likely that the figures he gives represent compound sounds, syllabic or partly so, and that they are but fragments of a large repertory of phonetic signs, never reduced to the elements of sound, used by the Mayas of that age. He evidently very positively considered them phonetic and not ideographic, and he could not have been mistaken on such a point, I should suppose. In his endeavor to arrange them according to the analogy of the Latin alphabet, he obscured their real purport, and I think we should reject the whole of his theory of their use in this manner.” (Quoted in Rau 1879:52-53).

Here Brinton nails it, noting that Landa had fundamentally misunderstood syllable signs as alphabetic elements. What’s odd is that Brinton didn’t follow up his own assessment of Landa’s glyphs as “compound sounds.” It seems he could have taken things a step or two further and applied his thinking to specific glyph readings, in the same way Knorosov would decades later. Interestingly, just a year after Brinton’s letter to Rau, much research on Landa’s alphabet would be roundly criticized by Philipp J. J. Valentini, who declared it to be a “Spanish fabrication” (Valentini 1880). Perhaps this discouraged Brinton from taking up the matter further. Brinton also may have stepped aside to allow Thomas to delve into the atomistic details of Maya epigraphy. Both men saw the same tantalizing clues of phoneticism, but only Thomas went ahead and proposed actual readings. Unlike Brinton, Thomas considered some signs to be possible consonants or “elementary sounds.” While he made a few good insights, Thomas’s specific arguments tended to fall short on many counts, and their weakness eventually exposed the overall phonetic approach to a good deal of criticism from the likes of Eduard Seler and others.

I wonder too if Brinton, a remarkable polymath, might have simply had too much on his plate to focus his mind on Maya glyphs — in ’79 he would soon embark on editing and contributing to many volumes of the Library of Aboriginal American Literature that would appear between 1882 and 1890.  For whatever reason Brinton himself didn’t move forward on teasing out the patterns of phoneticism in the script, despite having described the abstract nature of Mayan writing with what we can see now as remarkable accuracy.

References Cited:

Rau, Charles. 1879. The Palenque Tablet in the United States National Museum, Washington, D.C. Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, 331. Smithsonian Instituion, Washington City.

Valentini, Philipp J.J.. 1880. The Landa Alphabet: A Spanish Fabrication. Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, no. 75, pp. 59-91. Worcester, MA.

ARCHIVES: Web Image of Palenque’s Tablet of the Cross 3

Tablet of the Cross detail

The website for INAH (Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia) contains a very useful and detailed zoom-able image of Palenque’s Tablet of the Cross, the original of which is now visible in the Museo Nacional in Mexico City.  This has been available for a while now, and well worth checking out as an epigraphic/iconographic resource.

It’s important to stress that the right third of the tablet shows extensive restoration, and a number of details of the glyphs are not what they should be. This restoration work took place in several phases, it seems, and goes back to the late nineteenth century, after that section of the tablet was first broken at the ruins, sometime before 1839. The fragments were sent to the U.S. National Museum in Washington D.C. in 1842, and remained there for many decades attracting “considerable attention on the part of numerous visitors” before their eventual return to Mexico. An early photograph of the glyphs published by Charles Rau, in 1879, shows somewhat different restoration work, so clearly the panel had a complex and troubled history.

Hi-res photograph of the Tablet of the Cross from Palenque can be found here.