REPORT: Two Inscribed Bones from Yaxchilan 5

Back in 1979, excavations at Yaxchilan overseen by Roberto García Moll unearthed several carved bone objects within Tomb 2 of Structure 23 (Mathews 1997:161; Perez Campa 1990:150). Among them were the two artifacts in the figure below, each with a carved deity head on one end and a short hieroglyphic inscription (there were other similar bones as well, not treated here). In this report I would like to offer a few observations on the short texts, focusing mainly on the relationship they bear to the deity images.

As one can see in the drawings, these intriguing bones are pointed at one end, which might lead one to think they functioned as ritual bloodletters. I’m not so sure this is the case here, given their blunt appearance. It’s possible that they were pin-like devices inserted in some sort of unknown material, not unlike similar objects recently described by Martin (2012:77) in the paintings of Structure Sub 1-4 at Calakmul. Unfortunately the texts do not say exactly what they were used for — as we will see, one is simply a “jaguar bone” (Bone 1) and the other is an “offering bone” (Bone 2).

Each text is structured somewhat differently, but both clearly label the objects as belonging to Ix K’abal Xook, the noted queen of Yaxchilan from the early eighth century who is depicted on a number of sculptures at the site, including the famous carved door lintels of Structure 23 (Lintels 24, 25 and 26). Each text also includes a god’s name corresponding to the carved head, placed differently in each case.

YAX bones1BONE 1:

u-ba ke-le BAHLAM-ma IX (k’a-ba)-la
u baakel bahlam Ix K’abal
(it is) the jaguar’s bone of Lady K’abal

XOOK?-ki AJ-K’AHK’ o?-CHAHK-ki
Xook / Aj K’ahk’ O’ Chahk
Xook. (It is) Aj K’ahk’ O’ Chahk.


to-k’a-la AJAW-wa U-MAY-ya-ji
took’al ajaw u mayij
Flint Lord is the offering

ba-ki IX-(k’a-ba)-la XOOK?-ki
baak Ix K’abal Xook
bone of Lady K’abal Xook.

The text on Bone 1 (a provisional designation, by the way) looks to have two segments. One is a name-tag based on the interesting term u baakel bahlam, “her jaguar bone…,” with he name of the owner, Lady K’abal Xook, continuing to glyph B1 on the obverse side. Glyphs B2 and B3, larger in size than the others, seem to stand apart as a separate name. This is familiar from a number of other texts as Aj K’ahk’ O’ Chahk, an important royal patron deity of Yaxchilan. The small head atop Bone 1 does indeed resemble as aspect of Chahk, the storm god, with a possible pointed diadem and and rope pectoral.

Aj K’ahk’ O’ Chahk was a local deity, named and depicted only at Yaxchilan and environs. I suspect he was the principle patron of the royal throne of Yaxchilan, not unlike GI was for Palenque, given his central role in the rhetoric of royal accession at the site (as on Lintel 25 and 35, among others). The first part of his name, Aj K’ahk’,  means “He of Fire,” although this title doesn’t always seem to be present. The core portion of the name simply seems to be O’ Chahk (and, no, there is no evidence he was Irish). O’ is the name of a raptorial bird whose image appears in the glyphs as the head sign with the values o (a syllable) or O’ (a logogram); this head sign is usually simply abbreviated as the spotted feather, so that in these deity names we seem to have the sequence O’-CHAHK-(ki) (see Figure 2a and 2b, below).  The O’ Chahk name corresponds to the headdress worn by Yaxchilan’s rulers during important dedication ceremonies, as shown in Figure 2a. Here the o’ bird is stacked atop the head of Chahk, essentially replicating the hieroglyphic name O’-CHAHK in iconographic form.

O Chahk

Figure 2. (a) The deity O’ Chahk as a headdress, from La Pasadita, Lintel 1. (b) the name Aj K’ahk’ O’ Chahk from Yaxchilan, Lintel 25, (c) The name O’ Chahk from Yaxchilan, Lintel 35. (Drawings by Ian Graham)

Bone 2 references a different god named Took’al Ajaw, “Flint-knife Lord,” who thus far has gone unrecognized. The inscribed statement is a bit more direct about the identity of the object, saying that “Took’al Ajaw is her offering bone.” Atop the bone we see a god resembling the so-called “Jaguar God of the Underworld,” with a long beard-like feature as well as a pointed, animated flint knife for a forehead — hence his name.  This deity is also of local importance at Yaxchilan. Several portraits of him can be fount at the tops of stelae that depict consecration rites on important Period Endings and anniversaries, where he is always shown above a sky band and in-between ancestral portraits of the rulers mother and father (Figure 3). Otherwise we know little about him, or his connection to other members of the local pantheon.

Figure 3. The top fragment of Stela 4 from Yaxchilan (front), showing the parents of Bird Jaguar IV as the sun and the moon. Took'al Ajaw, with his flint headdress, appears between them as another  celestial deity. (Photograph by Teobert Maler)

Figure 3. The top fragment of Stela 4 from Yaxchilan (front), showing the parents of Shield Jaguar II as the sun and the moon. Took’al Ajaw, with his flint headdress, appears between them as another celestial deity. (Photograph by Teobert Maler)

It seems that Structure 23 was the formal “house” of Ix K’abal Xook, with Tomb 2 her likely burial place (See Plank 2004:35-54). Several other bones bearing her name were found in the tomb, including one very elaborate mayij baak named for another deity named Bolon Kalneel Chahk. He was evidently another aspect of the storm god who was important in local rituals and political symbolism.

What were these small objects used for, then? It is difficult to say for sure, and the texts on them are not as explicit on this point as we would like them to be. The job of these glyphs was more to identify the owner (Ix K’abal Xook) and the deity depicted. If allowed to speculate, I wonder if such pointed bones might themselves have been used as elaborate figural “labels,” inserted into incense or food offerings (mayij) or some other substance as a way of attributing or directing them to different gods. There is no way to prove such a function, but it might be a useful avenue to ponder and explore further. At any rate, I hope to revisit these issues in a future post, looking at other examples and varieties of inscribed bone artifacts.


Martin, Simon. 2012. Hieroglyphs from the Painted Pyramid: The Epigraphy of Chiik Nahb Structure Sub 1-4, Calakmul, Mexico. In Maya Archaeology 2, pp. 60-81. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press.

Mathews, Peter Lawrence. 1997. La Escultura de Yaxchilan. INAH, México, D.F.

Perez Campa, Mario. 1990. La vida en Yaxchilan. In La exposición de la civilización maya, pp. 149-154. Mainichi Shinbunsha, Tokyo, Japan.

Plank, Shannon E. 2004. Maya Dwellings in Hieroglyphs and Archaeology: An Integrative Approach to Ancient Architecture and Spatial Cognition. BAR International  Series 1324, Oxford, England.

New Drawing of a La Corona Panel 7

La Corona, Panel 6. Drawing by David Stuart.

La Corona, Panel 6. Drawing by David Stuart.

Presented here is a new drawing of Panel 6 from La Corona, Guatemala. Its elaborate scene and lengthy hieroglyphic text commemorate the fascinating history of intermarriage between the rulers of La Corona (Saknikte’) and princesses of the Kan (or Kanal) court, centered at Dzibanche and Calakmul (Freidel and Guenter 2003; Martin 2008). On the left side we see the contemporaneous La Corona queen (and daughter of the then-king of Calakmul) under the roof of a small “water temple” as she celebrates a Period Ending in 731 A.D. Opposite her, under the protective arm of a large Teotihuacan-style feline, is the local queen who had arrived at La Corona from the Kan court over two centuries earlier, in 520.

Four dates are given in the text, listed here in chronological order:

  • 12 Kib 9 Pax – Arrival of first Kan noblewoman
  • 11 Kaban 10  Sotz’ – Arrival of second Kan noblewoman
  • 8 Ix 17 Sotz’ – Arrival of third Kan noblewoman
  • 4 Ahaw 13 Yax – Period Ending

Panel 6 is currently in the Ancient American Art gallery of The Dallas Museum of Art (Object number 1988.15.McD).


Freidel, David, and Stanley Guenter. 2003. Bearers and War of Creation.

Martin, Simon. 2008  Wives and Daughters on the Dallas Altar. Article available on Mesoweb.

Portraits of Yuknoom Ch’een 1

by David Stuart

Many interesting historical and artistic details are emerging from Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 from La Corona, Guatemala, just discovered this past April by the Proyecto Arqueologico Regional La Corona. The texts and images are now in the process of study, just as the various blocks are being drawn and documented for eventual publication.

One small but important detail comes from Block VIII of the new stairway, depicting a seated ruler facing to his right, toward another lord on an adjacent block. According to the incomplete text on these stones, the scene appears to show a certain type of ballgame or ritual contest (pitz) between the local La Corona lord Sak Maas and his overlord, the famous Yuknoom Ch’een of the Kan dynasty — one of the greatest of all Maya kings. The figures are both seated on the floor and hold stone hammers, presumably used in the game as well as in their apparent capacity here as Chahk impersonators (note the headdress). Ritual gaming and associated symbols of rain-making involving similar hammer-like stones have been investigated recently by Taube and Zender (2009). This pitz event took place on, or 11 Feburary, 635 AD. The figure here illustrated (below, right) is almost certainly Yuknoom Ch’een himself — the first well preserved image of him from a Maya monumental sculpture. Upon realizing the likelihood of the La Corona figure as Yuknoom Ch’een’s portrait, I was interested in comparing it to his only other known image, from a carved vessel now in Schaffhausen, Switzerland (Martin and Grube 2000:108; Prager 2004) (see below, left).

Two portraits of Yuknoom Ch'een, king of the Kan dynasty. Left: the king as the day sign Ahaw, from the Schaffhausen vessel; RIght: from Block VIII or HS2 at La Corona (D Stuart photo).

Two portraits of Yuknoom Ch’een, king of the Kan dynasty. Left: the king as the day sign Ahaw, from the Schaffhausen vessel; Right: from Block VIII or HS2 at La Corona (D. Stuart photo).

The two profiles are remarkably similar, each showing a man with a small mouth and distinctively weak chin. Clearly the different artists who produced the stairway block and the vessel each made attempts to convey true portraits of this important royal person.

In addition to simply giving us a pretty good idea of what the great Yuknoom Ch’een looked like, the two images reveal that some Maya artists outside of Palenque were sensitive to the idea of portraiture, even on small ceramic media — something that isn’t always very often seen or acknowledged.

References Cited:

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2008. Chronicle of Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya (Second Edition). Thames & Hudson, London.

Prager, Christian M.. 2004. A Classic Maya Ceramic Vessel from the Calakmul Region in the Museum zu Allerheiligen, Schaffhausen, Switzerland. The Human Mosaic 35(1): 31-40.

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

The Queen’s Tomb at El Peru 10

The discovery of a major royal tomb at El Peru hit the news yesterday. Congratulations to the project and all the team members.

Details and the official announcement of the find can be found here, on the Washington University in St. Louis website.

As Stanley Guenter has shown, the name inscribed on the alabaster container found in the burial is the same as that of the woman depicted on El Peru Stela 34, now in the Cleveland Art Museum, dedicated in A.D. 692. She was originally from Calakmul, marrying into the El Peru dynasty as the spouse of the local ruler K’inich B’ahlam. The hieroglyphic term that labels the snail-shaped object or its contents (yu-ha?-b’a) is unique, and remains difficult to decipher at present.

Alabaster vessel from the tomb, in the form of a snail shell. (Photo: El Peru Waka Regional Archaeological Project)

El Peru, Stela 34, with the portrait of “Lady K’abel” from Calakmul. Her name glyph appears in the text panel below her ceremonial shield, and also in one of the small cartouches in her feather headdress. (Cleveland Art Museum.)

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