On Effigies of Ancestors and Gods 3

This post offers a few speculative thoughts on the glyph shown at right that’s long eluded any firm decipherment, but which for many years now has been thought to refer to an important type of ritual object or space, such as an altar or shrine. In fact, in the epigraphic literature of the past couple of decades it has often simply been glossed as “stone altar.” Here I would like to offer a somewhat different interpretation and suggest that it might better be interpreted as a term referring to a more specific sort of object known as an effigy incense burner. These remarkable and ornate ceramics are elaborated vessels, with lids that assume the form fully three dimensional portraits of historical ancestors or deities. They have been found at a number of sites, perhaps most notably at Copan, Palenque and Tikal, often in funerary contexts. It is clear that these elaborate objects were imposing ritual props, even sometimes nearly monumental in scale.

Fig. 1. Copan, Altar Q, with upper text passage noting the dedication of an object associated with the dynastic founder. (Photograph and drawing by D. Stuart)

We begin with the famous Altar Q at Copan (Fig. 1), a large box-shaped stone commemorating the dynastic founder, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, and his royal successors. The inscription atop the altar is best known for mentioning of the arrival of the founder, but toward the end we come to the record of then-contemporary events, including the dedication of an important monument or object under the auspices of Ruler 16, Yax Pahsaj Chan Yopaat.    Interestingly, this item was “owned” or pertained to K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, by them deceased for nearly four centuries.  The glyph for this object (ya-?-la) has long eluded decipherment, but we have always assumed it stands in reference to either the altar itself, or perhaps even to the pyramid before which Altar Q was placed, Temple 16. In any event, it is important to note that the elusive term is for some sort of commemorative “thing” that is “of” K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’.

Fig. 2. Opening section of the Temple Inscription from Str. 10L-26 at Copan (Drawing by D. Stuart).

The same glyph appears again at Copan on the Temple Inscription, from the upper shrine of Structure 10L-26, the temple of the Hieroglyphic Stairway (Fig. 2). There, in beautiful full-figure glyphs, we read of another fashioning (the verb pa-ta-wa-ni at block a4) of the same class of object on 5 Imix 4 Kayab, and that it was “of the lord” or “of the lords” (ya-?-la-AJAW at block a6). This reference is vague, but given the parallel with Altar Q we might speculate that the term again refers to an ancestor or collectively to a group of ancestors. Importantly, Structure 10L-26 was also a major funerary monument at Copan, built by Rulers 13 and 15 above the tomb of Ruler 12.  Ruler 12 died on and was placed in his tomb 14 days afterwards. The funerary stairway above the tomb was built by his son many years later on, possibly in association with the Esmeralda construction phase of the pyramid.  But the question is: what was made or dedicated in connection with this temple four years before the stairway, and over a decade after Ruler 12’s death? A building? An altar? No evidence exists of a major construction episode in 10L-26 between the times the tomb was placed and the large Esmeralda pyramid and its stairway were built above it, suggesting that the area around Ruler 12’s tomb was very accessible for a number of years. At any rate, the pattern suggests also that the glyph in question is probably not an architectural term (like “shrine,” for example).

A third occurrence of the same glyph perhaps appears in another Copan temple, Structure 10L-11. There it appears on the west jamb of the temple’s north dorrway in connection with the date 8 Eb 10 Zip, again with a “make” or “fashion” (pat-wan) event.  In this case, its “owner” is named as Ruler 15, who died some six years earlier and who may be buried under Temple 11’s superstructure.  Here once more we find our mystery term associated with a verb of “making” and owned by an ancestral figure.

Fig. 3. Passage from Quirigua, Zoomorph P. (Drawing by M. Looper)

Moving from Copan to nearby Quirigua, a similar pattern seems to be at work. The inscription of Zoomorph P records the Period Ending, at which time the local ruler “scatters incense” at a temple called the “13 Kawak House” (Fig. 3). This is in all likelihood one of the principal buildings in Quirigua’s acropolis, directly behind (to the south of) the monument (According to Zoomorph G this same “13 Kawak House” is where the great Quirigua Ruler K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat was buried). The Zoomorph P inscription goes on to say that the incense ritual (chok ch’aaj) was performed on or with regard to the “object” of K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat, as well as, it seems, with the same “object” of Ruler 13 of Copan. This is a remarkable statement, for Ruler 13 had earlier been the war captive of K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat and was sacrificed at or near Quirigua in 736 A.D., decades before the zoomorph itself was dedicated in 795. Here, both the Quirigua king and his illustrious prisoner were associated with the same type of commemorative object mentioned three times at Copan, and again we find it in direct association with deceased kings and ancestors.

Turning to Palenque, we find that the same hieroglyph occurs in the tablets of the Temple of the Inscriptions, in the passages that record complex dressing rites associated with the three gods of the Palenque Triad. Chief among these was the tying of paper-cloth headbands (sakhu’n), headdresses (ko’haw) and jewels (tup) upon what must we can only presume to be effigy figures of the these deities, as Martha Macri (1988, 1997) and others suggested some years ago. A summary statement of the rites appears near the beginning of the west tablet (Fig. 4), where we have the simple mention that:

Fig. 4. Passage pertaining to the "headband-binding" on effigies of the three gods of the Palenque Triad. PAL, TI, west, B3-B6. (Drawing by L. Schele)

u k’alhu’n y-a..?..l u k’uh-ul

“It is the paper-binding of the ? of his gods …”

Here once more the glyph in question is a possessed noun associated with venerated figures, in this instance the gods of the Palenque Triad.

So what can this glyphic term actually mean? A few telling clues stand out thus far:

(1) The glyph must somehow refer to a class of commemorative object associated with deceased ancestral figures as well as deities.

(2) It can be “made” or “fashioned,” as revealed by its association with the verb pat.

(3) Specific actions associated with this object involve ritual dressing with paper-cloth (Palenque) and adornment with headgear and jewels. Significantly, they are also in some manner involved in incense rituals (Quirigua).

(4) The term has close ties to funerary temples at Copan and possibly at Quirigua, in direct connection to historical ancestors.

Taken together, one is tempted to think that the glyph refers to ritual statuary or figural representation, and perhaps more specifically to effigy incense burners. Such objects are known in Maya archaeology of course, perhaps the most spectacular examples being the ornate figural incensarios unearthed near Ruler 12’s tomb at Copan, inside Structure 10L-26. These objects were dressed and bejeweled (note the ear holes, etc.), and as burners were obviously used in important incense rites. The Copan censers represent all of the kings up to and including Ruler 12 himself, and so they fit well with the pattern of ancestral commemoration. And use of the verb pat would seem appropriate for this sort of object, given its known meaning in connection to the manufacture of ceramic objects (Yukatek pat kum, “hacer ollas”). And as we’ve seen, the mention of the “fashioning” of our mystery object in the Temple Inscription of Stucture 26 seems in some way to be connected with Ruler 12’s tomb. Might it specifically refer to the making of these effigy incensarios? It’s a tantalizing connection to ponder.

So, some general conclusions and speculations:

– Altar Q at Copan may refer to the dedication of an effigy censer in the form of the great ancestral ruler K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’. If so, the altar itself was likely intended as a pedestal or platform for its display, in front of his funerary temple.

– Copan’s Structure 10L-11 refers to the manufacture of a possible effigy censer of Ruler 15.  This was perhaps intended to be displayed on the platform in the center of the north-south passageway of the temple, framed by the snake-centipede “maw” carved into the wall at either side.

– Quirigua’s Zoomporph P refers to the incense rite involving the effigy censers of two historical figures: K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat as well as Ruler 13 of Copan, in association with the former’s funerary temple in the acropolis.

– In the case of Palenque, I suspect that some local variety of deity censer was mentioned in the Temple of the Inscriptions, each representing one of the Triad gods and ritually adorned as part of the calendar ceremonies performed by K’inich Janab Pakal.

Fig. 5. Two of the twelve ruler effigies (censer lids) found outside of Ruler 12's tomb in Copan's Structure 10L-26.

With Structre 26 of Copan, the making of the “? of the lord(s)” may well refer to the censers discovered outside of Ruler 12’s tomb (Fig. 5). The rather anonymous and general ajawterm seems unlike any other example discussed, leading me to think it is a collective reference to the twelve ancestors. My tentative conclusion is that the Copan effigy ancestors were made collectively on, and that they together served for a few years as important objects of ritual veneration, perhaps at the site of Ruler 12’s tomb or somewhere else in the acropolis.  At the time of the construction of Esmeralda, these were terminated around the tomb’s exterior, and buried in the construction fill for the more grandiose funerary temple that the son had designed for his father.

I’ll close with a brief word on the glyph’s possible phonetic reading. The main clue in the decipherment of the central compound sign is its ya- prefix, a clear indication that the possessed noun begins with the vowel a-. The -la suffix on the glyph likely marks a -Vl ending on the possessed noun, so we ought to look for a noun root that begins with the vowel a- and fits this semantic context, having some connection with burning, incense, or effigy forms.

The element atop our mystery glyph (T174) is part of a main sign that still resists a firm phonetic decipherment, but it is important to note that the same element also appears with another logogram (T174:T704) with the value SABAK or SIBIK, “soot, ash” — a reading proposed a number of years ago by Nikolai Grube. Interestingly, another widespread Mayan term with much the same meaning is abak, “soot, charcoal, ash.” I do wonder if the logogram at the heart of the supposed “effigy” glyph might eventually prove to be ABAK, producing ya-ABAK-la, for y-abak-al, “its soot.” The semantics might have been extended somewhat to include the containers for burnt offerings, in the forms of ash-filled effigy censers. A different possibility worth considering is that the ya- sign prefix signals the presence of the agentive prefix aj- before a still obscure root, so that the possessed noun referring to effigy figures is aj-?.

The phonetic reading still remains elusive, yet the semantic domain of the noun in question seems much firmer in its connection to effigy figures and burners, ritual objects that were of great importance in ancient Maya ceremonial practice.


Macri, Martha. 1997. Noun Morphology and Possessive COnstructions in Old Palenque Ch’ol. In The Language of Maya Hieroglyphs, edited by M. J. Macri and A. Ford, pp. 89-95. San Francisco: Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute.

Bending Time among the Maya 4

by Stephen Houston

Visitors to Japan, if they make it to Mie prefecture, will wonder at the Ise Grand Shrine. Rebuilt every 20 years, it is said to be exactly similar to buildings first made over a millennium ago (Wada 1995). By the tenets of Shintoism, the shrine is forever new yet perennially old, a replacement that somehow remains the same, regardless of how many times it has been rebuilt. For Mayanists, the example of Ise and its implied concern for the joining of past and present rumble into familiar terrain. After all, every Maya date is relational, existing only in reference to a point in the distant past (the Long Count) or with respect to other positions in a cycle (the Calendar Round and other counts). A present does not exist without a backloaded past and a future that gives it some framing.

A recent book, Anachronic Renaissance, by Alexander Nagel and Christopher Wood (2010), prompts further reflection on the meaning of old and the new in Maya texts and images. The main task of the volume is to examine the paradox of Renaissance art, namely, the simultaneous revival and replacement of the past during a crucial period of Western history. Nagel and Wood use a variety of terms and phrases that will resonate with Mayanists: “plural temporality….[the] doubling or bending of time…[the] cultural project of time management,” and “the temporal instability of the artwork” (Nagel and Wood 2010:8, 9, 10). The latter is a precarious state that, despite the reality of replication—think of the renewed beams and thatch at Ise–coincides with the “ontological stability” of certain objects or buildings (Nagel and Wood 2010:30). This “stability” rests on the direct claim that the essence and identity of the shrine remain intact despite the fact that not one scrap of it survives from previous versions.

A more ambitious aim of Anachronic Renaissance is to chart two modes of representation. Both can co-exist as explanations of origins, although they might also “interfere…with one another” (Nagel and Wood 2010:49). The first mode: “substitution,” a process of creation by which artifacts replace earlier, authoritative ones in a “chain of replicas” (Nagel and Wood 2010:30). Thus, in a “mystical…substitutional logic,” “[m]odern copies of painted icons were understood as effective surrogates for lost originals….and new buildings were understood as reinstantiations…of prior structures” (Nagel and Wood 2010:29, 33). By this means, “a material sample of the past could somehow be both an especially powerful testimony to a distant world and…an ersatz for another, now absent artifact” (Nagel and Wood 2010:31). The well-known propensity of the Maya to replicate and improvise new buildings atop older ones would be solid examples of “substitutes.” Although commissioned by particular kings, the buildings were probably viewed as “reinstantiations…of prior structures.” Indeed, their packaging within later construction hints at the sacred bundles of the Maya, who found no contradiction between ritual centrality and the exclusion of sacred things from sight (e.g., Christenson 2006:237). Continuity is an obvious motivation, but there may have been sociological reasons as well. In other settings, as in the Saite 26th dynasty of Egypt, acts of quotation, citation or whole-scale borrowing flourished at times when Egyptian identities were under threat by “increasing numbers of foreigners” (Der Manuelian 1994:xxxv, 402, 409). They glorified, extolled, an ethnic identity that seemed to be in danger of dilution. Yet, in these works, there was no intent to deceive, and many of these productions expressed a “contemporary originality” (Der Manuelian 1994:409). The state of being poised in two times, invoking one period while residing in another, suggests in precise parallel the “multiple” or “plural temporality” described by Nagel and Wood. (fn 1) They appeal to the past–define it as something distinct—yet nullify their distance from it.

In contrast, Nagel and Wood’s second mode, the “performative” or “authorial,” highlights the historical singularity of an object, its placement in linear time, its novelty and capacity to make fresh, unexpected connections, its attention to the “time of manufacture” and the people behind it (Nagel and Wood 2010:30, 94). This, more than the first, is a mode that finds a lodging for “forgery” or “pastiche,” “the invention of a new work in a plausible past style” (Nagel and Wood 2010:289). Some of these were definitely meant to hoodwink, especially with objects prized by collectors. Yet, many “copies,” seldom exact, had their own value (Welch 2005:288).

These modes serve as a backdrop to the role and meaning of “archaicism” in certain Maya objects. The most striking are those that display Preclassic imagery (>1700 ya) with glyphic texts that are unlikely to date to that time. Alfonso Lacadena and I have long believed, for example, that the so-called “Hauberg Stela” (now in the Princeton University Art Museum) combines an archaic presentation of the body (wide, rounded hips, narrow waist, profile legs that barely overlap) with glyphs that seem to come from some centuries later (cf. Schele 1988, who opted for an early date of AD 199). In much the same way, one Terminal Classic monument at Ceibal, St. 13, appears to have glyphs—“quotations” or “citations”?—from an earlier time (CMHI 7:37). In both cases, the “time-bending” is in the temporal slippage between image and text, albeit with different forms of latching. By means of its image, the Hauberg Stela “bends back” to earlier periods; Ceibal St. 13 does so via the style and contents of its text. At the stuccoed temple of El Diablo, which forms part of El Zotz, Guatemala, my colleague, Edwin Román, and I have found an image of the sun god, surmounted by a glyph, that appears to be far earlier than the probable date of the building, c. AD 350-375. The eyes of the god have slotted eyes that recall Preclassic models. The glyph block above, perched over the forehead, includes a face with down-turned mouth (a Preclassic feature generally, with roots in the Olmec), and an unexpectedly archaic yu sign.

The best example of “substitution” or “bending back” may be the “Diker bowl” (Coe 1973: pl. 1), now in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1999.484.3; Figures 1-3). The form of the stone vessel is of a Preclassic chocolate pot, the spouted handle being used to froth the liquid within (e.g., McAnany and Murata 2006; Powis et al. 2002). Not surprisingly, the style of the iconography is pure Preclassic, too. There are two deities, one an avian creature, the other with features of the Maya maize god. The figures float below a skyband marked by Ik’ or “wind” signs, alternating with the sloping lines associated with such bands in Preclassic contexts. Both gods seem to carry their name glyphs above their heads, of which a clear cross-tie appears at A3 in the vertical text on the handle.

Fig. 1. Diker Bowl, with avian god (drawing by Diane Griffiths Peck, from Coe 1973:Pl. 2).

Fig. 2. Diker Bowl, with probable maize god, perhaps AJ BIH in forehead (drawing by Diane Griffiths Peck, from Coe 1973:Pl. 2).

Fig. 3. Diker Bowl, with archaic skyband (drawing by Diane Griffiths Peck, from Coe 1973:Pl. 2).

The text is difficult. Nonetheless, through the kindness of Justin Kerr, I have obtained a photograph that reveals some of its details (Figure 4a, 4b). This is where interest mounts: against expectation, the glyphs appear to be fully Early Classic, not Preclassic, in date (n.b.: it is almost certain that the text and image are contemporary, in that the handle has the same relief as the images and could not have been added later). Position A1 may contain a version of the TI’ logograph identified by David Stuart, and in a schematic form that is securely Early Classic. A sign for “mouth” accords with what was surely a drinking vessel, although it is unlikely to read “drink,” uk’, in this context because of the prefixed u pronoun. Just beneath it lies what may be a reference to the vessel itself, with body and neck somewhat visible. The probable t’abayi sign that composes part of A2 conforms to this dates, as does what appears to be an admittedly aberrant spelling of a transitive verb at A4: u-K’AL-wa TUUN, doubtless in reference to the stone-bowl and its dedication. (The name of the god is, as mentioned before, at A2.) An unusual form of tu, a preposition with ergative pronoun, may figure in A5. To my knowledge, spellings of transitives come exclusively from the Classic period.

Fig. 4: Diker Bowl, with close-up photograph, (a), by J. Kerr (copyright J. Kerr), and, (b), pencil sketch by S. Houston.

What does the Diker Bowl tell us? This: that the Maya were fully capable of executing temporally disjunctive texts and images when they needed to do so. The ease with which they accomplished this task is, in the case of the Diker Bowl, surprising, at least for me. But it fits well with the facility the Maya showed in juxtaposing (and thus hybridizing) images of radically different style. Consider the Teotihuacano “text” on the summit of Temple 26 at Copan, ably drawn by David Stuart, and now reconstituted in the sculpture museum at the site, or the various Tajinesque, Veracruz elements that interweave with Maya designs on Maya vessels (e.g., K1446). Was the invocation of ancient gods the main motivation in showing them in archaic guise, on a cult object that may purportedly have “belonged” to one of them? Whatever the answer, the ability to step out of time, to exist in two periods or two regions all at once, suggests an effortless repositioning….and an expressive domain that we have yet fully to explore.

Footnote 1: Some of these originals were not so much lost as magically created. Examples would include the acheiropoieta (“not handmade”) icons of Byzantium and elsewhere—namely, the images crafted by non-human, divine hands, as in the Shroud of Turin or the painting of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in Mexico. Such objects possessed a kind of “absolute singularity”—they could not transmute into “substitutables” for the reason that they uniquely and irreplaceably expressed the shaping hand of God (Nagel and Wood 2010:72; their uniqueness makes them ideal foci of pilgrimage, Nagel and Wood 2010:72)—indeed, the thought come to mind that some Maya god effigies, especially the small, hardstone ones in of Chahk that Karl Taube and I have been noting for some time, were considered acheiropoieta (or something like them) among the Maya.

Acknowledgement: Justin Kerr showed his customary generosity in sharing the photograph reproduced here.


Christenson, Allen. 2006. Sacred Bundle Cults in Highland Guatemala. In Sacred Bundles: Ritual Acts of Wrapping and Binding in Mesoamerica, edited by Julia Guernsey and F. Kent Reilly, pp. 226-246. Barnardsville, NC: Boundary End Archaeology Research Center.

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

Der Manuelian, Peter. 1994. Living in the Past: Studies in Archaicism of the Egyptian Twenty-sixth Dynasty. London: Kegan Paul.

McAnany, Patricia, and S. Murata. 2006. From Chocolate Pots to Maya Gold: Belizean Cacao Farmers through the Ages. In Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao, edited by Cameron McNeil, pp. 429-450. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Nagel, Alexander, and Christopher Wood. 2010. Anachronic Renaissance. New York: Zone Books.

Powis, Terry G., Fred Valdez, Jr., Thomas R. Hester, W. Jeffrey Hurst and Stanley M. Tarka, Jr. 2001. Spouted Vessels and Cacao Use among the Preclassic Maya. Latin American Antiquity 13(1), pp. 85-106.

Schele, Linda. 1985. The Hauberg Stela. Bloodletting and the Mythos of Maya Rulership. In Fifth Palenque Round Table, 1983, edited by M.G. Robertson and V. Fields, pp. 135-150. San Francisco: PARI.

Wada, Atsumu. 1995. The Origins of the Ise Shrine. Acta Asiatica: Bulletin of the Institute of Eastern Culture, 69, pp. 63-83.

Welch, Evelyn. 2005. Shopping in the Renaissance: Consumer Cultures in Italy, 1400-1600. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Dead Bugs and Olmec Writing 1

by Stephen Houston

The difficulties of working with an undeciphered writing system are many. The first hurdle is simply that of sorting out the reading order, i.e., determining the ways and directions in which signs are to be read–up-down, top-bottom, right-left, and all the possible variations in laying out a text. The absence of this understanding is fatal. If there is no known reading order, there can be no possibility of penetrating syntax and all the functional attributes implied by the arrangement of signs. At some point, writing must, as a record of language, reflect the organization of language and sequenced sound.

Figure 1. The Phaistos Disk

Yet, there are some navigational aids—all is not lost! For example, with hieroglyphic systems, even undeciphered ones, there is strong evidence that signs obey the strictures of iconography. Sign “behavior” in a text—the ways in which scribes orient signs–tends to conform to its disposition in imagery. Consider the human head or body. The unmarked position shows them much as we would see them, head aloft, feet where they should be. The marked position inverts them, blood rushing to the head, feet jerked aloft in high state of discomfort. Marked signs occur, but they are often rare. To judge from evidence in scripts as diverse as Maya, Aztec, and Egyptian, faces and bodies also orient towards the scanning or reading eye. As I have suggested elsewhere, there is almost a conceit—and perhaps a perceived reality–of social interaction between the reader and the sign. In unmarked form, a face or body addresses the approaching interlocutor. The marked form reverses them, and the face and body look away from the scanning eye. A case in point is the Phaistos Disk (Figure 1), cynosure of every traveler along the bumps and byways of decipherment. Little is known—or knowable—about this system, stamped on a clay disk some 3500 years ago. But there can be little doubt that the faces and bodies are directed to the reader. They almost certainly show the reading order of the disk, with passages that run from right-to-left, from outer edge and spiraling inwards to the center. The right-to-left orientation may have something to do with the fact that the signs were stamped into the clay, with the first typeface known to humanity.

The reason for this near-universal in hieroglyphic systems—the notable fact that such texts conform to the behavior of unmarked imagery–probably has to do with script origins. Codified imagery may well have been a necessary and sufficient condition for codified script (Houston 2004:288-293). In hieroglyphs, there may also have been a need to retain the legibility of iconic referents, well beyond the time of origins, when script coalesced from images. By definition, signs in hieroglyphic systems convey the notion of a discrete object, oriented in much the same way as that object would appear in imagery. For this reason, cursivity tends not to occur, as it would bruise the notion of a separable, distinct thing, slicing through or diffusing sign boundaries. (Of course, Maya script dealt with the need to compress text by the expedient of merging of infixing elements.)

This brings us to Dead Bugs. A recent effort to reexamine the celebrated Cascajal Block, of Olmec affiliation, and perhaps as early as 1100 BC in date, perhaps a few centuries later, proposes a radical reworking of the reading order in the block (Mora-Marín 2009). There is some accompanying PR to add brio to the claim, now available in a peer-reviewed journal (http://research.unc.edu/endeavors/win2009/symbols_on_stone.php). The original publication suggested that the orientation was of a rectangular text, longer than wide (Rodríguez Martínez et al. 2006). The new, proposed reading order places it on its side, 90 degrees off, wider than it is long. By this view, the text must be read in columns, left-to-right, and with the necessity of a new numbering of the text (Figure 2; Mora-Marín 2009:404).

Figure 2. Contrasting Orientations of the Cascajal Block

Since publishing the Cascajal Block, we have received many suggestions about the text. Some can only be described as bizarre—that the block records Chinese, that it tabulates the conditions of crops, that it shows human dentition or a chart of chromosomes. Perhaps the best and most reasoned comment comes from John Wood of Australia, who, in an unpublished paper, argues that there is more columnar organization in the top of the block than we had recognized—the slight disorganization of the text, with some irregular spaces and alignments, makes the text a difficult piece to parse, even under the best of circumstances. Wood’s views may well be correct, however. They would make sense of several peculiar irregularities in the layout of the text.

But it is highly improbable that the block should be viewed on its side.

First, as noted in the original publication, many of the signs, even though undeciphered, conform to codified elements in Olmec imagery. There are the famed “knuckle-dusters,” maize cobs, probable bloodletters, even a throne. Several excellent compilations of Olmec images attest to their usual positioning (e.g., Guthrie 1995: passim). The claim for side-ways orientation would pivot these elements on their sides, in violation of all known canons of Olmec imagery. Quite simply, there would need to be a radical disconnect between representational conventions and the signs that securely descend from Olmec imagery. Curiously, when the author responsible for the new theory lays out sequences for comparison, he re-positions them from his claimed orientation, fitting them into a display that conforms precisely to the orientation he disputes (e.g., Mora-Marín 2009:Figures 10-13). One proposed example, intended to show that such counter-intuitive orientations are relatively common, is etched on the belly of a raptor, scratched in turn on an obsidian core from La Venta. What the author does not emphasize is that he has had to reverse the image to force a resemblance to the Cascajal sign (Mora-Marín 2009:Figure 14c-f). The similarity is weak in any case. Another drawing of the obsidian fails to show the same internal details (e.g., Joralemon 1971:Figure 197; cf. Mora-Marín 2009:Figure 15c; Kent Reilly’s updated rendering, done after study of the original, also departs from Mora-Marín, cf. Reilly’s Figure 11, in http://www.famsi.org/reports/94031/index.html).

Figure 3. Incised Vase, Snite Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame (Kerr Photograph 6441, copyright Kerr Associates).

Second, some of the Cascajal signs, such as a possible bottle gourd, are also found on images such as an incised vase, c. 900 BC, from the Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame (Figure 3, Karl Taube, personal communication, 2007). Taube demonstrates that these are essentially the same fetishes, albeit with a slightly leaning quality to fit into the spaces on the side of the vessel. They are not shown on their sides, as the new theory would predict, yet the orientation of the vessel is patent. There can be no question here of their correct positioning.

Figure 4. Dwarf from “area of Teotihuacan,” Covarrubias notebooks (Joralemon 1971:Figure 19).

Taube has also shown that a small carving of an Olmec dwarf, in standing position, has two signs in the Cascajal system on either side of his head—and, crucially, the glyphs are placed in an orientation that is not on its side (Figure 4, Joralemon 1971:Figure 19). A paired set of glyphs on the Cascajal Block (glyphs 21-22

Figure 5. Cascajal couplet and orientation of same elements in eyes of Monument 1, Laguna de los Cerros, Mexico (Joralemon 1971:Figures 125, 153).

in the original numbering) occurs within the eyes of a sculpture from Laguna de Cerros, again in a position that runs counter to the sideways proposal (Figure 5, e.g., Joralemon 1971:Figures 125, 153). The observations by Taube augment the corpus, further link the block to Olmec imagery, and confirm that the correct orientation of the signs on the Cascajal Block corresponds to the presentation in the initial publication. It is likely that similar signs will appear with closer study of existing collections, as in this quick sketch of what appear to be glyphs on display at the Walters Museum of Art (Figure 6); exciting finds by David Cheetham of Arizona State University are forthcoming from Cantón Corralito, Chiapas.

Figure 6. Sketch of possible signs in Cascajal-system, vase on exhibit at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

Finally, a side-ways reading order would also take the insect in the Cascajal Signary (glyphs 1, 23, 50) and put it on its back, feet in the air—quite dead, unprecedented in contemporary imagery, and far different from the semblant creature found in Monument 43 at San Lorenzo, Mexico (Figure 7, Coe and Diehl 1980, I:Figures 481-482).

Figure 7. San Lorenzo, Monument 43 (Coe and Diehl 1980, I:Figures 481-482, drawing by Felipe Dávalos)

The points have to be put as plainly as possible:

– in all cases where the Cascajal signs appear in iconography, they do not correspond to the claim for a side-ways orientation of the block;
– in all cases where the Cascajal signs appear in text-formats, or in paired, couplet-like form, they do not correspond to the claim for a side-ways orientation of the block.

The new claim is thus incorrect. The perceived “repeated sequences” do not exist (e.g., Mora-Marín 2009:Figures 6, 7), and they have no bearing on any patterned syntax in the text. However, even if mistaken, the proposal has created a useful occasion to reaffirm the close ties in Mesoamerica of imagery to texts. When those ties are disregarded, confusions ensue. The block must be placed back in its correct position, in the vertical orientation it craves. The Dead Bugs live!


Coe, Michael D., and Richard Diehl. 1980. In the Land of the Olmec. 2 vols. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Guthrie, Jill. 1995. The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership. The Art Museum, Princeton University, Princeton.

Houston, Stephen D. 2004. Writing in Early Mesoamerica. In The First Writing: Script Invention as History and Process, ed. S. D. Houston, pp. 274-309. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Joralemon, Peter D. 1971. A Study of Olmec Iconography. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology 7. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C.

Mora-Marín, David F. 2009. Early Olmec Writing: Reading Format and Reading Order. Latin American Antiquity 20(3):395-412.

Rodríguez Martínez, María del Carmen, Ponciano Ortíz Ceballos, Michael Coe, Richard Diehl, Stephen Houston, Karl Taube, Alfredo Delgado Calderón. 2006. Oldest Writing in the New World. Science 313:1610-1614.

Rediscovered Stucco Glyphs from Palenque Reply


Stephen Houston’s recent archival research at the Smithsonian has led to the remarkable find of images of previously unknown stucco glyphs and an associated sculpture from Palenque, all carted off to Scotland by an adventurous Englishman in the early nineteenth century. We collaborated on the preliminary essay here (in pdf form), establishing, we think, just where they came from.

“They …Accomplished the Matter Betwixt Them”: Rediscovered Stucco Fragments from Palenque, Mexico by Stephen Houston and David Stuart

The Throne in the Basement 3

This post follows up on a recent entry devoted to the “Del Río Throne” of Palenque, which stood inside House E of the Palace until it was dismantled in June, 1787. It’s clear that the inscribed bench is much more recent in date than the building that housed it, placed by a later king in what was essentially Pakal’s throne room. The time difference between the throne and the surrounding space presents an interesting situation for those interested in how the Palace grew and transformed over the course of the Late Classic period.

According to the Tablet of the 96 Glyphs, House E was dedicated on October 30, 654, just two years after K’inich Janab Pakal had celebrated the great K’atun ending on This was a pivotal time in Palenque’s early history — Pakal had already been king since 615, but he had apparently held little power in those earlier decades, during what was a troubled political period instigated long before by wars with Calakmul and its allies. When House E was built it must have seemed a bold expression of Pakal’s new-found authority, and it helped set the stage for the architectural transformation of the Palace in the years that followed.

The style of the Oval Palace tablet dates to about the time of the building’s construction in 654, and shows a retrospective scene of the crowning of a young Pakal by his mother, Ix Sak K’uk’. Interestingly, the Del Rio throne itself is much later in date. As Mathews and Schele pointed out, the throne’s inscription records a series of royal accessions beginning with Pakal and continuing on to include his sons who ruled, K’inich Kan Bahlam and K’inich K’an Joy Chitam. An even later king may have been mentioned, since we know that the end portion of the text is still missing. Pakal’s grandson, K’inich Ahkal Mo’ Nahb, is featured in the late calligraphic text beautifully painted above the Oval Tablet, so this king’s modifications of the space may also have included a refurbishment of the throne (see Marken and Gonzalez Cruz 2007:154). At the very least we can be sure that the Del Río throne is significantly later than the Oval Palace Tablet, and that it presumably replaced one or more earlier thrones occupying the same space, beginning of course with the time of House E’s formal dedication in 654.

As it happens, the enclosed passages of the Palace’s lower levels — the so-called subterraneos — hold three table-like thrones, two of which are set against side walls of corridors, without any association with doors. One of these thrones (see photo), barely noticed by anyone who walks by in the wet, dark hallway, is inscribed with many eroded glyphs, including a Long Count date and, at the end, the clear name of K’inich Janab Pakal. The style is very early, similar to what we see on the Oval Palace Tablet and other inscribed blocks of the subterraneos. So why was this and another uncarved throne placed in these lower passageways? The subterraneos themselves seem to have been built and conceived as “buried” spaces, and were accessible through two stairways leading from two upper buildings, Houses E and K, which all look to be roughly contemporary with one another. There is good reason to believe these were all employed together as symbolic space integrating the underworld and the throne room (Baudez 1996; Stuart and Stuart 2008). What’s important here is that the subterraneos are directly attached to Pakal’s throne room above, located just up the stairs.

Given the late date of the Del Rio throne in House E, I have to wonder if the early inscribed bench now hidden away in the subterraneos served as the original royal seat beneath the Oval Tablet. That is, when replacing Pakal’s original throne with a new more elaborate one, did the Maya simply put the old seat in the basement, down the dark steps nearby? It does make sense to me, and the style of the faint glyphs is just about perfect for the time period of House E’s dedication.

So, here’s a thought: why not return Pakal’s early throne, or better yet a good copy, to its rightful place in House E? After all, Pakal’s throne room needs a throne!

Sources cited:

Baudez, Claude F.. 1996. Arquitectura y escenografía en Palenque: un ritual de entronización. RES 29/30.

Marken, Damien, and Arnoldo Gonzalez Cruz. 2007. Elite Residential Compounds at late Classic Palenque. In Palenque: Recent Investigations at the Classic Maya Center, pp. 135-160. D. Marken, ed. Altamira Press.

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