A Caracol Emblem Glyph at Tikal Reply

by Simon Martin
The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA

The inscriptions of Tikal have been scoured by epigraphers for many a year, but they still have the ability to surprise. I was leafing through the copy proofs of Hattula Moholy-Nagy’s new volume on Tikal artifacts (Tikal Report 27A) not so long ago when I saw a photograph of a text I’d previously seen only as a drawing. It was a close-up of a stucco-covered vessel found in Burial 195, the tomb of the sixth-century king dubbed Animal Skull.

As is widely known, this grave was flooded soon after its dedication and a slurry of mud deposited across its floor, burying many of its contents. A meticulous excavation by Rudy Larios and George Guillemin in 1965 revealed empty cavities in the now-hardened sediment, the remains of decayed wood and other perishable materials. Once filled with Plaster of Paris they could be recovered in whole or in part, in some cases revealing original stucco coatings with surviving color and painted designs. One of these objects was a small, covered bowl. The lid was almost complete and bore a 13-glyph Primary Standard Sequence in good preservation—perhaps bearing a woman’s name—a text now designated Miscellaneous Text 219. The style and coloring technique resembles those on the other stucco-covered pot in Burial 195, although it doesn’t appear to be in the same hand. The text on another stucco-coated item in the tomb, this time a ceramic plate, has a similar style but the artist is plainly different.

The body of the lidded vessel and the text it carried were in much poorer shape. Labeled Miscellaneous Text 277, it has only two surviving glyphs, the first no more than a fragment of border. The second is broken, yet unmistakably supplies the sequence K’UH-K’AN-tu-ma-ki for k’uhul k’antumaak—the emblem glyph of Caracol. With a blank section of stucco following, it falls at the end of a phrase, just where we might expect to find such a title.

Even today, when we have so many other ways of investigating Classic Maya politics, emblem glyphs remain a fundamental tool with which to examine relationships between sites. An isolated case such as this—damaged and lacking even the name of the person it refers to—can hardly carry the burden of great significance. We cannot even be sure that the vessel carrying it comes from Caracol. Nevertheless, it is interesting that such a title should appear in this particular grave at this particular time, and in this sense it does have a context in which it can be placed.

Animal Skull’s predecessor, Wak Chan K’awiil (formerly “Double Bird”) had close connections to Caracol and installed its king Yajaw Te’ K’inich II in 553. But relations soured rapidly and three years later, in 556, Wak Chan K’awiil attacked his former client. Six years after that, in 562, the Tikal king was defeated in a “star war” and disappears from history. The phrase describing the defeat on Caracol Altar 21 is badly damaged and the name of the victor unclear. Elsewhere I have argued that the Snake kingdom under its king Sky Witness is a better candidate than Caracol’s Yajaw Te’ K’inich, but we can only hope that some future find will make the matter clear. Certainly this marks the beginning of close ties between these two polities.

We don’t know how soon after 562 Animal Skull was inaugurated as Tikal’s 22nd king, and his rule is largely a historical blank. He has no known stelae and what little information we have comes from texts on unprovenanced ceramic vessels and those found within Burial 195. The tomb inscriptions appear on a set of four carved wooden boards (that survive today as plaster casts) and two polychrome plates. The first of the boards and one of the plates carry the same Long Count date, the Period Ending of 593. This makes it very likely that his grave was dedicated before the next K’atun-ending in 613. Several ceramic vessels name his mother, a royal woman from the site of Bahlam “Jaguar,” while only one (from Burial 195) refers to his father, and this name is otherwise unknown and lacks any identifying title. As Christopher Jones first suggested, there are good grounds to doubt that Animal Skull descended from the existing royal patriline—although this is not to say that he was without some claim to legitimacy.

We are left to ask how and why a vessel carrying a royal Caracol name came to be in Burial 195. It is safe to assume that it had some symbolic purpose, but in the absence of any sure knowledge we can only guess what this might have been.

Just a generation earlier, Caracol was a sworn enemy of Tikal and at least partly responsible for a major military defeat—one of the more consequential in Tikal’s long history. Yet, by the time of Animal Skull’s death an object naming a Caracol lord was chosen to be among a relatively small number of goods in his last resting place—a special location by any standard.

One scenario might see Caracol as having fallen into the Tikal fold once more, with this vessel in some way signaling their renewed subordination. Because we lack a dedication date for Burial 195, we cannot know whether Yajaw Te’ K’inich II (553-593) or his son Knot Ajaw (599-613) was in power at the time. However, Yajaw Te’ K’inich and his younger son K’an II ( 618-658 ) were clear allies of the now-dominant Snake kingdom (the latter was affirmed in his kingship by the new Snake king Yuknoom Ti’ Chan) so any such ties to Tikal would realistically be restricted to the reign of Knot Ajaw, K’an II’s half-brother. The situation would need to have been dynamic indeed for relations to yo-yo quite so rapidly, and comes in the absence of any evidence for Animal Skull’s political strength. We would, I think, need to see new inscriptional evidence for this model for it to be persuasive. The same might be said of another possibility, that the vessel was booty seized in a successful new attack.

A further scenario sees greater stability following the war of 562. Here the evident disruption of the Tikal patriline is an especially important consideration. Animal Skull could have introduced a regime more to the liking of the victors, perhaps one politically beholden or subservient to them. Burial 195 was not very wealthy in terms of its jade and other valuables, and seems to reflect somewhat straitened times. Although Animal Skull seems to have some connection to distant Altar de Sacrificos—perhaps as the father to one of its kings—to date he lacks the credentials of his immediate successors as a true reviver of Tikal fortunes. Is the woman named on the lid the one with Caracol connections, could she have married into the Tikal line? We might never know. However, just like the serendipitous survival of this emblem, some unexpected piece of data might fall into our hands one day and bestow a clarity we currently lack.


Further reading:

Martin, Simon. 2003. In Line of the Founder: A View of Dynastic Politics at Tikal. In Tikal: Dynasties, Foreigners, and Affairs of State, edited by Jeremy A. Sabloff, pp. 3-45. School of American Research Advanced Seminar Series, School of American Research Press and James Curry, Santa Fe and Oxford.

2005. Caracol Altar 21 Revisited: More Data on Double Bird and Tikal’s Wars of the Mid-Sixth Century. Precolumbian Art Research Institute (PARI) Journal 6(1):1-9.

Moholy-Nagy, Hattula. 2008. The Artifacts of Tikal: Ornamental and Ceremonial Artifacts and Unworked Material. Tikal Report No.27 Part A. University of Pennsylvania Museum Monograph 127. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia.

A Childhood Ritual on The Hauberg Stela 7

In a few Classic Maya texts we find records of coming-of-age ceremonies involving royal children, where bloodleting seems a dominant theme. These ritual events haven’t yet been collectively discussed or analyzed in the literature (at least as far as I know) so I hope this brief post might help point the way for further thought, especially with regard to the interpretation of an important ealry Maya monument known as the Hauberg Stela (see the third and last image, scrolling below).

We can first turn to the vivid but damaged depiction of one such childhood rite on Panel 19 from Dos Pilas, shown here.


At center stage we see the young prince shedding drops of blood into a dish, standing before a kneeling priest who holds a stingray spine — the instrument of choice for genital bloodletting in much of ancient Mesomerica. The boy’s mother and father (Ruler 3 of Dos Pilas) look on from the left, as do also two attendants at right, one called the “guardian of the boy.” The main inscription is too damaged to read in full, unfortunately, but it does mention the ch’ok ajaw title (“prince”) as well as the fact that the ritual was witnessed by “the twenty-eight lords.” Evidently this sort of youth ceremony was a major political event in its own right.


Texts at other sites seem to describe very similar sorts of episodes. In a passage from Stela 3 of Caracol, show here, we read of a ceremony called yax ch’ab, involving the five-year old youngster named Sak Baah Witzil — he would would later reign as the important ruler Tum Yohl K’inich (also known as “Kan II,” in Martin and Grube’s Chronicles of Maya Kings and Queens). As others have noted, yax ch’ab is surely a bloodletting ceremony, literally meaning “first penance” or “first creation.” Ch’ab alone is a key term used for adult bloodletting ceremonies, as best seen on Yaxchilan, Lintel 24. According to the Caracol passage, the boy’s father oversaw the ritual according to the same passage, making for an even more precise parallel to the Dos Pilas scene.

(Another yax ch’ab ritual is recorded on the side of Tikal’s Stela 10, a much eroded monument, but the context is not so clear; it too could well refer to a childhood bloodletting ceremony.)


This brings us the remarkable Huaberg Stela, a key Early Classic sculpture dating to about 200-300 AD, now in the collections of the Princeton University Art Museum. The miniature stela shows a standing figure in supernatural attire, cradling a long serpent that arches above his head. Images of conjured ancestral figures climb the body of the snake, and another likely ancestor image emerges from the gaping maw above. The main verb in the accompanying text is again yax ch’ab, “first penance,” leading me to consider the Hauberg Stela as a commemoration of a young boy’s first bloodletting, perhaps involving also a performance of deity impersonation. The unusual small size of the monument — it’s only about 80 cms in hieght — may be due to it being a “child-size” stela.

Published studies of the Hauberg Stela don’t mentioned this connection to youth ceremonies, so my take on it goes against established wisdom in some ways. For example, the entry in the Lords of Creation exhibit catalog (Fields and Reents-Budet 2005) repeats the long-held view first tentatively advanced by Linda Schele (1985) that the Hauberg Stela depicts a king named “Bak T’ul” in a bloodletting “vision quest” (a term, by the way, I strongly object to). Bloodletting it certainly is, but based on a closer reading of the glyphs and drawing key comparisons, I think a good case can be made that the Hauberg Stela instead celebrates a royal child’s auto-sacrifice, a “First Penance.”

(By the way, “Bak T’ul” is not the correct reading of the personal name in any case, whether it be a child or adult. It looks instead to be CHAK, “red,” before an undeciphered animal head sign erroneously analyzed before as a rabbit, t’ul.)

* * *

Further reading:

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

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

Of Beads and Cylinders 1

by Steve Houston

Some months ago I happened to see a remarkable object in a small private collection. It is a stone cylinder c. 12 cm. in height, c 7 cm. in diameter. Mary Miller had also shown me photos of the piece many years ago, in the ‘80s. I did a drawing of it at the time – which I cannot now find for the life of me!


The cylinder belongs to a genre of Early Classic objects, none of great size, that show the heads of what I take to be deceased lords. This ID is suggested by the closed eye and the disembodied nature of the portraits. One such object is on human bone, the other occurs on a sculpture drawn by Dave Stuart. (Both images are shown below.) On the human bone, the name of the deceased ruler appears in the headdress, a standard practice in Maya imagery, from earliest times to the end of the Classic period, a millennium later.


But what is the cylinder, and what does its text say?

First the date: The combination of the 5 Chuwen in the 260-day calendar and an early G2 (the so-called “lord of the night,” plus title” that occur in the 2nd and 3rd places of the vertical text) limits us to a few options, especially in view of the early style of the cylinder. The range of dates can’t be more than a century and is probably rather less than that. The Maya sometimes prized economy of expression, and the cylinder exemplifies this drive to concision.

As I was looking at the piece, it suddenly occurred to me that I had seen the name before or at least a name close to it — the nominal signs are, of course, the glyphs that stretch over the final blocks of the vertical text. The glyphs also appear as elements in the headdress of the portrait to the other side of the cylinder. I’ve attached a rather poor drawing I did in ’81 or so of Balakbal Stela 5, with a date of in the Maya system, May 16 (Julian), AD 406 in ours. (Perhaps I shouldn’t apologize too much for the drawing. The photo of the stela was grainy and uncooperative.)


Note the similarity, illustrated here, between the name on Stela 5 and that on the cylinder. In the first glyph there appears the “cruller” device that wraps around the eye and passes through the earspool. The cylinder makes it clear, both in text and imagery, that the final name of this lord is that of the Rain God, Chahk. Most of the same attributes are in place, from the hair-knot to the serpent-tongue, and, in the inscription, a distinctive shell-earspool – a collection put together by Karl Taube in his classic book on Maya deities makes this point neatly. I wish the Chahk were clearer on Stela 5, but the text has become damaged at just this point.


What do we know of Balakbal? Ruppert and Denison’s publication for the Carnegie, Archaeological Reconnaissance in Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Peten, shows that it lies in a remote place very close to the border of Peten, Guatemala, and the Mexican states of Quintana Roo and Campeche. The compass map by Ruppert and Denison reveals that the site has a so-called “E-group,” a massive set of buildings oriented to dawn-events that is a characteristic of the Maya Preclassic and into the Early Classic. Thus, this is likely to be an early site, at least in part, and the date of Stela 5, among the most important, early texts we know, fits well with this impression.

Back to the dating of the cylinder. Balakbal Stela 5 is difficult to make out, like many early Maya inscriptions. But its main date ( 9 Etznab 16 Pop, May 14, AD 406) is most likely an accession, followed a short time later by the celebration of an important calendrical ceremony, presided over by the new ruler — and, I suspect, the figure on the cylinder. The reference to accession is expected for the simple reason that the right side of the stela may record the death of his predecessor only a short time before (31 days, to be exact).

The link to Balakbal gives us a possible linchpin for assigning a date to the cylinder. Of course, 5 Chuwen, G2, has to come after the dates on Stela 5, and probably by more than a short period, as we are likely to be dealing with a posthumous object. These are the possibilities, given the clues from Stela 5 (all dates in the Julian system).

(1), May 27, AD 407
(2), Oct. 17, AD 417
(3), March 14, AD 420
(4), Aug. 10, AD 426
(5), Jan 5, AD 433

Later dates are biologically possible, but they begin to stretch beyond what I would find stylistically feasible. Date (1) seems too early for me, which leaves the following four. Unless there is some clue that escapes me, I cannot sort out which might be correct. I suspect, however, that the latest two are more likely to be correct, given what we know of most spans of rule. The intended readers must have found certain things obvious. The sculptor understood this and didn’t bother with a complete date, to our frustration. (The Stuart text with the Initial Series in the Maya system is far fuller and more explicit.)

So, we have a date or range of dates – if predicated on a number of assumptions–an identifiable (if deceased) personage, a possible find-spot at or near Balakbal, Campeche, and a standard verb to indicate dedication or offering (this is the possible t’abayi verb, with a reading proposed by Dave Stuart in 5th position within the text). This leaves the highly enigmatic yu-BAAH.

It could be that this is a disharmonic spelling, one with a “complex” vowel, thus the yuub. That’s reasonable, yet I believe such a spelling may not work with the so-called “pocket gopher” glyph (BAAH). At this stage in Maya writing, the “gopher glyph” functioned, to an exclusive extent, as a rebus for “portrait, body,” baah (Dave, Karl, and I explain this in our book, The Memory of Bones).

I believe we are looking at a unique spelling that is nonetheless consistent with what we know of Maya words at this time. The y-u-baah is a possessed object, hence y- for the third-person, “his” (in this case, although “her” and “its” are possible, too), followed by the name of the thing being possessed, then the name of the possessor. The /baah/ is explained by the portrait on the other side.

…but what of the /u/ in between? Long ago, John Justeson of SUNY-Albany suggested that there were glyphs for “bead, necklace,” spelled [U] in the writing system. There is a handsome study of this by Dave Stuart, in this blog, who points to a clear demonstration of U as “bead” in a particular spelling at Tonina, Chiapas. (There’s another, eroded example at Tonina on Monument 7, so it isn’t a singular example.) I had also entertained the idea of a reading involving the root for “hearing,” ub, with assimilation of the final “b” into baah. Thus, a “hearing/sensing” image. But I think this interpretation is more of a stretch.

In short, the cylinder may be a “bead-image” or “bead-portrait” of the ruler. The shape fits, of course, and the Maya were known to have created particular objects of “jewelry” (or simulacra of them) in outsized form, as in a number of gigantic earspools that could not have been worn by anybody but a giant. We also know that a great deal of jewelry (whether literal or figurative) depicted ancestors.

This may be what occurs on the cylinder. I have seen finely polished stone cylinders from a number of Maya sites, including, I dimly recall, an example excavated by Dave Stuart at Arroyo de Piedra, in 1990. Are these “plain versions” of carved cylinders? Just as plain stelae evoke monuments embellished with images of rulers?

There may be more of these than we think. I attach an image of a small, rectangular stone, found in a niche by Sarah Jackson during the 2000 field season at Piedras Negras. The setting: Group C, just off the Northwest Group Plaza. In 1932, Linton Satterthwaite of the University Museum at Penn found very similar objects in Structure O-7, all of which just seem to sit there, without plastering or rooting in the substrate. Behind Sarah’s niche was a buried bench with various offerings of ceramics, as shown in the second photo.

Are stones like this altars or “rectangular columns,” as Satterthwaite called them…or, rather more strangely, plain versions of “ancestral jewels”? Beads of square section are, of course, attested in Maya jewelry.

UPDATE: A copy of Steve’s drawing of the cylinder will be posted here later — Dave has a copy somewhere in his files…

The Dallas Bone 1

One of my favorite Maya artworks is this intricately incised bone dating to about 600 A.D., now on display in the Dallas Art Museum. It’s been published and analyzed before (sort of), and is well-known to most scholars, but whenever I see the original I’m always stunned by its tiny size — less than 10 cms. in height.


The scene depicts the crowning of a king, in all likelihood a mythical figure based on the Maize God. An elderly gent resembling God L holds aloft an elaborate royal headdress in the form of the Principal Bird Deity, shown also perched on the celestial band above the throne. The iconography references, I think, an important storyline from ancient Maya origin mythology, where a great supernatural bird — probably based on an eagle, and a basic symbol of royal authority since Preclassic times — descended from the heavens to engender kingship as a political and cosmological paradigm. The story is depicted on many other objects, including the famous Blowgunner Vase (Kerr 1226), where we see a melding of this ancient story with somewhat different motifs and episodes of the later Popol Vuh epic. Marc Zender has traced some aspects of it as well in his discussion of the verb ehm, “to descend.” The San Bartolo mural shows the most vivid scene of the Principal Bird’s descent on the center of its west wall, as Bill Saturno, Karl Taube and I will present in a formal publication in the coming year.

The date recorded on the Dallas Bone is “5 K’an End of Yaxk’in,” perhaps a day of great mythological significance. I say this because in the 260-day calendar 5 K’an comes just two days after 3 Ik’ — the single day written next to with the descending Principal Bird image at San Bartolo. That, in turn, comes two days after the important 1 Ajaw featured in the Blowgunner Vase, and which obviously served as the basis of the name Hun Ajaw (meaning in a mythical sense “First, Original Lord”). So, for what it’s worth, we have three very different references to the myth of the bird that fall into a nice sequential arrangement: 1 Ajaw – 2 Imix – 3 Ik’ – 4 Ak’bal – 5 K’an. I’m as yet unsure what this all means, but the pattern seems worth further consideration.

One interesting aspect of the Dallas Bone’s design is the careful arrangement of the text within the scene. The four glyphs above the headdress provide the date (5 Kan End of Yaxk’in) and the main verb (k’ahlaj, “it was fastened…”). Then the text passes over to the floating glyph at far left, labeling the headdress (? hu’n), before it continuing down to the three glyphs above the image of the seated recipient, reading t-u-baah Lem ? Ixiim?, “…upon the head of Shiny-?-Maize(?).” It’s a fine example of an artist’s carefully considered integration of text and image.

The inscription:

5-“K’AN” / TI’-HAAB / YAX-K’IN-ni / K’AL-ja / ?-HU’N-na / tu-BAAH-hi / LEM?-?-IXIIM?

Jo’ K’an(?) (u-)ti’-haab Yaxk’in k’ahlaj ? hu’n t-u-baah Lem(?) ? Ixiim

(On the day) Five K’an the ‘end’ of Yaxk’in, the ? headdress is fastened upon the head of Shiny-?-Maize(?).