The Universe in a Maya Plate

by James Doyle, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Stephen Houston, Brown University

Expressing metaphors for a constantly shifting reality is a human universal, especially during the mid-8th century AD. At that time, in the center of the Yucatan peninsula, royal courts were on the cusp of political and demographic upheaval. Yet, in a signal irony—and perhaps as a cause?—they managed to sponsor innovative architectural and artistic programs. Consider the vase painters in and around Calakmul, Campeche, at c. AD 750.

The sheer volume of codex-style vessels, produced within a very few generations, suggest that ateliers were scaling up production for the struggling royal court and assertive sub-royals in sites nearby. Lack of archaeological context and legible texts impedes deeper understanding of the circumstances under which such paintings were produced (but see Delvendahl 2008:125-128; García Barrios 2011). A suggestive comparison, though, could be made with the proliferation of lintels and panels in the Usumacinta region within the Yaxchilan and Piedras Negras kingdoms: that is, art was distributed in exchange for loyalty and tribute when such had become, perhaps, more precarious (Martin and Grube 2008:135-137, 153).

Only slightly more than 20 painters are identified by name in the Classic period, far fewer than the ca. 120 sculptors who signed works in stone (Houston 2016; Houston, Stuart, and Fash 2014; Stuart 1987, 1989). Recent studies have traced the oeuvres of individual vase painters in specific temporal contexts (see Just 2012). Without scribal signatures, however, researchers are left to the detailed study of the “hands” of Classic Maya artists. This is an evaluation that rests on habitual, “unconscious” details, as pioneered by Giovanni Morelli, Bernard Berenson, and others for Renaissance masters such as Raphael, or by John Beazley for Classical Greek painters (See Beazley 1911, 1946; Berenson 1901, 1903; Morelli 1900; Wollheim 1974). Such work could be tedious to an extreme, and highly subjective. Morelli himself, founder of such studies, admitted that it required “long practice” and that each eye might see different patterns.

Certain Maya painting styles nevertheless lend themselves to identifying artists’ hands. The limited number of variables and limited palette within the corpus of codex-style painting facilitate that search. This opportunity was recognized by Justin and Barbara Kerr in the early years of their valuable and innovative documentation of Maya ceramics (Kerr and Kerr 1988). The Kerrs proposed the existence of several codex-style masters on the basis of details revealed through close study of brush flourishes or the execution of hands, feet, and other minutiae. We were recently invited by Mary Miller to honor Justin Kerr at a special session in the 2017 College Art Association meeting and decided to revisit this important contribution.

The presentation coincided with the publication of an article celebrating codex-style vessels in the recent Metropolitan Museum Journal, Creation Narratives on Ancient Maya Codex-Style Ceramics in the Metropolitan Museum, and a concurrent Maya codex-style installation at The Met. All depict the Classic Maya rain god, Chahk, in typical codex style. Red bands and black calligraphic line fill a cream or light beige background. Washes embellish figures, fluids, and the hieroglyphic texts that accompany them. In this genre, undulating shapes tend to dominate, along with a decided abhorrence of straight lines. Michael Coe called this “whiplash” calligraphy, endowed with lines that seem to curve and “snap” with vigorous energy (Coe 1973:91). New rollout photos, inspired by the Kerrs’ original work, include a hi-res image of the Metropolitan Vase and its visual narrative pertaining to the birth of a mythological infant jaguar deity. This vessel anchored one of the groups identified by the Kerrs, who identified a workshop controlled by a painter they dubbed the “Metropolitan Master.”

One codex-style masterwork not included in the Kerr’s original study was the unusually large tripod plate studied by Linda Schele and Mary Miller in their landmark exhibition, The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. Nicknamed the “Cosmic Plate” for its dense imagery, cosmogonic themes, and fineness of execution, it is a unique work, with few peers in terms of size, ambition, and care of painting (Figure 1, for a close competitor in quality, see, however, see Coe and Houston 2015:pl. XVIII). In producing a new line drawing of the plate’s great Chahk representation from Justin Kerr’s photos, Doyle quickly realized that advances in knowledge allowed for a fresh study of this masterpiece.


Fig. 1  Tripod plate showing Chahk as the great progenitor, 7th–8th century AD. Guatemala or Mexico, Maya, Late Classic. Ceramic with red, cream, and black slip, Diam. approx. 16 1/2 in. (42 cm). Private collection, photo by Justin Kerr, ©Kerr Associates.

The monumental plate is an object made for display, likely at feasting occasions in the royal court (in fact, few known Maya plates are so large—one example, impressive in size yet smaller than the “Cosmic Plate,” is a 31 cm-diameter Hutzijan polychrome plate excavated in Structure C-10 at Piedras Negras, see Muñoz 2004:103). A plate like this one could have been a grand diplomatic gesture, a gift between Maya rulers. The codex style is clearly a hallmark of the royal courts and loyal local palaces around the great city of Calakmul, straddling the border between southern Campeche and northern Guatemala (see Hansen et al. 1991; Reents-Budet et al. 2010). In our view, two potential models might explain the circulation of codex-style vessels: (1) non-royal political leaders commissioned them; or, more likely, (2) the most exquisite and elaborate were bestowed by the rulers of Calakmul itself. Perhaps local lords received handsome presents in return for their loyalty, through low-cost rewards distributed by the center. After all, a painted pot reveals deep training, but its making demanded only negligible expense in materials, time, and fuel for firing. Recall the high value that scholars had long-assumed for certain Athenian ceramics. In a provocative argument, Michael Vickers and David Gill (1994) suggested that this was a latter-day projection, one inconsistent with an actual, ancient emphasis on vessels of precious metals.

On the Cosmic Plate, the outer walls of its sloping rim are boldly painted with watery motifs, visible from afar, that include swirls, registers of droplets, and waterlily vegetation (Figure 2). The delicate main scene on the upper surface, however, would only have been visible by those directly above the plate at close range. The potter and painter collaborated on a clever conceit. The three feet of the vessel imitate downpours, a vertical deluge of concentrated form—these occur routinely in the Yucatan peninsula. In this case, columns of rain appear to precipitate from the plate itself and the watery milieu on its exterior.


Fig. 2. Detail of the outside of the tripod plate and supports. Private collection, photo by Justin Kerr, ©Kerr Associates.

Traits on the Chahk plate—including the form of certain common motifs, the singular aspects of its composition, and the virtuoso brushwork over the large surface—distinguish it from almost all other Maya ceramic paintings. Some have argued that three vessels in the Princeton University Art Museum come from the same hand, executed by the painter ?-n Buluch? Laj, and painted around AD 755 (Robiscek and Hales 1983:249; see Just 2012). Indeed, the portrayal of a jaguar on the largest of those vessels invites close comparison with the howling jaguar growing from Chahk’s head. But the hypothesis that ?-n Buluch? Laj also painted the great Chahk plate raises a number of questions about painterly practice.

Maya vase painters appear to have experimented with different styles. The Princeton vases were likely commissioned by a Peten Itza king in north-central Guatemala. Hypothetically, the Cosmic Plate either came from there or from Calakmul, although still influenced by exemplary works to the south. The renowned “Altar vase,” clearly from the Ik’ kingdom near Peten Itza, proves that such pots traveled far and wide (Just 2012:142-149). Another source of inspiration might have been circulating books or paintings. Imperial China is known to have had such exchange, and scrolls gained uniformity, often over vast areas, by their energetic dispersion, study, and copying (see Miller 1998:216-218).

Whether the plate is the lone known work of a master or not, its unrecorded artist certainly fused the mythic and the historical in microcosmic form. The mythic frame of the narrative describes the context of the sprouting Chahk in deep time and in linked primordial locations. The fictive date of 13 Ok 8 Zotz must be significant to wider Maya myths: that Calendar Round appears in the Dresden Codex, in reference to the planet Venus, a point recognized by David Stuart (Miller and Schele 1986:310-312, pl. 122). Three Venus signs as well as the frontal and rear parts of the body of the celestial “starry Deer Crocodile” appear on either side of the upper scene, signifying the sky as the upper part of the composition (Martin 2015; Velásquez García 2006:Fig. 5). A celestial bird carries what appears to be the month name, 4 Ceh.

On the 13 Ok 8 Zotz date, an event “happened” (utiiy). This form of the verb has been suggested by David Stuart (personal communication, 1992) to refer to actions in remote time. The ancient subject seems to be k’uhul jinaj ? or “sacred milpa/planted-maize water,” perhaps a reference to the sprouting of maize, as part of a phrase consistent with the overall theme of emerging vegetation (Figure 3).


Fig. 3. Hieroglyphic text describing events in mythological time and the four god names.

The scribe went on to describe the mythological setting in triplet form: it “happened” (utiiy, this time in a more conventional, syllabic spelling) “at the black cenote, at the black water, at the five-flower house (?).” The agents at the event in deep time are probably described as the four gods of matawil (4 ma-ta-K’UH), which could be a reference to a watery paradise (Stuart and Stuart 2008: 211-215). The gods are named as a feline or jaguar (hi-HIX)—he appears here, roaring, head-back—we suspect (the text is eroded), the presence of two other gods in addition to the Chak-Xib-Chahk at the center (Stuart was the first to identify this version of Chahk—others are known in the Dresden Codex and at Itzan, among other places; the connection to “red,” Chak, may be purely coloristic or refer to a direction, East). The text accords with visual clues to that toponymy. The centipede’s jaws, in a reference to the black cenote, frame Chahk’s watery emergence from a heavy register marked with the same hieroglyph for black water. There might also be a specific seasonal aspect to the scene, found in the single glyph blocks that flank the jaguar. These are variants of Wind God and sun-related glyphs, similar to the two glyphs born by characters in the Lamb panel from “Laxtunich” (Schele 1990:2).

Chahk is the undisputed protagonist as he rises waist-deep from the “black water.” He takes the form of an active, dancing character, perhaps a releaser of vegetation, and is shown in other depictions poised to chop with his axe. He wears his characteristic Spondylus earspools and holds the lightning axe symbolic of K’awiil. The main image of the scene is the branching head and left arm of the rain deity, with many sprouting beings (Figure 4). These include the large serpent to the left, the jaguar mentioned above, and a large “jester god” in the upper right that is recognizable by its crossed-bands motif. Th text is eroded and its details uncertain, but some of these could correspond the four gods of matawil mentioned in the text, including Chahk himself. Moreover, to lower right, that god’s left hand sprouts a personified version of obsidian. The branching Chahk with the other gods of matawil cue, as Karl Taube has suggested to us, the fractal forms of eccentric flints or obsidians. The overall being is both “hard” and “soft” in its asserted texture, material, and surface.


Fig. 4. Drawing of a detail of the plate by James Doyle.

The hieroglyphic text contains a disjuncture. The jump separates mythical events and deity protagonists from a likely historical frame of reference and a human owner (Figure 5). The damaged day sign probably carries the coefficient 12, and the Pohp month may be prefaced by a variant of the number 6, identified long ago at Palenque by David Stuart. Though pinning down the date is speculative, style and proximity to major period endings suggests the following possibilities:             12 Etz’nab     6 Pohp             Feb. 26           AD 692               12 Ben            6 Pohp              Feb. 17           AD 731                 12 Ak’bal       6 Pohp              Feb. 10           AD 757                12 Lamat        6 Pohp              Feb. 7            AD 770

We find the latter two dates more likely, given the available evidence for the temporal distribution of codex-style ceramics, and the possible connection to the Ik’ painters who were active in the 750s-780s. The misalignment and asymmetry in the two sets of glyph blocks underscore the textual split between ancient time and contemporary events.


Fig. 5. Historical Text.

The action that follows the date is likely a variant of the verb for ceremonial “raising” of a jawte’, plate (not “death,” as posited by Schele). The execution of the dedication verb on the plate is coincidentally very similar to that on the vessel in the Princeton museum and another cup likely by the same painter from the Ik’ polity, the first dated to approximately AD 755 (  4 Hix 12 Kumk’u). The name and title that follow almost certainly name an actual historic figure (la-ch’a-TUUN-ni si-k’u-AJAW), though this name does not seem to be attested elsewhere in the corpus of Maya writing.

The plate with the mythic scene thus belonged to a living, historical owner who carried the ajaw title. Presumably, maize tamales filled the plate during important meals. By another, clever conceit, the plate would have contained actual maize products atop a scene in which growth is shown at first emergence. The reference to the mythological creation of maize and the depiction of this watery Olympus of quadripartite gods of matawil is indeed cosmic, but with a terrestrial focus. See, for example, the three partially preserved figures between the black water band and the potential representation of the “five-flower house” below (Figure 6).


Fig. 6. Detail of personified plants: (left) “root” figure, possibly manioc or sweet potato (note sign for “darkness,” a feature first discerned by Marc Zender); (center) dancing Maize God with elongated cranium and breath bead; (right) “tobacco” figure (note sign for “darkness” on body of figure, a possible reference to nocturnal conditions or even a plant disease such as black shank?).

Accompanying the leafy plants is another upside-down figure on the left projecting downward from the water register. The scribe depicted this figure’s headdress as something close to the wi syllable, identifiable as a pan-Lowland word for “raíz, root,” in languages such as Ch’ol, Chontal, and Ch’orti’ (Kaufman and Norman 1984:126). This could refer to a type of indigenous root crop, such as sweet potato or manioc, the latter extensively documented as a staple in places like Joya de Cerén, El Salvador (Sheets et al. 2012). If so, this character may constitute a unique depiction of root crops in Maya art. Much like the vegetation around Pakal’s sarcophagus, these beings correspond to plants of economic import to the Maya, and to key elements of consumption.

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Fig. 7. Comparison of wi syllable from Chahk plate and Palenque’s Tablet of the 96 Glyphs.

The deeper meaning of the plate thus comes into crisp focus. The object would have existed in two time frames, offering both real food and mythic food stuffs. In deep time, lightning and rain came together under the auspices of Venus and stars, at a location in or near the black cenote/black water place, calling together a dream-team of four deities. Chahk, as the central figure from which the other gods are sprouting, wields his axe to strike and release primordial vegetation: root crops, maize, and tobacco, in the form of godly figures. Fast forwarding to the 8th century, one can imagine a recitation by someone seated next to the plate. At a sumptuous feast, he or she would read the image and text and recount distant (yet close!) mythological events. The owner perhaps entreated the very deities pictured within, in earnest hopes for bountiful crops and plentiful rains in a time of impending social upheaval.


This post is dedicated to Justin Kerr, who built a life with his wife Barbara devoted to the study and preservation of Maya artworks. Mary Miller kindly invited us to the CAA meeting, where we had fruitful conversations with her, Claudia Brittenham, Bryan Just, Megan O’Neil, and Justin himself. Simon Martin and David Stuart also provided useful and timely comment.


Beazley, John D. 1911. The Master of the Berlin Amphora. Journal of Hellenic Studies 31: 276–295.

— 1946. Potter and Painter in Ancient Athens. London, Cumberlege.

Berenson, Bernard. 1901. The Study and Criticism of Italian Art. London, Bell and Sons.

— 1903. The Drawings of the Florentine Painters Classified, Criticised and Studied as Documents in the History and Appreciation of Tuscan Art, with a Copious Catalogue Raisonné, 2 vols., London, J. Murray.

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

Coe, Michael D., and Stephen Houston. 2015. The Maya, ninth edition. London and New York, Thames & Hudson.

Delvendahl, Kai. 2008. Calakmul in Sight: History and Archaeology of an Ancient Maya City. Merida, Mexico: Unas Letras Industria Editorial.

García Barrios, Ana. 2011. Análisis iconográfico preliminar de fragmentos de las vasijas estilo codice procedentes de Calakmul. Estudios de la Cultura Maya 37:67­–97.

Hansen, Richard, Ronald L. Bishop, and Federico Fahsen. 1991. Notes on Maya Codex-Style Ceramics from Nakbe, Peten, Guatemala” Ancient Mesoamerica 2(2): 225–43.

Houston, Stephen. 2016. Crafting Credit: Authorship among Classic Maya Painters and Sculptors. In Making Value, Making Meaning: Techné in the Pre-Columbian World, edited by Cathy Lynne Costin, pp. 391–431. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Houston, Stephen, Barbara Fash, and David Stuart. 2015. Morelli and the Maya on the Hieroglyphic Stairway, Copan, Honduras. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics. Vol. 65/66, pp. 15-36.

Just, Bryan. 2012. Dancing into Dreams: Maya Vase Painting of the Ik’ Kingdom. Princeton University Art Museum.

Kaufman, Terrence, and William M. Norman. 1984. An outline of Proto-Cholan phonology, morphology and vocabulary. In Phoneticism in Mayan Hieroglyphic Writing, Institute for Mesoamerican Studies publ. 9, ed. by John. S. Justeson and Lyle Campbell, pp. 77–166. Albany, State University of New York.

Kerr, Justin, and Barbara Kerr. 1988. Some Observations on Maya Vase Painters. In Maya Iconography, edited by Elizabeth P. Benson and Gillett G. Griffin, pp. 236–59. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2008. Chronicles of the Maya Kings and Queens. London and New York, Thames & Hudson.

Martin, Simon. 2015. The Old Man of the Maya Universe: A Unitary Dimension to Ancient Maya Religion. In Maya Archaeology 3, edited by Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore, pp. 186-227. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

Miller, Mary Ellen, and Linda Schele. 1986. The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. Fort Worth, Kimbell Art Museum.

Miller, Mary. 1998. A Design for Meaning in Maya Architecture. In Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture, edited by Stephen D. Houston, pp. 187-222. Washington, D.C., Dumbarton Oaks.

Morelli, Giovanni. 1900. Italian Painters: Critical Studies of Their Works, vol. 1, The Borghese and Doria-Pamphili Galleries in Rome, trans. Constance Jocelyn Ffoulkes. London, J. Murray.

Muñoz, Arturo René. 2004. The Ceramic Sequence of Piedras Negras, Guatemala: Type and Varieties. FAMSI

Reents-Budet, Dorie, Sylviane Bouche le Landais, Ronald L. Bishop, and M. James Blackman. 2010. Codex-Style Ceramics: New Data Concerning Patterns of Production and Distribution. Paper presented at the XXIV Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala.

Schele, Linda. 1990. The Site R Panels.

Sheets, Payson, David Lentz, Dolores Piperno, John Jones, Christine Dixon, George Maloof, and Angela Hood. 2012. Ancient Manioc Agriculture South of the Ceren Village, El Salvador. Latin American Antiquity 23(3): 259-81.

Stuart, David. 1987. Ten Phonetic Syllables. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing 14. Washington, D.C., Center for Maya Research.

— 1989. Hieroglyphs on Maya Vessels. In The Maya Vase Book, A Corpus of Rollout Photographs of Maya Vases, vol. 1, edited by Justin Kerr, pp. 149–160. New York, Kerr Associates.

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

Vickers, Michael, and David Gill. 1994. Artful Crafts: Ancient Greek Silverware and Pottery. Oxford, Clarendon Press. 

Wollheim, Richard. 1974. Giovanni Morelli and the Origins of Scientific Connoisseurship, in On Art and the Mind: Essays and Lectures, pp. 177–201. London, Allen Lane.

New Book: Maya Archaeology 2

Maya Archaeology 2, edited by Charles Golden, Stephen Houston and Joel Skidmore. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.


Precolumbia Mesoweb Press has just published Maya Archaeology 2, a beautifully illustrated volume with important contributions on the archaeology and epigraphy of Calakmul and Palenque. Authors of the included reports and articles are Ramón Carrasco Vargas, María Cordeiro Baqueiro, Simon Martin, Arnoldo González Cruz, Guillermo Bernal Romero, and David Stuart. The book will be available May 2013, and order information is now available here through the Mesoweb website.

Portraits of Yuknoom Ch’een

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.

Notes on a New Text from La Corona

by David Stuart

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

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

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

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

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

Historical Background

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

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

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

Preliminary Comments on the Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9.13. 3.16.17 8 Kaban 10 Kumk’u

+ 6.16. 1. 3

10. 0. 0. 0. 0 7 Ahaw 18 K’ank’in

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

9.10. 2. 1.10 10 Ok 8 Kumk’u

+ 3. 1.15. 7

9.13. 3.16.17 8 Kaban 10 Kumk’u

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Reference Cited

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

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