REPORT: Tonina’s Curious Ballgame

by David Stuart

Narrative scenes in Maya art are not always as simple as they might seem. Take for example this image of a ballgame on Monument 171 from Tonina, Chiapas. This small relief sculpture was discovered some years ago in the site’s acropolis, and is now on display near the entrance to the Sala Maya in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City.

Figure 1. Monument 171 from Tonina, now in the Museo Nacional  de Antropología (Photograph by D. Stuart).
Figure 1. Monument 171 from Tonina, showing the king of Calakmul, at right, playing ball with the deceased ruler of Tonina K’inich Baaknal Chahk, at left (Photograph by D. Stuart).

Like many scenes of the Maya ballgame, the Tonina relief shows two players in action with knees on the floor and a large ball between them. Three text panels are integrated within the scene and identify the actors and the time-frames of the game depicted. The central and right-hand sections form one continuous text, with the text at the the far left as a stand-alone caption for the left-hand figure. (Note: In the accompanying illustration I have re-lettered the columns to reflect the true reading order, so that columns A-B are at the center of the composition, above the large ball; columns A-B in the Corpus publication are here given as F-G).

Figure 2. Drawing of Monument 171 by Ian Graham, with new column designations to reflect true reading order.
Figure 2. Drawing of Monument 171 by Ian Graham, showing new column designations to reflect true reading order. (Adapted from Graham, et. al. 2006)

The date opening the main caption (A1-A2) is  7 Eb 5 Kankin, or October 31, 727 AD, during the reign of the Tonina ruler known as K’inich Yich’aak(?) Chapat, who had assumed the throne a few years earlier in 723 (See Mathews 2001 for a useful tabulation of Tonina’s dates and history).  The event phrase (B2-A3) is very clear as u baah ta pitz, “(it is) his image in (the act of) ball-playing,” repeating a sequence of glyphs found also in the secondary caption at the far left (a curious echoing of phrase that is meaningful, and which we will return to).

So who’s playing ball? One might think that the text would simply name the two players, but in fact there are three people named in the accompanying glyphs. As I hope to explain, the added complexity reveals interesting aspects about how Maya artisans sometimes layered narrative history and manipulated text-image relationships in order to point emphasize certain important narrative elements involving actors and time-frames that might otherwise be obscure.

The subject of the main ball-playing expression is named in blocks B3-C1, and here we find something of a surprise. This is not the name of the local Tonina king, but instead looks to be that of the king who was ruling at distant Calakmul, an important character known in the literature as Took’ K’awiil (a provisional nickname; see Martin and Grube 2000:112). His name phrase is quite clear, reading across the body of the right ballplayer to highlight his identity, and identical to examples known from Calakmul and surrounding areas. After the name and the accompanying kaloomte’ title (C1) we come upon an undeciphered glyph — clearly a possessed noun (U-ma-?-li) (D1) — followed by the name of the local ruler K’inich Yich’aak(?) Chapat (E1-D2) and his two royal court titles (emblem glyphs), followed in turn by another example of the honorific term kaloomte’. The undeciphered glyph at D1 must express some relationship between the ballgame or the Calakmul king and the contemporary Tonina ruler, although the nature of this connection still remains unclear (I recall seeing one other example of this same odd relationship glyph in another Tonina inscription that remains unpublished).

The ballplayer to the left is named in the caption behind him. This reads, in loose translation:

He is playing ball, the one k’atun kaloomte’, K’inich Baaknal Chahk, the Holy Lord of Po’

Here we have another ruler familiar from the Tonina’s history. However — and this is the truly odd aspect of the scene — at the time of the ballgame K’inich Baaknal Chahk had not been a ruler for nearly twenty years. He had been an important king who waged several notable wars against Palenque and its allies, but who died probably around the year 709, shortly before his young successor, Ruler 4, came to power on 9 Etznab 6 Muan. The next ruler after him, in turn, was K’inich Yich’aak(?) Chapat. So we have an odd situation at hand: a scene from the year 727 depicting a long-deceased Tonina ruler playing ball with a foreign Calakmul lord, with the current king named but not even shown.

So what gives? I believe we have here an excellent example of a common but little known convention in Maya art where times and identities can intentionally “merge” for narrative effect. One might even call it a form of visual poetics used by artists to carefully draw parallels and connections that, while not explicit on the surface, were nonetheless readable and knowable to those familiar with the conventions of Maya imagery. The 727 ballgame was probably real, a ritual contest involving the ruler of Calakmul Took’ K’awiil and the Tonina king who was alive at the time, K’inich Yich’aak(?) Chapat. Such royal ballgame scenes were frequently commissioned as a means of documenting long-distance alliances and hierarchical connections, and were used especially in the sphere of the Calakmul (Kaanal) court (examples are known from La Corona, Uxul and Hixwitz, among other places). The point of adding K’inich Baaknal Chahk’s image to this scene is, I think, to collapse this 727 event with a similar ballgame of a prior generation, involving the same Calakmul king and a deceased Tonina hero. The Calakmul ruler Took’ K’awiil was alive and on the throne in both time-frames, having acceded to the throne in 698. I suspect that he may held some important role in the complex geopolitics of Chiapas at the end of the seventh century, perhaps turning his attention westward after the defeat of the Kaanal kingdom by Tikal in 695. It’s probably no accident that Calakmul would find an ally in Tonina, who had for years been in conflict with its northern neighbor Palenque, itself an old enemy of the Kaanal kingdom. At any rate, the connection between the two ballgame events isn’t described textually or in conventional narrative fashion, yet it seems implicit in the juxtaposition of time with the actors shown.

Similar depictions of two subjects “out of time” with one another appear with some frequency in Maya sculpture. For example, La Corona Panel 1 shows two standing figures facing one another, each identified as the same ruler, K’inich ? Yook, on different ritual occasions. The scenes of the three tablets of the Cross Group at Palenque offer a similar juxtaposition of two inward-facing portraits of one king, K’inich Kan Bahlam, at different stages of life (as a young boy and as a middle aged man). A better parallel perhaps comes from the bench tablet of Temple XXI from Palenque, showing the deceased ruler K’inich Janab Pakal overseeing the bloodletting rites of his grandsons. In many of the Palenque narratives, earlier events and subjects are presented on the left, with later or contemporaneous protagonists on the right (the more “dominant” side of a composition).

I suggest that the Tonina ballgame scene presents a similar artistic stratagem. The written date and the subjects are carefully specified but are historically incompatible, a incongruence that serves to highlight the artist’s underlying message, linking an episode of current history with something parallel and similar in the past. I suspect this is why we have the apparent redundancy of two repeating phrases in the scene that simply state “he is playing ball” — each is needed because they serve in different historical moments. In Maya texts, the rhetorical links between such like-in-kind episodes are extremely common, and I would argue that Maya artists were just as keen in showing such connections, though perhaps not so linearly or directly. This then is a figurative ballgame, documenting to a old alliance between Tonina and the Kaanal court during the reign of K’inich Baaknal Chahk, and collapsing it with a more current relationship during the reign of K’inich Yich’aak(?) Chapat.

So this small elegant carving gives us with a fine example of how the ancient Maya conveyed layered and complex meanings involving time and identity, offering much more than first meets the eye.


Graham, Ian, David Stuart, Peter Mathews, and Lucia R. Henderson. 2006. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 9, Part 2: Tonina. Peabody Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2000. Chronicles of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. Thames and Hudson, London.

Mathews, Peter. 2001. The Dates of Tonina and a Dark Horse in Its History.  The PARI Journal 2(1):1-5. Link to pdf here.

Radio-carbon and the Long Count

New carbon-14 tests of one of the famous carved wooden lintels from Tikal generally confirm the long-established GMT correlations of the Maya Long Count calendar, as explained in a new press release from Penn State University. This is not the first test of the calendar correlation against radio carbon data — such efforts began some 50 years ago — but it does use the latest calibration methods.

The original study from Nature can be found here.

Bak’tuns and More Bak’tuns

by David Stuart

As many know, the upcoming completion of the 13th bak’tun on December 21 is represented in the Maya Long Count as It’s an important day in the Maya calendar, to be sure, but not the End of Times of course. The Maya never once said anything of the kind. Nor is the approaching day even the end of the bak’tun cycle, as it has often been described — that idea comes from an old and outdated conceptualization of Maya time. Here I’d like to explain a bit of the actual structure of the bak’tun calendar as we presently understand it, summarizing the work of a number of scholars as well as a few points I made in my 2011 book The Order of Days.

This upcoming date is a repetition of the “base” of the system which fell in 3114 BCE, also represented as Back then, the subsequent bak’tun number was re-set as 1 ( and thereafter their count progressed forward until the reappearance of 13 bak’tuns on December 21 of this year. This repetition of 13s has led some to suppose that a similar re-set of the bak’tun system is upon us now, and that we are destined to go back to in some 400 years from now. This is not true. Based on texts from Palenque that project calendar stations far into the future, we know there will be a linear sequence of bak’tuns from here on, represented as,, and so on. This will run forward still until, about 2,400 years from now.

Here’s an illustration of the sequence of bak’tuns just described: August 13, 3114 BCE December 21, 2012 October 13, 4772

Notice that at the end of this roughly 13,000-year span that the bak’tun changes to 0 and the next higher period, the piktun, turns over as 1. As it happens, the piktun unit before this date was set at 13, although this is left unwritten in the dates above. (Mayanists have long tended to just write five numbers of the Long Count, following the convention of the ancient Maya scribes themselves. But we know that this is a truncated representation, and that there were many more cycles above bak’tun and piktun. The full system I call the “Grand Long Count” encompassed 24 units!)

People often ask me why 13 was chosen as the re-set point for the bak’tun in 3114 BC. Why restart everything at that point? The way I see it, it’s all about two key numbers in Maya math, 13 and 20. For the Maya, both 13 and 20 were seen as key factors in a larger mathematical system, especially with regard to time. The most simple and fundamental calendar unit was a 260-day cycle (13 x 20 days), widely known as the tzolk’in, that was used for divination and had widespread use even among the general populous — one reason why it still holds importance among some Maya today and the Long Count does not. This 260-day span is about equivalent to nine months in our reckoning, the period of human gestation, and the modern Maya of highland Guatemala who still use the 260-day calendar are adamant that it’s specifically tied to the biological clock of human conception and birth. 13 thus emerges automatically as a key factor — and a sacred number — since 20 is simply the basis of the entire vigesimal (base 20) counting system found throughout Mesoamerica. Beyond this, 13 came to be widely applied to other temporal spans and cosmological structures. In fact, the interplay of the two key numbers 13 and 20 turns out to be the basis of other time structures they developed, including the Long Count.

We see this in the list of bak’tuns above, which is comprised of a sequence of 13 bak’tuns followed by 20 bak’uns — i.e., the same two key numbers of Maya time reckoning. So, the bak’tun calendar as I’ve described it shows how these two all-important numbers could relate to one another in another way, now on much bigger temporal scale.

It’s an elegant system, designed to reflect a deep cosmic structure that’s at once cyclical and lineal, as well as mythical and historical. In this way I hope we can appreciate the bak’tun we’re about to enter is a continuation of a time reckoning system that’s been in place for a long time, and that still has a long way to go.

The 584286 Correlation

Simon Martin and Joel Skidmore have recently published in The PARI Journal and posted on Mesoweb their intriguing new analysis of the age-old correlation question — that is, how we best reconcile the ancient Maya and Gregorian calendars. They offer the possibility that the standard Goodman-Martinez-Thompson (GMT) family of solutions so widely accepted by nearly all Mayanists for many decades may be off by up to a few days.

Here’s the link to their article on Mesoweb.

Xultun Number A and the 819-Day Count

by Barbara MacLeod and Hutch Kinsman

Within a few hours of the publication in the 11 May, 2012 issue of Science of “Ancient Maya Astronomical Tables from Xultun, Guatemala”, by William Saturno, David Stuart, Anthony Aveni and Franco Rossi, Hutch Kinsman contacted colleagues who regularly correspond by email, pointing out that Number A—1,195,740—is evenly divisible by 819. It is the only one of the four which contains this factor. He also noted that the coefficient of the tzolk’in day at the top of the column is 1. Since all tzolk’in dates which are stations in the 819-Day Count have a coefficient of 1, this was further evidence that the purpose of the interval was to commensurate the 819 (2.4.19)-Day Count with the Calendar Round.

Figure 1. Number array from north wall, Structure 10K-2, Xultun, Guatemala. (Preliminary drawing by David Stuart)

For anyone not familiar with this cycle, 819 is the product of 7, 13, and 9—numbers of ritual and calendric significance to the Maya. Following the Initial Series, the count appears as a short distance number leading to the previous station–one of four which are 819 days apart. These are associated with the cardinal directions and their corresponding colors. A verb meaning ‘stand still’ or ‘stop’ appears along with several regular protagonists. Yaxchilan and Palenque are noteworthy in having multiple monuments featuring the 819-Day Count. J. Eric S. Thompson (1950:214) and his contemporaries offered early suggestions about its purpose. Heinrich Berlin and David Kelley (1961) first described the structural similarity between the Dresden New Year pages and the color/direction symbolism of the 819-Day Count. Given the formula [4 x 819] = [9 x 364] one may add nine days to the latter to complete nine haabs. Michael Grofe (personal communication, May, 2012) suggests that it is an idealized system for tracking the sidereal position of eclipses.

Figure 2. Example of 819-day count record from Yaxchilan, Lintel 30. (Drawing by Ian Graham)

The interval of Xultun Number A—1,195,740 days– is [63 x 18,980] and [4 x 819 x 365]. It is also [9 x 365 x 364], which brings to mind the [9 x 364] = [4 x 819] formula mentioned above. The unit of 364 days is the Maya “computing year” discussed by Thompson (1950:256). The interval of Xultun Number A is also the smallest unit which commensurates the 819-Day Count with the Calendar Round.

Thompson (cited above) wrote: “as only once in every 63 times will a day with a coefficient of 1 also mark the start of the 819-day cycle, the fact that this first day before ( 4 Ajaw 8 Cumku is a base in the 819-day cycle argues strongly for that count’s being primarily ritualistic”.

The day 1 Kaban before the Era Base 4 Ajaw 8 Kumk’u, per a discussion Carl Callaway and Barbara MacLeod had several years ago, is an 819-Day Count station in the east quadrant—the quadrant in which, for several reasons, we concluded that the count should begin. From this datum, counts both forward and back might reach other stations in the cycle; thus the pre-era date 1 Kaban 5 Kumk’u need not be the earliest documented station. The earliest station known, 1 Chikchan 18 Ch’en, recorded on the Palenque Temple XIX bench, is therefore not the base date but rather a distant-past station reached from it.

At the 1974 Segunda Mesa Redonda de Palenque, Floyd Lounsbury presented a meticulous analysis of the pre-era initial date of the Tablet of the Cross at Palenque. This paper is well worth reading and is available on Mesoweb:

Per Lounsbury’s work, the Palenque interval is 1,359,540 days, or [4 x 819 x 415]. While it is not an even multiple of the 18,980-day Calendar Round, it is [5229 x 260] and [1734 x 780] and [3735 x 364]. It demonstrates the application to dynastic mythological narrative of large multiples of [4 x 819] by Maya scribes in deep-time calculations.

Saturno et. al. note that the tzolk’in day at the top of Column A is either 1 Kawak or 1 Kaban. We suggest that it is 1 Kaban—the tzolk’in position of the base date of the 819-Day Count. This in turn sheds light on the function of the other three tzolk’in dates. We tentatively suggest that the 9 K’an date atop Column B is that of the Dresden Codex Serpent Base 9 K’an 12 K’ayab. More will be said about the other three numbers in the near future.

References Cited

Berlin, Heinrich, and David H. Kelley. 1961. The 819-day Count and Color-direction Symbolism among the Classic Maya. Middle American Research Institute Publication 26.

Lounsbury, Floyd G. 1976 A Rationale for the Initial Date of the Temple of the Cross at Palenque. Second Palenque Roundtable, 1974. The Art, Iconography & Dynastic History of Palenque, Part III, edited by Merle Greene Robertson. Pebble Beach, California: Pre-Columbian Art Research, The Robert Louis Stevenson School.

Saturno, William, David Stuart, Anthony Aveni and Franco Rossi. 2012. Ancient Maya Astronomical Tables from Xultun, Guatemala. Science 336, 714.

Thompson, J. Eric S. 1950. Maya Hieroglyphic Writing: An Introduction. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.