Xultun’s Astronomical Tables

Our article has just published in the latest issue of Science (Vol. 336 no. 6082 pp. 714-717), co-authored by  William Saturno, David Stuart, Anthony Aveni and Franco Rossi.

Article Abstract

Maya astronomical tables are recognized in bark-paper books from the Late Postclassic period (1300 to 1521 C.E.), but Classic period (200 to 900 C.E.) precursors have not been found. In 2011, a small painted room was excavated at the extensive ancient Maya ruins of Xultun, Guatemala, dating to the early 9th century C.E. The walls and ceiling of the room are painted with several human figures. Two walls also display a large number of delicate black, red, and incised hieroglyphs. Many of these hieroglyphs are calendrical in nature and relate astronomical computations, including at least two tables concerning the movement of the Moon, and perhaps Mars and Venus. These apparently represent early astronomical tables and may shed light on the later books.

Full article can be accessed here

UPDATE: Mesoweb has posted a nice summary of the find and of our epigraphic work (click here). Thanks Marc and Joel.

Number table from the north wall of Structure 10K-2 at Xultun, Guatemala. (Preliminary drawing by D. Stuart)

The Misunderstanding of Maya Math

A great many descriptions of ancient Maya mathematical notation read something like this:

The Maya made use of a base-20 (vigesimal) system with the units of 1, 20, 400, 8,000, 160,000, etc.. To write a number, a scribe would show multiples of these units in a set columnar order, moving down from highest to lowest, and add them accordingly. “32” for example would be written as single dot for 1, representing one unit of 20, above the two bars and two dots for 12, corresponding to the “ones” unit (1×20 + 12×1 = 32). A larger number such as 823 would be written in three places as two dots followed by one dot followed in turn by three dots, standing for the necessary multiples of 400, 20, and 1 respectively (2×400 + 1×20 + 3×1 = 823).

Similar descriptions of Maya math pervade the literature, textbooks and the internet. For example Michael Coe writes in the latest edition of The Maya (p. 232):

Unlike our system adopted from the Hindus, which is decimal and increasing in value from right to left, the Maya was vigesimal and increased from bottom to top in vertical columns. Thus, the first and lowest place has the value of one; the next above it the value of twenty; then 400; and so on. It is immediately apparent that “twenty” would be written with a nought in the lowest place and a dot in the second.

The illustration accompanying this text provides many examples of this purely vigesimal system:

Maya number notation from Coe’s The Maya (8th edition, p. 233)

Maya mathematical notation is described the same way in a number of other influential books widely read in classrooms and seminars, such as The Ancient Maya: New Perspectives (McKillop 2004:277) or the venerable The Ancient Maya (Sharer and Traxler 2006:101). In the latter work, two types of counts are represented (see below) – the purely vigesimal or base-20 count (with units of 1, 20, 400, and 8,000) alongside what’s called the “chronological count” (with units of 1, 20, 360, 7,200). The second is of course the basis for the familiar Long Count system.

Maya number notation as shown in The Ancient Maya (6th edition, p. 101).

A big problem exists with all of these seemingly straightforward descriptions of Maya mathematical notation. As far as I am aware no purely vigesemal place-notation system was ever written this way. It’s true that in Mayan languages numbers are base-20 in their overall structure, just as in most Mesoamerican languages. In Colonial Yukatek, for example, we have familiar terms for these units: k’al (20), bak’ (400), pik (8,000), and so on. However, ancient scribes never represented these units in a columnar place notation system, as is so commonly described in the textbooks. That format was instead always reserved for a for the count of time, in what we know as the Long Count. That system is mostly vigesimal, but it is skewed in one of its units (the Tun, of 360 days) in order to conform as much as possible to the number of days in the solar year (365). To reiterate: the columns of numbers we find in the pages of the Dresden Codex or painted on the walls of Xultun (stay tuned, folks…) are all day counts; the positional notation system was never used for reckoning anything else.

In the ancient inscriptions non-calendrical counts using large numbers are quite rare, mostly found in connection to tribute tallies, such as the counting of bundled cacao beans. But in those settings the scribes always seem to show nice rounded numbers (as in ho’ pik kakaw, “5×8,000 [40,000] cacao beans,” shown in the murals of Bonampak) without all the place units we know from the Long Count. In the Dresden and Madrid codices, counts of food offerings are given as groupings of WINIK (20) signs with accompanying bars and dots for 1-19. In this way a cluster of four such elements (4×20) with 19 writes 96 (See Love 1994:58-59; Stuart, in press).

There is a good deal we still don’t know about the ways the Maya wrote quantities, especially of non-calendrical things. The pattern nonetheless seems clear that the place notation system of the Long Count was restricted to time reckoning, and never applied to the purely vigesimal counting structure we see reflected in Mayan languages. The descriptions of written numbers found in the many texts about the ancient Maya therefore need to be corrected.

Sources Cited:

Coe, Michael. 2011. The Maya (8th edition). Thames and Hudson, New York.

Love, Bruce. 1994. The Paris Codex: Handbook for a Maya Priest. University of Texas Press, Austin.

McKillop, Heather. 2006. The Ancient Maya: New Perspectives. W.W. Norton, New York.

Sharer, Robert, and Loa Traxler. 2005. The Ancient Maya (6th edition). Stanford University Press, Stanford.

Stuart, David. In press. The Varieties of Ancient Maya Numeration and Value. To appear in The Construction of Value in the Ancient World, ed. by J. Papadopolous and G. Urton. Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, UCLA, Los Angeles.

The Unusual Glyphs of Calakmul’s Stela 52

Figure 1. Calakmul, Stela 52 in its original state. After Rupert and Denison (1943)

by David Stuart

Some years ago I paid a visit to the Museo Dolores Olmedo in Mexico City, and spent a good portion of my time viewing one of its treasures — the scarred and eroded remains of Stela 52 from Calakmul. It’s a far cry from the gorgeous, well-preserved releif that was first photographed in its original setting by one of intrepid Carnegie Institution expeditions of the 1930s (Ruppert and Denison 1943). Looters armed with band saws attacked Stela 52 and other nearby monuments in the 1960s, removing the front carving for transport and eventual sale. As I looked over the stela it dawned on me that I once had an encounter of sorts with those very same looters. In 1999 Ian Graham and I spent two weeks at Calakmul recording many of its monuments, and we one day came upon the clear vestiges of the looters’ camp abandoned over three decades earlier in the woods in front of Structure 1, not far from where Stela 52 and its partner, Stela 54, once stood. The large and rusted band saws lay on the forest floor amidst cans and debris, a scene of an old archaeological crime. Years later, as I took in the stela at the museum, it dawned upon me that those old rusted cutting tools must have been the very ones used on the magnificent sculpture.

Despite the cutting and the weathering, the monument still bears its powerful regal image of a king dressed in an elaborate deity costume, most likely for a ritual dance. The nearby Stela 54 with its similar portrait of a woman is surely the partner of Stela 52, forming a male-female stela pair like others at Calakmul and some of its ally states, such as El Peru (Stelae 33 and 34, for example) (see Marcus 1987). A band of five glyphs runs above the portrait of the Calakmul ruler, and several more along the right side.

Taking a closer look at the text, it is clear that the date is 4 Ahaw 13 Yax, or, as Ruppert and Denison deciphered decades ago. The same date was inscribed as an Initial Series on the stela’s side, although this is now invisible. The event glyph in the fourth block of the front text is “scattering,” with the name of the ruler in the last block of the vertical band. His name and titles evidently continued in the other blocks below, although these were considerably more weathered. As Simon Martin has shown, this must be a reference of some sort to the ruler known as Yuknoom Took’ K’awiil, who reigned at Calakmul for several decades in the early eighth century (Martin and Grube 2008; Martin 2005).

Fig. 2. Stela 52's upper text. Sketch by D. Stuart

Something curious stands out in these glyphs. On close inspection one sees that a small sign consisting of two small semicircles of dots — much like a TOK or to sign — has been added to each glyph block. On the 4 Ahaw day record these dotted curls form a superfix, and on the Yax month they sit atop the YAX logogram. In the K’atun record, the same element seems to be between the number 15 and the k’atun sign itself. It even appears on the scattering (CHOK-wi-ch’a-ji) verb glyph, above the hand, as well as on the royal name.

The constant presence of the dotted curls sign should indicate that it cannot be a readable element, at least in the conventional sense that we understand Maya writing. The word TOK or the syllable to has no role to play, for example, in the spelling of a day or month glyph, nor in the writing of a verb. In the case of the scattering glyph, one could supposedly entertain the possibility that the “to” is an odd form of the pronoun sign u; however, the -wi suffix markes this form as an anti passive verb, and a prefixed pronoun can only exist in a transitive construction. Surely there is something odd going on here.

The pattern may well continue with all of the other glyphs on the stela’s front. The first set of three smaller glyphs set into the portrait look to be a k’aloomte’ title, with the “to” sign resting atop the head of the deity main sign. Likewise it seems to appear in the next glyph, in a numbered “successor” expression (see Martin 2005).

Why are these elements here? I suspect that the “to” signs that appear throughout Stela 52’s inscription are in no way phonetic, but instead serve as a purely visual devices, designed to integrate the look of the glyphs to the larger iconographic program of the stela. The effect is subtle, however, since no dotted curls appear on the king’s outfit. Demonstrating the link requires a bit of background discussion, and comparisons with similar ritual costumes on other monuments, and other sites.

The distinctive costume worn by the ruler includes an elaborate deity mask integrated with a large mosaic war helmet (perhaps a ko’haw). We see the same garb worn by many of the performing rulers depicted on the monuments of Dos Pilas, for example, where we also find the same dotted curls atop the same helmets and with very similar elaborate masks (see Figure 3). I suspect that this one detail is hidden by the other extra headdress elements shown on Stela 52, but is there nonetheless. So, while the dotted curls are not visible in the headdress on the Calakmul stela, the iconographic consistency of the costumes worn by the Dos Pilas and Calakmul rulers implies their presence.

Figure 3. Detail of Dos Pilas stela, showing similar ritual costume. Note the dotted curls atop the mosaic helmet. Photo by D. Stuart.

The glyphs, then, wear their own outfits in a way. This example of a Maya glyphic “font” is unique to my knowledge. The only comparable example that comes to mind is the remarkable Teotihuacan-inspired text from the upper temple of Structure 26 at Copan, where the full-figure signs are given a central Mexican look and feel (Stuart 2005). But there the oddball glyphs are paired with legible Maya ones, in order to make the text readable. Here on Stela 52, the glyphs are in an elegant Maya style, yet visually tweaked to make them conform to the dress and performance depicted. It’s probably significant that the glyphs on the stela’s sides don’t show the dotted curls anywhere; this may make sense once we realize that the royal portrait wouldn’t have been visible to readers of those texts. The side glyphs might therefore be taken as exceptions that prove the rule.

If my assumptions hold true, it seems that the hieroglyphs on the front of Stela 52 were “costumed” in their own way and, like the king’s dancing persona, came to be infused with a particular deified identity on the occasion of the important period ending.

References Cited

Marcus, Joyce. 1987. The Inscriptions at Calakmul: Royal Marriage at a Maya City in Campeche, Mexico. Ann Arbor: Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan.

Martin, Simon, 2005. Of Snakes and Bats: Shifting Identities at Calakmul. The PARI Journal, vol. VI, no. 2. http://www.mesoweb.com/pari/publications/journal/602/SnakesBats.html

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2008. The Chronicles of Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. 2nd edition. London: Thames and Hudson.

Ruppert, Karl, and John H. Denison, Jr. 1943. Archaeological Reconnaissance in Campeche, Quintana Roo and Peten. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Pub. 543. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Stuart, David. 2005. A Foreign Past: The Writing and Representation of History on A Royal Ancestral Shrine at Copan. In Copan: The History of An Ancient Maya Kingdom, ed. by E. Wyllys Andrews and William L. Fash. pp. 373-394. SThe School of American Research Press.

More on Tortuguero’s Monument 6 and the Prophecy that Wasn’t

Tortuguero’s Monument 6 continue to be the focus of a good deal of scrutiny, and not just among epigraphers and Mayanists. Many of course claim that the last few glyphs of its long inscription contain the only record of what the ancient Maya had to say or prophesize about the coming end of the Bak’tun in late 2012. I’m partly to blame for the attention given to Monument 6, after some years ago when I posted a brief, off-the-cuff analysis of each glyph on a listserv, where I labelled the passage as the “Tortuguero Prophecy” (see below). Little did I know back then this would soon help set off a frenzy on many New Age websites, associated forum discussions, and even a few book chapters.

Figure 1. The final section of Tortuguero Monument 6. See Figure 4 for a general overview of the text's original form. (Drawing by D. Stuart)

To many, the handful of glyphs at the very end of Monument 6’s text continues to form the linchpin for understanding what the ancient Maya thought about the end of the Bak’tun in 2012, even as the readings of the partially damaged glyphs continue to be discussed and debated. Most recently, Sven Gronemeyer and Barbara Macleod presented their own detailed epigraphic analysis (Gronemeyer and Macleod 2010), and in my recent book The Order of Days (Stuart 2011) I spend a few pages on the topic, without delving into much glyph-by-glyph detail (since the book was intended for a general, non-speacialist readership). One prominent New Age author on 2012 seems especially frustrated with the ongoing discussions among epigraphers — me especially — and the inevitable changes of interpretation that come as a result. So here I take the opportunity to clarify my most recent thinking on the significance of the Tortuguero passage.

On the pages of this weblog Steve Houston offered an important insight into the closing passage of Monument 6, noting that the final glyphs might not pertain to the Bak’tun ending after all, as I and others had earlier supposed. He posited that the closing statement instead serves to reiterate a key dedication episode highlighted earlier in the inscription. I’ve pondered Steve’s cogent reassessment for some time, and in The Order of Days I took a neutral stance on the matter, not knowing quite what to think. Much to the chagrin of some adamant 2012ers, I nonetheless spent a few paragraphs downplaying the significance of Monument 6 in general, given the extensive damage and ambiguities of the pertinent glyphs in the final passage. Upon more reflection, and after looking and a number of comparative examples, I now can lend my full support for Steve’s analysis, as well as his assertion that no prophetic statements about 2012 likely exist in Monument 6’s inscription.

The structure of this text was the topic of some detailed analysis and discussions earlier this year during the Advanced Hieroglyphs workshop led by Danny Law, held  at the 2011 Maya Meetings in Austin. While there it became clear that Steve Houston’s analysis is correct, and that the final passage serves as a re-statement or elaboration of the inscription’s main topic, the dedication of a shrine, tomb or some other structure where Monument 6 was said to have been found. (Rumors at the time, Ian Graham once told me, stated that it had been found covering or blocking a tomb entrance). In other words, the mention of 4 Ahaw 3 K’ank’in on Tortuguero Monument 6 is an isolated chronological anchor within a larger narrative, projected into the future in order to make a rhetorical point about the nature of the main historical event. The last few glyphs of the text, rather than being wedded to the section, should be viewed instead as comprising a record of a contemporary episode — the building dedication — that’s the discursive focus of the entire inscription.

Closing the Narrative Loop

For those who are unfamiliar with the more technical aspects of Classic Maya literary structure and discourse, I’ll illustrate this concept using a modern parallel. Let’s imagine that a scribe living in New York back in the year 1950 wanted to immortalize some great happening of that year on a stone monument. One momentous event of the time was the New York Yankees’ four-game sweep of the Phillies in that year’s World Series (it pains me a bit to write this today, being a traumatized Red Sox fan). If our imaginary scribe were to use the particular ancient Maya rhetorical device under discussion, he or she might say something like this: “On October 7, 1950, the New York Yankees defeated the Philadelphia Phillies to win the World Series. It happened 29 years after the first Yankees victory in the World Series in 1921. And so 50 years before the year 2000 will occur, the Yankees won the World Series” (little would the scribe know, unless he was a prophet, that the Yankees would win it all again in 2000). The last sentence of this commemorative statement is a projection forward to a date of calendrical importance — the fifty-year anniversary as well as the near-start of the new millennium — but notice how the writer swings back to highlight the real event at hand — the 1950 sweep. This is precisely how many ancient Maya texts are structured, including Tortuguero’s Monument 6.

Figure 2. The closing passage of Palenque's Tablet of the Foliated Cross, linking the main event of the tablet to the future K'atun ending Photograph by Jorge Perez de Lara.

Let’s look at some specific cases of this text structure in Maya inscriptions. First we can turn to the closing glyphs from the Tablet of the Temple of the Foliated Cross at Palenque (Figure 2). The single main event of this key inscription, as well as it’s two partners on nearby temples, highlights a ritual burning of something called a chitin, perhaps refering to a sweatbath (Houston 1996) or a kiln for ceramic effigies of deities (Stuart 2005). This occurs on 2 Kib 14 Mol. The last nine blocks of the text serve to anchor this date to the soon-to-come K’atun ending 8 Ahaw 8 Woh.

4-12-WINIK-ji-ya / 1-HAAB’ / u-to-ma / 8-AJAW 8-CHAK-AT / U-13-WINIKHAAB’? / i-u-ti 2-“KIB” / i-PAT-la-ja / U-1-TAHN-na / K’INICH-KAN=BAHLAM K’UH(UL)-BAAK-AJAW

chan(-eew?) lajcha’ winikijiiy huun haab’
ut-oom waxak ajaw waxak(-te’) chakat u uxlajuun winikhaab'(?)

i uht cha’ ?(“kib'”) i patlaj u huuntahn k’inich kan b’ahlam k’uhul b’aakal ajaw.

“Four-and-twleve score days and one year, before Eight Ahaw the Eighth of Chakat, when the 13th K’atun ( 8 Ahaw 8 Woh) will occur, then happens 2 Kib ( 2 Kib 14 Mol) when the precious one(s) of K’inich Kan Bahlam, the Holy B’aakal Lord, is/are fashioned.”

This closing passage follows a lengthy description of the significance of the date 2 Kib 14 Mol, taking up all of the previous two columns of the inscription. The purpose of this closing statement is project forward in time to a notable Period Ending and restate the narrative’s focus using somewhat different terms or supplemental information (the king’s relationship to the god(s), in this instance).

From Copan we have a text that bridges present and future over a much greater span of time. Stela J (not illustrated) was dedicated on the period ending 7 Ahaw 3 Kumk’u, and its text mentions in its final section a projection forward to the Bak’tun ending 7 Ahaw 18 Sip. No prophesy or prediction is offered, only a simple statement that “the 10th Bak’tun will end” (tzuhtz-j-oom u lajuun pik). The scribe does so because the upcoming Bak’tun ending, still centuries in the future, will be a recurrence of 7 Ahaw, establishing a “like-in-kind” connection on the cosmic clock. A number of monuments at nearby Quirigua do the very same thing, on occasion projecting to similar Ahaw anniversaries that will occur eons forward in time. As we will see, the same is basically true on Monument 6, with “4 Ahaw” being the common denominator between the narrative “present” and a distant future.

Figure 3. The final passage from Naranjo, Altar 1. The glyphs that project forward from to the future Bak'tun ending are highlighted. Drawing by I. Graham, CMHI.

As Steve Houston has noted, Naranjo’s Altar 1 does much the same thing, and shows even stronger parallels to what we will soon discuss regarding Tortuguero’s Monument 6 (Figure 3). The celebrated event of this text is a Period Ending on, contemporaneous with the inscriptions carving and dedication during the reign of the important early king known to many as “Aj Wosaj” (a misnomer, probably, for what is written as AJ-?-sa-[ji]).

U-K’AL-TUUN-ni / 5-AJAW / 3-IK’-SIHOOM / U-TZUTZ-wa / U-7-WINIKHAAB? / AJ-?-sa / 3-11-PIK-AJAW / ya-AL / IX-?-CHAN / a-bu-lu-pa-a / U-MIHIIN / ?-CHAN-AHK / 9-TZAK-bu-AJAW / 0-K’IN / 0-WINIK-0-HAAB / 12-WINIKHAAB? / TZUTZ / jo-mo / U-10-PIK / 7 AJAW / 18-CHAK-AT / u-to-ma / u-CHOK-? / AJ-?-sa / 5 AJAW / 3-IK’-SIHOOM

u k’altuun jo’ ajaw ux(-te’) ik’sihoom
u tzutzuw u wuk winikhaab'(?) aj ? ux b’uluch pik ajaw
y-al ix ? abulpa'(?) chan, u mihin ? chan ahk, b’olon tzakab ajaw
mih k’in mih winik mih haab’ lahcha’ winikhaab’
tzuhtz-j-oom u lajuun pik
(ta) wuk ajaw waxaklajuun chakat, utoom
u chok aj ?
(ta) jo’ ajaw ux(-te’) ik’sihoom

“(It is) the stone-binding on Five Ahaw the Third of Woh, when ‘Aj Wosaj’, the three-eleven pik lord, completes the eighth K’atun ( He is the child of the woman Ix ? Chan B’ulpa’, and the child of the man ? Chan Ahk, the dynastic lord. (It is) twelve-score years before the tenth B’ak’tun will be finished (on) 7 Ahaw 18 Sip ( ,when ‘Aj Wosaj’ casts incense(?) on Five Ahaw, the Third of Woh (”

Here the subject of the ut-oom verb is the date 7 Ahaw 18 Sip, which is “fronted” beforehand. The chok or “scattering” verb appearing after ut-oom is not a future event, for it initiates a new phrase associated with the earlier base of the forward calculation. This is the ritual that was performed by the contemporary Naranjo ruler on

Figure 4. The Original Form of Tortuguero, Monument 6. (Main section drawing by I. Graham, right wing by D. Stuart)

Tortuguero’s Main Event

Analysis of the entire Monument 6 inscription clearly shows that it’s main thrust is the ritual dedication of a tomb or shrine in the 7th century, specifically on the day 9 Etz’nab 6 K’ayab (January 11, 669). The record of this episode takes up the majority of text’s overall space, running from block I2 through to the very end. That’s nearly half of the entire inscription. In blocks I6-I8 is the initial portion of this commemoration, stating that some 25 years after B’ahlam Ajaw’s inauguration there was a “house-burning” (el-naah) ritual on the 9 Etz’nab day just mentioned. It goes on to say in blocks J8 through J10 that this occurred just over a year (1.8.18) after the period ending 4 Ahaw 13 Mol. Such side references to period endings are common in texts such as this, and they serve again to contextualize the focus event by relating it to the comsic mechanisms of the Long Count. The 4 Ahaw station for this nearby PE was especially noteworthy given its importance in Maya cosmology and time keeping, and no doubt the mention of the future occurrence of 4 Ahaw on 4 Ahaw 3 K’ank’in later on Monument 6 is designed to reflect an essential symmetry between present and future.

Returning to the Tortuguero text, blocks I11 through J13 to record more about the building dedication, giving the buidling or shrine’s proper name at I12 and J12. These follow a highlighting marker (a-AY?-ya) at I11 and a positional verb at J11 reading i-e-ke-wa-ni, for ek-wan or hek-wan, a term difficult to link to any identifiable root in Mayan languages. Evidently this episode had something to do with a “positioning” of the named edifice, at the same time the “house-burning” dedicatory rite occurred. Much of the rest of this passage is missing, but it surely mentioned the ruler B’ahlam Ajaw before the surviving emblem glyph (I16). His parents are named thereafter in blocks J16 through K3.

So, here we come to the thorny part of the text. The pivotal element here is the verb u-to-ma (block  O4) spelling the future participle utoom, “it will happen.” This comes after the date and before the damaged glyphs that close the entire text. The question is what, exactly, is the subject of this verb? Gronemeyer and Macleod believe that the subject must be the following glyph block, which is in turn attached to those that follow. In this sceanrio the final glyphs naturally would contain some description of a happening associated with 2012, as I also suggested some years ago: “… (before) the thirteenth Bak’tun will end (on) 4 Ahaw 3 K’ank’in, EVENT2 will happen” (EVENT2 being a 2102 occurence). By contrast, Steve Houston’s analysis sees an important break after utoom in the discursive structure of the inscription, whose subject must simply be the future date and Bak’tun ending itself. It serves to reinforce the temporal position of the date just mentioned in order to bring the reader back to the narrative present. In this way the glyphs that follow utoom return to the focused event of the larger narrative — i.e., the house dedication. In other words the subject of utoom is understood to be the date, which has been “fronted” syntactically, as in: “… (before) the thriteenth Bak’tun will end (when) 4 Ahaw 3 K’ank’in will happen, then EVENT1.” Here the restatement of EVENT1, the shrine dedication, does not include a mention of the earlier Calendar Round 9 Etz’nab 6 K’ayab. This should not be seen as a problem, however, as other texts are known to do the same.


My purpose here has not been to go over the damaged final glyphs of Monument 6, trying to determine their original forms and reason out what the passage originally might have said. Gronemeyer and Macleod have recently done so in exhaustive and admirable detail, even positing a reconstruction of a phrase describing a future “investiture” of the deity Bolon Yookte’ K’uh. Although I have some questions about the specifics of their analysis, my real intent has been to focus more on the question of whether those glyphs are really at all relevant to 2012 anyway. In doing so I follow closely on the points Steve Houston made a number of months ago, including his claim that those enticing glyphs probably don’t say anything at all about 2012 and its meaning to the ancient inhabitants of Tortuguero. For the reasons given here, I think the evidence seems fairly inescapable that Steve was correct.

Stepping back a bit, it’s important to reiterate that Monument 6 never featured the 2012 period ending, except to refer to the future Bak’tun ending in order to temporally orient a more significant here-and-now happening of Tortuguero’s local history. Above all — and not surprisingly given what we know about Maya texts — Monument 6 was a lengthy document on the historical and ritual life of the local ruler B’ahlam Ajaw, highlighting the building and dedication of some important ritual structure he commissioned. I have no doubt that others will continue to focus on Monument 6 for its supposed prophecy about 2012, but they would probably be misguided in doing so.

* * *

ADDENDUM: Here’s my original post of April, 2006, from the UTMesoamerica listserv. Note that this reflects my mistaken belief at the time that the Bolon Yookte’ K’uh reference on Monument 6 pertained to the Bak’tun ending.

As promised here’s a quick translation of the final passage of
Tortuguero Monument 6, recording the 2012 Bak’tun ending:

Tzuhtz-(a)j-oom u(y)-uxlajuun pik
(ta) Chan Ajaw ux(-te’) Uniiw.
Uht-oom ?
Y-em(al)?? Bolon Yookte’ K’uh ta ?.

“The Thirteenth ‘Bak’tun” will be finished
(on) Four Ajaw, the Third of Uniiw (K’ank’in).
? will occur.
(It will be) the descent(??) of the Nine Support? God(s) to the ?.”

This is it. The term following uht-oom is the main puzzle, and largely effaced. The “descent” reference is highly tentative, too. The enigmatic deity Bolon Yookte’ K’uh has been known for some time from many sources, and I suspect that he (or they) has some tangential relationship to the Principal Bird Deity, as well as war associations. Interestingly, he is a protagonist in the deep time mythology of Palenque, as recorded on Palenque’s Temple XIV tablet. A long-lasting character who’s still around somewhere waiting, I suppose.

– Dave S.


Houston, Stephen. 1996. Symbolic Sweatbaths of the Ancient Maya: Architectural Meaning in the Cross Group at Palenque, Mexico. Latin American Antiquity 7(2):132-151.

________________. 2008. What Will Not Happen in 2012. Maya Decipherment weblog. http://mayadecipherment.com/2008/12/20/what-will-not-happen-in-2012/

Gronemeyer, Sven, and Barbara Macleod. 2010. What Could Happen 2012: A Re-Analysis of the 13-Bak’tun Prophecy on Tortuguero Monument 6. Wayeb Notes Number 34. http://www.wayeb.org/notes/wayeb_notes0034.pdf

Houston, Stephen D. 1996. Symbolic Sweatbaths of the Maya: Architectural Meaning in the Cross Group at Palenque, Mexico. Latin American Antiquity 7(2):132-151

Stuart, David. 2005. The Palenque Mythology. Sourcebook for the 2005 Maya Meetings. Austin: The Mesoamerica Center, Department of Art and Art History, University of Texas at Austin.

_____________. 2011. The Order of Days: The Maya World and the Truth about 2012. New York: Harmony Books.

New Book: Astronomy in the Maya Codices

Astronomy in the Maya Codices
Harvey M. Bricker and Victoria R. Bricker
Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society
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ISBN 978-0-87169-265-8

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The Precolumbian Maya were closely attuned to the movements of the Sun and Moon, the stars and planets. Their rituals and daily tasks were performed according to a timetable established by these celestial bodies, based on a highly comples calendar system. Agriculture provided the foundation for their civilization, and the skies served as a kind of farmer’s almanac for when to plant and when to harvest. In this remarkable volume, noted Maya scholars Harvey Bricker and Victoria Bricker offer invaluable insight into the complex world of the Precolumbian Maya, and in particular the amazing achievements of Maya astronomy, as revealed in the Maya codices, the indigenous hieroglyphic books written before the Spanish Conquest. This far-reaching study confirms that, independent of the Old World traditions that gave rise to modern Western astronomy, the Precolumbian Maya achieved a sophisticated knowledge of astronomy based on observations recorded over centuries.


Astronomy in the Maya Codices is the first thorough treatise on the codices since Thompson’s A Commentary on the Dresden Codex four decades ago. The Brickers’ work is special in that it gives a complete account of the historical background of scholarly inquiries into each of the instruments they deal with. The Brickers attempt to place each codical instrument in real time, an approach they uniquely develop and fully justify. This work will remain the ‘last word’ on the role of astronomy in the codices and in Maya thought for a long time to come.”
Anthony F. Aveni
Russell Colgate Distinguished University Professor of Astronomy and
Anthropology and Native American Studies
Colgate University

Astronomy in the Maya Codices represents a compilation of almost three decades of scholarly research conducted by the Brickers, reflecting a unique collaboration that combines their respective areas of expertise in linguistics, epigraphy, and astronomy. Their book is the most comprehensive treatment of the Maya codices to date, and is likely to remain a classic for years to come.”
Susan Milbrath
Curator of Latin American Art and Archaeology
Florida Museum of Natural History

Astronomy in the Maya Codices is simply a tour de force. The breadth and depth of Harvey and Victoria Bricker’s research on the Maya codices and the accessibility of their writing style make this important book a ‘must read’ for a host of constituencies, from scholars of the Maya to astronomers to the interested general public.”
Jeremy A. Sabloff
President, Santa Fe Institute