REPORT: Name and Image on Two Codex-style Vessels 3

by David Stuart

Among the many images in Justin Kerr’s wondrous database of Maya vases are two codex style vessels, K1552 and K1647 (Figures 1 and 2). These are part of a much larger set of vessels that bear symbols and iconography inspired by Teotihuacan, including images of so-called war-serpents and “Tlalocs” (see Robiscek and Hales 1981: Tables 5, 6, 7, 15, and 16). Many of these look to be painted by the same artist, including the two pictured here.

Rollout of Kerr 1552, showing jaguar paw and fire elements flanking a central k'an cross, in pseudo-Teotihuacan style. Photograph by Justin Kerr.

Figure 1. Rollout of Kerr 1552, showing jaguar paw and fire elements flanking a central k’an cross, in pseudo-Teotihuacan style. Photograph by Justin Kerr.

Rollout of Kerr 1647, showing two pseudo-Teotihuacan figures with jaguar paw and flame elements. Photograph by Justin Kerr.

Figure 2. Rollout of Kerr 1647, showing two pseudo-Teotihuacan figures with jaguar paw and flame elements. Photograph by Justin Kerr.

Compared those many vessels the imagery on K1152 and K1647 stands out. We see repeating ornate designs exhibiting k’an crosses, “fans” and other elements that commonly are used to evoke a Teotihuacan style in Late Classic Maya art (I suspect many of these elements have origins in butterfly imagery — another frequent theme of Early Classic central Mexican iconography). The design of K1152 is somewhat simpler than on K1647, where a human figure is added to the mix. He wears a so-called “tassled headdress” — here a rare Late Classic depiction — that is a familiar feature of Teotihuacan warriors throughout Mesoamerican art (Millon 1988).

Two elements seem to be featured in the repeating iconographic assemblages on each vessel — a protruding jaguar paw to the left of each design, and a prominent set of curving flames to the right. It’s an odd combination that doesn’t find parallel in the repetoire of Maya or Teotihuacan iconography, as far as I’m aware. But the paw and the flames are otherwise familiar as hieroglyphic elements that spell the core component of the royal name Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’, who ruled at Calakmul as the king of the Kaanal (or Kaanul) kingdom from to 686 to 697 CE. In truncated examples his name is simply written with a jaguar paw (ICH’AAK) and fire (K’AHK’), for Yich’aak K’ahk’, “Claw of Fire” (the phonetic prefix yi- in Figure 3d provides the prevocalic possessive pronoun y-).

FIgure 3. Name variants of the Calakmul ruler Yuknoom Yich'aak K'ahk'. (Drawings a and b by David Stuart; c and d by Simon Martin).

FIgure 3. Name variants of the Calakmul ruler Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’. (Drawings a and b by David Stuart; c and d by Simon Martin).

I have to wonder if the icons on the two related vessels are symbolic references to this important Calakmul king. Could the profiles shown on K1647 be his portrait? Throughout Maya art royal names could be routinely displayed in a similar fashion, where the elements of script often assumed the appearance of iconography. We often find such names in headdresses, for example, where the lines between image and script seem almost completely blurred (a playful overlap that Maya scribes and artists were apparently trained to feature and exploit).

The connection of these vases to Calakmul goes well beyond any strained visual link. It’s now firmly established that these and other codex-style vessels were produced in the so-called Mirador “Basin” (a geographical misnomer) at centers such as Nakbe, which were evidently in the close political sphere of Calakmul (Reents-Budet, et. al. 2010). The stylistic allusions to Teotihuacan are suggestive as well. According to a two different references in the inscriptions of La Corona, Yich’aak K’ahk’ assumed the unusual title Waxaklajuun Ubaah Chan, a name otherwise closely associated with the so-called Teotihuacan War Serpent. These can be found on Stela 1 and on Block V of Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 (Figure 4). The title probably alludes to Yich’aak K’ahk’s importance as a powerful warrior during a time he was warring with Calakmul’s great southern rival Tikal.

FIgure 4. Teotihuacan War Serpent title with the name of Yuknoom Yich'aak K'ahk', from Block 5 of Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 at La Corona. (Drawing by David Stuart)

Figure 4. The Teotihuacan War Serpent title with the name of Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’, from Block 5 of Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 at La Corona. (Drawing by David Stuart)

The timing for such a personal reference seems about right, too, for many if not most codex-style ceramics appear to have been produced in a relatively short span of a few decades in the late seventh and early eight centuries.

Readers might wonder why I haven’t addressed what the line of glyphs on the vessels actually say. The texts below the rims of the two vessels are nearly identical. Both are standard dedicatory formulae, marking them as drinking cups for cacao, and owned by a k’uhul cha(?)tahn winik, a “holy person” of place or court named Cha(?)tahn (the reading of one of the signs as cha in this context is uncertain; I suspect it may be a logogram of unknown value, and not the syllable sign cha). This may be an indirect reference to a character named Yopaat Bahlam, who carries this same title and is named on many codex style vessels. I suspect, as others probably have, that he was a local ruler of the Late Classic settlement at Nakbe or somewhere nearby, as well as being a subordinate ally under Calakmul’s power.

So in sum, I tentatively suggest that the two vases shown may have been painted ca. 690 CE to commemorate Calakmul’s warrior-king Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’. Their decorations look to be personal references to that k’uhul ajaw — emblem-like name glyphs melded with iconographic allusions to Teotihuacan. It’s probably significant that the writing system that was actually used at Teotihuacan consisted of proper names written in a similar emblematic manner (Taube 2000). The painter of these two vessels may have wanted to show the king’s name using a mix of Teotihuacan and Maya styles, not unlike the glyphs rendered in the Teotihuacan “font” in the Temple Inscription from Temple 26 at Copan (Stuart 2005).


Millon, Clara. 1988. “A reexamination of the Teotihuacan tassel headdress insignia.” In Feathered Serpents and Flowering Trees: Reconstructing the Murals of Teotihuacan, edited by Kathleen Berrin, pp. 114-134. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco.

Reents-Budet, Dorie, Sylviane Boucher Le Landais, Yoly Paloma Carillo, 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 Guatamala, 2010, Guatemala City.

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, edited by E. Wyllys Andrews and William L. Fash.  pp. 373-394.  The School of American Research Press, Santa Fe.

Taube, Karl. 2000. The Writing System of Ancient Teotihuacan. Ancient America I. Center for Ancient American Studies, Barnardsville, NC and Washington, DC.

Leaf Glyphs: Spellings with yo and YOP 3

by David Stuart

yo sign

Figure 1. The sign yo or YOP. (Drawings by D. Stuart)

Decipherment’s progress isn’t always measured by big leaps forward, nor marked by completely new readings of signs or radically new analyses of spellings. More often our work involves fairly small refinements of things we “thought we knew” but which turned out not to be quite correct. A good example might be the familiar sign I long ago proposed as having the value yo (Stuart 1987) (Figure 1). This reading is now widely accepted, but after many years I realized that the syllabic yo reading wasn’t always quite workable in certain contexts. Over a decade ago I came to the realization that the same sign might carry the related logographic value YOP on certain occasions, forcing a few adjustments to readings that had already made their way into print and the epigraphic literature. For students of Maya epigraphy it’s probably a bit confusing to come across this sort of minor tweak or change to seemingly established readings, especially when the arguments behind them remain unpublished, usually circulated as emails among colleagues. Here, therefore, I’ll discuss the yo and YOP values, clarifying how the sign is used in some distinct settings.

yo-yop Fig 2

Figure 2. The yo sign as a prevocalic possessive pronoun. (a) yo-OTOOT-ti, y-otoot, “his/her house,” (b) yo-OHL-la, y-ohl, “his/her/its heart/center.” Drawings by L. Schele and I. Graham.

Most familiar uses of the yo syllable are as a sign prefix, to indicate the pre-vocalic third-person pronoun y- before a word beginning in o-. Thus yo-OTOOT for y-otoot, “his/her dwelling,” or yo-OHL-la for y-ohl, “his/her heart” (Figure 2a and b). On rarer occasions the yo sign is used in non-initial

syllabic yo

Figure 3. The syllable yo in final position. (a) from Comalcalco, Bone Pendant 17A (drawing by M. Zender), (b) from Pomona-area panel (drawing by N. Grube)

position as part of spellings of certain roots (Figure 3a and b), as in xo-yo, perhaps for xoy, “round”(?), or po-mo-yo for the place name Pomoy, an unknown site in the lower Usumacinta region (the toponym is based on the noun pomoy, attested in modern Ch’ol as “capulín cimarrón” (small shrub-like tree, possibly a trema) (Aulie and Aulie 1978:211).

yop Fig4

Figure 4. Spellings of yopte’, “leaf”. (a) yo-po-TE’-NAL, yopte’nal, “leaf place(?),” (b) AJ-YOP-TE’, aj yopte’, “Yopte’ person.” (Drawings by D. Stuart and I. Graham)

Many years ago I noted an interesting use of yo in the glyph yo-po-TE’-NAL, written as part of a caption on the large stucco frieze from Tonina (Figure 4a). This is surely for yopte’, “tree leaf,” with -nal perhaps being a place name suffix. Yop and yopte‘ is a widespread root for “leaf” in Ch’olan langauges, and no doubt the leaf-like form of the yo sign has its origin in this word. This is surely related to another glyph from an early inscription at Yaxchilan (Figure 4b), where the leaf element is combined with TE’ in a personal title. Here, flanked by two logograms, reading the leaf as syllabic yo value seems unlikely (AJ-yo-TE‘); rather it seems natural to see the sign here as a direct logogram for YOP, “leaf,” in the sequence AJ-YOP-TE’, aj yopte’, “he of yopte’” or “the yopte’ person” (here Yopte’ is most likely a place name). There is a reasonable chance therefore that the leaf sign is both the logogram YOP and the syllable yo, depending on context.

Such a direct connection between a logogram and a syllable is not terribly surprising. The use of the simple “fish” sign for ka as well as for KAY/CHAY is perhaps a good parallel, as is the “gopher” logogram BAAH used at times as the syllable ba (although usually in late settings). But in the case of yo and YOP it has led to some misunderstandings and confusions about certain readings, especially this important element we find within royal names at Copan, Quirigua, Naranjo and elsewhere (Figure 5).

yop Fig5

Figure 5. Names of the Copan ruler Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat. Note the substitution of the YOP-AAT-ti/ta glyph by the Chahk-like deity in final position. (Drawings by D. Stuart and L. Schele)

For many years, the final glyph on this sequence — evidently the name of an important deity related to Chahk — has been read as yo-AAT, although never precisely translated. Aat is “penis” and yo never made much sense as its prefix. If however we read this grouping as YOP-AAT we at least have a more comfortable juxtaposition of two logograms (even if the inescapable translation “leaf-penis” doesn’t make much sense to our ears). For this reason, I have long preferred to read the sequence in such royal names (i.e. the final two glyphs in Figure 5a and b) as CHAN-na YOP-AAT-ti/ta, “Sky Yop-aat.”

Figure 6. Yop-aat headdress from Naranjo St. 13. (Drawing by I. Graham).

One more interesting bit of information supports the YOP-AAT analysis. As just noted, Yopaat seems to refer to a deity with close relations to Chahk, the god of lightning and storms. Visually he seems identical, with the exception of having curved dotted elements on his head — perhaps representations of clouds or mist — and a hammer-like stone in his upraised hand. Yopaat is often represented in the ritual costumes of kings, for example as a small figure dangling from a belt, or else as an elaborate helmet or headdress (Figure 6). Intriguingly, the Yopaat headdress seems to be mentioned in the Yucatec Diccionario de Motul, where the entry yopat is glossed as “una manera de coraza o mitra que usavan los indios antiguos” (Martinez Hernández 1929:456).

I hope this clarifies what might seem a very minor issue over  alternate readings of a single sign, one syllabic and the other logographic. There are a number of other signs that similarly have two related values with different functions, one syllabic and another logographic. While subtle, the case of yo and YOP demonstrates how small changes used in the methods of decipherment over the last couple of decades can lead to slightly better and more refined notions of just what the Maya were writing down.


Aulie, H. Wilbur, and Evelyn W. de Aulie. 1978. Diccionario Ch’ol-Español, Español-Ch’ol. Mexico, D.F.: Instituto Linguístico de Verano.

Martinez Hernández, Juan. 1929. Diccionario de Motul. Mérida: La Compañia Tipográfica Yucateca.

Stuart, David. 1987. Ten Phonetic Syllables. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, no. 14. Washington D.C.: Center for Maya Research.

Heavenly Bodies 10

by Stephen D. Houston

As usual, Shakespeare (or Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons) said it all: “…the moon … new-bent in heaven, shall behold the night of our solemnities.”

That a correspondence might exist between a celestial body and terrestrial events is hardly strange. Every tide shows this to be so. But the relation of humans to celestial motions is less clear. Some scholars find a secure correlation between the moon and menstruation in human females; others dispute it entirely (cf. Cutler et al. 1987; Folin and Rizzotti 2001:542, also Fehring et al. 2006:6-7). We do know that the Maya linked the moon to a young woman of child-bearing age. Her favored company: a rabbit, the light-fingered trickster of Classic Maya thought and an emblem of fecundity.[Note 1]

Maya dynasts had a long stake in the sky. A basic unit of time was, of course, the k’in, meaning “day” but also “sun.” Royalty associated themselves with the Sun God, invoking his name as a key prefix to their own. But what of the moon?  In the late 1980s my colleagues Barb Macleod, Nikolai Grube, and Dave Stuart sorted out the varied glyphs that went into hul, “arrive.” Hearing of this, the obvious hit me. I am sure it did to some others, too. In one such variant, especially in Glyph D of the Lunar Series, the moon-sign was not the verbal suffix I supposed it to be. It cued the moon. This had to apply equally to Glyph C, which also bore the lunar sign.

By now, epigraphers understand the elements of Glyph D. The compound consists of a number followed by a hand with an extended index finger. That finger points to a lunar crescent. (In Maya imagery, extended fingers mark conversation or emphatic declaration.) The position of the crescent to the right side, concavity to the left, is understandable. At first crescent this is precisely the shape and orientation of the moon. Underneath the hand and moon cluster two glyphic syllables, li and ya. Along with certain specialists, I view these as providing a phonic reinforcement for the final consonant in hul, a marker of single-argument predicates (-i), and a past-tense suffix (-iiy).

Figure 1. a) Balakbal Stela 5:A5 (Ruppert and Denison 1943:pl. 56a); b) Tikal Stela 40:A7 (photograph by D. Chauche); c) Piedras Negras Throne 1:B’3 (Thompson 1971:fig. 58); d) “Siegal Mask”:B4 (drawing by author); e) Calakmul celt (drawing by Alexandre Tokovinine); f) NAR Stela 24:C7-C10, and g) E3-D7 (drawings by Ian Graham, CMHI, Peabody Museum, Harvard University).

Finding an early example of this glyph is somewhat difficult. The sample is ragged. One of the first must occur on Balakbal Stela 5:A5, dating to May 16, AD 406 (Julian). Tikal Stela 40, from June 19, AD 468 (Julian), has it too, at position A7 (Fig. 1a, 1b, respectively). For these and other examples the likelihood is that the “arrivals” refer to the sighting of the new moon as crescent. I find this credible. A rare variant sign is a human eye peering out of a moon glyph. Perhaps this refers to first-sighting (Fig. 1c; note, however, that this may be less the eye of an observer than the Moon Goddess within).[Note 2]  I would also speculate that the numbers stray from astronomical predictions—deducible by calculation—because of the difficulties of detection. During the rainy season, bad weather would work mischief with naked-eye astronomy. The example from Balakbal lies about 10 days from its predicted value, the Tikal reference 3 days or so. In both cases, the recorded number is less than the predicted quantity, a pattern consistent with observational error. (One wonders, if this held up, whether weather patterns might be loosely reconstructible for the Classic period! High deviance from prediction would be more likely during rainy seasons.)

The gist of it: at some point, Classic scribes transferred an expression for celestial motion to the arrivals of kings and queens. Heavenly bodies accorded with royal ones. An early version of non-planetary arrival employs the “moon-observation” but to describe the motions of deities—in fact, all such gods on heaven and earth (kanal k’uh, kab[al] k’uh). Their destination is a flowery place (Fig. 1d; Houston and Inomata 2009:fig. 2.3). A later spelling, on a re-used and re-cut jade from Calakmul Tomb 1, Structure 3, carts the expression into a firmly dynastic setting. Somewhat flamboyant—the gesturing hand sports a bracelet, the moon nestles the God or Goddess—the text recounts an arrival at El Zotz, Guatemala, or Yaxchilan, Mexico (Fields and Tokovinine 2012:fig. 99a; the exact site cannot be resolved on present evidence.)

Then there is the celebrated arrival of a princess from Dos Pilas at the site of Naranjo, where she resuscitates the local dynasty (Fig. 1f). About 16 years after the arrival she performs an important sacrifice with the “Stingray-spine” God (a reading first noted by Stuart) and at some point impersonates the Moon Goddess herself (Fig. 1g). That the texts highlight an arrival, the birth of an heir, and the princess’ bloodletting and impersonation as Moon Goddess savors of an overall arc of lunation and cycles of fecundity in females. I doubt it is a coincidence that hula means menstruo o regla de la mujer in Colonial Yukatek. Consider also a term for the Moon Goddess in the Dresden Codex, sak ixik, close to sakal ixik in Yukatek, also for menstruo (Barrera Vásquez 1980:242; also Dresden 18b, 19b).[Note 3] The Dresden may even allude to such cycles in its Moon Goddess pages, which seem unusually concerned with spouses and coupling. On Dresden 21b there is a possible phrase, HUL?-IXIK ya-TA-na, “Ixik arrives, the spouse of…” The HUL is in a late form but notably similar to its Classic precursor. Is the “arrival” metaphoric? A repetitive cycle of xa-HUL?-li KAB-ba > xahuli kab, on Madrid 107 raises the possibility of re-visits. Note the prefix xa, “more” or “again” in Colonial Ch’olti’ (Robertson et al. 2010:180-181, 333).

The merger of celestial and royal movement establishes an intriguing simile. The actions of one might mirror the other. For certain arrivals, the very order of heaven traced out in human activity. Perhaps, to draw a necessary inference, Maya sakbih or causeways need evaluation as the possible correlates of heavenly motion.


(1) Oswaldo Chinchilla (2011:199, figs. 86-87, 89) makes a plausible case for a male Moon god as well, with Maize God characteristics—perhaps, to judge from a text on the extraordinary “Hunal Ye box” (now on display in the Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología in Guatemala City), he was Glyph 10A (30) lunation, the female variant being—to conjecture wildly—Glyph 9A (29). A key image is from a pot (K5166) formerly in the Ranieri collection in Crystal River, Florida. When we visited the collection in 2002 or so, David Stuart observed that the vase highlights a sequence of beings that are surely related to the deities in Glyph C of the Lunar Series. There is a Maize God, along with companions like a Death God and God L, 6 in total, a pattern consistent with the 6-month lunation noted long ago by John Teeple. The male deities are in positions of entreaty, subordination, or with the opposed hands, wrists touching, that mark courtship dance in Maya imagery (e.g., K554)—are they “suitors” of the Moon Goddess, supplicants to a coy Penelope? The pot is the best evidence available that certain images are astral or planetary in nature. Stuart detected the sequence of such heads, including the Moon Goddess, in the Xultun murals (Saturno et al. 2012: 715, fig. 2). There, however, the sequence appears to consist of only 3 deities in order.

(2) By Terminal Classic times, the sign could be used flexibly to convey sound rather than meaning, as on Seibal Stela 9:D2, K’UH-HUL > k’uhul. “Seeing” also plays a role in a rare spelling in the Lunar Series, on the Palenque Palace Tablet:B15 or Copan Stela N:A10. In place of Glyph D it presents three elements: K’UH or K’UHUL, an icon for “seeing,” and a possible ordinal, “first.” I remain agnostic about the precise reading order of these signs, but the overall intent is to describe the first sighting of a god or a first “divine” sighting. Another form of Glyph D, found in the Initial Series Text in Room 1 of the Bonampak Murals, La Rejolla Stela 1:B5-A6, and Copan Stela I:B6, is more opaque: k’i~K’A’?-ji~hi-ya HUL-li-ya. Is this form of a “finished journey,” k’a’ with, perhaps, an epenthetic aspirate, based on the well-known expression for “death”? Or is it a completely different term? A more transparent sense of movement is in a spelling of Glyph D from a Coba altar drawn by Ian Graham: BIX-ya HUL-li-ya, with the sense of a past day and of human passage (Stuart 1987:33).

(3) A recent volume on codical astronomy argues that this supernatural, Goddess I in the Schellhas nomenclature, is unrelated to the moon (Bricker and Bricker 2011:674-679).  One challenge is that the book overlooks the unambiguous reading of her name glyph, Ixik or Sak Ixik, “Lady” or “White Lady.” I suspect the “white” refers to “weaving” or a clear moon (Barrera Vásquez 1980:709, 710). To be sure, there are ambiguities in the overall identification. Some time ago, in a redaction of his doctoral thesis, Taube pointed out that the goddess fails to appear with a moon sign in the Dresden Codex (Taube 1992:64-69). He nonetheless concludes, correctly I am certain, “it is likely ….Goddess I [is] related to the Classic period moon goddess” (Taube 1992:69). The complexity may arise from a complex or layered evocation: a procreative female, not Ixchel, whom Taube has shown to be an aged midwife, healer, and agent of destruction. The young female’s attributes include fertility and links to the moon.

Sources cited:

Barrera Vásquez, Alfredo. 1980. Diccionario Maya Cordemex, Maya-Español, Español-Maya. Ediciones Cordemex, Mérida. Bricker, Harvey M., and Victoria R. Bricker. 2011. Astronomy in the Maya Codices. American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia.

Chinchilla Mazariegos, Oswaldo. 2011. Imágenes de la mitología maya. Museo Popol Vuh, Guatemala City.

Cutler, Winnifred B., Wolfgang M. Schleidt, Erika Freidmann, George Preti, and Robert Stine. 1987. Lunar Influences on the Reproductive Cycle in Women. Human Biology, vol. 59, no. 6, pp. 959-972.

Fehring, Richard, Mary Schneider, and Kathleen Raviele. 2006. Variability in the Phases of the Menstrual Cycle. Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, and Neonatal Nursing, vol. 35, no. 3, pp. 376-384.

Fields, Virginia M., and Alexandre Tokovinine. 2012. Belt Plaque, Plate 18. In Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks, ed. by Joanne Pillsbury, Miriam Doutriaux, Reiko Ishihara-Brito, and Alexandre Tokovinine, Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Number 4, pp. 178-183. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC.

Folin, M., and M. Rizzotti. 2001. Lunation and Primate Menses. Earth, Moon, and Planets, vol. 85-86, pp. 539-544.

Houston, Stephen D., and Takeshi Inomata. 2008. The Classic Maya. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Robertson, John S., Danny Law, and Robbie A. Haertel. 2010. Colonial Ch’olti’: The Seventeenth-Century Morán Manuscript. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Ruppert Karl, and John H. Denison, Jr. 1943. Archaeological Reconnaissance in Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Peten, Publication 543. Carnegie Institution of Washington, DC.

Saturno, William A., David Stuart, Anthony Aveni, and Franco Rossi. 2012. Ancient Maya Astronomy from Xultun, Guatemala. Science, vol. 336, pp. 714-717.

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

Taube, Karl A. 1992. The Major Gods of Ancient Yucatan. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art & Archaeology, No 32. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC.

Thompson, J. Eric S. 1971. Maya Hieroglyphic Writing: An Introduction, 3rd ed. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

On Effigies of Ancestors and Gods 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

u k’alhu’n y-a..?..l u k’uh-ul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, some general conclusions and speculations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

New Captive Sculptures from Tonina 19

Within the past few months important inscriptions and sculptures have been recovered during excavations near Tonina’s ballcourt overseen by archaeologist Juan Yadeun. Nothing has been presented formally, but two well preserved captive sculptures have recently been featured in the news, alongside the claim that one beautifully preserved sculpture depicts a bound warrior from distant Copan (Figure 1). As I present here, the Copan connection seems dubious, with a Palenque affiliation for the prisoners far more likely, based on comparative evidence from Tonina’s written history.

Figure 1. The captive "Buk' ?" of Palenque. The Tonina sculpture is as yet un-numbered (AP photo by Moyses Zuniga).

Eight glyphs grace the captive’s body — one on each shoulder and a vertical column of six blocks running down the chest and loincloth. The shoulder glyphs mark the beginning and end-point of the text.


uxlajuun(-eew) buluch winikij
k’altuun ta Juun Ajaw
i uht ochk’ahk’ ta ?n
Buk’ ? bolon eht?

“Thriteen-and-eleven score days (before)
the stone binding on 1 Ahaw,
then occurs the fire-entering at the ballcourt.
(It is) Buk’ ? of the nine companions(?).”

The final two glyphs present an interesting question in term of discourse and syntax. The captive’s name (Buk’ ?) at the base of the loincloth seems to “hang” somewhat relative to the surrounding syntax and the fire-entering verb — how would be be connected with that event as either an agent or patient? As my translation above indicates, one might cosnider a rhetorical transition occurring after the ballcourt term, with the personal name serving as a simple caption for the figure, much like we see in other Tonina captive sculptures. It’s possible, too, that the name is cited in this context as part a supplemental clause of some sort, in the sense that the fire-entering at the ball-court takes place “with regard” to the named prisoner. In any case, it’s a rare structure.

The text juxtaposes two dates that can be easily identified. “1 Ahaw” is surely the period-ending 1 Ahaw 3 Pop (February 15, 697 AD), cited here as a future anchor to the contemporaneous event, the ritual dedication of the ballcourt. The distance number that opens the text would place this earlier och-k’ahk’ event at 2 Manik’ 15 Yaxk’in (June 27, 696). This same date is cited also on M. 140 (at pBa and pCb), although the associated event description is missing (see Graham and Mathews 1999:171).

Figure 2. Monument 145 from Tonina, citing the capture of "Buk' ?" on the day of battle with Palenque (CMHI photo by I. Graham).

The captive Buk’ ? is cited also on Monument 145 (Figure 2), which states that he was taken prisoner (chuhk-j-iiy) on 3 Ak’bal 11 Keh (October 2, 692) (see middle glyph block of bottom row).  This is the same date given on Monument 172 as the military defeat of Palenque, when the captive K’awiil Mo’ was captured by the Tonina ruler K’inich Baaknal Chahk (see Miller and Martin 2004:185; Graham, Henderson, Mathews and Stuart 20o6: 117). Evidently, then, Buk’ ? was another prominent prisoner taken in this same battle with Palenque.

Despite claims in the media, I doubt Copan was part of this Tonina-Palenque conflict, at least on the evidence available. The confusion here may lie in the fact that a name that is visually similar to Buk’ ? occurs in a number of Copan texts. There a name is spelled k’u-yu-?-AJAW (K’uy ? Ajaw) and refers to a patron deity of the Copan kingdom. The two names are utterly distinct, however, and on present evidence there is little reason to draw any connection between Copan and the prisoners so vividly depicted at Tonina.


Graham, Ian, and Peter Mathews. 1999. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 6, Number 3: Tonina. Cambridge: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

Graham, Ian, Lucia Henderson, Peter Mathews and David Stuart. 2006. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 9, Number 2: Tonina. Cambridge: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

Miller, Mary Ellen, and Simon Martin. 2004. The Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya. New York: Thames and Hudson.