CPN 217: A Stone Vessel from Copan


Among the many inscribed objects found at Copan are a number of so-called stone “incensarios” – small lidded vessels bearing elaborate iconography that served as containers for ritual incense burners of ceramic. The ancient Maya of Copan called these small monuments sak lak tuunoob’, “white dish stones.” Many remain poorly published, unfortunately, although in the coming months I hope to present some of these here on Maya Decipherment.

One of these intriguing vessels is CPN 217, found during excavations near the Hieroglyphic Stairway in the 1930s or 40s, when it was was photographed by archaeologist Edwin Shook (decades later, in 1990, Ed kindly gave me a copy of his snapshot, which I reproduce here). At some point its pieces were taken to a storage area near the entrance of the ruins, where in 1986 I photographed and made the accompanying field drawing. Today most of these fragments are in safe keeping at the storeroom of the Centro Regional de Investigaciones Arqueologicas (CRIA) at Copan.

The short inscription is beautifully carved in crisp fashion, reading:


Wuk Lamat Waklajuun(-te’) Suutz’
u (y)uxlajuun
u haab

(On) Seven Lamat, the Sixteenth of Sotz’
the thirteenth
(is) his year

There are two U- signs used here. One in the second glyph block is the so-called “xok” fish head variant (a beautiful example of the very same head sign in the photo banner of this blog).  In the same middle glyph block the number “13” (uxlajuun) is written is a somewhat unusual manner, with the three dots for 3 (ux) above the skull for 10 (lajuun).

Overall, the simple text marks the thirteenth vague (360-day) year anniversary of the crowning of Copan’s famous king, Waxaklajuun Ubaah K’awiil (otherwise known by the misleading nickname “18 Rabbit”). Its dedication date corresponds to in the Long Count (26 April, 708), or precisely 13.0.0 after the king’s accession, recorded prominently on the Hieroglyphic Stairway as well as on Stela J. 7 Lamat 1 Mol (accession date)
add 13.0.0 7 Lamat 16 Sotz’

CPN 217 is among the earliest of the stone vessels known from Copan.  The majority date from a century or so later, to the reign of the last king Yax Pahsaj Chan Yopaat.

Copan’s Playful Infixes

Infixation is a common graphic principle of the Maya script, involving the size reduction of one sign or glyph and its insertion (infixation) within the space of another sign. For example, the title Ik'(a’) Ajaw, “the Ik'(a’) Lord,” is usually spelled with the two sequential signs IK’ and AJAW, but at least one example from a text at Machaquila shows the head variant AJAW with a small IK’ sign placed inside the head sign, where it more resembles a jade ear ornament than a separate, readable element. In transcribing glyphs with infixes, I prefer to use parentheses around the value of the reduced sign, placing this directly adjacent to the value of the larger one. Hence (IK’)AJAW instead of the more straightforward IK’-AJAW.

Scribes at Copan used sign infixation as well, and three examples illustrated here are remarkable in their degree of artistry and playfulness.


The drawing labeled (a) shows the calendar round record “12 Manik Seating of Yaxk’in,” the date of the death of Copan’s Ruler 12. Note that the month glyph consists of three signs (YAX-K’IN-ni) which is inserted within CHUM (“sit”). Usually, of course, any month name simply follows the chum verb.

In example (b) we see a distance number from the so-called “Corte Altar,” dating to the early reign of Yax Pahsaj Chan Yopaat (Ruler 16). The seated figure is HAAB (“year”) with a numerical prefix 2. The thigh of the HAAB character (clearly a Water Serpent) shows an infixed 6-WINIK (6 Winals), indicating a distance number of 2.6.0 — a rounded interval that connects two dates in the inscription ( and

In (c) we find a loose block from a larger text, probably once on Temple 11, bearing the name of the dynastic founder K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ and a Copan emblem glyph. Noteworthy here is the YAX sign placed at the back of the quetzal/macaw’s head. In all other spellings of this important royal name, the YAX is presented as a seperate sign.

A common idea may underlie these three examples. All involve infixes upon larger signs that are bodily representations — the CHUM sign (which originated as a seated human torso), the full figure of HAAB, and the quetzal/macaw bird. The infixed elements mark something about the natures or characteristics of those bodies: that is, the body that sits in (a) is Yaxk’in; the 6 Winals in (b) is temporally an extension on, a characteristic of, two years already elapsed; and the YAX in (c) is a “green/blue” color designation marking the body of the avian hybrid that forms the founder’s name.

These Copan infixes are a bit more complex than what we see at Palenque or other sites, but the underlying idea is the same. The origin of this visual convention seems more artistic than mundanely scribal, rooted perhaps in older iconographic treatments of human and animal bodies.

The Origin of Copan’s Founder

The first Classic king of Copan, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ (KYKM), had a complicated life story spanning much of Mesoamerica. His arrival at Copan in AD 426 was the seminal event of the dynasty, but where did he come from? For many years we’ve known about his strong symbolic connections to Teotihuacan, but even within the Maya area he seems to have had roots outside of the Copan Valley, perhaps in the central Petén lowlands. New information, noticed last week while visiting Copan, now leads to an important revision to KYKM’s story, adding a new and unexpected dimension to the founder’s significance in Maya history.

Before citing the newest evidence, one clarification is necessary: KYKM was not a Teotihuacano. Some might assume his highland ethnicity based on KYKM’s appearance in later Copan iconography, where he consistently assumes the garb of a Teotihuacan warrior (best known on Altar Q). Yet his earliest portrait on the Motmot marker, possibly carved while he was still living, shows his “Maya-ness”, and only much later do we see the visual connections to highland Mexico. The key distinction is that KYKM’s political identity was deeply rooted in Teotihuacan and its pan-Mesoamerican role as a hub of political authority. The written evidence from Copan suggests that he acquired sanction for rule at Teotihuacan before founding Copan’s ruling line. Specifically, Altar Q tells us that in AD 426 KYKM is said to have “received k’awiil” (k’am k’awiil) at or in connection with Teotihuacan. K’am k’awiil is a term used elsewhere in Maya inscriptions in association with the establishment of new political lines and offices. Teotihuacan’s historical role in the Early Classic may presage that of later Tollan, “the Place of Bulrushes,” which served a center of political pilgrimage throughout Postclassic Mesoamerica, even among rulers of different ethnicities.

Now back to Copan. Last week, while looking closely at Stela 63, I noticed for the first time that KYKM has a special title with his name glyph, just barely preserved on the front on the monument (see attached photo, at bottom). The very last glyph of the inscription is damaged, but it shows his personal name, followed by what looks to me to be the place glyph 3-WITZ-a or Uxwitza’, “Three Hills Water,” along with ch’ajoom — a common ruler’s title almost as generic in meaning as ajaw, “lord.” This is a toponymic title, and clearly connected to a similar title KYKM carries on the later Stela J, where he is named as the “Three Hills Lord” (also in attached photo).

Uxwitza’, “Three-Hills-Water,” is a known place name, identifiable with one and only one Maya site: Caracol, Belize. There Three-Hills-Water is cited as a local name in both Ealry and Late Classic inscriptions, and rulers of Caracol are often portrayed standing atop animate witz mountains wearing the headband of the number 3 (hence 3-WITZ). The evidence from Stela 63 is, I feel, basic and hard to ignore: KYKM was a Caracol lord by origin.

Jane Buikstra’s strontium analysis of the founder’s bones, excavated by Bob Sharer and David Sedat within the so-called Hunal tomb, points to KYKM having spent his younger days outside of the Copan valley, probably in the central Maya lowlands. The new historical evidence would seem to agree with Buikstra’s analysis, although far more discussions on the topic will tell us for sure. A Caracol origin for the Copan founder also conforms to an odd connection ceramic Copan seems to have had with Belize – something now to be analyzed with renewed effort. The connection might also be reflected in the unusual mention of a later Copan ruler on Caracol’s Stela 16.

I suspect KYKM was born as a member of Caracol’s nobility at a time when “pre-dynastic” Copan was already a place of siginficant size and importance. He may have already had personal connections to Copan, but in AD 426 journeyed to Teotihuacan to receive the emblems and sanction of office (K’awiil), and then established a ritual center — and a new political order — where Copan’s acropolis now lies, shortly before the turn of the Bak’tun.

More to come…


The Birth Date of Copan’s Ruler 12?

The two lowermost steps of Copan’s Hieroglyphic Stairway record two historical dates separated by over a hundred years in time. The earlier of the two appears only briefly on Step 2 as the abbreviated record “9 Kawak” (written as the head of Chahk — a nice variant). An associated Distance Number bridges this highly reduced statement with a full long count record of 12 Muluk 7 Muwaan. Although damaged, the DN is best reas as, resulting in this likely reconstruction of the initial date: 9 Kawak 7 Mak (Step 2)
+ 12 Muluk 7 Muwaan (Step 1)

The last date is the initial dedication of the stairway in 710 A.D., corresponding to the time Waxaklajuun Ubaah K’awil (Ruler 13) constructed the “Esmeralda” phase of Structure 10L-26 over the tomb of his illustrious father, Ruler 12. It seems the son designed this temple and the associated stairway inscription as a commemorative monument and funerary shrine for his predecessor, who had died some fifteen years earlier.

There’s little doubt that the earlier of the two dates was recorded more fully in the steps just above Step 2, perhaps among the very eroded glyphs found on Step 5. At least the abbreviated “9 Kawak” implies such an fuller record somewhere nearby. Much of the text on Steps 1-7 treat Ruler 12’s reign — his accession and death are both recorded on Step 7 — so it seems likely that the early 9 Kawak date would be relevant to that ruler’s history. In fact, there seems good reason to consider as Ruler 12’s birth. His age upon death would have been 91 years, and we know from several inscription that Ruler 12 lived to be a “Five K’atun Lord” — that is, to some age within his fifth K’atun of life (between 80 and 100). This was an important title for the king, so basic to his historical identity, in fact, that “Five Katuns” repalces his personal name glyph on the side of Altar Q.

The case is circumstantial but strong. Even if the date proposed here is incorrect, the timespan recorded in the DN suggsests the last two steps of the Hieroglyphic Stairway juxtapose Ruler 12’s distant birth with his son’s construction of “the steps for his tomb” many years later in 710.