A Watery Tableau at El Mirador, Guatemala

by James Doyle (Brown University) and Stephen Houston (Brown University)

The impersonation of gods abounds in Classic Maya texts and imagery (Houston, Stuart, and Taube 2006: 270-275). Humans donned elaborate masks and costumes to channel deities and to perform dances or reenactments of mythic actions. It is now clear that there were Late Preclassic antecedents to such ritual: for example, Kaminaljuyu Stela 11 displays the “x-ray” view of a lord’s face within the head of the Principal Bird Deity (Fields and Reents-Budet, eds., 2005: Cat. 6, 104-105; see also here). The appearance of a possible masked performer in the Preclassic is hardly surprising. Places for performance and assembly– visible pyramid apices, tiered façades, and plaster-covered plazas — reached their pinnacle size at many Lowland Maya sites.

A recent discovery by the important project at El Mirador, Guatemala, consists of a long set of stucco friezes that depicts two more examples of Late Preclassic deity impersonation (Figure 1). The façades are located in a prominent pathway running east-west in the center of the “Central Acropolis.” They appear to front a large plaza at the base of the “Tecolote” pyramid complex, perhaps adorning part of an ancient water collection system (see map). The figures on the lower frieze have been associated with the Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, protagonists of the colonial K’iche Maya creation story, the Popol Vuh (Hansen et al. 2011: 190). Yet, in our view, these figures represent god impersonators and bear no secure connection to twins in the Popol Vuh.

Figure 1. 3D scans of El Mirador friezes, University of South Florida, Alliance for Integrated Spatial Technologies, http://aist.usf.edu/projects/elmirador/.

The lower, more prominent façade contains three beings: two humans with large headdresses, and the large profile head. The figure on the left, whose face is partially damaged, wears a headdress and shell ear spools. His one visible eye has the inverted-“L” found on some early gods; his mouth displays a circular outline, his outstretched arms and bent legs conform to the pattern of many diving figures in Maya art (see Taube et al. 2010: Fig. 54A).

The central figure strikes a similar posture but in the opposite direction. Both are framed by the diagonal elements with elliptical or volute decorations that recall primordial, living sky bands. The attributes of these bands mark them as maxillae of the animate sky, complete with curved fangs and other teeth; another well-known example is present in a Late Preclassic frieze from Calakmul (Carrasco Vargas 2005: Figure 3, 4).

Figure 2: Chahk figures with curled foreheads or hair (blue) and shell ear spools (green). (a) Calakmul Frieze (drawing by James Doyle after Carrasco Vargas 2005: Fig. 3, 4); (b) Uaxactun Group H Frieze (drawing by James Doyle after Valdés 1993: Fig. 50); (c) Kaminaljuyu Stela 4 (drawing by James Doyle after Taube 1996: Fig. 16b); (d),(e) Izapa Stela 1 (drawings by James Doyle after Taube 1996: Fig. 15a, e); (f) El Mirador Lower Frieze, detail (drawing by James Doyle and Stephen Houston).

The central figure wears a simple knotted belt with an effigy head attached to his lower back. His headdress and chinstrap form the gaping jaws of what is likely a version of Chahk, the god of rain (see Taube 1996: Fig. 15, 16): the diagnostic elements are the curled forehead (or hair) and especially the Spondylus ear spool (Figure 2). The figure on the viewer’s left shares many of the same features, but with different, tufted forehead, as though referring to another aspect of the rain deity. Other such costumed diving figures with curled foreheads appear on contemporaneous stucco friezes at Uaxactun Group H (Valdés 1993: Fig. 50), and Calakmul (Carrasco Vargas 2005: Figure 3, 4).

The profile head on the far right of the lower frieze resembles the many depictions of mountains as breathing beasts in Preclassic and Classic period iconography, such as the witz depicted on the North Wall at San Bartolo (Saturno et al. 2005: 14-21). Perhaps there was another such head on the opposite side, framing this scene as a mythic, mountainous locale from which clouds emerged. This trope in particular goes back to Chalcatzingo Monument 1 (Grove, ed. 1987:115-117) and highlighted in variant form on the San Bartolo North Wall.

The upper façade is an early water-band that contains two large water birds with outstretched wings. The water-band passes over two bulbous cloud or muy elements with swirling volutes, another, archaic guise of Chahk (see Stone and Zender 2011: 142-143). A fascinating detail of the upper frieze is that the artist(s) gave faces – in an archaic, almost “Olmec” style with a snarling upper lip and a single tooth – to the clouds, as if they are peering upward at the water. The central bird figure has the head of an older deity within its breast. This enigmatic bird-god figure appears on many Classic Maya vessels (e.g., K8538, K6181, K6438, K3536, see Finamore and Houston, eds. 2010: 104; see also a related Spondylus shell creature on stuccoed vessel K2027), and is not well understood. The bird on the left of the upper frieze (see here) is likely a cormorant, which possibly would have held a fish in its beak (see K6218, Finamore and Houston, eds. 2010: 103). The water band, probably representing flowing streams of water, as well as avian themes are also present on a slightly later stucco altar from Aguacatal, Campeche (Houston et al. 2005).

The stucco artists of El Mirador were concerned with rain, clouds, waters, Chahk, and water birds that all flow together in the Maya view of grand, hydrological cycles. Perhaps the friezes show a situational composition – a Late Preclassic view of the rainy sky and the water that swirls around in it. Or, perhaps the artists commemorated a narrative of the first rainmakers and their watery assistants. In this way the rulers of El Mirador, through the mechanism of deity impersonation, presented themselves as supernatural agents who controlled the rain. The lower freeze shows the mountains breathing out water as the Chahk impersonators swim in the lower sky; the upper frieze then shows the high altitude products of impersonation, clouds that embody Chahk, and undulating water.


Carrasco Vargas, Ramón. 2005. The Sacred Mountain: Preclassic Architecture in Calakmul. In Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship. Los Angeles: LACMA/Scala Publishers.

Fields, Virginia M., and Dorie Reents-Budet. 2005. The Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship. Los Angeles: Scala Publishers/LACMA.

Finamore, Daniel, and Stephen Houston, eds. 2010. The Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Grove, David C., ed. 1987. Ancient Chalcatzingo. Austin: University of Texas Press. Available Online: http://www.famsi.org/research/grove/chalcatzingo/index.html.

Hansen, Richard D., Edgar Suyuc Ley, and Héctor E. Mejía. 2011. Resultados de la temporada de investigaciones 2009: Proyecto Cuenca Mirador. In XXIV Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala, 2010. B. Arroyo, L. Paiz Aragón, A. Linares Palma, y A. L. Arroyave, eds. Pp. 187-204. Guatemala: Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología.

Houston, Stephen, Karl Taube, Ray Matheny, Deanne Matheny, Zachary Nelson, Gene Ware, and Cassandra Mesick. 2005. The Pool of the Rain God: An Early Stuccoed Altar at Aguacatal, Campeche, Mexico. Mesoamerican Voices 2: 37-62.

Houston, Stephen, and David Stuart, and Karl Taube. 2006. The Memory of Bones: Body, Being, and Experience among the Classic Maya. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Saturno, William, Karl Taube, David Stuart, with Heather Hurst. 2005. The Murals of San Bartolo, El Petén, Guatemala Part 1: The North Wall. Ancient America 7.

Stone, Andrea, and Marc Zender. 2011. Reading Maya Art: A Hieroglyphic Guid to Ancient Maya Painting and Sculpture. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Taube, Karl, William Saturno, David Stuart, and Heather Hurst. 2010. The Murals of San Bartolo, El Petén, Guatemala Part 2: The West Wall. Ancient America 10.

Taube, Karl. 1996. The Rainmakers: The Olmec and Their Contribution to Mesoamerican Belief and Ritual. In The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership. Princeton: Princeton University Art Museum.

Valdés, Juan Antonio. 1993. Arquitectura y escultura en la Plaza Sure del Grupo H, Uaxactún. In Tikal y Uaxactún en el Preclásico. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. 96-121.

More links for El Mirador information:

Mirador Basin Project

Archaeology magazine, 2009

Smithsonian magazine article, 2009

Reuters news article, 2009