by David Stuart, The University of Texas at Austin
Way back in 1987 Steve Houston wrote me with some important insights about a hieroglyphic sign found from time to time in the Dresden and Madrid Codices and in the monuments of the Classic period (Figure 1). Early Maya epigraphers such as Benjamin Lee Whorf and J. Eric S. Thompson had long assumed this was a word-sign for hax, “to drill,” based on the images of fire-drilling that accompanied its appearances in the codices. Most scholars accepted this rather iffy reading until Steve’s important realization that the sign was instead a CV syllable for ho, as in the spelling ho-ch’o and ho-ch’a for hoch’, another verb root in Yucatec meaning “to drill.” (Years later this reading would be refined to jo, reflecting the key distinction made in Classic Mayan between /h/ and /j/ – a contrast that was lost historically in colonial and modern Yucatec [Grube 2004]) . In the summer of 1987, after some days exploring sites and museums in Yucatan, I struck up a correspondence with Steve about a few new and exciting patterns I had seen involving his new jo sign. These appeared to solidify the reading beyond any doubt. Soon his thoughts on jo made their into print in the journal Antiquity, discussed within his larger article of phoneticism in Maya writing(Houston 1988).
Building on Steve’s ideas, I posited that the jo sign might help to explain a common hieroglyph found in the texts of the Puuc region, u-?-jo-li, evidently a possessed noun based on a root Coj (Figure 2). My notes of that time explored how an unknown sign before Steve’s jo appeared elsewhere with the possible value wo, suggesting u wojool (or as I then wrote it, u uohol), “the writing, hieroglyph of…” This reading came to pan-out nicely, and in the texts of Yucatan and northern Campeche it appears in reference to the hieroglyphic decoration on certain architectural features such as jambs and door lintels (Maya texts can be strangely self-referential in this way).
My notes also touched the possibility that jo could explain a title that appeared on Stela 19 from Dzibilchaltun, Yucatan, reading ti-jo AJAW? (Figure 3a). This seemed to me to be an emblem glyph for the local ruler, and a Classic use of the historical name of nearby Merida, T’ho or Tiho. The idea was particularly exciting to me at the time (and still is), as it suggested a rare case of a historical place name traceable back to the Late Classic period. Later finds at Dzibilchaltun produced better examples of this emblem title, as on a beautiful bone object excavated by the INAH project directed by Ruben Maldonado (Figure 3b). We now know that this local emblem presents a more complex term incorporating another glyph, as in ?-KAAN ti-jo, a sequence that is surely related to the elaborated name of ancient Mérida known from colonial sources Ichcaansiho’. Dzibilichaltun was perhaps an early political and ritual center that was later moved to present-day Mérida, also the site of a very large ruin at the time of the conquest.
At any rate, shown below are my hasty notes from July 31, 1987 and then a letter to Steve Houston of a month later (where I also posit confirmation of the common NAL sign reading, which came into play in our collaborative work on Classic place names). My school work took over that fall and I never got to publish on u-wojol and the glyph for the ancient name of Merida, Tiho. So here it is.
Grube, Nikolai. 2004. The Orthographic Distinction between Velar and Glottal Spirants in Maya Hieroglyphic Writing. In The Linguistics if Maya Writing, edited by Soren Wichmann, pp. 61-82. The University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.
Houston, Stephen D. 1988. The Phonetic Decipherment of Maya Glyphs. Antiquity 62:126-135.
by David Stuart, Department of Art and Art History, The University of Texas at Austin
Among the still-undeciphered signs in Maya writing is the so-called “bent-cauac” element (Figure 1). Most epigrpahers seem to agree that it is a logogram (a word sign), but its precise reading has so far remained elusive. In this note I would like to put forth some evidence that points to a possible reading KA’, with the meaning “metate” or “grinding stone.” The reading, if correct, may ultimately help us to understand a key place name cited in historical records of the Classic period.
The bent-cauac sign is perhaps best known as part of an important place name in early Maya history, mentioned in the inscriptions from a number of different sites, including Copan, Tikal and Dzibanche. as well as depicted on a few codex-style ceramics (Grube 2004) (Figure 2). Here it is combined with the hand sign chi, which some years ago led to the nickname “chi-witz” (Grube 2004:127) apparently based on the bent-cauac’s imperfect resemblance to the WITZ, “mountain,” logogram identified a number of years ago (Stuart 1987). Clearly it is a different sign, however.[Note 1] More recently, some epigraphers have opted to refer to the place name as “chi-altar,” seeing a connection instead to the large table-like altars sometimes depicted in Maya sculpture and painting (see for example Stone and Zender 2012:93). This visual connection to a stone object seems closer to the mark, yet I believe the “altar” designation remains vague and even problematic. One reason for my hesitance is the distinctive and consistent bent form of the sign’s main element — something altogether different from the flat altar stones with two supports. Moreover, a hieroglyphic sign that actually does depict such stone altars or tables already exists in the texts of Tikal and Copan. Significantly, one inscription at Tikal includes both the the “bent-cauac” and “stone table” signs, easily demonstrating the distinction of the two elements (See Tikal Stela 26, blocks zA7 and yB2). Thus there is good reason to see the bent-cauac as neither a hill nor an altar, but representing some other type of stone object or feature.
If we look at the bent-cauac’s visual history, we see that the sign changes somewhat over time. Its earliest known cases show two small stone elements below the larger bent sign (Figure 2a). Later scribes usually opted to place small stones at the upper left and lower right corners of the sign (Figure 1, Figure 2c, Figure 4), lending the sign aesthetic and visual balance. In some instances, the smaller stone elements are omitted altogether (Figure 2b). In the iconographic parallels from codex-style vases, we see that the original early form is retained, showing an irregular, sloped large stone atop two supports (Figure 2d).
In considering what the bent-cauac sign really depicts, we can be sure of a couple of things. One, it is a stone object of irregular shape, sloping downward on one end. Second, it can have “supports” of stone, but not always. What might it be? I suggest that it probably represents a metate, or a grinding stone — an identification that seems to agree well with the depictions of such objects in Maya art (Figure 3). In the fuller examples of bent-cauac logogram (see Figure 1), the placement of a stone on top may allude to the hand-held “mano,” with the other stone serving as a support beneath.
Some phonetic evidence may help determine the sign’s value. In various instances we see the bent-cauac sign with an -a suffix (Figure 2c, Figure 4). This is a sign that in its origin represented a parrot’s beak, abbreviating the fuller parrot head sign also a, also seen conflated with the metate glyph in cases from the Hieroglyphic Stairway at the site of Resbalon. In this context the –a suffix sign can be taken in a couple of ways. The –a element might conceivably be providing the common place name ending –(h)a’, “water,” as it clearly seems to do in the Yaxha toponym and emblem glyph (YAX-a) (Stuart 1988). Alternatively, the –a may provide a telling phonetic clue to the reading of the logogram, serving as a phonetic complement.
I prefer this second possibility, since it seems to be an optional sign added onto the metate sign in at least two separate contexts. If the -a is indeed optional, there is a good likelihood that it serves a phonetic complement to the reading of the metate logogram. In this light, it is interesting to see the various terms for metate in lowland Mayan languages, as listed by Kaufman in his Preliminary Mayan Etymological Dictionary (Kaufman 2003). There the form reconstructed for proto-Mayan is *ka’, and for Proto-Ch’olan it is *cha’. I therefore suggest this may be a good working decipherment for the bent cauac sign, either KA’ or CHA’, “metate.”
Metates were, of course, basic implements in domestic food production used throughout the ancient Americas. In Mesoamerica we usually think of stone grinders being used for processing maize, but they were key implements in many different types of food preparation. Interestingly, metates were used for the grinding of maguey and other agave plants in the manufacture of mescal, pulque and perhaps other fermented drinks important in Mesoamerica.
We might now have a reasonable interpretation of the mysterious place glyph once called “chi-witz.” If I were to propose a phonetic analysis of the compound, something like chi-CHA’ (chi(h) cha’) or chi-KA’ (chi(h) ka’), the “maguey grinder (place),” looks like a workable possibility.
It is important to stress that the geographic frame of reference for this “maguey-grinder” place name still remains very unclear. Some have argued that it might refer to El Mirador or Nakbe, given its early historical connections (see Grube 2004:13-131; Zender and Stone 2012:234). While such connections are tantalizing they still remain circumstantial, and without further evidence it is difficult to know. Perhaps this better semantic understanding of the place name will help us one day in resolving the issue.
It is also important to note that not all appearances of the supposed metate sign are easily understood, even if KA’ or CHA’ turns out to be a correct reading. On Tikal Stela 26 the sign appears in what might be a verbal context (U-KA’-ji) but the surrounding text is obscure. Hopefully these and other issues can be clarified with further analysis.
Thanks to Stephen Houston, Simon Martin and Karl Taube for some very useful feedback on this proposal.
Note 1. Part of the confusion seems to have stemmed from an example from Stela 1 at Arroyo de Piedra (see Grube 2004:130), where the sculptor of the monument bears the title CHIH-WITZ AJAW, “Deer-Mountain Lord.” There is no reason to connect this isolated example of the “Deer Mountain” place name to the “chi-witz” or “chi-altar” glyphs under discussion here, however.
Note 2. The difference in these two readings rests on whether one prefers to transcribe the sign using the reconstructed Ch’olan-Tzeltalan form cha’, or the more “archaic” ka’. Until recently I would have opted strongly for the latter, given the secure position of Classic Mayan language in the Ch’olan-Tzeltalan group. But it is important to point out that many glyphic spellings point to a more complex scenario of areal diffusion of the k > ch sound change, and that the supposed innovation is not as regular as was earlier assumed (Law, et. al., in press). Until further clarification comes about, KA’ or CHA’ seem equally plausible readings.
Grube, Nikolai. 2004. El origin de la dinastia Kaan. In Los Cautivos de Dzibanche, edited by Enrique Nalda, pp. 117-132. INAH, Mexico D.F.
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.
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-).
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.
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 AncestralShrine 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.
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.
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
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).
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).
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.”
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.
Hanging on my living room wall is a plaster cast of a small but beautiful fragment of a Maya relief panel, Panel 1 from Piedras Negras, Guatemala (see photo). The original was discovered by Teobert Maler in the 1890s, and his black and white photograph was published soon after in his classic report on Peidras Negras and nearby ruins (Maler 1901). Despite being published long ago, Panel 1 is not terribly well known, and the original is not often on display at Harvard’s Peabody Museum, where it is currently housed. This afternoon, as I sat on my living room sofa, I looked up to see a peculiar beam of winter light glowing directly onto the cast, and couldn’t resist a taking this quick photo.
Panel 1 is the corner of what was a much larger relief depicting the inner space of a court or palace. At upper left a man is carved in full relief, leaning informally against a wall or doorjamb with one leg lazily crossed over another — in my mind one of the great images from Maya sculpture. In the center we see a another standing figure in shallow foreground relief, seen from behind. According to the text caption by his kilt, he is Siyaj K’in Chahk, a priest or religious functionary (ajk’uhuun) presumably associated with the court of Piedras Negras. He also takes the title aj bik’al (or aj bik’iil), “he of Bik’al,” perhaps referring to his town of origin. The title, common in a number of court names at Piedras Negras, appears also at the top of the fragment, perhaps as part of the caption for the leaning man. Based on the style of the carving and of the glyphs, I suspect Panel 1 dates to the reign of Ruler 7.
So, I have no great insights to offer here on Panel 1 — only a nice photograph of a copy of a great, though obscure, Maya artwork.
Maler, Teobert. 1901. Researches in the Central Portion of the Usumacintla Valley: Report of Explorations for the Museum, 1898-1900. Peabody Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
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