A Sacrificial Sign in Maya Writing

Dmitri Beliaev and Stephen Houston

The human hand is, aside from the face, the most expressive of body parts. Held a certain way, fingers placed just so, it can reassure, offend, accentuate, direct. Among the Maya, as David Stuart observes, an extended pinky stands for elegance and skill. Dancers showed it, scribes too, perhaps to keep ink from smudging or to balance a brush over a page (https://mayadecipherment.com/2018/06/20/the-ugly-writing/).

The hand also inflects terms for making and doing. In English, there are words like “command,” “mandate,” “manipulate,” all taken in part from Latin manus, “hand”; a person can be “handy” (dexterous); and, in Germanic languages, a sense of emotion merges with a tactile sense of “feeling” (e.g., Alpenfels 1955:15–16). The time depth of these notions goes far back, perhaps to a distant past. By various theories, the hand became associated, as humanity evolved, with effective tool use, meaningful gestures, hierarchy, and “goal-directed action” (Cochet and Byrne 2013:531).

The ancient Maya certainly associated the human hand with action and broader sets of meaning (e.g., Houston et al 2006:30; Palka 2002; Stuart 2002). Much gets mapped on this extremity. In Ch’olti’, for example, a Mayan language of the Colonial period, the pinky is the “child of the hand” (v-y-al ca cab [yal ka k’ab]). Ch’orti’, its descendant language, identifies the thumb as the “mother” of the other fingers (u tu’ uk’ab, Houston et al. 2006: 30). But, apart from glyphs like K’AB, “hand” (or syllabic k’a-ba)—and a few characters derived from hand measurements (e.g., a valuable study by Boot 2003:6; see also M. Coe 2003:199–200; Zender 2004)—many such signs show objects being held, scattered, indexed or supported in some way. To tabulate a few: []AL, CHOK, CH’AM, K’AL, TZAK, TZUTZ, along with rarities of more debatable reading. There is, for instance, a hand grasping a stone that may record one of several sounds, JATZ’ (Lopes 2003; Zender 2004:5–8) or perhaps tz’o or TZ’ON (Stuart 1997, see independent work on tz’o by Albert Davletshin [2001]). [1]

To throw a stone is the most basic aggression. Such projectiles are to be found in Maya sites, and doctoral research by Omar Alcover Firpi suggests many more weapons like them exist, often tossed by archaeologists unaware of their function (Alcover 2020). In fact, one complex mythic narrative—hinting at some Maya “rape of the Sabines,” with children and bleeding women, as well as suggestions of forced movement—depicts a male flinging a white stone from a hilly redoubt (Figure 1a). Another glyph, occurring most often in names, represents a hand holding an atlatl. As a glyph, that weapon could be oriented horizontally and vertically in the hand, and is mainly limited to the Early Classic period (Figure 1b, c, d, e). It appears in the name of the Teotihuacan overlord “Spearthrower Owl,” who ruled from AD 374 to AD 439 (Figure 1b–e, Stuart 2000:481–489). Its reading is thought by some to be the same as the hand grasping the stone, JATZ’, “hit, strike” (Davletshin 2001; Stuart 1997). On Tikal Stela 31, there are subtle links to the images just below the glyphs. A figure on the left side of the monument—the ruler on front was his clear focus—orients the atlatl towards the center; on the right side, another figure reverses the atlatl so as to maintain that consistent orientation to the ruler (Jones and Satterthwaite 1982:figs. 51a, b). Both of these companions, likely an earlier king, Yax Nuun Ahiin, in posthumous depiction, wear different headdresses. Perhaps this advertised distinct roles for the same person.

Figure 1. Hands that grasp and hurl: (a) stone-throwing event in mythic time (excerpt, K5451, courtesy of Justin Kerr); and hand grasping atlatl, jatz’oom (b, c, Tikal Marcador:C3, E9; d, Tikal Stela 31:L4; e, Tikal Stela 31:N3, photographs from the Proyecto Atlas Epigráfico de Petén, courtesy of the Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología de Guatemala, drawings, Jones and Satterthwaite 1981:figs. 51a, 52a).

The difficulty of analyzing this category of signs lies in their iconic composition. Since they represent a hand holding an object, it is hard to distinguish the basic form of the sign from superimposed glyphs that augment its reading. For example, on Altar 1 from Itzimte, Guatemala, a hand grasps a personified flint that potentially serves as a separate logogram. A royal name at Late Classic Itzimte, Jun Tzak Took’, confirms that the glyphs record two word signs, TZAK and TOOK’ (Beliaev and Vepretskii 2018:fig. 3). A similar pattern occurs on Stela 2 from Río Azul, Guatemala, where a TZAK hand grasps the head of God K (K’AWIIL) in the royal name Tzahkaj K’awiil (Beliaev 2017; Beliaev et al. 2017:118–120). Understanding these examples requires attention to context and variant spellings. Unitary signs, if complex in shape, need to be separated from those with two glyphs.

An undeniable logograph is a hand grasping a hooked obsidian blade, the standard shape for this dark, imported, sacrificial material (Figure 2, see also Houston 2014:23–27, fig. 15).

Figure 2. Obsidian-in-Hand glyph as part of name, Altar de Sacrificios Stela 12:C1–C3 (, Aug. 25, AD 524 [Julian], J. Graham 1972:fig. 35). The photograph appears to depict the blade with a faint sign for “dark.”

When its exotic nature is emphasized, often with Teotihuacan-related imagery, a gob of blood drips off the end. If took’, “flint,” inflicts the injuries of war, often in connection with the Sun God, obsidian, taaj, cuts flesh in acts of sacrifice; in fact, deity impersonators may do some of this work (see also Saturno et al. 2017:4, 8; see also Taube 1991). One implement, flint, seems of the day, the other, to judge from the ‘ak’ab markings on obsidian, of the dark and night (its natural black sheen fits too). In the example above, from Altar de Sacrificios, it is probably no coincidence that the being linked to the “Obsidian-in-Hand” sign is a deity whose mouth fills with blood.

Yet there can be some overlap of function in these materials. A vase from the early 8th century AD shows an otherwise unique image of a figure holding up an obsidian blade. In front, a subordinate displays a split or tear in his bulging back (Figure 3). From that split emerges a serpent, along with a tandem effusion of growth. The person cut in this way seems remarkably unperturbed, for his arms cross in patient subordination. The text above records, in its first part: 13 Ak’bal 1 TE’? Zotz’ ju-ta-ja ‘Flint-Wound”-PAAT?-ti. The unusual verb may relate to Colonial Yukatek <hut.ah ub>, “to saw wood” (Acuña 1993:225) [2] and Colonial Tzeldal <ghut> “to make stripe marking,” “to mark with iron tool” (Ara 1986:298). Another term in Yukatek, hutul, “nacer los brutos animales” (‘to be born, the brutish animals’), correlates with the rip or tear, a common visual allusion to birth or emergence (Cuidad Real 2002:270). At the least, the flint and depiction of the human back gloss the scene. Textually, the serrated flint stands in for sacrificial obsidian.

Figure 3. Splitting or sawing of person’s back with obsidian blade or knife (Robicsek and Hales 1981:fig. 9).

Similar signs for “tearing” or wounding” occur with an obsidian blade or knife (David Stuart, personal communication, 2001). Often, this complex, multi-component sign fuses with another glyph (Figure 4). A warrior at Itzan, Guatemala—his count of captives (20) is impressive—refers to a captive’s name that joins the sign with BAHLAM, “jaguar” (Figure 4b, Beliaev et al. 2020:171, 173). A similar name, possibly of the same individual, occurs at Ixtutz, Guatemala: u-CHAN-na-“Wound-by-Obsidian”-BAHLAM-ma (Figure 4a). Elsewhere, the “Wound-by-Obsidian” may refer to an object. One is “raised up” in a text on a Spondylus shell from Piedras Negras Burial 13, the presumed tomb of Ruler 4 of that site, excavated by Dr. Héctor Escobedo in 1997 (Figure 4c). Or, at Dos Pilas, Guatemala, another is “received,” ch’am, as though something palpable were held in the hand (Figure 4d). Notably, the first bears the obsidian glyph, the second does not, yet the ‘a subfix suggests an equivalence between the variant forms.

Figure 4. “Wound-by-Obsidian” glyphs, obsidian blade and wound or damaged face highlighted in yellow: a) Ixtutz Panel 2, Block 4, S1–T1, text reversed because of clockwise reading order around the panel (photographs by the Atlas Epigráfico de Petén, Russian State University for the Humanities); b) Itzan Hieroglyphic Stairway 1, Block 4, B1–B2 (photograph by Ian Graham, rubbing by Merle Green Robertson); c) Piedras Negras Burial 13 (drawing by Stephen Houston); and d) Dos Pilas Hieroglyphic Stairway 3, Block III:D3 (drawing by Stephen Houston).

Possessed versions, with or without the obsidian, appear on a small altar from the kingdom of Yaxchilan (with ya prefix and an unclear subfix, Figure 5b, Grube and Luin 2014:42–43, fig. 6); Copan Stela J:E8, with subfixed la; and Tikal, Stela 10:G8, also with la (Figure 5c, Jones and Satterthwaite 1982:fig. 15). The earliest form of this sign dates to the 6th century AD. It is the example on Tikal Stela 10 (ca. AD 506). Close review of photos taken in 2013 by the Atlas Epigráfico de Petén of the Russian State University for the Humanities demonstrates that the wounded head bears an element marked by “darkness” on its forehead (Figure 5c). Presumably, this is an obsidian blade. A chronologically close (AD 537) example from Yaxchilan Lintel 37 (Figure 5a, I. Graham 1979:83) represents an obsidian blade adorned by feathers that pierces the wounded head (Fig. 5a). The original form of this sign depicted the direct action of cutting by an obsidian blade. Later, it developed along two parallel lines: (a) omitting the obsidian element and (b) placing the obsidian in front of the head.

Figure 5. Paleographic shifts and possessed forms of the “Wound-by-Obsidian” sign: (a) Yaxchilan Lintel 37:A4 (drawing by Ian Graham); (b) Tikal Stela 10:G8 (photographs by the Atlas Epigráfico de Petén, Russian State University for the Humanities, courtesy of Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología de Guatemala); and (c) Yaxchilan-area altar, position 7 (photographs by the Atlas Epigráfico de Petén, Russian State University for the Humanities, courtesy of Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología de Guatemala).

These clues point to a word that, depending on inflection, begins with a- and ends in -a’ or -al). It seems very probable, as David Stuart suggests to us, that the basic reading concerned a widespread word yah or ya’, “permanent wound,” and a related concept of “pain, soreness” (e.g., Barrera Vásquez et al. 1980:958–959; Kaufman 2003:1338; Wisdom 1950:764; Polian 2017:682, has yah, “lesión permanente, achaque [herida que nunca sanó por completo y sigue doliendo],” ‘permanent wound, achaque [injury that never heals completely and continues hurting]’; drawing on present-day Tzotzil Maya, Laughlin [1975:384] records yayih, “be wounded or cut, be broken up [fruit]”). [3] Perhaps homophones were at play too. The placement of the cut raises the disquieting possibility that the facial wound resulted from flaying. Skin masks appear in a number of Maya images (Houston et al. 2006:20, fig. 1.11), and, as David Stuart also suggests to us, with acute insight, there may be a depiction of a heaped, flayed skin in a scene of captive torture and brutalization (K6674; see also Houston 2008). [4] The hafted, circular “eccentric” above that folded, browned skin resembles excavated blades from Maya caches or burials, and also the Aleut, Inuit or Yupik ulu, ᐅᓗ, a curved implement for skinning and flaying animals (Frink et al. 2002). “Eccentric” lithics may not simply have been for display or insertion into tombs and caches. They sliced soft skin and flesh. The unlidded eyes in the “Wound-by-Obsidian” sign indicate the possible removal of their eyelids and surrounding skin.

A prince of Yaxchilan, Chooj, “Puma,” is also labeled by this conflation, but with BAAH, perhaps to mean “Head” or “First” person of “Wound-by-Obsidian,” Baah Ya’ (Figure 6; reading of “puma” from Marc Zender, personal communication, 2004). This accords with a possible ranking of people associated with “Wound-by-Obsidian,” a pattern recalling in turn BAAH with took’, “flint” or te’, “wood, staff” (Houston 2014:27–28, fig. 17).

Figure 6. Unprovenanced lintel, Yaxchilan-area, BAAH-“Wound-by-Obsidian [YA’?-‘a]” CHOOJ ch’o-ko PA’-CHAN-na-AJAW (photograph by Stephen Houston).

The natural advantages of obsidian, its ability to slice cleanly, drives home a connection between what might be described as its surgical use and its role in sacrifice. Another unprovenanced pot shows the Sun God in recumbent, newborn posture, his umbilicus—as understood at first glance—being cut by God L with a dark knife of obsidian (Figure 7). Unexpected inversions and alternations mark the scene: a male midwife, jauntily smoking his cheroot; a companion with dark face (rather like the taaj, “obsidian” personages shown with dark pigment at Xultun, Guatemala (Rossi 2017:93, fig. 4); and a “newborn,” the Sun God, shown, if not old, at least as robust and mature. A scene of birth is complicated, however, by the event—a change-of-state verb that is not yet deciphered—and, possibly, yo?-OHL-la K’INICH-AJAW, “the heart of the Sun God.” The contrived, liminal nature of the date, 13 Chuwen 19 Zip, is made clear by the numbers. It is the highest possible numeral for the trecena, and the most days of the month before it shifted to the next. The small, trilobate “flowers” on the “umbilicus” resemble clotted blood, the cord itself, perhaps, the intestine or a large artery (for a similar, almost vegetal extrusion from a heart sacrifice, see K9227). A nocturnal god saws away at a being who exemplifies the day. A birth looks also to be a painful death. In symbolic terms, the reverse may also have been true.

Figure 7. The “birth/sacrifice” of the Sun God (photographer unknown).

But how to read the “Obsidian-in-Hand” sign? A decisive piece of evidence comes from a vase in the Museo VICAL at the Casa Santo Domingo hotel in Antigua Guatemala (Figure 8a, d). The glyphs are somewhat slovenly or uneven, and a in a style far earlier than the two figures depicted on the pot in Teotihuacan gear (Beliaev et al. 2017). The person to the right is none other than Sihyaj K’ahk’, the Teotihuacan warrior mentioned before; that to the left is otherwise unattested, ku po-ma yo-OHL AHIIN, Kupoom Yohl Ahiin. A likely variant of his name occurs on one of the carved bones from Tikal Burial 116, but there with the “Obsidian-in-Hand” in place of the ku po-ma (Figure 8b). Another Late Classic vase records its owner as someone of precisely the same name (Figure 8c). On that vase, he is known as the “North Dog [tz’i’] Lord,” and the thought comes to mind that this is some reference to a coyote, a canine of higher, drier, northerly lands, such as those of Teotihuacan itself. This reference, as with the Tikal bone or the Museo VICAL pot, may be a Late Classic retrospection of an Early Classic personage, or it pertains to a later individual taking that name.

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Figure 8. Kupoom Yohl Ahiin, “Cutter [of] the Crocodile’s Heart”: a) Museo VICAL vase, B1–B4 (IDAEH registration, drawing by Philipp Galeev); b) Tikal Miscellaneous Text 336 (drawing by Sergei Vepretskii, cf. Moholy-Nagy 2008:fig. 195, h, which omits some of these features); c) unprovenanced “codex-style” vase (drawing by Stephen Houston; and d) the Museo VICAL vase (drawing by Philipp Galeev).

Current narratives about relations between the Maya and Teotihuacan correctly highlight a few important people, but there are other figures mentioned as well. One known as “Sihyaj ‘Dart’,” may, for example, not be Sihyaj K’ahk’ but, Houston believes, a distinct figure with his own, later arrival (cf. Hombre de Tikal:F5). A number of plates and pots indicate a larger field of dramatis personae at this critical time of interaction. OHL for “heart” is a logograph deciphered by Houston in 1989—the reading was signaled by a prefixed yo syllable and a postfixed la; the AHIIN, “crocodile,” finds confirmation in a spelling of ‘a-hi-*na on a vase at the Museo Popol Vuh in Guatemala City (K3058, David Stuart, personal communication, 2001).

Kup is key here. The root is attested in Ch’olti’, the language closest to most Classic texts: cupu, como palo u otro cosa equivale, “as in wood or other equivalent thing” (Robertson et al. 2010:306). Even closer is an entry in a dictionary of Colonial Tzotzil: kup, “afeitar a tijeras…cortar con sierra…matar sacrificando hombres,” ‘cut with scissors…cut with a saw…kill sacrificing men’ (Laughlin 1988, I:225). Or, in the same source, in fuller exposition: kupvanej ta moton ch’u, “human sacrifice,” with the connotation of sawing in a rite “endured” with “pain” (Laughlin 1988, I:225). There are other revealing details: “sacrificar y matar hombre comunmente dicen: xekupvan, jkup, i.e., corto o aserro. aquel acto de sacrificar asi. kupvanej ta smoton ch’u, porque xekupvan no es propiamente sino cortar como aserrando” (‘to sacrifice and kill people they usually say: <xekupvan, jkup>, i.e. cut or saw; that act of sacrificing like this [is] <kupvanej ta smoton ch’u>, because <xekupvan> is not properly [to cut] but to cut like sawing’) (Laughlin 1988, III:749). Edward Calnek, drawing on colonial Tzeltal, identifies a category of priest involved in human sacrifices: <ghcupauh> “sacrificador” (‘sacrifice’), and <ghcupvinic> “sacrificador” (‘sacrificer’) (Calnek 1988:1). The last term is of special interest because it is translated as “cortador de hombres” (‘cutter of men’), a specialized category of ritual specialist (Calnek 1988:49).

The form of a transitive root with an agentive suffix -oom is also found in the jatz’oom plausibly deciphered by colleagues (see above). A striking feature of the probable burial of Yax Nuun Ahiin at Tikal is its richness, including many features linked to Teotihuacan. But it also held a crocodile (Wright 2005:90, 91). The bones may not be preserved from that long-past excavation, but a reasonable inquiry is whether they present osteological evidence of heart extraction. Indeed, this may have been one of the roles of the figure on the vase at the Museo VICAL, Kupoom Yohl Ahiin, “Cutter [of] the Crocodile’s Heart.”

Heart extraction from animals is well-known in Mesoamerica, undertaken with felines, deer, turkeys, and other creatures (Tiesler and Olivier 2020:184; see also Chávez Balderas 2017). Done with deft motions of an obsidian blade, it would go quickly with a crocodile: necessarily so, unless the animal were drugged, made unconscious or tightly bound. Without such preparation, the beast would have been most uncooperative. Indeed, a Postclassic mural from Structure Q.95 at Mayapan, Yucatan, shows a bound crocodile floating in water, its lashed snout hissing out fragrant breath (Millbrath et al. 2010:7–8, fig. 7). This mural lay flat on the floor, with some stucco “lipping” on the sides. The conceit seems to have been of a mythic sea in correct, horizontal orientation. Those stepping on it were in the figurative act of wading. Or this was more than a visual conceit. The lipping hints at the presence of a shallow stuccoed basin, although, as Karl Taube points out to us, its location in a temple summit makes this less likely. What may be a jeweled spear penetrates its abdomen, close to the thorax. Alternatively—the painting is damaged and heavily restored—the wound may represent the results of heart extraction, the jewels an effusion of precious blood. [5] In Mesoamerica, crocodiles were often identified with the earth, an aged creator god, and reenactments of prior destructions of the world (Taube 2018 [1989]. For one ritual in early colonial Yucatan—the practice was doubtless pre-Conquest—a crocodile (lagarto) was painted and presumably sacrificed (de la Garza ed. 1983, 1:72; Taube 2018 [1989:110]).

Kupoom Yohl Ahiin pertains to animals. A final, telling piece of evidence comes from a vase in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (Figure 9). A disembodied deity, an incense bowl on its head, tugs away at the innards of a prone captive. This god with jaguar ear—close to that of a variant read TE’, but showing a world tree—is also mentioned further on, in a discontinuous text placed in various locations on a dark background. The date may be 7 Ben *6 Mak (there is repainting here), but the event for this horrific scene is ku-pa-ja, kuhpaj, “he is being cut, sawn, sacrificed.” This must rank as one of the most vivid evocations of heart extraction through or below the thorax.

Figure 9. Kuhpaj, ku-pa-ja, as glyph for heart sacrifice (K1377, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Landon T. Clay, 1988.1179)


[1] The tz’o reading is supported, as Stuart notes, by spellings such as ja-?tz’o-ma, “beater?” (K2058), tz’o-na-ja, “shoot, throw,” in a ballgame context (Yaxchilan HS 2, Step VII:Q1; El Peru HS 1, Blocks XIV-XIV, Ian Graham field drawing), tz’o-no/’o?-niA-AKAN-na, “Groaner [Who] Throws [Stones]” (K791), and tz’o-to-la EK’ HIX, “Twisted Star Jaguar,” a term for a jaguar way enveloped by a snake, its whole body festooned with star signs (K1230, K1652, K5632). Tz’on is attested in Yukatek, in connection with rifle shots but also blowguns, and in Chontal for “shoot,” a transitive verb (Barrera Vásquez et al. 1980: 889; Knowles 1984:475). An unpublished “codex-style” sherd records nu?-tz’o/TZ’ON XIB above an image of young, mythic blow gunner; he may also relate, as an ‘a-SIBIK?-TE’, to a kind of celt/mirror bedecked tree nearby. The asterisms are notable in a number of these images: the jaguar way and, in the scene at Yaxchilan, dwarves with stars and evident tails or flatulence—tropes for meteors? In Room 2 of the Bonampak murals a figure in its band of asterisms above a battle appears to fling or shoot stars with an atlatl (Miller and Brittenham 2013:fig. 196, and personal observation by Houston during videography of the original). Some years ago, Marc Zender pointed out to Houston clues to a reading of ‘A Chak Ju’te‘ for a title attested on a carved shell at Aguateca (‘a-CHAK-ka ju-‘u-TE’) and, in logographic form, on a small but exquisitely painted vase from Burial 196 at Tikal (AJ-CHAK-JU’T?-TE-‘e, Culbert 1993:fig. 84; Inomata 1997:fig. 14). This is close to a Ch’orti’ word for “blowgun,” probably of onomatopoeiac origin from sudden aspirations of air: huht te’, “blowgun” (Wisdom 1950: 472). The logographic version at Tikal could derive from Ch’orti’ hut, ‘face of person or animal, front side or surface; facial appearance, manner or expression, appearance” (Wisdom 1950: 474). Thus, the epithet at Aguateca, which pertains to a royal youth, reads, “He of the great (chak) blowgun.” The title may have been literal, a reference to an accomplished hunter if of small game. Or there was a more freighted allusion: a youthful identity blended with the “hero twins” who blowgun the Principal Bird Deity out of a primordial world tree (e.g., K1226).

[2] The gloss hutahul, “saw wood” (Barrera Vásquez et al. 1980:258), seems to be an erroneous transcription of <hut.ah ub>, which, in the Vienna Dictionary, spells an active stem *hutah and a passive stem *hutub in one line (see also Bolles 2001, http://www.famsi.org/reports/96072/h/hut_huztic.htm).

[3] If merely a variant, the flint with the wounded back may read Ya’ Paat.

[4] The scene appears below, in an image courtesy of Justin Kerr (K6674). For comparable, crescentic blades—some are full crescents, others partial, some perforated, others not—see W. Coe (1959:figs. 11, 16k), Pendergast (1, 1979:fig. 23a; 2, 1982:figs. 37a, 62d, 63d; 3, 1990:figs. 17e, i, 158h, 160, c, e), Willey (1972:fig. 169, 170, who calls them “Elaborate Perforated Forms”). Many have basal tangs or knapped outsets near the handle. Perhaps, as in the image here, they helped to fit a carved mount. One wonders, with disquiet, what might be in the pink vase with basketry lid. Other organs or body parts? For a depiction of an eccentric in use, see K8351 and https://mayadecipherment.com/2016/07/22/maya-stelae-and-multi-media/. To judge from Aztec carvings, such flaying involved heart sacrifice, as revealed by sutured, transverse cuts across the chest (https://www.artic.edu/artworks/12742/ritual-impersonator-of-the-deity-xipe-totec; Museum der Kulturen Basel, Sammlung Lukas Vischer). Yet whole-body flayings may been one of several practices. Smaller, buccal flayings appear on some figurines and at least one ceramic mask (Schmidt et al. 1998:#102, 114, 115). These could have resulted from the V-shaped incisions seen in the glyph. Less thorough flayings might have taken place in pressed conditions on the battlefield—compare with the scalps secured rapidly by Plains warriors and other groups, including Europeans (Grinnell 1910:303–306). More elaborate processing of bodies perhaps occurred with captives under fuller control.

[5] The rendering by Barbara Escamilla Ojeda shows the sacrificial crocodile (Milbrath et al. 2020:fig.7).

[6] Not just adults experienced the agony of heart extraction. There are infants or mannikins too (black and white photograph by Stephen Houston, color by Justin Kerr, used with permission).

Acknowledgements As always, friends helped with our research. These include Nicholas Carter, Charles Golden, Albert Davletshin, Simon Martin, Andrew Scherer, Josh Schnell, David Stuart, Karl Taube, Alexandre Tokovinine, and Marc Zender, and, kindly providing a pre-publication article, Vera Tiesler and Guilhem Olivier. Note that this essay employs the spellings and spelling conventions favored by Robertson et al. (2007). “K” numbers identify photographs by Justin Kerr.


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Houston, Stephen. 2014. The Life Within: Classic Maya and the Matter of Permanence. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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

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Kaufman, Terrence S. 2003. Preliminary Mayan Etymological Dictionary. Report to the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc.

Knowles, Susan M. 1984. A Descriptive Grammar of Chontal Maya (San Carlos Dialect). Ph.D. dissertation, Tulane University, New Orleans.

Laughlin, Robert M. 1975. The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of Santo Domingo Zinacantán. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Laughlin, Robert M. 1988. The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of Santo Domingo Zinacantán, Volume I, Tzotzil-English. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Lopes, Luís. 2003. The “Stone-in-Hand” Glyph Revisited. Unpublished manuscript. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/dea0/c742539eddacc1da0ffb58dbdfd5d7acb6dd.pdf.

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Palka, Joel W. 2002. Left/Right Symbolism and the Body in Ancient Maya Iconography and Culture. Latin American Antiquity 13(4):419–443.

Pendergrast, David M. 1979–1990. Excavations at Altun Ha, Belize, 1964–1970. 3 vols. Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum.

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Getting Stoned (in the Grolier Codex)

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

The celebrated Relación of Bishop Diego de Landa (1524–79) offers, in the edition by Alfred Tozzer—a volume in part ghosted, according to rumor, by many Harvard graduate students—a full array of horrors for those who transgressed law and custom in early Colonial Yucatan. Unchaste girls were whipped and rubbed with pepper on “another part of their body” (the eyes, privates or anus?); “offenses committed with malice…[could only be] satisfied with blood or blows,” and those who corrupted young women might expect capital punishment (Tozzer 1941: 98, 127, 231; but see Restall and Chuchiak 2002, who view the Relación as a varied and complex compilation).

Then there was stoning. If discovered, a male adulterer would be lashed to a post. The unforgiving husband then threw “a large stone down from a high place upon his head” (Tozzer 1941: 124, 215, the latter from Tozzer’s excerpt of Herrera’s Historia General). Other stones played a role in an unusually brutal form of sport attested as far afield as the Cotzumalhuapan sites and various Classic Maya sources (Chinchilla 2009: 154–56; Taube and Zender 2009:197–204). Boxers, “gladiators” even, pummeled each other with stone spheres. Sometimes there was no contest to speak of, and the violence seemed to be inflicted on helpless captives or sacrifices (Figure 1; see also Houston and Scherer 2010: 170, fig. 1).


Figure 1. Stoning of captive, to viewer’s left (K7516, photograph by Justin Kerr, copyright Kerr Associates). 

An enigmatic image, related to some unknown tale among the Classic Maya, also involves stoning (Figure 2). A figure daubed with black paint lifts a small white stone that carries the dots and circle of a “stone,” tuun. He is about to wallop a cringing lizard with distinct, backward thrust crest (David Stuart, Marc Zender, and I have read glyphs for this creature as paat, an interpretation we will present at some point). Another figure to the right is poised to jab with what may be a digging stick or coa. Misery will doubtless ensue for the lizard, a fate also awaiting a bound crocodile on a jaguar-skin throne. Maya imagery tends to skirt displays of emotion, but these creatures look downcast, frightened, hopeless.


Figure 2. Torture of mythic reptiles (photograph from Justin Kerr [K9149], copyright holder unknown). 

In our recent study of the Grolier Codex, Michael Coe, Mary Miller, Karl Taube, and I presented what seems to us (and to many others) overwhelming evidence for the authenticity of the manuscript (Coe et al. 2015). While working on that project, I was beset with a growing sense of bafflement. Why did anyone question the Codex to begin with? On dissection, the objections seemed ill-founded and argued.

Here is another piece of evidence (Figure 3). Page 9 of the Grolier shows a mountain deity grasping a stone, a point made also by John Carlson (2014: 5). Perceptive as ever, Karl Taube, who authored this part of our essay, noted that such weapons were used as punishment (Coe et al. 2015: 154). But beyond castigation, there is surely a martial aspect to the pages of the Grolier, of spearing, slicing, and thrusting with atlatl darts. Death by hand-held stone is a particularly messy way to go. The white stones must have contrasted vividly with the blood and gore that streaked them.

figure 3.jpg

Figure 3.  Grolier Codex, page 9 (drawing by Nicholas Carter, Coe et al. 2015: fig. 41). 

What we did not emphasize enough, perhaps, was that other scenes of such execution or torture were simply not known or understood in the Classic corpus when the Grolier was found in the early to mid-1960s. Almost all the images documented by Justin Kerr and presented here were not recognized as such until a few years ago. That applies equally to most of the imagery interpreted by Chinchilla Mazariegos, Taube, and Zender as boxing or sacrifice with hand-held stones.

I am confident that such evidence will only accumulate as our understanding deepens and the Grolier continues to release its secrets.


Carlson, John B. 2014. The Grolier Codex: An Authentic 13th-Century Maya Divinatory Venus Almanac: New Revelations on the Oldest Surviving Book on Paper in the Ancient Americas. The Smoking Mirror 22(4): 2–7.

Coe, Michael, Stephen Houston, Mary Miller, and Karl Taube. 2015. The Fourth Maya Codex. In Maya Archaeology 3, edited by Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore, 116–67. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

Chinchilla Mazariegos, Oswaldo. 2009. Games, Courts, and Players at Cotzumalhuapa, Guatemala. In Blood and Beauty: Organized Violence in the Art and Archaeology of Mesoamerica and Central America, edited by Heather Orr and Rex Koontz, 139–160. Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, Los Angeles.

Houston, Stephen, and Andrew Scherer. 2010. La ofrenda máxima: el sacrificio humano en la parte central del área maya. In Nuevas Perspectivas Sobre el Sacrificio Humano entre los Mexicas, edited by Leonardo López Luján and Guilhem Olivier, 169–193. UNAM/INAH, Mexico City.

Restall, Matthew, and John F. Chuchiak. 2002. A Reevaluation of the Authenticity of Fray Diego de Landa’s Relacion de las cosas de YucatanEthnohistory 49(3): 651–669.

Taube, Karl, and Marc Zender. 2009. American Gladiators: Ritual Boxing in Ancient Mesoamerica. In Blood and Beauty: Organized Violence in the Art and Archaeology of Mesoamerica and Central America, edited by Heather Orr and Rex Koontz, 161–220. Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, Los Angeles.

Tozzer, Alfred M. 1941. Landa’s Relación de las Cosas de Yucatan: A Translation. Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology 18. Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Maya Creatures II: On Dragons, Whales, and Wits’

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

Karlštejn castle, in the Czech Republic, guards a curious relic: the skull of a Nile crocodile thought by its owner, Emperor Charles IV (1316–1378), to come from a dragon. [1] Indeed, to Charles, this might have been the very monster slain by St. George (Pluskowski 2013:118–119). Charles was something of a mystic. In Karlštejn, he devised a “quasi-theatrical journey…interwoven with the progress of sacred time” (Crossley 2000:142). But he was not alone in seeing fantastic creatures behind this or that piece of bone or tissue from far away.

Think of fossils. They are like living animals and plants yet wholly unlike them, being of stone and, at times, strangely outsized. They lead readily to fabulous accounts, as in this one from Albrecht Durer: a “thigh bone alone measur[ing] five-and-a-half feet” must have belonged to a giant who once “ruled in Antwerp and performed great deeds; the city fathers wrote much about him in an old book” (Wood 2005:1148). The process of constructing “conjectural bestiaries” is more than an imaginative act (Houston 2010:75). Through tangible objects, to be treasured or gawked at, plainly to be seen, the most whimsical premise becomes real. A dragon skull testifies to a world of marvels, as does an enormous bone. And a belief in that world acquires an undeniable, material justification. What had started as a question—”what could this remnant belong to?—transforms into its own answer, a proof that a conjecture was right to begin with.

Perhaps the best example is the unicorn. An image from the Rochester Bestiary (c. AD 1250) shows the only way of killing this beast (Figure 1). Don your full covering of chain mail, invite the unicorn to cradle in the lap of a virgin, and then—quickly now!—kill it with repeated thrusts of a spear (Plusowski 2004:305). At least the creature died happy, to judge from its pleased expression. In the Middle Ages, the unicorn carried symbolic value by evoking the “invincibility and humility of Christ”; to paranoid rulers, its horn had a further benefit, in that it countered, or was believed to thwart, any poisons in drink (Plusowski 2004:305). By the later Medieval period, unicorn horns appeared in greater numbers. The Doges of Venice possessed two that had been looted from Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, and a horn at Windsor formed part of the royal treasure sold by Oliver Cromwell after his victory in the English Civil Wars (Humphreys 1951:380). Others were made into objects for liturgical processions (Liverpool narwhal candlestick). In 1383, an ibex horn at the shrine of St. Cuthbert in Durham was inventoried as the talon of a griffin (Plusowski 2010:207, fig.. 9.6).

Screen Shot 2017-03-19 at 2.57.22 PM.png

Figure 1.  Rochester Bestiary, 13th century AD, f.10v (British Library)  Royal MS 12 F XIII.

By Cromwell’s time, a less beguiling certainty replaced mythic explanation. These objects were simply the tusks taken from narwhal (Monodon monoceros), toothed whales to be found cruising around the waters of Greenland. (The tusk itself, an elongated left upper incisor, grows up to 200 mm long, an inspiration to any fabulist far from that island.) The transport of horn in modest quantities to Europe followed the settlement of Greenland by Icelandic Vikings in the late 10th century AD (Plusowski 2004:297, 299, fig. 2). Confusion did not disappear entirely. As late as 1694, Pierre Pomet, chief druggist to Louis XIV of France, lumped it with other large “fish” and could not resist illustrating a rather equine “Unicorn of the Sea” (Licorne de Mer) alongside a more realistic narwhal (Figure 2).

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Figure 2. Narwal and “Unicorn of the Sea” (Pomet 1694:78).

The Classic Maya may have had their own miraculous versions of dragon skulls and unicorn horns. The presence of shark teeth, including fossilized ones of the immense Carcharocles megalodon, is attested at an Olmec site like La Venta, but also, in Classic contexts, at Palenque, El Zotz, and elsewhere (see a valuable review in Newman 2016; also Borhegyi 1961; Cuevas García 2008:670; Martos López 2009:65; for fossils in Mexico and their earlier interpretation, Mayor 2013). It is likely that these were associated with creatures the artists may never have seen, some from presumed mythic or primordial settings.

Another example can be discerned. This is the canine of a feline, probably a jaguar, that had been drilled at about AD 500–550, its top shaped into the head of a deity (Franco 1968:21, lám. V; the dimensions are inferred from its published size, “[e]l dibujo es exactamente al tamaño natural”). A drawing and photographs of the object are reconfigured here so that the drawing is oriented properly—it is inverted in the monograph (Figure 3).

Figure 2.jpg
Figure 3. Drilled pendant, adult feline canine (jaguar?), “colección particular,” c. 9 cm high (Franco 1968:21, lám. V).

The iconographic attributes make two things clear. One is that this is the head of the serpent linked to sentient, almost volitional water, the witz’ snake that may well correspond to the later Chicchan of the Ch’orti’ Maya (Figure 4, Stuart 2007).

Figure 4. The tooth of the witz’ serpent (K1162, photograph by Justin Kerr, copyright Kerr Associates). 

Such creatures were impersonated by many lords and some ladies in the Classic period (for examples, although not identified as such, see Schele 1982:fig. 50). To judge from the Chicchan, the witz’ were beings tied to rain, springs and lakes, and, in their undulating, snake-like bodies, to the passage of water. More to the point, the pendant may have been regarded as the very tooth of that serpent or at least of one of them. Did the maker understand that it was a jaguar canine?  Such were uncommon but doubtless known, yet there was always the persuasive impact of imagination and a sheer wish to believe. Did its use as a pendant invoke the witz’ or show some dominion over it, even a heroic besting of the beast? The “serpent’s tooth” came from some unknown site, and these questions remain unanswerable. But the pendant does hint at wonders, powers, and fables that concern things of miraculous origin, as duly enhanced by humans.

[1] For other entries in the “Maya Creatures” series, see Maya Musk, Mosquitoes, Dog, Teeth, Fox.

Acknowledgements  Thanks go to David Stuart for conversations about this fascinating object.


Borhegyi, Stephan F. de. 1961. Shark Teeth, Stingray Spines, and Shark Fishing in Ancient Mexico and Central America. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 17(3): 273-296.

Crossley, Paul. 2000. The Politics of Presentation: The Architecture of Charles IV of Bohemia. In Courts and Regions in Medieval Europe, edited Sarah Rees Jones, Richard Marks, and A. J. Minnis, 99–172. York Medieval Press, York.

Cuevas García, Martha. 2008. Paisaje paleontológico en Palenque. In XXI Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicos en Guatemala, 2007, edited by Juan Pedro Laporte, Bárbara Arroyo, and Héctor Mejía, 669–85. Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala. Palenque fossils and sharks teeth

Franco C., José L. 1968. Objetos de hueso de la época precolombina. Cuadernos del Museo Nacional de Antropología 4. Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historica, Mexico.

Houston, Stephen. 2010. Living Waters and Wondrous Beasts. In Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea, Daniel Finamore and Stephen Houston, 66–79. Peabody Essex Museum, Salem (MA)/Yale University Press, New Haven.

Humphreys, Humphrey. 1951. The Horn of the Unicorn. Annals of The Royal College of Surgeons of England 8(5): 377–383. Humphreys unicorn

Martos López, L. Alberto. 2009. The Discovery of Plan de Ayutla, Mexico. In Maya Archaeology 1, edited by Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore, 61–75. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco (CA).

Mayor, Adrienne. 2013. Fossil Legends of the First Americans. Rev. ed. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Newman, Sarah E. 2016. Sharks in the Jungle: Real and Imagined Sea Monsters of the Maya. Antiquity 90 (354): 1522–1536.

Pluskowski, Aleksander. 2004. Narwhals or Unicorns? Exotic Animals as Material Culture in Medieval Europe. European Journal of Archaeology 7(3): 291–313.

—. 2010. Constructing Exotic Animals and Environments in Late Medieval Britain. In The Unorthodox Imagination in Late Medieval Britain, edited by Sophie Page, 193–21. Manchester University Press, Manchester.

—. 2013. The Dragon’s Skull: How Can Zooarchaeologists Contribute to Our Understanding of Otherness in the Middle Ages? In Animals and Otherness in the Middle Ages: Perspectives Across Disciplines, edited by Francisco de Asís García García, Mónica Ann Walker Vadillo, and María V. Chico Picaza, 109–124. British Archaeological Reports International Series 2500. Archaeopress, Oxford.

Pomet, Pierre. 1694. Histoire generale des drogues, traitant des plantes, des animaux, & des mineraux…  Loyson et Pillon, Paris. Pierre Pomet

Schele, Linda. 1982. Maya Glyphs: The Verbs. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Stuart, David. 2007. Reading the Water Serpent as WITZ’. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography Witz’ reading

Wood, Christopher S. 2005. Maximilian I as Archeologist. Renaissance Quarterly 58: 112874.

The Universe in a Maya Plate

by James Doyle, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Stephen Houston, Brown University

Expressing metaphors for a constantly shifting reality is a human universal, especially during the mid-8th century AD. At that time, in the center of the Yucatan peninsula, royal courts were on the cusp of political and demographic upheaval. Yet, in a signal irony—and perhaps as a cause?—they managed to sponsor innovative architectural and artistic programs. Consider the vase painters in and around Calakmul, Campeche, at c. AD 750.

The sheer volume of codex-style vessels, produced within a very few generations, suggest that ateliers were scaling up production for the struggling royal court and assertive sub-royals in sites nearby. Lack of archaeological context and legible texts impedes deeper understanding of the circumstances under which such paintings were produced (but see Delvendahl 2008:125-128; García Barrios 2011). A suggestive comparison, though, could be made with the proliferation of lintels and panels in the Usumacinta region within the Yaxchilan and Piedras Negras kingdoms: that is, art was distributed in exchange for loyalty and tribute when such had become, perhaps, more precarious (Martin and Grube 2008:135-137, 153).

Only slightly more than 20 painters are identified by name in the Classic period, far fewer than the ca. 120 sculptors who signed works in stone (Houston 2016; Houston, Stuart, and Fash 2014; Stuart 1987, 1989). Recent studies have traced the oeuvres of individual vase painters in specific temporal contexts (see Just 2012). Without scribal signatures, however, researchers are left to the detailed study of the “hands” of Classic Maya artists. This is an evaluation that rests on habitual, “unconscious” details, as pioneered by Giovanni Morelli, Bernard Berenson, and others for Renaissance masters such as Raphael, or by John Beazley for Classical Greek painters (See Beazley 1911, 1946; Berenson 1901, 1903; Morelli 1900; Wollheim 1974). Such work could be tedious to an extreme, and highly subjective. Morelli himself, founder of such studies, admitted that it required “long practice” and that each eye might see different patterns.

Certain Maya painting styles nevertheless lend themselves to identifying artists’ hands. The limited number of variables and limited palette within the corpus of codex-style painting facilitate that search. This opportunity was recognized by Justin and Barbara Kerr in the early years of their valuable and innovative documentation of Maya ceramics (Kerr and Kerr 1988). The Kerrs proposed the existence of several codex-style masters on the basis of details revealed through close study of brush flourishes or the execution of hands, feet, and other minutiae. We were recently invited by Mary Miller to honor Justin Kerr at a special session in the 2017 College Art Association meeting and decided to revisit this important contribution.

The presentation coincided with the publication of an article celebrating codex-style vessels in the recent Metropolitan Museum Journal, Creation Narratives on Ancient Maya Codex-Style Ceramics in the Metropolitan Museum, and a concurrent Maya codex-style installation at The Met. All depict the Classic Maya rain god, Chahk, in typical codex style. Red bands and black calligraphic line fill a cream or light beige background. Washes embellish figures, fluids, and the hieroglyphic texts that accompany them. In this genre, undulating shapes tend to dominate, along with a decided abhorrence of straight lines. Michael Coe called this “whiplash” calligraphy, endowed with lines that seem to curve and “snap” with vigorous energy (Coe 1973:91). New rollout photos, inspired by the Kerrs’ original work, include a hi-res image of the Metropolitan Vase and its visual narrative pertaining to the birth of a mythological infant jaguar deity. This vessel anchored one of the groups identified by the Kerrs, who identified a workshop controlled by a painter they dubbed the “Metropolitan Master.”

One codex-style masterwork not included in the Kerr’s original study was the unusually large tripod plate studied by Linda Schele and Mary Miller in their landmark exhibition, The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. Nicknamed the “Cosmic Plate” for its dense imagery, cosmogonic themes, and fineness of execution, it is a unique work, with few peers in terms of size, ambition, and care of painting (Figure 1, for a close competitor in quality, see, however, see Coe and Houston 2015:pl. XVIII). In producing a new line drawing of the plate’s great Chahk representation from Justin Kerr’s photos, Doyle quickly realized that advances in knowledge allowed for a fresh study of this masterpiece.


Fig. 1  Tripod plate showing Chahk as the great progenitor, 7th–8th century AD. Guatemala or Mexico, Maya, Late Classic. Ceramic with red, cream, and black slip, Diam. approx. 16 1/2 in. (42 cm). Private collection, photo by Justin Kerr, ©Kerr Associates.

The monumental plate is an object made for display, likely at feasting occasions in the royal court (in fact, few known Maya plates are so large—one example, impressive in size yet smaller than the “Cosmic Plate,” is a 31 cm-diameter Hutzijan polychrome plate excavated in Structure C-10 at Piedras Negras, see Muñoz 2004:103). A plate like this one could have been a grand diplomatic gesture, a gift between Maya rulers. The codex style is clearly a hallmark of the royal courts and loyal local palaces around the great city of Calakmul, straddling the border between southern Campeche and northern Guatemala (see Hansen et al. 1991; Reents-Budet et al. 2010). In our view, two potential models might explain the circulation of codex-style vessels: (1) non-royal political leaders commissioned them; or, more likely, (2) the most exquisite and elaborate were bestowed by the rulers of Calakmul itself. Perhaps local lords received handsome presents in return for their loyalty, through low-cost rewards distributed by the center. After all, a painted pot reveals deep training, but its making demanded only negligible expense in materials, time, and fuel for firing. Recall the high value that scholars had long-assumed for certain Athenian ceramics. In a provocative argument, Michael Vickers and David Gill (1994) suggested that this was a latter-day projection, one inconsistent with an actual, ancient emphasis on vessels of precious metals.

On the Cosmic Plate, the outer walls of its sloping rim are boldly painted with watery motifs, visible from afar, that include swirls, registers of droplets, and waterlily vegetation (Figure 2). The delicate main scene on the upper surface, however, would only have been visible by those directly above the plate at close range. The potter and painter collaborated on a clever conceit. The three feet of the vessel imitate downpours, a vertical deluge of concentrated form—these occur routinely in the Yucatan peninsula. In this case, columns of rain appear to precipitate from the plate itself and the watery milieu on its exterior.


Fig. 2. Detail of the outside of the tripod plate and supports. Private collection, photo by Justin Kerr, ©Kerr Associates.

Traits on the Chahk plate—including the form of certain common motifs, the singular aspects of its composition, and the virtuoso brushwork over the large surface—distinguish it from almost all other Maya ceramic paintings. Some have argued that three vessels in the Princeton University Art Museum come from the same hand, executed by the painter ?-n Buluch? Laj, and painted around AD 755 (Robiscek and Hales 1983:249; see Just 2012). Indeed, the portrayal of a jaguar on the largest of those vessels invites close comparison with the howling jaguar growing from Chahk’s head. But the hypothesis that ?-n Buluch? Laj also painted the great Chahk plate raises a number of questions about painterly practice.

Maya vase painters appear to have experimented with different styles. The Princeton vases were likely commissioned by a Peten Itza king in north-central Guatemala. Hypothetically, the Cosmic Plate either came from there or from Calakmul, although still influenced by exemplary works to the south. The renowned “Altar vase,” clearly from the Ik’ kingdom near Peten Itza, proves that such pots traveled far and wide (Just 2012:142-149). Another source of inspiration might have been circulating books or paintings. Imperial China is known to have had such exchange, and scrolls gained uniformity, often over vast areas, by their energetic dispersion, study, and copying (see Miller 1998:216-218).

Whether the plate is the lone known work of a master or not, its unrecorded artist certainly fused the mythic and the historical in microcosmic form. The mythic frame of the narrative describes the context of the sprouting Chahk in deep time and in linked primordial locations. The fictive date of 13 Ok 8 Zotz must be significant to wider Maya myths: that Calendar Round appears in the Dresden Codex, in reference to the planet Venus, a point recognized by David Stuart (Miller and Schele 1986:310-312, pl. 122). Three Venus signs as well as the frontal and rear parts of the body of the celestial “starry Deer Crocodile” appear on either side of the upper scene, signifying the sky as the upper part of the composition (Martin 2015; Velásquez García 2006:Fig. 5). A celestial bird carries what appears to be the month name, 4 Ceh.

On the 13 Ok 8 Zotz date, an event “happened” (utiiy). This form of the verb has been suggested by David Stuart (personal communication, 1992) to refer to actions in remote time. The ancient subject seems to be k’uhul jinaj ? or “sacred milpa/planted-maize water,” perhaps a reference to the sprouting of maize, as part of a phrase consistent with the overall theme of emerging vegetation (Figure 3).


Fig. 3. Hieroglyphic text describing events in mythological time and the four god names.

The scribe went on to describe the mythological setting in triplet form: it “happened” (utiiy, this time in a more conventional, syllabic spelling) “at the black cenote, at the black water, at the five-flower house (?).” The agents at the event in deep time are probably described as the four gods of matawil (4 ma-ta-K’UH), which could be a reference to a watery paradise (Stuart and Stuart 2008: 211-215). The gods are named as a feline or jaguar (hi-HIX)—he appears here, roaring, head-back—we suspect (the text is eroded), the presence of two other gods in addition to the Chak-Xib-Chahk at the center (Stuart was the first to identify this version of Chahk—others are known in the Dresden Codex and at Itzan, among other places; the connection to “red,” Chak, may be purely coloristic or refer to a direction, East). The text accords with visual clues to that toponymy. The centipede’s jaws, in a reference to the black cenote, frame Chahk’s watery emergence from a heavy register marked with the same hieroglyph for black water. There might also be a specific seasonal aspect to the scene, found in the single glyph blocks that flank the jaguar. These are variants of Wind God and sun-related glyphs, similar to the two glyphs born by characters in the Lamb panel from “Laxtunich” (Schele 1990:2).

Chahk is the undisputed protagonist as he rises waist-deep from the “black water.” He takes the form of an active, dancing character, perhaps a releaser of vegetation, and is shown in other depictions poised to chop with his axe. He wears his characteristic Spondylus earspools and holds the lightning axe symbolic of K’awiil. The main image of the scene is the branching head and left arm of the rain deity, with many sprouting beings (Figure 4). These include the large serpent to the left, the jaguar mentioned above, and a large “jester god” in the upper right that is recognizable by its crossed-bands motif. Th text is eroded and its details uncertain, but some of these could correspond the four gods of matawil mentioned in the text, including Chahk himself. Moreover, to lower right, that god’s left hand sprouts a personified version of obsidian. The branching Chahk with the other gods of matawil cue, as Karl Taube has suggested to us, the fractal forms of eccentric flints or obsidians. The overall being is both “hard” and “soft” in its asserted texture, material, and surface.


Fig. 4. Drawing of a detail of the plate by James Doyle.

The hieroglyphic text contains a disjuncture. The jump separates mythical events and deity protagonists from a likely historical frame of reference and a human owner (Figure 5). The damaged day sign probably carries the coefficient 12, and the Pohp month may be prefaced by a variant of the number 6, identified long ago at Palenque by David Stuart. Though pinning down the date is speculative, style and proximity to major period endings suggests the following possibilities:             12 Etz’nab     6 Pohp             Feb. 26           AD 692               12 Ben            6 Pohp              Feb. 17           AD 731                 12 Ak’bal       6 Pohp              Feb. 10           AD 757                12 Lamat        6 Pohp              Feb. 7            AD 770

We find the latter two dates more likely, given the available evidence for the temporal distribution of codex-style ceramics, and the possible connection to the Ik’ painters who were active in the 750s-780s. The misalignment and asymmetry in the two sets of glyph blocks underscore the textual split between ancient time and contemporary events.


Fig. 5. Historical Text.

The action that follows the date is likely a variant of the verb for ceremonial “raising” of a jawte’, plate (not “death,” as posited by Schele). The execution of the dedication verb on the plate is coincidentally very similar to that on the vessel in the Princeton museum and another cup likely by the same painter from the Ik’ polity, the first dated to approximately AD 755 (  4 Hix 12 Kumk’u). The name and title that follow almost certainly name an actual historic figure (la-ch’a-TUUN-ni si-k’u-AJAW), though this name does not seem to be attested elsewhere in the corpus of Maya writing.

The plate with the mythic scene thus belonged to a living, historical owner who carried the ajaw title. Presumably, maize tamales filled the plate during important meals. By another, clever conceit, the plate would have contained actual maize products atop a scene in which growth is shown at first emergence. The reference to the mythological creation of maize and the depiction of this watery Olympus of quadripartite gods of matawil is indeed cosmic, but with a terrestrial focus. See, for example, the three partially preserved figures between the black water band and the potential representation of the “five-flower house” below (Figure 6).


Fig. 6. Detail of personified plants: (left) “root” figure, possibly manioc or sweet potato (note sign for “darkness,” a feature first discerned by Marc Zender); (center) dancing Maize God with elongated cranium and breath bead; (right) “tobacco” figure (note sign for “darkness” on body of figure, a possible reference to nocturnal conditions or even a plant disease such as black shank?).

Accompanying the leafy plants is another upside-down figure on the left projecting downward from the water register. The scribe depicted this figure’s headdress as something close to the wi syllable, identifiable as a pan-Lowland word for “raíz, root,” in languages such as Ch’ol, Chontal, and Ch’orti’ (Kaufman and Norman 1984:126). This could refer to a type of indigenous root crop, such as sweet potato or manioc, the latter extensively documented as a staple in places like Joya de Cerén, El Salvador (Sheets et al. 2012). If so, this character may constitute a unique depiction of root crops in Maya art. Much like the vegetation around Pakal’s sarcophagus, these beings correspond to plants of economic import to the Maya, and to key elements of consumption.

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Fig. 7. Comparison of wi syllable from Chahk plate and Palenque’s Tablet of the 96 Glyphs.

The deeper meaning of the plate thus comes into crisp focus. The object would have existed in two time frames, offering both real food and mythic food stuffs. In deep time, lightning and rain came together under the auspices of Venus and stars, at a location in or near the black cenote/black water place, calling together a dream-team of four deities. Chahk, as the central figure from which the other gods are sprouting, wields his axe to strike and release primordial vegetation: root crops, maize, and tobacco, in the form of godly figures. Fast forwarding to the 8th century, one can imagine a recitation by someone seated next to the plate. At a sumptuous feast, he or she would read the image and text and recount distant (yet close!) mythological events. The owner perhaps entreated the very deities pictured within, in earnest hopes for bountiful crops and plentiful rains in a time of impending social upheaval.


This post is dedicated to Justin Kerr, who built a life with his wife Barbara devoted to the study and preservation of Maya artworks. Mary Miller kindly invited us to the CAA meeting, where we had fruitful conversations with her, Claudia Brittenham, Bryan Just, Megan O’Neil, and Justin himself. Simon Martin and David Stuart also provided useful and timely comment.


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“Hieroglyphic Miscellany” from 1990

by David Stuart

Here’s a small item that I circulated to a few colleagues way back in 1990 called “Hieroglyphic Miscellany.” I hadn’t looked at this in many years, until I found it among some of my papers yesterday. I thought it might be of some interest to colleagues and students, so it here goes on Maya Decipherment. The somewhat random notes include a few tidbits:

(1) My first outline of the evidence for the so-called “doubler” mark in Maya script — the two small dots that indicate the repetition of a syllabic or logographic sign.

(2) Further development of the reading of the tza syllable.

(3) Notes on the deity names that appear on the Yaxchilan inscribed bones, described in another recent post here on Maya Decipherment. The idea that Yaxchilan’s Lintel 42 actually mentions these or similar bones seems far less likely today — that text rather contains a reference to the conjuring or manifesting of the same gods named on the bones.

(3) A brief presentation of the rationale behind the KAL decipherment for the “cauac-skull” logogram that appears in the title kaloomte’. At some point soon I would like to post a full discussion of the many variants and forms of kaloomte’ title, given how wonderfully complex it can be.

Hieroglyphic Miscellany 1990 (pdf file)