Diadems in the Rough

by Stephen Houston

The ritual role of paper is by now a commonplace in studies of Classic Maya royalty. Kings show their station by wearing headbands, presumably made from the cortex of the strangler fig or amate (Ficus sp.), kopo’ in some Mayan languages.(Note 1)

Much could be written about Classic paper. There is the matter of its manufacture with “bark beaters.” Lashed to wooden handles, these grooved tools helped to mash and fuse fibers for eventual smoothing, sizing with lime-powder, and painting.(Note 2) Epigraphers might pay more attention to the reading of “paper” in Maya texts: hu’n, a term cueing “book,” “headband,” even “diadem” or “crown.” (Note 3) (The material came first, other meanings later.) Yet not all head coverings were Ficus. Some years ago, Michael Coe noted the probable use of henequen fibers in some headdresses (Coe 1973:49). An uncomfortable material, perhaps, but it was also durable, shapable, dramatic in effect, light to wear.

Two glyphic spellings indicate a third material for headgear. A paper, hu’n, it nonetheless seems to consist of something other than Ficus. One example occurs on Aguateca Stela 1, dating to AD 741 (Fig. 1; Graham 1967:fig. 3). The text offers an

Fig. 1. Figure 1. Aguateca Stela 1:A7, with close-up of royal headband (Graham 1967:figs. 2, 3).

unusual lead-up to the accession of a ruler, K’awiil Chan K’inich of Aguateca and Dos Pilas, by referring to an act of ka-cha-ji u-sa-ya-HU’N. The root is doubtless related to “tying,” kach, an event entirely appropriate for a headband (Grube 1992:213). In this spelling, the hu’n itself is visible as a paper bow. The reference comes 22 days prior to enthronement and may represent the pre-accession tying of a headband or the preparation of regalia for the ceremony. Another spelling is on the famed “Princeton Vase” at the Princeton Art Museum (Fig. 2; K511; Coe 1978:pl. 1). An ‘a-sa-ya HU’N-na is clearly visible at positions L2-K3, although the context is opaque. The caption, alluding to a person—note the agentive ‘a (or is it a pronoun, “your”?)—may refer to the scene of God L and his harem.

Figure 2. Princeton Vase, close up of caption (Coe 1978:pl. 1, photograph copyright Justin Kerr).

What can be made of these references to hu’n, once in secure connection to regalia and accession to high office?

An ethnography of the Q’eqchi’ Maya draws attention to a sedge, a grass or rush-like plant known as say (Cyperus sp.; Wilson 1972: 148, 169, 260, Table 19): “Today the principal fiber plant apart from ik’e (maguey) is a sedge, saySay is used by plaiting rather than spinning; the three faces of the stem are split apart and woven into fine mats (sayil pōp) on which to sit or sleep.” Use of say appears to have been gendered among the Q’eqchi’, as it was worked only by women. Say produces a finer product than other plaited or twilled materials, and the Ch’orti’, too, made full use of it (Wisdom 1940:153-154; yet note Ch’orti’ pohp’ for “sedge”). Ground up and mixed with oil for poultice, the sedge was employed by Ch’orti’ midwives, at least until the 1930s, to heal the umbilical wounds of babies (Wisdom 1940:288): soothing, applicable at a key moment in life’s passage. Colonial Yukatek refers to the same material, as in the Calepino Motul: “Çay [say] el coraçón o junco de que hazen petates o esteras” or “the heart or rush from which petates or mats are made” (Cuidad Real 2001:136).

There is another possibility too. Colonial and recent Tzotzil mention a tree called saya-vun [hun], “saya-paper,” a wild mulberry (Morus celtidfolia; Breedlove and Laughlin 2000: 142, 153). A plant from a related plant, like Ficus and the mulberry in the Moraceae family, was commonly used in Polynesia for tapa cloth and throughout Asia as the basis of a resilient and valued paper (Seelenfreund et al. 2010). What is striking in the image on Aguateca Stela 1 is that a lashing around the forehead is cross-hatched. This is either because it is dark—a common Maya convention—or because it renders a rougher, more textured material (Fig. 1).

The Classic Maya wove, plaited, twilled, and otherwise joined materials from the vegetal world around them. Two glyphic examples suggest that some such works were labeled as “paper” yet from fibers that were coarser and tougher than Ficus. Truly: diadems in the rough. A second option is that, as in Asia and Polynesia, where the tradition had great antiquity, the Maya transformed mulberry into a high-quality paper for ritual use.


Note 1. A useful paper by Erik Boot highlights a pot with a text reading, in part, u-ko-po-lo che-‘e-bu (Boot 1997: 64-67, fig. 4, photographed by Justin Kerr as K7786). Boot proposes u-po-ko-lo, from a root meaning “wash,” for the first glyph block. I might suggest a different order, with signs that sequence from upper left to lower left, then pass from upper right to lower right. The relevance here is that kopol could be an adjectival reference to amate, kopol, in connection to che’b, “quill, brush.” Thus, “fig-tree-quill.” Whatever the interpretation, the presence of the term in a name-tag remains enigmatic—at least we know that the owner of this bowl served a higher-ranking ajaw. In my view, a second example noted by Boot, MT347, from Burial 160 at Tikal, possibly with po-ko-lo, is fragmentary and the context uncertain. I am unsure how it relates to the spelling on K7786.

Note 2. For controversy about such objects, there is no beating Paul Tolstoy on barkbeaters, which he understood in pan-diffusionist terms (Tolstoy 1963, 1981). The first discussion of such objects appears in Uhle (1889-90), likening New World examples to comparable pieces from Sulawesi.

Note 3. Excellent discussion of the phonology and glyphic spellings appears in Grube (2004: 65-66, 73). In 1986, Don Federico Fahsen showed me two texts in Guatemala, both from the early years of the Late Classic period, both painted in similar style if not by the same hand. I immediately noticed a sign alternation of the sort that is so productive in decipherment. The number “one” alternated in crisp pattern with a sign combination that, in Glyph F of the inscriptions, represented a Maya book (this last identification was made with great style and insight by Michael Coe [1977]). The unavoidable conclusion, for those ceramics, at the time of their painting: the word for “one,” jun, was a near-homophone of the term for “book,” hu’n. The phonological details of the words were less clear in the 1980s. Now, I would read “one” as juun, “book” or “paper” as hu’n, following the evidence and reasoning in Robertson et al. (2007:7, 48). The scribe or atelier producing these ceramics would have been unusually expansive in their embrace of homophony.

Sources Cited

Boot, Erik. 1997. Classic Maya Vessel Classification: Rare Vessel Type Collocations Containing the Noun Cheb “Quill.” Estudios de historia social y económica de America, vol. 15, pp. 59-76. http://dspace.uah.es/jspui/bitstream/10017/5995/1/Classic%20Maya%20Vessel%20Classification.%20Rare%20Vessel%20Type%20Collocations%20Containing%20the%20Noun%20Cheb%20’Quill’.pdf

Breedlove, Dennis E., and Robert M. Laughlin. 2000. The Flowering of Man: A Tzotzil Botany of Zinacantán. Abridged edition. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.

Ciudad Real, Antonio de. 2001. Calepino Maya de Motul, edición crítica y anotada por Réne Acuña. Plaza y Valdés Editores, México, DF.

Coe, Michael D. 1973. The Maya Scribe and His World. Grolier Club, New York.

___________. 1977. Supernatural Patrons of Maya Scribes and Artists. In Social Process in Maya Prehistory: Studies in Honour of Sir Eric Thompson, ed. by N. Hammond, pp. 327-347. Academic Press, London.

___________. 1978. Lords of the Underworld: Masterpieces of Classic Maya Ceramics. Art Museum, Princeton University, Princeton.

Graham, Ian. 1967. Archaeological Explorations in El Peten, Guatemala. Middle American Research Institute, Publication 33. Tulane University, New Orleans.

Robertson, John, Stephen Houston, Marc Zender, and David Stuart. 2007. Universals and the Logic of the Material Implication: A Case Study from Maya Hieroglyphic Writing. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, Number 62. http://www.utmesoamerica.org/pdf_meso/RRAMW62.pdf.

Grube, Nikolai. 1992. Classic Maya Dance: Evidence from Hieroglyphs and Iconography. Ancient Mesoamerica, vol. 3, pp. 201-218. 2004. The Orthographic Distinction between Velar and Glottal Spirants in Maya Hieroglyphic Writing, The Linguistics of Maya Writing, ed. by Søren Wichmann, pp. 61-81. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Tolstoy, Paul. 1963. Cultural Parallels between Southeast Asia and Mesoamerica in the Manufacture of Bark-cloth. Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol. 25, pp. 646–662.

__________. 1991. Paper route: Were the Man the Manufacture and Use of Bark Paper Introduced into Mesoamerica from Asia? Natural History, vol. 100, no. 6, pp. 6-8, 10, 12-14.

Seelenfreund, D., A. C. Clarke, N. Oyanedel, R. Piña, S. Lobos, E.A. Matisoo-Smith, and A. Seelenfreund. 2010. Paper Mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera) as a Commensal Model for Human Mobility in Oceania: Anthropological, Botanical, and Genetic considerations. New Zealand Journal of Botany, vol. 48, pp. 3-4, 231-247.

Uhle, Max, 1889–90. Kultur und Industrie südamerikanischer Völker. A. Ascher, Berlin.

Wilson, Michael R. 1972. A Highland Maya People and Their Habitat: The Natural History, Demography, and Economy of the K’ekchi’. Ph.D. dissertation, Dept. of Geography, University of Oregon.

Wisdom, Charles. 1940. The Chorti Maya of Guatemala. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Mythic Prototypes and Maya Writing

by Stephen Houston and Simon Martin

A perennial attraction of Maya writing to the modern eye is its playful balance between convention and observed detail. A recent work does rich justice to the wit and fun that arose from Maya minds and hands (Stone and Zender 2011). But there may be another element to the creation of signs, of a sort that needs definition and testing. This is the conceptual connection that exists in ancient Maya thought between a unique exemplar and a more general class of thing or being.

John Milton would have understood the issue. For him, every man contained the essence of Adam, a singular prototype. Adam was Man but also a man. His companion in the Fall, Eve, was by that same logic both a woman and Woman. These beings were at once unique and susceptible to generalization. There is a reason, too, that Adam and Eve appeared in book called “Genesis.” They animated an explanatory story of origins and accounted for why descendants are as they are, ever willful by some views, ever disobedient to heavenly instruction.

There may be a more subtle matter at stake. For decades, ethnobiologists have considered the nature and hierarchical patterns of Maya classification (e.g., Berlin et al. 1974:153-157). What is missing, however, is the process, familiar to Plato, by which humans thought with equal effort about ideal forms and concrete reality. This might involve, to offer one case, an exemplary concept of “Tree” versus the many ways in which arboreal vegetation might exist, flourish, wither, scar or flower. To George Santayana (1915:ch. 1), “[t]he Platonic idealist is … so wedded to perfection that he sees in everything not the reality but the faultless ideal which the reality misses and suggests.”

But it is unlikely that the ancient Maya were Platonists. The originals were not ideals, but, as argued here, for a number of examples, highly specific things or creatures that were extended to identify a general class. Reciprocally, the general class of such things might fold back in reference to a mythic prototype. Robert Laughlin comes closest to this groove with his stories of Tzotzil plant lore. Weeds, “the ancestors’ corn and beans, were so fussy and complaining that Our Lord banished them to the wilds” and “[c]hili sprouted from the drops of Christ’s blood” (Laughlin 1993, 105, 106). Implicit in such stories are theories of origins and causation, but also of first things and their inescapable bearing on the present.

Much of this is intuitively obvious to Mayanists. The Ajaw face, a youthful, male profile, headbanded, check with distinctive spot, is both every lord read AJAW, and a particular being of mythic stamp and story, often paired with a similar figure, but with jaguar pelage. As Karl Taube (2003) showed so cogently, the first exercises dominion over humans, the second over animals, although the name of the latter remains elusive. The head for woman, IXIK, may similarly refer to a First Woman. The clearest cases are where glyphic terms are those of natural categories of animal—as confirmed by full phonetic spellings or complemented forms—yet the logographic versions of the same depict supernatural beasts. A partial list would include the following (illustration below):

—the jaguar: both general, for the “jaguar,” BAHLAM, and eponymous, as a water-lily jaguar sprouting a water-lily from its forehead (Figure 1a). (A few such cats appear to be read HIX, as on Copan St. 13:E5, or to be depicted as this, possibly more generic feline, as in the jade from Tikal Burial 196; Coe 1967:65.)

—the Xook shark: both general, for a fearsome “shark,” XOOK, and eponymous, as monstrous fish speared in primordial times (Figure 1b).

—the crocodile: both general, for the reptile AHIIN, and eponymous, as a being with cross-bands in its eye, a mythic, sacrificial prototype (Figure 1c).

—the snake: both general, for the reptile KAAN/CHAN, and eponymous, as a specific being with flower-like element in its forehead (Figure 1d). —the trickster rabbit with marked ear: both general, as T’UHL, and eponymous, as an oversexed and cunning creature who, among his many deeds, bests the god of trading (Figure 1e).

—the eagle/bird: both general, as TZ’IKIN/MEEN?,” as an everyday category of avian, and as supernatural bird linked to the sun (Figure 1f). This is part of a larger phenomenon of words and concepts that are ostensibly prosaic, yet always realized in mythic or metaphysical terms.

—the so-called “Patron of Pax”: both general, the glyph TE’, most often as a numeral classifier, and eponymous, as the base of a mythic world tree, te’, perhaps the primordial ceiba (Figure 1g; see David Stuart, 2007, http://mayadecipherment.com/2007/04/14/the-ceiba-tree-on-k1226/

—the sky-eagle: both general, in reference to a denizen linked to the sky, CHAN, and eponymous, as a bird that defines the lustrous arc of the sky. Or, in a related form, a solar eagle associated with war-flints, as at Tonina (Mon. 91:pB1, Karl Taube, pers. comm. 1985; Figure 1h).

A reasoned proposal might be made that each of these, some more secure than others, are not merely a set of generic words signs. In tandem they evoke a singular mythic prototype, a First Exemplar—implying a compendium of etiological, causational stories—along with everyday incarnations of that prototype. To see and depict such things and beings might have been, for the ancient Maya, a binocular process. It perceived the specific in the general, and the general amidst the wondrous particulars of ever-present myth.

Figure 1. (a) Copan Altar K:J1 (drawing by Barbara Fash, CMHI Project, Harvard University); (b) Tikal Cache 198:F1, Str. 5D-46 (drawing, University of Pennsylvania Museum); (c) Tikal Stela 31:F11; (d) Copan Stela A:H5 (drawing by Barbara Fash, CMHI Project, Harvard University; (e) K1340:C1 (photograph by Justin Kerr, Kerr Associates); (f) Río Azul Tomb 12, north wall (photograph by George Mobley, courtesy, George Stuart); (g) Copan Hieroglyphic Stairway (photograph from Barbara Fash, Copan Hieroglyphic Stairway Project, Peabody Museum, Harvard); and (h) Copan Stela A:G3 (drawing by Barbara Fash, CMHI Project, Harvard University).

References Cited

Berlin, Brent, Dennis E. Breedlove, and Peter H. Raven. 1974. Principles of Tzeltal Plant Classification: An Introduction to the Botanic Ethnography of a Mayan-Speaking People of Highland Chiapas. New York: Academic Press.

Coe, William R. 1967. Tikal: A Handbook of the Ancient Maya Ruins. Philadelphia: University Museum, University of Pennsylvania.

Laughlin, Robert M. 1993. Poetic License. In The Flowering of Man: A Tzotzil Botany of Zinacantán, by Dennis E. Breedlove and Robert M. Laughlin, pp. 101-108. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology No. 35. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Santayana, George. 1915. Egotism in German Philosophy. New York: Scribner’s.

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

Taube, Karl. 2002. Ancient and Contemporary Maya Conceptions of the Field and Forest. In Lowland Maya Area: Three Millennia at the Human-Wildland Interface, edited by A. Gómez-Pompa, M. F. Allen, S. Fedick, and J. Jiménez-Moreno, pp. 461-494. New York: Haworth Press.