Unusual Signs 1: A Possible Co Syllable

Over the coming weeks and months I will be offering musings on certain rare or usual Maya hieroglyphic signs, some of which haven’t been catalogued or ever discussed in the literature.

The first is what I take to be a syllabic element, appearing in contexts that strongly point to a Co value. Many have probably taken this sign to be three separate elements (a stacking of ma, TAL and perhaps ka) but I suggest it is in fact a single sign, sometimes overlaid by other elements with which it combines to spell roots. I know of four good examples of this mystery sign, although I’m sure others exist out there in the corpus of Maya texts. Here’s a run-down of the four illustrated here, with a sketch of their environments:

Example a (drawing by Peter Mathews): From the inscribed earspools of Altun Ha, in a woman’s personal name. Here it precedes an early form of the lo syllable, topped by NAAL? and a bow-tie knot element below, the reading of which is ambiguous.

Example b (drawing by Sven Gronemeyer): On Monument 8 of Tortuguero (Block G) our sign appears in second position after the syllable mo, and before no? and probably se. The context suggests the entire glyph may be part of the nominal phrase of the local ruler Bahlam Ajaw, named in the following block, but I have no good understanding of the sign sequence.

Example c (drawing by Ian Graham): From Tortuguero, Monument 6 (G11), in what looks to be a transitive verb construction, with the ergative u- pronoun and the suffix –Vw. I take the core elements here to be our mystery sign with lo superimposed over the central portion. This context is key, for all transitive verb roots are spelled synharmonically (CV1-CV1); if combined here with lo, the unknown sign reasonably should be Co as well. The order of elements is not obvious, but I lean to the sequence being U-Co-lo-wa, pointing to a transitive verb root Col.

Example d (drawing by David Mora-Marin): In a text from an Early Classic inscribed celt of unknown provenance, we see the probable sequence U-?(ko), again making use of an infixed element. Once more the order is somewhat ambiguous, though I tend to see this infixed sign as coming in second position. The missing portion of this short text make it impossible to know just what we are looking at here, but it looks to be a possessed noun (u Cok?).

Four contexts do not make for an easy decipherment, but we might be safe in thinking the sign is a syllable of Co phonetic shape, as indicated by it’s clustering with lo, mo, no? and ko in the cases illustrated. But what is the consonant? To begin determining this, we would have to know whether the sign is an alternate version for some Co syllable already identified in the script, or instead if it might fill one of the blanks now in the syllabic grid. This answer isn’t obvious, but I see no evidence to suggest our sign a substitution for some already known element, such as ch’o, bo or jo, and so on. It’s a somewhat subjective call, but I suspect the sign will eventually correspond to one of the missing Co spots of the grid, such as so, t’o, tzo, and tz’o.

This is probably enough speculation for now. Nevertheless, I find it interesting that proto-Ch’olan has the transitive verb root *tzol, “to line-up,” but no transitive roots attested for *sol, *t’ol, or *tz’ol. This quick-and-dirty assessment admittedly means little at this preliminary stage. So it’s time to pour myself a cup of coffee and go back to the dictionaries, and find a few more examples of the sign.

te-mu and te-ma as “Throne”

by Stephen Houston

In the early 90s, I happened to be looking at one of Justin Kerr’s most beautiful rollouts, of a fragmentary stuccoed scene (K1524). In it, the Maize god (or some comely youth) sits on a throne, entreated by an aged god — this last is, of course, none other than the deity who helps paddle the Maize god on his watery journey. To the side, other youths dress (?) a dancer, who is, perhaps, a version of the figure on the throne. The loss of the text is regrettable, as it might have helped to explain the scene. There may well be a connection to the dressing and paddling of the Maize god on related images, such as the Museo Popol Vuh vase.

Despite its ruined state, the vessel is a masterwork. The pooled paint and gently blurred outlines impart a truly pulsing energy to the surface, a quality seen on few other vessels. It continues to be one of my favorites.

However, what really drew my attention were the glyphs in red outline that ran along the throne. The scribe had highlighted these with a dark blue wash, making the glyphs somewhat difficult to read. But I could make out the so-called alay (still a problematic reading, in my view), t’abayii (as we would now decipher it, thanks to Dave Stuart), then, [u te mu…]. A quick look at the relevant dictionaries showed that tem was a perfectly acceptable name-tag, and of rather broad distribution among lowland Mayan languages:

Yukatek (Barrera V., p. 783): “poyo o grada, altar o poyo”
Ch’olti’ (Moran source, #2711, 2712 in Bill Ringle’s reworking): “asiento, banco”
common Ch’olan (Kaufman/Norman list, #511): “seat” …with common Mayan *teem

The final term became interesting a few years later. This was because of our much reviled but–let it be said!–obviously correct publication on disharmony, done with fellow co-conspirators David Stuart and John Robertson. The vowel length was predictable, given the final, if somewhat unusual, -u in the spelling. (Our colleagues Alfonso Lacadena and Soren Wichmann have come to prefer a te’m spelling, but we are not yet convinced of it.) I then remembered another such name-tag, on a masonry throne excavated by Eric Thompson in the 30s, at San Jose, Belize (then British Honduras, see Thompson’s 1939 CIW monograph, pl. 9 in particular). Here, too, was a dedicatory context, including a clear indication that the “bat” glyph pertained to the working of stucco. One can just make out a probable u-te-*ma?/*mu. I have since seen paintings of a secure u-te-mu in a similar, if earlier, context from Calakmul, as photographed by Simon Martin. A similar spelling was probably on K5388. Unfortunately, the relevant parts of the text are in bad shape.

The finds on the pot and at San Jose were useful at the time, and continue to be so. They augmented our list of name-tags, contributed a probative, disharmonic spelling, as predicted by a prior linguistic reconstruction, and helped remove–for me anyway–any lingering doubts about Landa’s te as a sign with roots in the Classic period. (Whether the “tree/wood” TE’ ever functions syllabically is quite uncertain.) The question remains of how to read the stray “throne” logographs that appear in the inscriptions, as on the Temple XIX platform so nicely reported by DS (e.g., P4) or, for that matter, the so-called “palanquin” signs that pepper the inscriptions. Their readings are surely different. The palanquin attaches a final syllable that, I sense, triggers disharmony, thus: CVht, CVVt or CV’t — I recall that Dmitri Beliaev suggested pit or, perhaps more likely, pi’t, as the most viable reading.

A Classic Maya Bailiff?

by Stephen Houston

Epigraphers have long puzzled over a title in Classic inscriptions. This is the ba-te’, usually spelled ba-TE’ but sometimes, as at Dos Pilas and Yaxchilan, BAAH-TE’. Historically minded readers of this blog will remember the late, great Heinrich Berlin. A person of great insight, he posited a similar reading for what we now know, thanks to Dave Stuart, to be the KALOOMTE’ title. (That title deserves far closer study, as do all the “tree” titles. Students take note!) Berlin had been intrigued by the TE’ at the end of KALOOMTE’, leading him to consider a set of words in Yukatek, including ba’te’el, “fight, war,” taken from “axe,” baat and “cacique,” batab. Knorosov, Joyce Marcus, and Chris Jones endorsed the reading or at least mentioned it in some of their publications. As with many good ideas, it had a strong run…and then died away under press of better evidence. Yet there is still the question: What are we to make of the ba-te’ and BAAH-te’ that do appear in the inscriptions? Are they related to the terms that interested Berlin?

The bate’/baahte’ is neither ubiquitous nor rare in Classic texts. One example occurs at Tonina, on Monument 145:C1, where it follows the name of K’inich Baaknal Chahk and serves as an adjective for a kind of ajaw. The ruler obviously felt that this was an important marker of royal identity. Farther afield is Chinaja St. 1, last seen in the von der Goltz collection, in Guatemala City, I believe. It records U-ba-TE’ between the names of a captive and a local ajaw. The syntax is a little opaque, as is the referent of U-ba-TE’. I can think of several options, some more likely that others: (1) the captive, X, is the “guarded one” of Y, who, in turn, served as the bate’ of Z, a local ruler; (2) the captive, X, is the bate’ of the local ruler, Y; or even (3) the guardian and bate’ expression appear in couplet form, “is captured, the guardian of X, the bate’ of Z.” The drawing of the text is adequate but perhaps insufficient to come to any firm conclusion. The panel probably had a mate—a common pattern in the Pasión region—with another captive facing right, in a sculpture placed on the opposite side of a stairway. At least it’s clear that, at Chinaja, bate’ had something to do with conflict.

In texts at Dos Pilas and other sites, the title tends to precede pitzil, “ballplayer” (Dos Pilas Hieroglyphic Stairway 4, Step V:M2-N2) or it appears with rulers in the act of ballplay (Yaxchilan Hieroglyphic Stairway 2:G3). Then there are the titles with numbered katuns. Yaxchilan Hieroglyphic Stairway 3:F1-G2 refers to 5-‘k’atun’ ba-TE’ 5-‘k’atun’ pi-tzi-la, nicely combining the two labels. This alone might tempt the incautious to entertain some link to batey, a ceremonial ballgame of Taino in parts of the Greater Antilles—not to be discounted outright, given lithic evidence of contact, but probably not so compelling either. The instances of bate’ at Chichen Itza are more opaque, appearing in the Ak’ab Tz’ib lintel and the Temple of the IV Lintels. Clearly, bate’ was an epithet at some northern sites. The usual pattern is ‘AXE-OHL’ followed by the ba-TE’, once spelled ba-TE’-‘e, as on a sculpture from the Barbachano collection. The latter leaves little doubt that the term ended in a vowel. In fact, I am hard pressed to think of many spellings in which the TE’ (T89) sign functioned syllabically, as some have proposed. The ye-TE’ with captives remains just such a puzzle. In my view, it contains three morphemes, not two.


None of this would be particularly interesting, new or revealing save for the recent appearance of a probative context. This is a spelling of the name and titles of a figure in one of the most remarkable scenes I’ve seen of Maya gore and pain-making (see above). Exquisitely painted, it displays a presentation of captives and is now in a private collection in New York City (K6674). The main text records a “spearing,” ju-la-ja, and an arrival, hu-li, probably on the same day. I saw the vessel last summer, and the owner kindly made high-quality images available to me. Over to the left is a standing figure who looms over two captives, one the worse for wear, with eyes gouged out. Both captives have jagged wounds that ooze blood. (This must have been the “spearing” mentioned above, along with the “arrival” of the duo at court.) The standing figure holds a dark wooden staff in one hand, making it hard to avoid the impression that we are looking at a custodian of captives—rather like a bailiff at court or royal servants who held staffs as badges of authority in European courts. To this day, Black Rod summons the House of Commons to the Queen’s Speech in the House of Lords; Gold Stick and Silver Stick serve in the Queen’s bodyguard. And, of course, the lone “staff” of this blog, Dave Stuart, takes his role from a term for a physical support.

It is possible that the caption in front of the wooden staff applies to the captive immediately to the right. But I doubt it. The more likely referent is our bailiff, who was called: t’u-bu a-AJAW-WINIK-ki ba-TE’, t’ub ajaw winik bate’. Admittedly, the final TE’ fails to include the small superfix that usually appears with TE’. Yet I cannot imagine what other value it could have in this setting. In fact, the sign accords nicely with the TE’ icons to be seen in objects of wood, such as the canoes depicted on bones from Tikal Burial 116, and with a clear analogue, K’UK’-NAB-TE’ (with this form), as part of a name on Panel 3 at Piedras Negras. The reading also fits with a group of titles that link ba or BAAH, “head,” with objects related to war and objects at court. Bonampak alone has people, all non-royals, called ba-to-k’a, ba took’, “head flint” (the figure slicing at captive’s hands in Room 2, in a title also at Tonina), ba-pa-ka-la, ba pakal, “head shield,” for a “warrior,” and more courtly figures who appear to be called, ba-TZ’AM?-ma, ba tz’am, “head throne.” (Incidentally, some of us have suspected that the supposed po syllable in these spellings is a logogram. Dave has considered TZ’AM as a good bet, following a reading once proposed by Marc Zender, in part because of a substitution on a molded text in the Dieseldorff collection in the National Museum in Guatemala City. I’m sure he’s right.) There is a still a chance that the spellings are more than metonyms—namely, things that stand for larger wholes, such as “sweat” for “labor.” The spellings could embed an assimilated agentive a, so that ba-to-k’a > ba [a] took’, “head person of the flint.” The only reason to doubt this view is the presence, at Bonampak, of a ba-hi, which reduces the chances of an assimilated agentive.

Houston blog figure

Piedras Negras St. 12 weighs in with the helpful ba-che-bu, ba(ah) chehb, “head quill,” first noted, I believe, by Nikolai Grube.

So, by this proposal, “head stick/wood” describes someone who wielded a stick or staff. It could have been a badge of office, an actual object for herding and abusing captives, perhaps even a role in the ballgame, either as a field position (a captain?) or as someone who played – this may be a stretch! — a stick game. These are attested in ancient America, if uncommon among the ancient Maya. Courtiers used the label, but kings too.

And, of course, bate’ had nothing to do with “axe” or related words.

Of Beads and Cylinders

by Steve Houston

Some months ago I happened to see a remarkable object in a small private collection. It is a stone cylinder c. 12 cm. in height, c 7 cm. in diameter. Mary Miller had also shown me photos of the piece many years ago, in the ‘80s. I did a drawing of it at the time – which I cannot now find for the life of me!


The cylinder belongs to a genre of Early Classic objects, none of great size, that show the heads of what I take to be deceased lords. This ID is suggested by the closed eye and the disembodied nature of the portraits. One such object is on human bone, the other occurs on a sculpture drawn by Dave Stuart. (Both images are shown below.) On the human bone, the name of the deceased ruler appears in the headdress, a standard practice in Maya imagery, from earliest times to the end of the Classic period, a millennium later.


But what is the cylinder, and what does its text say?

First the date: The combination of the 5 Chuwen in the 260-day calendar and an early G2 (the so-called “lord of the night,” plus title” that occur in the 2nd and 3rd places of the vertical text) limits us to a few options, especially in view of the early style of the cylinder. The range of dates can’t be more than a century and is probably rather less than that. The Maya sometimes prized economy of expression, and the cylinder exemplifies this drive to concision.

As I was looking at the piece, it suddenly occurred to me that I had seen the name before or at least a name close to it — the nominal signs are, of course, the glyphs that stretch over the final blocks of the vertical text. The glyphs also appear as elements in the headdress of the portrait to the other side of the cylinder. I’ve attached a rather poor drawing I did in ’81 or so of Balakbal Stela 5, with a date of in the Maya system, May 16 (Julian), AD 406 in ours. (Perhaps I shouldn’t apologize too much for the drawing. The photo of the stela was grainy and uncooperative.)


Note the similarity, illustrated here, between the name on Stela 5 and that on the cylinder. In the first glyph there appears the “cruller” device that wraps around the eye and passes through the earspool. The cylinder makes it clear, both in text and imagery, that the final name of this lord is that of the Rain God, Chahk. Most of the same attributes are in place, from the hair-knot to the serpent-tongue, and, in the inscription, a distinctive shell-earspool – a collection put together by Karl Taube in his classic book on Maya deities makes this point neatly. I wish the Chahk were clearer on Stela 5, but the text has become damaged at just this point.


What do we know of Balakbal? Ruppert and Denison’s publication for the Carnegie, Archaeological Reconnaissance in Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Peten, shows that it lies in a remote place very close to the border of Peten, Guatemala, and the Mexican states of Quintana Roo and Campeche. The compass map by Ruppert and Denison reveals that the site has a so-called “E-group,” a massive set of buildings oriented to dawn-events that is a characteristic of the Maya Preclassic and into the Early Classic. Thus, this is likely to be an early site, at least in part, and the date of Stela 5, among the most important, early texts we know, fits well with this impression.

Back to the dating of the cylinder. Balakbal Stela 5 is difficult to make out, like many early Maya inscriptions. But its main date ( 9 Etznab 16 Pop, May 14, AD 406) is most likely an accession, followed a short time later by the celebration of an important calendrical ceremony, presided over by the new ruler — and, I suspect, the figure on the cylinder. The reference to accession is expected for the simple reason that the right side of the stela may record the death of his predecessor only a short time before (31 days, to be exact).

The link to Balakbal gives us a possible linchpin for assigning a date to the cylinder. Of course, 5 Chuwen, G2, has to come after the dates on Stela 5, and probably by more than a short period, as we are likely to be dealing with a posthumous object. These are the possibilities, given the clues from Stela 5 (all dates in the Julian system).

(1), May 27, AD 407
(2), Oct. 17, AD 417
(3), March 14, AD 420
(4), Aug. 10, AD 426
(5), Jan 5, AD 433

Later dates are biologically possible, but they begin to stretch beyond what I would find stylistically feasible. Date (1) seems too early for me, which leaves the following four. Unless there is some clue that escapes me, I cannot sort out which might be correct. I suspect, however, that the latest two are more likely to be correct, given what we know of most spans of rule. The intended readers must have found certain things obvious. The sculptor understood this and didn’t bother with a complete date, to our frustration. (The Stuart text with the Initial Series in the Maya system is far fuller and more explicit.)

So, we have a date or range of dates – if predicated on a number of assumptions–an identifiable (if deceased) personage, a possible find-spot at or near Balakbal, Campeche, and a standard verb to indicate dedication or offering (this is the possible t’abayi verb, with a reading proposed by Dave Stuart in 5th position within the text). This leaves the highly enigmatic yu-BAAH.

It could be that this is a disharmonic spelling, one with a “complex” vowel, thus the yuub. That’s reasonable, yet I believe such a spelling may not work with the so-called “pocket gopher” glyph (BAAH). At this stage in Maya writing, the “gopher glyph” functioned, to an exclusive extent, as a rebus for “portrait, body,” baah (Dave, Karl, and I explain this in our book, The Memory of Bones).

I believe we are looking at a unique spelling that is nonetheless consistent with what we know of Maya words at this time. The y-u-baah is a possessed object, hence y- for the third-person, “his” (in this case, although “her” and “its” are possible, too), followed by the name of the thing being possessed, then the name of the possessor. The /baah/ is explained by the portrait on the other side.

…but what of the /u/ in between? Long ago, John Justeson of SUNY-Albany suggested that there were glyphs for “bead, necklace,” spelled [U] in the writing system. There is a handsome study of this by Dave Stuart, in this blog, who points to a clear demonstration of U as “bead” in a particular spelling at Tonina, Chiapas. (There’s another, eroded example at Tonina on Monument 7, so it isn’t a singular example.) I had also entertained the idea of a reading involving the root for “hearing,” ub, with assimilation of the final “b” into baah. Thus, a “hearing/sensing” image. But I think this interpretation is more of a stretch.

In short, the cylinder may be a “bead-image” or “bead-portrait” of the ruler. The shape fits, of course, and the Maya were known to have created particular objects of “jewelry” (or simulacra of them) in outsized form, as in a number of gigantic earspools that could not have been worn by anybody but a giant. We also know that a great deal of jewelry (whether literal or figurative) depicted ancestors.

This may be what occurs on the cylinder. I have seen finely polished stone cylinders from a number of Maya sites, including, I dimly recall, an example excavated by Dave Stuart at Arroyo de Piedra, in 1990. Are these “plain versions” of carved cylinders? Just as plain stelae evoke monuments embellished with images of rulers?

There may be more of these than we think. I attach an image of a small, rectangular stone, found in a niche by Sarah Jackson during the 2000 field season at Piedras Negras. The setting: Group C, just off the Northwest Group Plaza. In 1932, Linton Satterthwaite of the University Museum at Penn found very similar objects in Structure O-7, all of which just seem to sit there, without plastering or rooting in the substrate. Behind Sarah’s niche was a buried bench with various offerings of ceramics, as shown in the second photo.

Are stones like this altars or “rectangular columns,” as Satterthwaite called them…or, rather more strangely, plain versions of “ancestral jewels”? Beads of square section are, of course, attested in Maya jewelry.

UPDATE: A copy of Steve’s drawing of the cylinder will be posted here later — Dave has a copy somewhere in his files…

“Hit the Road”


My earlier post on the Tikal ancestor “White Owl Jaguar” included a brief mention of the phrase jatz’ bihtuun, appearing in the long narrative recorded on the exterior of the Temple of the Inscriptions (Temple VI). It’s a rare verb expression, appearing only on that one Tikal text and also on Naranjo Altar 2, where it was first identified by Nikolai Grube. It’s clearly based on the transitive verb root jatz’, “to strike, hit something,” but bihtuun has been trickier to nail down. As mentioned in that previous post, bihtuun had been earlier analyzed as meaning “paved surface,” but both Steve Houston and I independently considered a somewhat different thought, suggesting it may be an alternative term for “stone road” (bih, “road” + tuun, “stone”). This was based solely on the etymology apparent in the glyphic spelling, and therefore hard to confirm. Beyond that question, what could “hitting” be about?

I’ve recently come across important lexical data that confirms our suspicions about jatz’ bihtuun. In colonial Yukatek, in the Motul Dictionary or Calepino Motul, we find two revealing entries:

be tun, camino o calzada de piedra
hadz be, abrir camino por matorrales

Thus Classic Mayan jatz’ bihtuun, literally “to strike a stone road,” turns out to be a phrase referring to the creation or opening of new causeways. The two inscriptions at Tikal and Naranjo provide specific dates we can consider for the construction and elaboration of associated road features at those sites.