BOOKS: The Spectacle of the Late Maya Court: Reflections on the Murals of Bonampak

Coming in July 2013 from The University of Texas Press


The Spectacle of the Late Maya Court: Reflections on the Murals of Bonampak
by Mary Ellen Miller and Claudia Brittenham

The blurb from The University of Texas Press website:

Located within the deep tropical rainforest of Chiapas, Mexico, the Maya site of Bonampak is home to the most complete and magnificent mural program of the ancient Americas. In three rooms, a pageant of rulership opens up, scene by scene, like pages of an ancient Maya book. Painted c. AD 800, the murals of Bonampak reveal a complex and multifaceted view of the ancient Maya at the end of their splendor during the last days of the Classic era. Members of the royal court engage in rituals and perform human sacrifice, dance in extravagant costumes and strip the clothing from fallen captives, acknowledge foreign nobles, and receive abundant tribute. The murals are a powerful and sophisticated reflection on the spectacle of courtly life and the nature of artistic practice, a window onto a world that could not know its doomed future.

This major new study of the paintings of Bonampak incorporates insights from decades of art historical, epigraphic, and technical investigation of the murals, framing questions about artistic conception, facture, narrative, performance, and politics. Lavishly illustrated, this book assembles thorough documentation of the Bonampak mural program, from historical photographs of the paintings—some never before published—to new full-color reconstructions by artist Heather Hurst, recipient of a MacArthur award, and Leonard Ashby. The book also includes a catalog of photographs, infrared images, and line drawings of the murals, as well as images of all the glyphic texts, which are published in their entirety for the first time. Written in an engaging style that invites both specialists and general readers alike, this book will stand as the definitive presentation of the paintings for years to come.

Ordering information can be found at the The University of Texas Press.

REPORT: Two Inscribed Bones from Yaxchilan

Back in 1979, excavations at Yaxchilan overseen by Roberto García Moll unearthed several carved bone objects within Tomb 2 of Structure 23 (Mathews 1997:161; Perez Campa 1990:150). Among them were the two artifacts in the figure below, each with a carved deity head on one end and a short hieroglyphic inscription (there were other similar bones as well, not treated here). In this report I would like to offer a few observations on the short texts, focusing mainly on the relationship they bear to the deity images.

As one can see in the drawings, these intriguing bones are pointed at one end, which might lead one to think they functioned as ritual bloodletters. I’m not so sure this is the case here, given their blunt appearance. It’s possible that they were pin-like devices inserted in some sort of unknown material, not unlike similar objects recently described by Martin (2012:77) in the paintings of Structure Sub 1-4 at Calakmul. Unfortunately the texts do not say exactly what they were used for — as we will see, one is simply a “jaguar bone” (Bone 1) and the other is an “offering bone” (Bone 2).

Each text is structured somewhat differently, but both clearly label the objects as belonging to Ix K’abal Xook, the noted queen of Yaxchilan from the early eighth century who is depicted on a number of sculptures at the site, including the famous carved door lintels of Structure 23 (Lintels 24, 25 and 26). Each text also includes a god’s name corresponding to the carved head, placed differently in each case.

YAX bones1BONE 1:

u-ba ke-le BAHLAM-ma IX (k’a-ba)-la
u baakel bahlam Ix K’abal
(it is) the jaguar’s bone of Lady K’abal

XOOK?-ki AJ-K’AHK’ o?-CHAHK-ki
Xook / Aj K’ahk’ O’ Chahk
Xook. (It is) Aj K’ahk’ O’ Chahk.


to-k’a-la AJAW-wa U-MAY-ya-ji
took’al ajaw u mayij
Flint Lord is the offering

ba-ki IX-(k’a-ba)-la XOOK?-ki
baak Ix K’abal Xook
bone of Lady K’abal Xook.

The text on Bone 1 (a provisional designation, by the way) looks to have two segments. One is a name-tag based on the interesting term u baakel bahlam, “her jaguar bone…,” with he name of the owner, Lady K’abal Xook, continuing to glyph B1 on the obverse side. Glyphs B2 and B3, larger in size than the others, seem to stand apart as a separate name. This is familiar from a number of other texts as Aj K’ahk’ O’ Chahk, an important royal patron deity of Yaxchilan. The small head atop Bone 1 does indeed resemble as aspect of Chahk, the storm god, with a possible pointed diadem and and rope pectoral.

Aj K’ahk’ O’ Chahk was a local deity, named and depicted only at Yaxchilan and environs. I suspect he was the principle patron of the royal throne of Yaxchilan, not unlike GI was for Palenque, given his central role in the rhetoric of royal accession at the site (as on Lintel 25 and 35, among others). The first part of his name, Aj K’ahk’,  means “He of Fire,” although this title doesn’t always seem to be present. The core portion of the name simply seems to be O’ Chahk (and, no, there is no evidence he was Irish). O’ is the name of a raptorial bird whose image appears in the glyphs as the head sign with the values o (a syllable) or O’ (a logogram); this head sign is usually simply abbreviated as the spotted feather, so that in these deity names we seem to have the sequence O’-CHAHK-(ki) (see Figure 2a and 2b, below).  The O’ Chahk name corresponds to the headdress worn by Yaxchilan’s rulers during important dedication ceremonies, as shown in Figure 2a. Here the o’ bird is stacked atop the head of Chahk, essentially replicating the hieroglyphic name O’-CHAHK in iconographic form.

O Chahk
Figure 2. (a) The deity O’ Chahk as a headdress, from La Pasadita, Lintel 1. (b) the name Aj K’ahk’ O’ Chahk from Yaxchilan, Lintel 25, (c) The name O’ Chahk from Yaxchilan, Lintel 35. (Drawings by Ian Graham)

Bone 2 references a different god named Took’al Ajaw, “Flint-knife Lord,” who thus far has gone unrecognized. The inscribed statement is a bit more direct about the identity of the object, saying that “Took’al Ajaw is her offering bone.” Atop the bone we see a god resembling the so-called “Jaguar God of the Underworld,” with a long beard-like feature as well as a pointed, animated flint knife for a forehead — hence his name.  This deity is also of local importance at Yaxchilan. Several portraits of him can be fount at the tops of stelae that depict consecration rites on important Period Endings and anniversaries, where he is always shown above a sky band and in-between ancestral portraits of the rulers mother and father (Figure 3). Otherwise we know little about him, or his connection to other members of the local pantheon.

Figure 3. The top fragment of Stela 4 from Yaxchilan (front), showing the parents of Bird Jaguar IV as the sun and the moon. Took'al Ajaw, with his flint headdress, appears between them as another  celestial deity. (Photograph by Teobert Maler)
Figure 3. The top fragment of Stela 4 from Yaxchilan (front), showing the parents of Shield Jaguar II as the sun and the moon. Took’al Ajaw, with his flint headdress, appears between them as another celestial deity. (Photograph by Teobert Maler)

It seems that Structure 23 was the formal “house” of Ix K’abal Xook, with Tomb 2 her likely burial place (See Plank 2004:35-54). Several other bones bearing her name were found in the tomb, including one very elaborate mayij baak named for another deity named Bolon Kalneel Chahk. He was evidently another aspect of the storm god who was important in local rituals and political symbolism.

What were these small objects used for, then? It is difficult to say for sure, and the texts on them are not as explicit on this point as we would like them to be. The job of these glyphs was more to identify the owner (Ix K’abal Xook) and the deity depicted. If allowed to speculate, I wonder if such pointed bones might themselves have been used as elaborate figural “labels,” inserted into incense or food offerings (mayij) or some other substance as a way of attributing or directing them to different gods. There is no way to prove such a function, but it might be a useful avenue to ponder and explore further. At any rate, I hope to revisit these issues in a future post, looking at other examples and varieties of inscribed bone artifacts.


Martin, Simon. 2012. Hieroglyphs from the Painted Pyramid: The Epigraphy of Chiik Nahb Structure Sub 1-4, Calakmul, Mexico. In Maya Archaeology 2, pp. 60-81. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press.

Mathews, Peter Lawrence. 1997. La Escultura de Yaxchilan. INAH, México, D.F.

Perez Campa, Mario. 1990. La vida en Yaxchilan. In La exposición de la civilización maya, pp. 149-154. Mainichi Shinbunsha, Tokyo, Japan.

Plank, Shannon E. 2004. Maya Dwellings in Hieroglyphs and Archaeology: An Integrative Approach to Ancient Architecture and Spatial Cognition. BAR International  Series 1324, Oxford, England.

New Book: Maya Archaeology 2

Maya Archaeology 2, edited by Charles Golden, Stephen Houston and Joel Skidmore. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.


Precolumbia Mesoweb Press has just published Maya Archaeology 2, a beautifully illustrated volume with important contributions on the archaeology and epigraphy of Calakmul and Palenque. Authors of the included reports and articles are Ramón Carrasco Vargas, María Cordeiro Baqueiro, Simon Martin, Arnoldo González Cruz, Guillermo Bernal Romero, and David Stuart. The book will be available May 2013, and order information is now available here through the Mesoweb website.

Sihyaj K’ahk’ at La Sufricaya?

by Bruce Love

At the European Maya Conference in Copenhagen in 2011, I sat in for a time in Sven Gronemeyer’s and Dmitiri Beliaev’s workshop “From Ochk’in Kaloomte to Dzuloob: Mesoamerica in the Maya World.” This workshop reviewed a number of so-called entrada events that occurred in the Maya lowlands over time, of which the most famous is probably that of Sihyaj K’ahk’ arriving at Tikal in A.D. 378 (Proskouriakoff 1993:4-10; Stuart 2000). In the sourcebook for the workshop, several examples of Sihyaj K’ahk’s name glyph were shown from a number of sites including El Peru, Tikal, Uaxactun, Rio Azul and others.

The question arose whether his name also appears on Stela 6 at La Sufricaya (Figure 1). The drawing of Stela 6 in the workbook comes from Grube’s study of the monuments of La Sufricaya (Grube 2003:700) in which he suggests the possibility that Sihyaj K’ahk’s name glyph appears at position D3. Although the drawing leaves some doubt as to the identification of the glyphs in question, the context is indeed suggestive. The Long Count date (8.17.?.9.9) seems roughly contemporaneous with Sihyaj K’ahk’s entrada to Petén (ibid., 700) and there are published artifacts and murals at the site in Teotihuacan style (Estrada-Belli 2009)(Note 1). In fact, Mural 7 from La Sufricaya marks the arrival of Sihyaj K’ahk’ to Tikal (although his personal name is absent) and appears to mark the one-year anniversary of that event (ibid.:238-243) (Figure 2).

Figure 1. La Sufricaya, Stela 6. Photograph by Bruce Love.
Figure 2. Mural 7 from La Sufricaya, a painted text recording the arrival of Sihyaj K’ahk’ to Tikal in 378, and the dedication of a building on that day’s one year anniversary. Drawing by Heather Hurst.

In order to clarify the presence or absence of Sihyaj K’ahk’s name glyph, I asked Francisco Estrada-Belli, director of the Holmul Archaeological Project (of which La Sufricaya is an integral part), if I could photograph and draw Stela 6. As a result, on May 7, 2012, I photographed the stela, took detail shots of the glyphs with various light angles, and later made a drawing of the purported name glyph based on the photographs. The monument itself is currently housed in the IDAEH bodega in Melchor de Mencos, Petén.

The face of the monument is highly eroded as Figure 1 shows. The glyph in question is at D3.

In addition to the portrait photograph shown in Figure 1, several close-ups with different light angles were taken to record details. A selected close-up of D3, the one with the most information in my opinion, is shown in Figure 3 accompanied by a drawing of the same.

FIgure 3. Detail and drawing of glyph D3 on Stela 6. (Both by Bruce Love)

Although Sihyaj K’ahk’ is mentioned indirectly in the Mural 7 text, and (2) the Long Count date on the monument seems within the time period of his activities, and a number of monuments at sites in Petén do record the entrada event, I believe that Stela 6 does not. The results of this study indicate that the glyph in question fails to show any clear characteristics of Sihyaj K’ahk’s name.

Note 1. The tun and winal glyphs, not visible on the face of Stela 6, were found on a fragment that had separated from the main body of the monument.

Appreciation: I thank Sven Gronemeyer and Dmitri Beliaev for their workshop and the use of their workbook “From Ochk’in Kaloomte to Dzuloob: Mesoamerica in the Maya World,” 16th European Maya Conference, Copenhagen, 2011; and special thanks to Francisco Estrada-Belli for access to the monuments, for suggestions to improve this note, and encouragement to write these results.

References Cited

Estrada-Belli, Francisco, Alexandre Tokovinine, Jennifer Foley, Heather Hurst, Gene Ware, David Stuart, and Nikolai Grube. 2009. A Maya Palace at Holmul, Peten, Guatemala and the Teotihuacan ‘Entrada’: Evidence from Murals 7 and 9. Latin American Antiquity 20(1):228-259.

Grube, Nikolai. 2003. Monumentos jeroglíficos de Holmul, Petén, Guatemala. In XVI Simposio de Investigaciones de Arqueología de Guatemala, edited by Laporte, J. P., B. Arroyo, H. Escobedo, H. Mejía, pp. 701-710. Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala.

Proskouriakoff, Tatiana. 1993. Maya History. University of Texas Press, Austin

Stuart, David. 2000. The “Arrival of Strangers”: Teotihuacan and Tollan in Classic Maya History. In Mesoamerica’s Classic Heritage: From Teotihuacan to the Aztecs, ed. by D. Carrasco, L. Jones, and S. Sessions, pp. 465-514. University Press of Colorado, Boulder.

The Temple XX Tomb

by David Stuart

Last year I posted this blog entry on Maya Decipherment concerning the tomb recently opened in Temple XX at Palenque. It’s worth revisiting now in the wake of INAH’s recent announcement of the conservation efforts now going on in the chamber.

Figure 1. View of the Temple XX tomb chamber. INAH photo.

Some sources speculate that the tomb may be that of the dynastic founder, K’uk’ B’ahlam who reigned from 431-435 AD. But this timeframe is probably far too early for the tomb.  As mentioned in the earlier blog entry and also as summarized in our 2008 book, Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya, it more likely dates to the 6th century:

Recent investiagations near the Cross Group have revealed another significant early tomb, as well as a significant archaeological puzzle. Temple XX is located at the southern end of the Cross Group, next to Temple XIX. Approaching the pyramid, it looks to be an imposing structure, but excavations since 1999 have shown that the base is actually a masonry veneer on a small hillock of bedrock. As archaeologists Alfonso Morales Cleveland and Rudy Larrios Villalta have shown, the structure was modified over many years, and the earliest phase seems to date from the first part of the sixth century. After this initial construction later builders demolished part of the upper temple in order to construct a vaulted tomb beneath. The crypt has not yet been entered as of this writing (in 2006), but photographs taken by a camera inserted within the chamber show red-line paintings of nine figures in an unusual style, jade objects, and pottery that looks to be fairly early (Cascada phase), possibly from the sixth century. Its size and elaboration suggests that the Temple XX tomb is a royal burial, but no clues exist to the identity of its occupant. Interestingly, a preliminary assessment of the painted figures indicates that they are portraits of royal ancestors, including Ahkal Mo’s Nahb and Kan Bahlam. If this is the case, then the Temple XX tomb must date to after Kan Bahlam’s death in 583. Could it be the tomb of Ix Yohl Ik’nal, as Merle Greene Robertson has tentatively suggested? Once the tomb is opened, the ceramics within can help greatly to confirm or deny this preliminary dating of the chamber.

Temple XX remained an important building for many years, and intriguingly its final remodeling at the end of the city’s occupation may never have been finished. When archaeologists first began investigating the pyramid, they were greatly confused by the lack of any masonry veneer and terracing on its front and sides; it was an ancient construction site interrupted in mid-project.

The above quotation from Stuart and Stuart (2008:140).

Figure 2. Photograph of standing figure with Kan Bahlam (Snake Jaguar) in headdress, possibly naming the early Palenque ruler who reigned until 583 AD. INAH photo.

Source Cited:

Stuart, David and George Stuart. 2008. Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya. Thames and Hudson, London.