Xultun Number A and the 819-Day Count

by Barbara MacLeod and Hutch Kinsman

Within a few hours of the publication in the 11 May, 2012 issue of Science of “Ancient Maya Astronomical Tables from Xultun, Guatemala”, by William Saturno, David Stuart, Anthony Aveni and Franco Rossi, Hutch Kinsman contacted colleagues who regularly correspond by email, pointing out that Number A—1,195,740—is evenly divisible by 819. It is the only one of the four which contains this factor. He also noted that the coefficient of the tzolk’in day at the top of the column is 1. Since all tzolk’in dates which are stations in the 819-Day Count have a coefficient of 1, this was further evidence that the purpose of the interval was to commensurate the 819 (2.4.19)-Day Count with the Calendar Round.

Figure 1. Number array from north wall, Structure 10K-2, Xultun, Guatemala. (Preliminary drawing by David Stuart)

For anyone not familiar with this cycle, 819 is the product of 7, 13, and 9—numbers of ritual and calendric significance to the Maya. Following the Initial Series, the count appears as a short distance number leading to the previous station–one of four which are 819 days apart. These are associated with the cardinal directions and their corresponding colors. A verb meaning ‘stand still’ or ‘stop’ appears along with several regular protagonists. Yaxchilan and Palenque are noteworthy in having multiple monuments featuring the 819-Day Count. J. Eric S. Thompson (1950:214) and his contemporaries offered early suggestions about its purpose. Heinrich Berlin and David Kelley (1961) first described the structural similarity between the Dresden New Year pages and the color/direction symbolism of the 819-Day Count. Given the formula [4 x 819] = [9 x 364] one may add nine days to the latter to complete nine haabs. Michael Grofe (personal communication, May, 2012) suggests that it is an idealized system for tracking the sidereal position of eclipses.

Figure 2. Example of 819-day count record from Yaxchilan, Lintel 30. (Drawing by Ian Graham)

The interval of Xultun Number A—1,195,740 days– is [63 x 18,980] and [4 x 819 x 365]. It is also [9 x 365 x 364], which brings to mind the [9 x 364] = [4 x 819] formula mentioned above. The unit of 364 days is the Maya “computing year” discussed by Thompson (1950:256). The interval of Xultun Number A is also the smallest unit which commensurates the 819-Day Count with the Calendar Round.

Thompson (cited above) wrote: “as only once in every 63 times will a day with a coefficient of 1 also mark the start of the 819-day cycle, the fact that this first day before ( 4 Ajaw 8 Cumku is a base in the 819-day cycle argues strongly for that count’s being primarily ritualistic”.

The day 1 Kaban before the Era Base 4 Ajaw 8 Kumk’u, per a discussion Carl Callaway and Barbara MacLeod had several years ago, is an 819-Day Count station in the east quadrant—the quadrant in which, for several reasons, we concluded that the count should begin. From this datum, counts both forward and back might reach other stations in the cycle; thus the pre-era date 1 Kaban 5 Kumk’u need not be the earliest documented station. The earliest station known, 1 Chikchan 18 Ch’en, recorded on the Palenque Temple XIX bench, is therefore not the base date but rather a distant-past station reached from it.

At the 1974 Segunda Mesa Redonda de Palenque, Floyd Lounsbury presented a meticulous analysis of the pre-era initial date of the Tablet of the Cross at Palenque. This paper is well worth reading and is available on Mesoweb:


Per Lounsbury’s work, the Palenque interval is 1,359,540 days, or [4 x 819 x 415]. While it is not an even multiple of the 18,980-day Calendar Round, it is [5229 x 260] and [1734 x 780] and [3735 x 364]. It demonstrates the application to dynastic mythological narrative of large multiples of [4 x 819] by Maya scribes in deep-time calculations.

Saturno et. al. note that the tzolk’in day at the top of Column A is either 1 Kawak or 1 Kaban. We suggest that it is 1 Kaban—the tzolk’in position of the base date of the 819-Day Count. This in turn sheds light on the function of the other three tzolk’in dates. We tentatively suggest that the 9 K’an date atop Column B is that of the Dresden Codex Serpent Base 9 K’an 12 K’ayab. More will be said about the other three numbers in the near future.

References Cited

Berlin, Heinrich, and David H. Kelley. 1961. The 819-day Count and Color-direction Symbolism among the Classic Maya. Middle American Research Institute Publication 26.

Lounsbury, Floyd G. 1976 A Rationale for the Initial Date of the Temple of the Cross at Palenque. Second Palenque Roundtable, 1974. The Art, Iconography & Dynastic History of Palenque, Part III, edited by Merle Greene Robertson. Pebble Beach, California: Pre-Columbian Art Research, The Robert Louis Stevenson School.

Saturno, William, David Stuart, Anthony Aveni and Franco Rossi. 2012. Ancient Maya Astronomical Tables from Xultun, Guatemala. Science 336, 714.

Thompson, J. Eric S. 1950. Maya Hieroglyphic Writing: An Introduction. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Xultun’s Astronomical Tables

Our article has just published in the latest issue of Science (Vol. 336 no. 6082 pp. 714-717), co-authored by  William Saturno, David Stuart, Anthony Aveni and Franco Rossi.

Article Abstract

Maya astronomical tables are recognized in bark-paper books from the Late Postclassic period (1300 to 1521 C.E.), but Classic period (200 to 900 C.E.) precursors have not been found. In 2011, a small painted room was excavated at the extensive ancient Maya ruins of Xultun, Guatemala, dating to the early 9th century C.E. The walls and ceiling of the room are painted with several human figures. Two walls also display a large number of delicate black, red, and incised hieroglyphs. Many of these hieroglyphs are calendrical in nature and relate astronomical computations, including at least two tables concerning the movement of the Moon, and perhaps Mars and Venus. These apparently represent early astronomical tables and may shed light on the later books.

Full article can be accessed here

UPDATE: Mesoweb has posted a nice summary of the find and of our epigraphic work (click here). Thanks Marc and Joel.

Number table from the north wall of Structure 10K-2 at Xultun, Guatemala. (Preliminary drawing by D. Stuart)

Palenque’s Tomb “News”

A painted ancestor, perhaps Kan Bahlam, from the Temple XX tomb. Drawing by M. G. Robertson.
Many of the recent headlines about a new tomb discovery at Palenque are a bit misleading, to say the least. The painted tomb within Temple XX was first found and remotely photographed in 1999 by the PARI Proyecto de las Cruces Project, led by the late great Merle Greene Robertson. The recent small press frenzy was prompted by an post from INAH Noticias announcing the lowering of a video camera into the sealed chamber.

It will be very interesting to learn more about the tomb’s contents and occupant once the chamber is opened and carefully documented (that occasion will be newsworthy). As I mention in our book Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya, there’s some circumstantial evidence that it dates to the middle years of the dynastic history, not quite so early as some have said. I believe Merle also thought such date a date, in the sixth century, was also most likely. The painted figures on the walls of the tomb are in a very curious and unusual style, but iconographically they are very similar to the ancestors depicted in stucco relief in the far more famous tomb of K’inich Janab Pakal.

A few on-line resources on the Temple XX tomb, long available:

Mesoweb’s reports on Temple XX tomb

Explorer’s Club report by Merle Greene Robertson, 2004

Mesoweb report on Temple XX architecture by Rudy Larios

Archaeology Magazine’s article on PARI work at Palenque

Notes on a Painted Text from Palenque

Among the many buildings and chambers of Palenque’s Palace is House B, facing the Northeast Court and located, as one might expect, between Houses A and C. The well-preserved structure was built sometime in the early reign of K’inich Janab Pakal, although no written dedication date survives. In fact, the only hieroglyphic text we know from House B is painted on the back wall of one of its rear room, evidently a name caption that accompanied an elaborate stucco relief now largely destroyed. In the late 18th century this scene was still intact, recorded by the artist Armendáriz who accompanied the 1787 expedition to Palenque led by Antonio del Río. His drawing is reproduced here (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Armendáriz

The painted text (Figure 2, below) was not included in Armendáriz’s drawing, but it today survives near the upper right portion of the now-missing scene, just above the seated figure to the right of the central “T” window. The glyphs were photographed and drawn by Merle Greene Robertson (1985:Fig. 170-1); here I include a new drawing based on her photograph that reveals a number of key details that help in its decipherment, and which bring up one very interesting epigraphic detail.

Figure 2. The House B text (Sketch by David Stuart)

The text is a name phrase, although it’s difficult to know who it refers to in Palenque’s known history. Here’s my tentative analysis and translation of it, to be discussed in some detail below:

ha-ta / i-tz’i-WINIK / ch’o-ko / AJ-pi-tzi-la? / OHL-la / 7-“BEN”?
ha’at itz’in winik ch’ok aj pitzl(al) ohl Wuk “Ben”
“You, younger brother, the ??, Seven Ben(?)…”

Let’s first look first at the final three or so glyphs. The fourth and fifth block (AJ-pi-tzi-la? / OHL-la) clearly show a title or name found elsewhere in Palenque’s texts. Aj pitzlal ohl is found in the Cross Group and elsewhere, for example, as a common reference to K’inich Kan Bahlam, to eldest son of K’inich Janab Pakal. The full phrase is difficult to translate — “ballplayer” (aj pitz) is surely inadequate — but it does incorporate two known roots: pitz, “to play ball” and ohl, “heart, center.” However one translates the full phrase, aj pitzlal ohl is known to be a pre-accession name for K’inich Kan Bahlam, and was also used by the later K’inich K’uk’ Bahlam (see the Tablet of the 96 Glyphs).

The final discernable glyph of the caption looks to be a day sign “Ben” with a 7 number prefix. Here I doubt “7 Ben” functions as a date, for it’s location suggests it work as a calendar name in reference to some historical individual. In other Palenque inscriptions we find a similar use of such 260-day records as names, as with the sculptor named “5 Kan” mentioned on the so called “Death’s Head” from the Cross Group, and the lord named “4 Ahaw” who is portrayed on the bench platform of Temple XIX. Here I take 7 Ben — if that’s what the glyph is — to be a reference to the individual named also by the aj pitzlal ohl title.

Near the front of the name phrase, in the first and second blocks, we find a much clearer and readable title for this person: itz’i(n) winik ch’ok, “younger brother youth” (see Stuart 1997). This points to the obvious conclusion that the subject of this caption is some junior sibling, but just who’s brother is he? We can’t know for sure. In Palenque’s texts we find the same term applied to the ruler K’inich K’an Joy Chitam, the younger brother of K’inich Kan Bahlam. These glyphs look to be early in style, possibly contemporaneous with the architecture of House B, dating to the mid-seventh century, during the reign of their father. “7 Ben,” if a personal name, seems an unlikely designation for Pakal’s younger son, so might it be the younger brother of Pakal? Not being sure of the generation of the subject, his historical identity remains unclear.

Leaving the speculation aside, we still need to address the very first part of the initial glyph, a sequence that looks to be ha-ta. This is perhaps a previously unrecognized spelling of the 2nd person independent pronoun ha’at, “you,” known from at least a few other inscriptions at other sites (Figure 3). One of the more interesting aspects of the decipherment during the last two decades has been the identification of similar first- and second-person pronouns in numerous inscriptions, like “my,” “you,” “we” and so on (see Stuart 1993; Hull, Carrasco and Wald, 2009). The Palenque example is, I suggest, another case, incorporating a form a address to an otherwise conventional-looking name caption: “You, younger brother, the ??, 7 Ben (?)…”

Figure 3. Two possible examples of the pronoun ha'-at. From Copan, St. 49 (left) and the 'Birth Vase' (right; see Taube 1994)

Considering the possible presence of the unusual pronoun, it might prove useful to review that there are two basic types of pronoun classes attested in the glyphs — and known in Mayan languages — known as the “ergative” and “absolutive” sets. Ergative pronouns are prefixes that mark possession on nouns and also the subjects of transitive verbs. The most common ergative prefix in the hieroglyphic script is the third-person u- or (u)y- (pre-vocalic), but there are others. We have attested thus far:

1st person singular: ni- / w-V
2nd person singular: a- / aw-V
3rd person singular: u- / y-V
1st person plural: ka- / k-V-
2nd person plural: unattested (reconstructed in proto-Ch’olan as *i- / *iw-V by Kaufman and Norman)
3rd person plural: u-…(-oob) / y-V…(-oob)

Absolutive pronouns work differently, as suffixes that specify the subjects of intransitive verbs or else the subjects of stative statements when attached to nouns or verbs. These are also known from the Classic inscriptions, if a bit incompletely:

1st person singular: -een
2nd person singular: -at ~ -et
3rd person singular: -ø
1st person plural: -o’n(?)
2nd person plural: unattested (-ex? ~ -ox?)
3rd person plural: -oob

These absolutive suffixes can in turn appear with the demonstrative particle ha’- to make a class of demonstrative or independent pronoun (ex. ha’-at, “[it is] you here”). These include some irregular forms, but the relationship is clear:

1st person singular: hiin(?) < *ha’-in(?)
2nd person singular: ha’-at
3rd person singular: ha’-i ~ haa’-ø
1st person plural: unattested (ha’o’n)
2nd person plural: unattested (ha’ex)
3rd person plural: ha’-oob

So, returning to our Palenque text, we may have a possible second person independent pronoun in an unusual context, introducing a name caption. If this is the case, one question becomes: just who is addressing the younger brother? Who is saying “you”? Perhaps one of the standing figures in the scene? Or, in an odd discursive twist, could it be the viewer of the artwork? Such questions often come into play when assessing the voices behind such obscure, non-third person texts, especially when they are incomplete or lacking context.

Another vexing issue, of course, centers on the historical identity of the mysterious “younger brother,” and whether he lived in Pakal’s generation or the next.


Hull, Kerry, Michael Carrasco, and Robert Wald. 2009. The First-Person Singular Independent Pronoun in Classic Ch’olan. Mexicon, vol. XXXI, no. 2, pp. 36-43.

Robertson, Merle Greene. 1985. The Sculpture of Palenque: Volume II. The Early Buildings of the Palace and the Wall Paintings. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Stuart, David. 1993. Breaking the Code: Rabbit Story. In Lost Kingdoms of the Maya, by G. Stuart and G Stuart, pp. 170-1. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society.

_________. 1997. Kinship Terms in Maya Inscriptions. In The Language of Maya Hieroglyphs, ed. by M. J. Macri and A. Ford, pp. 1-11. San Francisco: Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute.

Taube, Karl A. 1994. The Birth Vase: Natal Imagery in Ancient Maya Myth and Ritual. In The Maya Vase Book, Volume 4, pp. 650-685 New York: Kerr Associates.

Let Thy Glyphs be Few: Abbreviations in Maya Writing

by Stephen Houston and Simon Martin

“Let thy words be few,” says the Bible.  Yet concision is not a description that ordinarily applies to Maya texts.  Some inscriptions preserve the lush cadence and structure of formal orations. A few stretch across a dozen columns or more. But, undeniably, many Maya inscriptions are terse.  This feature arises from several things: a reliance on set formulae that communicate little more than essential information (date, event, “arguments” in the linguistic sense); restrictive formats that are inhospitable to prolix writing; the role of ancillary images in fleshing out a story, especially in descriptive detail; and the basic, innate challenge of being too prosy in bas-relief carving.

Terse texts can also be understood as ways to achieve “textual completeness,” i.e., the state resulting from the question, “what information is necessary and sufficient in this particular text?” What set of words in sequence is neither too much nor too little, in this place, at this time?  Someone had to make that deliberation as part of the compositional process. If textual economy were a consideration, there might be a further impulse to shorten the text. For clarity, however, the compositor might still signal the presence of a particular element by the expedient of abbreviation. By this orthographic alchemy, a word or sound is removed yet its presence implied.  A vacancy exists that the compositor asks the reader to fill.

English is full of abbreviations.  Presumably, these helped save expense at the typesetters or, in the yet more remote past, reduced copy-time for scriveners and economized on expensive materials like vellum. Thus, in English, a university might record “A.M.” for the degree of artium magister, and more formal writing would employ “et al.” (et alii, “and others”) or “e.g.” (exempla gratia, “for the sake of an example”).  Such abbreviations serve as sociolinguistic gates, at multiple levels. The reader must decode the notations by connecting them to words and meanings in fuller form. Ideally, in a fine display of erudition, that act would link one language, Latin, to another, English. In point of fact, few readers today would recognize the ablative case or masculine plural in Latin. The terms have become word- or idea-signs that launch directly into English.  But they still convey a surface gloss of more refined knowledge.

An ongoing debate in Maya glyph studies is the extent to which there were “underspellings” in the writing system. These would be examples where the compositors could not be bothered to add a final consonant or to include a certain pronoun or verbal suffix.  Such underspellings certainly existed—the variable presence of the ergative U in Glyph F is a case in point—but another essay would be needed to address whether they were rampant or systematic.  Interestingly, they are most common in personal names—in many cases surely because their local recognition factor was high, although this could not be true where foreigners were concerned.

What interests us here is an example of abbreviation that appears to date to the final years of the Late Classic period (c. AD 769 to 799).  This is an underspelling at the level of an inflected word.  It elides a pronoun and focuses on a relatively late homophone or near-homophone, the terms for “4” (kan/chan), “sky” (ka’n/cha’n), and “snake” (kaan/chaan) (Houston 1993; Robertson et al.  2007:43, 44) (Endnote 1). The context is the still-enigmatic “captor/guardian/master” expression that specifies a relationship between a captive and a captor. In two cases, it identifies a person looking after a royal youth, rather like our terms, “governor” and its female equivalent, “governess” (Dos Pilas Panel 19, and, on K7055, with a woman).

There are several examples of this abbreviation. The favored form always uses “4” or, in one case, ‘SKY’ in place of U-‘SNAKE’. To put this another way, the marked, more unusual forms (‘4’ and ‘SKY’) occur in these shortened spellings, not the older, more established glyph (‘SNAKE’). One kind of marking, for near-homophones, lends itself to another kind of marking, for abbreviation:

1) Tonina Monument 159 (F5) gives ‘4’-AJ-chi-hi, the name of a person from Pomoy who was captured on 2 Muluk 12 Ch’en (Julian July 13, AD 789). The name recurs on Tonina Monument 152 at A1-A2 as ‘SKY’-na-AJ chi-hi and in an unabbreviated spelling on Tonina Monument 20 at E8-F1 of U-‘SKY’-na AJ-chi-*hi (Figure 1). These forms make it clear that the captive was himself the captor of another figure known as Aj Chih.  Monument 159 itself dates to AD 799, Monument 20 to AD 790 (Monument 152 is undated).  See discussion in Martin and Grube (2008:188-189) (Endnote 2).

Fig. 1. Captor of Aj Chih from TNA Mons. 159, 152, and 20 (photograph by Stephen Houston, inkings by I. Graham and L. Henderson, Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project, Harvard Univ.).

2) An unprovenanced panel from the kingdom of Yaxchilan (at A4) gives ’4’-TAJ-MO’ (Stuart and Houston 1994:Fig.89). This text is dated to 1 Kawak 2 Wo (Julian Feb. 18, AD 769), although the date of carving may well be rather later. The same form is also found on El Kinel Monument 1 at A6 with ‘4’-TAJ-MO’ (Golden and Scherer 2006:fig. 13), this time placed to, Julian Oct. 7, AD 790 (the same date as Tonina Monument 20). Both refer to Shield Jaguar IV’s most notable captive Tajal Mo’, and can be contrasted with several texts at Yaxchilan and Bonampak where the name is rendered with the ergative pronoun—illustrated here by a fragment of Yaxchilan Stela 29 (Mathews 1997:Fig.7-12) (Figure 2).

Fig. 2. Captor of Tajal Mo’ on an unprovenanced panel, El Kinel Mon. 1 (drawings by S. Houston), and Yaxchilan St. 29 (drawing by P. Mathews).

3) Room 2, Bonampak, in a building dated to AD 791, Captions RM II-23, 26, 30; cf. a fuller version on a shield RM II-13 (Figure 3).  These can now be seen as abbreviated versions of “captor” expressions, as in the example of RM II-30, *U-‘4’ BAAH-AJAW. Most occur in Room 2 of the Murals Building, the chamber dedicated to martial exploits.

Fig. 3. Captions from Bonampak Structure 1 (Murals Building), II-13, 23, 30. (Infrared images by S. Houston and G. Ware, painting by H. Hurst after sketch by S. Houston, Bonampak Documentation Project, M. Miller, Director, Yale Univ.).

What is striking about this set of abbreviations, all seemingly restricted to displays of relations to captives, is their narrow chronology. Aside from the outlier on the unprovenanced panel from the area of Yaxchilan, all date to within a little more than a 10-year span.  For unknown reasons, the Maya sought concision in these cases, at this time, and let their glyphs be few.


Endnote 1. In an unpublished paper, still in progress, Daniel Law and others (n.d.) propose from glyphic and linguistic evidence that the shift from the velar stops k/k’ to the affricates ch/ch’ was fairly late, an areal diffusion rather than a shared inheritance. A more established model places the shift at the inception of “Greater Tzeltalan,” presumably many centuries prior to the Classic period (Kaufman and Norman 1984:83).

Endnote 2. David Stuart (personal communication, 2010) suggests that a similar construction with ‘4’ may occur at Tonina: ‘4’-ma-su, with a captive, perhaps from La Mar (Monument 72:A2 and Monument 84:G1, CMHI 6:114).  The agentive AJ, rabbit-head of the pe? sign, and the ‘e are quite clear in both spellings, although the TUUN is missing, likely because of breakage in the inscriptions. Monument 91 at Tonina also records a conflict with La Mar, in this case against a higher-ranking lord of the site, one NICH-TE’-MO’ (CMHI 6:119). Monuments 72 and 84 are probably from c. AD 700, decades prior to the other examples cited here.  Monument 91 is not securely dated.


Golden, Charles, and Andrew K. Scherer. 2006. Border Problems: Recent Archaeological Research along the Usumacinta River. The PARI Journal 7(2):1-16.

Houston, Stephen. 1984. An Example of Homophony in Mayan Script.  American Antiquity 49(4):790-805.

Kaufman, Terrence S., and William M. Norman. 1984 An Outline of Proto-Cholan Phonology, Morphology, and Vocabulary. In John S. Justeson and Lyle Campbell, eds., Phoneticism in Mayan Hieroglyphic Writing, 77-166. Publication No. 9. Albany: Institution for Mesoamerican Studies, State University of New York at Albany.

Law, Daniel, John Robertson, Stephen Houston, David Stuart, and Marc Zender. N.d. Drift, Diffusion, or Genetic Inheritance? The Notorious Case of Velar Palatalization and Fronting in Certain Mayan Languages.  Unpublished ms. in revision.

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2008. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. 2nd ed. Thames and Hudson, London.

Mathews, Peter. 1997. La escultura de Yaxchilán. Colección Cientifica 316. México City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.

Robertson, John S., Stephen D. 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/

Stuart, David, and Stephen Houston. 1994. Classic Maya Place Names. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology 33. Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.