A New Variant of the Syllable k’o in Maya Writing

by David Stuart (The University of Texas at Austin)

Figure 1. A new variant of the k’o syllable

This brief note presents evidence for the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphic sign syllable k’o in Maya hieroglyphic writing (Figure 1). While not a common element of the script, it has enough appearances and varied contexts to allow for a number of significant new textual readings and understandings, some of them touched upon here. Seeing this sign as a CV syllable represents a change of heart in my own thinking regarding the sign’s function, which earlier I had assumed to be a logogram of unknown value (Stuart 2012). Its syllabic function now seems clear however, based on substitution patterns and in light of the discovery of Altar 5 from La Corona, where it appears in a previously unknown verb spelling that strongly indicates a k’o value (Stuart, Canuto, Barrientos and Gonzalez 2018).

First a word on the sign’s graphic form. At first glance it appears to be composed of two elements and in fact Thompson, in his well-known sign catalog (1963), designated its components as two separate signs: T174:530. However, from its varied contexts it is clear that that it is a single element whose form varies little of the course of several centuries. The sign appears in both Early and Late Classic contexts, and as far as I am aware it does not appear in the codices. Its graphic or iconic origin is difficult to discern, but it seems to reflect a “stony” substance, given the common “cauac” markings on both lower and upper part. It is important to distinguish the sign under consideration from the similar combination of T174:528, where the lower part is the standard “cauac.” The upper element (T174) appears in a variety of other signs, including the logogram SIBIK (“ink, soot, charcoal”) proposed long ago by Nikolai Grube, and in the sign representing ink within a shell inkpot, possibly the syllable t’o (Zender 2004:260).

Figure 2. The “fist” variant of k’o. (a) stand alone example, (b) in a spelling of the name a-po-k’o chi-hi (Aj Pok’ Chih), K5722, (drawing by D. Stuart) (c) in yo-k’o-lo, Copan, Str. 9N-82 bench (drawing by B. Fash) (d) in the name YAX-k’o-jo a-AHK (Yax K’oj Ahk), Chancala-area panel (Drawing by C. Prager)

The sign in question is not the first k’o syllable identified in Maya writing. Another k’o representing a closed hand or fist was proposed a number of years ago by Linda Schele (Figure 2a). Her reasoning was based on the sign’s appearance with -jo in contexts that suggested the reading k’oj, “mask,” including the spelling of the personal name YAX-k’o-jo a-ku, Yax K’oj Ahk, which I would translate as “Green Mask Turtle” (Schele 1992:122-123) (Figure 3c) (Schele at the time advocated for a mythical role of this name, whereas I prefer to see it as a historical personage, associated with the court near Chancala, Chiapas). Her identification of the fist variant of k’o came to be widely accepted, especially in light of its consistent appearance with other Co value signs (Figure 2b-d). This sign is perhaps best known in the spellings k’o-ba or k’o-jo-ba that appear as part of the so-called “era expression,” a standardized sequence of terms usually associated with the supposed start date of the Long Count, 4 Ahau 8 Cumku (Figure 3).  There has long been a temptation to see these pointing to the root k’ob found in the Yucatecan word for “hearth,” k’óoben, but such an analysis seems unlikely, as it is cognate to an original root k’uub found in Eastern Mayan languages (see Kaufman and Justeson 2003: 438). As we will see, its range of contexts and the occasional inclusion of jo suggest a more likely connection to the root k’oj or k’oh and related words for “mask, image,” as in the spellings first noted by Schele. 

Figure 3. The “fist” k’o syllable in possible spellings of k’o(h)ob or k’ojob, “mask, image”. (a) Quirigua, St. C, (b) Copan, CPN 19469. (Drawings by D. Stuart)

As shown in Figure 4a below, this hand variant of k’o appears in a woman’s name on Tortuguero Monument 8 (Figure 4a), spelled IX-ya-na-k’o-jo, perhaps Ix Yan K’oj (the fist is oriented differently, but this is a known pattern of variation of k’o signs at nearby Palenque). In an alternate version of the name on Monument 6, the fist looks to be replaced by T174:530 (Figure 4b). These appear in parentage expressions for the  local ruler Bahlam Ajaw (see Gronemeyer 2004), so there can be little doubt they refer to his mother, as alternate spellings of the same name. In the case of Monument 6 (Figure 4b), the form of the final jo sign first identified by Houston (1988) appears more elaborate than what we usually see, with the addition small u-shaped nubbins to one side and a “ma”-like element above. I believe that these are features of the jo sign’s original and unabbreviated form. Figure 5 shows a range of jo forms over time. Working from the idea that the final element in the name on Monument 6 is jo, I then considered the possibility that T174:130 might be an alternate version of k’o.

Figure 4. Comparison of two female names at Tortuguero, both perhaps read Ix Yan K’oj. (a) Mon. 8, (b) Mon. 6. (Drawings by D. Stuart)
Figure 5. Four examples of the jo syllable arranged chronologically, showing their graphic range. (a) Tortuguero, Mon. 6, (b) Piedras Negras, Pan. 2, (c) Copan, CPN 19469 (disc altar), (d) Dresden 6b. (Drawings by D. Stuart)

A similar substitution also appears in spellings of a term found on several small stones that evidently served as censer stands or pedestals. These appear to be based on the same “image, mask” term noted above k’ojob ~ k’o(h)ob), where we see the “fist” k’o alternating with the new form under discussion here (Figure 6). The spellings are either U-k’o-ba li, possibly for u k’o(h)ob-il,”the image of…,” or the slightly more elaborated U-k’o-ba-TUUN-li, for u k’o(h)ob tuun-il, “the image-stone of…”.  This agrees with Schele’s early ideas on k’o-ba or k’o-jo-ba in other contexts. K’ojob or k’o(h)ob are based on the noun root k’oj or k’oh, “mask, image” (note Chontal k’oh-op, “mask”), and they are fitting terms of reference for these small stone pedestals carved with personal portraits. I suspect these sculptures may have served as the bases for ceramic effigies or burners. At Palenque, these inscribed censer stands assume a more elaborate form as upright, three-dimensional heads (Figure 6c), stone versions of the massive ceramic stands found throughout the Cross Group and elsewhere (Cuevas García 2008).  It seems reasonable to suppose that, at Palenque at least, a k’o(h)ob tuun is a stone version of a k’o(h)ob, an “image” or “mask” that would refer to the ceramic forms of such portraits.

Figure 6. Small “image stones,” possibly called k’o(h)ob or k’o(h)ob tuun. (a) La Joyanca disc altar (drawings by M. Forné and D. Stuart), (b) Edzna, Hieroglyphic Altar 1 (drawing and photo by C. Pallán), (c) Palenque, stone censer stand (drawing by D. Stuart, photo by L. Schele)
Figure 7. The text of Altar 5 from La Corona, with the verb k’otoy in Block 9. (Drawing by D. Stuart)

Taken together, the evidence suggests a value of k’o for the single sign T174:130, and its appearance on Altar 5 of La Corona, in a previously unknown spelling, adds what I take to be a final confirmation (Stuart, et. al. 2018) (Figure 7). This verb appears at block 9, a CVC-Vy intransitive spelled ?-to-yi, where the initial sign is T174:530. We can assume, on the basis of synharmony, that we have a verb with the shape Cot-oy, indicating that the first sign is syllabic Co. As far as I can determine there is really only one attested intransitive root in Ch’olan languages that fits this pattern: k’ot, as in Ch’orti’ k’otoy, “to arrive (there)”. What immediately follows in the second part of block 9 ought to be a place name, and it seems to be written with the skeletal head variant of BAAK before TUUN-li. I’m guessing this is a name for a place where a local lord named Chak Tok Ich’aak journeyed to celebrate the Period Ending. The narrative here is highly unusual, but it seems to fit the well-known pattern we see in later La Corona texts, where local lords are often on the move to other locales.

Figure 8. (a) Spelling of lo-k’o-yi on a vase from Uaxactun, (b) a standard logographic form LOK’-yi from Dos Pilas, HS 2 (drawing and photo by D. Stuart)

The k’o reading is further strengthened by its appearance in yet another spelling of another distinctive –Vy verb, this time on a lidded tripod excavated long ago in Burial A19 of Uaxactun (Smith 1955:fig.8j) ceramic report (Figure 8a). This looks to be lo-k’o-yi, as a fully syllabic version of the familiar verb lok’oy, “he leaves, exits,” that is otherwise spelled as a logogram despicting a snake emerging from a hole (Figure 8b). The context of the verb makes it difficult to confirm its semantic role, but the syllabic combination is nonetheless highly suggestive, lok’-oy being one of the very view possible correlates. 

Figure 9. ya-k’o-ka, y-ahk’ol, “above, on top of.” (Drawing by D. Stuart)

One common setting for this new k’o syllable is in the glyph that I had previously analyzed as a noun meaning something like “effigy,” even though its phonetic reading was then unclear (Figure 9). Its uses at Palenque, Copan and Quirigua suggested that it refers to an object that is venerated, associated with deceased rulers or patron deities — what I called a “commemorative thing.” It was in this environment that I originally supposed that T174:130 functioned as a logogram, but I was mistaken in retrospect. As Stephen Houston has pointed out to me, if we analyze this grouping of signs as ya-k’o-la, we may well have the possessed noun y-ahk’ol, which we know is a relational noun for “above” or “on top of” in lowland languages (pCh *ahk’ol, Yuk *ok’ol).  In the main inscription on Copan’s Altar Q, y-ahk’ol appears before the name of the dynastic founder, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’. Here it seems that the dedication of an object (perhaps of a K’awiil effigy?) occurred “above” the deceased king — an apt physical description of the altar’s placement before Structure 16, atop Copan’s deep architectural stratigraphy, on the general axis point of the Hunal tomb where the founder was buried. Houston and I are presently completing an article that explores the important spatial aspects of the term ahk’ol, and its archaeological implications at Copan, Quirigua and elsewhere (Stuart and Houston, n.d.).

Figure 10. The raising of the headband “atop” the Triad deities of Palenque. From the Middle Tablet of the Temple of the Inscriptions (Drawing by D. Stuart).

In the tablets of Palenque’s Temple of the Inscriptions, this same term occurs in passages pertaining to the dressing and bejeweling of the three local patron deities known as the Palenque Triad (Macri 1990). There the ya-k’o-la glyph occurs as part of a repeating phrase u k’alhu’n yahk’ol…, “(it is) the paper (headband)-raising above…,” followed by the names of the Triad gods. This would seem to be in reference to the ritual adornment of gods or god-effigies with hu’n paper-cloth, perhaps headbands or headdress streamers much like those attested in the presentation of Aztec deity images. 


This informal note provides a quick outline of the evidence behind the new k’o variant. I believe it emerges from the varied settings as a firm reading, forcing me to change my earlier thinking on the sign’s possible role as a logogram.  One question that remains is whether this k’o syllable can be reduced to T174 by itself. I suspect this may prove to be the case, but I have yet to come across a definitive example. Also, there are a few other contexts of this k’o sign at Copan, Holmul, and other sites that remain to be fully analyzed and explained, and these may await further discussion in Maya Decipherment


I thank Tomás Barrientos, Dimitri Beliaev, Marcello Canuto, Stephen Houston, Simon Martin and Marc Zender for their help in the research leading up to this note.

References Cited

Cuevas García, Martha. 2008. Los incensarios efigie de Palenque. Mexico, D.F.: UNAM and INAH.

Houston, Stephen D. 1988. The Phonetic Decipherment of Mayan Glyphs. Antiquity, 62(234), 126-135.

Gronemeyer, Sven. 2006. The Maya site of Tortuguero, Tabasco, Mexico: Its History and Inscriptions. Acta Mesoamericana vol. 17. Markt Schwaben, Germany: Verlag Anton Saurwein.

Macri, Martha. 1990. Prepositions and complementizers in the Classic Period inscriptions. In Sixth Palenque Round Table 1986, ed. by V. Fields, pp. 266-272 (Merle Greene Robertson, series editor). Norman: University of 0klahoma Press.

Schele, Linda. 1992. Workbook for the XVIth Maya Hieroglyphic workshop at Texas, March 14-14, 1992. Department of Art and Art History and the Institute for Latin American Studies, The University of Texas. 

Smith, Robert E. 1955. Ceramic Sequence of Uaxactun, Guatemala, Vol. II: Illustrations. MARI Publication no. 20. New Orleans: MARI, Tulane University. 

Stuart, David. 2012. On Effigies of Ancestors and Gods. Maya Decipherment, January 20, 2012. https://mayadecipherment.com/2012/01/20/on-effigies-of-ancestors-and-gods/

Stuart, David, Marcello Canuto, Tomas Barrientos and Alejandro González. 2018. A Preliminary Analysis of Altar 5 from La Corona. The PARI Journal XIX(2):1-13. http://www.mesoweb.com/pari/journal/archive/PARI1902.pdf

Thompson, J. Eric S. 1963. A Catalog of Maya Hieroglyphs. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Zender, Marc. 2004. A Study of Classic Maya Priesthood. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Archaeology, University of Calgary.

An Update on CHA’, “Metate”

by David Stuart (University of Texas at Austin)


In an earlier post on Maya Decipherment I proposed a reading KA’ or CHA’ for a long-elusive sign known as the “bent cauac” (at right). I suggested that it derived from the representation of a metate, or grinding stone, the word for which is *kaa’ in proto-Mayan and cha’ in all Ch’olan languages, including modern Ch’orti’. The occasional –a sign suffix found in a few examples, as shown here, seemed to offer good support for the identification, pointing to the presence of a glottal-stop after a in the logograph’s root, therefore Ca’. The widespread word for metate would certainly fit the bill.

I’ve come across another occurrence if the “bent cauac” that may offer confirmation of the reading, indirectly pointing to its precise logographic value as CHA’.  But the context is highly unusual, for the sign seems to operate as a syllabic sign, in clear substitution with chi in a familiar spelling of the title k’inich. This raises some larger epigraphic issues about how CV syllables and logograms of similar phonetic shape (CV’, in this case) may have sometimes blurred in function and usage, at least during a certain stage of Maya scribal history.

Figure 2. Name phrases from the vases, showing alternation of chi and ‘metate’ sign in the third block. (Photos: J. Kerr)

The substitution comes from two Late Classic vases in the “Ik’ style,” produced in the region around Lake Peten Itza in what is now northern Guatemala (Just 2012). The two vessels (K533 and K8889 in Justin’s Kerr’s database) were clearly painted by the same artist/scribe – an important point that we will return to later. A royal name, Yajawte’ K’inich, is written in the rim texts of each, referencing a local king who is depicted in the scenes below. His name is common throughout the corpus of Ik’ vessels (Tokovinine and Zender 2102:44-45). If we look closely at the extended name phrases themselves, we see obvious parallels (Figure 2). First we have u-baahil ahn(?) introducing a deity’s name, a version of the so-called “deity impersonation phrase” I have described before, found numerous other inscriptions (Houston and Stuart 1996). This serves to link a historical individual (named later) with a deity or supernatural with whom his/her identity is fused. Here it clearly names the solar deity Wuk Chapaht Tz’ikiin(??) K’inich (Ajaw), first identified in the 1980s in the inscriptions of Copan and other sites. The ruler’s name then follows, written as Yajawte’ K’inich, then the title “the captor of Ik’ Bul.” On K533 we find a fairly standard and recognizable form of the sun god’s name, with a K’INICH logogram followed by chi (see Just 2012:164)However, in the parallel sequence from K8333 the chi hand is replaced by our metate sign, making for a very strange combination. The bent cauac element, no matter what its value, plays no role in what is otherwise a very standard name for the sun god. There seems little choice but to analyze it here as a direct substitution for the syllable chi, where the metate element now takes on a syllabic role, presumably as cha (K’INICH-cha …weird!). The scribe of K8333 uses the conventional cha sign in spelling U-cha-nu, in the penultimate glyph of the illustrated phrase, perhaps as a way to highlight the playful nature of his earlier spelling,

If true, this phonetic function for the metate sign leads to a couple of interesting points.  First, it offers good evidence that the base value of the sign is indeed CHA’, not KA’. This makes sense given the presence of cha’ as “metate” throughout Ch’olan (*KA’ or *KAA’ seemed possibilities as more archaic forms, but less likely). Second and more broadly, it indicates a degree of playfulness on the part of a scribe who opted to steer clear of old, established spellings and introduce something completely outside of convention. Elsewhere the metate never appears syllabic cha, and I suspect its use as such here would have struck any ancient reader (like a modern epigrapher) as odd, even to the trained eye of a fellow Maya scribe of the period. In addition, the use of cha in spelling k’inich falls well outside the familiar rules of synharmony and disharmony, a set of conventions that was came to be tweaked anyway by the end of the Classic period. With K’INICH-cha we seem to have an example of individual scribal innovation, and a very playful one at that.

Crossovers between syllables and logograms occur throughout the history of the Maya script – BIH, “road,” can very often serve as bi, and CH’OH(OK), “rat,” is the basis for the syllable ch’o, and so on.  I believe that the painter of these vases used this familiar precedent to come up with his playful idea to use CHA’ as cha. In certain settings (calligraphic, less formal ones?) scribes may have felt a bit more freedom to draw upon these possibilities and display their creative skills as glyphic composers. For any courtly scribe the act of writing was an act of designing, often creatively and unexpectedly. In any event, all this highlights once again that the spellings found in Maya hieroglyphs were seldom truly “fixed,” as long as scribes conformed to the established rules of graphic variation. The example from the two Ik’ vases demonstrates how at least one ancient painter may have pushed some of these boundaries and conventions, and others no doubt did the same, in different ways. Epigraphic studies will always explore and refine the nature of scribal rules, but it would seem that, at least for some scribes, some leeway was possible in bridging the categories of logograms and syllables.

Figure 3. Two Ik’-style vases with parallel rim texts, K533 and K8889. (Photos: J. Kerr)

References Cited

Houston, Stephen D., and David Stuart. 1996. Of Gods Glyphs and Kings: Divinity and Rulership among the Classic Maya. Antiquity 70:289-312.

Just, Bryan R.. 2012. Dancing into Dreams: Maya Vase Painting of the Ik’ Kingdom. Princeton University Art Museum and Yale University Press.

Tokovinine, Alexander, and Marc Zender. 2012. Lords of Windy Water: The Royal Court of Motul de San Jose in Classic Maya Inscriptions. In Motul de San Jose: Politics, History and Economy in a Classic Maya Center, A.E. Foias and K.F. Emery, eds., pp. 30-66. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Finding the Founder: Old Notes on the Identification of K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ of Copan

KYKM name
Figure 1. Name of K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, from Altar Q of Copan (Photo by D. Stuart).

by David Stuart (The University of Texas at Austin)

One of the most famous of ancient Maya rulers is K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ (KYKM) (“Solar-Green-Quetzal-Macaw”), the Early Classic founder of the Copan dynasty (Figure 1). He was celebrated by ancient Copanecos throughout the site’s 400 year history, and his legend lives on today in the key sources on Copan’s archaeology (W. Fash 2001; B. Fash 2011:35-47). He was even the subject of a 2001 PBS documentary, The Lost King of the Maya.

Given KYKM’s notoriety it’s interesting to reflect on how little we knew of his history before the mid-’80s. By that time archaeologists and epigraphers had a general outline of Copan’s Late Classic dynasty, and KYKM’s glyph had even been recognized as a personal name of some sort (the K’inich prefix being a strong indication, given its established use as a pre-posed title on late royal names at Palenque). But whose name? Proskouriakoff identified the glyph as a title, a reference to “certain ‘parrots’ that seem to turn up in troubled times” (Prouskouriakoff 1986:129). And both Gary Pahl (1976) and Lounsbury (corresponding in 1978) were closer to the mark, each seeing the glyph as a personal name but still unsure as to its exact nature. Pahl proposed it to be a variant name of the sixteenth ruler, whereas Lounsbury couldn’t commit to any historical identification, but thought it to be in reference to a Late Classic figure as well.

KYKM note
Figure 2. Stuart’s 1984 notes on identifying KYKM as an Early Classic ruler

COP St J back
Figure 3. Back of Copan, Stela J. (Photo by D. Stuart, 1987)

In retrospect this ambiguity is understandable, for the name glyph was in those years known only from much later inscriptions dating the reigns of the last five or six Copan kings (very early texts from close to KYKM’s reign finally appear in excavations during the 1990s, such as the “Xukpi Stone” and the “Motmot Marker”). It’s no wonder therefore that Proskourikoff surmised the glyph to be a general title for troublesome parrots (are there any other kind?), and not that of a definable historical figure.

This all changed in the mid 1980s, when KYKM’s true role in Maya history finally came into focus. In 1984 I became convinced that he was not a Late Classic protagonist at all but rather an early king, probably the founder of the dynasty and the first in the long line of sixteen rulers. I recently came across my old notes from that time (Figure 2), showing my line of thinking in proposing his early placement at or near the beginning of the dynasty (Note 2). The famous mat-shaped text on Stela J (Figure 3) offered the most important clue, for it showed that KYKM’s accession could be linked to the much earlier Bak’tun ending of, in 435 AD. Another piece of the puzzle came a couple of years after these scribblings when, in the summer of 1986, Linda Schele and I recognized that the the first figure depicted on Altar Q wore on his headdress an elaborate combination of the sings K’IN-YAX-K’UK’-MO’, placing  him at the very beginning of the famous sequence of sixteen kings (Figure 4) (Stuart and Schele 1986).  The inscription atop Altar Q soon made more sense as well, for it became clear that that the opening three dates belonged to this same Early Classic time-frame, narrating KYKM’s ch’am-k’awiil accession rite at Teotihuacan in September 6, 426 followed by his arrival back at Copan 152 days later. The last two dates of the altar’s text concerned its dedication centuries later in 775, early in the reign of the sixteenth ruler, Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat (Note 3).

KYKM Alt Q name
Figure 3. The name-headdress of K’inich Yan K’uk’ Mo’ on the west side of Altar Q (Photo by D. Stuart).

Of course we have learned a good deal more about KYKM since the 1980s. Soon after he was properly placed in Copan’s dynastic sequence, some archaeologists still expressed informal doubts about his historical veracity, positing that he might not have been a true ancestral king but a character in some constructed, questionable history (a strangely cynical outlook on Maya histories in general, I think). But then in the 1990s his tomb and resting place were identified deep within Copan’s acropolis by the University of Pennsylvania excavations, within the so-called Hunal building phase directly under Structure 10L-16 (see Bell, Canuto and Sharer [2004] for an excellent overview of early Copan archaeology and history). Since then, one epigraphic clue suggested that KYKM may originally have been from the site of Caracol, Belize. KYKM’s story remains enigmatic in many ways, but we know that he settled at Copan in 427, probably in anticipation of the great Bak’tun ending that came less than a decade later. After several generations he was remembered as the singular cultural and political hero of ancient Copan, and after nearly twelve centuries of obscurity he’s emerged once again as a great figure in Maya history.


Note 1. In my overview of early Copan history I mistakenly noted that the identification of KYKM’s role as the dynastic founder came in 1983 (Stuart 2004:227). The dates on surrounding pages in my notebook make it clear it was in 1984.

Note 2. Looking at my old notes, students of epigraphy will see that I make use of old sign readings that are rejected today and may even seem unfamiliar – Thompson’s “hel” reading for the TZ’AK sign, for example, and Lounsbury’s “mak’ina” for what we know to be K’INICH. In fact, on the right margin of the notes here illustrated, one can see the clear inklings of the K’INICH decipherment, noting the K’IN-ni-chi substitution found on Copan’s Hieroglyphic Stairway and in a few other texts. This was confirmed around the same year.

Note 3. In my hand-written notes I botched the Long Counts for the Early Classic dates on Altar Q, even though I correctly placed them roughly 17 k’atuns before the altar’s dedication. I wasn’t using a computer program, and I was thrown-off by the mention of “17 k’atuns” which I took far too literally as a precise expression of elapsed time. It did not take much time to realize that this was instead a rare rounded Distance Number, used from time to time in Copan’s inscriptions. The actual dates on Altar Q’s top are: 5 Caban 15 Yaxkin (“takes k’awiil”); 8 Ahau 18 Yaxkin (“comes from the ‘wite’naah'”); 5 Ben 11 Muan (“arrives”); 6 Ahau 13 Kayab (PE dedication); 5 Kan 12 Uo (unknown). On the west face we find the isolated record of Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat’s accession on 6 Caban 10 Mol, placed between his portrait and that of the founder.


Bell, Ellen E, Marcello Canuto and Robert J. Sharer (eds.). 2004. Understanding Early Classic Copan. Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Museum.

Fash, Barbara. 2011. The Copan Sculpture Museum: Ancient Maya Artistry in Stucco and Stone. Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum Press.

Fash, William L. 2001. Scribes, Warriors and Kings: The City of Copan and the Ancient Maya. New York: Thames and Hudson.

Pahl, Gary. 1976. A Successor-Relationshop Complex and Associated Signs. In The Art, Iconography, and Dynastic History of Palenque, Part 3, edited by M.G. Robertson, pp. 35-44. Pebble Beach, CA: Robert Louis Stevenson School.

Proskouriakoff, Tatiana. 1986. Maya History. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Stuart, David. 2004. The Beginnings of the Copan Dynasty. In Understanding Early Classic Copan, ed. by E. Bell, M. Canuto and R.J. Sharer, pp. 215-248. Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Museum.

Stuart, David, and Linda Schele. 1986. Yax K’uk’ Mo’, the Founder of the Lineage of Copan. Copan Notes no. 6. Proyecto Acropolis Arqueologico Copan.

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.

An Intriguing Date on the Tz’unun Panel

by David Stuart, The University of Texas at Austin

Figure 1. Inscribed block from Tz’unun, Belize (Photograph by Bruce Love)

The latest issue of the journal Mexicon has on its cover a photograph of a inscribed panel recently discovered at the ruins of Tz’unun, in northwestern Belize (Hanratty, et. al., 2016) (Figure 1). The new find is of particular interest because the four glyphs on the stone (part of a much longer original text) include an example of the Kaan or Kaanul emblem, k’uhul kaanul ajaw, at the upper left. As many readers know, the history of the Kaanul kingdom and its rulers is undergoing much scrutiny and revision these days, especially in the wake of several new epigraphic finds (Helmke and Awe 2016a, 2016b; Martin 2017; Stuart 2012). For this reason the discovery of any text that refers to this dynasty is of considerable interest, even a partial inscription like we see on the Tz’unun panel.

The three other glyph blocks on the Tz’unun panel record a short Distance Number of 12 days and the CR to which it leads. Mexicon‘s very brief description of the Tz’unun block states that the CR date is 7 Ahau 18 Mol (Hanratty, et. al., 2016). However, I believe it is far more likely to be 7 Chicchan 18 Mol, using a form of the day sign that represents the so-called “serpent segment.” A horizontal line clearly bisects the interior of the day sign, and the scutes of the snake’s body are just visible below. Hints of diagonal lines above conform to this form of Chicchan as well. This variant of Chicchan is common in the inscriptions at Caracol in the early seventh century, and appears from time to time in later texts.

The style and paleography on the Tz’unun panel reminds me a good deal of the Caracol Hieroglyphic Stairway (Martin 2017), while not quite as ornate. I therefore think a likely placement of the CR in the Long Count is 7 Chicchan 18 Mol, or August 7, 639 AD. Twelve days earlier is 8 Ben 6 Mol, or July 26, 639 AD. Unfortunately we have no idea what events were being recorded in this text – we are left with only the dates and the intriguing emblem title.

That said, the year 639 AD would have been an interesting one in the history of the Kaanul kingdom. As the recent finds at Xunantunich have demonstrated, a ruler named Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan was executed less than a year later in 640. And three years earlier, in 636, we have tantalizing records of a war between two rival factions of Kaanul lords, with Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kan (of Dzibanche?) defeated and Yuknoom Ch’een assuming the throne at Calakmul a short time later (Helmke and Awe 2016b; Martin 2017). My proposed revision of the date on the Tz’unun block, if correct, falls after the defeat of Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kan but before his execution. Who, then, is the Kaanul king being named at Tz’unun? We cannot say, but given the possible timing of the narrative it seems that the longer inscription might have contained elements of this fascinating political story, noting episodes we lack elsewhere. Let’s hope more of this new inscription someday comes to light.


Hanratty, Colleen, Bruce Love, Stanley Guenter and Tom Guderjan. 2016. First Evidence of the Ka’an Dynasty in Northern Belize. Mexicon XXXVIII(6):142.

Helmke, Christophe, and Jaime Awe. 2016a. Death Becomes Her: An Analysis of Panel 3, Xunantunich, Belize. PARI Journal 16(4):1-14.

__________________________. 2016b. Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth: A Tale of the Snake-head Dynasty as Recounted on Xunantunich Panel 4. PARI Journal 17(2):1-22.

Martin, Simon. 2017. The Caracol Hieroglyphic Stairway. Maya Decipherment, January 20, 2017. https://decipherment.wordpress.com/2017/01/20/the-caracol-hieroglyphic-stairway/

Stuart, David. 2012. Notes on a New Inscription from La Corona. Maya Decipherment, June 30, 2012. https://decipherment.wordpress.com/2012/06/30/notes-on-a-new-text-from-la-corona/