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.

On-line Dresden Codex

The Saxon State Library (Sächsische Landesbibliothek) of Dresden recently posted high-resolution photographs of the Dresden Codex on its website. They are extremely good images, very useful to any student of Maya glyphs and iconography.

To access the on-line images go to the website and click the book icon, marked “zur Werkansicht.”

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.

An Early Classic Cave Ritual

by Steve Houston

A few months ago, I happened to visit the Museo Principe Maya in Coban, Guatemala. It is an impressive (and now registered) collection, with dozens of important objects. Few visitors go there, however. The museum lies on a side-street and is unknown, it seems, to the local office of tourism. The staff was baffled when asked about it.

But find it we did, with some pleasant surprises.

The image below comes from a piece of cave flow-stone — under a cm. thick, and obviously cut from a cave, with carbon black painting and a thick, daubed white, perhaps some kind of kaolin. (I vaguely recall seeing this object in an issue of Mexicon but cannot find that reference now. Stanley Guenter was certainly there before me, and had prepared a number of written descriptions of objects, all out in nice, bilingual display.) The entire object is close to a meter high, perhaps a little more than that from side to side. Unfortunately, it’s also behind glass, which makes photography somewhat difficult. For all that, the flow-stone is one of the most important cave texts found in the last 20 years. It’s not on a par with Naj Tunich, of course. But it still provides fascinating glimpses into Early Classic ritual and gives us some notion of a pan-Maya event celebrated in at least two caves.

The iconography on the flow-stone shows two figures, both lords, at least to judge from the jaguar pelts. They are probably not people of the highest rank, as can be seen by their distinctive gathered headdresses, of a type that sometimes occurs with subordinate lords. (Dave Stuart has a full discussion of the headdress in his book on the Palenque Temple XIX texts, esp. figs. 106-107, 108-110.) I would guess that the figures are, in fact, priests of some sort. The animals above the headdresses are doubtless their personal names. The reading of the title for such lords is still under discussion, but *abaat, “worker, servant,” is one possibility. (The term is cognate with a documented expression for “messenger,” noticed by Dave in the 90s and presented in our book with Karl Taube, The Memory of Bones.)

What’s important here is that the date can be worked out — it has to be ( 9 Ajaw 3 Muwaan, Jan. 31, AD 426, Julian. The event is clearly one of the censing. Small nodules of ch’aaj sprinkle from the hand of the person to the left, down to what may be an incense burner.

So, a high-end cave text, painted expertly on thin flow-stone, comemmorating a major period-ending. It involves one of the earliest images of figures with a distinctive headdress (another of comparable date is known from Rio Azul, as illustrated in Dave’s discussion).

It gets even more interesting: Dave pointed out to me that what is probably the *exact same date* also occurs in a painting from the Jolja cave, and with two people as well. At Jolja, the figures have black body-paint, just as on the Coban stone, and one of them holds a torch, of the sort used in burning offerings, like incense or paper. The gesture of the figure to the left is that of incense-sprinkling, again like the figure from the Principe Maya. Karen Bassie has done an excellent, e-report on the Jolja finds, at:

In any case, comparable events of great ritual importance took place in at least two caves, separated by what I presume to be quite a distance — the artifacts in the Coban museum tend to come from the Peten, not Chiapas. The quality in both instances is high, even of royal commission, and the dates are both 9 Ajaw, itself suggestive of the underworld or cthonic settings — I’m thinking here of the 9 Ajaw house on Tikal Altar 5, which specifies the burial place of Lady Tuun Kaywak. In the Early Classic, the date at Jolja and on the Coban flow-stone would only fall on major Period Endings (katun or lahuntun endings) at fairly rare intervals, as in, and then again (aside from our date), at Dave and I have to wonder if the cave rituals were prompted in some way by preparations for the change of the Baktun a few years later.