On Effigies of Ancestors and Gods

This post offers a few speculative thoughts on the glyph shown at right that’s long eluded any firm decipherment, but which for many years now has been thought to refer to an important type of ritual object or space, such as an altar or shrine. In fact, in the epigraphic literature of the past couple of decades it has often simply been glossed as “stone altar.” Here I would like to offer a somewhat different interpretation and suggest that it might better be interpreted as a term referring to a more specific sort of object known as an effigy incense burner. These remarkable and ornate ceramics are elaborated vessels, with lids that assume the form fully three dimensional portraits of historical ancestors or deities. They have been found at a number of sites, perhaps most notably at Copan, Palenque and Tikal, often in funerary contexts. It is clear that these elaborate objects were imposing ritual props, even sometimes nearly monumental in scale.

Fig. 1. Copan, Altar Q, with upper text passage noting the dedication of an object associated with the dynastic founder. (Photograph and drawing by D. Stuart)

We begin with the famous Altar Q at Copan (Fig. 1), a large box-shaped stone commemorating the dynastic founder, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, and his royal successors. The inscription atop the altar is best known for mentioning of the arrival of the founder, but toward the end we come to the record of then-contemporary events, including the dedication of an important monument or object under the auspices of Ruler 16, Yax Pahsaj Chan Yopaat.    Interestingly, this item was “owned” or pertained to K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, by them deceased for nearly four centuries.  The glyph for this object (ya-?-la) has long eluded decipherment, but we have always assumed it stands in reference to either the altar itself, or perhaps even to the pyramid before which Altar Q was placed, Temple 16. In any event, it is important to note that the elusive term is for some sort of commemorative “thing” that is “of” K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’.

Fig. 2. Opening section of the Temple Inscription from Str. 10L-26 at Copan (Drawing by D. Stuart).

The same glyph appears again at Copan on the Temple Inscription, from the upper shrine of Structure 10L-26, the temple of the Hieroglyphic Stairway (Fig. 2). There, in beautiful full-figure glyphs, we read of another fashioning (the verb pa-ta-wa-ni at block a4) of the same class of object on 5 Imix 4 Kayab, and that it was “of the lord” or “of the lords” (ya-?-la-AJAW at block a6). This reference is vague, but given the parallel with Altar Q we might speculate that the term again refers to an ancestor or collectively to a group of ancestors. Importantly, Structure 10L-26 was also a major funerary monument at Copan, built by Rulers 13 and 15 above the tomb of Ruler 12.  Ruler 12 died on and was placed in his tomb 14 days afterwards. The funerary stairway above the tomb was built by his son many years later on, possibly in association with the Esmeralda construction phase of the pyramid.  But the question is: what was made or dedicated in connection with this temple four years before the stairway, and over a decade after Ruler 12’s death? A building? An altar? No evidence exists of a major construction episode in 10L-26 between the times the tomb was placed and the large Esmeralda pyramid and its stairway were built above it, suggesting that the area around Ruler 12’s tomb was very accessible for a number of years. At any rate, the pattern suggests also that the glyph in question is probably not an architectural term (like “shrine,” for example).

A third occurrence of the same glyph perhaps appears in another Copan temple, Structure 10L-11. There it appears on the west jamb of the temple’s north dorrway in connection with the date 8 Eb 10 Zip, again with a “make” or “fashion” (pat-wan) event.  In this case, its “owner” is named as Ruler 15, who died some six years earlier and who may be buried under Temple 11’s superstructure.  Here once more we find our mystery term associated with a verb of “making” and owned by an ancestral figure.

Fig. 3. Passage from Quirigua, Zoomorph P. (Drawing by M. Looper)

Moving from Copan to nearby Quirigua, a similar pattern seems to be at work. The inscription of Zoomorph P records the Period Ending, at which time the local ruler “scatters incense” at a temple called the “13 Kawak House” (Fig. 3). This is in all likelihood one of the principal buildings in Quirigua’s acropolis, directly behind (to the south of) the monument (According to Zoomorph G this same “13 Kawak House” is where the great Quirigua Ruler K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat was buried). The Zoomorph P inscription goes on to say that the incense ritual (chok ch’aaj) was performed on or with regard to the “object” of K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat, as well as, it seems, with the same “object” of Ruler 13 of Copan. This is a remarkable statement, for Ruler 13 had earlier been the war captive of K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat and was sacrificed at or near Quirigua in 736 A.D., decades before the zoomorph itself was dedicated in 795. Here, both the Quirigua king and his illustrious prisoner were associated with the same type of commemorative object mentioned three times at Copan, and again we find it in direct association with deceased kings and ancestors.

Turning to Palenque, we find that the same hieroglyph occurs in the tablets of the Temple of the Inscriptions, in the passages that record complex dressing rites associated with the three gods of the Palenque Triad. Chief among these was the tying of paper-cloth headbands (sakhu’n), headdresses (ko’haw) and jewels (tup) upon what must we can only presume to be effigy figures of the these deities, as Martha Macri (1988, 1997) and others suggested some years ago. A summary statement of the rites appears near the beginning of the west tablet (Fig. 4), where we have the simple mention that:

Fig. 4. Passage pertaining to the "headband-binding" on effigies of the three gods of the Palenque Triad. PAL, TI, west, B3-B6. (Drawing by L. Schele)

u k’alhu’n y-a..?..l u k’uh-ul

“It is the paper-binding of the ? of his gods …”

Here once more the glyph in question is a possessed noun associated with venerated figures, in this instance the gods of the Palenque Triad.

So what can this glyphic term actually mean? A few telling clues stand out thus far:

(1) The glyph must somehow refer to a class of commemorative object associated with deceased ancestral figures as well as deities.

(2) It can be “made” or “fashioned,” as revealed by its association with the verb pat.

(3) Specific actions associated with this object involve ritual dressing with paper-cloth (Palenque) and adornment with headgear and jewels. Significantly, they are also in some manner involved in incense rituals (Quirigua).

(4) The term has close ties to funerary temples at Copan and possibly at Quirigua, in direct connection to historical ancestors.

Taken together, one is tempted to think that the glyph refers to ritual statuary or figural representation, and perhaps more specifically to effigy incense burners. Such objects are known in Maya archaeology of course, perhaps the most spectacular examples being the ornate figural incensarios unearthed near Ruler 12’s tomb at Copan, inside Structure 10L-26. These objects were dressed and bejeweled (note the ear holes, etc.), and as burners were obviously used in important incense rites. The Copan censers represent all of the kings up to and including Ruler 12 himself, and so they fit well with the pattern of ancestral commemoration. And use of the verb pat would seem appropriate for this sort of object, given its known meaning in connection to the manufacture of ceramic objects (Yukatek pat kum, “hacer ollas”). And as we’ve seen, the mention of the “fashioning” of our mystery object in the Temple Inscription of Stucture 26 seems in some way to be connected with Ruler 12’s tomb. Might it specifically refer to the making of these effigy incensarios? It’s a tantalizing connection to ponder.

So, some general conclusions and speculations:

– Altar Q at Copan may refer to the dedication of an effigy censer in the form of the great ancestral ruler K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’. If so, the altar itself was likely intended as a pedestal or platform for its display, in front of his funerary temple.

– Copan’s Structure 10L-11 refers to the manufacture of a possible effigy censer of Ruler 15.  This was perhaps intended to be displayed on the platform in the center of the north-south passageway of the temple, framed by the snake-centipede “maw” carved into the wall at either side.

– Quirigua’s Zoomporph P refers to the incense rite involving the effigy censers of two historical figures: K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat as well as Ruler 13 of Copan, in association with the former’s funerary temple in the acropolis.

– In the case of Palenque, I suspect that some local variety of deity censer was mentioned in the Temple of the Inscriptions, each representing one of the Triad gods and ritually adorned as part of the calendar ceremonies performed by K’inich Janab Pakal.

Fig. 5. Two of the twelve ruler effigies (censer lids) found outside of Ruler 12's tomb in Copan's Structure 10L-26.

With Structre 26 of Copan, the making of the “? of the lord(s)” may well refer to the censers discovered outside of Ruler 12’s tomb (Fig. 5). The rather anonymous and general ajawterm seems unlike any other example discussed, leading me to think it is a collective reference to the twelve ancestors. My tentative conclusion is that the Copan effigy ancestors were made collectively on, and that they together served for a few years as important objects of ritual veneration, perhaps at the site of Ruler 12’s tomb or somewhere else in the acropolis.  At the time of the construction of Esmeralda, these were terminated around the tomb’s exterior, and buried in the construction fill for the more grandiose funerary temple that the son had designed for his father.

I’ll close with a brief word on the glyph’s possible phonetic reading. The main clue in the decipherment of the central compound sign is its ya- prefix, a clear indication that the possessed noun begins with the vowel a-. The -la suffix on the glyph likely marks a -Vl ending on the possessed noun, so we ought to look for a noun root that begins with the vowel a- and fits this semantic context, having some connection with burning, incense, or effigy forms.

The element atop our mystery glyph (T174) is part of a main sign that still resists a firm phonetic decipherment, but it is important to note that the same element also appears with another logogram (T174:T704) with the value SABAK or SIBIK, “soot, ash” — a reading proposed a number of years ago by Nikolai Grube. Interestingly, another widespread Mayan term with much the same meaning is abak, “soot, charcoal, ash.” I do wonder if the logogram at the heart of the supposed “effigy” glyph might eventually prove to be ABAK, producing ya-ABAK-la, for y-abak-al, “its soot.” The semantics might have been extended somewhat to include the containers for burnt offerings, in the forms of ash-filled effigy censers. A different possibility worth considering is that the ya- sign prefix signals the presence of the agentive prefix aj- before a still obscure root, so that the possessed noun referring to effigy figures is aj-?.

The phonetic reading still remains elusive, yet the semantic domain of the noun in question seems much firmer in its connection to effigy figures and burners, ritual objects that were of great importance in ancient Maya ceremonial practice.


Macri, Martha. 1997. Noun Morphology and Possessive COnstructions in Old Palenque Ch’ol. In The Language of Maya Hieroglyphs, edited by M. J. Macri and A. Ford, pp. 89-95. San Francisco: Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute.

More on Tortuguero’s Monument 6 and the Prophecy that Wasn’t

Tortuguero’s Monument 6 continue to be the focus of a good deal of scrutiny, and not just among epigraphers and Mayanists. Many of course claim that the last few glyphs of its long inscription contain the only record of what the ancient Maya had to say or prophesize about the coming end of the Bak’tun in late 2012. I’m partly to blame for the attention given to Monument 6, after some years ago when I posted a brief, off-the-cuff analysis of each glyph on a listserv, where I labelled the passage as the “Tortuguero Prophecy” (see below). Little did I know back then this would soon help set off a frenzy on many New Age websites, associated forum discussions, and even a few book chapters.

Figure 1. The final section of Tortuguero Monument 6. See Figure 4 for a general overview of the text's original form. (Drawing by D. Stuart)

To many, the handful of glyphs at the very end of Monument 6’s text continues to form the linchpin for understanding what the ancient Maya thought about the end of the Bak’tun in 2012, even as the readings of the partially damaged glyphs continue to be discussed and debated. Most recently, Sven Gronemeyer and Barbara Macleod presented their own detailed epigraphic analysis (Gronemeyer and Macleod 2010), and in my recent book The Order of Days (Stuart 2011) I spend a few pages on the topic, without delving into much glyph-by-glyph detail (since the book was intended for a general, non-speacialist readership). One prominent New Age author on 2012 seems especially frustrated with the ongoing discussions among epigraphers — me especially — and the inevitable changes of interpretation that come as a result. So here I take the opportunity to clarify my most recent thinking on the significance of the Tortuguero passage.

On the pages of this weblog Steve Houston offered an important insight into the closing passage of Monument 6, noting that the final glyphs might not pertain to the Bak’tun ending after all, as I and others had earlier supposed. He posited that the closing statement instead serves to reiterate a key dedication episode highlighted earlier in the inscription. I’ve pondered Steve’s cogent reassessment for some time, and in The Order of Days I took a neutral stance on the matter, not knowing quite what to think. Much to the chagrin of some adamant 2012ers, I nonetheless spent a few paragraphs downplaying the significance of Monument 6 in general, given the extensive damage and ambiguities of the pertinent glyphs in the final passage. Upon more reflection, and after looking and a number of comparative examples, I now can lend my full support for Steve’s analysis, as well as his assertion that no prophetic statements about 2012 likely exist in Monument 6’s inscription.

The structure of this text was the topic of some detailed analysis and discussions earlier this year during the Advanced Hieroglyphs workshop led by Danny Law, held  at the 2011 Maya Meetings in Austin. While there it became clear that Steve Houston’s analysis is correct, and that the final passage serves as a re-statement or elaboration of the inscription’s main topic, the dedication of a shrine, tomb or some other structure where Monument 6 was said to have been found. (Rumors at the time, Ian Graham once told me, stated that it had been found covering or blocking a tomb entrance). In other words, the mention of 4 Ahaw 3 K’ank’in on Tortuguero Monument 6 is an isolated chronological anchor within a larger narrative, projected into the future in order to make a rhetorical point about the nature of the main historical event. The last few glyphs of the text, rather than being wedded to the section, should be viewed instead as comprising a record of a contemporary episode — the building dedication — that’s the discursive focus of the entire inscription.

Closing the Narrative Loop

For those who are unfamiliar with the more technical aspects of Classic Maya literary structure and discourse, I’ll illustrate this concept using a modern parallel. Let’s imagine that a scribe living in New York back in the year 1950 wanted to immortalize some great happening of that year on a stone monument. One momentous event of the time was the New York Yankees’ four-game sweep of the Phillies in that year’s World Series (it pains me a bit to write this today, being a traumatized Red Sox fan). If our imaginary scribe were to use the particular ancient Maya rhetorical device under discussion, he or she might say something like this: “On October 7, 1950, the New York Yankees defeated the Philadelphia Phillies to win the World Series. It happened 29 years after the first Yankees victory in the World Series in 1921. And so 50 years before the year 2000 will occur, the Yankees won the World Series” (little would the scribe know, unless he was a prophet, that the Yankees would win it all again in 2000). The last sentence of this commemorative statement is a projection forward to a date of calendrical importance — the fifty-year anniversary as well as the near-start of the new millennium — but notice how the writer swings back to highlight the real event at hand — the 1950 sweep. This is precisely how many ancient Maya texts are structured, including Tortuguero’s Monument 6.

Figure 2. The closing passage of Palenque's Tablet of the Foliated Cross, linking the main event of the tablet to the future K'atun ending Photograph by Jorge Perez de Lara.

Let’s look at some specific cases of this text structure in Maya inscriptions. First we can turn to the closing glyphs from the Tablet of the Temple of the Foliated Cross at Palenque (Figure 2). The single main event of this key inscription, as well as it’s two partners on nearby temples, highlights a ritual burning of something called a chitin, perhaps refering to a sweatbath (Houston 1996) or a kiln for ceramic effigies of deities (Stuart 2005). This occurs on 2 Kib 14 Mol. The last nine blocks of the text serve to anchor this date to the soon-to-come K’atun ending 8 Ahaw 8 Woh.

4-12-WINIK-ji-ya / 1-HAAB’ / u-to-ma / 8-AJAW 8-CHAK-AT / U-13-WINIKHAAB’? / i-u-ti 2-“KIB” / i-PAT-la-ja / U-1-TAHN-na / K’INICH-KAN=BAHLAM K’UH(UL)-BAAK-AJAW

chan(-eew?) lajcha’ winikijiiy huun haab’
ut-oom waxak ajaw waxak(-te’) chakat u uxlajuun winikhaab'(?)

i uht cha’ ?(“kib'”) i patlaj u huuntahn k’inich kan b’ahlam k’uhul b’aakal ajaw.

“Four-and-twleve score days and one year, before Eight Ahaw the Eighth of Chakat, when the 13th K’atun ( 8 Ahaw 8 Woh) will occur, then happens 2 Kib ( 2 Kib 14 Mol) when the precious one(s) of K’inich Kan Bahlam, the Holy B’aakal Lord, is/are fashioned.”

This closing passage follows a lengthy description of the significance of the date 2 Kib 14 Mol, taking up all of the previous two columns of the inscription. The purpose of this closing statement is project forward in time to a notable Period Ending and restate the narrative’s focus using somewhat different terms or supplemental information (the king’s relationship to the god(s), in this instance).

From Copan we have a text that bridges present and future over a much greater span of time. Stela J (not illustrated) was dedicated on the period ending 7 Ahaw 3 Kumk’u, and its text mentions in its final section a projection forward to the Bak’tun ending 7 Ahaw 18 Sip. No prophesy or prediction is offered, only a simple statement that “the 10th Bak’tun will end” (tzuhtz-j-oom u lajuun pik). The scribe does so because the upcoming Bak’tun ending, still centuries in the future, will be a recurrence of 7 Ahaw, establishing a “like-in-kind” connection on the cosmic clock. A number of monuments at nearby Quirigua do the very same thing, on occasion projecting to similar Ahaw anniversaries that will occur eons forward in time. As we will see, the same is basically true on Monument 6, with “4 Ahaw” being the common denominator between the narrative “present” and a distant future.

Figure 3. The final passage from Naranjo, Altar 1. The glyphs that project forward from to the future Bak'tun ending are highlighted. Drawing by I. Graham, CMHI.

As Steve Houston has noted, Naranjo’s Altar 1 does much the same thing, and shows even stronger parallels to what we will soon discuss regarding Tortuguero’s Monument 6 (Figure 3). The celebrated event of this text is a Period Ending on, contemporaneous with the inscriptions carving and dedication during the reign of the important early king known to many as “Aj Wosaj” (a misnomer, probably, for what is written as AJ-?-sa-[ji]).

U-K’AL-TUUN-ni / 5-AJAW / 3-IK’-SIHOOM / U-TZUTZ-wa / U-7-WINIKHAAB? / AJ-?-sa / 3-11-PIK-AJAW / ya-AL / IX-?-CHAN / a-bu-lu-pa-a / U-MIHIIN / ?-CHAN-AHK / 9-TZAK-bu-AJAW / 0-K’IN / 0-WINIK-0-HAAB / 12-WINIKHAAB? / TZUTZ / jo-mo / U-10-PIK / 7 AJAW / 18-CHAK-AT / u-to-ma / u-CHOK-? / AJ-?-sa / 5 AJAW / 3-IK’-SIHOOM

u k’altuun jo’ ajaw ux(-te’) ik’sihoom
u tzutzuw u wuk winikhaab'(?) aj ? ux b’uluch pik ajaw
y-al ix ? abulpa'(?) chan, u mihin ? chan ahk, b’olon tzakab ajaw
mih k’in mih winik mih haab’ lahcha’ winikhaab’
tzuhtz-j-oom u lajuun pik
(ta) wuk ajaw waxaklajuun chakat, utoom
u chok aj ?
(ta) jo’ ajaw ux(-te’) ik’sihoom

“(It is) the stone-binding on Five Ahaw the Third of Woh, when ‘Aj Wosaj’, the three-eleven pik lord, completes the eighth K’atun ( He is the child of the woman Ix ? Chan B’ulpa’, and the child of the man ? Chan Ahk, the dynastic lord. (It is) twelve-score years before the tenth B’ak’tun will be finished (on) 7 Ahaw 18 Sip ( ,when ‘Aj Wosaj’ casts incense(?) on Five Ahaw, the Third of Woh (”

Here the subject of the ut-oom verb is the date 7 Ahaw 18 Sip, which is “fronted” beforehand. The chok or “scattering” verb appearing after ut-oom is not a future event, for it initiates a new phrase associated with the earlier base of the forward calculation. This is the ritual that was performed by the contemporary Naranjo ruler on

Figure 4. The Original Form of Tortuguero, Monument 6. (Main section drawing by I. Graham, right wing by D. Stuart)

Tortuguero’s Main Event

Analysis of the entire Monument 6 inscription clearly shows that it’s main thrust is the ritual dedication of a tomb or shrine in the 7th century, specifically on the day 9 Etz’nab 6 K’ayab (January 11, 669). The record of this episode takes up the majority of text’s overall space, running from block I2 through to the very end. That’s nearly half of the entire inscription. In blocks I6-I8 is the initial portion of this commemoration, stating that some 25 years after B’ahlam Ajaw’s inauguration there was a “house-burning” (el-naah) ritual on the 9 Etz’nab day just mentioned. It goes on to say in blocks J8 through J10 that this occurred just over a year (1.8.18) after the period ending 4 Ahaw 13 Mol. Such side references to period endings are common in texts such as this, and they serve again to contextualize the focus event by relating it to the comsic mechanisms of the Long Count. The 4 Ahaw station for this nearby PE was especially noteworthy given its importance in Maya cosmology and time keeping, and no doubt the mention of the future occurrence of 4 Ahaw on 4 Ahaw 3 K’ank’in later on Monument 6 is designed to reflect an essential symmetry between present and future.

Returning to the Tortuguero text, blocks I11 through J13 to record more about the building dedication, giving the buidling or shrine’s proper name at I12 and J12. These follow a highlighting marker (a-AY?-ya) at I11 and a positional verb at J11 reading i-e-ke-wa-ni, for ek-wan or hek-wan, a term difficult to link to any identifiable root in Mayan languages. Evidently this episode had something to do with a “positioning” of the named edifice, at the same time the “house-burning” dedicatory rite occurred. Much of the rest of this passage is missing, but it surely mentioned the ruler B’ahlam Ajaw before the surviving emblem glyph (I16). His parents are named thereafter in blocks J16 through K3.

So, here we come to the thorny part of the text. The pivotal element here is the verb u-to-ma (block  O4) spelling the future participle utoom, “it will happen.” This comes after the date and before the damaged glyphs that close the entire text. The question is what, exactly, is the subject of this verb? Gronemeyer and Macleod believe that the subject must be the following glyph block, which is in turn attached to those that follow. In this sceanrio the final glyphs naturally would contain some description of a happening associated with 2012, as I also suggested some years ago: “… (before) the thirteenth Bak’tun will end (on) 4 Ahaw 3 K’ank’in, EVENT2 will happen” (EVENT2 being a 2102 occurence). By contrast, Steve Houston’s analysis sees an important break after utoom in the discursive structure of the inscription, whose subject must simply be the future date and Bak’tun ending itself. It serves to reinforce the temporal position of the date just mentioned in order to bring the reader back to the narrative present. In this way the glyphs that follow utoom return to the focused event of the larger narrative — i.e., the house dedication. In other words the subject of utoom is understood to be the date, which has been “fronted” syntactically, as in: “… (before) the thriteenth Bak’tun will end (when) 4 Ahaw 3 K’ank’in will happen, then EVENT1.” Here the restatement of EVENT1, the shrine dedication, does not include a mention of the earlier Calendar Round 9 Etz’nab 6 K’ayab. This should not be seen as a problem, however, as other texts are known to do the same.


My purpose here has not been to go over the damaged final glyphs of Monument 6, trying to determine their original forms and reason out what the passage originally might have said. Gronemeyer and Macleod have recently done so in exhaustive and admirable detail, even positing a reconstruction of a phrase describing a future “investiture” of the deity Bolon Yookte’ K’uh. Although I have some questions about the specifics of their analysis, my real intent has been to focus more on the question of whether those glyphs are really at all relevant to 2012 anyway. In doing so I follow closely on the points Steve Houston made a number of months ago, including his claim that those enticing glyphs probably don’t say anything at all about 2012 and its meaning to the ancient inhabitants of Tortuguero. For the reasons given here, I think the evidence seems fairly inescapable that Steve was correct.

Stepping back a bit, it’s important to reiterate that Monument 6 never featured the 2012 period ending, except to refer to the future Bak’tun ending in order to temporally orient a more significant here-and-now happening of Tortuguero’s local history. Above all — and not surprisingly given what we know about Maya texts — Monument 6 was a lengthy document on the historical and ritual life of the local ruler B’ahlam Ajaw, highlighting the building and dedication of some important ritual structure he commissioned. I have no doubt that others will continue to focus on Monument 6 for its supposed prophecy about 2012, but they would probably be misguided in doing so.

* * *

ADDENDUM: Here’s my original post of April, 2006, from the UTMesoamerica listserv. Note that this reflects my mistaken belief at the time that the Bolon Yookte’ K’uh reference on Monument 6 pertained to the Bak’tun ending.

As promised here’s a quick translation of the final passage of
Tortuguero Monument 6, recording the 2012 Bak’tun ending:

Tzuhtz-(a)j-oom u(y)-uxlajuun pik
(ta) Chan Ajaw ux(-te’) Uniiw.
Uht-oom ?
Y-em(al)?? Bolon Yookte’ K’uh ta ?.

“The Thirteenth ‘Bak’tun” will be finished
(on) Four Ajaw, the Third of Uniiw (K’ank’in).
? will occur.
(It will be) the descent(??) of the Nine Support? God(s) to the ?.”

This is it. The term following uht-oom is the main puzzle, and largely effaced. The “descent” reference is highly tentative, too. The enigmatic deity Bolon Yookte’ K’uh has been known for some time from many sources, and I suspect that he (or they) has some tangential relationship to the Principal Bird Deity, as well as war associations. Interestingly, he is a protagonist in the deep time mythology of Palenque, as recorded on Palenque’s Temple XIV tablet. A long-lasting character who’s still around somewhere waiting, I suppose.

– Dave S.


Houston, Stephen. 1996. Symbolic Sweatbaths of the Ancient Maya: Architectural Meaning in the Cross Group at Palenque, Mexico. Latin American Antiquity 7(2):132-151.

________________. 2008. What Will Not Happen in 2012. Maya Decipherment weblog. http://mayadecipherment.com/2008/12/20/what-will-not-happen-in-2012/

Gronemeyer, Sven, and Barbara Macleod. 2010. What Could Happen 2012: A Re-Analysis of the 13-Bak’tun Prophecy on Tortuguero Monument 6. Wayeb Notes Number 34. http://www.wayeb.org/notes/wayeb_notes0034.pdf

Houston, Stephen D. 1996. Symbolic Sweatbaths of the Maya: Architectural Meaning in the Cross Group at Palenque, Mexico. Latin American Antiquity 7(2):132-151

Stuart, David. 2005. The Palenque Mythology. Sourcebook for the 2005 Maya Meetings. Austin: The Mesoamerica Center, Department of Art and Art History, University of Texas at Austin.

_____________. 2011. The Order of Days: The Maya World and the Truth about 2012. New York: Harmony Books.

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.

Newly Revealed Text Fragments from Palenque

Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) today announced an interesting historical analysis of a previously unpublished inscription from Palenque. These “new” fragments were found a number of years ago near the Temple of the Sun, where they originally were part of an interior wall panel flanking the temple’s inner sanctuary. Epigrapher Guillermo Bernal Romero believes that this text names a previously unknown son of the ruler K’inich Janab Pakal. I’m not so sure of this interpretation, but the text is fascinating, raising a number of questions.

I suspect we’ll revisit this text and its implications in a future Maya Decipherment posting.

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