The Anxiety of Influence, or, Indiana Jones, the Maya, and Tom Swift’s Retroscope!

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

Most Mayanists credit their interest in the civilization to a gripping lecture, the National Geographic magazine, perhaps a TV special or accessible book. Mine comes from an almost embarrassing source: Tom Swift and His Electronic Retroscope, a small volume published in 1959 by “Victor Appleton II” and later re-issued as Tom Swift in the Jungle of the Mayas (Figure 1). The author was likely James Duncan Lawrence, a writer and sometime school teacher under contract to the Stratemeyer Literary Syndicate (Serafin and Bendixen 2003:8). J. Graham Kaye, a real person, did the illustrations when not churning out figures for the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines.

Figure 1.  Cover by Graham Kaye.
Figure 1. Cover by Graham Kaye.

The Stratemeyer Syndicate was better known for the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries—and for chapters that always ended in an exclamation point! But in Tom Swift, Jr., they found a true hero for every nerd. Ray Kurzweil, Isaac Asimov, and Steve Wozniak were admitted fans ( From Tom, Jr., too, came Jonny Quest and the indispensable Venture Bros., along with a neat equation: Tom Swift the elder (Tom, Jr,’s father, hero of an earlier series that featured Motor Cycles, Submarine Boats, and Giant Cannons) = Dr. Benton Quest = Dr. Jonas Venture. Awesomely rich, each dad headed his own scientific oligarchy. The Electronic Retroscope offered more. It had Maya temples, a giant, jungles, pyramids, carvings, inscriptions, and the device itself. The retroscope could read and restore ancient texts and pictures of the Maya! It revealed designs and mathematical formulae, alien ones! At 8 ya, I was sold on the Maya and their glyphs. And, securely tenured, I don’t mind confessing that influence now.

Some years ago, with more elevated material, the literary critic Harold Bloom wrote The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1973). A treatise about the limits of creativity, it proposed a state of “anxiety” in which younger writers (“ephebes”) sought to escape and “swerve” from their precursors. Mediocrity awaited those who could not escape or counter that “influence.” I should hope that I have escaped the influence of Tom Swift—although I crave a similar apparatus. Yet, to my knowledge, no one has noticed that a major Hollywood production, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), also concerned with aliens, hidden temples, and a hodgepodge of Pre-Columbian civilizations, lifts one of its main sets and premises from Kaye’s cover for His Electronic Retroscope. There, in the “Temple of Akator,” soon to zoom into other dimensions, sit skeletal aliens around the walls of a circular chamber (Figure 2). Bad Maya glyphs adorn their thrones. A quick glance at Kaye’s chamber underscores the limits of Hollywood’s imagination. Note the same seated skeletons in a circular “Maya” chamber. The adjoining text booms with the same claptrap about aliens.

Figure 2. Inside the Temple of Akator.
Figure 2. Inside the Temple of Akator.

Tom Swift, Jr., still has his readers, ready to be influenced, as in Hollywood. But they seem hardly to “swerve” into the originality of that teenage genius and his creators.

References Cited:

“Appleton, Victor, II.” 1959. Tom Swift and His Electronic Retroscope. Grosset and Dunlap, New York.

Bloom, Harold. 1973. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. Oxford University Press, New York.

Serafin, Steven R., and Alfred Bendixen. 2003. The Continuum Encyclopedia of American Literature. Continuum, New York.

Bak’tuns and More Bak’tuns

by David Stuart

As many know, the upcoming completion of the 13th bak’tun on December 21 is represented in the Maya Long Count as It’s an important day in the Maya calendar, to be sure, but not the End of Times of course. The Maya never once said anything of the kind. Nor is the approaching day even the end of the bak’tun cycle, as it has often been described — that idea comes from an old and outdated conceptualization of Maya time. Here I’d like to explain a bit of the actual structure of the bak’tun calendar as we presently understand it, summarizing the work of a number of scholars as well as a few points I made in my 2011 book The Order of Days.

This upcoming date is a repetition of the “base” of the system which fell in 3114 BCE, also represented as Back then, the subsequent bak’tun number was re-set as 1 ( and thereafter their count progressed forward until the reappearance of 13 bak’tuns on December 21 of this year. This repetition of 13s has led some to suppose that a similar re-set of the bak’tun system is upon us now, and that we are destined to go back to in some 400 years from now. This is not true. Based on texts from Palenque that project calendar stations far into the future, we know there will be a linear sequence of bak’tuns from here on, represented as,, and so on. This will run forward still until, about 2,400 years from now.

Here’s an illustration of the sequence of bak’tuns just described: August 13, 3114 BCE December 21, 2012 October 13, 4772

Notice that at the end of this roughly 13,000-year span that the bak’tun changes to 0 and the next higher period, the piktun, turns over as 1. As it happens, the piktun unit before this date was set at 13, although this is left unwritten in the dates above. (Mayanists have long tended to just write five numbers of the Long Count, following the convention of the ancient Maya scribes themselves. But we know that this is a truncated representation, and that there were many more cycles above bak’tun and piktun. The full system I call the “Grand Long Count” encompassed 24 units!)

People often ask me why 13 was chosen as the re-set point for the bak’tun in 3114 BC. Why restart everything at that point? The way I see it, it’s all about two key numbers in Maya math, 13 and 20. For the Maya, both 13 and 20 were seen as key factors in a larger mathematical system, especially with regard to time. The most simple and fundamental calendar unit was a 260-day cycle (13 x 20 days), widely known as the tzolk’in, that was used for divination and had widespread use even among the general populous — one reason why it still holds importance among some Maya today and the Long Count does not. This 260-day span is about equivalent to nine months in our reckoning, the period of human gestation, and the modern Maya of highland Guatemala who still use the 260-day calendar are adamant that it’s specifically tied to the biological clock of human conception and birth. 13 thus emerges automatically as a key factor — and a sacred number — since 20 is simply the basis of the entire vigesimal (base 20) counting system found throughout Mesoamerica. Beyond this, 13 came to be widely applied to other temporal spans and cosmological structures. In fact, the interplay of the two key numbers 13 and 20 turns out to be the basis of other time structures they developed, including the Long Count.

We see this in the list of bak’tuns above, which is comprised of a sequence of 13 bak’tuns followed by 20 bak’uns — i.e., the same two key numbers of Maya time reckoning. So, the bak’tun calendar as I’ve described it shows how these two all-important numbers could relate to one another in another way, now on much bigger temporal scale.

It’s an elegant system, designed to reflect a deep cosmic structure that’s at once cyclical and lineal, as well as mythical and historical. In this way I hope we can appreciate the bak’tun we’re about to enter is a continuation of a time reckoning system that’s been in place for a long time, and that still has a long way to go.

A Podcast on 2012, from The Academic Minute

CRNHS2VfinalpassageA brief take on the 2012 business, recorded for The Academic Minute, a podcast from WAMC radio distributed on a number of college and NPR stations here in the US.

Of course the idea that no actual 2012 prophecy exists gets very little widespread distribution in the media. It hasn’t a chance against the shameless doom-and-gloom, junk-science narratives of The History Channel or, even worse now, The National Geographic Channel.

Heavenly Bodies

by Stephen D. Houston

As usual, Shakespeare (or Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons) said it all: “…the moon … new-bent in heaven, shall behold the night of our solemnities.”

That a correspondence might exist between a celestial body and terrestrial events is hardly strange. Every tide shows this to be so. But the relation of humans to celestial motions is less clear. Some scholars find a secure correlation between the moon and menstruation in human females; others dispute it entirely (cf. Cutler et al. 1987; Folin and Rizzotti 2001:542, also Fehring et al. 2006:6-7). We do know that the Maya linked the moon to a young woman of child-bearing age. Her favored company: a rabbit, the light-fingered trickster of Classic Maya thought and an emblem of fecundity.[Note 1]

Maya dynasts had a long stake in the sky. A basic unit of time was, of course, the k’in, meaning “day” but also “sun.” Royalty associated themselves with the Sun God, invoking his name as a key prefix to their own. But what of the moon?  In the late 1980s my colleagues Barb Macleod, Nikolai Grube, and Dave Stuart sorted out the varied glyphs that went into hul, “arrive.” Hearing of this, the obvious hit me. I am sure it did to some others, too. In one such variant, especially in Glyph D of the Lunar Series, the moon-sign was not the verbal suffix I supposed it to be. It cued the moon. This had to apply equally to Glyph C, which also bore the lunar sign.

By now, epigraphers understand the elements of Glyph D. The compound consists of a number followed by a hand with an extended index finger. That finger points to a lunar crescent. (In Maya imagery, extended fingers mark conversation or emphatic declaration.) The position of the crescent to the right side, concavity to the left, is understandable. At first crescent this is precisely the shape and orientation of the moon. Underneath the hand and moon cluster two glyphic syllables, li and ya. Along with certain specialists, I view these as providing a phonic reinforcement for the final consonant in hul, a marker of single-argument predicates (-i), and a past-tense suffix (-iiy).

Figure 1. a) Balakbal Stela 5:A5 (Ruppert and Denison 1943:pl. 56a); b) Tikal Stela 40:A7 (photograph by D. Chauche); c) Piedras Negras Throne 1:B’3 (Thompson 1971:fig. 58); d) “Siegal Mask”:B4 (drawing by author); e) Calakmul celt (drawing by Alexandre Tokovinine); f) NAR Stela 24:C7-C10, and g) E3-D7 (drawings by Ian Graham, CMHI, Peabody Museum, Harvard University).

Finding an early example of this glyph is somewhat difficult. The sample is ragged. One of the first must occur on Balakbal Stela 5:A5, dating to May 16, AD 406 (Julian). Tikal Stela 40, from June 19, AD 468 (Julian), has it too, at position A7 (Fig. 1a, 1b, respectively). For these and other examples the likelihood is that the “arrivals” refer to the sighting of the new moon as crescent. I find this credible. A rare variant sign is a human eye peering out of a moon glyph. Perhaps this refers to first-sighting (Fig. 1c; note, however, that this may be less the eye of an observer than the Moon Goddess within).[Note 2]  I would also speculate that the numbers stray from astronomical predictions—deducible by calculation—because of the difficulties of detection. During the rainy season, bad weather would work mischief with naked-eye astronomy. The example from Balakbal lies about 10 days from its predicted value, the Tikal reference 3 days or so. In both cases, the recorded number is less than the predicted quantity, a pattern consistent with observational error. (One wonders, if this held up, whether weather patterns might be loosely reconstructible for the Classic period! High deviance from prediction would be more likely during rainy seasons.)

The gist of it: at some point, Classic scribes transferred an expression for celestial motion to the arrivals of kings and queens. Heavenly bodies accorded with royal ones. An early version of non-planetary arrival employs the “moon-observation” but to describe the motions of deities—in fact, all such gods on heaven and earth (kanal k’uh, kab[al] k’uh). Their destination is a flowery place (Fig. 1d; Houston and Inomata 2009:fig. 2.3). A later spelling, on a re-used and re-cut jade from Calakmul Tomb 1, Structure 3, carts the expression into a firmly dynastic setting. Somewhat flamboyant—the gesturing hand sports a bracelet, the moon nestles the God or Goddess—the text recounts an arrival at El Zotz, Guatemala, or Yaxchilan, Mexico (Fields and Tokovinine 2012:fig. 99a; the exact site cannot be resolved on present evidence.)

Then there is the celebrated arrival of a princess from Dos Pilas at the site of Naranjo, where she resuscitates the local dynasty (Fig. 1f). About 16 years after the arrival she performs an important sacrifice with the “Stingray-spine” God (a reading first noted by Stuart) and at some point impersonates the Moon Goddess herself (Fig. 1g). That the texts highlight an arrival, the birth of an heir, and the princess’ bloodletting and impersonation as Moon Goddess savors of an overall arc of lunation and cycles of fecundity in females. I doubt it is a coincidence that hula means menstruo o regla de la mujer in Colonial Yukatek. Consider also a term for the Moon Goddess in the Dresden Codex, sak ixik, close to sakal ixik in Yukatek, also for menstruo (Barrera Vásquez 1980:242; also Dresden 18b, 19b).[Note 3] The Dresden may even allude to such cycles in its Moon Goddess pages, which seem unusually concerned with spouses and coupling. On Dresden 21b there is a possible phrase, HUL?-IXIK ya-TA-na, “Ixik arrives, the spouse of…” The HUL is in a late form but notably similar to its Classic precursor. Is the “arrival” metaphoric? A repetitive cycle of xa-HUL?-li KAB-ba > xahuli kab, on Madrid 107 raises the possibility of re-visits. Note the prefix xa, “more” or “again” in Colonial Ch’olti’ (Robertson et al. 2010:180-181, 333).

The merger of celestial and royal movement establishes an intriguing simile. The actions of one might mirror the other. For certain arrivals, the very order of heaven traced out in human activity. Perhaps, to draw a necessary inference, Maya sakbih or causeways need evaluation as the possible correlates of heavenly motion.


(1) Oswaldo Chinchilla (2011:199, figs. 86-87, 89) makes a plausible case for a male Moon god as well, with Maize God characteristics—perhaps, to judge from a text on the extraordinary “Hunal Ye box” (now on display in the Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología in Guatemala City), he was Glyph 10A (30) lunation, the female variant being—to conjecture wildly—Glyph 9A (29). A key image is from a pot (K5166) formerly in the Ranieri collection in Crystal River, Florida. When we visited the collection in 2002 or so, David Stuart observed that the vase highlights a sequence of beings that are surely related to the deities in Glyph C of the Lunar Series. There is a Maize God, along with companions like a Death God and God L, 6 in total, a pattern consistent with the 6-month lunation noted long ago by John Teeple. The male deities are in positions of entreaty, subordination, or with the opposed hands, wrists touching, that mark courtship dance in Maya imagery (e.g., K554)—are they “suitors” of the Moon Goddess, supplicants to a coy Penelope? The pot is the best evidence available that certain images are astral or planetary in nature. Stuart detected the sequence of such heads, including the Moon Goddess, in the Xultun murals (Saturno et al. 2012: 715, fig. 2). There, however, the sequence appears to consist of only 3 deities in order.

(2) By Terminal Classic times, the sign could be used flexibly to convey sound rather than meaning, as on Seibal Stela 9:D2, K’UH-HUL > k’uhul. “Seeing” also plays a role in a rare spelling in the Lunar Series, on the Palenque Palace Tablet:B15 or Copan Stela N:A10. In place of Glyph D it presents three elements: K’UH or K’UHUL, an icon for “seeing,” and a possible ordinal, “first.” I remain agnostic about the precise reading order of these signs, but the overall intent is to describe the first sighting of a god or a first “divine” sighting. Another form of Glyph D, found in the Initial Series Text in Room 1 of the Bonampak Murals, La Rejolla Stela 1:B5-A6, and Copan Stela I:B6, is more opaque: k’i~K’A’?-ji~hi-ya HUL-li-ya. Is this form of a “finished journey,” k’a’ with, perhaps, an epenthetic aspirate, based on the well-known expression for “death”? Or is it a completely different term? A more transparent sense of movement is in a spelling of Glyph D from a Coba altar drawn by Ian Graham: BIX-ya HUL-li-ya, with the sense of a past day and of human passage (Stuart 1987:33).

(3) A recent volume on codical astronomy argues that this supernatural, Goddess I in the Schellhas nomenclature, is unrelated to the moon (Bricker and Bricker 2011:674-679).  One challenge is that the book overlooks the unambiguous reading of her name glyph, Ixik or Sak Ixik, “Lady” or “White Lady.” I suspect the “white” refers to “weaving” or a clear moon (Barrera Vásquez 1980:709, 710). To be sure, there are ambiguities in the overall identification. Some time ago, in a redaction of his doctoral thesis, Taube pointed out that the goddess fails to appear with a moon sign in the Dresden Codex (Taube 1992:64-69). He nonetheless concludes, correctly I am certain, “it is likely ….Goddess I [is] related to the Classic period moon goddess” (Taube 1992:69). The complexity may arise from a complex or layered evocation: a procreative female, not Ixchel, whom Taube has shown to be an aged midwife, healer, and agent of destruction. The young female’s attributes include fertility and links to the moon.

Sources cited:

Barrera Vásquez, Alfredo. 1980. Diccionario Maya Cordemex, Maya-Español, Español-Maya. Ediciones Cordemex, Mérida. Bricker, Harvey M., and Victoria R. Bricker. 2011. Astronomy in the Maya Codices. American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia.

Chinchilla Mazariegos, Oswaldo. 2011. Imágenes de la mitología maya. Museo Popol Vuh, Guatemala City.

Cutler, Winnifred B., Wolfgang M. Schleidt, Erika Freidmann, George Preti, and Robert Stine. 1987. Lunar Influences on the Reproductive Cycle in Women. Human Biology, vol. 59, no. 6, pp. 959-972.

Fehring, Richard, Mary Schneider, and Kathleen Raviele. 2006. Variability in the Phases of the Menstrual Cycle. Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, and Neonatal Nursing, vol. 35, no. 3, pp. 376-384.

Fields, Virginia M., and Alexandre Tokovinine. 2012. Belt Plaque, Plate 18. In Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks, ed. by Joanne Pillsbury, Miriam Doutriaux, Reiko Ishihara-Brito, and Alexandre Tokovinine, Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Number 4, pp. 178-183. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC.

Folin, M., and M. Rizzotti. 2001. Lunation and Primate Menses. Earth, Moon, and Planets, vol. 85-86, pp. 539-544.

Houston, Stephen D., and Takeshi Inomata. 2008. The Classic Maya. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Robertson, John S., Danny Law, and Robbie A. Haertel. 2010. Colonial Ch’olti’: The Seventeenth-Century Morán Manuscript. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Ruppert Karl, and John H. Denison, Jr. 1943. Archaeological Reconnaissance in Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Peten, Publication 543. Carnegie Institution of Washington, DC.

Saturno, William A., David Stuart, Anthony Aveni, and Franco Rossi. 2012. Ancient Maya Astronomy from Xultun, Guatemala. Science, vol. 336, pp. 714-717.

Stuart, David S. 1987. Ten Phonetic Syllables, Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing 14. Center for Maya Research, Washington, DC.

Taube, Karl A. 1992. The Major Gods of Ancient Yucatan. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art & Archaeology, No 32. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC.

Thompson, J. Eric S. 1971. Maya Hieroglyphic Writing: An Introduction, 3rd ed. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

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.

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.

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.