In 1990 Jorge Orejel, then a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, made an important contribution to Maya epigraphy with his decipherment of the “axe/comb” hieroglyph as ch’ak, “to chop” (Orejel 1990). This glyph appears in the Dresden Codex as well as in historical inscriptions where it represents a term for conquest and military defeat, as we have explored recently in the complex chronicles of warfare on Naranjo’s Stela 12. Jorge wrote his decipherment in the series Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, published by The Center for Maya Research and its later iteration, the Boundary End Archaeological Research Center. Several years ago he submitted another study on the fascinating text on Step VII of Yaxchilan’s Hieroglyphic Stairway 2, where the same ch’ak verb occurs three times in a mythological context. My father George Stuart, the editor of the RRAMW since it inception, was ill around the time Jorge submitted his second contribution, and with my dad’s passing in 2014 the paper failed to appear as part of that long-lasting series.The Research Reports may yet be re-conceived as an ongoing publication, but in many ways its function has been supplanted by other outlets, including this Maya Decipherment blog. In that spirit we here present Jorge’s paper at long last in on-line form, without further delay, appearing many years after it was first written.
I would like to thank Jorge for his infinite patience, and to Jeff Splitstoser for his hard work in getting the article formatted.
– David Stuart
Orejel, Jorge L. 1990. The “Axe/Comb” Glyph as ch’ak. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, number 31. Center for Maya Research, Washington, D.C.
The written history of the Classic Maya names many important war captives, most of whom are only vague to us as historical figures. Typically they appearin terse statements such as “so-and-so was captured,” with little if any historical context. For example, we know precious little about “Jeweled Skull,” the celebrated prisoner of Yaxuun Bahlam IV (Bird Jaguar IV) of Yaxchilan, nor do we know the backstory of K’awiil Mo’, the Palenque lord taken by the king of Tonina. This shouldn’t be too surprising, since many of these obscure characters were warriors or junior members of rival courts, not terribly prominent even in the records of their home communities. Exceptions come about when high kings are defeated and taken, such as the Copan ruler Waxaklajuun UBaah K’awiil, who was famously defeated in war by his Quirigua rival.
Here I point to another interesting exception, a prisoner who seems to have had an eventful life both before and after he was taken as a prisoner of war. His name was Xub Chahk (or perhaps Xuxub Chahk, “Whistling Chahk”), and he ruled at the present-day site of Ucanal during the late eighth century (Note 1). In 796 CE he was captured by the king of Yaxha, K’inich Lakamtuun, during a time of unusual political instability and warfare in the eastern Petén, spurred by the wars of an aggressive ruler of Naranjo named Itzamnaaj K’awiil. A handful of inscriptions of the period highlight these wars, especially Naranjo’s Stela 12 and the recently excavated “Komkom Vase” from Baking Pot, Belize. Xub Chahk (as we will call him) was on the losing end of the conflict with Yaxha, but from there his story continued and took on new complexity. As I will explore here, he was later displayed as a prisoner of Caracol’s king, years after his capture. Somehow he was “transferred” from one kingdom to another and perhaps even had a longer life than most war captives. Xuxub Chahk’s complex story consists of short, terse episodes of written history, and the means by which we can interpret them relies (as is usually the case) on circumstantial evidence and a good deal of reading between the lines. Nevertheless, his narrative seems unique in the annals of Classic Maya history, as a ruler of one realm who became a prisoner of two others.
Yaxha Stela 31 and the Capture of Xub Chaak
What we know of Xub Chahk’s story begins in 796 CE with Stela 31 of Yaxha, a Late Classic monument that was erected in that site’s Plaza E, just to the south of the impressive North Acropolis (Figure 1). The front of the stela displays a complex scene of what might be called “ritual capture,” with a richly dressed warrior-king – clearly a god-impersonator – standing above a diminutive captive who is stripped of nearly all clothing. The inscription of six glyph blocks (A1-B3) provides some key historical information about the scene (Figure 2).
The Calendar Round (CR) date is 13 Ix 2 Zac, followed by a playfully conflated spelling of the verb chuhkaj, “(he) was captured” (chu-ka-ja, with the first and third syllabic elements graphically combined). Using a date recorded on the left side of the stela (to be discussed momentarily) we can narrow down the CR date to 12 Ix 2 Zac CR date to 126.96.36.199.14, or August 11, 796 CE. The name of the captive comes in the following two blocks followed by what seems to be a title at B3, with a damaged glyph topped by AJAW.
Inspection of the details on the original monument shows that the name is spelled xu-bu (B2) CHAHK-ki (A3), and the final glyph is surely K’AN-na-WITZ-NAL-AJAW(B3). This is the place or emblem glyph we know to be associated with the archaeological site of Ucanal, Guatemala, located approximately 22 kilometers to the south of Yaxha (first identified by Peter Mathews) (See Stuart 1987). The text on the stela’s front is therefore a simple and direct statement of a conflict with Ucanal and of Xub Chahk’s capture.
We also find two small glyphs within the scene, placed just above the head of the small captive (see Figure 1). The two glyphs are somewhat eroded but they clearly seem to constitute another Calendar Round date. Visible is the day 12 Ben and an eroded month sign that is surely one of the Sihoom months (Ch’en, Yax, Zac, and Ceh). I suspect that this msut be 12 Ben 1 Zac, exactly one day prior to the date recorded in the main caption, thus 188.8.131.52.13 12 Ben 1 Zac. Why would it be included here as a “secondary text”? We can speculate that the smaller date, more integral to the scene that the larger caption above, gives us the specific time of the defeat in battle, whereas his formal capture and tying-up came a day later. Whatever the case, it is interesting that the ancient historian and designer who composed this complex scene decided to differentiate the two events.
The inscribed sides of the monument begin with a Calendar Round for the Period Ending 184.108.40.206.0 9 Ahau 3 Ceh, which is most likely the stela’s dedication date. Some hieroglyphs are difficult to make out due to erosion and damage, but the last three on the left side, following the date, seem to record one or more ancient place names corresponding to the location of the stela. One of these locational glyphs reads hi-HIX-BIH-TUUN-ni, hix bihtuun, “Jaguar Causeway(?),” perhaps the proper name of the plaza or alternatively of the long sacbe feature running roughly north-south from Lake Yaxha towards the Maler Group. Stela 31 is located directly on this path, just to the east of the site’s massive E-Group. Several hieroglyphs on the right side of the stela are also damaged or missing, but clearly at the end we find mention of a scattering ceremony and the recognizable name of K’inich Lakamtuun, one of only a handful of historical names we can associate with Yaxha’s dynasty (Figure 3). This ruler, the last we know from Yaxha’s history, is otherwise known from his portrait on Yaxha Stela 13, dedicated a few years earlier on 220.127.116.11.0, and, as we will see, also through several mentions in historical texts from Naranjo and Baking Pot, Belize, where he appears as the victim of military attacks against Yaxha in the year 799 (Helmke, Hoggarth and Awe 2018:70-71). We can be sure that K’inich Lakamtuun is the victorious warrior depicted on Stela 13 a few years before this own defeat at the hands of Naranjo’s ruler.
Stela 31 is an unusual sculpture. K’inich Lakamtuun wears a massive ornate headdress and he seems to move with a bit more dynamism than we usually see in a Maya king. His spear appears as a diagonal line running toward the prisoner, clearly indicating the moment of capture. Depictions of captives are common on stelae, of course, but such scenes of violence and defeat are exceedingly rare on the monuments of the central lowlands. Far more common are the standard portraits of kings or queens in their ritual attire, overseeing a Period Ending and from time to time accompanied by a depiction of a bound prisoner.
The scene is also highly unusual among other capture scenes in Maya art in being overtly mythologized. K’inich Lakamtuun is far more than an armed warrior; he displays the features of the Jaguar God of the Underworld, and his massive headdress looms above, replete with cosmological and ancestral imagery. The three large hieroglyphs at the very bottom of the scene emphasize the ruler’s divine attributes, stating that the capture “is the work of Chak ? Ik’ Chiwooj?,” a name that corresponds nicely with the jaguar attributes of the portrait. We can assume that this is the supernatural identity of K’inich Lakamtuun, given he is the protagonist of the stela and the side inscription.
Stela 31’s record of a war between the rulers of Yaxha and Ucanal is the first known historical connection between these two important centers of the eastern Peten. Their relationship must have been eventful over the course of the Classic period, however, given their close proximity, yet this history is largely missing due to the relative lack of legible texts at both sites, despite their importance, have very few legible inscriptions. Those of Yaxha are badly fragmented and date mostly to the Early Classic era. Of its Late Classic monuments, only Stela 13 and 31 have any legible contents and both date to the reign of our protagonist K’inich Lakamtuun. Ucunal’s surviving texts are small in number as well, and cluster more toward the Terminal Classic era, without a single identifiable mention of Yaxha. One of its prominent rulers of the Classic period was Itzamnaaj Bahlam, who would later be captured by K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Chahk of Naranjo in 701 CE; presumably he was Xub Chahk’s distant predecessor on the throne, and likely a royal ancestor.
K’inich Lakamtuun’s own personal history as a ruler of Yaxha provides a good case study of the political infighting among kingdoms in the region at the end of the eighth century. We have direct indications that he ruled at Yaxha in 793 (Stela 13) and in 796 (Stelae 31), but he was defeated by Naranjo’s king Itzamnaaj K’awiil only short time later, in 799, as recorded as part of a very complex historical narrative recounted on the back of Stela 12 of Naranjo (see Figure 6). In that inscription Yaxha is repeatedly cited as a target of attacks and conquests throughout the summer of that year, seemingly led by Itzamnaaj K’awill against his enemy K’inich Lakamtuun, who ultimately was captured on or before September 4, 799 (18.104.22.168.13 1 Ben 6 Ceh). K’inich Lakamtuun’s capture of Xub Chahk was only a short-lived victory, therefore, for he himself was forced to flee Yaxha on at least two occasions before being captured only three years later. But what was the fate of his own illustrious prisoner?
Caracol Altar 23 and the Display of Xub Chahk
Altar 23 of Caracol was dedicated on the Period Ending 22.214.171.124.0 10 Ahau 8 Zac (August 16, 800 CE), just shortly after the accession of the new local ruler K’inich Joy K’awiil (Figure 4). It was one of several monuments dedicated on this date, representing a time of significant political and artistic revival at the site after a number of years of relative quiet. The well-preserved sculpture presents two bound captives who each sit upon large table-like stones or “altars” in a bilateral composition, surrounded by text captions (Chase, Grube and Chase 1991:7-11). It is likely that Altar 23 itself was once such a pedestal monument, and that the carved image is self-referential, depicting two unfortunate prisoners who were separately displayed on Altar 23 as part of the celebration of the new king’s Period Ending.
The main text of the altar is placed in a vertical band between the two prisoners, opening with a record of the 10 Ahau 8 Zac (A1-B1) or 126.96.36.199.0. The ensuing two glyphs note that the Peried Ending is u k’altuun, (U-K’AL-TUUN) “his stone-raising,” ti tahnlamaw, “at the half-diminishing” (a half-period). The name of the ruler K’inich Joy K’awiil comes next at C1 (K’INICH-JAY-K’AWIIL-li), followed by the standard Caracol emblem title at C2 (k’uhul k’antu[?] maak). The main passage continues with a second verbal statement directly related to the scene, opening with chuhkaj, “he is captured” and a non-specific subject, simply given as U-BAK-ka, u bak, “his prisoner(s).” The owner of the captives is then given with the following three blocks as a lord named Tum Yohl K’inich (C4: tu-mu-OHL-K’INICH), accompanied by the titles “three k’atun lord” (B4) and baahkab (B5: ba-ka-ba). It is noteworthy that Tum Yohl K’inich – no longer the king at this time — lacks the distinctive Caracol emblem glyph we found earlier with K’inich Joy K’awiil. The final glyphs of the main passage tell us that the capture episode was “overseen” by K’inich Joy K’awiil (D1), who does take the emblem (D2) and an additional bahkaab title (D3). Evidently we have a complex relationship to ponder here, between the current Caracol king and another person who bears a familiar name found with several other Caracol rulers. We will return to this question momentarily.
Each of the captives is identified by name and place of origin. The short glyph caption behind the figure at left reads LEM?-TI’-BAHLAM, probably for Lem Uti’ Bahlam, “Shining is the Mouth of the Jaguar.” He also has an emblem glyph title, labelled as the k’uhul ajaw or ruler of a dynasty or place bi-TAL or BIH-TAL. No archaeological site has been ideitified as yet with the name “Bital” (as I will provisionally refer to it) but we know of three other mentions of the site, two from war records at Naranjo (see Chase, Grube and Chase 1991:9), and another from an Early Classic vessel more recently excavated in a tomb at Caracol. The place named Bital presumably exists somewhere in the area of these two sites. The caption continues with ye-te, a relationship term perhaps based on et or eht (y-et, “his companion”[?]), and then with the name we have already seen, Tum Yohl K’inich or Tutum Yohl K’inich.
Turning to the portly captive shown at the right on Altar 23, his caption reads xu-bu-cha-ki (G1) and he carries the Ucanal emblem glyph (G2: K’UH-K’AN-WITZ-NAL-AJAW). This of course repeats the prisoner’s name on Yaxha Stela 31. He again is named as the y-eht, “the companion(?) of” Tum Yohl K’inich (G3, G4). Given the proximity of the dates, the two mentions of “Xub Chahk, the Holy Lord of K’anwitznal (Ucanal)” at Yaxha and Caracol must refer to the same individual. On Stela 31 his capture by K’inich Lakamtuun was given as August 11, 796, and on Caracol Altar 23 we see him presented — and also “captured” — nearly four years later to the day, on August 16, 800.
To my knowledge this this the first attested example of one captive being portrayed as a prisoner at two sites, and it naturally raises a number of interesting questions. These center not only on Xub Chahk’s unfortunate history, but to some extent on the nature of Maya warfare and history during this turbulent period at the beginning of the Terminal Classic.
The Wars of 799
How did Xub Chahk, captured by Yaxha’s king, end up four years later on display at Caracol? As with much of Maya history this is impossible to answer through direct evidence. Apart from Stela 31 and Altar 23, no historical sources at our disposal make reference to Xub Chahk, nor do any texts fill in the blanks about his apparent “transfer” or movement from one site to another. However, it is important that we view his story in the larger historical context of those times, and specifically within the setting of wider political instabilities at the very end of the eighth century.
As we have seen, this was an era of frequent conflict and strife in the region of the eastern Petén, as especially revealed by two important sources — Stela 12 of Naranjo and the extraordinary “Komkom” Vase recently excavated at Baking Pot, Belize (Helmke, Hoggarth and Awe 2018). Stela 12’s very long text (Figure 5) focuses on a series of military engagements waged by the Naranjo king Itzamnaaj K’awiil against Yaxha (Stuart 1993:414-5), leading up to the Period Ending 188.8.131.52.0 (Note 1). This important narrative has gained renewed attention based on fascinating parallels between it and the lengthy text on the Komkom vase, which Helmke has found to repeat much of the same historical informatiot with a slightly different “spin” and perspective (see Helmke, Hoggarth and Awe 2018:82-86). The vase was produced much later than the history its text recounts, in the early ninth century, as a record of retrospective history – perhaps as a gift or “momento” of wars in the recent past.
Stela 12’s long storyline contains a nine very closely grouped dates, beginning in February 15, 799 and leading up to the Period Ending 184.108.40.206.0 on August 16, 800 (the same date we saw recorded on Caracol’s Altar 23). A number of war-related events such as conquest and “fleeing” are mentioned over these eighteen or so months, several involving attacks on Yaxha. The first of these occurs on 220.127.116.11.16 12 Cib 9 Uo, or February 18, 799, when we read of a conquest of some unknown locale named Ux K’awiil, said to be “within Yaxha” (tahn ch’een yaxa’) (see Helmke, Hoggarth and Awe 2018:68) (Figure 5b). Part of the passage is damaged, but it continues with a verb reading ahn-i “he flees” (AN-ni, using an interesting logographic variant of the more common syllabic a-ni spelling also found in this text), suggesting an event of conquest or disruption (Note 2). The subject is effaced, but given patterns later in this same text and parallel metnions on the Komkom Vase, it was surely K’inich Lakamtun who “fled” on this day (Helmke, Hoggarth and Awe 2018:70-71). An accompanying verb of movement t’ab-iiy, “goes up (to)” appears next on Stela 12, with an unclear place name and subject. Again we find a parallel on the Komkom Vase, where the a place name is preserved, spelled u-su-la, possibly for Usu’l (ibid.:71). Even these ambiguities and unclear participants, it is clear that this passage on Stela 12 features an attack on Yaxha and the displacement K’inich Lakamtuun as a result. And it is the first of several such statements, each echoing the same general pattern.
Fifty-five days later, on 18.104.22.168.11 2 Chuen 4 Tzec, we read:
2-KAj?-yi K’INICH-LAKAM(TUUN) YAX-a-AJAW ?-?-?K’AWIIL?-li MUT-AJAW-wa cha’ kahji k’inich lakamtuun yaxha’ ajaw u kabjiiy(?) k’awiil mutul ajaw
He settled(?) again, K’inich Lakamtuun, the Yaxha Lord, by the doing of ?, the Mutul Lord.
This statement (not illustrated here) is important in bringing Tikal into this complex political mix, as the overseer or patron of the K’inich Lakamtuun. The main verb at the beginning of the text refers to the establishment or “founding” of ruling centers, and perhaps reads KAJ, for kaj, “start, begin, settle,” as suggested by Dimitri Belaiev (personal communication 2015). Evidently K’inich Lakamtuun had been in exile from Yaxha, perhaps having fled at the time of the initial attack recorded against Yaxha, on 12 Cib 9 Uo. This new statements suggests that he may have returned from exile after a period of 55 days, or was otherwise somehow reinstated, under the watchful eye of Tikal’s own ruler. Tikal’s role here is fascinating, for the use of the term u kabjiiy implies a hierarchical relationship as the political superior of Yaxha – a relationship that resonates also in the archaeology and architectural layout of Yaxha, with its Twin Pyramid group. And it is worth noting that around 799 CE Tikal’s own dynastic record is largely invisible. No monuments of the time appear at Tikal, so that the royal name on Stela 12, while damaged and unreadable, would have filled an important gap in the later portions of Tikal’s dynastic sequence.
Stela 12 continues by noting that 91 days after K’inich Lakamtuun’s possible re-enstatement at Yaxha he was again attacked by Narnajo on 2 Ik 15 Ch’en (22.214.171.124.2)(Figure 5c). The verb has the numerical adverb cha’, “two,” or “again,” and his destination is different, though unclear. The first glyphs of the passage read:
2-CH’AK-ja YAX-a a-ni K’INICH-LAKAM(TUUN)-ni T’AB-yi ya-?-? cha’ ch’ahkaj yaxha ahni k’inich lakamtuun
“Again Yaxha was attacked and K’inich Lakamtuun fled”
As Helmke, Hoggarth and Awe (2018:69) note, a parallel episode is recorded on the Komkom vase, coming four days later on 126.96.36.199.6 6 Ik 19 Ch’en. On this day K’inich Lakamtuun (with a misspelled name) was the victim of an attack. The common phrasing and circumstances suggests that this must refer to the same overall episode as recorded on Stela 12, although on a slightly different historical time-frame.
K’inich Lakamtuun’s fate gets worse, as we continue to read the account on Stela 12. On 188.8.131.52.13 1 Ben 6 Ceh he falls victim to yet another “axe” event, a defeat at an unknown locale when for a third time the Yaxha ruler must flee (ahn-i) to another place. Subsequent passages on Stela 12 go on to refer to the Naranjo’s sacking and taking of Yaxha’s wealth (in the final columns of the text we read y-ikaatz yaxa ajaw, “the load ([of jade] of the Yaxha lord”), an extraordinary statement regarding the material consequences of Maya warfare (Note 3).
The day 1 Ben 6 Ceh appears to represent the culmination of prolonged warfare by Naranjo against Yaxha. In fact the same date is highlighted as a single, freestanding event in the fascinating inscription on Naranjo’s Stela 35, a monument dedicated on the same Period Ending as Stela 12, but couching the conflict in more mythological terms. There war is described as a like-in-kind recurrence of a primordial “burning” of a god, or group of gods, whose names look identical to those cited on Stela 31 of Yaxha as the supernatural identities of K’inch Lakamtuun. The attack on Yaxha’s king on 1 Ben 6 Ceh involves the “axing” of a temple and the defeat of K’inich Lakamtuun’s god, clearly a historical reflection of that earlier myth. Thus Stela 12 and Stela 35, both dedicated on the same day, serve complimentary roles as historical and mythic records of warfare.
These two Naranjo texts can be analyzed in far more detail, but I need not go over them here, especially given the excellent new comparative analysis of Stela 12 by Helmke and his colleagues. Suffice it to say that Xub Chahk’s capture and subsequent “transfer” must be understood in terms these unusually detailed records of conflict in the year 799, when his own captor was constantly on the run across the eastern Peten.
The attacks against Yaxha by Naranjo’s king in the 790s apparently involved some degree of inter-familial strife, given the close dynastic connections between the two centers. Several mentions of Itzamnaaj K’awiil’s mother in the texts of Naranjo refer to her with the royal title Ix Yaxa’ Ajaw, “The Noblewoman of Yaxha,” revealing that she was married into the Naranjo dynasty as the wife of Itzamnaaj K’awiil’s father, K’ahk’ Kalaw Chan Chahk. Itzamnaaj K’awiil’s wars were therefore against his mother’s home community, and presumably against some fairly close relatives, who might have included K’inich Lakamtuun himself. And the conflicted connections between these two neighboring centers appear to have run very deep. Earlier in Naranjo’s history we read of another conquest or defeat of Yaxha on 184.108.40.206.18 8 Etznab 16 Uo (March 20, 710), given as the Initial Series date on the side of Naranjo, Stela 23. The young king K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Chahk, the grandfather of Itzamnaaj K’awiil, was the agent of this war. That was a particularly destructive episode, involving the “burning” of the city of Yaxha (its “cave,” ch’een) and the opening and defilement of the tomb of its deceased king, Yax Bolon Chahk. Just a few years later another Yaxha lord participated in a dance performance by K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Chahk, in 714, as recorded in the opening passage of Stela 30. The wars against Yaxha at the end of the eighth century exhibit a rupture within a complex family network that existed throughout most of the previous decades.
Xub Chahk is nowhere to be found in Naranjo’s own detailed narratives of the Naranjo-Yaxha war. Was he taken by Naranjo’s court? Or was he set free by Naranjo’s king, as an enemy of an enemy? There is no satisfactory answer at present, but we should keep in mind that Ucanal had itself once been a long-standing enemy of Naranjo, conquered, as we have seen, by Itzamnaaj K’awiill’s grandfather earlier in the seventh century. This might suggest that Xub Chahk would not have met a friendly fate at the hand of the Naranjo king when he defeated K’inich Lakamtuun. By 820 CE Naranjo’s relationship with Ucanal seems to have warmed, as indicated by the ritual visit of a subsequent Naranjo king to that site as recorded on Stela 32. In short, we can’t know the nature of political relations between Naranjo and Ucanal in 799, whether they were amicable or not.
The immediate fate of Xub Chahk is unclear, at least until he reappears at Caracol. It is surely significant that Xub Chahk’s display occurred only a very short time after the accession of its new king K’inich Joy K’awiil on 220.127.116.11.9 6 Muluc 2 Kayab, or December 9, 799. This came after a noticeable gap or hiatus in Caracol’s own history, and within a short time K’inich Joy K’awiil erects a number of new and ambitious monuments, evidently reviving Caracol’s dynasty, at least for a time. We know little of his own family history or genealogical connections, but one possible key in our consideration of Xub Chahk is this new Caracol ruler’s relationship to the person named Tum Yohl K’inich, the “owner” of the captives mentioned three times on Altar 23. That altar says very little regarding Tum Yohl K’inich’s status, only that he was a “three K’atun Lord” and a baahkab. It might seem natural to assume that he was the predecessor of K’inich Joy K’awiil, as Martin and Grube (2000) suggest. Significantly, his name appears also on Caracol, Altar 12, perhaps in association with 18.104.22.168.0 12 Ahau 8 Pax (November 29, 780). The event there seems to refer to the “return” of someone at Ucanal, apparently in the wake of the latter’s defeat by Ixkun (Note 4).
Xub Chahk’s story, framed by these complex and vague interactions between Yaxha, Naranjo and Caracol, represent an especially belligerent moment in Classic Maya history when distinct conflicts, perhaps inter-related in some way, raged over much of the southern lowlands. The wars of the eastern Peten in 799 and 800 seem unusual in their character, at least rhetorically, compared to previous time periods (some earlier Naranjo narratives do anticipate it, however) . Naranjo’s Stela 12 and the Komkom Vase illustrate this interest in the presentation what might be called “concentrated warfare,” with its remarkably detailed narrative presentation, containing numerous dates and episodes of war spanning a remarkably short span of time. Of the ten dates recorded in Stela 12’s inscription, eight are concerned with the narrative of the Yaxha conflict and the ultimate victory over the desperate K’inich Lakamtuun. The similarly unfortunate Xub Chahk was an unwilling companion in the content movements of his captor.
Here it is also important to recall how Stela 31’s scene of violent, mythologized capture also falls well outside of the local traditions of stela design and thematic content. Before 800 or so, such overt images of war are virtually non-existent in Yaxha’s own monuments, nor are they very present in the overall artistic traditions of monument production in the central Petén. Such active depictions of capture simply don’t exist at Tikal, Uaxactun, Naranjo, and nearby centers. They are of course more standard in sculptures of the Usumacinata region, where reminiscent scenes of violent encounters occur at the centers of Dos Caobas (a regional vassal of Yaxchilan) and Moral-Reforma, also in the western region. Yaxha’s Stela 31 may possibly reflect some influences from western modes of sculpture, and at the very least represents an important departure in subject matter, much in the same way as the narrative presentation of war seems different and more intensified in the case of Stela 12, dating to just a few years later.
This lengthy note shines a spotlight on a curious group of events from Maya history when a prominent captive seems to have been kept and displayed at two different centers within the span of a few short years. The political context of Xub Chahk’s capture and transfer remains murky, despite the detailed war records references that come from his time. That his troubled captor was “on the run” during this time is surely part of that larger story, and may well account for Xub Chahk’s own curious movement and displacement. His situation was not unique, perhaps, but it represents a previously under-reported aspect of captives and prisoners in Maya history – that even as prisoners of war, they could have their own complex stories and biographies.
Note 1. Stela 12’s narrative has been studied by several epigraphers since my first notes on its connections to Yaxha in 1993. Most important are Helmke’s excellent consideration of its close parallels with the Komkom Vase, as well as the detailed reading of the texts presented in Beliaev and de Leon (2016:50-60). All of these studies have reached similar conclusions about the inscription’s historical content.
Note 2. The syllabic reading a-ni for ahn-i, “he ran, fled,” was first suggested to me by Stephen Houston in the late 1990s, in connection with its occurrence in the painted cave text of Yaleletsemen, Chiapas. The logographic form showing two legs and a lower torso was first identified by Alfonso Lacadena.
Note 3. In my previous brief study of Stela 12 (in Stuart 1993) I suggested that the mention of y-ikaatz on Stela 12 pertained to bundles of tribute paid by Yaxha as a consequence of its defeat. However, Dmitri Beliaev has shown me (personal communication 2019) that the verbal statement associated with the term is likely baak-w-aj, an alternate term for “capture” that indicates that the bundles were considered war booty.
Note 4. Ucanal’s own history during the Late Classic is extremely patchy, but it seems to have been regularly venerable to military attacks during the eighth century. According to the text on Ixkun, Stela 2, Ucanal (K’anwitznal) was “burned” on 22.214.171.124.4 2 Kan 12 Pop, or December 19, 779. This is probably a statement of military defeat, although the possibility ought to be considered that this also refers to a ceremonial fire of some sort being lit at K’anwitznal. This event came fifty days after Ixkun itself was burned by a ruler of Ucanal, probably indicating a military tit-for-tat between these centers (see Carter 2016). All of this came two decades before Ucanal’s defeat at the hands of Yaxha. The date of Ucanal’s possible defeat in 799 came less than a year before the 126.96.36.199.0 (780) Period Ending recorded as a retrospective date on Caracol, Altar 10, when Tum Yohl K’inich was involved in some sort of noteworthy ceremony at Ucanal. We must wonder therefore if Caracol was somehow indirectly involved in Ucanal’s “burning” in 779. We find no mention of Xub Chahk being present at Ucanal in connection with the events of 779 and 780, perhaps because he was not yet an adult actor.
Beliaev, Dmitri, and Mónica de Leon. 2016. Informe Técnico de Piezas Arqueológicas del Museo Nacional de Arqueología e Etnología. Proyecto Atlas Epigráfico de Peten, Fase III. Centro de Estudios Yuri Knorosov, Guatemala.
Carter, Nicholas P. 2016. These are are Mountains Now: Statecraft and the Foundation of a Late Classic Maya Court. Ancient Mesoamerica 27: 233-253.
Chase, Arlen F., Nikolai Grube and Diane Z. Chase. 1991. Three Terminal Classic Monuments from Caracol, Belize. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, no. 36. Center for Maya Research, Washington, D.C.
Helmke, Christophe, Julie Hogarth and Jaime Awe. 2018. A Reading of the Komkom Vase Discovered at Baking Pot Belize. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press Monograph 3. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.
Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2000. The Chronicle of Maya Kings and Queens. Thanks and Hudson, New York.
Stuart, David. 1993. Historical Inscriptions and the Maya Collapse. In Lowland Maya Civilization in the Eighth Century A.D., edited by Jeremy A. Sabloff and John S. Henderson, pp. 321-354. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C.
Christophe Helmke and Jaime Awe’s presentation of an important inscription fragment discovered this year at Xunantunich, Belize, is now posted on Mesoweb. Panel 3 and and its companion Panel 4 (a separate presentation of which is underway) reveal some interesting details about Classic Maya history, and hold important implications for understanding the political maneuverings involving the Kanul dynasty in the early seventh century A.D.
by David Stuart (The University of Texas at Austin)
Among the various gods we know from ancient Maya religion, the paired deities known as the Paddlers are among the most important and enigmatic. The two elderly-looking characters are probably best known as the canoe rowers depicted on several incised bones from Burial 116 at Tikal, and they nearly always operate in tandem (Figure 1). One has jaguar-like characteristics and resembles the so-called “Jaguar God of the Underworld” (JGU), whereas the other shows piscine features, as well as a diagnostic stingray-spine stuck through the septum of the nose. I refer to them as the Jaguar Paddler and the Spine Paddler, respectively.
Hieroglyphs for the two Paddlers were first recognized by Peter Mathews in his important analysis of Dos Pilas, Stela 8. He recognized their portrait glyphs (Figure 2a) embedded within a longer list of god names, perhaps a list of tutelary deities associated with the royal house (Mathews 2001:399). In the early 1980s I identified an alternate method of writing the Paddlers’ names in a pairing of ak’bal and k’in signs, always in that sequence, each encased in a distinctively-shaped cartouche (Stuart 1988:190) (Figure 2b). It was then that I introduced the term “Paddler Gods” as a convenient and neutral term of reference for the pair. Little has been said or written about these two deities in the years since, and they still remain intriguing figures in Classic Maya myth and ritual performance.
From the Tikal bones we easily gather that the Paddlers were “underworld” figures of great importance, steering the Maize God and his animal companions — a parrot, monkey, iguana and some odd mammal (representing an ancient Maya faunal taxonomy?) — into the depths of the water. A simpler depiction of the same mythological event appears on a polychrome vase, K3033 in Justin Kerr’s database, where the canoe is clearly related to the Maize God’s dressing and “water-entering” (och-ha’) as part of the mythic cycle of his demise and resurrection.
In ancient inscriptions we read nothing about the Paddlers in connection to the Maize God. Instead they seem to be especially important in Period Ending ceremonies. Monument 110 from Tonina is fairly typical of such references (Figure 3). The disc-altar was once placed before an upright statue of a ruler named K’inich ? K’ahk’ (Ruler 4), serving as a figurative receptacle for offerings on the Period Ending 188.8.131.52.0 5 Ahau 3 Mac (10 October, 721). The circular inscription notes the dedication of the monument (block J), the king’s scattering rite (K), and the witnessing of the ceremony by two court officials (Mb-O). The text closes with the verb yatij, perhaps “they bathe it” (P), followed by the names of the Paddlers (Q). Here their “bathing” might be best understood as a type of supernatural blessing or sanction.
The same idea seems to be depicted on a handful of late stelae from Tikal and environs, where the Paddlers, sometimes along other gods or ancestors, appear in clouds above scenes of kings casting incense or blood before a circular altar (Figure 4) (Stuart 1988). The connection between god and king could quite personal as well. On Stela 2 from Copan, celebrating the k’atun ending 184.108.40.206.0, Ruler 12 of Copan impersonates not only his distant predecessor on the throne, Tuun K’ab Hix (Ruler 4), but he also is said to embody the two Paddlers, describes as u mam k’uh, “his ancestral gods” (see Stuart 1988:212-214).
The Paddlers’ deep involvement with Period Ending rites build on their documented roles as primordial actors in calendrical ritual. On Quirigua Stela C, they play a key role in the famous narrative of the foundational bak’tun-ending 220.127.116.11.0 4 Ahau 8 Cumku, when “thrice the stones were raised.” The first of these dedications was overseen by the Paddlers (Figure 5), establishing their prime importance in setting the mythological example that later kings would follow. It’s maybe relevant that the cyclical movement of time was symbolically encoded in the opposed night-day name of the two gods.
In this note I would like to highlight those handful of cases where we find a third figure mentioned along with the two Paddlers, creating some sort of expanded triadic set. This additional god is represented by another portrait glyph representing a young made deity with an elaborate floral headband and an IK’ sign as its ear spool (Figure 6). He represents a figure has been discussed by Taube as a Classic counterpart of Paul Schellhas’ “God H” in the codices, and symbolically he seems to be associated with wind, music and the arts (Taube 1992, 2001). One wonders if he might be some vague Maya counterpart to the later Aztec deity Xochipilli, the “Flower Prince,” with similar associations. Just why this flowery wind-man accompanies the Paddlers remains a mystery, but he’s clearly a very important player in the godly sanction of Period Ending ceremonies.
As an aside, I should mention that this wind-head hieroglyph can operate as either the god’s name or as the animate form of the IK’ (“wind, breath”) logogram, day sign, or patron of the month Mac (Mak). As a name the reading must be different, as indicated by the example from Stela 12 of Piedras Negras where it appears with the suffix –na, indicating a completely different though unknown logographic value (see Figure 6, lower right). In addition, I think we should be careful not to call this character a Maya wind god, since a very different duck-billed character was explicitly called ik’ k’uh (“wind god”), no doubt an ancestor to Ehecatl, the wind deity of the Aztecs.The headband character shown here operates differently in Maya iconography, with strong wind or breath associations nonetheless, as Taube has shown.
With or without this curious wind figure, the Paddler gods actively oversaw and participated in royal world-renewal ceremonies at Period Endings. Evidently this role perpetuated their far older mythological role as ritual celebrants in primordial time.
Mathews, Peter. 1977(2001). Notes on the Inscriptions on the Back of Dos Pilas Stela 8. In The Decipherment of Ancient Maya Writing, ed. by S. Houston, D. Stuart and O. Chinchilla Mazariegos, pp. 394-415. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.
Stuart, David. 1988. Blood Symbolism in Maya Iconography. Maya Iconography, ed,. by G. Griffin and E. Benson, pp. 175-221. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
Taube, Karl. 1992. The Major Gods of Ancient Yucatan. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art & Archaeology, 32. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC.
_________. 2001. The Breath of Life: The Symbolism of Wind in Mesoamerica and the American Southwest. In The Road to Aztlan: Art from a Mythic Homeland, ed. by V.M. Fields and V. Zamuro-Taylor, pp. 102-123. LACMA, Los Angeles.
Trik, Aubrey S. 1963. The Splendid Tomb of Temple I at Tikal, Guatemala. Expedition 6(1). The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania. http://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/the-splendid-tomb-of-temple-i-at-tikal-guatemala/
by David Stuart, The University of Texas at Austin
A great many inscribed Maya ceramics from the Classic period were marked according to their intended contents, with glyphic terms for various types of drinks, foods and other consumables. In this note I discuss a new reading for a glyph as “chili (powder or sauce).” I only know of two examples, but they shed a small bit of light on the use of some vessels and the culture of food and food preparation in Maya courtly life.
One vessel is now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and bears an unusual dedicatory text (Figures 1, 2). It is labelled as a certain type of jay (ja-ya), a word that Kerry Hull and Alfonso Lacadena each deciphered some years ago as “clay vessel” (for example Mopan, jaay, “clay bowl” [Hofling 2011:207]). The full sequence of signs in reference to the object is a bit more complex, however, reading yi-chi-li ja-ya. This is then followed by a personal name for the vessel’s owner, named ? TI’-ku-yu, or ? Ti’ Kuy (“? is the mouth (or speech) of the owl”). He may have been a young lord or prince from the eastern Petén region.
At first glance it might be assumed that yi-chi-li is related to the very common and enigmatic term spelled ji-chi, found on a great many examples of the Dedicatory Formula in the section before the possessed noun. Here though it is surely different. The first indication of this the ja-ya glyph, which is noticeably unmarked for possession. Nearly all other glyphs for jay or jaay take the third-person possessive prefix u-, as in u jay, “his/her clay bowl.” Here, however, we would seem to have a base noun jay with an adjective beforehand, which in turn takes the prevocalic form (y-) of the third-person pronoun. The root of this possessed modifier is ich, followed by a –il suffix.
Throughout Ch’olan-Tzeltalan Mayan languages the word ich means “chili (chile).” This is cognate to the Yucatec root iik, and both forms descend from the proto-Mayan form *iik (Kaufman 2003). It therefore seems reasonable to suppose that “chili” the intended meaning of the ich root in y-ichil jay, for “his chili vessel.” The form ich-il may incorporate a -Vl suffix that derives an adjective from a root noun, but it may also be a derivation to form another related noun, as in Yukatek iikil, “chili sauce.” The form of the MFA bowl suggests it could have been used for a liquid-based sauce, or it might also have been a container for powdered chile as well.
A slightly different uses of the the word ich occur in an incised text found on a sherd excavated at Calakmul (Figure 3). Here we see a partial text in a somewhat unusual arrangement, reading down in a single column and then to the two glyphs that run outward to the right.
We can analyze the vertical portion of the text as:
yo-to-ti yi-chi yu-ku-no-ma CH’EEN-na K’UH-ka-KAN y-otoot y-ich Yuknoom Ch’een K’uhul Kanul Ajaw “the container (literally ‘house’) for the chile of Yuknoom Ch’een, the divine Kanul lord.”
The word otoot is customarily translated as “house” or “dwelling” in most contexts, but when found on vessels it clearly serves as a metaphorical term for a “container”(Stuart 2005). A small flask bearing the glyphs for y-otooch may is a “tobacco snuff container,” for example. The owner’s name is familiar to many as that of Yuknoom Ch’een II, the powerful ruler of the Kaan or Kaanul dynasty who ruled from 636-686 A.D.
The sherd goes on to mention, in the two glyphs running toward the right, a phrase familiar from the MFA vessel discussed above:
i-chi-li ja-yi ich-il jaay
“(it is) a chile (sauce?) vessel”
This seems to be an unusual reiteration of the pot’s contents, added in case the name-tag construction just beforehand wasn’t clear enough. In this instance the -il suffix on ich may simply derive the adjectival form before jaay, or alternatively we are looking at the derived noun ichil, “chili sauce,” as described above. For now “(it is) a chili vessel” or “(it is) a chili sauce vessel” seem equally plausible readings of the two hieroglyphs.
Another vase (K555) bears a text that may indicate chili as a possible ingredient in a cacao beverage (Figure 4). Two badly repainted glyphs on the rim of the vessel may identify its intended contents as i-chi ka-wa for ich kakaw, “chili cacao,” but this reading must remain highly tentative.
So in summary, two inscribed Classic Maya vessels can now be identified as as pots for chili, either as a powder a sauce that could be added to a wide variety of delicacies prepared in Maya royal households. In light of the recent detection of chemical traces of chili in early ceramic vessels from Chiapa de Corzo (Gallaga Murrieta, et. al. 2013, Powis, et. al. 2013) it would be worthwhile to test the two vases described here for any similar signals of Capsicum, much in the same way chocolate and tobacco reissues have been chemically identified on other ancient ceramics (Hall, et. al., 1990; Zagorevski and Loughmiller-Newman 2012).
Note: My initial thoughts on the ich reading arose from discussions with Simon Martin, who kindly showed me an image of the Calakmul sherd back in 2008. The reading has circulated among some epigraphers for a few years now, cited in some public presentations and articles (Martin 2008, Martin 2009). Most recently it found its way into the recent publication by Gallaga Murrieta, et. al. (2013), a portion of which is also available online. This note on Maya Decipherment serves as the first overview of the epigraphic and linguistic arguments behind the decipherment.
Acknowledgements: My thanks go to Simon Martin and Guillermo Kantun for sharing images of the Calakmul sherd, a drawing of which was later published by Gallaga Murrieta, et. al. (2013:Fig. 5a). My own quick sketch of its glyphs should be considered preliminary.
Gallaga Murrieta, Emiliano, Terry G. Powis, Richard Lesure, Louis Grivetti, Heidi Kucera, Nilesh W. Gaikwad, Roberto López Bravo. 2013. El uso prehispánico de los chiles en Chiapas. Arqueologia Mexicana 130:74-79.
Hall, Grant D., Stanley M. Tarka Jr., W. Jeffrey Hurst, David Stuart and Richard E. W. Adams. Cacao Residues in Ancient Maya Vessels from Rio Azul, Guatemala. American Antiquity, 55(1): pp. 138-143.
Hofling, Charles Andrew. 2011. Mopan Maya-Spanish-English Dictionary. The University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.
Kaufman, Terrance. 2003. A Preliminary Mayan Etymological Dictionary.
Martin, Simon. 2008. Reading Calakmul: Epigraphy of the Proyecto Arqueológico de Calakmul 1994-2008. Paper presented at the VI Mesa Redonda de Palenque, November 16-21 2008, Palenque, Mexico.
___________. 2009. The Snake Kingdom: History and Politics at Calakmul and Related Courts. Presentation at the UT Maya Meetings, University of Texas at Austin, March 1, 2009.
Powys Terry G., Emiliano Gallaga Murrieta , Richard Lesure, Roberto Lopez Bravo, Louis Grivetti, Heidi Kucera, and Niles W. Gaikwad. 2013. Prehispanic Use of Chili Peppers in Chiapas, Mexico. PLoS ONE 8(11): e79013.
Stuart, David. 2005. Glyphs on Pots: Decoding Classic Maya Ceramics. Sourcebook for the 29th Maya Meetings at Texas, The University of Texas at Austin, March 11-16, 2005.
Zagorevski, D. V. and Loughmiller-Newman, J. A. 2012. The detection of nicotine in a Late Mayan period flask by gas chromatography and liquid chromatography mass spectrometry methods. Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry 26:403–411.