More on the Paddler Gods

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.

Tikal canoe scene
Figure 1. Drawing on small incised bone from Burial 116 at Tikal, showing the Paddler gods on their mythic canoe. (From Trik 1963:fig.3a).
Paddlers variants
Figure 2. (a) Paddler names from Stela 8 at Dos Pilas (drawing by I. Graham), (b) on an unpublished stucco hieroglyph from Tonina (photo by D. Stuart, 1980)

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[1977]: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.

TNA Mon 110
Figure 3. Tonina, Monument 110. Note the Paddlers’ names in block Q. (Drawing by I. Graham)

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 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.

Ixlu St 2
Figure 4. Ixlu, Stela 2, showing the Paddlers above a scattering scene. (Drawing by L. Schele).

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, 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).

Quirigua St C Paddlers
Figure 5. Record of the Paddlers erecting a stone on, from Quirigua Stela C (drawing by D. Stuart).

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 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.

Figure 6. The Paddler Triad.

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.

References Cited

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.

Chili Vessels

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.

Figure 1. Chile sauce vessel in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Accession no. 1988.1264.
Figure 1. Chile sauce vessel in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Accession no. 1988.1264.

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.

MFA chili vessel text
Figure 2. Glyphs reading yi-chi-li ja-ya, y-ich-il jay, on the MFA vessel. (Note: the roll-out view of the text is only partial, omitting the final two glyphs.

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.

chili sherd. drawing
Figure 3. Drawing of glyphs on sherd excavated at Calakmul, marking its vessel as the “container for the chile of Yuknoom Ch’een, the Divine Kanul Lord” (Drawing by D. Stuart).

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.

Figure 4. Roll-out of a restored Late Classic vessel (K555) bearing a possible i-chi glyph at center of rim text. Photograph by Justin Kerr.

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.

References Cited:

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.

An Early Classic Bird Vase

by David Stuart (The University of Texas at Austin) and Peter Stuart (Hampshire College)

Figure 1. Two views of bird effigy vase. From Fields and Reents-Budet (2005:209)
Figure 1. Two views of bird effigy vase. From Fields and Reents-Budet (2005:209)

Early Classic Maya ceramics often assume imaginative three-dimensional forms, especially the modeled and incised black-ware vessels produced in the central Peten region between about 300-500 AD, or what is sometimes called “Tzakol III,” using the chronological typology first developed out of the Uaxactun excavations. One such vessel is a lidded bird effigy shown here, identified in its accompanying five-glyph inscription as an uk’ib drinking vessel. Although not the finest masterpiece of Maya ceramic art, it does bear an interesting text that may tell us something about the vase and the species of bird it represents.

In their brief discussion of this vase Fields and Reents-Budet (2005:208) identify the bird as a cormorant, a species of water–bird otherwise common on painted vases of the Classic period. However, we believe that the vase shows a very different type of bird, perhaps a rare representation of a great-tailed grackle or Mexican grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) – a noisy and cunning bird that is noticeably widespread in the Maya region (and ubiquitous here in Austin) which often seen drinking from standing and running water. The watery associations of the bird are indicated by the small turtle attached to its front, serving perhaps as a handle for the body of the vase.

Figure 2. Drawing of the hieroglyphs on the back of the bird effigy. The top-most glyph is in the medallion behind the bird's head. Drawing by David Stuart
Figure 2. Drawing of the hieroglyphs on the back of the bird effigy. The top-most glyph is in the medallion behind the bird’s head. Drawing by David Stuart

Fields and Reents-Budet (2005:208) note that the name of the owner is written “on the disk attached the back of the cormorant’s head.” This is probably not true. Given its location, the glyph is more likely to be the name of the bird and, by extension, the name of the vessel itself. This is strongly suggested by the inclusion in the glyph of the signs mu-ti, known elsewhere to spell muut, “bird” – a reading long-known since its first identification by Knorosov in the almanacs of The Dresden Codex. Also, it is common to find name glyphs written in circular medallions on the heads of people, especially in Early Classic Maya art (Stuart 2000:484).

The placement of the medallion glyph suggests that it can be read as the opening of the entire text that runs below. The very next glyph is yu-k’i-bi, for y-uk’ib, “his drinking vessel,” followed by three glyphs on the vessel’s body that note of the vessel’s contents (ixiimte’) and the name of the owner, who we can call Mam Ajaw. The text is fairly straightforward as follows, with only one sign in the final name glyph lacking identification (as far as I am aware, the sign is unique to this vessel).

A:  BAAK-mu-ti-la
B:  yu-k’-bi

baakmuutiil yuk’ib ixiimte’ mam ajaw mihiin(?) ? muwaan

Baakmuutiil is the drinking vessel for the ixiimte’ of Mam Ajaw Mihiin(?) ? Muwaan.

The text thus names the vessel and the designaties it contexts and owner, much as we see in other early examples of the dedicatory formula on Maya vases.

As a brief aside, it is worth noting that the text on our bird vessel shows a rare use of the word ixiimte’, “maize tree” working alone to indicate of the vessel’s contents. Far more common is the combination ixiimte'(el) kakaw, a standard term for chocolate drink throughout the Classic period (Stuart 2007; Martin 2006). As Martin notes in his nuanced analysis of cacao imagery in Maya art and iconography, “maize tree” refers not to a specific plant species, nor to maize itself, but to a broader idea of “magical bounty that grew from the flesh of the Maize God” (Martin 2006:177-178). This more generalized concept of a fruiting Maize God is visually indicated by representation of the Maize God as a cacao tree. On our vessel, the ixiimte’ hieroglyph thus stands as a shorthand reference to the vase’s chocolate contents. Martin illustrates an identical truncated phrase (yuk’ib ixiimte’) from another Early Classic cacao vase (Martin 2006:Figure 8.16b).

Now back to our bird: If baakmuutil is some sort of designation for the vessel that incorporates the word for “bird” (muut), then what might it mean? Baak of course is “bone,” as the form of the initial sign element shows. A “bone bird” seems an obscure term, but in Tzeltal and Tzotzil Mayan we find it is the name of a zanate, or grackle:

Tzeltal (Slocum and Gerdel 1965): bacmut, (el) sanate

Tzendal (Ara 1986:247) bacmut bacni, tordo

Tzotzil (Laughlin 1975:77): bak mut, “bone-bird” or “skinny-bird,” boat-tailed grackle, Cassidix mexicanus

As Laughlin notes, the meaning of bak here may be as an adjective “skinny,” a sense that also existed in Classic Mayan, where the noun baak can mean both “bone” and “prisoner” (a “bony” person.). The entry from Ara’s colonial Tzendal word list gives bacni (“skinny-nose”) as an alternate term for “tordo,” probably in reference to the grackle’s prominent, elongated beak (ni is both “nose” and “bird’s beak”). We have not encountered bak mut outside of Tzeltalan languages, and a number of other terms for zanates can be in lowland Mayan languages. In Ch’ol, Hull and Fergus (2011) note four distinct terms for grackle species: ak’xi’, kel, wachil, and xunub.

Laughlin identifies bak mut as a boat-tailed grackle. However, ornithologists today distinguish boat-tailed grackles from their southern neighbors, great-tailed grackles. In the Maya region they do not overlap, and of the two only the great-tailed grackle occurs there. The boat-tailed grackle, although very similar in appearance, is found only on the coasts of the extreme southeastern U.S. and most of Florida.

Figure 3. Great-tailed Grackle. Photograph by David Mendosa.

We believe that the identification of the bird vase as a great-tailed grackle is also suggested by two of its physical features. First, the dark, shiny surface of the vase, typical of many Tzakol III vessels, may be used to replicate the bird’s distinctive glossy black feathers. Second, the prominent ringed eyes on the vase — an unusual feature in Maya bird representations — seems a good rendering of a grackle’s striking yellow eyes, as seen in the accompanying photo.

One point regarding the hieroglyphic spelling. The -Vl suffix on baakmuutiil is interesting. Such suffixes are widespread in Classic Mayan and in modern Mayan languages, with numerous functions. Often they derive abstract nouns from other nouns or adjectives, or else they can derive concrete nouns from adjectives or abstract concepts. Here the suffix on the core noun baakmuut may point to an interesting case of an “abstracted” grackle, or an exemplar or image that carries the essence of “grackle-ness.”

Finally, we see some playfulness or humor in the design of this grackle vase. The label “skinny bird” seems intentionally ironic for the portly form of the vessel. And these noisy birds were no doubt common in many ancient Maya communities, gathering in numbers around ponds and pools to drink and bathe. How appropriate, then, for an ancient Maya artisan to craft an uk’ib in the form of a highly visible “drinker” from nature.

To conclude, Classic Mayan terms for particular bird species, such as baakmuut or yuhyuum, “oriole”, are gradually being clarified, due to the fact that they often have corresponding forms in modern Mayan languages. As the ancient faunal terminology grows researchers will continue to gain small but interesting insights into how the ancient Maya related to the natural world around them.

Sources Cited:

Ara, Domingo de. 1986. Vocabulario de lengua Tzeldal según el orden de Copanabastla. Edición de Mario Humberto Ruz. UNAM, Mexico, D.F.

Fields, Virginia, and Dorie Reents-Budet. 2005. Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred maya Kingship. Scala, New York.

Hull, Kerry, and Rob Fergus. 2011. Ethno-ornithological Perspectives on the Ch’ol Maya Reitaku Review, col. 17, pp. 42-92.

Laughlin, Robert M. 1975. The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of Zinacantan.

Slocum, Marianna,  and Florecia Gerdel 1965. Vocabulario Tzeltal de Bachajon. ILV, Mexico, D.F.

Stuart, David. 2000. ‘The Arrival of Strangers’: Teotihuacan and Tollan in Classic Maya History. In Mesoamerica’s Classic Heritage: From Teotihuacan to the Aztecs, ed. by D. Carrasco, L. Jones and S. Sessions. pp. 465-513. University Press of Colorado, Boulder.

_________. 2007. The Language of Chocolate: References to Cacao on Classic Maya Drinking Vessels. In Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao, edited by Cameron L. McNeil, pp. 184-201. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

The Royal Headband: A Pan-Mesoamerican Hieroglyph

by David Stuart (The University of Texas at Austin)

Note: This unpublished paper was written back in 2008 on honor of the late Henry B. Nicholson, the great scholar of Aztec history and culture who was a good friend and eager supporter of my work back when I was just starting out in the Mesoamerican field. I post my old paper here with minimal edits, and with the caveat that some lines of thinking have changed in the seven or so years since this was written. For example, I am currently rethinking issues on early Mesoamerican script history, as reflected in some recent public talks (Stuart 2014a and b)) and in a book now under preparation on the Pre-Classic Maya texts from San Bartolo. The age of this paper is reflected also in parts where I attempted to describe the nature of Aztec (Nahua) writing, in recognition of Nicholson’s seminal contributions to the study of highland Mexican scripts. Soon after this was written, several colleagues produced important works on the Aztec hieroglyphic system, most notably Lacadena (2008), Zender (2008) and Whittaker (2009).

For Nick

This essay focuses on a hieroglyphic sign that shows a remarkable geographic, temporal and linguistic spread throughout ancient Mesoamerica. It might seem unusual to treat the main Mesoamerican writing systems (Olmec, Maya, Teotihuacan, Isthmian, Zapotec, Mexica-Aztec, etc.) together in this way, but there do exist a handful of signs and elements shared among these traditions, holding similar if not identical semantic values and therefore reflecting some profound historical historical and cultural connections. The sign in question is what I call the “royal headband,” representing the simple paper-cloth device worn by Mesoamerican rulers and nobility (Figure 1). As we will see, this sign appears in several of the major Mesoamerican scripts with the semantic value of “lord” or “ruler.” It is most likely a logogram with a firm phonetic value corresponding to the words for “lord, ruler” in the writing systems where it occurs.

Figure 1. The royal headband sign in Zapotec, Maya and Aztec writing.
Figure 1. The royal headband sign in Zapotec, Maya and Aztec writing.

As background to this discussion, it is important to note that the conventions of all Mesoamerican writing systems share a few essential features and characteristics. These commonalities are rarely considered in any broad comparitive way, for they are very general and small in number. Their existence reflects, I believe, something of a common history and origin to Mesoamerican writing, traceable to the Middle Preclassic era if not earlier, near to the time when the formal conventions of Mesoamerican art and representation first coalesced, giving rise to what is commonly known as the “Olmec” style. Some of these deep-seeded features of Mesoamerican script traditions include:

  • Signs that are visually and perhaps linguistically anchored to and part of a larger and codified artistic and iconographic system. Understanding and using one system necessitates knowing the other.
  • Signs generally occupy a roughly square or rectangular field, either a single elements or in stacks, accretions, etc., often in association with other iconographic programs.
  • Signs tend toward profile views of heads and various objects, but not always so.
  • Basic logography, where word signs, usually visually or iconographically transparent, easily join others to emblematically represent proper names (people, calendrical units, places).
  • Logograms by nature have a set, standardized word value in a particular language. In this sense all Mesoamerican scripts are language-based, and so-called “ideographs” are of minor importance, if even at all present.
  • In some scripts the use of some pure phoneticism, where signs can be used just for their sound values, to specify pronunciation or clarify ambiguity.

Not all of these are equally relevant to the present discussion, and surely others can be brought to bear on the complex question of historical connections among various scripts. Suffice it to say for now that he royal headband glyph, appearing in texts sopanning two millennia, provides a compelling comparative set for looking at such deep historical and artistic connections. Over this long history, the headband sign displayed a remarkable visual consistency (Figure 1), perhaps giving some indication of the importance of kingship as a social and political institution in both time and space.

The royal headband in most if not all these scripts served as a logograph, bearing a specific word-value corresponding to “lord” or “king.” Thus, in the Maya script, it was always read AJAW; in Nahua systems of the Late Postclassic and Early Colonial period the very same sign, representing the so-called “turquoise diadem,” was read TEŪCTLI. We can trace this element back to the very beginnings of Mesoamerican script and symbolism, as far back as the the Early and Middle Formative Olmec traditions. The headband was, therefore, one of a few “elemental” symbols in early Mesoamerican visual communication, and apart from some obvious animal heads used in calendrical notations (day signs such as “Jaguar” or “Deer,” for example) I can think of no other single visual form that had such a widespread appearance in the history of Mesoamerican writing. In my case-by-case overview that follows, I will begin with late and well-documented examples from the Nahua and Maya traditions, and then trace its appearance in the more opaque and early scripts of Oaxaca and in Olmec writing and iconography.

I. The Headband in Nahuatl Writing (TEŪCTLI)

The writing systems of the Nahua-speaking communities of Late Postclassic Mexico were, I believe, more highly developed and phonetically representational than many scholars have supposed. Henry Nicholson went far in demonstrating this linguistic dimension in a brilliant essay that still stands, I think, as one of the most insightful treatments of Mexica-Aztec writing and its capabilities as a partially phonetic system (Nicholson 1973). Few authors have built on Nicholson’s ideas in this regard, although Lacadena and Wichman’s (2004) recent work has since gone far toward developing a truly systematic understanding of the phonetic dimensions of Nahua writing and its known sub-traditions (Lacadena 2003, n.d.).

These phonetic approaches to understanding the Nahua script (or scripts) run counter to a widespread view that highland Mexican writing was functionally indistinguishable from other modes of pictorial representation. In this way, according to Boone, “in the semasiographic systems of the Mixtecs and Aztecs, the pictures are the texts. There is no distinction between word and image” (Boone 1994:20). In assessing the nature of script in Postclassic Mexico, Boone elsewhere notes that “if one defines writing narrowly as spoken language that is referenced phonetically by visible marks, the Mexican system clearly does not fit” (Boone 2005:29)

I disagree somewhat with such characterizations, based on my own different assumptions and understandings of what constitutes writing in these late highland traditions. Whereas many would tend to collapse the categories of text and image, especially in the setting of manuscript painting, I see a greater distinction at work, where pictorial images interact intimately with a separate category of hieroglyphic elements anchored strongly in linguistic representation. In this sense, following Nicholson’s earlier insights, highland glyphs are very much phonetic, although usuallly employed for the spelling of proper names — short and direct labels for actors, places, or dates. But they are writing (linguistically encoded) nonetheless, and I believe that ancient painters and scribes were quite conscious of their special language-based role in the wider but integrated visual system of communication.

The difficulty in discerning a category of “true” writing in highland Mexico stems partially from the basic representational nature of all Mesoamerican scripts. But the issue may also involve a common misunderstanding of the Nahuatl word, tlahcuilohtli, often translated as both “escritura” and “pintura” (Molina 110r) (Note 1). This double meaning would seem to blur any distinction as well, but its literal meaning is “a thing which has been painted,” derived from the transitive verb ihcuiloa, “to paint something.” That is, tlahcuilohtli is a technical term that is equally applicable to the production of writing and pictorial images; it reveals little about indigenous conceptual categories. More helpful perhaps is the word machiyotl, generally meaning “sign,” “symbol” or “mark.” If there is one word in Nahuatl that approaches the notion of “hieroglyph,” this is it. It is based on the irregular root mati,”to know something,” and literally machiyotl “a thing by which something becomes known.” It conveys the idea of a visual form that conveys information. Notice how in the Florentine Codex machiyotl or machiotl appears in contexts that leave no doubt it refers to a date hieroglyph:

Injc ce capitulo, itechpa tlatoa, injc centetl machiotl in jtoca ce cipactli, ioan in qualli tonalli in quimaceoaia, in vncan tlacatia, in toqujichti, in cioa…

First chapter, in which telleth of the first sign, which was named One Crocodile, and of the good fortune which they merited who were born then — men or women… (Dibble and Anderson 1979:1)

Note that Dibble, Anderson and others often translate both machiyotl and tonalli as “day sign,” but these are in reality very different words: machiyotl refers to the visual form of the day sign’s glyph, whereas tonalli refers to the more abstract essence of the day name as a label for one’s soul or fortune in life.

Molina’s dictionary specifies the connection to writing even more directly with the entry machiyotlahtoliztli, “letra” (Molina 77v). Taken literally, this is “the act of speech in the form of a symbol.” This term appears in a colonial dictionary and may reflect an attempt to describe alphabetic writing in an indigenous framework. But it is also possible that these are older expressions that point to a more sophisticated indigenous notion of Nahua writing than has been previously supposed (Bridget Hodder, personal communication, 1995).

These complex issues about the nature of Nahua writing and pictography can be addressed in far more detail at another time, but I bring them up here as necessary background for identifying the headband sign as a logogram – a sign that in the Nahuatl writing systems was wedded to a particular word-value, namely TEŪCTLI. The point may not seem terribly important for the overall discussion the sign and its appearances throughout Mesoamerican visual systems, but it serves to emphasize that Nahuatl writing was much like other scripts in Mesoamerica in not being loosely “ideographic,” but highly systematized and tightly anchored to a particular language.

Figure 2. The xiuhhuitzolli headband on a royal portrait of Ahuizotl, from the Mendoza Codex (Drawing by the author).
Figure 2. The xiuhhuitzolli headband on a royal portrait of Ahuizotl, from the Mendoza Codex
(Drawing by D. Stuart).

As has long been known, the royal headband sign is found in numerous pictorial manuscripts, always as part of a proper name incorporating the root teūc(tli), “lord, noble, ruler.” The form of the glyph is usually described as a diadem, and in simple representations it is white-colored and tied at the back, clearly made of cloth or paper and stiffened and wide in the front. It’s most elaborate form is known as the xiuhhuitzolli (often spelled xihuitzolli), a standard and diagnostic marker of supreme royal status in numerous portraits (Figure 2). Literally the name of this headgear means “a turquoise pointed thing” (xihuitl, “turquoise,” huitzolli, “pointed thing), describing its pointed front and mosaic turquoise surface. As a hieroglyphic sign the headband can be simplified somewhat without the jewel. Several place glyphs in the Mendoza Codex show this basic usage standing as the word TEŪCTLI. For example, it is used in the place glyphs for the town Tecalco, “At the Noble House” (TEŪC[TLI]-CAL[LI]), and Tecmilco, “At the Noble Field” (TEŪC[TLI]-MIL[LI]). The sign also appears in the Mendoza combined combined with an arrow sign above, for the warrior’s title tlacochteūctli, “dart lord” (TLACOCH[TLI]-TEŪC[TLI]).

Figure 4. Name glyphs of Moteuczoma [TEŪC(TLI)-ZŌMA]
Figure 3. Name glyphs of Moteuczoma [TEŪC(TLI)-ZŌMA]
One of the most important contexts for this sign is in the name glyph for the Mexica ruler Moteuczoma II, numerous examples of which have been identified in manuscripts and in Precolumbian sculptures from Tenochtitlan (Figure 3). Although the significance of this glyph was debated for many years, Umburger’s (1981) analysis of its appearances on monuments demonstrated its function as a name glyph for the historical ruler Moteuczoma Xocoyotzin. In rare cases, it also appears with the name of the earlier ruler Moteuczoma Ilhuicamina (Figure 4b).  For the later ruler’s name the headband usually takes a few additional elements, including a representation of human hair, a gold nose-plug (teoyacatl), and, in the most elaborate versions, an atl-tlachinolli symbol and a warrior’s breastplate. The headband here is clearly for TEŪCTLI, the semantic core of the proper name Moteuczoma, literally “He who Angers Like a Lord.” The bellicose symbolism conveyed by the full-blown examples of the name, including the atl-tlachinolli breath-scrolls, perhaps serve to convey the emotional semantics of the root zōma(h), “to anger, frown.” Some examples of Moteuczomah’s name in fact seem to show upright darts above the hair, evoking the tlacochteuctli military title noted above. The pattern suggests that an “angry lord” is by nature a warrior full of rage and in battle. At any rate, the name is based on the noun teūctli and therefore features the headband logogram as its visual base.

Tlaxcala scene
Figure 4. The twisted headband element as hieroglyph and headgear. A scene from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala showing Moteuczoma and his entourage.

The xiuhhuitzolli headband, with its pointed form and turquoise adornment, does not appear outside of Mexica-Aztec writing and iconography, but it has clear parallels in other visual systems of Late Postclassic highlands. In the manuscripts of the Tlaxcallan tradition we find a simpler twisted headband as a sign for royalty, used as well for the hieroglyph TEŪCTLI in the name of the Aztec emperor (Figure 4). Such examples from outside the Valley of Mexico demonstrate an important degree of formal variation among sub-traditions of Nahuatl script and symbolism. That is, TEŪCTLI is written as a royal xiuhhuitzolli headband in the Mexica-Aztec sources, but it takes a more familiar local look when rendered by Tlaxcallan artists and scribes. We will see that some degree of similar regional variation was common in the appearance of this same royal headband sign among distant and far older Mesoamerican cultures.

 II. The Headband in Maya Writing (AJAW)

When many years ago I traced the uses of the TEŪCTLI sign in Nahuatl writing, mostly following the insights by Umberger in her discussion of Moteuczomah’s name, I was struck by the fundamental similarity of the headband to the forms and uses of a similar Maya sign, read AJAW, “lord, noble, ruler. Its a common hieroglyph, of course, given the frequency of noble titles in ancient Maya inscriptions. As we will see, the similarity in the uses and forms of the Nahuatl and Maya glyphs are strong and telling, suggesting the existence of some historical connection we will explore further on in this study.

We today recognize two principal forms for AJAW, both completely interchangeable in the script (Justeson and Mathews 1984) (the glyphs used to spell the twentieth day sign Ahau are not always the same, although there is considerable overlap the signs used to spell the title). One is an abstract form sometimes called the T518 variant (citing the sign number from Thompson’s [1963] catalog), which came to be abbreviated in most instances as a superfix (T168), especially in Late Classic texts. Visually this glyph may have originated as a representation of jade jewels, specifically the “flares” and beads seen in some early details of royal costume. The other form of AJAW is a head variant representing a young man with a wide scarf or headband tied at the back (Figure 5). Typically he has a spot on his cheek — a distinctive marking for the mythical figure known in Classic sources as Juun Ajaw (One Ajaw). He is is young hunter who emerges among the later Post-Classic K’iche’ as Hunahpu (or One Hunahpu), one of the so-called Hero Twins whose exploits in defeating the lords of the underworld were recounted in the epic narrative of the Popol Vuh (Coe 1990). He is the central figure in one key story emphasized in both the Popol Vuh and in earlier Classic depictions — the shooting of the fantastic prideful bird known as Seven Macaw in the Popol Vuh or, in Classic texts, possibly as Muut Itzamnaaj (see Christenson 2003:97-100; Zender 2005; Stuart n.d.). In Classic Maya art both Juun Ajaw and this Principal Bird Deity (Bardawil 1973) served as basic symbols of kingship and authority, a role easily seen in the very name “One Ajaw,” with its slight extended sense of “first lord” or “primary lord.”

FIgure *. AJAW head forms. (a, b) as day signs, (c, d) as a royal title, (e) portrayed of the mythical hero Juun Ajaw.
FIgure 5. AJAW head forms. (a, b) as day signs, (c, d) as a royal title, (e) portrayed of the mythical hero Juun Ajaw.

The forest hunter Juun Ajaw, despite his modest attire, thus served as a quintessential type, a visual template for the image of rulership. His distinctive headband of cloth paper is not a marker of his noble status; very much the opposite is true. In the scenes of Hun Ajaw on pottery, for example, the headband seems a standard part of one’s tropical work attire, either as a lining for a straw hat or useful covering for carrying of heavy loads on a tumpline. One gets the impression that the ideology of the kingship and its mythological foundation had some roots in these more everyday activities.

The headband seen on Juun Ajaw’s glyphs and portraits is typically colored white or red, or may even be white with red coloring on its front. Its proper term was evidently sakhuun, “white headband,” mentioned in many inauguration expressions in the historical records, as in k’ahlaj sakhuun tubaah, “the white headband was tied upon his head.” A very important feature also was a small jewel attached to the very front, either in the form of a shiny bead-like element, a so-called “jester god” (Schele 1976), or as an face-like “ajaw” sign, probably representing a flower in origin. All of these are representations of small jade attachments to the headband, transforming what might otherwise be seen as modest attire into a kingly crown. The frontal jewel, with its strong floral symbolism, can be traced back to Preclassic representations in Maya art, where it may have strong symbolic connections also to maize (Fields 1991, Taube 1996). As we will soon see, this same headband with a forehead jewel also is easily traced in Zapotec and Olmec imagery. It strongly suggests furthermore that the xiuhhuitzolli turquoise diadem of Aztec royalty is a variation on the same idea, evoking the coloration and adornment of an otherwise simple cloth or paper headgear.

Figure 7. The headband alone (a) as AJAW in Maya Script: (b) in the Copan royal title, and (c and d) in two variants of the AJAW logogram from Palenque's Tablet of the 96 Glyphs.
Figure 6. (a) The headband alone as AJAW in Maya Script. (b) In the Copan royal title, and (c and d) in two variants of the AJAW logogram from Palenque’s Tablet of the 96 Glyphs.

In the Maya script we see that the headband sign by itself can be used alone to write the word AJAW, in combination with others head signs to which it can be attached (Figure 6a). In the emblem glyph of Copan, for example, we see this visual play at work, where the bat element “wears” the headband sign around its forehead (Figure 6b). Similarly, in one instance of the Palenque emblem we find the BAAK skull wearing the AJAW headband, for the conflated form (BAAK-AJAW), “the Baak(al) Lord” (Baak or Baakal being the ancient name of the Palenque royal court) (PAL:TIw, D5).  We see elsewhere that the addition of the Maya headband on certain animals, such as vultures and raccoons, transforms them into AJAW signs as well (Figure 6c,d). Since the visual cannons of Maya script favored rounded or rectangular elements, the headband alone became a convenient way for scribes to combine any other head with AJAW. The jeweled headband therefore serves alone as the most important characteristic of the AJAW head, as could be used in pars pro toto for the larger portrait sign representing Juun Ajaw.  The individual headband even takes on a somewhat pointed appearance on its front, giving a slight indication of the form it would take in late Nahuatl script.

Such visual abbreviation, using a distinguishing part of a complex sign for the whole, was common throughout most of the history of Maya writing. It was also, we know, a much older convention in Olmec iconography (Joralemon 1971). The visual cannons of Maya script favored a rounded or rectangular elements, so we can see how the headband alone became a convenient way for scribes to combine any head with AJAW. As we will now see, however, the lone headband was more than an abbreviated form, for it can be readily traced also in the history of early Zapotec script and even Olmec writing and iconography. Maya scribes who made use of the headband for writing AJAW were in this way not being so playful or innovative; in fact they were following a long convention established centuries earlier among other Mesoamerican cultures.

 III. The Headband in Zapotec Writing

Zapotec hieroglyphic writing, used throughout the Valley of Oaxaca during the Late Preclassic and Classic periods, remains largely undeciphered. Most scholars assume it was logo-syllabic in nature and that its language was Zapotecan, although details are still unclear, and virtually no signs can be securely linked to a particular word (Urcid 2001). The calendar of the inscriptions has long been the most studied and fruitful aspect of Zapotec epigraphy, and numerous dates are recorded in the panels of Monte Alban and neighboring sites, many probably with historical significance.

FIgure *. Zapotec headband signs. In the third example it is combined with a Year bearer hieroglyph.
Figure 7. Zapotec headband signs. In the third example it is combined with a Year bearer hieroglyph.
Figure 8. Zapotec urn depicting a person with a headband, possibly the deity Cocijo. Drawing by D. Stuart.
Figure 8. Zapotec urn depicting a person with a headband, possibly the deity Cocijo. Drawing by D. Stuart.

The calendrical work began with Caso’s seminal recognition of several day signs, including the four year-bearers used in the system (Caso 1928). His early efforts brilliantly demonstrated that only four day glyphs were accompanied by what he called a headdress symbol, clearly similar to the signs we have so far discussed in the distantly related Nahua and Maya systems (Figure 7). These, he reasoned, must be the four year-bearers, the four days on which a new year can falls in the interlacing mechanism of the 260- and 365-day calendars. Caso originally identified the headband as the headdress of Cocijo, the deity of storms and lightning. This seemed to have been based in part on iconographic evidence, where similar headbands appear on decorated many urns thought to depict this god (Figure 8). It is worth pointing out that Cocijo was also a rain spirit associated with the four world quarters, and thus overlapped conceptually with the structure of the four Year Bearer.

The Zapotec headband is rigid-looking in its early forms (Figure 7a), and shows a remarkable overall similarity to the Nahua and Maya variants we have seen so far — the same knot and dangling straps, for example, as well as a frontal “jewel,” in these cases a cross-like element often topped by either a flower or maize-like image. The cross was long ago interpreted by Caso and others as the sign for turquoise (Urcid 2001), referring to a frontal jewel, suggesting that we have another variant of the jeweled headband sign. This jewel must clearly have maize associations, since it is clearly also overlaps with depictions of maize stalks.

At first the Zapotec use of the headband sign to mark Year Bearer dates seems very different from the uses of other headbands described thus far in the Nahua and Maya systems, where all simply read as words for “lord” (TEŪCTLI or AJAW) in various proper names and in titles. The Zapotec use of the sign on date glyphs is indeed presents a far more restricted context, and it presumably signifies something more precise in meaning; in this light Caso’s specific attribution of the headband as “Cocijo’s headdress” would seem to make more sense.

FIgure *. Directional Juun Ajaw figure from the San Bartolo murals. Photogrpah courtesy of Ken Garrett.
FIgure 9. Directional Juun Ajaw figure from the San Bartolo murals. Photograph courtesy of Ken Garrett.

But an explanation from Maya evidence may allow us to consider an alternative scenario, where the Zapotec Year Bearers were seen simply as “lords.” In the Classic Maya calendar the Year Bearers were the very same set of four Caso proposed in the Zapotec system: the 2nd, 7th, 12th, and 17th days of the 20-day sequence (Stuart 2005). Throughout Mesoamerica, of course, the concept of the four Year Bearers was intimately tied to the four spatial divisions of the cosmos, which in turn overlapped a great deal with other sorts of directional gods and spirits — for example, deities of rain, wind, and storms (Caso’s Cocijo). Other patrons of the four directions were important as well, such as the so-called Pauahtun entities mentioned in contact-period Maya sources of Yucatan. In the New year pages of the Maya Dresden Codex we see that the four Year Bearer days become associated with still other gods who make offerings with world trees at the four world directions. And the remarkable Pre-Classic mural paintings of San Bartolo, Guatemala, dating a dozen or more centuries earlier, show a distant precursor to this concept, with its depiction of four world trees, each with a directional god who is an aspect of Juun Ajaw (Figure 9). Together these are the four “lords” of the directions. The San Bartolo scenes paintings are probably depictions of Year Bearers, for in Late Classic Maya sources we find mention of the “Four Youths” or the “Four Lords” in connection with New Year dates dates. The “lords” were, in essence, the Maya versions of the Year Bearers concept (Stuart 2005). For this reason, I speculate that the headband glyphs marking Zapotec New Year dates may also serve to mark them as “lords” of the years, much in the way the Maya seem to have believed. It is surely a leap to derive meanings from one culture to another, but I do sense we are dealing with basic and long-lasting concepts that may have had wide-ranging importance in early Mesoamerican thought.

FIgure *. The headband sign with calendar glyphs in Ñuiñe writing. After Moser (1977).
FIgure 10. The headband sign with calendar glyphs in Ñuiñe writing. After Moser (1977).

If the Zapotec headband is a sign for “lord” — and I stress this is tentative identification — one might reasonably posit a Zapotecan word for “lord,” “noble” or “king” as a likely reading for the headband at Monte Alban and environs. My own knowledge of Zapotec historical linguistics is miniscule, but I do find the root xan appears in Zapotec as a word for “dueño, jefe,” generally with the meanings we find for ajaw in Mayan; I will leave this for future consideration, by those who are more informed on the history of Zapotecan languages and script.

In the Late Classic Ñuiñe system of writing we see elements that are clearly related to the Zapotec script, combined with other visual features that strongly resemble Classic period hieroglyphic forms found at Xochicalco (Moser 1977). The year-bearer days on several Ñuiñe tablets also look to be headbands, the back-knot clearly shown, although now conflated with the round cartouches of the day signs themselves (Figure 10). There is good reason to think that the “looped cords” used as a year symbol on day signs at Xochicalco, discussed by Nicholson (1966), may also have had an origin in the headband image, but the connections perhaps less obvious.

 IV. The Headband sign in Olmec and Isthmian Symbolism

No matter how we might interpret the headband sign in Zapotec inscriptions, its form seems to be descended from an isolated headband glyph that appears in some very early settings, on “Olmec” celts dating roughly to the Middle Formative period. Whether these objects can be said to “true” writing is difficult to establish, for the celts are without archaeological context, removed from their geographical point of origin (Guerrero or Veracruz?) and so stripped of any larger artistic context. But the visual links seem clear, and have been noted by others before now (Justeson 1985: 36-37).

Figure *. Two Olmec celts with examples of the headband sign.
Figure 11. Two Olmec celts with examples of the headband sign.

One incised celt said to be from the Guerrero region and probably dating to the Middle Formative period shows a very clear example of our headband glyph, placed above a group of other signs, among them a leg and a possible ground-line (Coe, et. al. 1995:231) (Figure 11a). The back-knot is clearly visible, but there is no obvious frontal jewel. The double merlon motif on the band may serve some similar symbolic purpose, as might also the whisp-like lines above. The isolated placement of this headdress, without any head, seems in every way similar to what we have seen in Maya, Zapotec and Nahua writing, suggest that here too the entire group may incorporate a word for “lord.” If so, the lower signs may stand for a proper name, perhaps a personal or place name.

The same headband again appears one time as well on the well-known Humboldt Celt, another Olmec object likely of Middle Formative date (Figure 11b). There the placement is somewhat more complex, for it looks to be one of four sign related clusters arranged around a central “kan cross” symbol. Each cluster has an inverted u-shaped element at its foundation, each in turn attached by its base to the central cross; these inverted u forms are surely related to the “ground line” device seen in the example just described, perhaps an indication that they are toponymic in nature. The right side of the cross shows the headband sign, isolated without any head, with a clear frontal jewel or maize cob. Another possible jewel or cob is repeated at the top of the headband. Needless to say, the great age of the Humboldt Celt prevents any assertion of direct continuity with later scripts, yet it seems reasonable to suppose that the sign represents a visual precursor to the Zapotec and Maya forms, one of which is clearly a “lord” glyph.

Figure *. Royal headbands(?) on signs from La Mojarra, Stela 1
Figure 12. Royal headbands(?) on signs from La Mojarra, Stela 1

Moving forward several centuries in time within the “Olmec heartland” we come to a more fully developed script system, called “Epi-Olmec” or Isthmian. It’s most important example is found on La Mojarra, Stela 1 (Winfield Capitaine 1988; Kaufman and Justeson 1993), which contains several complex head signs that seem to wear a variation on the royal headband (Figure 12). In their analysis of this and related inscriptions, Kaufman and Justeson have pointed out that these heads, while different in some details, seem to semantically relate to ideas of “noble” or “king,” evidently because of the similarity of their headdresses or royal headgear in Isthmian iconography.  The complex headdress seen in these signs include a number of variable elements — reduced glyphic signs, it seems — all resting on a simpler knotted band. Here, the rear strap seems to point upwards rather than dangle, but the headband overall bears a strong resemblance to the devices thus far described in Zapotec, Maya and Olmec imagery. The frontal jewel is absent in the glyphic examples, but it does appear on headbands in the iconographic depictions of rulers at Cerro de las Mesas and related scenes. No examples of an isolated headband sign without the head are known in Isthmian texts, so perhaps the best comparison would be to Maya head variant forms of AJAW.

V. Conclusion

This paper has had a simple aim to trace the existence of a single hieroglyphic form through the major script traditions of Mesoamerica, spanning a two thousand year period. Of course several other glyphs in these various systems show close similarities with one another, including many shared day signs among Mesoamerican calendars. The headband form is something different, it seems, operating mostly independently from the rigid context of the calendar and presenting a unusual and distinctive form, traceable in at least two major Mesoamerican scripts (Maya and Nahuatl) with the specific phonetic value meaning “lord.”

I devoted a few paragraphs in this study to a debate that currently exists about about the nature or Nahua writing itself. Obviously this discussion wthat requires far more time and space, and it will continue among many scholars. I hope, however, that I was able to make a case for orienting Nahuatl writing as a participant in the larger tradition of phonetic (logographic) scripts in Mesoamerica. Some will debate the scope and rigidity of my definitions and presumptions, but at least for the sake of the present discussion we can see that the headband sign of Nahuatl glyphs is a word sign, functionally akin to distant cousins on other scripts.

The visual connections among all of the many headband signs seem clear enough, but establishing their shared semantic sense in all cases is not always clear. I nevertheless feel that the reappearance of this sign over the course of two thousand years offers a small indication of some commonality among them, and perhaps of a remote shared history. Even more tellingly, the constant and widespread use points to the basic importance of the word “ruler” in the history and development of Mesoamerican civilization.


(1) The problematic translations of Nahuatl terms relating to writing and painting was first pointed out to me by Bridget Hodder in 1995. She was primarily responsible for developing the more nuanced distinction between Nahuatl terms for “painting” and “marking.”

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Deathly Sport

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

On a scorching day in July 2006, my wife and I happened to visit a Roman necropolis at Carmona, just east of Sevilla, Spain – not for nothing is this called the sartén de Europa, with temperatures in excess of 46° celsius! But there, at Roman “Carmo,” the tombs were cool, richly painted in parts. Some dozens of meters away, we saw a triclinium (formal dining room) for funerary banquets and an amphitheater to house games in honor of the dead.

The ancient Mediterranean has a long tradition of such games. Homer, in the Iliad, speaks with appreciative bloodlust of the sporting events for Patroclus, the late, beloved companion of Achilles: “Raising their arms, their powerful fists, they [the participants] went at one another. Their hands exchanged some heavy punches, landing with painful crunches on their jaws. From their limbs sweat ran down everywhere” (Bk 23, lines 847-851, trans. Ian Johnston). Ultimately, the tradition passed to the Lucanians at Paestum, south of Naples —where the scene of a gladiatorial fray embellishes the walls of a tomb—to what may be the first gladiatorial contests, also funerary, held at Rome in 264 BC (Potter 2012:187-190). In all such cases, the games pulsed with recollection of once-vibrant dead. As John Bodel, a friend and Latin epigraphist reminds me, the nuances were further layered to include the most basic struggle of all, between life and death (see Ville 1981).

Was some Maya ballplay of a mortuary nature too? Did the hurly-burly of sacred sport—a celebration of chance but also of preparation and athletic skill—link to royal tombs?

The grimmer features of the Post-Classic (to early Colonial) ballgame bear repeating. The Xibalba of the Popol Vuh, an abode of gods with names like mortal diseases, thudded with ballplay. It was in a ballcourt that the lords of Xibalba buried the defeated brothers One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu (Christenson 2007:125). Hunahpuh and Xbalanque, miraculous sons of One Hunahpu, later played in the “ballcourt of their father,” “sweeping [it] clear” (ibid.:125). When they bested the lords of Xibalba, the twins “left behind” the “heart of their father [One Hunahpu]…at Crushing Ballcourt” (ibid.:191). “Here you will called upon’…‘They shall worship you first. Your name shall not be forgotten’” (ibid.:191).

The Popol Vuh, a much later source, does not always resonate with practices and beliefs of the Classic period. Yet here it might, in what appear to be precise or notional alignments between the central axis of a ballcourt and a known royal tomb.

The more precise examples:

(1) At Dos Pilas, Guatemala, the ballcourt composed of Structures L4-17 and L4-16 (Houston 1993:Site Map 1) defines an axis that passes directly south to a pyramid, Structure L5-1. Excavations in 1991 showed that the pyramid contained the tomb of Dos Pilas’ Ruler 2, in a crypt almost precisely aligned with the axis of the ballcourt (Figure 1; Demarest et al. 1991). The sculptures on the ballcourt, Panels 11 and 12, deploy a version of the Dos Pilas Emblem that dates a generation or so later than the pyramid (Houston 1993:Figures 3-17, 3-18).

Figure 1. Alignment of ballcourt and pyramid at Dos Pilas, Guatemala, with red rectangle indicating location of royal tomb (map by Stephen Houston).
Figure 1. Alignment of ballcourt and pyramid at Dos Pilas, Guatemala, with red rectangle indicating location of royal tomb (map by Stephen Houston).

(2) The small ballcourt near Temple I at Tikal, Guatemala (Structure 5D-74-1st), has a central axis aligning with Burial 116, tomb of Jasaw Kaan K’awiil, ruler of Tikal (Figure 2; Coe 1990:Figures 257b, 284-86). There is an earlier ballcourt—said vaguely to be “within a regional ‘Early Classic’ era (whatever this attribution may communicate to reader)” (Coe 1990:650). It aligns almost exactly with Burial 116. Conceivably, the earlier ballcourt dictated the placement of Burial 116, which is off-center in the pyramid, below ground level and towards the front. Again, the crypt lines up with the axis of Structure 5D-74-1st and 2nd.

Figure 2. Alignment of Str. FD-74 with Burial 116 under Temple 1; earlier ballcourt, where it survives, cue in green (map by the Tikal Project, University of Pennsylvania).
Figure 2. Alignment of Str. FD-74 with Burial 116 under Temple 1; earlier ballcourt, where it survives, cue in green (map by the Tikal Project, University of Pennsylvania).

Then the ballcourts with rougher alignments:

(3) The first ballcourt at Copan, Honduras, dating to ca. AD 470, has a central axis that points to the front stairway of the Margarita tomb, and to the vicinity of Hunal, the probable tomb of the founder (Figure 3; Sharer et al. 2005:Figure 5.2). The axes of the crypts have the same orientation as the ballcourt (Sharer et al. 2005:Figure 5-7).

Figure 3. Alignment of Copan ballcourt with the Margarita building, Hunal building marked in blue (map by the Early Copan Acropolis Program, directed by Robert J. Sharer).
Figure 3. Alignment of Copan ballcourt with the Margarita building, Hunal building marked in blue (map by the Early Copan Acropolis Program, directed by Robert J. Sharer).


(4) A suggestive example comes from Ceibal, Guatemala (Figure 4). Hieroglyphic Stairway 1, in Structure A-14, refers to the “fire-entering” of a tomb on Nov. 4, AD 747 (Graham 1996:59, Tablet 5:DD1). Presumably, the tomb lay nearby, perhaps behind the stairway, which seems to have been re-set in Classic times. Across from the stairway, but not precisely aligned with its axis, is the Structure A-19 ballcourt; its orientation leads to the join between Structures A-12 and A-14. Takeshi Inomata, who has been digging at Ceibal over the last years, kindly reports on what his project found. Digging in the southern end of Structure A-12, they discovered that the “construction mass dates to the Late Preclassic. Thin Late and Terminal Classic layers were sitting on the Preclassic building”; Takeshi also noted some evidence of an earlier Late Classic building beneath Structure A-14 (personal communication, July 2014). The question remains whether there is still a tomb to be found. The hieroglyphic text would indicate so (Stuart 1998:398, fn. 13).

Figure 4. Alignment of Ceibal A-19 ballcourt with possible tomb to the east (map by Ian Graham, Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project).
Figure 4. Alignment of Ceibal A-19 ballcourt with possible tomb to the east (map by Ian Graham, Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project).

(Incidentally, we have long assumed that the tomb mentioned on the Hieroglyphic Stairway belonged to a figure from the Early Classic period—someone named K’an Mo’ Bahlam. But I see no compelling reason to believe this, as the only date here is firmly Late Classic. To be sure, there is an Early Classic lord of Ceibal mentioned on Tablet 7, position MM1, of the Hieroglyphic Stairway, but with a different name. Notably, he is said to have played ball, pi-tzi!)

(5) A final example appears at the more distant location of Chichen Itza, Mexico, with a date some centuries later than #1-4. There, the Great Ballcourt lines up, at least approximately, with the enigmatic but suitably named Osario or “High Priest’s Grave,” the sole locus of attested royal burials at Chichen (Figure 5; Ruppert 1935; also Thompson 1938). The Great Ballcourt and the Osario date to about the same time, c. AD 1000-1100 AD (Braswell and Peniche May 2012:238).

Figure 5.  Alignment between the Great Ballcourt and the Osario at Chichen Itza (map by J. O. Kilmartin and J. P. O’Neil, with emendations by Karl Ruppert, Carnegie Institution of Washington).
Figure 5. Alignment between the Great Ballcourt and the Osario at Chichen Itza (map by J. O. Kilmartin and J. P. O’Neil, with emendations by Karl Ruppert, Carnegie Institution of Washington).

An empirical pattern doth not a theory make. Yet, at some sites, the Maya may have configured two buildings in unison. One contained a known or likely tomb or tombs, as at Chichen. (There must have been sustained knowledge of sub-surface remains.) The other was a ballcourt, its corridor pointing to a tomb, often at the same orientation. Several alignments seem more notional than precise, uncertain to satisfy a skeptic. And a few, as in my excavations with Héctor Escobedo at Structure K-5, Piedras Negras, could even be cenotaphic (Houston et al. 2008). A ballcourt, Structure K-6, lines up with a pyramid to a deceased queen but not, alas, to her tomb…or at least not one that we could find! (It could still lie off-axis, as we were only able to dig by means of a 2x2m shaft.) We do know the pyramid came first, and that the ballcourt, with its famous image of boxers, was a slightly later construction. In a personal communication, David Stuart also wonders whether Monument 171 at Tonina might be relevant (Stuart 2013): it shows a deceased lord playing with one still living.

Wendy Ashmore has written about ballcourt locations, emphasizing their southern position as “underworld” places of “transition” (Ashmore 1992:178, 179). I would mute her emphasis on “south” and suggest instead the dead could be to the north, south, and east too. Direction did not matter in these examples. Far more important was a specific mortuary intent and not, in Wendy’s words, a “cosmic template.” The fact that the glyph for tombs so often resembles half of the sign for a ballcourt—distinguished solely by the skull inside, nestled within a dark space (Stuart 1998:Figure 13)—raises the specter of a proposal. As in the Popol Vuh, some ballcourts bustled with the living but directed that activity towards the dead.

Acknowledgements: Takeshi Inomata of the University of Arizona generously responded to my questions about his excavations at Ceibal; Dave Stuart, too, helped with comments, as did John Bodel. I prepared some of these remarks for a workshop on Piedras Negras at Dumbarton Oaks, as facilitated by Dr. Colin McEwan, Joanne Pillsbury, and Mary Pye.


References Cited:

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