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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Demarest, Arthur, Héctor Escobedo, Juan-Antonio Valdés, Lori Wright, Kitty Emery, and Stephen Houston. 1991 Arqueología, epigrafía y el descubrimiento de una tumba real en el centro ceremonial de Dos Pilas, Peten, Guatemala. U tz’ib 1(1):14-28.

Graham, Ian. 1996. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 7, Part 1: Seibal. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Houston, Stephen D. 1993. Hieroglyphs and History at Dos Pilas: Dynastic Politics of the Classic Maya. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Houston, Stephen, Héctor Escobedo, and Zachary Nelson. 2008. Encontrando el contexto para la historia y la historia para el contexto: Excavaciones en la estructura K-5 de Piedras Negras, Guatemala. Mayab 20: 45-63.

Pontrandolfo, Angela, and Agnès Rouveret. 1992. Le tombe dipinte di Paestum. Franco Cosimo Panini, Modena.

Potter, David. 2012. The Victor’s Crown: A History of Ancient Sport from Homer to Byzantium. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Ruppert, Karl. 1935. The Caracol at Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication 454. Carnegie Institution of Washington, DC.

_____________. 1952 Chichen Itza: Architectural Notes and Plans. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication 595. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Sharer, Robert J., David W. Sedat, Loa P. Traxler, Julia C. Miller, and Ellen E. Bell. 2005. Early Classic Royal Power in Copan: The Origins and Development of the Acropolis (ca. A.D. 250-600). In Copán: The History of an Ancient Maya Kingdom, edited by E. Wyllys Andrews and William L Fash, pp. 139-199. School of American Research Press, Santa Fe.

Stuart, David. 1998. “The Fire Enters His House”: Architecture and Ritual in Classic Maya Texts. In Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture, edited by Stephen D. Houston, pp. 373-425. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington D.C.

Stuart, David. 2013. Tonina’s Curious Ballgame.

Thompson, Edward H. 1938. The High Priest’s Grave, Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico. Anthropological Series, Field Museum of Natural History 27(1). Chicago.

Ville, Georges. 1981. La gladiature en Occident des origines à la mort de Domitien. Bibliothèque des écoles françaises d’Athènes et de Rome, fasc. 245e. Ecole française de Rome, Rome.

Reconstructing a Stucco Text from Palenque’s Palace

by David Stuart, The University of Texas at Austin

Back in the early 1980s — I can’t recall exactly what year — I found myself intrigued by the badly preserved stucco inscription from House A of Palenque’s Palace. A few date elements were clearly visible, showing what had once been an Initial Series (I.S.) date, a partial Distance Number (2.9 or 3.9), and the remnants of a record of a station in the 819-day cycle. There was also a nice example of the Palenque emblem glyph in the very last glyph block, indicating the presence at one point of a king’s name, most likely that of K’inich Janab Pakal. The preserved “11 k’atuns” in the first column gave a good working time-frame for the text, falling firmly in Pakal’s reign.

Figure 1. Maudslay's photograph of Pier A from House A of the Palace, Palenque.
Figure 1. Maudslay’s 1891 photograph of Pier A from House A of the Palace, Palenque.

I looked up Eric Thompson’s reconstruction of the dates in this inscription, which he published as part of a “Carnegie Note” back in 1954 (Thompson 1954). He was unsure of many elements, and proposed two possible reconstructions of the dates: 9 Men 8 Tzec
-3.9 5 Cimi 19 Pop

or 4 Men 8 Tzec
-3.9 13 Cimi 19 Pop

Thompson hinged his reconstructions on the mandible visible on the head variant number on the k’in of the Initial Series (at B3; see the drawing below in Figure 2), which pointed him to a day number from 13-19.

I quickly saw problems with Thompson’s reconstructions, and my excitement mounted as I came up with a better solution. The presence of an 819 day count record — something Thompson couldn’t recognize at the time — meant we could easily anchor the placement of the 19 Pop preserved at position D3. Only one possible station would fit the time-frame: 1 Chuen 19 Pop.  The Distance Number at B8 must then reckon back to the missing Initial Series and its month is 8 Tzec at B4. Working backwards in this way I was thrilled to find that only one possibility would work: 5 Ahau 8 Tzec
– 3.9 1 Chuen 19 Pop

One detail Thompson didn’t consider was that the mandible on the k’in number could equally point to “0” as a possible reading. Everything seemed to fall into place, and at that point I did a pencil drawing of the glyphs based on Maudslay’s 1891 photograph (Figure 2) and thought the “new” solution to Pier A’s dates would make for a nice little article.

Some month passed, maybe more, before I saw that Heinrich Berlin had long before published the same solution, using precisely the same logic (Berlin 1965:340). His discussion of the Pier A text was buried in an article he had written on the inscription of the Tablet of the Cross — the same paper, in fact, wherein he had worked out much of the Early Classic dynastic history of Palenque (referring to the kings as “Topics”).  After seeing Berlin publication I immediately put aside my old drawing of Pier A and went on to other things. But looking back I find that Pier A’s text offers a good illustration of how one can utilize a small number of clues to solve what at first might seem a hopeless case.

Figure 2. Sketch of Pier A's inscription, with reconstructed components at right. (Drawing by D. Stuart)
Figure 2. Sketch of Pier A’s inscription, with reconstructed components at right. (Drawing by D. Stuart)

When I published my study of Maya architectural dedication rites in 1998, I briefly revisited Pier A in a table listing building dedication dates at Palenque (Stuart 1998:Table 1). There, strangely, I listed the date as 4 Cauac 7 Tzec — a mistake of one day. I think in my haste to finish the article I must have glanced at Maudslay’s photograph and took the apparent “7 Tzec” at face value, not remembering it was actually 8 Tzec in Berlin’s correct solution.

It’s hard to know what exact event was being commemorated on Pier A. Based on parallels elsewhere (the Temple of the Sun, for example) I strongly suspect it was a dedication record for the House A gallery itself, but no verb or revealing phrase is preserved from the area that would tell us (blocks D4-D6). The date would correspond to May of 668 A.D. As noted, the protagonist was without doubt K’inich Janab Pakal.

To put this event in some context, we have a number of other dedication dates for the various structures within the Palenque’s Palace.  House A was built some years after the central buildings of the complex (Houses E and C), at a time when Pakal was rapidly adding on to his impressive complex. And to set the record straight, correcting the mistakes in my old 1998 table, I list the actual dates from the Palace here, in chronological order:

Figure 3. "He of the Five Platform? Buildings," as title of K'inich Janab Pakal that probably refers to the Palace's main structures. From the Tablet of the 96 Glyphs. (Photograph by Jorge Perez de Lara.)
Figure 3. “He of the Five Platform? Buildings,” a title of K’inich Janab Pakal probably referring to the Palace’s main structures. From the Tablet of the 96 Glyphs. (Photograph by Jorge Perez de Lara.) 9 Lamat 6 Xul (654) – Subterraneos 9 Chuen 9 Mac (654) – House E 4 Cauac 2 Pax (661) – House C 5 Ahau 8 Tzec (668) – House A 6 Etznab 6 Zac (720) – House A-D (built by Pakal’s son, K’inich K’an Joy Kitam)

Two major buildings in the Palace complex do not have firm dates: one is House D, but its style and decoration suggests it was constructed around the time of House A, perhaps a little afterwards. The other is House B, on the south side of the courtyard of the captives. It too was almost surely Pakal’s edifice. I suspect that the five “houses” of the Palace (in order: E, C, A, D, and B?) were the five buildings referenced in one of Pakal’s important titles, “He of the Five Platform? Buildings” (Figure 3).

Figure 4. South end of House A of the Palace, showing Pier A in its present condition. (Photograph by D. Stuart).
Figure 4. South end of House A of the Palace, showing Pier A in its present condition. (Photograph by D. Stuart).

References Cited:

Berlin, Heinrich. 1965. The Inscription of the Temple of the Cross at Palenque. American Antiquity 30(3):330-342.

Stuart, David. 1998. “The Fire Enters His House”: Architecture and Ritual in Classic Maya Texts. In Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture, edited by Stephen D. Houston, pp. 373-425. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington D.C.

Thompson, J. Eric S. 1954. Memoranda on Some Dates at Palenque, Chiapas. Notes on Middle American Archaeology and Ethnology, No. 120. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Division of Historical Research, Cambridge, MA

Courtesans and Carnal Commerce

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

Diego Rivera was clearly fascinated by the riches of the Aztec market at Tlaltelolco. His mural, painted in 1944-1945, visible today on the second floor of the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City, glories in the vibrancy of an imperial economy. Vendors hawk while merchants bicker, counting with upright fingers. Nearby, slave-traders examine the teeth of human stock. Tortillas are there, too, close to belly-up frogs. Dogs, deer, iguana, and fish lie in good order or, like a fat little xolo dog, they mewl and squirm—all soon to be purchased, cooked, and eaten.

Figure 1.  Prostitute in the Market of Tlatelolco, Diego Rivera, 1944-1945, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City (photograph by S. Houston).
Figure 1. Prostitute in the Market of Tlatelolco, Diego Rivera, 1944-1945, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City (photograph by S. Houston).

The most arresting figure, however, is a woman in white (Figure 1). Central to the composition, she hikes her skirt and invites the attention of several leering men. One of them, to upper left, looks like a Rockefeller! At Rivera’s coy insistence, we are all voyeurs. Almost alone in the murals, the woman’s body faces the viewer. Her bright red lipstick, elaborate costume, and long loose hair, described and illustrated in Aztec sources, heighten the wanton allure. Never one for the nuance, Rivera surrounds the lady with an aureole of calla lilies, likely to be Rivera’s coded image for female privates (his portrait of Natasha Zakólkowa Gelman, painted a year earlier, in 1943, uses the same framing device).

Rivera’s lady is, of course, an Aztec prostitute or āhuiyani, someone who gives pleasure but in debased or self-indulgent ways, a “flower woman” (Karttunen 1983:8; McCafferty and McCafferty 2009:198). She “lives in wickedness….she goes about in gaudy dress, drunk, besotted,” “shamelessly, presumptuously, conspicuously washed and combed”; she “sells her body” and “paints her face…her hair falls loose”; she goes “about…in the market place,” “places herself at the market, adorns herself at the market place” (Sahagún 1950-1982 [Book 10]:12, 13, 55, 89). Yet, the stern judgment in these phrases from the Florentine Codex—its main promoter was, after all, a Franciscan—does not offer a complete picture, for such women performed openly in sacred dances with warriors (Sahagún 1950-1982 [Book 2]:93, 98-99, 102, 110; see also Durán 1971:435, in a somewhat opaque source that may refer to more elevated “kept women” who had their own “guardians or duennas”).

Figure 2. Prostitutes in the Florentine Codex, Book 10, f39v.
Figure 2. Prostitutes in the Florentine Codex, Book 10, f39v.

The “harlot” could also comfort a sacrificial captive. She “caressed him….made him forget his sorrows. And when the time came for the bathed one to die, the harlot took everything…[t]hat which he wore he placed upon her; that which he had when he had been living in the likeness of another, had walked with his head high…had gone in high esteem” (Sahagún 1950-1982 [Book 2]:155). A peculiarity, drawn to my attention by Karl Taube, is that depictions of young and older harlots in the Florentine Codex show them standing on water, grasping flowers in one hand and, curiously, the glyph for water in the other (Figure 2). It is possible but, on reflection, unlikely that this sign merely reinforces the first letter in āhuiyani (from ā-tl, “water”). Underfoot, gripped in the hand, the symbols hint at deeper and more complex meaning.

For a Mayanist, this evidence raises an obvious question. Did such women exist in the Classic period? And, if so, what ambivalences, if any, surround such commercialization of the female body? Most treatments of female identity among the ancient or Colonial Maya do not mention prostitutes (e.g., Joyce 2000) or allude to them in secondary citations (Ardren 2008:8). One source does describe the prostitute in Yucatan but as a being “constructed as an ethnic outsider and an enemy” and, in the Books of Chilam Balam, a figure whose very label is an insult to be thrown at others (Sigal 2000:68, 223).

Yet the early dictionaries refer widely to such figures. For a rapid cull of terms:

Colonial Tzendal (Ara 1986:319, 504): Most terms relate to adultery or fornication but also, when postfixed by xichoc (“man”), to sodomy.

putañero                                lav
putañear                                lael

Colonial Tzotzil (Laughlin 1988, I:221, 253, 263-264): roots based on sexual penetration (kob) and, perhaps, scourging (maj) and “lust” (mul), with the added nuance of concubinage.

whore                                    ‘ix ta majel; kobvan; majavil ‘antz
whoremaster                        mulavil xinch’ok

Colonial Yukatek (Bolles 2001): associated with agouti or hares (tzub), the latter a well-known attribute of the Moon Goddess and a symbol of procreation. For tzub, the meaning is quite explicit: “la muger mala de su cuerpo ora sea publica ora no…Ah con tzubul: puta que ella se comvida y vende” (Bolles 2001); ya’om ties to pregnancy.

manceba (concubine)           tzub
mala mujer de su cuerpo     ya’om
puta pública                           ix kakbach

It could be that these words express a purely colonial preoccupation, a priestly concern for rooting out vice and controlling sexuality. By that view, little prostitution existed before the Spaniards. Such words merely reflected the prurience of missionary minds. But this cannot be the whole story. Speaking of young men, not long after the Conquest, Diego de Landa refers to the wide use of prostitutes: “bad public women”…“who happen to ply this trade among this people, although they received pay for it, were besieged by such a great number of young men, that they were harassed to death” (Tozzer 1941:125). Possibly, as some suggest for the Aztec evidence, the Colonial sources conflated a more accepted Pre-Columbian practice of marketable sex with later versions seen in negative light (Arvey 1988; McCafferty and McCafferty 2009:200). As to price, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, writing of Nicaragua, records that the going rate for such acts was 8 to 10 beans of chocolate (Tozzer 1941: 95fn417). To put this in perspective, buying a slave was only 10 times that much (ibid). In all likelihood, sex work was a lucrative business throughout Mesoamerica.

Figure 3.  SE-SI Scene, Chiik Nahb Structure Sub 1-4 (drawing by Simon Martin, Proyecto Arqueológico Calakmul, Ramón Carrasco, Director).
Figure 3. SE-SI Scene, Chiik Nahb Structure Sub 1-4 (drawing by Simon Martin, Proyecto Arqueológico Calakmul, Ramón Carrasco, Director).

For the Maya, a key piece of evidence came to light with the discovery of the Chiik Nahb murals at Calakmul, most of which date to the 7th century AD (Carrasco Vargas and Cordeiro Baqueiro 2012; Martin 2012). Concerned with trade, these paintings appear within what must have been a market facility built at the height of competition between the great cities of Calakmul and Tikal (Carrasco Vargas and Cordeiro Baqueiro 2012:Figure 2; for the standard source on this conflict, see Martin and Grube 2000:104-111). The viewer wonders at the erotic beauty of the serving ladies, their body paint, their jade jewelry. The women pour drinks, offer atole while dressed, at times, in diaphanous clothing that reveals breasts, areola, and plump thighs (Figure 3).

Figure 4. Vending lady (drawing by Karl Taube, after Dieseldorff 1926:pl. 8, no. 28).
Figure 4. Vending lady (drawing by Karl Taube, after Dieseldorff 1926:pl. 8, no. 28).

It is difficult to avoid the sense that the woman offer hospitality and welcome accommodation or participate in marketing, but in subtly sexualized ways. Karl Taube has noted similar trading ladies in figurines from the Alta Verapaz, also bejeweled, gowns slung low, hair carefully coiffed (Figure 4; Houston et al. 2006:110, fig. 3.4). Vending women have been seen, too, in other traditions of Lowland Maya figurines (Halperin 2014:fig. 3.36). Many wear hats, perhaps to show that they came from far distances, but possibly to protect a delicate complexion. They both are and are not a standard vendor, involved in trade yet outfitted in ways that appear anomalous.

Unfortunately, the glyphs associated with the principal lady in the Calakmul paintings, the “Lady in Blue,” resist easy decipherment (Martin 2012:78-79). A more overt example of “good time gals,” from a bowl dating to about AD 600 may connect to a term for “water-place,” IX-HA’?-NAL (Figure 5, Coe 1978:pl. 11; Houston et al. 2006:fig. 5.18). These women, certain to be goddesses, service older deities. They stroke their sides, fan faces or hold up mirrors while the men daub their mouths or faces. Most carry exactly the same name—a token of shared identity?—or use a sparse description, IX, “female.” The watery attribute of Aztec prostitutes seems more than a coincidence. It may reflect some widespread notion of “watery women” or “women of watery locales” whose sexual behavior differed, in unsettling, less controllable ways, from that of other ladies.

Figure 5. Supernatural ladies of pleasure (K530, photograph © Justin Kerr, Coe 1978:pl. 11).
Figure 5. Supernatural ladies of pleasure (K530, photograph © Justin Kerr, Coe 1978:pl. 11).

Another term occurs with paramours of God L on the celebrated “Princeton Vase” (K511, Coe 1978:pl. 1). Repainted in parts, their glyphic labels involve two securely deciphered signs, IX, “lady,” and NAAH, “building”—the finale female, just by God L, is described as one of “five” (HO’) such women, quite a harem. The less clear sign is the head variant of the number “two.” It could read CHA’, suggesting a homophone for “metate,” cha’, thus linking the ladies to a gendered place, a “house of grinding stones.” But there is another possibility. The head variant has a human fist, fingers obscured, atop the head of a youth or young woman. The fist corresponds exactly to the glyph for OCH, “enter” (Stuart 1998:fig. 8) and may spell out a term for “entered” (“penetrated”?) lady. Thus, by this second analysis: IX-OCH-‘Female’-NAAH, “lady of the entered/penetrated-female house”…or “brothel.” Still, it is unclear how this would relate to a semblant deity name on Palenque’s Tablet of Temple XIV:C9.

The main point is that these women are unlikely to be spouses. A plausible view is that they traffic in generous reception and consumption, with more than a hint of physical favors to come. Two ideas arise. The first is that, at Calakmul the Lady in Blue embodied, if not a real historical person, then the essence of gracious hospitality. Or, as a bolder suggestion and a nod to the eroticism of the murals, she operated as an exemplary or deified procuress, patronized rather than punished by the state, a facilitator who attracted other kinds of business. She labored, it seems, away from direct male supervision; she took charge. There was no partner, no husband. In one image, a young woman, a mere drab, perhaps a unique depiction of a Maya slave, served as her assistant (Figure 2). The Florentine Codex says of the procuress: “She is of a house…She induces, seduces with words, incites with others. Adroit of language, skilled of speech, she is a fraud…She receives guests. She secures recompense, payment from others. She robs one—she constantly robs one” (Sahagún 1950-1982 [Book 10]:94). However, if present at Calakmul, such a woman discharged a role of dignity and importance.

What to make of the scenes at Calakmul? According to a recent, cross-cultural review, compensated or venal sex tends to divide by practitioner, ranging from streetwalkers and occupants of brothels to “well-educated and often financially secure” courtesans (Harnett and Dawdy 2013:43). Eroticized entertainment did not always lead to consummation. As an exalted outlier, the geisha or geiko of Japan seldom—at least in the ideal—consorted sexually with clients, especially after the system began to coalesce in the 18th century (Downer 2006:223). Whatever the status, sex workers left archaeological signatures in the form of cells or “cribs,” characteristic forms of consumption, such as “alcohol and luxury food consumption…in binge economies,” and, “in the case of high-end prostitutes, an investment in wearable wealth” (Harnett and Dawdy 2013:46). Indeed, a sexual purpose may explain the buildings with tightly packed, benched rooms near sweatbaths at Piedras Negras (e.g., Structure O-3; Child 2006:fig. 4.23; also Houston et al. 2006:117, fig. 3.13). Globally, the cultural impact was great. An entire volume of comparative scholarship extols the arts of the courtesan, from music to poetry and dance (Feldman and Gordon 2006).

Prostitution has been described as the “oldest profession” and as the “oddest,” an “illicit commerce in which it is the labor performed, rather than goods or distribution system, that is the object of state control” (Harnett and Dawdy 2013:43). Yet how “illicit” was such commerce? In Roman Pompeii, prostitution was quite “licit” if heavily exploitative (McGinn 2004:261-262). At the least, there is evidence of ambivalence. In Edo Japan, various shogun or city officials tried to restrict the “floating world,” the demi-monde of sex workers, musicians, and actors, to sectors like Yoshiwara, near modern-day Asukasa in Tokyo (Screech 1999:53). But this was not because of disdain for sex. The most likely reason was curtailment of possible places for intrigue or periodic anxiety that the values of the “floating world” would soften society.

Figure 6. A courtesan with pulque or enema jar? (Princeton Art Museum, Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund 2005-65 a-b, K8489, photograph © Justin Kerr).
Figure 6. A courtesan with pulque or enema jar? (Princeton Art Museum, Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund 2005-65 a-b, K8489, photograph © Justin Kerr).

More the point, the “Lady in Blue” raises basic matters of identification. Scholars often refer to “noble” ladies or “idealized elite” women and goddesses in imagery of the Classic Maya period. This applies to Jaina figurines, too (O’Neil 2012:409). But what if an entire category of Maya society has been overlooked? As Michael Coe observes, the females participating in enema rituals could have been ladies of pleasure (personal communication, 2014). Consider the fully-modeled container at the Princeton Art Museum, with its flower-markings, elaborate dress, and loudly painted lips and forehead (Figure 6). Or the Early Classic scene on an enema pot from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (#1993.441) and tapaderas on Early Classic food bowls (K1550, K189). Then there is the image, from the Princeton Art Museum, of an elaborately dressed woman giving an enema to a trader (Figure 7). Could “elite” ornament or jewelry only have been the commissions of dynastic figures and other nobles? Or, consistent with cross-cultural data, were some baubles ordered in quantity by courtesans?

Sex work has its own history. As one example from archaic Greece, the high-status hetaira—the most polished of courtesans—was probably fashioned under the impetus of aristocratic males, who sought to redefine their own masculinity by interaction with such females (Kurke 1997). Through women’s bodies and, tragically, through their abuse, men worked out what it meant to be men (Glazebrook and Henry 2011:9). Perhaps this same aestheticized redefinition of roles affected the “pretty ladies” of the Classic period.

Figure 7. Enema scene with traders (The Princeton Art Museum, Princeton, NJ PUMA# y1998-451, K1550, photograph © Justin Kerr).
Figure 7. Enema scene with traders (The Princeton Art Museum, Princeton, NJ PUMA# y1998-451, K1550, photograph © Justin Kerr).

The curious feature of the Calakmul evidence is its contrast with Rome, which was less involved in direct control of sex work and accorded it some degree of “autonomy” (McGinn 2004:263). If correctly identified, the practices shown there and elsewhere bear the heavy impress of polity. The building in which the murals were found can only have been a royal commission, involving painters and scribes of the highest and most inventive attainment. This was no casual commerce but a systematic use of female bodies for dynastic advancement.

Acknowledgements: Mike Coe, Simon Martin, and Karl Taube were most helpful with comments

Sources cited:

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Ardren, Traci. 2008. Studies of Gender in the Prehispanic Americas. Journal of Archaeological Research 16:1-35.

Arvey, Margaret C. 1988. Women of Ill-Repute in the Florentine Codex. The Role of Gender in Pre-Columbian Art and Architecture, edited by Virginia Miller, pp. 179-204. University Press of America, Lanham.

Bolles, David. 2001. Combined Dictionary–Concordance of the Yucatecan Mayan Language,, accessed June 2, 2014.

Carrasco Vargas, Ramón, and María Cordiero Baqueiro. 2013. The Murals of Chiik Nahb Structure 1-4, Calakmul, Mexico. Maya Archaeology 2, pp. 8-59, edited by Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

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Coe, Michael D. 1978. Lords of the Underworld: Masterpieces of Classic Maya Ceramics. Princeton Art Museum, Princeton.

Dieseldorff, Erwin P. 1926. Kunst und Religion der Mayavölker im alten und heutigen Mittelamerika. Julius Springer, Berlin.

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Durán, Diego. 1971. Book of the Gods and Rites and The Ancient Calendar. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

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