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:

Ara, Domingo de. 1986. Vocabulario de lengua Tzeldal según el orden de Copanabastla, editd by Mario Humberto Ruz. Universidad Autónoma de México, Mexico City.

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.

Child, Mark B. 2006. The Archaeology of Religious Movements: The Maya Sweatbath Cult of Piedras Negras. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Yale University, New Haven.

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.

Downer, Lesley. 2006. The City Geisha and Their Role in Modern Japan: Anomaly or Artistes? The Courtesan’s Arts: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, edited by Martha Feldman and Bonnie Gordon, 223-242. Oxford University Press, New York.

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

Feldman, Martha, and Bonnie Gordon, eds. 2006. The Courtesan’s Arts: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Oxford University Press, New York.

Glazebrook, Allison, and Madeleine Henry. 2011. Introduction: Why Prostitutes? Why Greece? Why Now? Greek Prostitutes in the Mediterranean, 800 BCE-200 CE, 3-13. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison.

Halperin, Christina A. 2014. Maya Figurines: Intersections between State and Household. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Hartnett, Alexandra, and Shannon L. Dawdy. 2013. The Archaeology of Illegal and Illicit Economies. Annual Review of Anthropology 2013 42:37-51.

Houston, Stephen, David Stuart, and Karl Taube. 2006. The Memory of Bones: Body, Being, and Experience among the Classic Maya. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Joyce, Rosemary A. 2000. Gender and Power in Prehispanic Mesoamerica. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Karttunen, Frances. 1984. An Analytical Dictionary of Nahuatl. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Kurke, Leslie. Inventing the Hetaira. Classical Antiquity 16:106-150.

Laughlin, Robert M. 1988. The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of Santa Domingo Zinacantán. 3 vols. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology, Number 31. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.

Martin, Simon. 2013. Hieroglyphs from the Painted Pyramid: The Epigraphy of Chiik Nahb Structure Sub 1-4, Calakmul, Mexico. Maya Archaeology 2, pp. 60-81, edited by Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2000. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Classic Maya. Thames & Hudson, London.

McCafferty, Sharisse D., and Geoffrey G. McCafferty. 2009. Alternative and Ambiguous Gender Identities in Postclassic Central Mexico. Que(er)ying Archaeology: Proceedings of the 30th Annual Chacmool Conference, edited by Susan Terendy, Natasha Lyons, and Michelle Janse-Smekal, pp. 196-206. Archaeological Association, University of Calgary Press, Calgary.

McGinn, Thomas A. J. 2004. The Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World: A Study of Social History and the Brothel. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.

O’Neil, Megan E. 2012. Anthropomorphic Whistle. Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks, pp. 404-409, edited by Joanne Pillsbury, Miriam Doutriaux, Reiko Ishihara-Brito, and Alexandre Tokovinine. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Number 4. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC.

Sahagún, Bernardino de. 1950-1982. Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, translated by Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J. O Anderson. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Screech, Timon. 1999. Sex and the Floating World: Erotic Images in Japan 1700-1820. Reaktion Books, London.

Sigal, Pete. 2000. From Moon Goddesses to Virgins: The Colonization of Yucatecan Maya Sexual Desire. University of Texas Press, Austin.

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

Tozzer, Alfred M. 1941. Landa’s Relación de las cosas de Yucatan. Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology 18. Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.


A Glyph for Yuyum, “Oriole,” in a Name at Bonampak

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

Among the many people depicted in Room 1 of the Bonampak murals is an official named Aj K’an Yuyum (Figure 1). His portrait, near the back corner of the chamber, is somewhat damaged and effaced. He seems to be a high-ranking noble, and he stands close by three elaborately dressed dancers on the center of the room’s lower register. In front of him is a similarly dressed man who bears the title sajal, often used for political and military figures of high elite status.

The hieroglyphs of his name caption are well preserved, and the first two glyph blocks of his name clearly read AJ-K’AN-na 2yu-ma. The remaining glyphs of his caption are syllabic spellings but are more difficult to make out fully: AJ-2ch’a-ta? ?-ma-ni (see Miller and Brittenham 2013:Figure 145). Perhaps one or both give a title based on some unknown place name.

Figure 1. Aj K'an Yuyum and his name caption, from Room 1 of the Bonampak murals. (Watercolor copy by H. Hurst; Caption drawing by D. Stuart)
Figure 1. Aj K’an Yuyum and his name caption, from Room 1 of the Bonampak murals.  (Watercolor copy by  H. Hurst; Caption drawing by D. Stuart)

Beyond his role as a named spectator at Bonampak, little can be said about Aj K’an Yuyum and his position in the local royal court; no other references to him are known. Here we would like to concentrate on his personal name, especially the unusual word spelled with the doubled yu sign and the main-sign form of ma. This combination is very probably an ancient attestation of yuyum, a word found in historical and modern sources for “oriole.” The noble’s full name then be would be “Yellow Oriole,” conforming to a widespread pattern of personal names based on colors and animal terms.

Yuyum is a word for “oriole” in lowland Mayan languages, including in Yucatecan and Cholan. Its first known attestation is in Beltran’s 18th century list of Yucatec faunal names as “un ave parecida al oropendula,” referencing a species closely related to orioles (see Perez 1898). It appears in modern Yucatec as well as yúuyum,“oriole” (Bricker et. al. 1998:319). In Bruce’s vocabulary of Lacandon yuyum is simply attested as “cierto pajaro” (Bruce 1968). Importantly, we also find it cited in Aulie and Aulie’s dictionary of Ch’ol (1978: 214) as yujyum, “bolsero espalda amarilla (icterus chysater),” specifically referencing the Yellow-backed Oriole.

A number of oriole species are common in the Maya region. These include the well-known Baltimore Oriole (which winters there), the Hooded Oriole, the Altamira Oriole, the Spotted-breasted Oriole, the afore-mentioned Yellow-backed Oriole, and the Streaked-backed Oriole. Whether all of these species were ever considered under a single term is difficult to know, given the vagaries of faunal classification in Mayan languages. Besides yuyum, there appear to be a number of more isolated words for different types of orioles: kubul in Yucatec (Bolles 2001), tzap’in in Itzaj (Hofling 1997:633), and kupulik in Ch’orti’ (Wisdom 1940), for example. Yet the consistent gloss of yuyum and its cognates as “oriole” across both Yucatecan and Ch’olan makes for a reasonable case that the word may be old and widely diffused in the lowland region.

FIgure 2. Orioles in the Murals of San Bartolo, North Wall. (Watercolor copy by H. Hurst.)
Figure 2. Orioles in the Murals of San Bartolo, North Wall. (Watercolor copy by H. Hurst.)

The only known representation of orioles in Maya art comes from another famous Maya wall painting, the Preclassic murals of San Bartolo (Figure 2). In the murals from Structure sub-1-A, we see depicted on the north wall a representation of a hanging nest surrounded by three small birds. This hangs from a tree that grows atop a cosmic mountain of emergence, associated with concepts of “flower mountain” in Mesoamerican mythology (Taube, et al. 2005:15-16). The small, extremely cute birds that flutter around the nest are yellow in appearance, with black bordering their wings and tails. Due to their coloration, and the fact that they do not have black on their backs like most Central American orioles, these are most likely Yellow-backed Orioles (icterus chysater), which are known to reside in the Maya area, and especially in higher elevations. Significantly perhaps, this is the very species given as the meaning of yujyum in Aulie and Aulie’s Ch’ol vocabulary, as noted earlier.

A good amount of work remains to be done on the identification of various bird species and other fauna represented in Maya art. We hope this small observation on the written and painted appearance of orioles will prove a useful contribution in such research.

Sources Cited:

Aulie, Wilbur, and Evelyn W. de Aulie. 1978. Diccionario Ch’ol. Summer Institute of Linguistics, Mexico D.F.

Bolles, John. 2001. Combined Dictionary–Concordance of the Yucatecan Mayan Language. FAMSI. On-line resource available at

Bruce, Robert. 1968. Gramatica del Lacandon. Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, Mexico D.F.

Hofling, Andrew. 1997. Itzá Maya – Spanish – English Dictionary, Diccionario Maya Itzaj – Español – Inglés. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Miller, Mary E., and Claudia Brittenham. 2013. The Spectacle of the Late Maya Court: Reflections on the Murals of Bonampak. The University of Texas Press, Austin.

Perez, Juan Pio. 1898. Coordinación alfabetica de las voces del idioma maya que se hallan en el arte y obras del padre fr. Pedro Beltran de Santa Rosa, con las equivalencias castellanas que en las mismas se hallan. Imprinta de la Ermita, Merida.

Taube, Karl, William Saturno, and David Stuart. 2005. The Murals of San Bartolo, El Peten, Guatemala. Part I: The North Wall. Ancient America 7. Boundary End Archaeological Research Center, Barnardsville, NC.

The Chocolatier’s Dog

by David Stuart, The University of Texas at Austin

Top and Side views of Monumentt 89 from Tonina (Adapted from Graham and Mathews 1996:118).
Top and Side views of Monumentt 89 from Tonina (Adapted from Graham and Mathews 1996:118).

The wonderful carving known as Monument 89 from Tonina, Mexico, is a small (36 cm. long) three dimensional sculpture representing a crouching dog. The animal rests on its belly and turns its head to the side and slightly upwards, perhaps to engage a viewer who would have seen it in its original setting. Apart from the cute subject-matter, Monument 89 is dear to my own heart, for it was the short inscription on the doggie’s back that gave a the key clue supporting the decipherment of the tz’i syllable sign back in the mid-1980s. As I argued then (Stuart 1987) the first of the four glyphs reads U-tz’i-i, for u tz’i’, “his dog.” The remaining glyphs name the owner of the animal.

U-tz’i-i / AJ-ka-ka-wa / 2-WINIKHAAB? / AJ-?-K’UK’?
u tz’i’ aj kakaw cha’ winikhaab(?) aj ? k’uk'(?)
“it is the dog of the cacao-person, the two-score year ?”

Comparison of the second glyph of Mon. 89 with a standard spelling of ka-ka-wa.
Comparison of the second glyph of Mon. 89 with a standard spelling of ka-ka-wa (kakaw).

In revisiting this sculpture I would like to draw attention to the dog’s owner, who was largely passed over in my earlier study. Interestingly, he seems to be labelled as aj kakaw, “the cacao person,” or “chocolatier.” The designation immediately recalls several personal references recently described in the murals of Calakmul, accompanying depictions of people cosuming various foods and handling other types of commodities (Carrasco Vargas and Cordiero Baqueiro 2013). The people are simply designated with titles such as aj ul, “the atole person,” aj atz’aam, “the salt person,” or aj may, “the tobacco-snuff person” (Martin 2013). These descriptors seem to refer to specialized roles in Calakmul’s palace economy, perhaps indicating sellers or tradespeople who dealt with specific commodities. The surviving portions of the Calakmul murals do not refer to any “cacao person,” but it would seem we have such a designation at Tonina in reference to the little dog’s owner. The final two glyphs seem to tell us something about his age, stating that he was into his second k’atun of life (20-40 years old). The final glyph of the name phrase, also a title of some sort with the aj- prefix, is difficult to analyze without closer inspection of the original stone.

The Ratinlinxul Vase (K584) (Photograph by Justin Kerr)
The Ratinlinxul Vase (K584) (Photograph by Justin Kerr)

An interesting connection between dogs, merchants and cacao was pointed out many years ago by Eric Thompson, in his discussion of the famous Ratinlixul Vase (Kerr no. 594) (Thompson 1970:137). He saw this vessel as a likely representation of a wealthy merchant being carried along in a hammock with a retinue of helpers, including a dog beneath. Thompson linked the image to Landa’s mention of rituals in the month Muan, when owners of cacao fields would sacrifice a dog with “markings of the color of cacao” during feasts in honor of the gods Ek Chuah, Chaac, and Hobnil. I’m not sure if I agree with Thompson’s connection to Landa, but his overall idea that the vase shows a trading party seems reasonable on the face of it. Alternatively, Justin Kerr has made a good case that this vase probably depicts a deceased lord on an underworld journey, with a dog serving as his guide to Xibalba’ (Kerr 2001). One could easily make a case that the Tonina dog carving, placed above Burial 1, was likewise a helpful guide for the deceased.

Call me sentimental, but I lean toward the idea that our Tonina dog wasn’t some Maya take on Cerberus, but rather was a real animal once beloved by a real person, apparently a chocolatier connected to the royal court of Tonina. The notion that some ancient Maya had pet dogs might seem a bit unusual in light of archaeological evidence that canines were part of the human diet in many ancient Maya communities, yet we have pretty good indications that, in elite circles at least, dogs were also often trusty companions. Soon my colleagues and I on the Proyecto Regional Arqueológico La Corona will publish an analysis of a charming sculpture excavated in 2012 that clearly portrays a seated royal lady in the company of her pet dog, shown running happily across the floor in front her throne.

For now, then, we can perhaps add a bit more to the story of the tz’i’ of Tonina: its owner was not the king, but rather someone close to the royal court who was a seller or distributor of chocolate, a key commodity in any ancient Maya royal household.


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.

Graham, Ian, and Peter Mathews. 1996. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 6, Part 2. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Kerr, Justin. 2001. The Last Journey: Reflections on the Ratinlinxul Vase and Others of the Same Theme.

Martin, Simon. 2013. Hieroglyphs from the Painted Pyramid: The Epigraphy of Chiik Nahb Structure Sub 1-4, Calakmul, Mexico. Maya Archaeology 2, pp. 60-81, edited by Charles Golden, Stephen Houston and Joel Skidmore. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

Stuart, David. 1987. Ten Phonetic Syllables. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, Number 14. Center for Maya Research , Washington, D.C.

Thompson, J. Eric S. 1970. Maya History and Religion. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

A Game with a Throne

by Stephen Houston, Department of Anthropology, Brown University

For GS on his birthday

Epigraphy is, among others things, an exercise in good hygiene. As specialists, we tidy up. Through our drawings, a complex surface reduces to light stipple, a series of edges to inked lines of variable width. The results are there for all to see, in the form of legible images that facilitate study, comparison, and reproduction.

Yet the images do not quite capture a stone. Each sculpture has its own quarry marks and irregularities; there are peck-marks or chisel lines, along with signs of careful or rough handling. Such details seldom make their way into an epigraphic drawing. Nor, with a few exceptions, do our site maps, even good ones, display sculptures as they were first found. Instead, monuments appear in orderly rows, as though still standing (e.g., Graham and von Euw 1975, 2:6, 2:7). They are in the places where they should be, or might have been when freshly placed, not as they were when discovered.

At Caracol, green to Maya fieldwork—this was in 1985—I confronted the curious afterlife of Maya texts. The carvings seemed anything but tidy. Most lay in shocking disarray, broken into pieces, some far-flung. Later, at Dos Pilas, in 1986, I resolved to record such patterning. Fortunately, at that site, most monuments were still in original position. They had not much shifted from the time of the Maya Collapse.

It soon became clear that, with few exceptions, the stelae at Dos Pilas were hacked just above the butt. Felled by blows of an axe, the sculptures, cut at the “knees,” toppled either backwards or forwards, not by the impact of tree fall, but from concerted ancient effort. There was behavioral information here, worthy of mention. Inspired, I drew the plans of all sculptures at the site, their cross-sections (where possible), even the profiles and block arrangements of hieroglyphic stairways (e.g., Houston 1993:fig. 2-8, 3-3, 3-7, 3-8, 3-9, 3-10, 3-14). My maps showed fall patterns at larger scale, especially of the stela at the site (Houston 1993:Site Map 1, Grid L5, Site Map 3, Grid P5). I was not alone in this interest. Looking at Panel 19 after its discovery in 1990, Ed Shook, a wise, old hand at Maya archaeology, observed that many blows of an axe had played across its surface.

To me, this approach represented the future of epigraphy as a field discipline. Sculptures could and should be shown by presumed initial placement or as flat, reproducible surfaces. But they were also three-dimensional things tumbling through time—pieces of transported, worked stone touched variably by nature, reverence, and malice. As rocks, they had dimension, weight, signs of quarrying, chipping, knapping, chiseling, polishing, and painting, features that could be processed and massaged statistically. Yet, from my perspective, the conversation between lithicists and epigraphers has yet to begin beyond these faltering steps. (Enterprising students take note!)

The fact is, most sculptures get moved after discovery. Yet not everyone is inclined to note their original position. A photographer may pivot or adjust the monument to the right angle for photography. Or, as at Tonina in recent decades, archaeologists appear to trundle texts off to the local museum, where provenience is known to few (and God). Find-spot is certainly not mentioned in any public display or report available to scholars. This seems more than an oversight—it is an out-and-out shame. Initial documentation is the key, as is the act of making those observations available to others.

At Piedras Negras, where I worked from 1997 to 2000, and again in 2004, sculptures have shifted many times. Their original position is usually reconstructible and shown as such on maps. But their archaeological placement, as objects left by the Maya, remains enigmatic, in key examples. Héctor Escobedo, my co-director, found that J. Alden Mason—a gifted prose stylist and indifferent excavator—had heaped at least 4 to 5 m of backfill atop Stela 18. (Héctor was looking for the axis of Structure O-13, the pyramid that backed the stela.) Despite diligent search, we continue to be only vaguely aware of the original location of Stela 40, a monument showing ancestral rites that came from the terrace in front of Structure J-3.

Figure 1. PIedras Negras, Throne 1, now in the Museo Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, Guatemala City. Photograph by Mary Dodge.
Figure 1. PIedras Negras, Throne 1, now in the Museo Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, Guatemala City (Photograph by Mary Dodge)

Throne 1, now in the Museo Nacional de Antropología y Etnología in Guatemala City, is a more fortunate case (Figure 1). Found shattered in a recessed, corbelled niche in Structure J-6 of the palace, it had been duly recovered and pieces reassembled in their current form; a few small fragments, daubed bright red, occur in storage at the University of Pennsylvania Museum (see Figure 2 for J-6 and its access stairway, as cleaned off in 1933). The throne plays an important role in Maya cultural history, its ancient destruction being taken by J. Eric Thompson as possible evidence of “superstitious fear” by later Maya or of “revolting peasants” enraged at this “symbol of their civil bondage” (Thompson 1966:108).

Figure 1. Piedras Negras, Structure J-6 and frontal stairway, 1933 (photograph courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives)
Figure 2. Piedras Negras, Structure J-6 and frontal stairway, 1933 (Courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives)

Not long ago, while looking at the image taken by Linton Satterthwaite, Jr., of the throne after its initial clearing, I realized that a more precise documentation of the Throne 1’s afterlife was possible. A fuller study would involve a closer study of patched edges on the original in Guatemala City, especially of the horizontal text on the bench itself, but the photograph taken by Satterthwaite in 1932 spells out where many of the blocks were first found. By looking at outlines and areas of exposed carving, and inserting cleaned images of those fragments, one can see how the throne was broken apart (Figures 3a and 3b). I suspect that some of the blocks had been removed unwittingly when workers cleared fill. Too late, Satterthwaite, who tended to work out of the camp, found the error.

Figure 2. Position of blocks when found, Throne 1, 1932 (photograph courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives)
Figure 3a. Position of blocks when found, Throne 1, 1932 (Courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives)
Figure 3. Identifiable blocks, with higher-resolution images inserted (photograph courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives)
Figure 3b. Identifiable blocks, with higher-resolution images inserted (Courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives)

The throne was an obvious casualty of violence, just as Thompson said. The left and right sides of the throne had been removed from the niche and placed face-up, more-or-less in correct, relative position. But the human faces that adjoined them, also face-up, had been moved in one case—that of the figure to the left—all the way behind a frontal column. The snout of the witz lay on the step of the outer doorway. Strangely, the hieroglyphic supports, although in correct relative position, were both face-up, yet with each top touching the other in opposed position. The special targets of violence, and their weakest points structurally, were the human faces and points of transition to the witz. It seems likely that the throne back had been dragged out of its niche and only then attacked. One possible culprit, as suggested by David Stuart from Lintel 10 at Yaxchilan, is the final ruler of that site, K’ihnich Tatbu Jol (Stuart 1998).

Figure 5. Interior stairway leading from area of Throne 2 to upper, western room, 1999, Operation PN34a-18 (photograph by Zachary Hruby)
Figure 4. Interior stairway leading from area of Throne 2 to upper, western room, 1999, Operation PN34a-18 (photograph by Zachary Hruby)

The area of the throne was excavated by Ernesto Arredondo and me in 1998, and the area proved to have shallow stratigraphy (Houston and Arredondo 1998:108-109): an earlier, wider building, and bedrock only about 40 cm. below the final floor of Str. J-6. A stairway, only partly preserved, led from the throne room to an elevated floor to the west—this may have allowed the ruler to approach the throne without stepping outside to public view (Figure 4). No diagnostic sherds came from the lower level, but it surely dated to the Yaxche period, from about AD 625 to 750. The visible throne room was certainly Chacalhaaz in date, c. AD 750 to 830. Indeed, Throne 1 gives us a more precise date for this building known as cha-hu-ku-NAAH, perhaps Chahuk Naah, “House of Lightning” or “House of Thunder”: its dedication, probably written as EL-NAAH, took place on the Period Ending of, Nov. 3, AD 785. It is likely to have been Ruler 7’s first great commission in the Acropolis, a dramatic reconfiguration of Patio 1, the space in front, as a place for reception of tribute, captives, and visitors, but never of equals.

Figure 4. Piedras Negras Throne 3, found in fill within Structure O-17, 14 cm. long, found in 1999 field season (drawing by Stephen Houston)
Figure 5. Piedras Negras Throne 3, found in fill within Structure O-17, 14 cm. long, found in 1999 field season (Drawing by Stephen Houston)

Other fragmentary thrones are known at Piedras Negras. The University of Pennsylvania found one, Throne 2, re-used in the Str. K-6a ballcourt ([] 11 Ajaw *18 Ch’en. Aug. 21, AD 662 [Martin-Skidmore correlation]), and our project found Throne 3 (Figure 5) in the fill of Str. O-17, possibly an unfinished structure.

I believe the presence of two shattered thrones, both connected to Ruler 2, Itzam K’anahk, suggests some refurbishment of the Acropolis, where such thrones were presumably placed. Perhaps they had been destroyed during that construction and their pieces inserted into fill nearby. Throne 3 is probably earlier because of its ch’ok title. Indeed, it may be the sole remains of his very accession throne, for Ruler 2 was only 12 years of age when he succeeded to power.

Luis Romero, a Guatemalan archaeologist who worked with us on the Piedras Negras Project, has subsequently restored the J-6 stairway, finding at least one new cache in the process. When I last saw it, in 2004, the throne room looked sorry indeed, a hole punched in the back by idle looters, and the roots of a ramon tree curving in threatening arc towards the wall. The Throne Building is as forlorn as it was when left by assailants in the 9th century AD.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS I thank Eric Schnittke of the Penn Museum Archives for permission to reproduce Figures 2 and 3.


Graham, Ian, and Eric von Euw. 1975. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 2, Part 1: Naranjo. 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 D., and Ernesto Arredondo Leiva. 1999. In Proyecto Arqueológico Piedras Negras, Informe Preliminar 3, Tercera Temporada, eds. Héctor Escobedo and Stephen Houston, pp. 105-118. Informe entregado al Instituto de Antropología e Historia de Guatemala.

Stuart, David. 1998. Una Guerra entre Yaxchilán y Piedras Negras? In Proyecto Arqueológico Piedras Negras, Informe Preliminar 2, Segunda Temporada, eds. Héctor Escobedo and Stephen Houston, pp. 389-392. Informe entregado al Instituto de Antropología e Historia de Guatemala.

Thompson, J. Eric S. 1966. The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization. 2nd ed. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.