A Sacrificial Sign in Maya Writing

Dmitri Beliaev and Stephen Houston

The human hand is, aside from the face, the most expressive of body parts. Held a certain way, fingers placed just so, it can reassure, offend, accentuate, direct. Among the Maya, as David Stuart observes, an extended pinky stands for elegance and skill. Dancers showed it, scribes too, perhaps to keep ink from smudging or to balance a brush over a page (https://mayadecipherment.com/2018/06/20/the-ugly-writing/).

The hand also inflects terms for making and doing. In English, there are words like “command,” “mandate,” “manipulate,” all taken in part from Latin manus, “hand”; a person can be “handy” (dexterous); and, in Germanic languages, a sense of emotion merges with a tactile sense of “feeling” (e.g., Alpenfels 1955:15–16). The time depth of these notions goes far back, perhaps to a distant past. By various theories, the hand became associated, as humanity evolved, with effective tool use, meaningful gestures, hierarchy, and “goal-directed action” (Cochet and Byrne 2013:531).

The ancient Maya certainly associated the human hand with action and broader sets of meaning (e.g., Houston et al 2006:30; Palka 2002; Stuart 2002). Much gets mapped on this extremity. In Ch’olti’, for example, a Mayan language of the Colonial period, the pinky is the “child of the hand” (v-y-al ca cab [yal ka k’ab]). Ch’orti’, its descendant language, identifies the thumb as the “mother” of the other fingers (u tu’ uk’ab, Houston et al. 2006: 30). But, apart from glyphs like K’AB, “hand” (or syllabic k’a-ba)—and a few characters derived from hand measurements (e.g., a valuable study by Boot 2003:6; see also M. Coe 2003:199–200; Zender 2004)—many such signs show objects being held, scattered, indexed or supported in some way. To tabulate a few: []AL, CHOK, CH’AM, K’AL, TZAK, TZUTZ, along with rarities of more debatable reading. There is, for instance, a hand grasping a stone that may record one of several sounds, JATZ’ (Lopes 2003; Zender 2004:5–8) or perhaps tz’o or TZ’ON (Stuart 1997, see independent work on tz’o by Albert Davletshin [2001]). [1]

To throw a stone is the most basic aggression. Such projectiles are to be found in Maya sites, and doctoral research by Omar Alcover Firpi suggests many more weapons like them exist, often tossed by archaeologists unaware of their function (Alcover 2020). In fact, one complex mythic narrative—hinting at some Maya “rape of the Sabines,” with children and bleeding women, as well as suggestions of forced movement—depicts a male flinging a white stone from a hilly redoubt (Figure 1a). Another glyph, occurring most often in names, represents a hand holding an atlatl. As a glyph, that weapon could be oriented horizontally and vertically in the hand, and is mainly limited to the Early Classic period (Figure 1b, c, d, e). It appears in the name of the Teotihuacan overlord “Spearthrower Owl,” who ruled from AD 374 to AD 439 (Figure 1b–e, Stuart 2000:481–489). Its reading is thought by some to be the same as the hand grasping the stone, JATZ’, “hit, strike” (Davletshin 2001; Stuart 1997). On Tikal Stela 31, there are subtle links to the images just below the glyphs. A figure on the left side of the monument—the ruler on front was his clear focus—orients the atlatl towards the center; on the right side, another figure reverses the atlatl so as to maintain that consistent orientation to the ruler (Jones and Satterthwaite 1982:figs. 51a, b). Both of these companions, likely an earlier king, Yax Nuun Ahiin, in posthumous depiction, wear different headdresses. Perhaps this advertised distinct roles for the same person.

Figure 1. Hands that grasp and hurl: (a) stone-throwing event in mythic time (excerpt, K5451, courtesy of Justin Kerr); and hand grasping atlatl, jatz’oom (b, c, Tikal Marcador:C3, E9; d, Tikal Stela 31:L4; e, Tikal Stela 31:N3, photographs from the Proyecto Atlas Epigráfico de Petén, courtesy of the Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología de Guatemala, drawings, Jones and Satterthwaite 1981:figs. 51a, 52a).

The difficulty of analyzing this category of signs lies in their iconic composition. Since they represent a hand holding an object, it is hard to distinguish the basic form of the sign from superimposed glyphs that augment its reading. For example, on Altar 1 from Itzimte, Guatemala, a hand grasps a personified flint that potentially serves as a separate logogram. A royal name at Late Classic Itzimte, Jun Tzak Took’, confirms that the glyphs record two word signs, TZAK and TOOK’ (Beliaev and Vepretskii 2018:fig. 3). A similar pattern occurs on Stela 2 from Río Azul, Guatemala, where a TZAK hand grasps the head of God K (K’AWIIL) in the royal name Tzahkaj K’awiil (Beliaev 2017; Beliaev et al. 2017:118–120). Understanding these examples requires attention to context and variant spellings. Unitary signs, if complex in shape, need to be separated from those with two glyphs.

An undeniable logograph is a hand grasping a hooked obsidian blade, the standard shape for this dark, imported, sacrificial material (Figure 2, see also Houston 2014:23–27, fig. 15).

Figure 2. Obsidian-in-Hand glyph as part of name, Altar de Sacrificios Stela 12:C1–C3 (, Aug. 25, AD 524 [Julian], J. Graham 1972:fig. 35). The photograph appears to depict the blade with a faint sign for “dark.”

When its exotic nature is emphasized, often with Teotihuacan-related imagery, a gob of blood drips off the end. If took’, “flint,” inflicts the injuries of war, often in connection with the Sun God, obsidian, taaj, cuts flesh in acts of sacrifice; in fact, deity impersonators may do some of this work (see also Saturno et al. 2017:4, 8; see also Taube 1991). One implement, flint, seems of the day, the other, to judge from the ‘ak’ab markings on obsidian, of the dark and night (its natural black sheen fits too). In the example above, from Altar de Sacrificios, it is probably no coincidence that the being linked to the “Obsidian-in-Hand” sign is a deity whose mouth fills with blood.

Yet there can be some overlap of function in these materials. A vase from the early 8th century AD shows an otherwise unique image of a figure holding up an obsidian blade. In front, a subordinate displays a split or tear in his bulging back (Figure 3). From that split emerges a serpent, along with a tandem effusion of growth. The person cut in this way seems remarkably unperturbed, for his arms cross in patient subordination. The text above records, in its first part: 13 Ak’bal 1 TE’? Zotz’ ju-ta-ja ‘Flint-Wound”-PAAT?-ti. The unusual verb may relate to Colonial Yukatek <hut.ah ub>, “to saw wood” (Acuña 1993:225) [2] and Colonial Tzeldal <ghut> “to make stripe marking,” “to mark with iron tool” (Ara 1986:298). Another term in Yukatek, hutul, “nacer los brutos animales” (‘to be born, the brutish animals’), correlates with the rip or tear, a common visual allusion to birth or emergence (Cuidad Real 2002:270). At the least, the flint and depiction of the human back gloss the scene. Textually, the serrated flint stands in for sacrificial obsidian.

Figure 3. Splitting or sawing of person’s back with obsidian blade or knife (Robicsek and Hales 1981:fig. 9).

Similar signs for “tearing” or wounding” occur with an obsidian blade or knife (David Stuart, personal communication, 2001). Often, this complex, multi-component sign fuses with another glyph (Figure 4). A warrior at Itzan, Guatemala—his count of captives (20) is impressive—refers to a captive’s name that joins the sign with BAHLAM, “jaguar” (Figure 4b, Beliaev et al. 2020:171, 173). A similar name, possibly of the same individual, occurs at Ixtutz, Guatemala: u-CHAN-na-“Wound-by-Obsidian”-BAHLAM-ma (Figure 4a). Elsewhere, the “Wound-by-Obsidian” may refer to an object. One is “raised up” in a text on a Spondylus shell from Piedras Negras Burial 13, the presumed tomb of Ruler 4 of that site, excavated by Dr. Héctor Escobedo in 1997 (Figure 4c). Or, at Dos Pilas, Guatemala, another is “received,” ch’am, as though something palpable were held in the hand (Figure 4d). Notably, the first bears the obsidian glyph, the second does not, yet the ‘a subfix suggests an equivalence between the variant forms.

Figure 4. “Wound-by-Obsidian” glyphs, obsidian blade and wound or damaged face highlighted in yellow: a) Ixtutz Panel 2, Block 4, S1–T1, text reversed because of clockwise reading order around the panel (photographs by the Atlas Epigráfico de Petén, Russian State University for the Humanities); b) Itzan Hieroglyphic Stairway 1, Block 4, B1–B2 (photograph by Ian Graham, rubbing by Merle Green Robertson); c) Piedras Negras Burial 13 (drawing by Stephen Houston); and d) Dos Pilas Hieroglyphic Stairway 3, Block III:D3 (drawing by Stephen Houston).

Possessed versions, with or without the obsidian, appear on a small altar from the kingdom of Yaxchilan (with ya prefix and an unclear subfix, Figure 5b, Grube and Luin 2014:42–43, fig. 6); Copan Stela J:E8, with subfixed la; and Tikal, Stela 10:G8, also with la (Figure 5c, Jones and Satterthwaite 1982:fig. 15). The earliest form of this sign dates to the 6th century AD. It is the example on Tikal Stela 10 (ca. AD 506). Close review of photos taken in 2013 by the Atlas Epigráfico de Petén of the Russian State University for the Humanities demonstrates that the wounded head bears an element marked by “darkness” on its forehead (Figure 5c). Presumably, this is an obsidian blade. A chronologically close (AD 537) example from Yaxchilan Lintel 37 (Figure 5a, I. Graham 1979:83) represents an obsidian blade adorned by feathers that pierces the wounded head (Fig. 5a). The original form of this sign depicted the direct action of cutting by an obsidian blade. Later, it developed along two parallel lines: (a) omitting the obsidian element and (b) placing the obsidian in front of the head.

Figure 5. Paleographic shifts and possessed forms of the “Wound-by-Obsidian” sign: (a) Yaxchilan Lintel 37:A4 (drawing by Ian Graham); (b) Tikal Stela 10:G8 (photographs by the Atlas Epigráfico de Petén, Russian State University for the Humanities, courtesy of Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología de Guatemala); and (c) Yaxchilan-area altar, position 7 (photographs by the Atlas Epigráfico de Petén, Russian State University for the Humanities, courtesy of Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología de Guatemala).

These clues point to a word that, depending on inflection, begins with a- and ends in -a’ or -al). It seems very probable, as David Stuart suggests to us, that the basic reading concerned a widespread word yah or ya’, “permanent wound,” and a related concept of “pain, soreness” (e.g., Barrera Vásquez et al. 1980:958–959; Kaufman 2003:1338; Wisdom 1950:764; Polian 2017:682, has yah, “lesión permanente, achaque [herida que nunca sanó por completo y sigue doliendo],” ‘permanent wound, achaque [injury that never heals completely and continues hurting]’; drawing on present-day Tzotzil Maya, Laughlin [1975:384] records yayih, “be wounded or cut, be broken up [fruit]”). [3] Perhaps homophones were at play too. The placement of the cut raises the disquieting possibility that the facial wound resulted from flaying. Skin masks appear in a number of Maya images (Houston et al. 2006:20, fig. 1.11), and, as David Stuart also suggests to us, with acute insight, there may be a depiction of a heaped, flayed skin in a scene of captive torture and brutalization (K6674; see also Houston 2008). [4] The hafted, circular “eccentric” above that folded, browned skin resembles excavated blades from Maya caches or burials, and also the Aleut, Inuit or Yupik ulu, ᐅᓗ, a curved implement for skinning and flaying animals (Frink et al. 2002). “Eccentric” lithics may not simply have been for display or insertion into tombs and caches. They sliced soft skin and flesh. The unlidded eyes in the “Wound-by-Obsidian” sign indicate the possible removal of their eyelids and surrounding skin.

A prince of Yaxchilan, Chooj, “Puma,” is also labeled by this conflation, but with BAAH, perhaps to mean “Head” or “First” person of “Wound-by-Obsidian,” Baah Ya’ (Figure 6; reading of “puma” from Marc Zender, personal communication, 2004). This accords with a possible ranking of people associated with “Wound-by-Obsidian,” a pattern recalling in turn BAAH with took’, “flint” or te’, “wood, staff” (Houston 2014:27–28, fig. 17).

Figure 6. Unprovenanced lintel, Yaxchilan-area, BAAH-“Wound-by-Obsidian [YA’?-‘a]” CHOOJ ch’o-ko PA’-CHAN-na-AJAW (photograph by Stephen Houston).

The natural advantages of obsidian, its ability to slice cleanly, drives home a connection between what might be described as its surgical use and its role in sacrifice. Another unprovenanced pot shows the Sun God in recumbent, newborn posture, his umbilicus—as understood at first glance—being cut by God L with a dark knife of obsidian (Figure 7). Unexpected inversions and alternations mark the scene: a male midwife, jauntily smoking his cheroot; a companion with dark face (rather like the taaj, “obsidian” personages shown with dark pigment at Xultun, Guatemala (Rossi 2017:93, fig. 4); and a “newborn,” the Sun God, shown, if not old, at least as robust and mature. A scene of birth is complicated, however, by the event—a change-of-state verb that is not yet deciphered—and, possibly, yo?-OHL-la K’INICH-AJAW, “the heart of the Sun God.” The contrived, liminal nature of the date, 13 Chuwen 19 Zip, is made clear by the numbers. It is the highest possible numeral for the trecena, and the most days of the month before it shifted to the next. The small, trilobate “flowers” on the “umbilicus” resemble clotted blood, the cord itself, perhaps, the intestine or a large artery (for a similar, almost vegetal extrusion from a heart sacrifice, see K9227). A nocturnal god saws away at a being who exemplifies the day. A birth looks also to be a painful death. In symbolic terms, the reverse may also have been true.

Figure 7. The “birth/sacrifice” of the Sun God (photographer unknown).

But how to read the “Obsidian-in-Hand” sign? A decisive piece of evidence comes from a vase in the Museo VICAL at the Casa Santo Domingo hotel in Antigua Guatemala (Figure 8a, d). The glyphs are somewhat slovenly or uneven, and a in a style far earlier than the two figures depicted on the pot in Teotihuacan gear (Beliaev et al. 2017). The person to the right is none other than Sihyaj K’ahk’, the Teotihuacan warrior mentioned before; that to the left is otherwise unattested, ku po-ma yo-OHL AHIIN, Kupoom Yohl Ahiin. A likely variant of his name occurs on one of the carved bones from Tikal Burial 116, but there with the “Obsidian-in-Hand” in place of the ku po-ma (Figure 8b). Another Late Classic vase records its owner as someone of precisely the same name (Figure 8c). On that vase, he is known as the “North Dog [tz’i’] Lord,” and the thought comes to mind that this is some reference to a coyote, a canine of higher, drier, northerly lands, such as those of Teotihuacan itself. This reference, as with the Tikal bone or the Museo VICAL pot, may be a Late Classic retrospection of an Early Classic personage, or it pertains to a later individual taking that name.

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Figure 8. Kupoom Yohl Ahiin, “Cutter [of] the Crocodile’s Heart”: a) Museo VICAL vase, B1–B4 (IDAEH registration, drawing by Philipp Galeev); b) Tikal Miscellaneous Text 336 (drawing by Sergei Vepretskii, cf. Moholy-Nagy 2008:fig. 195, h, which omits some of these features); c) unprovenanced “codex-style” vase (drawing by Stephen Houston; and d) the Museo VICAL vase (drawing by Philipp Galeev).

Current narratives about relations between the Maya and Teotihuacan correctly highlight a few important people, but there are other figures mentioned as well. One known as “Sihyaj ‘Dart’,” may, for example, not be Sihyaj K’ahk’ but, Houston believes, a distinct figure with his own, later arrival (cf. Hombre de Tikal:F5). A number of plates and pots indicate a larger field of dramatis personae at this critical time of interaction. OHL for “heart” is a logograph deciphered by Houston in 1989—the reading was signaled by a prefixed yo syllable and a postfixed la; the AHIIN, “crocodile,” finds confirmation in a spelling of ‘a-hi-*na on a vase at the Museo Popol Vuh in Guatemala City (K3058, David Stuart, personal communication, 2001).

Kup is key here. The root is attested in Ch’olti’, the language closest to most Classic texts: cupu, como palo u otro cosa equivale, “as in wood or other equivalent thing” (Robertson et al. 2010:306). Even closer is an entry in a dictionary of Colonial Tzotzil: kup, “afeitar a tijeras…cortar con sierra…matar sacrificando hombres,” ‘cut with scissors…cut with a saw…kill sacrificing men’ (Laughlin 1988, I:225). Or, in the same source, in fuller exposition: kupvanej ta moton ch’u, “human sacrifice,” with the connotation of sawing in a rite “endured” with “pain” (Laughlin 1988, I:225). There are other revealing details: “sacrificar y matar hombre comunmente dicen: xekupvan, jkup, i.e., corto o aserro. aquel acto de sacrificar asi. kupvanej ta smoton ch’u, porque xekupvan no es propiamente sino cortar como aserrando” (‘to sacrifice and kill people they usually say: <xekupvan, jkup>, i.e. cut or saw; that act of sacrificing like this [is] <kupvanej ta smoton ch’u>, because <xekupvan> is not properly [to cut] but to cut like sawing’) (Laughlin 1988, III:749). Edward Calnek, drawing on colonial Tzeltal, identifies a category of priest involved in human sacrifices: <ghcupauh> “sacrificador” (‘sacrifice’), and <ghcupvinic> “sacrificador” (‘sacrificer’) (Calnek 1988:1). The last term is of special interest because it is translated as “cortador de hombres” (‘cutter of men’), a specialized category of ritual specialist (Calnek 1988:49).

The form of a transitive root with an agentive suffix -oom is also found in the jatz’oom plausibly deciphered by colleagues (see above). A striking feature of the probable burial of Yax Nuun Ahiin at Tikal is its richness, including many features linked to Teotihuacan. But it also held a crocodile (Wright 2005:90, 91). The bones may not be preserved from that long-past excavation, but a reasonable inquiry is whether they present osteological evidence of heart extraction. Indeed, this may have been one of the roles of the figure on the vase at the Museo VICAL, Kupoom Yohl Ahiin, “Cutter [of] the Crocodile’s Heart.”

Heart extraction from animals is well-known in Mesoamerica, undertaken with felines, deer, turkeys, and other creatures (Tiesler and Olivier 2020:184; see also Chávez Balderas 2017). Done with deft motions of an obsidian blade, it would go quickly with a crocodile: necessarily so, unless the animal were drugged, made unconscious or tightly bound. Without such preparation, the beast would have been most uncooperative. Indeed, a Postclassic mural from Structure Q.95 at Mayapan, Yucatan, shows a bound crocodile floating in water, its lashed snout hissing out fragrant breath (Millbrath et al. 2010:7–8, fig. 7). This mural lay flat on the floor, with some stucco “lipping” on the sides. The conceit seems to have been of a mythic sea in correct, horizontal orientation. Those stepping on it were in the figurative act of wading. Or this was more than a visual conceit. The lipping hints at the presence of a shallow stuccoed basin, although, as Karl Taube points out to us, its location in a temple summit makes this less likely. What may be a jeweled spear penetrates its abdomen, close to the thorax. Alternatively—the painting is damaged and heavily restored—the wound may represent the results of heart extraction, the jewels an effusion of precious blood. [5] In Mesoamerica, crocodiles were often identified with the earth, an aged creator god, and reenactments of prior destructions of the world (Taube 2018 [1989]. For one ritual in early colonial Yucatan—the practice was doubtless pre-Conquest—a crocodile (lagarto) was painted and presumably sacrificed (de la Garza ed. 1983, 1:72; Taube 2018 [1989:110]).

Kupoom Yohl Ahiin pertains to animals. A final, telling piece of evidence comes from a vase in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (Figure 9). A disembodied deity, an incense bowl on its head, tugs away at the innards of a prone captive. This god with jaguar ear—close to that of a variant read TE’, but showing a world tree—is also mentioned further on, in a discontinuous text placed in various locations on a dark background. The date may be 7 Ben *6 Mak (there is repainting here), but the event for this horrific scene is ku-pa-ja, kuhpaj, “he is being cut, sawn, sacrificed.” This must rank as one of the most vivid evocations of heart extraction through or below the thorax.

Figure 9. Kuhpaj, ku-pa-ja, as glyph for heart sacrifice (K1377, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Landon T. Clay, 1988.1179)


[1] The tz’o reading is supported, as Stuart notes, by spellings such as ja-?tz’o-ma, “beater?” (K2058), tz’o-na-ja, “shoot, throw,” in a ballgame context (Yaxchilan HS 2, Step VII:Q1; El Peru HS 1, Blocks XIV-XIV, Ian Graham field drawing), tz’o-no/’o?-niA-AKAN-na, “Groaner [Who] Throws [Stones]” (K791), and tz’o-to-la EK’ HIX, “Twisted Star Jaguar,” a term for a jaguar way enveloped by a snake, its whole body festooned with star signs (K1230, K1652, K5632). Tz’on is attested in Yukatek, in connection with rifle shots but also blowguns, and in Chontal for “shoot,” a transitive verb (Barrera Vásquez et al. 1980: 889; Knowles 1984:475). An unpublished “codex-style” sherd records nu?-tz’o/TZ’ON XIB above an image of young, mythic blow gunner; he may also relate, as an ‘a-SIBIK?-TE’, to a kind of celt/mirror bedecked tree nearby. The asterisms are notable in a number of these images: the jaguar way and, in the scene at Yaxchilan, dwarves with stars and evident tails or flatulence—tropes for meteors? In Room 2 of the Bonampak murals a figure in its band of asterisms above a battle appears to fling or shoot stars with an atlatl (Miller and Brittenham 2013:fig. 196, and personal observation by Houston during videography of the original). Some years ago, Marc Zender pointed out to Houston clues to a reading of ‘A Chak Ju’te‘ for a title attested on a carved shell at Aguateca (‘a-CHAK-ka ju-‘u-TE’) and, in logographic form, on a small but exquisitely painted vase from Burial 196 at Tikal (AJ-CHAK-JU’T?-TE-‘e, Culbert 1993:fig. 84; Inomata 1997:fig. 14). This is close to a Ch’orti’ word for “blowgun,” probably of onomatopoeiac origin from sudden aspirations of air: huht te’, “blowgun” (Wisdom 1950: 472). The logographic version at Tikal could derive from Ch’orti’ hut, ‘face of person or animal, front side or surface; facial appearance, manner or expression, appearance” (Wisdom 1950: 474). Thus, the epithet at Aguateca, which pertains to a royal youth, reads, “He of the great (chak) blowgun.” The title may have been literal, a reference to an accomplished hunter if of small game. Or there was a more freighted allusion: a youthful identity blended with the “hero twins” who blowgun the Principal Bird Deity out of a primordial world tree (e.g., K1226).

[2] The gloss hutahul, “saw wood” (Barrera Vásquez et al. 1980:258), seems to be an erroneous transcription of <hut.ah ub>, which, in the Vienna Dictionary, spells an active stem *hutah and a passive stem *hutub in one line (see also Bolles 2001, http://www.famsi.org/reports/96072/h/hut_huztic.htm).

[3] If merely a variant, the flint with the wounded back may read Ya’ Paat.

[4] The scene appears below, in an image courtesy of Justin Kerr (K6674). For comparable, crescentic blades—some are full crescents, others partial, some perforated, others not—see W. Coe (1959:figs. 11, 16k), Pendergast (1, 1979:fig. 23a; 2, 1982:figs. 37a, 62d, 63d; 3, 1990:figs. 17e, i, 158h, 160, c, e), Willey (1972:fig. 169, 170, who calls them “Elaborate Perforated Forms”). Many have basal tangs or knapped outsets near the handle. Perhaps, as in the image here, they helped to fit a carved mount. One wonders, with disquiet, what might be in the pink vase with basketry lid. Other organs or body parts? For a depiction of an eccentric in use, see K8351 and https://mayadecipherment.com/2016/07/22/maya-stelae-and-multi-media/. To judge from Aztec carvings, such flaying involved heart sacrifice, as revealed by sutured, transverse cuts across the chest (https://www.artic.edu/artworks/12742/ritual-impersonator-of-the-deity-xipe-totec; Museum der Kulturen Basel, Sammlung Lukas Vischer). Yet whole-body flayings may been one of several practices. Smaller, buccal flayings appear on some figurines and at least one ceramic mask (Schmidt et al. 1998:#102, 114, 115). These could have resulted from the V-shaped incisions seen in the glyph. Less thorough flayings might have taken place in pressed conditions on the battlefield—compare with the scalps secured rapidly by Plains warriors and other groups, including Europeans (Grinnell 1910:303–306). More elaborate processing of bodies perhaps occurred with captives under fuller control.

[5] The rendering by Barbara Escamilla Ojeda shows the sacrificial crocodile (Milbrath et al. 2020:fig.7).

[6] Not just adults experienced the agony of heart extraction. There are infants or mannikins too (black and white photograph by Stephen Houston, color by Justin Kerr, used with permission).

Acknowledgements As always, friends helped with our research. These include Nicholas Carter, Charles Golden, Albert Davletshin, Simon Martin, Andrew Scherer, Josh Schnell, David Stuart, Karl Taube, Alexandre Tokovinine, and Marc Zender, and, kindly providing a pre-publication article, Vera Tiesler and Guilhem Olivier. Note that this essay employs the spellings and spelling conventions favored by Robertson et al. (2007). “K” numbers identify photographs by Justin Kerr.


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Coe, Michael D. 2003. Another Look at the Maya Ballgame. In Il sacro e il paesaggio nell’America indigena, edited by Davide Domenici, Carolina Orsini and Sofia Venturoli, pp. 197–204. Bologna: CLUEB.

Coe, William R. 1959. Piedras Negras Archaeology: Artifacts, Caches, and Burials. Philadelphia: University Museum, University of Pennsylvania.

Culbert, T. Patrick. 1993. Tikal Report No. 25, Part A: The Ceramics of Tikal: Vessels from the Burials, Caches, and Problematical Deposits. University Museum Monograph 81. Philadelphia: University Museum, University of Pennsylvania.

Davletshin, Albert. 2001. Possible reading of T674 syllable. Unpublished manuscript.

de la Garza, Mercedes, ed. 1983. Relaciones histórico-geográficas de la gobernación de Yucatán. 2 vols. Fuentes para el Estudio de la Cultura Maya 1. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Frink, Lisa, Brian W. Hoffman, and Robert D. Shaw. 2002. Ulu Knife Use in Western Alaska: A Comparative Ethnoarchaeological Study. Current Anthropology 44(1):116–122.

Graham, Ian. 1979. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 3, Part 2: Yaxchilan. Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology, Harvard University.

Graham, John A. 1972. The Hieroglyphic Inscriptions and Monumental Art of Altar de Sacrificios. Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology 64(2). Cambridge, MA.

Grinnell, George B. 1910. Coup and Scalp among the Plains Indians. American Anthropologist, n.s. 12:296–310.

Grube, Nikolai, and Camilo A. Luin. 2014. A Drum Altar from the Vicinity of Yaxchilan. Mexicon 36:40–48.

Houston, Stephen. 2008. A Classic Maya Bailiff? Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography https://mayadecipherment.com/2008/03/10/a-classic-maya-bailiff/

Houston, Stephen. 2014. The Life Within: Classic Maya and the Matter of Permanence. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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

Inomata, Takeshi. 1997. The Last Day of a Fortified Classic Maya Center: Archaeological Investigations at Aguateca, Guatemala. Ancient Mesoamerica 8: 337–351.

Jones, Christopher, and Linton Satterthwaite. 1982. Tikal Report No. 33, Part A, The Monuments and Inscriptions of Tikal: The Carved Monuments. Philadelphia: The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania.

Kaufman, Terrence S. 2003. Preliminary Mayan Etymological Dictionary. Report to the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc.

Knowles, Susan M. 1984. A Descriptive Grammar of Chontal Maya (San Carlos Dialect). Ph.D. dissertation, Tulane University, New Orleans.

Laughlin, Robert M. 1975. The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of Santo Domingo Zinacantán. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Laughlin, Robert M. 1988. The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of Santo Domingo Zinacantán, Volume I, Tzotzil-English. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Lopes, Luís. 2003. The “Stone-in-Hand” Glyph Revisited. Unpublished manuscript. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/dea0/c742539eddacc1da0ffb58dbdfd5d7acb6dd.pdf.

Love, Bruce. 2017. Corpus Volume 1: Museo Regional del Sureste de Petén Dr. Juan Pedro Laporte Molina. Contributions to Mesoamerican Studies, October 16, 2017. https://brucelove.com/corpus/corpus-volume-001

Milbrath, Susan, Carlos Peraza Lope, and Miguel Delgado Kú. 2010. Religious Imagery in Mayapan’s Murals. The PARI Journal 10(3):1–10.

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

Moholy-Nagy, Hattula, with William R. Coe. 2018. Tikal Report 27, Part A: The Artifacts of Tikal: Ornamental and Ceremonial Artifacts and Unworked Material. University Museum Monograph 127. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Palka, Joel W. 2002. Left/Right Symbolism and the Body in Ancient Maya Iconography and Culture. Latin American Antiquity 13(4):419–443.

Pendergrast, David M. 1979–1990. Excavations at Altun Ha, Belize, 1964–1970. 3 vols. Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum.

Polian, Gilles. 2017. Diccionario Multidialectal del tseltal. Ms. in possession of authors.

Robertson, John, Stephen Houston, Marc Zender, and David Stuart. 2007. Universals and the Logic of the Material Implication: A Case Study from Maya Hieroglyphic Writing. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing No. 62. Universals

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

Robicsek, Francis, and Donald M. Hales. 1981. The Maya Book of the Dead, The Ceramic Codex: The Corpus of Codex Style Ceramics of the Late Classic Period. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Art Museum.

Rossi, Franco D. 2017. Pedagogy and State: An Archaeological Inquiry into Classic Maya Educational Practice. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 28:1:85–102

Saturno, William, Franco D. Rossi, David Stuart, and Heather Hurst. 2017. A Maya Curia Regis: Evidence for a Hierarchical Specialist Order at Xultun, Guatemala. Ancient Mesoamerica 28(2):423–440. doi:10.1017/S0956536116000432

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Stuart, David. 1997. Ts’o Notes. Unpublished chart.

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

——. 2002. “Glyphs for ‘Right’ and ‘Left’?” https://www.mesoweb.com/stuart/notes/RightLeft.pdf

Taube, Karl. 1991. Obsidian Polyhedral Cores and Prismatic Blades in the Writing and Art of Ancient Mexico. Ancient Mesoamerica 2:61–70.

——. 2018. Itzam Kab Ain: Caimans, Cosmology, and Calendrics in Postclassic Yucatán. In Studies in Ancient Mesoamerican Art and Architecture: Selected Works by Karl Andreas Taube, 108–117. San Francisco: Precolumbia Mesoweb Press. [1989. Itzam Kab Ain: Caimans, Cosmology, and Calendrics in Postclassic Yucatán. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing 26:1–12. Washington, D.C.: Center for Maya Research.]

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Ballgame Texts. The PARI Journal 4(4):1–9.

Getting Stoned (in the Grolier Codex)

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

The celebrated Relación of Bishop Diego de Landa (1524–79) offers, in the edition by Alfred Tozzer—a volume in part ghosted, according to rumor, by many Harvard graduate students—a full array of horrors for those who transgressed law and custom in early Colonial Yucatan. Unchaste girls were whipped and rubbed with pepper on “another part of their body” (the eyes, privates or anus?); “offenses committed with malice…[could only be] satisfied with blood or blows,” and those who corrupted young women might expect capital punishment (Tozzer 1941: 98, 127, 231; but see Restall and Chuchiak 2002, who view the Relación as a varied and complex compilation).

Then there was stoning. If discovered, a male adulterer would be lashed to a post. The unforgiving husband then threw “a large stone down from a high place upon his head” (Tozzer 1941: 124, 215, the latter from Tozzer’s excerpt of Herrera’s Historia General). Other stones played a role in an unusually brutal form of sport attested as far afield as the Cotzumalhuapan sites and various Classic Maya sources (Chinchilla 2009: 154–56; Taube and Zender 2009:197–204). Boxers, “gladiators” even, pummeled each other with stone spheres. Sometimes there was no contest to speak of, and the violence seemed to be inflicted on helpless captives or sacrifices (Figure 1; see also Houston and Scherer 2010: 170, fig. 1).


Figure 1. Stoning of captive, to viewer’s left (K7516, photograph by Justin Kerr, copyright Kerr Associates). 

An enigmatic image, related to some unknown tale among the Classic Maya, also involves stoning (Figure 2). A figure daubed with black paint lifts a small white stone that carries the dots and circle of a “stone,” tuun. He is about to wallop a cringing lizard with distinct, backward thrust crest (David Stuart, Marc Zender, and I have read glyphs for this creature as paat, an interpretation we will present at some point). Another figure to the right is poised to jab with what may be a digging stick or coa. Misery will doubtless ensue for the lizard, a fate also awaiting a bound crocodile on a jaguar-skin throne. Maya imagery tends to skirt displays of emotion, but these creatures look downcast, frightened, hopeless.


Figure 2. Torture of mythic reptiles (photograph from Justin Kerr [K9149], copyright holder unknown). 

In our recent study of the Grolier Codex, Michael Coe, Mary Miller, Karl Taube, and I presented what seems to us (and to many others) overwhelming evidence for the authenticity of the manuscript (Coe et al. 2015). While working on that project, I was beset with a growing sense of bafflement. Why did anyone question the Codex to begin with? On dissection, the objections seemed ill-founded and argued.

Here is another piece of evidence (Figure 3). Page 9 of the Grolier shows a mountain deity grasping a stone, a point made also by John Carlson (2014: 5). Perceptive as ever, Karl Taube, who authored this part of our essay, noted that such weapons were used as punishment (Coe et al. 2015: 154). But beyond castigation, there is surely a martial aspect to the pages of the Grolier, of spearing, slicing, and thrusting with atlatl darts. Death by hand-held stone is a particularly messy way to go. The white stones must have contrasted vividly with the blood and gore that streaked them.

figure 3.jpg

Figure 3.  Grolier Codex, page 9 (drawing by Nicholas Carter, Coe et al. 2015: fig. 41). 

What we did not emphasize enough, perhaps, was that other scenes of such execution or torture were simply not known or understood in the Classic corpus when the Grolier was found in the early to mid-1960s. Almost all the images documented by Justin Kerr and presented here were not recognized as such until a few years ago. That applies equally to most of the imagery interpreted by Chinchilla Mazariegos, Taube, and Zender as boxing or sacrifice with hand-held stones.

I am confident that such evidence will only accumulate as our understanding deepens and the Grolier continues to release its secrets.


Carlson, John B. 2014. The Grolier Codex: An Authentic 13th-Century Maya Divinatory Venus Almanac: New Revelations on the Oldest Surviving Book on Paper in the Ancient Americas. The Smoking Mirror 22(4): 2–7.

Coe, Michael, Stephen Houston, Mary Miller, and Karl Taube. 2015. The Fourth Maya Codex. In Maya Archaeology 3, edited by Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore, 116–67. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

Chinchilla Mazariegos, Oswaldo. 2009. Games, Courts, and Players at Cotzumalhuapa, Guatemala. In Blood and Beauty: Organized Violence in the Art and Archaeology of Mesoamerica and Central America, edited by Heather Orr and Rex Koontz, 139–160. Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, Los Angeles.

Houston, Stephen, and Andrew Scherer. 2010. La ofrenda máxima: el sacrificio humano en la parte central del área maya. In Nuevas Perspectivas Sobre el Sacrificio Humano entre los Mexicas, edited by Leonardo López Luján and Guilhem Olivier, 169–193. UNAM/INAH, Mexico City.

Restall, Matthew, and John F. Chuchiak. 2002. A Reevaluation of the Authenticity of Fray Diego de Landa’s Relacion de las cosas de YucatanEthnohistory 49(3): 651–669.

Taube, Karl, and Marc Zender. 2009. American Gladiators: Ritual Boxing in Ancient Mesoamerica. In Blood and Beauty: Organized Violence in the Art and Archaeology of Mesoamerica and Central America, edited by Heather Orr and Rex Koontz, 161–220. Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, Los Angeles.

Tozzer, Alfred M. 1941. Landa’s Relación de las Cosas de Yucatan: A Translation. Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology 18. Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

REPORT: Two Inscribed Bones from Yaxchilan

Back in 1979, excavations at Yaxchilan overseen by Roberto García Moll unearthed several carved bone objects within Tomb 2 of Structure 23 (Mathews 1997:161; Perez Campa 1990:150). Among them were the two artifacts in the figure below, each with a carved deity head on one end and a short hieroglyphic inscription (there were other similar bones as well, not treated here). In this report I would like to offer a few observations on the short texts, focusing mainly on the relationship they bear to the deity images.

As one can see in the drawings, these intriguing bones are pointed at one end, which might lead one to think they functioned as ritual bloodletters. I’m not so sure this is the case here, given their blunt appearance. It’s possible that they were pin-like devices inserted in some sort of unknown material, not unlike similar objects recently described by Martin (2012:77) in the paintings of Structure Sub 1-4 at Calakmul. Unfortunately the texts do not say exactly what they were used for — as we will see, one is simply a “jaguar bone” (Bone 1) and the other is an “offering bone” (Bone 2).

Each text is structured somewhat differently, but both clearly label the objects as belonging to Ix K’abal Xook, the noted queen of Yaxchilan from the early eighth century who is depicted on a number of sculptures at the site, including the famous carved door lintels of Structure 23 (Lintels 24, 25 and 26). Each text also includes a god’s name corresponding to the carved head, placed differently in each case.

YAX bones1BONE 1:

u-ba ke-le BAHLAM-ma IX (k’a-ba)-la
u baakel bahlam Ix K’abal
(it is) the jaguar’s bone of Lady K’abal

XOOK?-ki AJ-K’AHK’ o?-CHAHK-ki
Xook / Aj K’ahk’ O’ Chahk
Xook. (It is) Aj K’ahk’ O’ Chahk.


to-k’a-la AJAW-wa U-MAY-ya-ji
took’al ajaw u mayij
Flint Lord is the offering

ba-ki IX-(k’a-ba)-la XOOK?-ki
baak Ix K’abal Xook
bone of Lady K’abal Xook.

The text on Bone 1 (a provisional designation, by the way) looks to have two segments. One is a name-tag based on the interesting term u baakel bahlam, “her jaguar bone…,” with he name of the owner, Lady K’abal Xook, continuing to glyph B1 on the obverse side. Glyphs B2 and B3, larger in size than the others, seem to stand apart as a separate name. This is familiar from a number of other texts as Aj K’ahk’ O’ Chahk, an important royal patron deity of Yaxchilan. The small head atop Bone 1 does indeed resemble as aspect of Chahk, the storm god, with a possible pointed diadem and and rope pectoral.

Aj K’ahk’ O’ Chahk was a local deity, named and depicted only at Yaxchilan and environs. I suspect he was the principle patron of the royal throne of Yaxchilan, not unlike GI was for Palenque, given his central role in the rhetoric of royal accession at the site (as on Lintel 25 and 35, among others). The first part of his name, Aj K’ahk’,  means “He of Fire,” although this title doesn’t always seem to be present. The core portion of the name simply seems to be O’ Chahk (and, no, there is no evidence he was Irish). O’ is the name of a raptorial bird whose image appears in the glyphs as the head sign with the values o (a syllable) or O’ (a logogram); this head sign is usually simply abbreviated as the spotted feather, so that in these deity names we seem to have the sequence O’-CHAHK-(ki) (see Figure 2a and 2b, below).  The O’ Chahk name corresponds to the headdress worn by Yaxchilan’s rulers during important dedication ceremonies, as shown in Figure 2a. Here the o’ bird is stacked atop the head of Chahk, essentially replicating the hieroglyphic name O’-CHAHK in iconographic form.

O Chahk
Figure 2. (a) The deity O’ Chahk as a headdress, from La Pasadita, Lintel 1. (b) the name Aj K’ahk’ O’ Chahk from Yaxchilan, Lintel 25, (c) The name O’ Chahk from Yaxchilan, Lintel 35. (Drawings by Ian Graham)

Bone 2 references a different god named Took’al Ajaw, “Flint-knife Lord,” who thus far has gone unrecognized. The inscribed statement is a bit more direct about the identity of the object, saying that “Took’al Ajaw is her offering bone.” Atop the bone we see a god resembling the so-called “Jaguar God of the Underworld,” with a long beard-like feature as well as a pointed, animated flint knife for a forehead — hence his name.  This deity is also of local importance at Yaxchilan. Several portraits of him can be fount at the tops of stelae that depict consecration rites on important Period Endings and anniversaries, where he is always shown above a sky band and in-between ancestral portraits of the rulers mother and father (Figure 3). Otherwise we know little about him, or his connection to other members of the local pantheon.

Figure 3. The top fragment of Stela 4 from Yaxchilan (front), showing the parents of Bird Jaguar IV as the sun and the moon. Took'al Ajaw, with his flint headdress, appears between them as another  celestial deity. (Photograph by Teobert Maler)
Figure 3. The top fragment of Stela 4 from Yaxchilan (front), showing the parents of Shield Jaguar II as the sun and the moon. Took’al Ajaw, with his flint headdress, appears between them as another celestial deity. (Photograph by Teobert Maler)

It seems that Structure 23 was the formal “house” of Ix K’abal Xook, with Tomb 2 her likely burial place (See Plank 2004:35-54). Several other bones bearing her name were found in the tomb, including one very elaborate mayij baak named for another deity named Bolon Kalneel Chahk. He was evidently another aspect of the storm god who was important in local rituals and political symbolism.

What were these small objects used for, then? It is difficult to say for sure, and the texts on them are not as explicit on this point as we would like them to be. The job of these glyphs was more to identify the owner (Ix K’abal Xook) and the deity depicted. If allowed to speculate, I wonder if such pointed bones might themselves have been used as elaborate figural “labels,” inserted into incense or food offerings (mayij) or some other substance as a way of attributing or directing them to different gods. There is no way to prove such a function, but it might be a useful avenue to ponder and explore further. At any rate, I hope to revisit these issues in a future post, looking at other examples and varieties of inscribed bone artifacts.


Martin, Simon. 2012. Hieroglyphs from the Painted Pyramid: The Epigraphy of Chiik Nahb Structure Sub 1-4, Calakmul, Mexico. In Maya Archaeology 2, pp. 60-81. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press.

Mathews, Peter Lawrence. 1997. La Escultura de Yaxchilan. INAH, México, D.F.

Perez Campa, Mario. 1990. La vida en Yaxchilan. In La exposición de la civilización maya, pp. 149-154. Mainichi Shinbunsha, Tokyo, Japan.

Plank, Shannon E. 2004. Maya Dwellings in Hieroglyphs and Archaeology: An Integrative Approach to Ancient Architecture and Spatial Cognition. BAR International  Series 1324, Oxford, England.

Diadems in the Rough

by Stephen Houston

The ritual role of paper is by now a commonplace in studies of Classic Maya royalty. Kings show their station by wearing headbands, presumably made from the cortex of the strangler fig or amate (Ficus sp.), kopo’ in some Mayan languages.(Note 1)

Much could be written about Classic paper. There is the matter of its manufacture with “bark beaters.” Lashed to wooden handles, these grooved tools helped to mash and fuse fibers for eventual smoothing, sizing with lime-powder, and painting.(Note 2) Epigraphers might pay more attention to the reading of “paper” in Maya texts: hu’n, a term cueing “book,” “headband,” even “diadem” or “crown.” (Note 3) (The material came first, other meanings later.) Yet not all head coverings were Ficus. Some years ago, Michael Coe noted the probable use of henequen fibers in some headdresses (Coe 1973:49). An uncomfortable material, perhaps, but it was also durable, shapable, dramatic in effect, light to wear.

Two glyphic spellings indicate a third material for headgear. A paper, hu’n, it nonetheless seems to consist of something other than Ficus. One example occurs on Aguateca Stela 1, dating to AD 741 (Fig. 1; Graham 1967:fig. 3). The text offers an

Fig. 1. Figure 1. Aguateca Stela 1:A7, with close-up of royal headband (Graham 1967:figs. 2, 3).

unusual lead-up to the accession of a ruler, K’awiil Chan K’inich of Aguateca and Dos Pilas, by referring to an act of ka-cha-ji u-sa-ya-HU’N. The root is doubtless related to “tying,” kach, an event entirely appropriate for a headband (Grube 1992:213). In this spelling, the hu’n itself is visible as a paper bow. The reference comes 22 days prior to enthronement and may represent the pre-accession tying of a headband or the preparation of regalia for the ceremony. Another spelling is on the famed “Princeton Vase” at the Princeton Art Museum (Fig. 2; K511; Coe 1978:pl. 1). An ‘a-sa-ya HU’N-na is clearly visible at positions L2-K3, although the context is opaque. The caption, alluding to a person—note the agentive ‘a (or is it a pronoun, “your”?)—may refer to the scene of God L and his harem.

Figure 2. Princeton Vase, close up of caption (Coe 1978:pl. 1, photograph copyright Justin Kerr).

What can be made of these references to hu’n, once in secure connection to regalia and accession to high office?

An ethnography of the Q’eqchi’ Maya draws attention to a sedge, a grass or rush-like plant known as say (Cyperus sp.; Wilson 1972: 148, 169, 260, Table 19): “Today the principal fiber plant apart from ik’e (maguey) is a sedge, saySay is used by plaiting rather than spinning; the three faces of the stem are split apart and woven into fine mats (sayil pōp) on which to sit or sleep.” Use of say appears to have been gendered among the Q’eqchi’, as it was worked only by women. Say produces a finer product than other plaited or twilled materials, and the Ch’orti’, too, made full use of it (Wisdom 1940:153-154; yet note Ch’orti’ pohp’ for “sedge”). Ground up and mixed with oil for poultice, the sedge was employed by Ch’orti’ midwives, at least until the 1930s, to heal the umbilical wounds of babies (Wisdom 1940:288): soothing, applicable at a key moment in life’s passage. Colonial Yukatek refers to the same material, as in the Calepino Motul: “Çay [say] el coraçón o junco de que hazen petates o esteras” or “the heart or rush from which petates or mats are made” (Cuidad Real 2001:136).

There is another possibility too. Colonial and recent Tzotzil mention a tree called saya-vun [hun], “saya-paper,” a wild mulberry (Morus celtidfolia; Breedlove and Laughlin 2000: 142, 153). A plant from a related plant, like Ficus and the mulberry in the Moraceae family, was commonly used in Polynesia for tapa cloth and throughout Asia as the basis of a resilient and valued paper (Seelenfreund et al. 2010). What is striking in the image on Aguateca Stela 1 is that a lashing around the forehead is cross-hatched. This is either because it is dark—a common Maya convention—or because it renders a rougher, more textured material (Fig. 1).

The Classic Maya wove, plaited, twilled, and otherwise joined materials from the vegetal world around them. Two glyphic examples suggest that some such works were labeled as “paper” yet from fibers that were coarser and tougher than Ficus. Truly: diadems in the rough. A second option is that, as in Asia and Polynesia, where the tradition had great antiquity, the Maya transformed mulberry into a high-quality paper for ritual use.


Note 1. A useful paper by Erik Boot highlights a pot with a text reading, in part, u-ko-po-lo che-‘e-bu (Boot 1997: 64-67, fig. 4, photographed by Justin Kerr as K7786). Boot proposes u-po-ko-lo, from a root meaning “wash,” for the first glyph block. I might suggest a different order, with signs that sequence from upper left to lower left, then pass from upper right to lower right. The relevance here is that kopol could be an adjectival reference to amate, kopol, in connection to che’b, “quill, brush.” Thus, “fig-tree-quill.” Whatever the interpretation, the presence of the term in a name-tag remains enigmatic—at least we know that the owner of this bowl served a higher-ranking ajaw. In my view, a second example noted by Boot, MT347, from Burial 160 at Tikal, possibly with po-ko-lo, is fragmentary and the context uncertain. I am unsure how it relates to the spelling on K7786.

Note 2. For controversy about such objects, there is no beating Paul Tolstoy on barkbeaters, which he understood in pan-diffusionist terms (Tolstoy 1963, 1981). The first discussion of such objects appears in Uhle (1889-90), likening New World examples to comparable pieces from Sulawesi.

Note 3. Excellent discussion of the phonology and glyphic spellings appears in Grube (2004: 65-66, 73). In 1986, Don Federico Fahsen showed me two texts in Guatemala, both from the early years of the Late Classic period, both painted in similar style if not by the same hand. I immediately noticed a sign alternation of the sort that is so productive in decipherment. The number “one” alternated in crisp pattern with a sign combination that, in Glyph F of the inscriptions, represented a Maya book (this last identification was made with great style and insight by Michael Coe [1977]). The unavoidable conclusion, for those ceramics, at the time of their painting: the word for “one,” jun, was a near-homophone of the term for “book,” hu’n. The phonological details of the words were less clear in the 1980s. Now, I would read “one” as juun, “book” or “paper” as hu’n, following the evidence and reasoning in Robertson et al. (2007:7, 48). The scribe or atelier producing these ceramics would have been unusually expansive in their embrace of homophony.

Sources Cited

Boot, Erik. 1997. Classic Maya Vessel Classification: Rare Vessel Type Collocations Containing the Noun Cheb “Quill.” Estudios de historia social y económica de America, vol. 15, pp. 59-76. http://dspace.uah.es/jspui/bitstream/10017/5995/1/Classic%20Maya%20Vessel%20Classification.%20Rare%20Vessel%20Type%20Collocations%20Containing%20the%20Noun%20Cheb%20’Quill&#8217;.pdf

Breedlove, Dennis E., and Robert M. Laughlin. 2000. The Flowering of Man: A Tzotzil Botany of Zinacantán. Abridged edition. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.

Ciudad Real, Antonio de. 2001. Calepino Maya de Motul, edición crítica y anotada por Réne Acuña. Plaza y Valdés Editores, México, DF.

Coe, Michael D. 1973. The Maya Scribe and His World. Grolier Club, New York.

___________. 1977. Supernatural Patrons of Maya Scribes and Artists. In Social Process in Maya Prehistory: Studies in Honour of Sir Eric Thompson, ed. by N. Hammond, pp. 327-347. Academic Press, London.

___________. 1978. Lords of the Underworld: Masterpieces of Classic Maya Ceramics. Art Museum, Princeton University, Princeton.

Graham, Ian. 1967. Archaeological Explorations in El Peten, Guatemala. Middle American Research Institute, Publication 33. Tulane University, New Orleans.

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A Liquid Passage to Manhood

by Stephen Houston

A few years ago I proposed that some of the most celebrated Maya vases were commissioned for young men in Classic society (Houston 2009: 166). My thoughts at the time: “pots with such labels could have been bestowed in the setting of age-grade rituals or promotions, a recognition of feasting and expensive drinks as markers of adult status, even trophies and material honours while in page service, ballplay or war.” The notion appealed to me on behalf of all those ungainly, ever-changing youth in past and present times—as a set, the boys and young men could be seen as an unexpected aesthetic locus, a target for what was arguably the summit of ceramic painting in the ancient New World. But this idea involved a second, very specific expectation. The painted vessels so-named and so-possessed would involve not only young men but youths at times of change, on transit through the rites of passage so familiar to comparative anthropology.

A fresh piece of evidence lends weight to this conjecture. An eroded and shattered cylindrical vessel in the Juan Antonio Valdés Museum in Uaxactun, Guatemala, contains the usual Primary Standard Sequence. The glyphs have a cadenced coloration of two red-painted glyphs followed by one left uncolored. This scheme recalls the Primary Standard Sequences on such luminous vessels as a bowl from the area of Tikal, now in the Museo Popol Vuh (Kerr #3395; the presence of Jasaw Chan K’awiil’s name on the bowl brackets it temporally to AD 682 ~ 734; see also K #595). The vessel in Uaxactun has the following sequence, somewhat occluded by the darkness of the photographs I have seen: ….u-tz’i ba-IL yu-k’i-bi ti-YAX-CH’AHB ch’o-ko AJ-?BAHLAM che-he-na SAK-MO’-‘o ?-?…., the final glyphs surely the name of the painter. Figure 1 reproduces a key passage, the name of the drinking vessel (yuk’ib), just before an expression ti yax ch’ahb, “for the first fast/penance(?).” Then, crucially, the name of the owner, a ch’ok or “youth.”

Figure 1. Passage on a vessel in the Juan Antonio Valdés Museum (drawing by author).

As Stuart and others have noted, the yax ch’ahb refers to a rite of passage for young males, perhaps most eloquently in a text from Caracol Stela 3 (Stuart 2008; also Houston et al. 2006: 131-132, fig. 3.30). There, a young prince, only a few months beyond 5 years of age, underwent this arduous rite. It formed part of his first bloodletting but probably involved much other pain besides, including the denial of food. The import is clear: the vessel at Uaxactun was intended specifically for an age-grade ritual, the first (presumably) of many sacrificial offerings from a noble youth. Did it offer a filling and restorative draft of liquid after penance? Was it a gift to others who might witness his ascent to adult duty? Of these matters we cannot be certain. But the likelihood is now stronger that most such vessels marked and materialized shifts of status: a liquid passage from boyhood to the obligations of elite men.


Houston, Stephen. 2009. A Splendid Predicament: Young Men in Classic Maya Society. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 19 (2): 149-178.

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

Stuart, David. 2008. A Childhood Ritual on The Hauberg Stela. Maya Decipherment webloghttp://mayadecipherment.com/2008/03/27/a-childhood-ritual-on-the-hauberg-stela/