On Effigies of Ancestors and Gods

This post offers a few speculative thoughts on the glyph shown at right that’s long eluded any firm decipherment, but which for many years now has been thought to refer to an important type of ritual object or space, such as an altar or shrine. In fact, in the epigraphic literature of the past couple of decades it has often simply been glossed as “stone altar.” Here I would like to offer a somewhat different interpretation and suggest that it might better be interpreted as a term referring to a more specific sort of object known as an effigy incense burner. These remarkable and ornate ceramics are elaborated vessels, with lids that assume the form fully three dimensional portraits of historical ancestors or deities. They have been found at a number of sites, perhaps most notably at Copan, Palenque and Tikal, often in funerary contexts. It is clear that these elaborate objects were imposing ritual props, even sometimes nearly monumental in scale.

Fig. 1. Copan, Altar Q, with upper text passage noting the dedication of an object associated with the dynastic founder. (Photograph and drawing by D. Stuart)

We begin with the famous Altar Q at Copan (Fig. 1), a large box-shaped stone commemorating the dynastic founder, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, and his royal successors. The inscription atop the altar is best known for mentioning of the arrival of the founder, but toward the end we come to the record of then-contemporary events, including the dedication of an important monument or object under the auspices of Ruler 16, Yax Pahsaj Chan Yopaat.    Interestingly, this item was “owned” or pertained to K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, by them deceased for nearly four centuries.  The glyph for this object (ya-?-la) has long eluded decipherment, but we have always assumed it stands in reference to either the altar itself, or perhaps even to the pyramid before which Altar Q was placed, Temple 16. In any event, it is important to note that the elusive term is for some sort of commemorative “thing” that is “of” K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’.

Fig. 2. Opening section of the Temple Inscription from Str. 10L-26 at Copan (Drawing by D. Stuart).

The same glyph appears again at Copan on the Temple Inscription, from the upper shrine of Structure 10L-26, the temple of the Hieroglyphic Stairway (Fig. 2). There, in beautiful full-figure glyphs, we read of another fashioning (the verb pa-ta-wa-ni at block a4) of the same class of object on 5 Imix 4 Kayab, and that it was “of the lord” or “of the lords” (ya-?-la-AJAW at block a6). This reference is vague, but given the parallel with Altar Q we might speculate that the term again refers to an ancestor or collectively to a group of ancestors. Importantly, Structure 10L-26 was also a major funerary monument at Copan, built by Rulers 13 and 15 above the tomb of Ruler 12.  Ruler 12 died on and was placed in his tomb 14 days afterwards. The funerary stairway above the tomb was built by his son many years later on, possibly in association with the Esmeralda construction phase of the pyramid.  But the question is: what was made or dedicated in connection with this temple four years before the stairway, and over a decade after Ruler 12’s death? A building? An altar? No evidence exists of a major construction episode in 10L-26 between the times the tomb was placed and the large Esmeralda pyramid and its stairway were built above it, suggesting that the area around Ruler 12’s tomb was very accessible for a number of years. At any rate, the pattern suggests also that the glyph in question is probably not an architectural term (like “shrine,” for example).

A third occurrence of the same glyph perhaps appears in another Copan temple, Structure 10L-11. There it appears on the west jamb of the temple’s north dorrway in connection with the date 8 Eb 10 Zip, again with a “make” or “fashion” (pat-wan) event.  In this case, its “owner” is named as Ruler 15, who died some six years earlier and who may be buried under Temple 11’s superstructure.  Here once more we find our mystery term associated with a verb of “making” and owned by an ancestral figure.

Fig. 3. Passage from Quirigua, Zoomorph P. (Drawing by M. Looper)

Moving from Copan to nearby Quirigua, a similar pattern seems to be at work. The inscription of Zoomorph P records the Period Ending, at which time the local ruler “scatters incense” at a temple called the “13 Kawak House” (Fig. 3). This is in all likelihood one of the principal buildings in Quirigua’s acropolis, directly behind (to the south of) the monument (According to Zoomorph G this same “13 Kawak House” is where the great Quirigua Ruler K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat was buried). The Zoomorph P inscription goes on to say that the incense ritual (chok ch’aaj) was performed on or with regard to the “object” of K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat, as well as, it seems, with the same “object” of Ruler 13 of Copan. This is a remarkable statement, for Ruler 13 had earlier been the war captive of K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat and was sacrificed at or near Quirigua in 736 A.D., decades before the zoomorph itself was dedicated in 795. Here, both the Quirigua king and his illustrious prisoner were associated with the same type of commemorative object mentioned three times at Copan, and again we find it in direct association with deceased kings and ancestors.

Turning to Palenque, we find that the same hieroglyph occurs in the tablets of the Temple of the Inscriptions, in the passages that record complex dressing rites associated with the three gods of the Palenque Triad. Chief among these was the tying of paper-cloth headbands (sakhu’n), headdresses (ko’haw) and jewels (tup) upon what must we can only presume to be effigy figures of the these deities, as Martha Macri (1988, 1997) and others suggested some years ago. A summary statement of the rites appears near the beginning of the west tablet (Fig. 4), where we have the simple mention that:

Fig. 4. Passage pertaining to the "headband-binding" on effigies of the three gods of the Palenque Triad. PAL, TI, west, B3-B6. (Drawing by L. Schele)

u k’alhu’n y-a..?..l u k’uh-ul

“It is the paper-binding of the ? of his gods …”

Here once more the glyph in question is a possessed noun associated with venerated figures, in this instance the gods of the Palenque Triad.

So what can this glyphic term actually mean? A few telling clues stand out thus far:

(1) The glyph must somehow refer to a class of commemorative object associated with deceased ancestral figures as well as deities.

(2) It can be “made” or “fashioned,” as revealed by its association with the verb pat.

(3) Specific actions associated with this object involve ritual dressing with paper-cloth (Palenque) and adornment with headgear and jewels. Significantly, they are also in some manner involved in incense rituals (Quirigua).

(4) The term has close ties to funerary temples at Copan and possibly at Quirigua, in direct connection to historical ancestors.

Taken together, one is tempted to think that the glyph refers to ritual statuary or figural representation, and perhaps more specifically to effigy incense burners. Such objects are known in Maya archaeology of course, perhaps the most spectacular examples being the ornate figural incensarios unearthed near Ruler 12’s tomb at Copan, inside Structure 10L-26. These objects were dressed and bejeweled (note the ear holes, etc.), and as burners were obviously used in important incense rites. The Copan censers represent all of the kings up to and including Ruler 12 himself, and so they fit well with the pattern of ancestral commemoration. And use of the verb pat would seem appropriate for this sort of object, given its known meaning in connection to the manufacture of ceramic objects (Yukatek pat kum, “hacer ollas”). And as we’ve seen, the mention of the “fashioning” of our mystery object in the Temple Inscription of Stucture 26 seems in some way to be connected with Ruler 12’s tomb. Might it specifically refer to the making of these effigy incensarios? It’s a tantalizing connection to ponder.

So, some general conclusions and speculations:

– Altar Q at Copan may refer to the dedication of an effigy censer in the form of the great ancestral ruler K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’. If so, the altar itself was likely intended as a pedestal or platform for its display, in front of his funerary temple.

– Copan’s Structure 10L-11 refers to the manufacture of a possible effigy censer of Ruler 15.  This was perhaps intended to be displayed on the platform in the center of the north-south passageway of the temple, framed by the snake-centipede “maw” carved into the wall at either side.

– Quirigua’s Zoomporph P refers to the incense rite involving the effigy censers of two historical figures: K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat as well as Ruler 13 of Copan, in association with the former’s funerary temple in the acropolis.

– In the case of Palenque, I suspect that some local variety of deity censer was mentioned in the Temple of the Inscriptions, each representing one of the Triad gods and ritually adorned as part of the calendar ceremonies performed by K’inich Janab Pakal.

Fig. 5. Two of the twelve ruler effigies (censer lids) found outside of Ruler 12's tomb in Copan's Structure 10L-26.

With Structre 26 of Copan, the making of the “? of the lord(s)” may well refer to the censers discovered outside of Ruler 12’s tomb (Fig. 5). The rather anonymous and general ajawterm seems unlike any other example discussed, leading me to think it is a collective reference to the twelve ancestors. My tentative conclusion is that the Copan effigy ancestors were made collectively on, and that they together served for a few years as important objects of ritual veneration, perhaps at the site of Ruler 12’s tomb or somewhere else in the acropolis.  At the time of the construction of Esmeralda, these were terminated around the tomb’s exterior, and buried in the construction fill for the more grandiose funerary temple that the son had designed for his father.

I’ll close with a brief word on the glyph’s possible phonetic reading. The main clue in the decipherment of the central compound sign is its ya- prefix, a clear indication that the possessed noun begins with the vowel a-. The -la suffix on the glyph likely marks a -Vl ending on the possessed noun, so we ought to look for a noun root that begins with the vowel a- and fits this semantic context, having some connection with burning, incense, or effigy forms.

The element atop our mystery glyph (T174) is part of a main sign that still resists a firm phonetic decipherment, but it is important to note that the same element also appears with another logogram (T174:T704) with the value SABAK or SIBIK, “soot, ash” — a reading proposed a number of years ago by Nikolai Grube. Interestingly, another widespread Mayan term with much the same meaning is abak, “soot, charcoal, ash.” I do wonder if the logogram at the heart of the supposed “effigy” glyph might eventually prove to be ABAK, producing ya-ABAK-la, for y-abak-al, “its soot.” The semantics might have been extended somewhat to include the containers for burnt offerings, in the forms of ash-filled effigy censers. A different possibility worth considering is that the ya- sign prefix signals the presence of the agentive prefix aj- before a still obscure root, so that the possessed noun referring to effigy figures is aj-?.

The phonetic reading still remains elusive, yet the semantic domain of the noun in question seems much firmer in its connection to effigy figures and burners, ritual objects that were of great importance in ancient Maya ceremonial practice.


Macri, Martha. 1997. Noun Morphology and Possessive COnstructions in Old Palenque Ch’ol. In The Language of Maya Hieroglyphs, edited by M. J. Macri and A. Ford, pp. 89-95. San Francisco: Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute.

Reinterpreting a “Creation” Text from Chancala, Mexico

Fig. 1. Sawn section of a panel, probably from Chancala, Mexico (From Mayer 1991:Pl.96).

The incomplete text panel shown in Figure 1, now in a private collection in Florida, has been the focus of some attention since it was first commented upon by Schele, Friedel and Parker (1993:66) in their analysis of ancient Maya creation mythology surrounding the date 4 Ahaw 8 Kumk’u. It was first published by Mayer (1991:Pl. 96) and more recently by Van Stone (2010); a photograph by Justin Kerr also is available. Given the increasing interest in the base-date of the Long Count calendar and its upcoming repetition in 2012, it seems a few words about the interpretation of this partial inscription might be important, especially since widely published readings of the glyphs look to be incorrect in some key details. Others have made similar points in re-assessing this inscription — Steve Houston and Marc Zender in particular — so this is meant to be no more than a summary of more current thinking on the inscription.

The text begins in mid-sentence, with a partion of a Calendar Round date “8 Zip” (8-CHAK-AT). A distance number then follows, written oddly as 18-0-WINIK-ja-ya. These numbers as written simply don’t work, however, and there’s little question that the scribe has here made an error. The date resulting from this calculation is shown later as 4 Ahaw 8 Kumk’u, and the only means of connecting “8 Zip” and “8 Kumk’u” is to make a slight adjustment in the distance number as its written, from 18.0 to *16.0 (“18 Winals” would be an impossibility in any case). So we have the following chronological link between these two dates being the most likely:

[9 Ahaw] 8 Zip
+*16.0 (written in error as 18.0)
4 Ahaw 8 Kumk’u

We have no idea what transpired on the earlier date; that section of the text remains missing.

4 Ahaw 8 Kumk’u will be familiar to many as the Calendar Round for the so-called “Creation” date that serves as the base-line for the shortened Long Count, falling on Here it almost certainly does not correspond to, but instead to a far, far later position in the Long Count, probably near the so-called Terminal Classic era of Maya history. The main reason for thinking this comes from the glyphs that follow the date, which Schele, Freidel and Parker (1993:65) translated as “the first image turtle was seen.” They got it nearly correct, but some key details force us to reassess their interpretation. The verb at pB3 they originally read as IL-la-ji-ya, for ilajiiy, “it was seen,” a passive construction (Schele et al transliterated this as ilahi, following older conventions of Maya epigraphy). However, a closer look at the glyphs clearly shows that this verb takes the initial sign yi-, infixed into the main eye main sign. This would spell the ergative third-person pronoun (u)y- before the initial i- of ilajiiy, meaning that it cannot be a passive verb construction (intransitives, unless they are nominalized, can never take an ergative pronoun prefix). Yilajiiy is well known in ancient texts, functioning either as a derived transitive form, “he saw it,” or as a participial noun “his seeing it” (both interpretations are debated and have merit, although opting for one over the other doesn’t change the meaning of the passage). The subject of this statement comes next in the personal name Yax K’oj Ahk (YAX-k’o-jo a-AHK). Schele et. al., interpreted this as a deity, namely the turtle (ahk) represented in some mythical scenes of the rebirth of the maize god (see Schele, et. al. 1993:65). However, this is far more likely to be a name of a local king or ruler, for the glyph after the name reads Chak K’uh Ajaw, “the Chak K’uh Lord.” Chak K’uh is a known but fairly obscure emblem glyph that I have for some years now associated with the ruins of Chancala, located to the south of Palenque. One fragmentary relief from Chancala bears the same emblem title (see Stuart and Stuart 2008:235), as does a panel that Mary Miller and I long ago posited might be from the same region (Miller and Stuart 1981).

Fig. 2. K'inich Janab Pakal "witnesses" a period ending. PAL:T.I.middle (Drawing by L. Schele)

Yax K’oj Ahk therefore was a historical ruler from the court of Chak K’uh, who “saw” the day 4 Ajaw 8 Kumk’u in his lifetime — not the original “Creation” date, of course, but a recurrence of the same Calendar Round at a far later time. Similar references to the witnessing of period endings and anniversaries are common in Maya texts (Figure 2), and imply some degree of “oversight” of the events and rituals involved with their celebration. As others have noted, there is no reason to consider it a mythical reference.

The text goes on to mention an interval of nine years (9-HA’B-ya) reckoning forward to another date now missing, but which we can easily calculate as 7 Ahaw 3 Pax.

The proportions and style of the glyphs look to me to be late, falling in the so-called Terminal Classic period in early ninth century. Only one placement of the dates in the Long Count seems fitting, anchored to 4 Ahaw 8 Kumk’u (see below for all three positions).

Transcription of Text (designating the two columns as A and B, and the rows by number; the “p” indicates “provisional” given the incomplete nature of the text):
pA1: 8 CHAK-AT
pB1: 0-*16-WINIK-ji-ya
pA2: i-u-ti
pB2: 4-AJAW
pA3: 8-HUL?-OHL-la
pB3: yi-IL-la-ji-ya
pA4: YAX-ko-jo
pB4: a-AHK
pB5: 9-HA’B-ya i-u-ti

Summary of Dates:
[ 9 Ahaw] 8 Zip
[] 4 Ahaw 8 Kumk’u
[ 7 Ahaw 3 Pax]


Mayer, Karl Herbert. 1991. Maya Monuments: Sculptures of Unknown Provenance, Supplement 3. Graz: Verlag Von Hemming.

Miller, Mary Ellen, and David S. Stuart. 1981. Dumbarton Oaks Relief Panel 4. Estudios de Cultura Maya, vol XIII, pp. 197-204.

Schele, Linda, David Freidel and Joy Parker. 1993. Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path. New York: William Morrow.

Stuart, David, and George Stuart. 2008. Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya. New York: Thames and Hudson.

Van Stone, Mark. 2010. 2012 Science and Prophecy of the Ancient Maya. Imperial Beach, CA: Tlacaelel Press.

What Will Not Happen in 2012

by Stephen Houston

Epigraphers await 2012 with trepidation. There will be ill-founded claims, bad Hollywood movies (one now in production), silly reportage, and much distortion of what 2012 meant for the ancient Maya. Every imaginable anxiety will apply to this key event in the Maya calendar. If we are candid, too, there will be renewed interest in our field, which scholars can shape to positive result…if the public ever bothers to listen. A rich ethnography of misunderstanding awaits those who wish to peruse the web.

Such an ethnography is not my purpose here. Rather, I present a mea culpa and a rectification. In 1996, Stuart and I discussed part of the text on Tortuguero Monument 6, suggesting that, on 4 Ajaw 3 K’ank’in, Julian Dec. 10, AD 2012, a god will “descend,” ye-ma or yemal, in what was held to be a nearly unique example of Classic-era prophecy. Why unique? …because when the Classic texts refer to the future, they typically encompass “impersonal temporal events that are safely predictable” (Houston and Stuart 1996:301, fn. 7). Stuart and I left a small escape chute, admitting that “there are some technical problems with this translation” (ibid.).

The relevant, final portions of Monument 6 record a Distance Number that counts from the principal event in the inscription (Fig. 1). The earlier event is the dedication (EL?-le-NAAH-ji-ja) of the building that doubtless housed this T-shaped panel (mentioned at E6-F6, []). The future events are described as tzuhtzjoom u 13 pih 4 Ajaw 3 Uniiw utoom, all “impersonal” and “safely predictable” insofar as they are straightforward references to the conclusion of a major cycle at a particular Calendar Round. What follows is the discourse marker ‘i-, an eroded glyph, and ye-? 9 YOOK-TE’ ta … By one reading of the text, whatever takes place after the ‘i– elaborates and extends this future sequence of events.

Or that is what we wrote in 1996. It happens that two others texts encapsulate a very similar pattern of dates. One comes from Naranjo, Guatemala, and is now in the Museo Popol Vuh in Guatemala City (Fig. 2, Graham 1978:103). The second, recently found at La Corona, Guatemala, by Marcello Canuto of Yale, has been drawn in pencil by David Stuart. (Avid bibliophiles will discover that a recent coffee-table book published in Guatemala has full photographs of the La Corona texts as well.)

The final portion of the Naranjo text ends by counting forward to a future date, 7 Ajaw 18 Zip [Julian March 11, AD 830], with a rare future of a mediopassive verb, subfixed, apparently, by –[yi]mo. Thus, the inscription vaults into the future, many decades after the final contemporary date on the monument, and then, at the end, shifts back to that earlier date, (9.) 5 Ajaw 3 Ch’en [Julian Aug. 22, AD 593]. This is when the current ruler scattered incense, presumably at the dedication of the text and, according to Stela 38, the consecration of two other stones as well, probably Stelae 38 and 39, both found near Structure D-1 at Naranjo. The text accordingly situates itself in present time, leaps to a future presented in highly schematic terms, and then reverts to the present.

The final passages of the La Corona panel do much the same (Fig. 3). The base date is the dedication of the panels themselves, their last truly contemporary date: 4 K’an 7 Mak, Julian Oct. 24, AD 677. Almost in yo-yo effect, the inscription lurches forward to (Julian May 7, AD 682), then, from the 4 K’an base date, forward again to (Julian April 11, AD 687), and, in like manner, forward yet again from that base date to (Julian March 15, AD 692), one of the most vivid times for the Classic Maya because of its evocation of a 13th cycle. The relevant part of the text terminates the inscription: i-u-ti/tu? 4 K’an 7 Mak. The parallel with Tortuguero Monument 6 is clear, in that a future date jolts back to the present, as marked by a phrase beginning with i-.

Whatever Monument 6 has to tell us pertains to the dedication of the building associated with the sculpture. It has nothing to do with prophecy or the supposed, dread events that await us in AD 2012. About that the Maya are notably silent…or, truth be told, a bit boring.

Note – 9 Yookte’ (Bolon Yookte’) is an enigmatic expression. When postfixed by K’UH, it appears to identify some collective totality of gods. This is evident in the sequence of deities assembled or placed in order at the beginning of the last great cycle, as attested on the Ranieri “square” vessel and its counterpart, the so-called “Vase of the Seven Gods” (Coe 1973: pl. 49). Where understood, the other references to deities in this text signal the presence of pluralities, including the “Palenque Triad” (or its varying multitudes) and the “celestial” and “terrestrial gods.”

Fig. 1 Portion of Tortuguero Monument 6:pI5-pL5 (drawing by Sven Gronemeyer)


Fig. 2 Portion of Naranjo Altar 1:J5-J11 (drawing by Ian Graham)

Fig. 3 Portion of new La Corona, Panel 2:V5-V8 (drawing by David Stuart)


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

Graham, Ian
1978 Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 2, Part 2: Naranjo, Chunhuitz, Xunantunich. Cambridge MA: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.

Houston, Stephen D., and David Stuart
1996 Of Gods, Glyphs, and Kings: Divinity and Rulership among the Classic Maya. Antiquity 70: 289-312.

A Childhood Ritual on The Hauberg Stela

In a few Classic Maya texts we find records of coming-of-age ceremonies involving royal children, where bloodleting seems a dominant theme. These ritual events haven’t yet been collectively discussed or analyzed in the literature (at least as far as I know) so I hope this brief post might help point the way for further thought, especially with regard to the interpretation of an important ealry Maya monument known as the Hauberg Stela (see the third and last image, scrolling below).

We can first turn to the vivid but damaged depiction of one such childhood rite on Panel 19 from Dos Pilas, shown here.


At center stage we see the young prince shedding drops of blood into a dish, standing before a kneeling priest who holds a stingray spine — the instrument of choice for genital bloodletting in much of ancient Mesomerica. The boy’s mother and father (Ruler 3 of Dos Pilas) look on from the left, as do also two attendants at right, one called the “guardian of the boy.” The main inscription is too damaged to read in full, unfortunately, but it does mention the ch’ok ajaw title (“prince”) as well as the fact that the ritual was witnessed by “the twenty-eight lords.” Evidently this sort of youth ceremony was a major political event in its own right.


Texts at other sites seem to describe very similar sorts of episodes. In a passage from Stela 3 of Caracol, show here, we read of a ceremony called yax ch’ab, involving the five-year old youngster named Sak Baah Witzil — he would would later reign as the important ruler Tum Yohl K’inich (also known as “Kan II,” in Martin and Grube’s Chronicles of Maya Kings and Queens). As others have noted, yax ch’ab is surely a bloodletting ceremony, literally meaning “first penance” or “first creation.” Ch’ab alone is a key term used for adult bloodletting ceremonies, as best seen on Yaxchilan, Lintel 24. According to the Caracol passage, the boy’s father oversaw the ritual according to the same passage, making for an even more precise parallel to the Dos Pilas scene.

(Another yax ch’ab ritual is recorded on the side of Tikal’s Stela 10, a much eroded monument, but the context is not so clear; it too could well refer to a childhood bloodletting ceremony.)


This brings us the remarkable Huaberg Stela, a key Early Classic sculpture dating to about 200-300 AD, now in the collections of the Princeton University Art Museum. The miniature stela shows a standing figure in supernatural attire, cradling a long serpent that arches above his head. Images of conjured ancestral figures climb the body of the snake, and another likely ancestor image emerges from the gaping maw above. The main verb in the accompanying text is again yax ch’ab, “first penance,” leading me to consider the Hauberg Stela as a commemoration of a young boy’s first bloodletting, perhaps involving also a performance of deity impersonation. The unusual small size of the monument — it’s only about 80 cms in hieght — may be due to it being a “child-size” stela.

Published studies of the Hauberg Stela don’t mentioned this connection to youth ceremonies, so my take on it goes against established wisdom in some ways. For example, the entry in the Lords of Creation exhibit catalog (Fields and Reents-Budet 2005) repeats the long-held view first tentatively advanced by Linda Schele (1985) that the Hauberg Stela depicts a king named “Bak T’ul” in a bloodletting “vision quest” (a term, by the way, I strongly object to). Bloodletting it certainly is, but based on a closer reading of the glyphs and drawing key comparisons, I think a good case can be made that the Hauberg Stela instead celebrates a royal child’s auto-sacrifice, a “First Penance.”

(By the way, “Bak T’ul” is not the correct reading of the personal name in any case, whether it be a child or adult. It looks instead to be CHAK, “red,” before an undeciphered animal head sign erroneously analyzed before as a rabbit, t’ul.)

* * *

Further reading:

Fields, Virginia, and Dorie Reents-Budet. 2005. Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship. Los Angeles: LACMA

Schele, Linda. 1985. The Hauberg Stela. Bloodletting and the Mythos of Maya Rulership. In Fifth Palenque Round Table, 1983, edited by M.G. Robertson and V. Fields, pp. 135-150. San Francisco: PARI

An Early Classic Cave Ritual

by Steve Houston

A few months ago, I happened to visit the Museo Principe Maya in Coban, Guatemala. It is an impressive (and now registered) collection, with dozens of important objects. Few visitors go there, however. The museum lies on a side-street and is unknown, it seems, to the local office of tourism. The staff was baffled when asked about it.

But find it we did, with some pleasant surprises.

The image below comes from a piece of cave flow-stone — under a cm. thick, and obviously cut from a cave, with carbon black painting and a thick, daubed white, perhaps some kind of kaolin. (I vaguely recall seeing this object in an issue of Mexicon but cannot find that reference now. Stanley Guenter was certainly there before me, and had prepared a number of written descriptions of objects, all out in nice, bilingual display.) The entire object is close to a meter high, perhaps a little more than that from side to side. Unfortunately, it’s also behind glass, which makes photography somewhat difficult. For all that, the flow-stone is one of the most important cave texts found in the last 20 years. It’s not on a par with Naj Tunich, of course. But it still provides fascinating glimpses into Early Classic ritual and gives us some notion of a pan-Maya event celebrated in at least two caves.

The iconography on the flow-stone shows two figures, both lords, at least to judge from the jaguar pelts. They are probably not people of the highest rank, as can be seen by their distinctive gathered headdresses, of a type that sometimes occurs with subordinate lords. (Dave Stuart has a full discussion of the headdress in his book on the Palenque Temple XIX texts, esp. figs. 106-107, 108-110.) I would guess that the figures are, in fact, priests of some sort. The animals above the headdresses are doubtless their personal names. The reading of the title for such lords is still under discussion, but *abaat, “worker, servant,” is one possibility. (The term is cognate with a documented expression for “messenger,” noticed by Dave in the 90s and presented in our book with Karl Taube, The Memory of Bones.)

What’s important here is that the date can be worked out — it has to be ( 9 Ajaw 3 Muwaan, Jan. 31, AD 426, Julian. The event is clearly one of the censing. Small nodules of ch’aaj sprinkle from the hand of the person to the left, down to what may be an incense burner.

So, a high-end cave text, painted expertly on thin flow-stone, comemmorating a major period-ending. It involves one of the earliest images of figures with a distinctive headdress (another of comparable date is known from Rio Azul, as illustrated in Dave’s discussion).

It gets even more interesting: Dave pointed out to me that what is probably the *exact same date* also occurs in a painting from the Jolja cave, and with two people as well. At Jolja, the figures have black body-paint, just as on the Coban stone, and one of them holds a torch, of the sort used in burning offerings, like incense or paper. The gesture of the figure to the left is that of incense-sprinkling, again like the figure from the Principe Maya. Karen Bassie has done an excellent, e-report on the Jolja finds, at: http://www.famsi.org/reports/00017/index.html

In any case, comparable events of great ritual importance took place in at least two caves, separated by what I presume to be quite a distance — the artifacts in the Coban museum tend to come from the Peten, not Chiapas. The quality in both instances is high, even of royal commission, and the dates are both 9 Ajaw, itself suggestive of the underworld or cthonic settings — I’m thinking here of the 9 Ajaw house on Tikal Altar 5, which specifies the burial place of Lady Tuun Kaywak. In the Early Classic, the date at Jolja and on the Coban flow-stone would only fall on major Period Endings (katun or lahuntun endings) at fairly rare intervals, as in, and then again (aside from our date), at Dave and I have to wonder if the cave rituals were prompted in some way by preparations for the change of the Baktun a few years later.