ARCHIVES: The syllable sign tza

tza signBelow is a page from one of my old notebooks, giving some of the evidence I was considering in 1989 for the decipherment of the tza syllable sign, a version of which is shown at right. The reasoning was pretty tentative back then, but it was bolstered in my own mind by considering more examples of the sign in the spellings of tzu-tza-ja and TZUTZ-tza-ja, for the passive for of the verb tzuhtzaj, “it is finished” (See Stuart 2001). Shortly after this page was jotted down I came across completive forms spelled 2tzu-ji-ya (with the tzu syllable doubled) for tzuhtz(a)jiiy, “it was finished,” which made the tza reading fairly certain.

The tza syllable sign is not a very common sign. It crops up in only a handful of other spellings, such as tza-ka or tza-ku for tzak, “to conjure, manifest (a god)” — a reading otherwise familar for the “fish-in-hand” logogram (TZAK).

Reference Cited:

Stuart, David. 2001. A Reading of the “Completion Hand” as TZUTZ. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, No. 49. Center for Maya Research, Washington, D.C.

DS tza notes

Leaf Glyphs: Spellings with yo and YOP

by David Stuart

yo sign
Figure 1. The sign yo or YOP. (Drawings by D. Stuart)

Decipherment’s progress isn’t always measured by big leaps forward, nor marked by completely new readings of signs or radically new analyses of spellings. More often our work involves fairly small refinements of things we “thought we knew” but which turned out not to be quite correct. A good example might be the familiar sign I long ago proposed as having the value yo (Stuart 1987) (Figure 1). This reading is now widely accepted, but after many years I realized that the syllabic yo reading wasn’t always quite workable in certain contexts. Over a decade ago I came to the realization that the same sign might carry the related logographic value YOP on certain occasions, forcing a few adjustments to readings that had already made their way into print and the epigraphic literature. For students of Maya epigraphy it’s probably a bit confusing to come across this sort of minor tweak or change to seemingly established readings, especially when the arguments behind them remain unpublished, usually circulated as emails among colleagues. Here, therefore, I’ll discuss the yo and YOP values, clarifying how the sign is used in some distinct settings.

yo-yop Fig 2
Figure 2. The yo sign as a prevocalic possessive pronoun. (a) yo-OTOOT-ti, y-otoot, “his/her house,” (b) yo-OHL-la, y-ohl, “his/her/its heart/center.” Drawings by L. Schele and I. Graham.

Most familiar uses of the yo syllable are as a sign prefix, to indicate the pre-vocalic third-person pronoun y- before a word beginning in o-. Thus yo-OTOOT for y-otoot, “his/her dwelling,” or yo-OHL-la for y-ohl, “his/her heart” (Figure 2a and b). On rarer occasions the yo sign is used in non-initial

syllabic yo
Figure 3. The syllable yo in final position. (a) from Comalcalco, Bone Pendant 17A (drawing by M. Zender), (b) from Pomona-area panel (drawing by N. Grube)

position as part of spellings of certain roots (Figure 3a and b), as in xo-yo, perhaps for xoy, “round”(?), or po-mo-yo for the place name Pomoy, an unknown site in the lower Usumacinta region (the toponym is based on the noun pomoy, attested in modern Ch’ol as “capulín cimarrón” (small shrub-like tree, possibly a trema) (Aulie and Aulie 1978:211).

yop Fig4
Figure 4. Spellings of yopte’, “leaf”. (a) yo-po-TE’-NAL, yopte’nal, “leaf place(?),” (b) AJ-YOP-TE’, aj yopte’, “Yopte’ person.” (Drawings by D. Stuart and I. Graham)

Many years ago I noted an interesting use of yo in the glyph yo-po-TE’-NAL, written as part of a caption on the large stucco frieze from Tonina (Figure 4a). This is surely for yopte’, “tree leaf,” with -nal perhaps being a place name suffix. Yop and yopte‘ is a widespread root for “leaf” in Ch’olan langauges, and no doubt the leaf-like form of the yo sign has its origin in this word. This is surely related to another glyph from an early inscription at Yaxchilan (Figure 4b), where the leaf element is combined with TE’ in a personal title. Here, flanked by two logograms, reading the leaf as syllabic yo value seems unlikely (AJ-yo-TE‘); rather it seems natural to see the sign here as a direct logogram for YOP, “leaf,” in the sequence AJ-YOP-TE’, aj yopte’, “he of yopte’” or “the yopte’ person” (here Yopte’ is most likely a place name). There is a reasonable chance therefore that the leaf sign is both the logogram YOP and the syllable yo, depending on context.

Such a direct connection between a logogram and a syllable is not terribly surprising. The use of the simple “fish” sign for ka as well as for KAY/CHAY is perhaps a good parallel, as is the “gopher” logogram BAAH used at times as the syllable ba (although usually in late settings). But in the case of yo and YOP it has led to some misunderstandings and confusions about certain readings, especially this important element we find within royal names at Copan, Quirigua, Naranjo and elsewhere (Figure 5).

yop Fig5
Figure 5. Names of the Copan ruler Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat. Note the substitution of the YOP-AAT-ti/ta glyph by the Chahk-like deity in final position. (Drawings by D. Stuart and L. Schele)

For many years, the final glyph on this sequence — evidently the name of an important deity related to Chahk — has been read as yo-AAT, although never precisely translated. Aat is “penis” and yo never made much sense as its prefix. If however we read this grouping as YOP-AAT we at least have a more comfortable juxtaposition of two logograms (even if the inescapable translation “leaf-penis” doesn’t make much sense to our ears). For this reason, I have long preferred to read the sequence in such royal names (i.e. the final two glyphs in Figure 5a and b) as CHAN-na YOP-AAT-ti/ta, “Sky Yop-aat.”

Figure 6. Yop-aat headdress from Naranjo St. 13. (Drawing by I. Graham).

One more interesting bit of information supports the YOP-AAT analysis. As just noted, Yopaat seems to refer to a deity with close relations to Chahk, the god of lightning and storms. Visually he seems identical, with the exception of having curved dotted elements on his head — perhaps representations of clouds or mist — and a hammer-like stone in his upraised hand. Yopaat is often represented in the ritual costumes of kings, for example as a small figure dangling from a belt, or else as an elaborate helmet or headdress (Figure 6). Intriguingly, the Yopaat headdress seems to be mentioned in the Yucatec Diccionario de Motul, where the entry yopat is glossed as “una manera de coraza o mitra que usavan los indios antiguos” (Martinez Hernández 1929:456).

I hope this clarifies what might seem a very minor issue over  alternate readings of a single sign, one syllabic and the other logographic. There are a number of other signs that similarly have two related values with different functions, one syllabic and another logographic. While subtle, the case of yo and YOP demonstrates how small changes used in the methods of decipherment over the last couple of decades can lead to slightly better and more refined notions of just what the Maya were writing down.


Aulie, H. Wilbur, and Evelyn W. de Aulie. 1978. Diccionario Ch’ol-Español, Español-Ch’ol. Mexico, D.F.: Instituto Linguístico de Verano.

Martinez Hernández, Juan. 1929. Diccionario de Motul. Mérida: La Compañia Tipográfica Yucateca.

Stuart, David. 1987. Ten Phonetic Syllables. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, no. 14. Washington D.C.: Center for Maya Research.

A Vessel from La Corona?

by David Stuart

On the Kerr database of Maya vessels appears a colorful polychrome, K4020, depicting two repeating scenes of K’awiil seated upon a throne or bench (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Rollout of K4020, a cylindrical vessel possibly from La Corona, Guatemala. (Photograph by Justin Kerr)

A short dedicatory formula text appears in the two glyph panels separating the figures. This begins with the right-most column of glyphs in the photograph, reading down:

a-ALAY??-ya / T’AB-yi / yu-k’i-b’i / ti-tzi-hi


Alay(??) t’ab’ay y-uk’ib’ ti tzih

yajawte’ k’inich k’uhul sak wahyis

“Here goes up (is dedicated) the cup for tzih of

Yajawte’ K’inich, the Holy Sak Wahyis

Figure 2. The name Yajawte’ K’inich with the title Sak Wahyis, from the “Dallas Panel” from La Corona. (From drawing by D. Stuart).

The name of vessel’s owner, Yajawte’ K’inich, appears with some regularity at several sites in the central lowlands, including Naranjo, El Pajaral, Zapote Bobal, and La Corona. However, the presence of the regional title K’uhul Sakwahyis on the vessel strongly suggests that La Corona is the relevant connection — only there do we find the same combination of Yajawte’ K’inich name and title, in reference to a Late Classic ruler who reigned around (Figure 2). This is the opening date of the so-called Dallas Panel from La Corona, commemorating the arrival of the wife of Yajawte’ K’inich to La Corona from Calakmul (Freidel and Guenter 2003; Martin 2008). The addition of the k’uhul “holy” modifier on the title on K4020 is the only difference, but this is probably a minor distinction, as Sak Wahyis can appear both with and without k’uhul elsewhere in La Corona’s inscriptions.

K4020’s other possible connection with La Corona comes from the repeating scenes on the vessel. In each representation K’awiil sits atop a throne decorated with a large symbolic white flower, somewhat schematic but nonetheless clear. It seems likely that these are emblematic versions of the ancient toponym we know for La Corona, Saknikte’ (“white blossom”).


Freidel, David, and Stanley Guenter. 2003. Bearers of War and Creation. Archaeology.

Martin, Simon 2008. Wives and Daughters on the Dallas Altar. Mesoweb.

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.’Quill’.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.

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, Number 62.

Grube, Nikolai. 1992. Classic Maya Dance: Evidence from Hieroglyphs and Iconography. Ancient Mesoamerica, vol. 3, pp. 201-218. 2004. The Orthographic Distinction between Velar and Glottal Spirants in Maya Hieroglyphic Writing, The Linguistics of Maya Writing, ed. by Søren Wichmann, pp. 61-81. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Tolstoy, Paul. 1963. Cultural Parallels between Southeast Asia and Mesoamerica in the Manufacture of Bark-cloth. Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol. 25, pp. 646–662.

__________. 1991. Paper route: Were the Man the Manufacture and Use of Bark Paper Introduced into Mesoamerica from Asia? Natural History, vol. 100, no. 6, pp. 6-8, 10, 12-14.

Seelenfreund, D., A. C. Clarke, N. Oyanedel, R. Piña, S. Lobos, E.A. Matisoo-Smith, and A. Seelenfreund. 2010. Paper Mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera) as a Commensal Model for Human Mobility in Oceania: Anthropological, Botanical, and Genetic considerations. New Zealand Journal of Botany, vol. 48, pp. 3-4, 231-247.

Uhle, Max, 1889–90. Kultur und Industrie südamerikanischer Völker. A. Ascher, Berlin.

Wilson, Michael R. 1972. A Highland Maya People and Their Habitat: The Natural History, Demography, and Economy of the K’ekchi’. Ph.D. dissertation, Dept. of Geography, University of Oregon.

Wisdom, Charles. 1940. The Chorti Maya of Guatemala. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

An Unusual “13” in the Dresden Codex?

Page 58 of the Dresden Codex contains in its right-most columns (Figure 1) the heading of a computational table that follows the manuscript’s noted eclipse tables. The nature of the table on pages 58-59 is complex and subject to some debate, and here I will happily put aside any in-depth discussion of its numerology in order to simply point out an unusual paleographical feature of a day sign (13 Muluk) written in the page’s final column.

Figure 1. (a) RIght column from page 58 of the Dresden Codex; (b) detail of Ring Numbers and Long Reckonings; (c) a possible 13 Muluk, shown between the Long Reckonings. (Images courtesy of SLUB-Dresden)

The numbers shown provide anchors or base dates for the calculations that follow on page 59, many of which are multiples of 780 days that fall on the day 13 Muluk.  For example, we see in the first column two integrated Ring Numbers (RN), 1.7.11 and, added in red, 12.11. These calculate the intervals backwards before to the intended base dates:

RN Base 1: 13 Muluk 2 Sak

RN Base 2: 13 Muluk 17 Tzek

13 Muluk 2 Sak is the primary of the two dates. It is recorded as the header of the two glyph columns on page 58 and as the CR at the lower right of the page, next to 4 Ahaw 8 Kumk’u.

The two intervals given on the right coloumn are so-called Long Reckonings, or a special type of Distance Number from the pre-era base date to reach a new base for the table. The first of these numbers is, which when added to the 13 Muluk 2 Sak results in 13 Muluk 2 Mol. The other LR record below it is can also be added to the secondary base date (13 Muluk 17 Tzek), thereby reaching 13 Muluk 2 Sip. There is a bit of ambiguity in what gets added to what here, but the important point to stress here is that adding these LRs to either pre-era base date will always result in a 13 Muluk.

The day shown between the two LR numbers is obviously a Muluk, but different from others by two unusual features: it lacks a number coefficient and is surrounded by a red edging around the conventional black border (not shown in the Villacorta tracing, as it happens). Perusing the Dresden, I can find no other day sign with similar marking, even though red cartouches were common for painted day signs throughout the Classic period, and as far early as the Late Preclassic. No such red borders were ever used in the Dresden, however, and in light of the scribal style and practice employed in the Dresden I doubt that this red border is meant to be a decorative or without meaning.

The absence of the number prefix leads me to suspect that the red line around the Muluk is an unusual and playful means of indicating a 13 day coefficient — the fullest number possible that can accompany Muluk or any day sign in the 260-day tzolk’in. Perhaps the idea was that the number 13 has in some sense “come full circle.” It might be worth recalling that all number coefficients on tzolk’in dates are painted in red as well.

Admittedly this interpretation hinges on the assumption of highly unconventional scribal practice. But there are other examples of “odd” numbers in the Dresden. For example, phonetic spellings of the numbers three (ox, o-xo) and eleven (buluk, bu-lu-ku) with day signs in the Dresden are also well outside of normal conventions, never seen elsewhere. I’ll therefore put forward this idea of the circular 13 as a tentative hunch, hoping it explains the “missing” number on the day sign.