A Caracol Emblem Glyph at Tikal

by Simon Martin
The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA

The inscriptions of Tikal have been scoured by epigraphers for many a year, but they still have the ability to surprise. I was leafing through the copy proofs of Hattula Moholy-Nagy’s new volume on Tikal artifacts (Tikal Report 27A) not so long ago when I saw a photograph of a text I’d previously seen only as a drawing. It was a close-up of a stucco-covered vessel found in Burial 195, the tomb of the sixth-century king dubbed Animal Skull.

As is widely known, this grave was flooded soon after its dedication and a slurry of mud deposited across its floor, burying many of its contents. A meticulous excavation by Rudy Larios and George Guillemin in 1965 revealed empty cavities in the now-hardened sediment, the remains of decayed wood and other perishable materials. Once filled with Plaster of Paris they could be recovered in whole or in part, in some cases revealing original stucco coatings with surviving color and painted designs. One of these objects was a small, covered bowl. The lid was almost complete and bore a 13-glyph Primary Standard Sequence in good preservation—perhaps bearing a woman’s name—a text now designated Miscellaneous Text 219. The style and coloring technique resembles those on the other stucco-covered pot in Burial 195, although it doesn’t appear to be in the same hand. The text on another stucco-coated item in the tomb, this time a ceramic plate, has a similar style but the artist is plainly different.

The body of the lidded vessel and the text it carried were in much poorer shape. Labeled Miscellaneous Text 277, it has only two surviving glyphs, the first no more than a fragment of border. The second is broken, yet unmistakably supplies the sequence K’UH-K’AN-tu-ma-ki for k’uhul k’antumaak—the emblem glyph of Caracol. With a blank section of stucco following, it falls at the end of a phrase, just where we might expect to find such a title.

Even today, when we have so many other ways of investigating Classic Maya politics, emblem glyphs remain a fundamental tool with which to examine relationships between sites. An isolated case such as this—damaged and lacking even the name of the person it refers to—can hardly carry the burden of great significance. We cannot even be sure that the vessel carrying it comes from Caracol. Nevertheless, it is interesting that such a title should appear in this particular grave at this particular time, and in this sense it does have a context in which it can be placed.

Animal Skull’s predecessor, Wak Chan K’awiil (formerly “Double Bird”) had close connections to Caracol and installed its king Yajaw Te’ K’inich II in 553. But relations soured rapidly and three years later, in 556, Wak Chan K’awiil attacked his former client. Six years after that, in 562, the Tikal king was defeated in a “star war” and disappears from history. The phrase describing the defeat on Caracol Altar 21 is badly damaged and the name of the victor unclear. Elsewhere I have argued that the Snake kingdom under its king Sky Witness is a better candidate than Caracol’s Yajaw Te’ K’inich, but we can only hope that some future find will make the matter clear. Certainly this marks the beginning of close ties between these two polities.

We don’t know how soon after 562 Animal Skull was inaugurated as Tikal’s 22nd king, and his rule is largely a historical blank. He has no known stelae and what little information we have comes from texts on unprovenanced ceramic vessels and those found within Burial 195. The tomb inscriptions appear on a set of four carved wooden boards (that survive today as plaster casts) and two polychrome plates. The first of the boards and one of the plates carry the same Long Count date, the Period Ending of 593. This makes it very likely that his grave was dedicated before the next K’atun-ending in 613. Several ceramic vessels name his mother, a royal woman from the site of Bahlam “Jaguar,” while only one (from Burial 195) refers to his father, and this name is otherwise unknown and lacks any identifying title. As Christopher Jones first suggested, there are good grounds to doubt that Animal Skull descended from the existing royal patriline—although this is not to say that he was without some claim to legitimacy.

We are left to ask how and why a vessel carrying a royal Caracol name came to be in Burial 195. It is safe to assume that it had some symbolic purpose, but in the absence of any sure knowledge we can only guess what this might have been.

Just a generation earlier, Caracol was a sworn enemy of Tikal and at least partly responsible for a major military defeat—one of the more consequential in Tikal’s long history. Yet, by the time of Animal Skull’s death an object naming a Caracol lord was chosen to be among a relatively small number of goods in his last resting place—a special location by any standard.

One scenario might see Caracol as having fallen into the Tikal fold once more, with this vessel in some way signaling their renewed subordination. Because we lack a dedication date for Burial 195, we cannot know whether Yajaw Te’ K’inich II (553-593) or his son Knot Ajaw (599-613) was in power at the time. However, Yajaw Te’ K’inich and his younger son K’an II ( 618-658 ) were clear allies of the now-dominant Snake kingdom (the latter was affirmed in his kingship by the new Snake king Yuknoom Ti’ Chan) so any such ties to Tikal would realistically be restricted to the reign of Knot Ajaw, K’an II’s half-brother. The situation would need to have been dynamic indeed for relations to yo-yo quite so rapidly, and comes in the absence of any evidence for Animal Skull’s political strength. We would, I think, need to see new inscriptional evidence for this model for it to be persuasive. The same might be said of another possibility, that the vessel was booty seized in a successful new attack.

A further scenario sees greater stability following the war of 562. Here the evident disruption of the Tikal patriline is an especially important consideration. Animal Skull could have introduced a regime more to the liking of the victors, perhaps one politically beholden or subservient to them. Burial 195 was not very wealthy in terms of its jade and other valuables, and seems to reflect somewhat straitened times. Although Animal Skull seems to have some connection to distant Altar de Sacrificos—perhaps as the father to one of its kings—to date he lacks the credentials of his immediate successors as a true reviver of Tikal fortunes. Is the woman named on the lid the one with Caracol connections, could she have married into the Tikal line? We might never know. However, just like the serendipitous survival of this emblem, some unexpected piece of data might fall into our hands one day and bestow a clarity we currently lack.


Further reading:

Martin, Simon. 2003. In Line of the Founder: A View of Dynastic Politics at Tikal. In Tikal: Dynasties, Foreigners, and Affairs of State, edited by Jeremy A. Sabloff, pp. 3-45. School of American Research Advanced Seminar Series, School of American Research Press and James Curry, Santa Fe and Oxford.

2005. Caracol Altar 21 Revisited: More Data on Double Bird and Tikal’s Wars of the Mid-Sixth Century. Precolumbian Art Research Institute (PARI) Journal 6(1):1-9.

Moholy-Nagy, Hattula. 2008. The Artifacts of Tikal: Ornamental and Ceremonial Artifacts and Unworked Material. Tikal Report No.27 Part A. University of Pennsylvania Museum Monograph 127. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia.

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

“Hit the Road”


My earlier post on the Tikal ancestor “White Owl Jaguar” included a brief mention of the phrase jatz’ bihtuun, appearing in the long narrative recorded on the exterior of the Temple of the Inscriptions (Temple VI). It’s a rare verb expression, appearing only on that one Tikal text and also on Naranjo Altar 2, where it was first identified by Nikolai Grube. It’s clearly based on the transitive verb root jatz’, “to strike, hit something,” but bihtuun has been trickier to nail down. As mentioned in that previous post, bihtuun had been earlier analyzed as meaning “paved surface,” but both Steve Houston and I independently considered a somewhat different thought, suggesting it may be an alternative term for “stone road” (bih, “road” + tuun, “stone”). This was based solely on the etymology apparent in the glyphic spelling, and therefore hard to confirm. Beyond that question, what could “hitting” be about?

I’ve recently come across important lexical data that confirms our suspicions about jatz’ bihtuun. In colonial Yukatek, in the Motul Dictionary or Calepino Motul, we find two revealing entries:

be tun, camino o calzada de piedra
hadz be, abrir camino por matorrales

Thus Classic Mayan jatz’ bihtuun, literally “to strike a stone road,” turns out to be a phrase referring to the creation or opening of new causeways. The two inscriptions at Tikal and Naranjo provide specific dates we can consider for the construction and elaboration of associated road features at those sites.

“White Owl Jaguar”: A Tikal Royal Ancestor


Illustration file: whiteowljaguar-figs.pdf

“White Owl Jaguar”: A Tikal Royal Ancestor

The long inscription on the façade and roof-comb of Tikal’s “Temple of the Inscriptions” (Str. 6F-27) receives little attention these days, but I find it one of the most interesting and unusual of Maya texts (see Figure 1). Its odd placement on the back of the building makes it hardly visible to anyone, but even more intriguing is the inscription’s narrative involving very ancient “deep time” history, spanning nearly two thousand years. The story is long and complex, and features one protagonist throughout: an ancestral king I call “White Owl Jaguar” (the actual name may have been slightly different). Before now this major mythical/historical figure has gone unrecognized, but clues in this and other monuments suggest he was considered something of an “uber-ancestor,” venerated at Tikal throughout the Classic period. The Temple of the Inscriptions was, I believe, White Owl Jaguar’s principal temple and shrine.

This unusual pyramid was discovered only in 1951. It’s location is set apart from the other major architectural complexes at Tikal, in the southeast sector of the ruins, at the end of the Mendez Causeway. The long inscription on the building’s exterior was analyzed first by Berlin, who established its basic time frame, and later by Jones in his important 1977 study of Tikal’s Late Classic dynasty. In both these early treatments the focus was on the chronology of the text, citing the remarkably early dates.

Before we get to that, let’s look at the name (see attached illustrations). White Owl Jaguar’s glyph is not well preserved in many of its examples, but in Figure 2 (top) I offer a reconstructed version to show its main parts: the prefix SAK (“white”) a full-figure bird’s body — perhaps that of an owl — and a HIX sign that usually covers the head of the bird, “facing” the viewer. The owl identification is still very tentative, suggested by a few spots on the feathers, as will as the frontal orientation of the head. There is also the possibility that the bird is simply the logogram MUUT (“bird”). The order of the jaguar and bird elements is also ambiguous, but for now I will simply refer to him by this descriptive label. In Tikal’s iconography we also see a few examples of his name glyph (Figure 2, i-j), and another, not illustrated here, may occur as a miniature feline image on Stela 29.

The opening Long Count on the temple’s inscription is 12 Ajaw 3 Sak (1143 BC!), later followed by 3 Ajaw 13 Pax (157 BC). The ten reliably placed dates of the entire text are given here, with a brief description of their associated events: 12 Ajaw 3 Zak – PE in presence of White Owl Jaguar 11 Cib 4 Zak – ? 3 Ajaw 13 Pax – PE in presence of White Owl Jaguar 13 Ajaw 18 Yax – PE in presence of White Owl Jaguar 13 Ajaw 13 Yaxkin – Ritual at waybil shrine of White Owl Jaguar 5 Kib 9 Keh – Fashioning of stone, White Owl Jaguar 4 Ix 7 Kankin – “Road-striking”(?) event, White Owl Jaguar 4 Manik 0 Muwan – ?
[…missing portions…] 4 Kaban 15 Pop – Dedication of waybil shrine 7 Ajaw 18 Pop – PE by Ruler B

White Owl Jaguar is named at least seven times in this inscription (See Figure 2a-g), mostly in the capacity of sanctioning or witnessing widely spaced Period Ending rituals. The inscription does not say he ruled at these times (an impossibility), but that other kings performed their rites in his “presence” (y-ichn-al). In the first of these records, in 1143 BC, White Owl Jaguar is said to preside over an all-important Bak’tun ending rite: “it is the 5th Bak’tun, the stone-binding of [NAME], The Holy Mutul Lord, in the presence of White Owl Jaguar, The Holy Mutul Lord.” The passage suggests that White Owl Jaguar was seen as an ancestral king of supreme importance, affiliated directly with the court and dynasty of Tikal. He is not the “founder” of the historical dynasty, however – that was the Preclassic king Yax Ehb Xook, cited in many Tikal inscriptions. White Owl Jaguar, as least as he was depicted in the written history of the Temple of the Inscriptions, predates the founder by a hundreds of years.

Other texts and images at Tikal convey an aura of great importance for White Owl Jaguar. On the famous Stela 31, the solar figure above the king’s portrait is identified as his father, Yax Nun Ayin (see Figure 3). He cradles a snake in one arm, from whose mouth emerges a very clear example of White Owl Jaguar’s name glyph. Such snake-emergence motifs were used by the Maya to depict the conjuring of deities and ancestors; here, in a multi-layered presentation of ancestral “deep-time,” the deified father is shown manifesting the primordial Tikal king.

The text on the “Hombre de Tikal” stone figure contains a very interesting mention of White Owl Jaguar (see posted image, above). Some event, now effaced, was recorded in a few glyphs, involving the important foreigner named Siyaj K’ahk’ (or Siyaj K’awiil). His mysterious arrival in 479 triggered a number of key political changes in Tikal and around the central Peten region. Here, in a later reference another event “at Mutul” involves the same Siyaj K’ahk’. The next phrase says t-u-ch’e’n Mutul Ajaw, followed by a nice “blended” version of White Owl Jaguar’s name glyph. Taken together, the text says that this episode — whatever it was — took place “at the cave (town) of the Mutul Lord, White Owl Jaguar.” Here White Owl Jaguar has the highly symbolic role as “owner” of the ch’e’n, a word that literally means “cave” but which in essence refers to the ceremonial and symbolic heart of a polity or city. He is Tikal, is a sense.

The Temple of the Inscriptions text contains a few other intriguing references to White Owl Jaguar, and although many of these are very damaged, I suspect we can read a few key details. A heavily damaged section of the text in columns E and F refer to the Early Classic date, when, just perhaps, we read of the dedication of a deity shrine (waybil) in honor of White Owl Jaguar, by the ruler Yik’in Chan K’awiil (a name that would be re-used later in Tikal’s dynasty). A short time after this, other items of the divine ancestor, including a “stone” of some kind, are “fashioned.” I suspect that these historical episodes in 527 AD involve the construction and dedication of an early temple dedicated to White Owl Jaguar. The final episode in this string of related dates says it is the jatz’ bih-tuun, “the road-striking,” or “the pavement striking.” This is an odd phrase found also at Naranjo (on Altar 2), where Nikolai Grube has suggested it refers to the construction of architectural spaces. One wonders of it could be more specifically referencing the building of causeways (bih-tuun, “road of stone”), an attractive interpretation given that Temple of the Inscriptions lies at the end of a very long and important ceremonial road, the Mendez Causeway. Archaeological probing in and around the complex would be needed to make sure, but I suspect that the events of 527 are key episodes in the architectural history of the Temple of the Inscriptions. Tellingly, the text closes with an extended record of the dedication of another waybil shrine in 765 by the later ruler Yik’in Chan K’awiil, aka ‘Ruler B’ There’s little doubt this corresponds to the final phase of the temple, what I suspect to be Ruler B’s ambitious refurbishment of White Owl Jaguar’s earlier ancestral shrine, earlier built by his namesake. Future archaeological work would offer an interesting test for the written history and my own tentative interpretation of the events.

These are all just preliminary notes on a complex issue, but the evidence points to White Owl Jaguar as a major symbolic figure in Tikal’s political and ritual life, in all likelihood an a hero-king of the distant past. The temporal distance might find a parallel in the physical remoteness of the Temple of the Inscriptions itself, set so far apart from the rest of the city as a sign of some special significance.

Illustration file: whiteowljaguar-figs.pdf