An Obscure Text from Tonina

Some years ago Linda Schele took photographs (one below) of a partial stucco inscription at Tonina.  I have never seen this personally, and I have no idea where it is at the ruins.  Despite its murky details and the thick moss in places, I think the glyphs can be tentatively teased out as follows (reconstructed elements are in square brackets):


pA1: [10-4-WINIK-ji-ya]

pB1: 16-HAAB-ya

pA2: u-ti-[ya]

pB2: [8]-AJAW

pA3: I-u-ti

pB3: 10-OK

pA4: [18]-TZIKIN-ni (the month “Xul”)

pB4: U-3-?-TE'(?)

So, we have a straightforward calendrical reckoning here, a distance number of 16.8.10 linking 8 Ajaw to a later date written as 10 Ok 18 Xul. This can only be:   8 Ajaw 8 Wo   10 Ok 18 Xul

These are two familiar dates at Tonina.  The first is obviously a key k’atun-ending, much recorded in the site’s inscriptions. The second date. as seen in an earlier post here on Maya Decipherment, is a station of the strange 9.2.5 “chinstrap” cycle recorded in several Tonina inscriptions, but nowhere else.  This was the third such station in the reign of the ruler K’inich Baaknal Chahk, and the final semi-preserved glyph may simply mark this. There I can just make out a possible “chinstrap” sign after U-3-, and above what could be a Pax patron head variant of TE’. The name of the king would have likely followed just after this.

Might anyone know just where this text is located at Tonina? Do the poor glyphs still even exist? I’m not sure when Linda took her slide, but I suspect it was on a visit no later than the mid-90s.  If anyone has info, I would much appreciate hearing it.

UPDATE: I had assumed this is of stucco, perhaps still attached to a masonry wall somewhere. But I could be wrong — looking again, it could be a stone fragment.

UPDATE (03/08/10): In the original post I gave a mistaken Long Count placement of the 10 Ok date (thanks to Jesus Mora for pointing this out in his comment). The correct date is given above — 10 Ok 18 Xul.

When Archaeology is Destruction

tna-peccary-throne3The adjacent photo comparison from Tonina, Chiapas, offers sad evidence of how excavated stucco sculpture is rapidly deteriorating at some Maya sites, usually due to disinterest in conservation and an utter lack of thinking ahead. The images are of an important throne in Tonina’s acropolis, decorated with an image of a “star peccary” on its back and with three trident-flint supports. As one can see, much of the sculpted design has now disappeared.

The throne was once inscribed. In 1983 I noticed a stucco glyph (an emblem glyph, in fact) attached to the throne’s right side, but for some reason this was later detached, and eventually published as Plate 89 in Miller and Martin’s book Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya (2004).

I wish this was a unique case of a monument’s destruction-by-excavation, but tragically it’s not; there are many, many more examples out there.

A Classic Maya Bailiff?

by Stephen Houston

Epigraphers have long puzzled over a title in Classic inscriptions. This is the ba-te’, usually spelled ba-TE’ but sometimes, as at Dos Pilas and Yaxchilan, BAAH-TE’. Historically minded readers of this blog will remember the late, great Heinrich Berlin. A person of great insight, he posited a similar reading for what we now know, thanks to Dave Stuart, to be the KALOOMTE’ title. (That title deserves far closer study, as do all the “tree” titles. Students take note!) Berlin had been intrigued by the TE’ at the end of KALOOMTE’, leading him to consider a set of words in Yukatek, including ba’te’el, “fight, war,” taken from “axe,” baat and “cacique,” batab. Knorosov, Joyce Marcus, and Chris Jones endorsed the reading or at least mentioned it in some of their publications. As with many good ideas, it had a strong run…and then died away under press of better evidence. Yet there is still the question: What are we to make of the ba-te’ and BAAH-te’ that do appear in the inscriptions? Are they related to the terms that interested Berlin?

The bate’/baahte’ is neither ubiquitous nor rare in Classic texts. One example occurs at Tonina, on Monument 145:C1, where it follows the name of K’inich Baaknal Chahk and serves as an adjective for a kind of ajaw. The ruler obviously felt that this was an important marker of royal identity. Farther afield is Chinaja St. 1, last seen in the von der Goltz collection, in Guatemala City, I believe. It records U-ba-TE’ between the names of a captive and a local ajaw. The syntax is a little opaque, as is the referent of U-ba-TE’. I can think of several options, some more likely that others: (1) the captive, X, is the “guarded one” of Y, who, in turn, served as the bate’ of Z, a local ruler; (2) the captive, X, is the bate’ of the local ruler, Y; or even (3) the guardian and bate’ expression appear in couplet form, “is captured, the guardian of X, the bate’ of Z.” The drawing of the text is adequate but perhaps insufficient to come to any firm conclusion. The panel probably had a mate—a common pattern in the Pasión region—with another captive facing right, in a sculpture placed on the opposite side of a stairway. At least it’s clear that, at Chinaja, bate’ had something to do with conflict.

In texts at Dos Pilas and other sites, the title tends to precede pitzil, “ballplayer” (Dos Pilas Hieroglyphic Stairway 4, Step V:M2-N2) or it appears with rulers in the act of ballplay (Yaxchilan Hieroglyphic Stairway 2:G3). Then there are the titles with numbered katuns. Yaxchilan Hieroglyphic Stairway 3:F1-G2 refers to 5-‘k’atun’ ba-TE’ 5-‘k’atun’ pi-tzi-la, nicely combining the two labels. This alone might tempt the incautious to entertain some link to batey, a ceremonial ballgame of Taino in parts of the Greater Antilles—not to be discounted outright, given lithic evidence of contact, but probably not so compelling either. The instances of bate’ at Chichen Itza are more opaque, appearing in the Ak’ab Tz’ib lintel and the Temple of the IV Lintels. Clearly, bate’ was an epithet at some northern sites. The usual pattern is ‘AXE-OHL’ followed by the ba-TE’, once spelled ba-TE’-‘e, as on a sculpture from the Barbachano collection. The latter leaves little doubt that the term ended in a vowel. In fact, I am hard pressed to think of many spellings in which the TE’ (T89) sign functioned syllabically, as some have proposed. The ye-TE’ with captives remains just such a puzzle. In my view, it contains three morphemes, not two.


None of this would be particularly interesting, new or revealing save for the recent appearance of a probative context. This is a spelling of the name and titles of a figure in one of the most remarkable scenes I’ve seen of Maya gore and pain-making (see above). Exquisitely painted, it displays a presentation of captives and is now in a private collection in New York City (K6674). The main text records a “spearing,” ju-la-ja, and an arrival, hu-li, probably on the same day. I saw the vessel last summer, and the owner kindly made high-quality images available to me. Over to the left is a standing figure who looms over two captives, one the worse for wear, with eyes gouged out. Both captives have jagged wounds that ooze blood. (This must have been the “spearing” mentioned above, along with the “arrival” of the duo at court.) The standing figure holds a dark wooden staff in one hand, making it hard to avoid the impression that we are looking at a custodian of captives—rather like a bailiff at court or royal servants who held staffs as badges of authority in European courts. To this day, Black Rod summons the House of Commons to the Queen’s Speech in the House of Lords; Gold Stick and Silver Stick serve in the Queen’s bodyguard. And, of course, the lone “staff” of this blog, Dave Stuart, takes his role from a term for a physical support.

It is possible that the caption in front of the wooden staff applies to the captive immediately to the right. But I doubt it. The more likely referent is our bailiff, who was called: t’u-bu a-AJAW-WINIK-ki ba-TE’, t’ub ajaw winik bate’. Admittedly, the final TE’ fails to include the small superfix that usually appears with TE’. Yet I cannot imagine what other value it could have in this setting. In fact, the sign accords nicely with the TE’ icons to be seen in objects of wood, such as the canoes depicted on bones from Tikal Burial 116, and with a clear analogue, K’UK’-NAB-TE’ (with this form), as part of a name on Panel 3 at Piedras Negras. The reading also fits with a group of titles that link ba or BAAH, “head,” with objects related to war and objects at court. Bonampak alone has people, all non-royals, called ba-to-k’a, ba took’, “head flint” (the figure slicing at captive’s hands in Room 2, in a title also at Tonina), ba-pa-ka-la, ba pakal, “head shield,” for a “warrior,” and more courtly figures who appear to be called, ba-TZ’AM?-ma, ba tz’am, “head throne.” (Incidentally, some of us have suspected that the supposed po syllable in these spellings is a logogram. Dave has considered TZ’AM as a good bet, following a reading once proposed by Marc Zender, in part because of a substitution on a molded text in the Dieseldorff collection in the National Museum in Guatemala City. I’m sure he’s right.) There is a still a chance that the spellings are more than metonyms—namely, things that stand for larger wholes, such as “sweat” for “labor.” The spellings could embed an assimilated agentive a, so that ba-to-k’a > ba [a] took’, “head person of the flint.” The only reason to doubt this view is the presence, at Bonampak, of a ba-hi, which reduces the chances of an assimilated agentive.

Houston blog figure

Piedras Negras St. 12 weighs in with the helpful ba-che-bu, ba(ah) chehb, “head quill,” first noted, I believe, by Nikolai Grube.

So, by this proposal, “head stick/wood” describes someone who wielded a stick or staff. It could have been a badge of office, an actual object for herding and abusing captives, perhaps even a role in the ballgame, either as a field position (a captain?) or as someone who played – this may be a stretch! — a stick game. These are attested in ancient America, if uncommon among the ancient Maya. Courtiers used the label, but kings too.

And, of course, bate’ had nothing to do with “axe” or related words.

More on the nine-year solar cycle at Tonina

Back in 2002 I pointed out the appearance of a strange calendar cycle mentioned in three inscriptions at Tonina, apparently equaling a span nine solar years (9 x 365 days, or in Maya notation, 9.2.5). Stations in this cycle are marked in the inscriptions with a distinctive glyph, depicting a human profile head with a prominent “chinstrap”-like element over the mouth, followed by a -TE’ suffix. In my original analysis the extant dates were actually 18 solar years apart, but a telling reference to one station being the “second” in the reign of K’inich Baknaal Chahk suggested that the true cycle was nine solar years in length. If this seems confusing (it is to me…) maybe my original note posted on Joel Skidmore’s Mesoweb site will clarify.

Several months ago, Yuriy Polyukhovych circulated his analysis of a newly unearthed inscription at Tonina, discovered around 2005-6 by Juan Yadeun and his team (grácias, Yuriy!). This appears on a temple doorjamb that once accompanied a richly decorated and vividly colored wall, all of modelled stucco. Yuriy saw there mention of another date with the same “chinstrap” glyph, easily readable as 10 Ok 18 Xul. This falls exactly nine solar years (9.2.5) after the earliest attested such station mentioned on Monument 141, and confirms its true nature as marker of a nine-year cycle. Here, then, is an updated list of attested stations, with the newest in boldface. 1 Chikchan 18 Xul 10 Ok 18 Xul 6 Men 18 Xul 11 Chikchan 18 Xul

The 10 Ok 18 Xul reference is also interesting for what the stucco jamb inscription goes on to mention. As Yuriy pointed out in his analysis, this was also the dedication day for “the wall” itself (u kot), coming 89 days after the a “fire-entering” activation rite of a structure. This building dedication was, in turn, just nine short days after K’inich Baaknal Chahk’s one K’atun anniversary as king — an event and day mentioned in yet another stucco text, as discussed in my previous post. The 10 Ok station would have been the third such “chinstrap” period ending in K’inich Baaknal Chahk’s reign.

Incidentally, the style of the stucco wall and its glyphs looks to be far later than the dates and events recorded in the text, suggesting a possible reuse or refurbishment of the space by a later ruler.

Stucco Glyphs from Tonina


Juan Yadeun’s excavations at Tonina, Chiapas, have revealed a number of beautiful stucco glyphs that once formed an inscription of at least 25+ blocks, most now on housed at the regional site museum, with several others on view the Museo Nacional de Antropología e Historia in Mexico City. On a recent visit to the MNAH I was interested to see two of the glyphs, in different cases, that seem to form a reconstructable date: “3 Eb” and “End of Pop” (see upper two glyphs marked “C” in the accompanying image, below). This Calendar Round turns out to fall on the Long Count, the one K’atun anniversary of the accession of the important Tonina ruler K’inich Baaknal Chahk. Another stucco glyph in the MNAH case reads tzutz-uy, “it ends,” which may well have accompanied this date, preceding “the first K’atun,” written with yet another glyph now at the Tonina museum.

Two other stuccoes on display at the MNAH (A and B) are “on 13 Ajaw” and part of a Distance Number “3.12.” Together, the various peices are enough to suggest that the following two dates were recorded in the original inscription, now partially reconstructable, as shown in the image below (extant elements are in italics): 13 Ajaw 18 Pax (Period Ending)

+ 1.3.12 3 Eb End of Pop (anniversary)

The inscription surely included a number of other dates as well, among them one probably referring to the building’s dedication, as indicated by y-otoot, “his/her house…” I’m reasonably sure other fits and connections will be possible, once we check images of other loose glyphs from the text.

Reconstructed elements: