Palenque’s Two of a Kind? Reply

Some years ago I came across an obscure publication on the shelf of my old office in the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, cataloging some of the holdings in storage at the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City (Cardós de Méndez 1987). In it I was suprised to find a photo of an eroded limestone panel I had never known before, depicting two standing figures and a band of illegible glyphs at the top (at right in photo below). Despite the poor preservation, the large thin relief sculpture clearly had a Palenque look about it, especially in the distinctive proportions, poses and profiles of the two men. The photograph was subsequently reprinted by Mayer (1995: Pl. 218) who in his catalog also noted a likely Palenque attribution.


It struck me at the time that the panel could be related to a far more familiar Palenque sculpture, a similar sized panel now on display in the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Washington, D.C. (in photo at left). There we see a young K’inich K’an Joy Chitam dancing “on the hill” as an impersonator of Chahk, the god of rain and storms (the king is not shown postumously, as was once widely beleived). The preservation of the Dumbarton Oaks carving is nearly perfect, but I’ve long wondered if it was part of some larger sculptural program. The feet of the seated figures (both proud parents) seem to be cut off at the edges of the stone, as of they continued on to adjacent sections. The inscription too might be considered incomplete; although it is self-contained in terms of content, describing the scene below, it seems to start rather abruptly, as if something came before. The last glyphs, recording a temple dedication, also seem somewhat short-winded.

Comparing the photographs again the other night, I was reminded how the two look similar enough to be partners, perhaps part of a larger sequence of relief carvings that graced the rear wall of a temple. The two standing figures on the Mexico City panel face away from each other, as if looking on to other scenes to each side. The photo posted here arbitrarily places the Dumbarton Oaks panel to the left, but the opposite arrangment is equally plausable. There is certainly not enough here to discern a true fit of sculptural details, but the band of glyphs above the two men does seem a good visual match. Perhaps, then, another still-missing component shows a layout like we see on the Dumbarton Oaks panel, providing a balance within the larger and complex composition of the monument, whatever it was.

Again, confirmation based on measurements and on a direct inspection of the Mexico City panel will be necessary to confirm the connection.

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The Mexico City panel has been published in:

Cardós de Méndez, Amalia. 1987. Estudio de la colleción de escultura maya del Museo Nacional de Antropología. Collecion Catálogos de Museos. Mexico D.F.: INAH

Mayer, Karl Herbert. 1995. Maya Monuments: Sculptures of Unknown Provenance, Supplement 4. Graz, Austria: Academic Publishers

For discussions of the Dumbarton Oaks panel from Palenque, see:

Coe, Michael D., and Elizabeth P. Benson. 1966. Three Maya Relief Panels and Dumbarton Oaks. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology, Number 2. Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks

Miller, Mary, and Simon Martin. 2004. Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya. Singapore: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Stuart, David. 2005. The Palenque Mythology: Sourcebook for the 3oth Maya Meetings. Austin: Department of Art and Art History, University of Texas at Austin

An Old Unpublished Review of ‘Apocalypto’ 1

Something a bit off-topic, but maybe interesting…

Nearly a year ago approached Steve Houston to pen a review of Mel Gibson’s 2006 film Apocalypto. Steve was kind enough to bring me on board as co-author, since I had seen an rough-cut of the movie the previous September here in Austin, and even had the chance to chat a few minutes with the Director himself. Long story short, days and weeks passed and the movie became “old news,” so our review wasn’t published. The anniversary of the release approaches now, so here it is, a “new beginning” for an old review…

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Life and Art

By Stephen Houston and David Stuart

The number one movie in America this week is Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto—a lavish vision of ancient Maya civilization “destroyed from within,” as the theatrical trailers have it. Like The Passion of the Christ, Gibson’s take on the Crucifixion, Apocalypto offers viewers bloody sacrifices, impassioned crowds, authoritarian rulers, and the evocation of an ancient world gone wrong. And like The Passion, it uses an ancient language—in this case, Yucatec Mayan—to lend an air of authenticity to the proceedings. But is the film an accurate portrayal of Maya culture?

Not quite.

Apocalypto is a dramatization of the Maya “collapse,” an enigmatic time in the 8th and 9th centuries A.D. Yes when many cities and royal courts emptied of people. Archaeology tells us that over-population, deforestation, warfare, and disease all contributed to the fall of great ancient kingdoms. Gibson runs through this checklist of disaster in Apocalypto, and for good measure adds the strong suggestion that the Maya were doomed by sheer bloodlust and generally savage behavior.

Scholars now know that the collapse was not as complete as Gibson suggests. Some parts of the Yucatan peninsula continued much as before, with robust construction of buildings and active trade of luxury goods and basics for everyday life, including salt, textiles, ceramics, and stone tools. Today, speakers of dozens of Mayan languages number in the millions, living in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. The surprising feature of the Maya is not the collapse of their Classic civilization, which Gibson highlights, but their astonishing tenacity after the Spanish conquest and, more recently, a bloody civil war in Guatemala during the 1970s and 1980s. American television has produced a version of the reality show Survivor in the jungles of northern Guatemala, but the real survivors are the Maya themselves, through centuries of tumult and abuse.

Gibson’s main vision of the Maya, as a people given to violence, fits squarely with a long-standing debate among scholars. Until forty years ago, the ancient Maya were perceived as peace-loving worshippers of time, a view consistent with the New Agers who have appropriated the Maya as mirrors of modern-day astrology and mysticism. (The Maya date of 2012 looms large even in a recent Colbert Report, thus finding a secure target of ridicule.) Decipherments of Maya writing and fresh perspectives on their imagery confirm that the Maya were a lot like other ancient people: they fought, loathed, and loved, built mighty cities, and created a courtly civilization that left thousands of inscriptions and sculptures. Their aesthetic sensibility parallels what we see in warrior societies like pre-Modern Japan, which also paid eloquent attention to the interplay of life and death, honor and dishonor. Most Maya, of course, simply farmed and hunted, having relatively little contact with the intrigues and artistic commissions of royal courts.

As a work of creativity and boldness of vision, which Apocalypto certainly is, Gibson’s movie ought to have leeway for historical liberties. If Kirsten Dunst can play Marie-Antoinette, as in Sofia Coppola’s new film, why not fashion an impossible Maya city that looks both like Tikal, Guatemala, and Uxmal, Mexico? But Gibson goes overboard, with inaccuracy piled on inaccuracy. Epigraphic studies prove that the Maya of the great dynastic cities mostly spoke a Mayan language called Ch’olti’an, not the Yucatec Gibson chooses to use. No director of historical movies in Europe or the US would have Aristotle rub shoulders with Henry VIII. The set designers of Apocalypto seem to care little for such niceties. To cite one weird example, reproductions of the San Bartolo murals, from about 100 B.C., occur in a set supposedly meant to be 1600 years later. San Bartolo’s imagery not gory enough? Replace an animal sacrifice in the murals with a human body. The same in the Bonampak paintings of Chiapas, Mexico, perhaps the greatest set of images in the Pre-Columbian world, reproduced in part in Apocalypto. The ruler depicted in Gibson’s version of the murals holds a pulped human heart where none appears in the original.

Our concern is that, for the public, Apocalypto crafts an odd and warped view of Maya civilization that will take years to reshape and correct. Gibson offers disturbing, simplistic and, we fear, enduring views of the Maya. In this movie, the “good Maya” are humble and tranquil forest dwellers who live in the most rudimentary fashion imaginable, despite using badly mangled versions of royal names attested in Maya inscriptions. “Bad Maya” are, for Gibson, crazed and blood-thirsty city-dwellers, eager for cruel sacrifice by cynical kings. In other words, they belong to a civilization that deserves to die, soon to be reborn with the arrival of the Spanish and Christianity. (Gibson states that he chose the Greek word as his title because of its supposed meaning, “a new beginning.”)

Gibson’s compelling understanding of action may excite the audience, but his narrative, indeed, the very excellence of the cinematography in this electric “chase movie,” manage to dehumanize one of America’s most splendid civilizations of indigenous origin. Scenes of domestic family bliss, such as when the villager hero lovingly strokes his pregnant wife, serve mostly to contrast with an archaic view of Native American ritual as performed by mindless savages. Heads sliced from captives bounce down pyramid steps, their bodies still twitching in unpleasant fashion. The eager audiences for such spectacles seem to be doped up and disoriented. The hero escapes from the horrors of this dynastic city by clambering over bodies laid out in Auschwitz-like trenches. The scale and fury of the violence are unlike anything ever documented for this civilization. The Maya may not have worshipped time, as New Agers still believe, but nor were they such an embodiment of collective evil.

Some decades ago, the ancient Maya were perceived as peaceful, and that was wrong. As in all human societies, violence was present and real but, in this case, operated within reverential systems of belief about the need to feed and tend gods and to test the honor of noble captives. Violence, a controlled, constrained violence, had purpose and meaning, however unpleasant those beliefs may seem today. But Gibson has transformed the ancient Maya, for decades to come, into a people given to capricious sadism and cruelty. The Maya past and present do not deserve this Apocalypto.

The MAM Glyph Reply


A key reason for creating this Maya Decipherment blog was to make available and circulate writings and various odds-and-ends that have sat for far too long in my files — and those of others I hope. A good case in point is my proposed reading of the MAM glyph, shown above, meaning “grandfather” and generally “ancestor.” I drafted a paper on it in 2000 but soon put it aside, intending to get back to it someday. Well, in typical fashion I never did. So here is the last draft, sans illustrations. You epigraphers out there can probably follow the argument without the drawings, etc., but one of these days I’ll modify the paper a bit and get it out in more formal fashion, with the figures.

pdf of David Stuart, “The Maya Hieroglyphs for Mam, “Grandfather, Grandson, Ancestor” (2000 draft): mam-glyph.pdf

Old Notes on the Possible ITZAM Sign Reply

Here follow some old thoughts and observations about reading the “God N hairnet” sign as a logogram ITZAM. This is found in spellings of the deity names long thought to be the so-called “Pauahtuns,” and it also seems to play some role in the name glyph of Itzamnaaj (God D).

First is a pdf of 1994 letter written to Linda Schele, not long after the publication of her Maya Cosmos book, where I posit that one name of the so-called Pricipal Bird Deity was Muut Itzamnaaj (“The Bird Itzamnaaj”). This has since been supported by a sculpted panel discovered at Tonina, depicting a full-figure version of Muut Itzamnaaj’s name (see Miller and Martin, Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya, Plate 75). The letter was basically motivated by doubts I had of Linda’s proposed reading the Principal Bird Deity’s name as “Itsam Yeh,” which I think is still sometimes used and cited in the literature.

Letter to Linda Schele, Nov. 1994:

Second comes a letter from 2001, written to both Stanley Guenter and Karen Bassie-Sweet, summarizing my later thinking on the same issues. This still remains a tentative and unpublished case, but I guess that’s what the blog is for!

2001 letter to Guenter and Bassie-Sweet:

Dear Stan and Karen,

I’ll write this to the both of you, since each of you has presented good questions and observations on the God N, Pawahtuns and ITZAM reading. I should say at the outset that Steve needn’t share the blame for seeing God N as ITZAM, and I can’t be sure if he actually buys it. I am not sure of my own thinking on it’s veracity, to be honest, except to see it as one of the many “possible” decipherments that may never find proof through syllabic substitutions, etc., but which can be plausibly supported and tested.

First a bit of history. I initially considered the ITZAM value for the God N and the net headdress abbreviation around ’94 or so, and I wrote Linda a letter about it at the time. Whether she ever accepted it I can’t say, but over time I accumulated a few environments where it seems to work in intriguing ways. Even so, I’ve never thought the arguments strong enough to publish or argue for very forcefully, and you, Stan, already are well aware of some of the questionable aspects of ITZAM. In the last couple of years I’ve actually come upon a possible alternative analysis of the God N name glyphs, which I’ll discuss a bit further along, yet still I find ITZAM has some things going for it. To me, the issues remain unresolved, but the revealing patterns are nonetheless there to be studied.

Before moving on, I have to agree with Karen that “Pawahtun” probably isn’t the Classic name of God N, nor is PA/PAW/PAWAH very viable as a reading for the specific God N/hairnet sign complex. It simply doesn’t fly in any other context, so I’ve long been prepared to consider a completely different value. Hence…

The ITZAM value first suggested itself in the “God N” names that get recycled at Piedras Negras, where it is the first of three signs ending in -K’AN-AHK. The standard form of the glyph is of course the turtleshell with the K’AN infix and topped by the “hairnet.” Alternatively we have God N conflated with the turtle head variant and K’AN infixed as the ear ornament. Some inscribed sherd texts excavated from PN show the alternative spelling “hairnet”-K’AN a-ku, though before these were unearthed by Steve’s project I had noticed that Copan Stela C made reference to a deity named “God N”-K’AN-a-ku, which is of course the same thing (but not a reference to anyone from PN). The ending -k’anahk quickly brought to my mind Itzamkanak, the place name famous from the Cortes entrada through Tabasco and into the Peten. Now, I see no direct historical connection between this contact-period site (El Tigre, most suppose) and Piedras Negras, but I can entertain that this apparent god name could be equally used as a personal name or title in one setting, and as a place name in another. At any rate, it was this specific context that seemed to me to offer ITZAM as a good hypothesis to pursue got the God N and “hairnet” signs.

On the Hieroglyphic Step of Structure 2 at Copan, we may have an example of the same deity name. The glyph is partially damaged, if I recall, but the turtleshell and the hairnet are pretty clear, and intriguingly the prefix to the entire glyph is Landa’s i- sign. I’ve wondered if this is a phonetic complement for the full Itzamk’anak name.

Now for the Itzamnaaj name. You’ve seen the Quirigua, Stela C example, where we find the hairnet atop the standard portrait name of God D, and NAAH attached as well. It seemed plausible to consider these signs as complements of a sort, providing the initial ITZAM and final –NAAH, but admittedly such a use of “logographic complements” would certainly be odd, with little if any precedent.

The hairnet sign is also sometimes superfixed to an alligator’s head, and iconographically this relates of course to the “Starry Deer Caiman” famous from PN and elsewhere, who often wears it as well. It’s a small step to consider these as representations of Itzam Kab Ain, the earth caiman. Not a strong piece of evidence, but possibly suggestive.

At Xcalumkin (Glyphic Group, S. Building, E Column) we find another God D name preceded by (for the sake of argument) ITZAM?-na- and suffixed by –ji. This I see as basically the same as the example you also noticed from the red-background polychrome vessel, where God N simply precedes God D’s portrait name. I have no problem with the idea of composite deities, but iconographically this is a “straight” Itzamnaaj figure seated nearby. While I do agree that reading ITZAM as a complement before God D’s name is awkward orthographically, I would also point out that such orthographic issues ought to hinge greatly on the etymology of the god’s name itself, which is hardly clear in this case.
The word
itzam is complex semantically, as Thompson must have been known when he posited “Iguana House” as an odd translation of Itzamnah (based solely on the Vienna dictionary). But I it’s important to realize that the name Itzam alone is fairly widely attested as a deity name associated with watery realms and mountains (see Thompson’s Maya History and Religion, p. 21), which seems fitting for God N as an Underworld character.

Would the common “Pawahtun” designator (4-“net”-TUUN) found in the codices, Pomona, etc., thus be read as Chan Itzam Tuun? There isn’t a shred of evidence I know to back up this particular reading. It is interesting that in the Classic sources, the 4-“net”-TUUN-ni glyphs never occur directly with a “traditional” God N figure. Rather, at Pomona and Laxtunich these designate watery characters shown as young men with waterlily blossoms and fish in their hair – no nets, no shells, etc. At least on Pomona, Panel 1 it would seem that these guys (and I am sure there were four of them there originally) were more like impersonators of watery Year Bearers (one holds “4 Ik’” and another “4 Kaban”), which are really not what God N was about, despite a few general overlaps.

Yet having said all of this, there is a very different reading for the God N/hairnet sign I’ve been considering of late. In a handful of texts we find reference made to a supernatural or group of gods named 4-xi-wa-TUUN-ni. One good example is from the long “Cancuen” panel buried in Guatemala somewhere, and I have seen another example incised upon a gorgeous Late Classic turtle carapace that remains unpublished, but photos of which were in Linda’s house a few years ago. The supports of the Del Rio throne from Palenque also present similar names (?-xi-wa-TUUN-ni) to indicate the supernatural identities of the watery subordinates who support the cosmic bench. So, might we actually have good evidence to posit XIW as a reading of God N and the hairnet abbreviation? Xiw is a widespread root for “fear,” which ultimately forms the likely basis for the name Xibalba. I find it really interesting that Kiche xiv is “shell” and xiuac (xiw-ahk?) is “shell played as a drum” (that is, a turtleshell). Tuun is of course a word also related to “drum,” so Chan Xiw Tuun, as a reading for these Year Bearer names, just might mean something like “the Four Shell Drums.” This in turn reminds me of the rich ethnographic data on directional rain and water deities and drums, such as we find with the Chaaks of Yucatan or the Anhels of the Tzotzil.

There is **something** here in all of this, but at present I have a difficult time reaching any firm ground on it. I can see that ITZAM and XIW each has suggestive evidence, but nothing more as far as I can see. They both can’t be right, and perhaps neither one is correct at all.

Best wishes, David

The Captives on Piedras Negras, Panel 12 6


Panel 12 from Piedras Negras is a key record of Early Classic political relations in the Usumacinta region. Its figural scene, framed by rows and columns of incised glyphs, shows a standing ruler facing three bound and kneeling captives, with a fourth prisoner shown set off from the rest behind the royal warrior. As we’ve known for many years based on an observation first made by Linda Schele, the first (front) captive is identified in nearby caption as “‘Knot-eye Jaguar,’ the Yaxchilan Lord.” This is surely the ninth king of Yaxchilan who ruled at the Period Ending and continued on the throne for about one more decade, until the accession of K’inich Tatbu Jol on (these dates become important a bit later). The middle captive on Panel 12 looks to be from the kingdom affiliated with the ruins known today as Santa Elena, and presumably much of its surrounding region along the nearby lower Río San Pedro. Little is known of the history of Santa Elena, but this prisoner’s name looks very similar to one we know from its later inscriptions, possibly re-used by several rulers.

The third (left-most) prisoner on Panel 12 has thus far gone unidentified, but I’ve an idea who he might be, based on observations of the original panel made earlier this year. The emblem glyph is highly eroded, but its shape and features suggest it might be LAKAM-TUUN-ni-AJAW, for Lakamtuun Ajaw, “the Lakamtuun Lord.” This past March I presented evidence at the UT Maya Meetings suggesting that Lakamtuun was a kingdom or political region located on the banks of the modern Río Lacantun, a major tributary of the upper Usumacinta, and perhaps near the ruins of known as El Palma. The Classic kingdom of Lakamtuun was politically important, cited at Yaxchilan, Seibal, and Itzan, and now maybe Piedras Negras.

The personal name of the Panel 12 mystery captive, recorded before the murky emblem glyph and after U-BAAH, is also suggestive. The components look to be a ?-CHAN AHK with the initial sign resembling one known to represent a downward facing snake, but lacking a firm reading. In the comparison presented in the accompanying image, one can see what looks to be the very same name written in Lintel 35 of Yaxchilan: ?-CHAN-a-ku LAMAK-TUUN-AJAW. He is cited there as a foreign lord who oversaw a subsiduary noble with political connections with the tenth Yaxchilan king, K’inich Tatbu Jol.

So, Panel 12 looks as if it shows a Piedras Negras king with three subservient rulers from neighboring kingdoms, each located along a major rivers of the western lowlands: the Río Usumacinta (Yaxchilan), the Río San Pedro Martir (Santa Elena), and the Río Lacantun (Lakamtuun). I doubt this geographical spread is a coincidence, for it may have been used to bolster Piedras Negras’s message political influence, of not control, over a vast territory to its north and south.

My sense is that the scene of Panel 12 is largely performative and symbolic of such political dominance, not to be taken too literally as evidence of long-distance taking of royal prisoners. Yaxchilan’s Lintel 35 suggests that the Lakamtuun ruler (if that’s who he is) was still reigning a few years after Panel 12’s carving and dedication. Likewise Knot-eye Jaguar of Yaxchilan seems to have ruled locally for several more years, though still perhaps as a vassal of Piedras Negras. This is not as strange as it might seem, since we know that later Maya kings represented subject rulers as bound prisoners, even though the subservient lords continued to rule for many years. Jaguar Claw of Seibal, in “power” yet shown early-on as a prisoner at Dos Pilas and Aguateca, is a good case for comparison.

It looks as if the Piedras Negras king consolidated political authority up and down the Usumacinta drainage, north and south, around the Period Ending I find the timing of great interest, for it so happens that several polities of the western area first “get going” on or around this date. It is the first known Period Ending celebrated in texts at Piedras Negras, Yaxchilan, and Tonina, and it is featured prominently in the “deep history” recorded on Piedras Negras Altar 1. Moreover, is also the opening date of the vast panorama of history recorded in the three tablets of Palenque’s Temple of the Inscriptions, which highlights K’inich Janab Pakal’s victories over (no coincidence, this) Santa Elena. In sum, It seems was a seminal period in defining the geo-politics of the western Maya lowlands for the Classic Period.