by Stephen Houston, Brown University

Among the most violent organized sports in the world is the Calcio Storico, now held in Santa Croce Square in Florence, Italy. If it could, the crucifix by Cimabue in the basilica nearby would weep at the sight: a bloody, testosterone-fueled melee, players (are any without tattoos or steroids in their system?) punching, gouging, going after a ball and, in some cases, going to court after an especially brutal game. In 1570, the French king Henry III, who saw a match, declared it “too small to be a real war and too cruel to be a game” (Powell 2015).

Yet the Maya had them beat, as Karl Taube and and Marc Zender (2009) have shown in their pioneering study of “American Gladiators,” the boxers, sap-wielders, eye-gougers, hair-pullers, and eye-socket crushers who combined any and all forms of fierce contact. These contests took place in what we presume to be the arenas par excellence, the ballcourts of Maya cities. The muscled bruisers of the Calcio Storico seem rather to enjoy their punching and smashing, all of them eager recruits to the pain and punishment at hand. But was this true of the Classic Maya?

Taube and Zender provide a key piece of evidence, Tonina Mon. 83 (Figure 1). Mostly found by the French Archaeological Mission on the Fifth Terrace at the site, near Strs. E5-7, -8, and -9, other pieces later came to light in a private collection (Graham and Mathews 1996:113). Additional fragments probably belonged to the same assemblage of carvings (e.g., Mon. 84, 133, Frag. 43). Displaying a series of bound captives, some perched on a running band of their names and dates of capture, Mon. 83  gives more precise information about where they are from (at least one derives from the site of Sak-Tz’i’, in the Usumacinta drainage to the east of Tonina) and who their captor might have been (the very late king known as “Ruler 8” as well as retroactive mention of another ruler, K’inich Baaknal Chahk, about a century before; see Martin and Grube 2000:181–83, 188–289). Probably Mon. 83 was part a composite monument, incorporating an earlier program of sculpture that it strove to copy. The key detail is that the captives are both bound (or bound in part), yet one is abusing the other, pulling his hair while the second figure, a youth (ch’ok), leans back and attempts unsuccessfully to deflect the assault. They seem to be unwilling captives compelled to fight, hampered or restricted by rope. Are they related, as an added misery? The moment is tense, in that fortune has just turned, perhaps, to favor one person over the other. Their bodies, their directed violence–nothing is under their control. They are marionettes of abuse, the outcome amusing or satisfying in some way to their captors.

Tonina Monument 83

Figure 1 Tonina Monument 83 (Graham and Mathews 1996:113, copyright Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project, Harvard University)

There is another twist to the story. The French Mission to Tonina was always prompt in sharing images of new discoveries. It was with some shock to see, in 1981 or 1982, a photograph of Mon. 99, instantly recognizable as a bound woman in the characteristic ripped and cut-out clothing of captives (Becquelin and Baudez 1982:fig. 165). Later, the top of the carving was found, revealing the head of the woman and the verb that describes her “raising” up (to a display platform?), probably during the reign of Tonina Ruler 2 (Martin and Grube 2000:180).


Figure 2  Tonina Monument 99 (Graham and Mathews 1996:99, copyright Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project, Harvard University)

A final image from Tonina now completes the picture, again to surprising outcome. This is Monument 148, currently on display in the site museum–it is a large altar, at some 1.5 m diameter–and, like most of the recent finds at the site, without evidence or written mention of its original location (Figures 3, 4, 5; Graham et al. 2006:81). In an earlier publication with colleagues, I had conjectured that this was a scene of a very public rape, somewhat evoking the Roman depredation of the Sabine women (Houston et al. 206:207–8). The text has a precise Calendar Round date, but that is so eroded that one can only make out what appears to be a Mol month (in this area, the month often takes a wa subfix, e.g., Tonina Monument 20:D4). The man is not named, but the female, her breast dangling out of the huipil garment, is clearly the main protagonist and a figure of some importance: the presence of two IX signs indicates a personal name, followed by a title. That the inscription covers her thigh seems consistent, however, with captive status.

Tonina Monument 148

Figure 3  Tonina Monument 148 (sketch by Ian Graham, inking by Lucia Henderson, Graham et al. 2006:81, copyright Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project, Harvard University).


Figure 4  Tonina Monument 148, close-up for Calendar Round, Tonina site museum (photograph by Stephen Houston). 


Figure 5  Tonina Monument 148, close-up of female personal names, D1, F1, Tonina site museum (photograph by Stephen Houston). 

My impression of erotic violence on this relatively late monument was doubtless correct. But I missed the main point: the format, local visual precedent, the indecorous display of the female, the grappling of hair, and the fact that the elite female holds a sap (a rounded stone) to bludgeon her male opponent force us to an obvious conclusion–that, at Tonina and perhaps elsewhere, females were also compelled to gladiatorial combat. The matching with a male, not, evidently, equipped with a sap, injects some erotic frisson–an added amusement to the captors? Yet her grasp of his hair suggests that she had the upper hand. The moment had turned to her favor.

Long before the Calcio Storico, the Romans opened violent “sport” to women. There is strong evidence, if mostly literary and legal, of female gladiators (ludia [sing.] or “stage performer”). An expensive and ostentatious novelty, prized by emperors, they were far fewer in number than males, yet they shared similar training and expectations (McCullough 2008:197; also Vesley 1998). Many were volunteers, disposed to fight, but there were also some contestants forced into conflict. Both categories of combatant may have existed among the Maya. Nonetheless, at Tonina, the contests projected an air of desperation, wretched for all participants regardless of gender.


Becquelin, Pierre, and Claude F. Baudez. 1982. Tonina, une cité maya du Chiapas (Mexique), Tome III. Paris: Editions Recherche sur les civilisation.

Graham, Ian, and Peter Mathews 1996. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 6, Part 2: Tonina. Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.

Graham, Ian, and Peter Mathews 1996. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 6, Part 2: Tonina. Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University. Houston, Stephen, David Stuart, and Karl Taube. 2006. The Memory of Bones: Body, Being, and Experience among the Classic Maya. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2000. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Classic Maya. Thames & Hudson, London.

McCullough, Anna. 2008. “Female Gladiators in Imperial Rome: Literary Context and Historical Fact.” The Classical World 101(2):197-209.

Powell, Jim. 2015. “The Calcio Storico, the Most Brutal Sport on Earth–in Pictures.” The Guardian,

Taube, Karl, and Marc Zender. “American Gladiators: Ritual Boxing in Ancient Mesoamerica.” In Heather Orr and Rex Koontz, eds., Blood and Beauty: Organized Violence in the Art and Archaeology of Mesoamerica and Central America, 161–220. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press.

Vesley, Mark. 1998. “Gladiatorial Training for Girls in the Collegia Iuvenum of the Roman Empire.Echos du Monde Classique 62:85-93.

Tough Talk and Maya Kings


By Stephen Houston, Brown University

Few conflicts begin with blows. First comes talk. Angry words serve to explain and justify an aggression, rallying friends and taunting foes. They advertise hostility to come–indeed, in part, they are that hostility. Among Maya peoples, such crusty talk was not always a good thing. The dictionary of Santo Domingo Zinacantán, a peerless source on colonial Tzotzil Maya, likens “barbed” speech, tz’i’tz’i-k’opoj, to something dirty, dog-like, and rabid (Laughlin 1988, I:179–80).

Yet, with kings, anger plays a calculated role. Sometimes, a ruler needs to let loose, to flame out. Respect for him should blend with fear. Why? Because a perception of innate aggression keeps people in line, throwing them off-kilter. Subordinates and enemies never quite know what to expect. The Aztecs may have held just this view. Two of its emperors went by Motēuczōma, “Lord frowning in anger,”a name bristling with claimed irascibility (Karttunen 1992:153).

Elsewhere in Mesoamerica belligerence extends explicitly to depictions of speech (Houston et al. 2006:163, 154, figs. 4.5, 4.14, 4.19, 4.20). The Codex Selden, a Mixtec manuscript dating to c. AD 1555, shows two men speaking “words of flint,” apparently while hurling threats at a traveling party (Figure 1, page 7, Band III, Pohl n.d.). Virgules from their mouths denote words; small blades of flints, each half-stained with blood, underscore the truculent message.

Figure 1 Codex Selden Page 7 Band III

Figure 1   Flinty words, Codex Selden, p. 7, band III.

Dating to approximately the same time, the Mapa de Cuahtinchan No. 2, a document from the general area of Cholula, Mexico, displays relatively few virgules. But those that exist, as in Section I, appear to record a “painful moment of schism,” as groups take different paths on their journeys from a cave of origin (Figure 2, Carrasco and Sessions 2007:fig. 15.3). There are violent gestures, pointing, shouting, turned backs–it is quite a row. The scrolls are disconnected, in symmetrical alternation, almost as a sequence of chatter; their color is dark-red. The marks may be, as Davíd Carrasco and Scott Sessions note, “red-hot words” rather than bloody-minded utterances. Yet the color is suggestive.

Figure 2 Mapa de Cuahtinchan no. 2, I26-32Figure 2   Mapa de Cuahtinchan No. 2, Section I (from Carrasco and Sessions 2007:fig. 15.3)

A clearer example occurs on Monument 1, Finca San Cristóbal, from the Late Classic Cotzumalhuapa civilization of piedmont Guatemala (Figure 3, Chinchilla Mazariegos 2011:fig. 4.25). An excellent rendering by Oswaldo Chinchilla displays, in his words, a “verbal performance…with beautiful flowers and sprouts,” but a plausible alternative is that this records less a “performance” than an almost vegetal visualization of dialogue, growth that entwines but never fuses: the blade-like elements to upper right could characterize hostile speech.

Figure 3 Finca San Cristobal Mon 1

Figure 3  Speech scrolls with possible flints, Finca San Cristóbal Monument 1 (drawing by Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariego, with colors added for emphasis)

Tough talk from Maya kings may account for an enigmatic title of the Classic period. The best-known of these is an alternative epithet for the Naranjo ruler K’ahk’ Ukalaw Chan Chahk (Figure 4, Martin and Grube 2000:80–81). The title has been glossed as “He of Flint,” “perhaps his childhood moniker,” as Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube suggest in their masterly study of Maya history. But there is another possibility. Long ago, David Stuart deciphered a semblant of the third element as a logograph TI’, for ti’, “mouth” (personal communication, 1995). By extension, ti’ can mean “language” or “speech,” especially in Ch’orti’, to most epigraphers the richest and most relevant resource for decipherment (Zender 2004:Table 5). Beginning as a human head to signal acts of consumption, the glyph soon reached, Stuart discovered, an extreme state of stylization, transforming into T128 in the Thompson catalogue of Maya glyphs (for lucid discussion, see Zender 2004:212–21, figs. 38, 39, Table 5). One version on a panel at La Corona, Guatemala, now at the Art Institute of Chicago, enlists it to spell the title of a secondary lord. Here, the glyph, a truncated face, achieves an even greater stylization, to the extent that it closely resembles the sign at Naranjo (Art Institute of Chicago, Ada Turnbull Hertle Fund, 1965.407, glyph position H1; Schele and Miller 1986:pl. 101a). Thus, for the Naranjo ruler: AJ-TOOK’-TI’, aj-took’-ti’, “he of the flinty speech.” A tough-talking lord, ready for a scrap.

Figure 4 Naranjo

Figure 4   Alternative names of K’ahk’ Ukalaw Chan Chahk, Naranjo

A similar spelling, from a stairway block found at Anonal, near Ceibal, Guatemala (kindly supplied to me by Takeshi Inomata and Jessica Munson), shows a “fiery mouth,” K’ahk-ti’, as part of the name of the person buried (we presume) in a tomb (muknal) that had once existed behind this block. The TI’ is nearly identical to that on Naranjo Stela 19.

Figure 5

Figure 5  Spelling of K’ahk-ti’, Anonal, Guatemala (image supplied by Takeshi Inomata and Jessica Munson).

There is another lord with what may be the epithet. It derives from the site of Chinikiha, on a tributary of the Usumacinta River in Mexico (Figure 6). (Some years past, I had the good fortune to see it on display at the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City.) The name appears on a large panel—the glyphs are just under 30 cm in height—that records the raising of a headband to the forehead of a new lord (K’AL-?-HU’N tu-BAAH, Schmidt et al. 1998:623, #416; n.b., the dates are difficult to place because of a disconnection between the evident Kib day-sign and the coefficient of the month). In short, an accession to highest office. The name appears to be AJ-TOOK’-ti-TI’, Aj-took’-ti’?, with a probable syllabic reinforcement in the form of a rare version of the TI’ glyph. Regrettably, the panel is broken, and other elements may follow to alter the reading, but this is surely a historical figure. A similar spelling recently noted on a series of limpet shells pertains to gods, who may nonetheless have had ferocious or bellicose natures (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Gift of the Harry K. Wright Collection, 2015.479, and Houston Museum of Natural Science, Loan 48.1997.02; Looper and Polyukhovych 2016:figs. 3, 4, 5).

Figure 5 Chinikiha

Figure 6 Chinikiha Panel (rubbing by Merle Greene Robertson, enhanced here)

The recipients of such tough talk may also have been represented in Maya imagery. Two doleful captives appear on a cylinder vessel of Caana White Incised from Tonina, Chiapas (Becquelin and Taladoire 1990:fig.142a). The base and rim of the vase correspond to usual place for such people, pressed uncomfortably into small spaces, often under the feet of lords. Yet their earspools attract attention here. Each has a clear marking of flint, a recalcitrant material that is unlikely to have been the actual substance of the ornaments. In general, earspools relate to hearing, vocalization, and exhalation, as shown on many examples from the Early Classic period but applicable to later periods as well (Carter et al. 2012; Early Classic Earspools; see also Houston et al. 2004:figs. 4.6, 4.16, 4.17). Perhaps the captives at Tonina showed their warrior-status, their true being, in this way. Or they had to hear, continually and to their dismay, the martial language of victors.

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Figure 7. Incised cylinder vase from Tonina, Chiapas, Mexico (Becquelin and Taladoire 1990:fig. 142a). 

An ideal Maya ruler was not just splendid…he was, on occasion, cantankerous, proud in anger, best left appeased.

Acknowledgements  Takeshi Inomata and Jessica Munson generously shared their photo of the hieroglyphic stairway block from Anonal, Guatemala.


Becquelin, Pierre, and Eric Taladoire. 1990. Tonina, une cité Maya du Chiapas (Mexique). Études Mésoaméricaines, vol. VI, Tome IV. Centre d’Études Mexicaines et Centraméricaines, Mexico City.

Carrasco, Davíd, and Scott Sessions. 2007. “Middle Place, Labyrinth, and Circumambulation: Cholula’s Peripatetic Role in the Mapa de Cuahtinchan No. 2.” In Davíd Carrasco and Scott Sessions, eds., Cave, City, and Eagle’s Next: An Interpretive Journey through the Mapa de Cuahtinchan No. 2, 426–54. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Carter, Nicholas P., Rony E. Piedrasanta, Stephen D. Houston, and Zachary Hruby. 2012. Signs of Supplication: Two Mosaic Earflare Plaques from El Zotz, Guatemala. Antiquity 86:Project Gallery;

Chinchilla Mazariegos, Oswaldo. 2011. “The Flowering Glyphs: Animation in Cotzumalhuapa Writing.” In Elizabeth H. Boone and Gary Urton, eds., Their Way of Writing: Scripts, Signs, and Pictographies in Pre-Columbian America, 43–75. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Houston, Stephen, David Stuart, and Karl Taube. 2006. The Memory of Bones: Body, Being, and Experience among the Classic Maya. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Karttunen, Frances. 1992. An Analytical Dictionary of Nahuatl. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Laughlin, Robert M. 1988. The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of Santa Domingo Zinacantán. 3 vols. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology, Number 31. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.

Looper, Mathew, and Yuriy Polyukhovych. 2016. “Two Maya Inscribed Limpet Pendants.” Glyph Dwellers Report 42.

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2000. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Classic Maya. Thames & Hudson, London.

Pohl, John. n.d. John Pohl’s Mesoamerica. jpcodices/selden/index.html.

Schele, Linda, and Mary Miller. 1986. The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. Fort Worth: Kimbell Art Museum.

Schmidt, Peter, Mercedes de la Garza, and Enrique Nalda, eds. Maya. New York: Rizzoli.

Zender, Marc U. 2004. A Study of Classic Maya Priesthood. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Calgary, Alberta.

Analyzing an Ancient Maya Codex Fragment from Uaxactun

Archaeologists seldom ever recover physical evidence of ancient Maya and Mesoamerican manuscripts. One notable exception was the discovery many decades ago of a badly fragmented codex in a tomb at Uaxactun, Guatemala, dating to the Early Classic period. Its remains were recently analyzed by Nicholas Carter and Jeffrey Dobereiner, who report their results in the latest issue of the journal Antiquity.

Multispectral imaging of an Early Classic Codex Fragment from Uaxactun, Guatemala 

by Nicholas P. Carter and Jeffrey Dobereiner

Antiquity, vol. 90, issue 351, pp. 711-725 (June 2016)

ABSTRACT: Multispectral visual analysis has revealed new information from scarce fragments of a pre- Columbian document excavated in 1932 from a burial at Uaxactun, in Guatemala. The plaster coating from decomposed bark- paper pages of an Early Classic (c. AD 400– 600) Maya codex bear figural painting and possibly writing. Direct investigation of these thin flakes of painted stucco identified two distinct layers of plaster painted with different designs, indicating that the pages had been resurfaced and repainted in antiquity. Such erasure and re-inscription has not previously been attested for early Maya manuscripts, and it sheds light on Early Classic Maya scribal practices.

Link to article here

A Note on Spelling Days and Months

by David Stuart, The University of Texas at Austin

Readers of Maya Decipherment and of a great many recent articles may have noticed some inconsistency in the way I and others represent Calendar Round dates (those that mark a given day in the 260- and 365-day cycles).  For example, a date such as the one illustrated here (Figure 1) may be represented in one work as “8 Ajaw 8 Woh” and in another as “8 Ahau 8 Uo.”  I have to admit I’ve been very inconsistent in this practice myself, using the former type of spelling in a book on Maya time (Stuart 2012) yet the latter format in more recent writings. What gives? Here I would like to offer an explanation for this confusing situation, accounting for why I prefer old-school spellings over newer ones. I should also note this is really a personal preference that other students of Maya glyphs may not choose to adopt.

Figure 1. Date record (8 Ahau 8 Uo) from La Corona, Element 56. (Photo by D. Stuart)

In spelling the names of the ancient days and months, early Mayanists such as J. Eric S. Thompson (1950) and Sylvanus Morley simply replicated the forms they found in the early documents written in Yukatek Maya, employing a colonial-era orthography that was established by the very earliest Spanish students of Maya language of that time (Hanks 2010). The pervasive presence of such spellings in early vocabularies and indigenous documents exerted a great deal of influence on early Mayanists and on early epigraphic research. Indeed, until the 1970s and 80s, glyph studies reflected a certain degree of what might be called a “Yucatan bias” – not surprising given the relative wealth of printed source material on Yukatek as opposed to Ch’oloan and Tzeltalan languages.

Beginning in the late 1980s and especially in the 1990s, epigraphers backed away from these old conventions. Refinements in comparative linguistics and the direct participation of indigenous Mayan linguists led to more precise orthographies and standards across Mayan languages. Naturally epigraphers came to adopt these practices, and names for the days and months soon came to be represented just like any other term in Classic Mayan.

After many years of adopting what might seem a more accurate and linguistically sensitive orthography, I’ve now gone back to the old ways for writing dates, preferring for example to write “10 Chicchan 18 Uo” instead of “10 Chikchan 18 Woh.” The reason is quite simple. In most instances we have no direct evidence of how day names were pronounced in the Classic period. Was the first day Imix or Imox? Was the thirteenth day Ben, Been or something else? Ancient scribes wrote day names as logographs (word signs) and only rarely presented any phonetic indicators about pronunciation, thus leaving modern students with many questions, and employing the old Yukatek nomenclature should immediately make clear that these are not necessarily the ancient names for these time periods. I would never want a student to automatically assume that the fifth day was pronounced as Chikchan in eighth century Palenque; in fact it probably wasn’t.

Ancient names for the months are usually far more transparent because the corresponding glyphs are often true spellings. The month we call “Uo” (see the example above) is almost always spelled something along the lines of IK’-AT-ta for Ik’at, in Classic texts. In one intriguing  instance it is spelled wo-hi, reflecting an ancestral form of the Yukatek name used at the time of European contact. Not surprisingly even in ancient times there was some variation in these terms over time and space — another reason we should today employ a neutral system for referencing the days and months that doesn’t presume too much. Put another way, our opting to spell the month as Woh or Wooh instead of Chakat seems to preference one known Classic name over another, adding a new and rather messy layer to an already complex issue. Uo will do.

The way we transcribe hieroglyphs into Classic Mayan should be carefully considered, and in today’s rapidly maturing field of Maya epigraphy it almost always is. My point is that when we refer to Calendar Round dates and other calendar terms we cannot always know the original Classic Mayan terminology.  Even when we do, it’s clear that many names could show some regional and temporal variation.  It seems preferable therefore that we indicate such ambiguity by employing the old contact-period names and their spellings as neutral terms of reference, following a long-established convention. When we are certain of ancient names and terms — Ajaw and Chakat are solid reconstructions, for example — we can and should of course indicate those when transliterating and transcribing actual texts.

It is still important to realize that we are still in a relatively early stage in the true decipherment of the Maya hieroglyphic system, most of which took place only in the last three or so decades. It shouldn’t be surprising that Mayanists reassess and refine the standards we use for presenting epigraphic source material. It’s a continuous process.

Sources Cited:

Hanks, William F. Converting Words: Maya in the Age of the Cross. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Stuart, David. 2012. The Order of Days: Unlocking the Secrets of the Ancient Maya. Random House, New York.

Thompson, J. Eric S. 1950. Maya Hieroglyphic Writing: An Introduction. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Washington, D.C.

Xenophobia and Grotesque Fun


Stephen Houston, Simon Martin, and Karl Taube

In the Ming dynasty of China, one document attracted much amused interest. This was the Luochung Lu (臝蟲錄), a treatise on “naked creatures” or barbarians that sold widely at the time (Yuming He 2011:45­–46). Not surprisingly, readers and editors in the later Qing dynasty, itself of foreign origin, found it displeasing in parts.  Intended to be comprehensive, the Luochung Lu organized information about exotic humans into a zoological schema. People could be categorized like so many “bugs, worms, insects, reptiles,” including, as one set of “critters,” those living in the “Country of Japan” or “Dwarf Land,” a place much inclined, it seems, to banditry (Yuming He 2011:50).

The preface of one edition explains the nature of all such exotics: “[b]ecause they do not have ethical principles, love war and battles, take life lightly, and delight in death, they share the nature of tigers and wolves. Because they…are fond of licentiousness, just like the behavior of incestuous deer, their nature and disposition are truly distant from the human” (Yuming He 2011:71).

The pejorative categorization of foreigners is nothing new.  There is, in the recent past, a doubled xenophobia in references, by John Oliver, the comic, to “Drumpf.” Oliver ridicules a xenophobe for the odd-sounding origins of his family name. Or, in the nineteenth century, there are Thomas Nast’s monstrous representations of drunken Irishmen, seen by many in newspapers of the day. We can dig deeper, all the way back to New Kingdom Egypt. The difference is that these depictions mingle contempt for conquered or foreign peoples with an evident pleasure in their exotic beauty.  The canes in the tomb of Tutankhamun show a Nubian and an Asiatic, neither grotesque but obviously non-Egyptian (Figure 1). Tutankhamun probably needed these canes—the pharaoh was not, by latest report, a very healthy person. But even he could rub and squeeze these captives as though he had taken them himself.  A few centuries later, beautiful foreigners of all sorts marched, in terracotta form, across a frieze at Ramses III’s temple at Medinet Habu (Hölscher 1941).  The exotic can be hateful, repulsive but also, in artful hands, appealing and even sympathetic. Their rich clothing and ornament elevated their captor. Such people were worth conquering. Or, as in the Luochung Lu, they might be figures of fun.

Figures _Page_1.jpg

Figure 1   Tutankhamun’s walking stick, 18th dynasty, KV62, Egyptian Museum, Cairo (photograph copyright Kenneth Garrett).

Classic Maya relations with foreigners mostly concern Teotihuacan (see Stone 1989, Stuart 2000, and Taube 2003; contacts with Tajín civilization are grossly understudied, perhaps because the evidence of that contact is, by contrast, material and stylistic, without historical detail).  These references fall into three categories: (1) contemporary contacts between still-vital civilizations (Tikal Stela 31); (2) retrospective accounts of contact long after Teotihuacan went up in flames (Piedras Negras Panel 2); and (3) fusions of royal Maya identities with martial elements of a long-gone city (Bonampak Stela 3).  The positive, even prestigious features of that contact receive most of our attention, with good reason. The accounts are textual, vibrant, and imbued with personality.

Yet not all was positive in the Maya perception of Teotihuacanos. There are hints of xenophobia or, much like the Luochung Lu, a comical distaste for foreigners. The first is on the lid of an Early Classic vessel (Binoche and Giquello 2016:#44; also Berjonneau and Sonnery 1985:pl. 350; said to have been in a private collection in Brussels by 1960). The vase appears to be Balanza Black from northern Peten, Guatemala, but with bright polychromed stucco of an avian in Teotihuacan style. What attracts our attention is the head on the lid. Notably non-Maya, it has dark skin, a broad face with flattened head like so many Teotihuacan masks, matted hair sticking upright, snub nose and open mouth.  Grooves run between the brows, the eyes sit far into their orbits. The lips open slightly in song—in fact, the tossed-back position is more bestial than human.  Because of its date, this pot fits into category #1, evincing contact between a still-vital Teotihuacan and the Maya.

Figures _Page_2.jpg

Figure 2.  Stuccoed vessel, northern Peten, Guatemala, c. AD 500 (Binoche and Giquello 2016:#44).

A second image comes from some 200 years later, on a vase owned by a youth or ch’ok (K6315). There is repainting on parts of this vessel, which comes from the Ik’ kingdom near Lake Peten Itza in northern Guatemala. By this time, Teotihuacan was long past its prime. A Late Classic Maya ruler sits on his throne, conversing with a standing lord. To the front are three other figures. One, in full Maya dress, holds two rattles. Behind him prance two dancers, singers too, to judge from their open mouths. They are slathered in black paint from toe to thick, spikey hair. Hands splay out, the brows are bulbous, noses snubby or retroussé. Their heads and body twist in almost yogic discomfort. The awkward movements are anything but the norm in Maya dance postures. Aside from a red element in the short, dark feathers, the effect is bichromatic, a severe black-and-white. A Teotihuacan emblem, a k’an cross, repeats on their hip-cloths. The glyphs above are difficult to read, but the final element may be ch’o’, perhaps “rat” or “rodent.”


Figure 3a. Late Classic chocolate vessel with scene of dance, Ik’-kingdom, Peten,  Guatemala, c. AD 730 (Jay Kislak Foundation, Miami, K6315, photograph copyright Justin Kerr).

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Figure 3b.  Close-up (Jay Kislak Foundation, Miami, K6315, photograph copyright Justin Kerr).

A third dates to about the same time, consisting of, among other figurines, two boxing dwarves (Figure 4; Freidel, Rich, and Reilly 2010). One has broken-off limbs; the other, more complete figurine, shows a dwarf in blocking motion with its left hand extended. His right hand clutches a round sap or bludgeon. Otherwise identical, the dwarves differ in their headdresses. In Figure 4 one has a simple panache of feathers.  The example on the left displays unmistakably Teotihuacan head-gear, with goggle-eyes and a curving obsidian blade in the style of that city. Perhaps a Maya boxer was matched up against a “Teotihuacano,” in allusion to some broader conflict between east and west in Mesoamerica. To viewers, boxing dwarves were likely to be droll, a diversion at court.

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Figure 4.  Boxing dwarves from Burial 39, El Peru, Guatemala.

For the Classic Maya, Teotihuacan represented, according to most evidence, a refined and forceful polity. It was envied, remembered, extolled, and probably feared.  Yet these images offer another view. In them, Teotihuacanos are notably non-Maya, but unattractively, even repulsively so.  Their faces run counter to all Maya standards of beauty; their movements lurch in awkward, almost clownish twists—the motion comes close to Aztec depictions of the disabled, the “vagabonds” tossed cruelly from home and hearth (see the Codex Mendoza, folio 70r). If performers, were they thought comical? Were they ancient counterparts to stock roles like the Spaniard or lecherous bishop in Highland Maya festivities? Did they babble and speak unintelligibly like the bárbaros of ancient Greece?  At the least, in Maya minds, not all Teotihuacanos were majestic or regal. Some could be grotesque, laughable, to be mocked more than feared.


Justin Kerr showed his customary generosity by sending along a high-resolution image of a rollout.


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