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.

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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.

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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.


Binoche, Jean-Claude, and Alexandre Giquello. 2016. De l’ancienne collection Vanden Avenne, importante collection d’art précolumbien, Mercredi 23 Mars 2016. Paris: Drouot.

Berjonneau, Gérald, and Jean-Louis Sonnery. 1985. Rediscovered Masterpieces of Mesoamerica: Mexico-Guatemala-Honduras. Boulogne: Éditions ART 135.

Freidel, David, Michelle Rich, and F. Kent Reilly III. 2010. “Resurrecting the Maize King.” Archaeology 63: 42–45.

Hölscher, Uvo. 1941. The Mortuary Temple of Ramses III, Part I. Oriental Institute Publications, Vol. LIV. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stone, Andrea. 1989. “Disconnection, Insignia, and Foreign Expansion: eotihuacan and the Warrior Stelae of Piedras Negras.” In Richard A. Diehl and Janet C. Berlo, eds., Mesoamerican After the Decline of Teotihuacan AD 700-900, 153–172. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks.

Stuart, David. 2000. “‘The Arrival of Strangers’: Teotihuacan and Tollan in Classic Maya History.” In David Carrasco, Lindsay Jones, and Scott Sessions, eds., Mesoamerica’s Classic Heritage: From Teotihuacan to the Aztecs, 465–513. Niwot, CO: Colorado University Press.

Taube, Karl. 2003. “Tetitla and the Maya Presence at Teotihuacan.” In Geoffrey Braswell, ed., The Maya and Teotihuacan: Reinterpreting Early Classic Interaction, 273–314. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Yuming He. 2011. “The Book and the Barbarian in Ming China and Beyond: The Luo chong lu, or ‘Record of Naked Creatures’.” Asia Major 24: 43–85.


Chili Vessels

by David Stuart, The University of Texas at Austin

A great many inscribed Maya ceramics from the Classic period were marked according to their intended contents, with glyphic terms for various types of drinks, foods and other consumables. In this note I discuss a new reading for a glyph as “chili (powder or sauce).” I only know of two examples, but they shed a small bit of light on the use of some vessels and the culture of food and food preparation in Maya courtly life.

Figure 1. Chile sauce vessel in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Accession no. 1988.1264.
Figure 1. Chile sauce vessel in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Accession no. 1988.1264.

One vessel is now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and bears an unusual dedicatory text (Figures 1, 2).  It is labelled as a certain type of jay (ja-ya), a word that Kerry Hull and Alfonso Lacadena each deciphered some years ago as “clay vessel” (for example Mopan, jaay, “clay bowl” [Hofling 2011:207]). The full sequence of signs in reference to the object is a bit more complex, however, reading yi-chi-li ja-ya. This is then followed by a personal name for the vessel’s owner, named ? TI’-ku-yu, or ? Ti’ Kuy (“? is the mouth (or speech) of the owl”). He may have been a young lord or prince from the eastern Petén region.

MFA chili vessel text
Figure 2. Glyphs reading yi-chi-li ja-ya, y-ich-il jay, on the MFA vessel. (Note: the roll-out view of the text is only partial, omitting the final two glyphs.

At first glance it might be assumed that yi-chi-li is related to the very common and enigmatic term spelled ji-chi, found on a great many examples of the Dedicatory Formula in the section before the possessed noun. Here though it is surely different. The first indication of this the ja-ya glyph, which is noticeably unmarked for possession. Nearly all other glyphs for jay or jaay take the third-person possessive prefix u-, as in u jay, “his/her clay bowl.” Here, however, we would seem to have a base noun jay with an adjective beforehand, which in turn takes the prevocalic form (y-) of the third-person pronoun. The root of this possessed modifier is ich, followed by a –il suffix.

Throughout Ch’olan-Tzeltalan Mayan languages the word ich means “chili (chile).”  This is cognate to the Yucatec root iik, and both forms descend from the proto-Mayan form *iik (Kaufman 2003). It therefore seems reasonable to suppose that “chili” the intended meaning of the ich root in y-ichil jay, for “his chili vessel.” The form ich-il may incorporate a -Vl suffix that derives an adjective from a root noun, but it may also be a derivation to form another related noun, as in Yukatek iikil, “chili sauce.” The form of the MFA bowl suggests it could have been used for a liquid-based sauce, or it might also have been a container for powdered chile as well.

A slightly different uses of the the word ich occur in an incised text found on a sherd excavated at Calakmul (Figure 3).  Here we see a partial text in a somewhat unusual arrangement, reading down in a single column and then to the two glyphs that run outward to the right.

chili sherd. drawing
Figure 3. Drawing of glyphs on sherd excavated at Calakmul, marking its vessel as the “container for the chile of Yuknoom Ch’een, the Divine Kanul Lord” (Drawing by D. Stuart).

We can analyze the vertical portion of the text as:

yo-to-ti yi-chi yu-ku-no-ma CH’EEN-na K’UH-ka-KAN  
y-otoot y-ich Yuknoom Ch’een K’uhul Kanul Ajaw
“the container (literally ‘house’) for the chile of Yuknoom Ch’een, the divine Kanul lord.”

The word otoot is customarily translated as “house” or “dwelling” in most contexts, but when found on vessels it clearly serves as a metaphorical term for a “container”(Stuart 2005). A small flask bearing the glyphs for y-otooch may is a “tobacco snuff container,” for example. The owner’s name is familiar to many as that of Yuknoom Ch’een II, the powerful ruler of the Kaan or Kaanul dynasty who ruled from 636-686 A.D.

The sherd goes on to mention, in the two glyphs running toward the right, a phrase familiar from the MFA vessel discussed above:

i-chi-li ja-yi
ich-il jaay
“(it is) a chile (sauce?) vessel”

This seems to be an unusual reiteration of the pot’s contents, added in case the name-tag construction just beforehand wasn’t clear enough. In this instance the -il suffix on ich may simply derive the adjectival form before jaay, or alternatively we are looking at the derived noun ichil, “chili sauce,” as described above.  For now “(it is) a chili vessel” or “(it is) a chili sauce vessel” seem equally plausible readings of the two hieroglyphs.

Figure 4. Roll-out of a restored Late Classic vessel (K555) bearing a possible i-chi glyph at center of rim text. Photograph by Justin Kerr.

Another vase (K555) bears a text that may indicate chili as a possible ingredient in a cacao beverage (Figure 4). Two badly repainted glyphs on the rim of the vessel may identify its intended contents as i-chi ka-wa for ich kakaw, “chili cacao,” but this reading must remain highly tentative.

So in summary, two inscribed Classic Maya vessels can now be identified as as pots for chili, either as a powder a sauce that could be added to a wide variety of delicacies prepared in Maya royal households.  In light of the recent detection of chemical traces of chili in early ceramic vessels from Chiapa de Corzo (Gallaga Murrieta, et. al. 2013, Powis, et. al. 2013) it would be worthwhile to test the two vases described here for any similar signals of Capsicum, much in the same way chocolate and tobacco reissues have been chemically identified on other ancient ceramics (Hall, et. al., 1990; Zagorevski and Loughmiller-Newman 2012).

Note: My initial thoughts on the ich reading arose from discussions with Simon Martin, who kindly showed me an image of the Calakmul sherd back in 2008. The reading has circulated among some epigraphers for a few years now, cited in some public presentations and articles (Martin 2008, Martin 2009). Most recently it found its way into the recent publication by Gallaga Murrieta, et. al. (2013), a portion of which is also available online. This note on Maya Decipherment serves as the first overview of the epigraphic and linguistic arguments behind the decipherment.

Acknowledgements: My thanks go to Simon Martin and Guillermo Kantun for sharing images of the Calakmul sherd, a drawing of which was later published by Gallaga Murrieta, et. al. (2013:Fig. 5a). My own quick sketch of its glyphs should be considered preliminary.

References Cited:

Gallaga Murrieta, Emiliano, Terry G. Powis, Richard Lesure, Louis Grivetti, Heidi Kucera, Nilesh W. Gaikwad, Roberto López Bravo. 2013. El uso prehispánico de los chiles en Chiapas. Arqueologia Mexicana 130:74-79.

Hall, Grant D., Stanley M. Tarka Jr., W. Jeffrey Hurst, David Stuart and Richard E. W. Adams. Cacao Residues in Ancient Maya Vessels from Rio Azul, Guatemala. American Antiquity, 55(1): pp. 138-143.

Hofling, Charles Andrew. 2011. Mopan Maya-Spanish-English Dictionary. The University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Kaufman, Terrance. 2003. A Preliminary Mayan Etymological Dictionary.

Martin, Simon. 2008. Reading Calakmul: Epigraphy of the Proyecto Arqueológico de Calakmul 1994-2008. Paper presented at the VI Mesa Redonda de Palenque, November 16-21 2008, Palenque, Mexico.

___________. 2009. The Snake Kingdom: History and Politics at Calakmul and Related Courts. Presentation at the UT Maya Meetings, University of Texas at Austin, March 1, 2009.

Powys Terry G., Emiliano Gallaga Murrieta , Richard Lesure, Roberto Lopez Bravo, Louis Grivetti, Heidi Kucera, and Niles W. Gaikwad. 2013. Prehispanic Use of Chili Peppers in Chiapas, Mexico. PLoS ONE 8(11): e79013.

Stuart, David. 2005. Glyphs on Pots: Decoding Classic Maya Ceramics. Sourcebook for the 29th Maya Meetings at Texas, The University of Texas at Austin, March 11-16, 2005.

Zagorevski, D. V. and Loughmiller-Newman, J. A. 2012. The detection of nicotine in a Late Mayan period flask by gas chromatography and liquid chromatography mass spectrometry methods. Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry 26:403–411.

Classic Collaterals

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

Among the great surprises of epigraphy was the discovery of “parentage statements” by Christopher Jones (1977). With this breakthrough, relationships of descent between dynastic figures could be identified and strung into longer sequences. Yet much remains unclear. A more recent study questions the broad distribution of such relationships—was there only one, rather static Maya system (Ensor 2013:57-58)? There is always, too, a set of fundamental uncertainties. Did such terms correspond to real or fictive relations? Did they extend laterally or by generations?

Answering these questions is well-nigh impossible. But at least we have some new data. Royal kinship among the Classic Maya became a bit clearer, and another sprig added to the family tree, when David Stuart (1989:5–7, 8, fig. 7) noted a term for “maternal uncle” in glyphic texts at Yaxchilan. The possessed form, spelled yi-cha-ni, y-ichaan, descended, according to one reconstruction, from Common Mayan *ikaan (see Kaufman and Norman 1994:120). At Yaxchilan, this term for collateral kin most likely appeared for unusual dynastic reasons. The uncle probably served as an éminence grise, acquiring unusual prominence for someone of sajal (high noble) rank. His sister was the mother of the king, his nephew a mere teenager at time of accession to the throne. Under these circumstances, a calculating uncle could rise far indeed.

Two other bonds (or claims to them) can now be discerned in glyphic texts.

One is a rare and highly localized expression that is nonetheless repeated on nearly identical, molded texts from the Alta Verapaz of Guatemala (Pérez Galindo 2006; also Dieseldorff 1926–1933). It occurs in a little-studied corpus of glyphs on broken ceramics collected over a century ago by Erwin Dieseldorff. A German immigrant to Guatemala, Dieseldorff was the scion of a family with longstanding mercantile ties to Central America (Náñez Falcón 1970:36–63). His own business concerned coffee cultivation and export. (A descendant firm still operates, with an aptly named website, kaffeekup.com.) In the 1880s, travels with the explorer and linguist Karl Sapper awakened Dieseldorff’s interest in archaeology, leading him to do a grubbing sort of archaeology to the east of Cobán, Guatemala. There he found “a series of broken idols during the excavation of a temple (cúe) in Chajcar, to the east of San Pedro Carchá, Alta Verapaz” (Pérez Galindo 2006:9). Evidently, most if not all came from a single building.

I first saw this collection of texts in 1984 while exploring the stygian basement of the Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología (MUNAE) in Guatemala City. In a later, well-documented study, Mónica Pérez Galindo [2006:fig. 35], then employed at the MUNAE, presented an admirable record of that collection, noting, as part of her research, that other such glyphs occur in the (former) Museo Príncipe Maya in Cobán. As I understand it, that collection has since passed to the Fundación Ruta Maya.

Glyphs on these fragments range from pseudo-writing to legible signs (Figure 1). Many refer to literate skill. There are glyphs for “raising up” (t’abayi) and “molding/carving/shaping” (the so-called lu-“BAT,” which eludes, I believe, any confident reading), SAK-wo-jo, sak woj, “white, pure signs,” tz’i-ba, tz’ihb, “painting”; ma-xi, ma’x, “spider monkey; AJAW-wa, ajaw, “lord”; u-wi-WINIK, u winik, “his man, servant”; ya-na-bi-IL SAK-CHUWEEN, probably specifying the “owner” or master of a particular sculptor. There is even a Calendar Round, 10 Imix 19 Yaxk’in, perhaps assignable to, a date close to a momentous Period Ending and the “end of Yaxk’in” position that fascinated the Classic Maya (I have long wondered if this had something to do with seasonal observances, such as the beginning of the rainy season; for images, see Pérez Galindo 2006). To judge from style, the general date of these texts is at the very end of the Late Classic period, extending into the 9th century AD.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Legible texts in the Dieseldorff Collection, MUNAE (top row, photographs by Stephen Houston, 1984; bottom row, photographs by Mónica Pérez Galindo; not to scale but widest fragment is ca. 4-5 cm).

Several molded texts embellish small ceramic thrones. These votive objects measure—at least in surviving elements—16 cm long, 12.5 wide, and about 14 high (Grube and Gaida 2006:#24). The presence in MUNAE of broken-off embouchures, all of about the right size for edge breaks on some thrones, raises the chance that the effigies were in part musical. They could have been “performed” as whistles with keening notes. Otherwise, their dimensions, well beyond that of most figurines, suggests a more steady repose, perhaps in small shrines or other places of cult veneration. A few bear vestiges of paint. There are bold yellows, intense Maya blues, all post-fire. At first glance, several go so far as to resemble plumbate, so-called because of its similarity to lead-based glazes. Their surfaces glisten with a metallic sheen. But that appearance is more likely to result from spot scorching of post-fire pigments, a point I have discussed with plumbate experts like Hector Neff and Katie Williams.

At one time, all thrones had at least one seated figure on top, perhaps a young lord, of which fragments occur in Berlin’s Museum für Völkerkunde, the other repository for many of Dieseldorff’s pieces (Figure 2). To the side, almost at the top and front corner, sits a male companion in cross-legged, “tailor” position. Shattered pieces of larger figures are in the Dieseldorff collection, and it seems reasonable to link them to the thrones. Each side of the thrones shows a seated figure. Both have fire or solar attributes. The long sides feature a blunt-nosed person. Bordering on the grotesque, he leans over with a double-headed centipede “bar.” As noted by Karl Taube, the Classic Maya equated centipedes with beams of sun-light, a trait readily seen in the ancestral solar cartouches on stelae at Yaxchilan, Mexico. The figure wears a distinct headband with extruded curls. These traits help to identify a ch’ajoom,“incenser” (Scherer and Houston 2014). The shorter side of the throne, its figure now in profile, has the solar, centipede attributes highlighted in the depiction of 18 Ubaah K’awiil on Copan Stela A. The spear and shield hint that this is a more martial aspect of the Sun God. Heat and fire inflect the iconography. The later indications of scorching point to similar emphases in the ritual use of the thrones.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Sides of fragmentary ceramic throne collected by Dieseldorff, Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, Ident.-Nr IV Ca 21058 (photograph, Grube and Gaida 2006:#24).

Most relevant here, however, are the molded glyphs below the ch’ajoom figure: ba tz’a-ma yi-cha-k’a SAK-ki-nu-chi k’u K’UH ? (Figure 2). The first glyph is surely baah tz’am, “head [person of the] throne,” a title elucidated in other contexts by Marc Zender. The reference reveals an unambiguous tie to the molded throne. What follows is y-ichak’ along with a second name. Widespread in Mayan languages, ichak’ corresponds to “nephew” or even “cousin,” with attestations in all Ch’olan languages (Kaufman 2003:120). The unusual spelling of sak, which implies vowel complexity, is harder to understand, although a comparable spelling occurs on a Tepeu 1 plate in the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art (#G83.1.120, Zender 2000:1044, fig. 10, fn. 7). The k’u syllable may reinforce the term for “god,” k’uh, but that is less clear. As on other texts in the assemblage, the strong degree of syllabicity draws our attention. Logographs exist, yet the overall tendency is to emphasize phonic transparency. In a comment to me, David Stuart wonders if rarer terms such as ichak’ needed to be spelled out precisely because they were uncommon. By contrast, logographs served as effective markers of parent-child relationships. It may also be that a high level of syllabicity reflected the challenges of recording a Ch’olan/Ch’olti’an language–the local speakers may have been Q’eqchi’.

Figure 3

Figure 3. Close-up of throne text in the MUNAE (photograph, Stephen Houston, 1984).

A second collateral relation occurs on a Tepeu 1 text from the area of Tikal (K5452, Figure 3). Dating to the reign of Wak Chan K’awiil (fl. AD 537-562), it appears on a pot that may record a rare example of multiple possession. The second owner is a royal youth, with a less likely possibility that this name simply referred to the first. (In my view, the presence of a full, second “dedicatory” text makes this unlikely.) What follows the name of Wak Chan K’awiil is yi-TAHN-na. I interpret this as spelling y-ihta’n, “her brother,” preceding the titles of a female. Ihta’n is the possessed form of a word reconstructed by some scholars as “man’s sister” (e.g., Kaufman and Norman 1985:121). However, in Ch’orti’, the term was “used between a man and a woman and vice-versa, but not between men nor between women” (my translation Pérez Martínez, García, Martínez, and López 1996:66). “Cross-sex sibling” fits the reference on the vase.

Figure 4

Figure 4. Vase from area of Tikal, Guatemala, c. AD 550 (K5452, photograph copyright Justin Kerr).

Such expressions are useful, even intriguing. But their rarity is obvious. Explicit labeling of collaterals seemed of little interest to scribes of the Classic period.

Postscript, Nov. 21, 2016:  Simon Martin urged me to study a higher resolution version of K5452, which I have just obtained from Justin Kerr. The sign in front of TAHN is, I now believe, an unusual version of 1, preceded by an equally rare u sign (note its resemblance to the u in spellings of u tz’i ba li, all free-standing glyphs). This would make the woman on the vase the mother of the first owner, her relation being specified by u 1-TAHN-na.



Dieseldorff, Erwin P. 1926–1933. Kunst und Religion der Mayavölker im Alten Und Heutigen Mittelamerika. 3 vols. Berlin/Hamburg: J. Springer.

Ensor, Bradley E. 2013. Crafting Prehispanic Maya Kinship. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Grube, Nikolai, and Maria Gaida. 2006. Die Maya: Schrift und Kunst. Berlin: SMB-DuMont.

Jones, Christopher. 1977. Inauguration Dates of Three Late Classic Rulers of Tikal, Guatemala.” American Antiquity 42:28-60.

Kaufman, Terrence S. 2003. Preliminary Mayan Etymological Dictionary. Report to the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. On-line resource at http://www.famsi.org/reports/01051/pmed.pdf.

Kaufman, Terrence S., and William M. Norman. 1984. “An Outline of Proto-Cholan Phonology, Morphology, and Vocabulary.” In John S. Justeson and Lyle Campbell, eds., Phoneticism in Mayan Hieroglyphic Writing, 77-166. Publication No. 9. Albany: Institution for Mesoamerican Studies, State University of New York at Albany.

Náñez Falcón, Guillermo. 1970. Erwin Paul Dieseldorff, German Entrepreneur in the Alta Verapaz of Guatemala, 1889-1937. Ph.D. dissertation, Tulane University.

Pérez Galindo, Mónica. 2006. Colección Dieseldorff: Corpus de cerámica del Clásico Terminal proveniente de Moldes. Report to the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. http://www.famsi.org/reports/03074/03074PerezGalindoImages.pdf).

Pérez Martínez, Vitalino, Federico García, Felipe Martínez, and Jeremías López. 1996. Diccionario Ch’orti’, Jocotán, Chiquimula. Antigua Guatemala: Proyecto Lingüístico Francisco Marroquín.

Scherer, Andrew, and Stephen Houston. 2015. “Blood, Fire, Death: Covenants and Crises among the Classic Maya.” In Smoke, Flames, and the Human Body in Mesoamerican Ritual Practice, organized by Vera Tiesler and Andrew Scherer, Dumbarton Oaks Fall Symposium, Oct. 9.

Stuart, David. 1997. Kinship Terms in Mayan Inscriptions. In Martha J. Macri and Anabel Ford, eds., The Language of Maya Hieroglyphs, 1–11. Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute, San Francisco.

Zender, Marc. 2000. “A Study of Two Uaxactun-Style Tamale-Serving Vessels.” In Barbara and Justin Kerr, eds., The Maya Vase Book: A Corpus of Rollout Photographs of Maya Vases, 1038–1055. New York: Kerr Associates.

The Woman in Wood: A Reencounter with Tikal’s Queen from Temple II


by James Doyle (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) and Stephen Houston (Brown University)

In 2014, we investigated a long-lost fragment of a wooden lintel, probably from Tikal, that is now stored in Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The fragment may have derived from one of three lintels in Temple II. Two lintels of that pyramid are missing. But the third, Lintel 2, which spanned its middle doorway, was documented by Teobert Maler, Herbert Spinden, and the Tikal project of the University of Pennsylvania (Coe, Shook, and Satterthwaite 1962:35; Doyle and Houston 2014:143; Jones and Satterthwaite 1982:100, Fig. 71). Lintel 2 survived only in part, in two beams. Yet enough remained to pose a mystery. Was the surviving figure, a woman, the main person in the carving? Or did she stand to the side as a peripheral character?

This was important. The dominant presentation of a royal lady would be unprecedented in the Tikal lintels. It would also lend weight to the argument, made long ago by Clemency Coggins (1975:455, 549-551) and Mary Miller (1985:8), that Temple II housed the remains of a royal consort. That lady would have been the wife of “Ruler A” (Jasaw Chan K’awiil), whose spectacular tomb lay under Temple I, just across from Temple II. For Miller, the Great Plaza at Tikal represented more than a set of buildings. It crystallized social relationships. Consorts “faced” one another, the male to the east, the female to the west. Implicitly, too, a royal son, a king, was there to bury the parents. This would have been “Ruler B” (Yik’in Chan K’awiil), whose final resting spot is still subject to debate. The usual candidate, the gargantuan Temple IV, seems not to have had such a tomb (unpublished excavations by the Centro Universitario de Petén [CUDEP] have penetrated deeply into the building). But there is another option, the extraordinarily rich Burial 196. This lies under Str. 5D-73, some 30 m to the south of Temple II. Notionally at least, his tomb would triangulate with those of his parents’.

There is new evidence. In December 2015, we were able to view the original beam of Temple II Lintel 2, now in the collections of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.


Figure 1. (a) “Tikal: Fragment of Carved Beams from Lintel of Doorway Leading to Second Chamber of Temple II,” photograph by Teobert Maler (1911: Plate 18-2).

Maler had photographed the two fragments of Temple II Lintel 2 at Tikal itself. The second, less well-preserved piece went missing by the time Spinden arrived to collect the carvings for the AMNH (Figure 1). The beams taken to New York, including another from Tikal Structure 10, were on joint display in the 1920s–a photograph exists to prove it. Only the Temple II beam remained on exhibit, however, when the Structure 10 beams were lent for an exhibit at the Museum of Primitive Art in 1966. In response to a loan request, Gordon Ekholm wrote on January 20, 1966, that the “larger one is in storage and the smaller one has been on exhibit.” In her response, Julie Jones (curator emerita from the Metropolitan Museum, then assistant curator of the MPA) confirmed that “the one in the exhibition hall is from Temple II.” In the records of the Museum of Primitive Art exhibition, “Tikal 1956-1966: Excavations in Maya Guatemala,” the Structure 10 lintel is the sole carving to appear in the checklist and installation photos (Figure 2).


Figure 2. “Tikal 1956-1966: Excavations in Maya Guatemala,” Museum of Primitive Art Exhibition 41, Installation Photo. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Museum of Primitive Art-Curatorial Files (AR.1999.3.5).

Thanks to the staff at the AMNH – Senior Scientific Assistant Sumru Aricanli and collections manager John Hansen – we were able to view and re-photograph the Temple II beam. This may be the first time in 50 years that the lintel has been examined by specialists. The surviving fragment is exceptionally well-preserved, and the surface retains a high polish that must have been achieved by applying an abrasive. Close inspection reveals that the ends of the beam had been burned in order to remove the slab from the doorway (Figure 3), a horrifying process described by Maler (1911:43). The beam had been sawn in two pieces of equal length, presumably by Spinden’s team. This would have eased transport out of the site, which could only have been done by mules. A portion of the surface from the lower right-hand corner, depicting part of the figure’s garment, had suffered a loss between the time of Maler’s photograph and the lintel’s arrival at the AMNH. The relief of the carving is 3-4 cm in some places. In several areas, the carvers had blocked out the raised portion and polished or finished the area around it first; only then did they hack into the raised portion for finer detail (Figure 3). This practice is also known on stone carvings at Palenque and elsewhere. A final detail is that the burned ends of the beam show the annular striations of the chicozapote (Manilkara zapote) from which the slab was carved. The inner core was at the center of this beam, its outer rings on its edges, suggesting that a medium-sized log—the wood is staggeringly heavy and unwieldy—had been split across its diameter and then trimmed down (see Figure 3; Ralph 1965: Fig. 2). The AMNH preserves many samples of wood shaved from the lintel. In the 1950s these had been prepared, it seems, for Linton Satterthwaite and colleagues to perform early C14 assays at the University Museum in Philadelphia. The samples hold out the promise for further, more refined testing.



Figure 3. (above) Detail of charred superior end of the beam showing tree rings (below). Detail of outline for deep relief carving. Courtesy of the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History (30.0/ 2955). Photos by James Doyle.


The carver was masterful. The beam depicts a female wearing an elaborately woven textile dress, a quetzal-feather headdress, and fine jade regalia. The headdress also contains knotted cloth and vegetal elements, as well as shorter, spotted feathers. The jade collar consists of plaques, beads, and masquettes. A representation of what could have been a jade hu’n element appears halfway down the body (Figure 4). The garment itself is highly complex. There are alternating fields of geometric brocades and elements of the sky band, including so-called “Zip-monsters,” angular muyal glyphs as symbolic clouds, along with a field that contains a Tlaloc-like visage close to the hem. The Tlaloc designs recall the Central Mexican imagery inserted by woodworkers into a portrait of Jasaw Chan K’awiil in the lintel of Temple I across the Great Plaza.


Figure 4. Details of the textile: (left) Hu’n jewel, (right) Tlaloc. Courtesy of the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History (30.0/ 2955). Photos by James Doyle.

The lady’s identity is impossible to confirm without an accompanying text or a tomb. Most likely, she was the person we now call Ix Lachan Unen Mo’ (“Lady 12 Baby Macaws”), the wife of Jasaw Chan K’awiil, the ruler of Tikal from AD 682-734 (Coggins 1975:455, 549-551; Martin and Grube 2008:46; Miller 1985:8). The late 7th– or early 8th-century date for the lintel accords well with the radiocarbon dates from Temple I’s lintels. Researchers found that one of the beams from Lintel 3 was cut and carved between AD 658-696 (Kennett et al. 2013:4; cf. Satterthwaite and Ralph 1960; Ralph 1965).


Figure 5. Ankle of Ix Lachan Unen Mo’. Courtesy of the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History (30.0/ 2955). Photos by James Doyle.

In the original publication by Pennsylvania (Coe, Shook, and Satterthwaite 1961: Fig. 17), the authors reconstructed the lintel with the help of a new photograph. The damage after Maler’s time was clear, as evidenced by surface losses and the bisecting saw cut. In this photo, too, the ankle is clearly visible where it was not in the original plate from Maler’s publication (Figure 5). Yet William Coe, a superlative draftsman, seems to have relied exclusively on Maler’s photo for his rendering. In it, the queen’s ankle is no longer visible.


Fig. 6. Tikal Str. 5D-2-1st (Temple II): Li. 2., modified by James Doyle after drawing by William R. Coe (Jones and Satterthwaite 1982: Fig. 71), Courtesy of the Penn Museum.

As we confirmed on our recent visit, the queen’s left foot does indeed emerge from the hem of the skirt below the Tlaloc image. What’s more, the ankle and instep of the foot are clearly distinguishable in the relief of the carving, the left foot turning outward (Figure 6). This indicates that the queen stood with splayed feet, a pose used by figures at the center of a composition. Cloaked in sky imagery, the lady was thus the main image of the lintel. Most likely, Temple II pertained to her, and, as Coggins and Miller suggested, the pyramid needs to be understood as a gendered feature of Tikal’s ancient landscape.


Special thanks to Dr. Charles Spencer, Curator of Mexican and Central American Archaeology, and Sumru Aricanli of the AMNH for facilitating a viewing of the lintel and allowing permission to publish the study photographs here.


Coe, William R., Edwin M. Shook, and Linton Satterthwaite

1961 Tikal Report No. 6, The Carved Wooden Lintels of Tikal. The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.


Coggins, Clemency C.

1975 Painting and Drawing Styles at Tikal: An Historical and Iconographic Reconstruction. Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Fine Arts, Harvard University, Cambridge.


Jones, Christopher, and Linton Satterthwaite

1982 Tikal Report No. 33 Part A, The Monuments and Inscriptions of Tikal: The Carved Monuments. The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.


Kennett, Douglas, Irka Hajdas, Brendan J. Culleton, Soumaya Belmecheri, Simon Martin, Hector Neff, Jaime Awe, Heather V. Graham, Katherine H. Freeman, Lee Newsom, David L. Lentz, Flavio S. Anselmetti, Mark Robinson, Norbert Marwan, John Southon, David A. Hodell, and Gerald H. Haug

2013 Correlating the Ancient Maya and Modern European Calendars with High-Precision AMS 14C Dating. Scientific Reports 3 (1597).


Maler, Teobert

1911 Explorations in the Department of Peten, Guatemala. Tikal. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum, vol. V, No. I, pp. 3–91. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.


Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube

2008 Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens (2nd ed.). Thames & Hudson, New York.


Miller, Mary E.

1985    Tikal, Guatemala: A Rationale for the Placement of the Funerary Pyramids. Expedition 27(3): 6–15


Ralph, Elizabeth K.

1965 Review of Radiocarbon Dates from Tikal and the Maya Calendar Correlation Problem. American Antiquity 30(4): 421–427.


Satterthwaite, Linton, and Elizabeth K. Ralph

1960 New Radiocarbon Dates and the Maya Correlation Problem. American Antiquity 26(2): 165–184.