Birth of the Sun: Notes on the Ancient Maya Winter Solstice

by David Stuart, University of Texas at Austin

With the recent passing of the winter solstice it seems a good time to revisit some ideas I penned in 2009, regarding a possible ancient Maya record of the shortest day of the year. This appears on Zacpeten, Altar 1, an inscribed disc-shaped stone discovered broken and re-used as blocks in Postclassic masonry (Pugh, et. al. 1998) (Figure 1). It was originally dedicated on or near the important period ending, in the year 830 C.E.. The design of the altar is a carefully conceived cosmogram emphasizing four lateral points around a circle and center-point, a layout that echoes the familiar Mesoamerican model of space-time. The 36 hieroglyphs are arranged as a play on the important cosmological numbers 20 and 4 (20 + 4 x 4). And, as I argued some years ago, its self-contained text just might present the only Classic Maya description of the solar “birth” at winter solstice.

Zacpeten Alt 1
Figure 1. Zacpeten, Altar 1, top. Drawing by David Stuart.

One date is written on the altar: 8 Caban seating of Cumku. In the standard GMT correlation (584283) this falls on December 21, 809, whereas on the newer Martin-Skidmore correlation (584286) is falls on December 24 (Martin and Skidmore 2012). Either way, it falls on or reasonably close to the winter solstice.

Zacpeten altar opening
Figure 2. Portion of the Altar 1 text with possible solstice date, birth verb, and mountain location.

A few details of the inscription suggest that the text describes the cosmic rebirth of the sun, later linking this cosmological event to the life of a historical ruler. The main event, recorded after the CR date, is birth (Figure 2). Here though we see the unique addition of locational information, recorded in several hieroglyphs after the birth verb (no record of a historical birth states location in this way, as far as I’m aware). The place(s) mentioned strongly suggests a mythological setting, beginning with the glyph immediately following “birth,” a prepositional phrase based on the hieroglyph often described as the “portal” sign or “centipede’s maw” (see the fourth hieroglyph in Figure 2). This logogram is perhaps read as WAY, with the related meanings “chamber, basin, cistern” (Lacadena, personal communication 2003; see Grube, Lacadena and Martin 2003) (not to be confused with the very different term wahy, referring to demonic, transforming wizards and animal-spirits).

emerging sun
Figure 3. Drawing of carved bone showing sun K’inch Ajajw emerging from or consumed by the night (ak’ab) via the centipede’s maw. Drawing by K. Taube (from Taube 2003, Fig. 4c).

It has long been known that this “portal” sign represents a vertical hole or cavity in the earth. Some contexts suggest that it has architectural associations as well, referring to inner vaulted chambers of buildings (Carrasco and Hull 2002; Carrasco 2012). I believe its essential meaning is as a vertical hole in the earth — a planting hole, a chultun-like waterhole, or perhaps (in Yucatan) an open-air cenote. It refers to places that hold water, from where plants grow, and by extension as spatial and temporal points of emergence. Its common presence in the hieroglyph for the month Uayeb is probably related to this general idea, reading in full U-WAY?-HAAB, perhaps for the place or point of the year’s emergence and beginning. In iconography the sun god is sometimes shown emerging from such a space, depicted in its animate form as the jaws of a bony snake or centipede (see Taube 2003:411) (Figure 3). These probably are in reference to the sun’s rise from (or descent into) the earth. Long ago I argued that images of emergence from open maws of serpents and bony snakes — one of the most common tropes in Maya iconography —  were visual metaphors for birth (Stuart 1988). Here on the Zacpeten altar the “maw” or “portal” sign thus marks the location of the birth event, a usage related to these same emergence themes.

The altar’s text goes on to specify a place called K’inich Pa… Witz, “the solar ? hill,” which is described as a chan ch’een, “sky-cave,” a spatial term that I believe describes ritual centers and nodes of ceremonial activity (Stuart 2014). The choice of terms and phraseology may again point away from a typical record of a ruler’s birth, and more towards an event of religious or cosmological importance. If we consider the solar references, the “maw,” and the date recorded, it seems natural to think that the Zacpeten altar shows a Classic Maya record of a winter solstice, using language that describes the event as the birth of the sun from the earth.

Nevertheless there seems to exist an important historical dimension to this inscription as well. After the record of the solar birth at the “maw” and mountain we find the name of a local ruler who ruled over the Mutul dynasty in the later years of the Classic period, sharing the same emblem glyph we know from the ruling family of Tikal.  The names of his mother and father complete the circular text. The father is named Bahlaj Chan K’awiil, identical to the name of the noted ruler of Dos Pilas (also a claimant to the Mutul title) who ruled in the seventh century.

The protagonist’s name looks to to begin as K’inich ? Tahn, and follows directly after the location statement. It’s probably significant that he carries the same solar honorific k’inich in his name, indicating that the sun is embodied either as the living king or as a recently deceased royal ancestor.  Yet there’s some ambiguity in all of this since we’re unsure of the name of the living king at the time the altar was dedicated. It remains possible that the altar records a local king’s historical birth which happened to fall on or near a winter solstice, prompting its description as an event of cosmic renewal. In any case, there seems to be something more “cosmic” going on here than we would expect with a straightforward historical record of a king’s birth.

As noted in my 2009 paper, the altar’s possible mention of a solar birth from a maw-like “portal” may offer a textual parallel of one of the most famous images in Maya art and iconography – the sarcophagus lid of K’inich Janab Pakal (Figure 4). This scene also features a figurative birth, with Pakal centrally placed as both infant (embodying the patron deity Unen K’awiil) and as adult at the moment of his resurrection as the rising eastern sun. He also appears at the base the large cruciform tree (the “shiny jewel tree”) that is emerges from the centipede’s maw (the earthly “portal”) at the lower part of the scene, enclosing the front-facing skull that I believe represents as an animate seed from which the tree emerges. The skull is in turn is conflated with the solar k’in bowl that we other know as an incense burner or sacrificial container, as Taube (1998) has demonstrated (many elaborate clay  incense burners are, I believe, conceived of as “seeds” that “sprout” through emanating smoke). It is surely significant that the k’in bowl beneath Pakal serves as the hieroglyph for EL, “to emerge, come out,”which in turn is the basis for the word and hieroglyph for “east,” elk’in. In sum, the infantilized Pakal, in death, is the newborn manifestation of Palenque’s patron deity, shown rising as the eastern sun and ascending into the sky.

Palenque sarcophagus
Figure 4. The lid of the sarcophagus of K’inch Janab Pakal, perhaps showing his cosmic rebirth as the eastern sun. Photograph by Merle Greene Robertson.
Palenque sarcophagus top
Figure 5. View of the front (southern) edge of Pakal’s sarcophagus, showing its record of birth and death highlighted in red paint, in direct relation to the scene atop the lid. Photograph by David Stuart.

Pakal’s (re)birth and death are conceptually fused in this design, an interpretation that is bolstered by the text on the viewer’s “front” (or southern) edge of the sarcophagus (Figure 5), which may serve as a sort of caption for the scene atop the lid. This glyph sequence is integrated to the larger text around the perimeter which records a long series of deaths (och bih, “road-enterings”) of Pakal’s prominent ancestors  (see Lounsbury 1974; Josserand 1995; Stuart and Stuart 2008; Hopkins and Josserand 2012). However, when viewed from the doorway of the tomb this band of glyphs also can serve as a self-contained statement about the scene and its protagonist. The inscription first gives a chronological statement of Pakal’s lifespan, from birth to road-entering, and then notes how his passing “follows the actions” of his many deceased ancestors (mam). The longer text around the perimeter of the lid provides the background and larger story, but the band of glyphs on this southern edge – what Josserand rightly called the ”peak” of the overall written narrative — operates on its own in conjunction with the scene. The king is born and the king dies, and the iconography emphasizes the conceptual unity of these two life events.

What isn’t so clear on the sarcophagus is an obvious connection to the winter solstice. Pakal entered his own path in late August of 683, in the height of summer, as the time of the sun’s daily presence was visibly waning.  Other inscribed dates surrounding Pakal’s death and the dedication of the tomb and temple offer no obvious connection, either.  However, it is perhaps important to point out Alonso Mendez’s interesting analyses of solar alignments associated with the Temple of the Inscriptions, elaborating on a connection Linda Schele first posited many years ago. As Alonso recently notes, the sun sets directly behind the Temple of the Inscriptions on the winter solstice when viewed from the doorway of House E of the Palace, Pakal’s very own throne room, built in the early years of his reign. While subtle, I suspect that solstitial symbolism is inherent in the design of both the funerary building and in the iconography of the tomb.

CRC sun deity
Figure 6. Detail of Caracol, Stela 6, naming chan u bih k’in, “four are the paths of the sun.” Drawing by D. Stuart.

Of course the winter solstice is widely viewed across the globe as the rebirth of the sun, the point at which is begins its annual journey to gain heat and strength. The Maya are no different in this view (Gossen 1974:39). Among the Kiche’ Maya, the solstices are in addition considered as “changes of path,” or xolkat be, a term that emphasizes the sun’s new movement rather than its stationary position (Tedlock 1982: 180). The sarcophagus lid presents an image of the sun’s eastern rise and perhaps also of its new solsticial movement in the winter months. It is perhaps no coincidence then that the event repeated throughout the lid’s inscription is och bih, “road- or path-entering,” a common Classic Maya expression for death. The connection to between roads and the solstices is also indicated by the fascinating mention of chan u bih k’in, “four are the roads of the sun,” in the iconography of Caracol’s Stela 6 (Figure 6). This may be a reference to the four solsticial points on the horizon (see Stuart 2011:82).

Getting back to the main point of my discussion, the Zacpeten altar has a very suggestive inscription with a date that falls on or near the solstice, with a text commemorating birth and a solar protagonist. And like most Maya texts that might pique the interest of archaeo-astronomers, the real point wasn’t about detached observations of solar or astral phenomena — rather it was about how these cosmological structures and movements pertained to the kings who physically and conceptually embodied them.

References Cited

Carrasco, Michael D. 2012. Epilogue:Portal, Turtles and Mythic Places. In Maya Imagery, Architecture, and Activity: Space and Spatial Analysis in Art History, ed. by K. R. Spencer and M. D. Werness-Rude, pp. 374-412. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Gossen, Gary. 1974. Chamulas in the World of the Sun. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Grube, Nikolai, Alfonso Lacadena and Simon Martin, 2003. Chichen Itzá and Ek Balam. Terminal Classic Inscriptions from Yucatan. Notebook for the XXVII Hieroglyphic Forum at Texas, March, 2003.

Hopkins, Nicholas A., and J. Kathryn Josserand. 2012. The Narrative Structure of Chol Folktales: One Thousand Years of Literary Tradition. In Parallel Worlds: Genre, Discourse and Poetics in Contemporary, Colonial and Classic Maya Literature, ed. By K. M. Hull and M. D. Carrasco, pp. 21-44. University Press of Colorado, Boulder.

Hull, Kerry M., and Michael D. Carrasco. 2004. Mak-“Portal” Rituals Uncovered: An Approach to Interpreting Symbolic Architecture and the Creation of Sacred Space Among the Maya. In Continuity and Change: Maya Religious Practices in Temporal Perspective, ed. by D. Graña Behrens, Nikolai Grube, Christian M. Prager, Krauke Sachse, Stefanie Teufel, and Elisabeth Wagner, pp. 134–140. Acta Mesoamericana Vol. 14. Saurwein Verlag Markt Schwaben.

Josserand, Kathryn. 1995. Participant Tracking in Hieroglyphic Texts: Who was that masked Man? Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 5(1):65-89

Lounsbury, Floyd G. 1974.The Inscription of the Sarcophagus Lid at Palenque, in Primera Mesa Redonda de Palenque, Part II, ed. by M. G. Robertson, pp. 5-20. Robert Louis Stevenson School, Pebble Beach.

Martin, Simon and Joel Skidmore. 2012. Exploring the 584286 Correlation between he Maya and European Calendars. The PARI Journal 13(2):3-16.

Pugh, Timothy W., Rómulo Sánchez Polo, Leslie G. Cecil, Don S. Rice y Prudence M. Rice. 1998. Investigaciones Postclásicas e Históricas en Petén, Guatemala: Las excavaciones del proyecto Maya Colonial en Zacpeten. En XI Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala, 1997, ed. by J.P. Laporte y H. Escobedo, pp.903-914. Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala.

Stuart, David. 1988.Blood Symbolism in Maya Iconography. In Maya Iconography, edited by E. P. Benson and G. G. Griffin, pp. 175-221. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

__________. 2009. The Symbolism of Zacpeten, Altar 1. In The Kowoj: Identity, Migration, and Geopolitics in Late Postclassic Petén, Guatemala, ed. by Prudence M. Rice and Don S. Rice, pp. 317-326. University Press of Colorado, Boulder.

__________. 2011. The Order of Days: Unlocking the Secrets of the Ancient Maya.Random House, New York.

__________. 2014. Earth-caves and Sky-caves: Intersections of Landscape, Territory and Cosmology among the Classic Maya. Lecture presented at the Mesoamerica Center Colloquium, Department of Art and Art History, The University of Texas at Austin, September 25, 2014.

Stuart, David, and George E. Stuart. 2008. Palenque: Eternal City of the Ancient Maya. Thames and Hudson, London.

Taube, Karl. 1998. The Jade Hearth: Centrality, Rulership, and the Classic Maya Temple. In Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture, ed. by S. D. Houston, pp. 427-78, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C.

_________. 2003. Maws of Heaven and Hell: The Symbolism of the Centipede and Serpent in Classic Maya Religion. In Antropologia de la eternidad: La muerte en la cultura maya, ed. by A. Ciudad Ruiz, M. Humberto Ruz Sosa, M. Josefe Iglesias Ponce de Leon, pp. 405- 442. Publicaciones de la SEEM, no. 7. SEEM, UNAM, México, D.F.

Tedlock, Barbara. 1982. Time and the Highland Maya. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

The 2016 Maya Meetings

The 2016 Maya Meetings are coming to UT-Austin on January 12-16. It should be a fun and exciting event wit presentations on the latest developments in Maya studies, centered on various workshops and a two-day symposium. The theme of several symposium presentations will focus on the archaeology and history of the lower Río Pasión region, focusing on sites of Ceibal, Dos Pilas, Aguateca, and others. Research over several decades has shown this distinctive area was a key “hot spot” of turmoil during the Classic period – an area of conflict, alliance-building, and ever-changing political structure. Very recent excavations reveal that the region also includes some of the earliest-known sites in the Maya lowlands. No previous large conference has ever focused on this important area, so the presentations and discussions will be break new ground, weaving together information form archaeological projects old and new. Please join us in Austin in January for what will be an exciting several days presentations and discussions.

Workshops and presentations by: Jeremy Sabloff, Daniela Triadan, Markus Eberl, Nicholas Carter, Maria Eugenia Gutierrez, Danny Law, Tim Beach, Nick Dunning, David Stuart, Takeshi Inomata, Jessica McLellan, Melissa Burham, Karen Bassie-Sweet, Marc Zender, Maline Werness-Rude, Kaylee Spencer, Marcello Canuto, Ruud van Akkeren, Arthur Demarest, Stephanie Strauss, Lucia Henderson, and Nikolai Grube.

2016 Maya Meetings Graphic

In Memoriam: Christopher Jones

Simon Martin has penned a moving essay on the late Christopher Jones (1937-2015) and his contributions to Maya epigraphy and archaeology, posted on Mesoweb. Chris was an incredibly warm person, ever enthusiastic about the world of Maya studies, and Simon’s essay nicely captures his unique qualities and personality. We will miss him greatly.

In Memoriam: Christopher Jones by Simon Martin


An Innovative Ritual Cycle at Terminal Classic Ceibal

By Nicholas P. Carter, Harvard University

The site of Ceibal, in the southwestern Department of Petén, Guatemala, is well known for the exuberantly unconventional style and content of its Terminal Classic monuments. Among these, Stela 19 is especially interesting. The stela was erected in front of Structure A-5, on the east side of the South Plaza of Ceibal’s Group A (Figure 1). Group A was a major locus of royal construction activity during the Terminal Classic period, and the stela has long been understood to date to sometime in the ninth century A.D. Yet the precise date of the monument has proven difficult to establish because of damage to its inscription. This note proposes that the text alludes to the k’atun ending (May 5, A.D. 889), but that it does so using an innovative count of four thirteen-day periods following the period ending. This count appears in the context of other religious innovations at Ceibal, but it recalls earlier ritual cycles at other Classic sites commemorating and anticipating k’atun endings.

Figure 1. Group A at Ceibal, showing Structure A-5 at lower right. Map courtesy of Takeshi Inomata, University of Arizona.
Figure 1. Group A at Ceibal, showing Structure A-5 at lower right. Map courtesy of Takeshi Inomata, University of Arizona.
Figure 2. Ceibal Stela 19. Photograph by Linda Schele (103010), courtesy of the Foundation for Mesoamerican Studies, Inc.
Figure 2. Ceibal Stela 19. Photograph by Linda Schele (103010), courtesy of the Foundation for Mesoamerican Studies, Inc.

The front surface of Stela 19 (Figure 2) is carved with a relief portrait of a ruler scattering incense with one hand, a standard trope on Maya royal stelae. Unusually for such monuments, however, the celebrant’s face is covered with a mask depicting the duck-billed Wind God, and he wears a skirt of narrow cloth strips instead of the apron-like garment more typical for such scenes. The only text on the monument consists of eight glyph blocks, two high by four wide, in a panel below the ruler’s feet (Figure 3). All four of the leftmost glyph blocks contain dates with numeric coefficients of 1, while the four blocks to the right contain noncalendrical signs. However, the middle four blocks (positions B1, C1, B2, and C2) were effaced in antiquity, some of them almost completely (J. Graham 1990:57). This has contributed to confusion about the nature of the dates and the reading order of the text. J. Graham (1990:60) thought the signs at positions A1 and B1 comprised a Calendar Round date of 1 Ben 1 Pop, corresponding to a Long Count date of (January 9, A.D. 868). The implication would be that the text has to read from left to right in two rows of four glyph blocks, since one Calendar Round date immediately followed by a second such date (at A2 and B2) would be highly aberrant. Bryan Just (2004:27) placed the stela a little over thirty years later, around, on the basis of its style. Without committing to a specific date, Prudence Rice (2004:214) suggested that the inscription referred in some way to a half- or quarter-k’atun ending, indicated by the scattering of incense in the scene above.

Careful inspection of photographs by Ian Graham (I. Graham 1996:47) and Linda Schele (2005: photograph no. 103012) strongly suggests that the four leftmost glyph blocks contain tzolk’in dates exclusively, not full Calendar Round dates. The date 1 Ben at A1 is unmistakable. The date at B1 is not 1 Pop at all, but a tzolk’in date with a coefficient of 1; even though the interior details of the day name are destroyed, the contours of the cartouche are clear enough. The date at A2 is another well-preserved tzolk’in date, 1 Kawak. The date at B2 is destroyed except for traces of another numeral 1.

Figure 3. The inscription on Ceibal Stela 19. Drawing by the author after photograph by Linda Schele.
Figure 3. The inscription on Ceibal Stela 19. Drawing by the author after photograph by Linda Schele.

A set of four tzolk’in dates associated with calendrical rituals might suggest—at first—an ethnohistoric parallel with Maya celebrations of new haab years in the Calendar Round. Because each haab year has 365 days (eighteen months of twenty days, plus the five-day intercalary month of Wayeb at the end of the year), while there are twenty day names in the tzolk’in cycle, the first day of the haab year can only correspond to four tzolk’in day names, each five positions apart. Epigraphers call those tzolk’in positions Year Bearers because many Mesoamerican calendrical traditions use them to name haab years. For Late Postclassic Yucatec communities, the Year Bearers were Kan, Muluc, Ix, and Cauac. Diego de Landa recorded that “[i]n all the towns of Yucatan it was the custom to have at each of the four entrances to the town two heaps of stones, one in front of the other; that is, at the east, west, north, and south” (Landa 1978:62–67). Offerings to supernatural beings were made each year at one of the four stations, depending on which tzolk’in day would be the Year Bearer for the coming year: Kan corresponded to the southern altars, Muluc to the eastern, Ix to the northern, and Cauac to the western. Could Ceibal Stela 19 record similar rituals connected to the Year Bearers?

The two well-preserved tzolk’in dates on the monument, 1 Ben and 1 Cauac, indicate that it does not. While Cauac is one of the Postclassic Yucatec Year Bearers, Ben is not. The two day names are separated by six positions (counting from Ben to Cauac) or fourteen (counting from Cauac to Ben), whereas Year Bearers must be separated by multiples of five. Yet four dates, three of them definitely tzolk’in dates, all of them with coefficients of 1, and all so close to one another in the text, do point to a ritual pattern of some kind. If some of the dates are not Year Bearers, what could explain such a pattern?

Starting with the hypothesis that the stela dates to about the third k’atun ending of the tenth bak’tun, one possibility does suggest itself. Counting forward thirteen days from 1 Ahau 3 Yaxkin yields the date 1 Ben 16 Yaxkin. Thirteen days later is 1 Cimi 9 Mol, and thirteen days after that is 1 Cauac 2 Ch’en. If one further assumes that this inscription, like most others, reads in double vertical columns instead of in two horizontal rows, then the four glyphs at A1 through B2 can be reconstructed and connected to the k’atun ending. The elements in boldface below are preserved on the stela, while those in brackets are implied or reconstructed:

Carter table

The three surviving glyph blocks at the end of the text (D1, C2, and D2) all evidently contain nouns. D1 begins with the agentive pronoun AJ, “he of” or “one who,” followed by a direction, either OCH-K’IN (ochik’in, “west”) or EL-K’IN (elk’in, “east”), and then an eroded collocation. C2 contains the spelling PI’T-ta, pi’t (“palanquin”), and D2 consists of logographic K’UH. Conceivably, this “palanquin god” might have been one of the massive effigies carried on litters in war and ritual processions, illustrated, among other places, on late eighth-century wooden lintels at Tikal. Since the first four glyph blocks all contain dates, the verb can only have been in block C1. This is now totally effaced, but given the reference to a deity in blocks C2 and D2, it likely described a ritual of some kind.

A1 – B1: 1-BEN 1-[CIMI]
A2 – B2: 1-CAUAC 1-[EB]
C1 – D1: [ritual verb] AJ-?-K’IN-?-?-?K’UH
C2 – D2: ?-PI’T-ta K’UH
 juun ben, juun [?cham], juun ?chahuk, juun [eb], […] aj […] ?k’uh pi’t k’uh
On 1 Ben, 1 [Cimi], 1 Cauac, and 1 [Eb], [ritual verb] He of … God(?), Palanquin God.

On this view, the Stela 19 text records either four religious rituals that took place every thirteen days following the k’atun ending, or else a single rite that happened 52 days (4 × 13) after the k’atun ending. This proposed 52-day commemoration of a period ending is to the author’s knowledge unique in the hieroglyphic record, and appears to represent a Terminal Classic innovation local to Ceibal. The k’atun ending itself is recorded on three other monuments in Ceibal’s Group A—Stelae 3, 18, and 20—each of which varies in its own way from earlier Classic Maya standards for period ending stelae. Stela 3 was erected in front of the pyramidal Str. A-6, across the South Plaza from Str. A-5 (I. Graham 1996:17; Smith 1982:90). Its main figural panel depicts a ritual celebrant wearing a headscarf in place of the typical Principal Bird Deity headdress worn by most Classic Maya lords on k’atun-ending monuments. Below, gods of wind and music provide auditory accompaniment; above sit two rain gods whose wild hair, Tlaloc faces, and nominal square day signs (5 Alligator and 7 Alligator, both rendered in non-Maya style) may connect them to the peoples of coastal Veracruz. Stela 18, at the base of Str. A-20 in the Central Plaza, and Stela 20, at the base of the Str. A-24 stairway, both depict a lord wearing the “Toltec” warrior regalia common in Terminal Classic sculpture at Chichen Itza.

While the missing signs are unrecoverable, the proposals above have several points in their favor. The double-column reading order this analysis presumes is standard for Classic Maya monumental texts. The implicit reference to a k’atun ending makes sense of the incense-scattering in the scene above, just as Rice (2004:214) suggested, while the specific k’atun-ending date of is in line with Just’s (2004:27) stylistic date. All four tzolk’in dates must be separated by multiples of thirteen days because they share the same coefficient. In fact, the two fully preserved dates, 1 Ben and 1 Cauac, are 26 days apart—provided, as the reading order would suggest, that the latter date is the next 1 Cauac after 1 Ben.

Classic Maya ideas about numerology—inferred from representations of the cosmos, the properties of calendrical systems, and accounts of calendrical rites—provide a cultural context that makes sense of the proposed ritual cycle. The significance of the number thirteen is evident from the tzolk’in calendar, whose numeric component consists of a cycle of thirteen numbers. Thirteen periods of twenty days—the number of day names in the tzolk’in, and the number of days in one winal in the Long Count calendar—make 260 days, or the number of name-number combinations in the full tzolk’in cycle. The Maya identified four tzolk’in Year Bearer days, four aspects of the rain god Chahk, sets of four divine youths, and four cardinal directions associated with four sacred trees. Four cycles of thirteen days make 52 days, a number with its own esoteric resonance: positions in the Calendar Round, combining a tzolk’in date with a date in the ha’b calendar, recur once every 52 ha’b years.

While innovative in its reliance on thirteen-day periods, the proposed 52-day ritual cycle at Ceibal finds precedent in earlier texts from other Maya sites. Notable examples are the stelae erected by Copan ruler K’ahk’ U Ti’ Witz’ K’awiil in preparation for and commemoration of the three-quarters k’atun ending (November 11, A.D. 647) and the k’atun ending (October 15, A.D. 652). Here, the numbers 260 (13 × 20) and 40 take on particular importance. According to Stelae 2 and 12 at Copan, K’ahk’ U Ti’ Witz’ K’awiil celebrated the date with a pilgrimage to a place called Naah Kab—perhaps the hill just east of the Acropolis on which Stela 12 was erected—then returned to the same spot 260 days later, on, to conduct a second ritual. Fittingly, the full k’atun ending occasioned greater ceremony. Preparations may have begun with a rite on (October 21, A.D. 651), one 360-day Long Count year before the main event. 100 days later, on (that is, 260 days before the k’atun ending), the king celebrated a second ritual, commemorated on Stela 10 on a hill across the Copan Valley from Stela 12. On, 260 days after, he conducted another rite, also recorded on Stela 10. 40 days later, on, he performed still another ritual, this one involving an altar dedicated to the avian Sun God. 40 days after that, on the k’atun ending itself, the celebrations reached their climax with K’ahk’ U Ti’ Witz’ K’awiil’s dedication of stone monuments and invocation of Copan’s patron deities.

K’ahk’ U Ti’ Witz’ K’awiil emphasized intervals of 260 days because the tzolk’in calendar is 260 days long, so that a period ending in the Long Count would have the same date in the tzolk’in as the day 260 days before or after it. In Maya religious thought, the tzolk’in date of a day made it auspicious or unlucky, suitable for certain kinds of activities and not others, and days with the same tzolk’in date were in an esoteric sense the same day. Two of K’ahk’ U Ti’ Witz’ K’awiil’s monuments appear to refer to the yearly movements of the sun using a similar principle: as seen from Stela 12 on the east side of the Copan Valley, the sun would appear to set behind Stela 10 to the west about 20 days after the spring equinox and before the autumnal equinox (Morley 1920:143). The days on which those observations were made would thus have the same tzolk’in day name, though not the same number, as the days of the equinoxes themselves. A similar principle could be at work in the Ceibal Stela 19 cycle: sharing a numeric coefficient with 1 Ajaw, each of the four tzolk’in dates temporally echoes the k’atun ending.

Ceibal already stands out among Terminal Classic southern lowland Maya kingdoms for the long survival of its royal court and for that court’s ritual and representational innovations. Hitherto, those changing images and practices have been most evident in the site’s ninth-century portraiture and iconography. Most very late texts at Ceibal are limited to Calendar Round dates; although it is longer, the unconventional text on Stela 13 thus far defies secure interpretation. Stela 19 thus presents a unique window onto local ideas about numerology and the temporal echoes of important calendrical endings in the late ninth century. Those ideas themselves fit within an older intellectual tradition, to which the last kings of Ceibal made their own contribution.


The ideas presented above benefited from discussions with Thomas Garrison, Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, Katharine Lukach, Franco Rossi, Andrew Scherer, and David Stuart. Takeshi Inomata, David Schele, and the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies kindly provided illustrations, in the latter case a photograph.

Sources Cited

Graham, Ian. 1996. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 7.1: Seibal. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge.

Graham, John A. 1990. Excavations at Seibal, Department of Petén, Guatemala: Monumental Sculpture and Hieroglyphic Inscriptions. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, vol. 17, no. 1. Harvard University, Cambridge.

Just, Bryan. 2007. Ninth-Century Stelae of Machaquila and Seibal. Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Incorporated. <>

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