Canonical Space and Maya Markets

Stephen Houston (Brown University)

In his account of the great Aztec market at Tlatelolco, Bernal Díaz del Castillo spoke of its varied merchandise. Among the wonders were gold, precious stones, rope, deer skin, wild animals, honey cake and tripe, pottery, pitch-pine, human excrement for salt and curing of skins, paper, timber, boards, metal axes, gourds, flint knives—Díaz almost grew weary of their description, “porque es para no acabar tan presto de contar por menudo todas las cosas” (Díaz del Castillo 2011:96–99). But there were also male and female slaves, many lashed to long poles across their necks. The slaves were brought and sold in such quantity as to recall, for Díaz, the Portuguese trade of Blacks in “Guinea” (Díaz del Castillo 2011:97–99). Free and enslaved people were so plentiful at Tlatelolco that they could be heard, he said, a league away.

A joint description in text and image comes Fray Diego de Durán, in a manuscript now in the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid (Figure 1). Probably written in his hand, albeit drawn from varying sources, this document of c. 1574–1581 drew on illustrations that were in part cut from another document and then glued on the page before relevant passages (Milne 1984:3; Robertson 1968:343). This is one of those images, as can be seen from the distinct color of its paper, slightly skewed placement, and overlap with previously written text. Puzzling out where Durán and his associates got their information is to grapple, perhaps fruitlessly, with the fusions, rejections, authorial complexity, and tumult of the era. Was the document and its kin informed by biblical history (Driggers 2020:184–185; Milne 1984:384), previous books or oral history (Milne 1984:381), pre-Columbian or early Colonial pictorials of assured skill and knowledge (Driggers 2020:189) or adorned with paintings taken from Franciscan workshops under the supervision of Bernardino de Sahagún (Milne 1984:393)? What can be assumed is that the preparation of this document was thoughtful. Mutual reinforcement took place between text and image.

Figure 1. Market, Historia de las Indias de Nueva España e islas de la tierra firme (Durán 1579:301v,

The written description is, at times, focused on physical attributes. “The markets of this land were all closed (off) by large (standing) walls and facing (opposite) the temples of the gods or to one side” (Durán 1880:217, my translation). Durán also emphasized the orderly timing and specialization of markets, so that, for example, dogs could be had in Acolman, slaves in Azcapotzalco and Izocan [Itzocan] (Durán 1880:219). Slaves, some taken in war, demonstrated grace of movement by being forced to dance or sing. (One can imagine the heaviness of heart.) Others had committed crimes, fallen into debt from gambling, disobeyed parents or become so hungry from want that slavery seemed the only recourse for their families. There would be fewer mouths to feed (Durán 1880:220–222). “Collars” of wood or metal kept the slaves symbolically marked, psychologically disadvantaged, and physically manageable. Grabbing a person’s arm or leg risked injury; grabbing a neck-stick kept the slave at safe distance (Durán 1880:220). [1] These sticks go far back in time, appearing in a Late Classic stucco of captives or slaves from the Maya city of Tonina, Chiapas (Houston et al. 2006:fig. 5.13). Presumably, sticks could double as garrotes, if not to execute then to control by restricting air and blood flow to the brain.

Payment for slaves was in textile mantles, gold jewelry, and greenstone (Durán 1880:224). The denial of liberty extended to cages or wooden chambers, evidently to house slaves or those castigated by law (Durán 1880:222). Relative freedom of movement may have accorded with the kind of slave. Enemy warriors or intended sacrifices for priestly “olocaustos” (Durán’s word) were let loose at peril. They might fight or flee. A child or debtor posed less risk. Colonial sources indicate that market stalls (“a house, a post”) could be personal property (Johnson 2018:100–101). Regulating the whole were ordinances and religious orientations, the latter of special disdain to Durán (1880:215-216; for “directors” of markets, see Sahagún 1979:67–69).

Durán’s focus on slaves may account for the image. Was this some glancing allusion to the Babylonian captivity of the Old Testament, or to the benighted state of the Aztecs? By the thinking of the day, they were, after all, a “lost tribe” of Israel, Christianity their redemption (Driggers 2020:184). Or was he placing emphasis on such trade because it was in fact a dominant concern? That emphasis can be overstated in view of the stupendous inventory of trade goods at Aztec markets. At the same time, by many accounts, human trafficking was undoubtedly present. Some comments on the scene identify three buyers and six sellers (Russo 2005:73). That is unlikely. Two of the latter, a male and a female, bear wooden staves at the neck, marking their status as slaves. This would mean that all the sellers—there are four, two of higher status to judge from their mats—happen to be women. This gendering contrasts strongly with slave merchants elsewhere in the world, especially the male slavers of ancient Rome or the horrors of Price, Birch, and Co. in Alexandria, Virginia (Harris 1980:129–132;

Durán highlights payment in mantles, gold, and greenstone. These occur throughout the scene, some in baskets. They could simply have been precious objects for sale (Driggers 2020:52). If the focus were on slaves, they might also have been payments from past transactions. The small squares resemble 1/5 tablets of gold (although their white color fails to fit that view) or, from a tablet superimposed on mantles in the Tribute Record of Tlapa, a unit of 400 textiles (Gutiérrez 2013:fig. 6.3). Perhaps the female slave is spinning for the vendor’s needs or displaying a valued skill to a buyer.

Durán (1880:215) also stressed “round stones worked as large as a round shield and in them sculpted a round figure as a figure of the sun with some paintings in the manner of roses around them with some round circles.” In Aztec writing, this corresponds to the sign for TIĀNQUIZ, “market” (Peñafiel 1895:pls. 79, 99). The buyers and sellers sit within the sign. Yet another emblem, perhaps a stone marker or altar (momoztli), appears dead center. That sign contains an inner, gold circle, a token of the sun, affirming a proposal that the celebrated Calendar Stone of the Aztecs was such an altar, albeit in Tenochtitlan rather than Tlaltelolco (Stuart 2018:214-215). In Durán’s words, it was “a figure of the sun” but ensconced within a market, its circular outline tied to both meanings.[2] A perceptive study of these carvings and their relation to markets has recognized several such “disks” in the corpus of Aztec sculpture (López Luján and Olmedo 2010).

Glyphs or stylized and condensed depictions of markets occur in several manuscripts of Colonial date (Figure 2). The sign itself has an almost flowery, jewel-like fringe and roseate glow but above all a circular outline (Mundy 1996:fig. 67). The visual overlap with the fans of merchants, pōchtēca, and the main disk in the place name of Pochtlan is probably no coincidence (Peñafiel 1895:pl. 59). Others point to a connection, common among the Aztecs, between war, trading, and similar insignia among high-ranking soldiers (López Luján and Olmedo 2010:18; a suspicion also gathers around the so-called La Ventanilla “Composite Stela” at Teotihuacan as a publicly mounted disk—of foreign merchants?—in the style of El Tajín, Veracruz [Cabrera Castro 2-17:108, fig. 14.2]). At times, the TIĀNQUIZ shows the dotted circumference of a formal “wall,” TENĀN/TENĀM (Figure 3b, c, d, e, cf. Codex Mendoza signs for the towns of Teotenanco [folio 10r] and Tenançinco [folio 10v]; Karttunen 1983:224). Some glyphs feature a confused welter of footprints, a sign of dense movement (Figure 3b, d); the “sand,” XĀL, in Xaltianquizco, may be both lexical and practical, a surface suited to shuffling feet (Figure 2b).

Figure 2. TIĀNQUIZ signs and depictions: (a) Codex Mendoza, c. 1541 (folio 67r, © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford); (b) Codex Mendoza, Xaltianquizco, c. 1541 (folio 16v, © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford); (c) Lienzo de Quauhquechollan, c. mid-16h-century (Museo Regional de Cholula [Museo Casa del Alfeñique]; Asselbergs 2008,, photograph by Bob Schalkwijk); (d) Matrícula de Huexotcinco, c. 1560 (folio 541r, National Library of France,; (e) Relación Geográfica map of Tetlistaca, 1581 (JGI xxv-12, Benson Latin American Collection, The General Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin); and (f) Relación Geográfica map of Muchitlan, 1582 (JGI xxv-13, Benson Latin American Collection, The General Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin,

Echoing Durán, there is some pairing with temples, including Christian churches, or in many instances—depictions of Conquest-period Guatemala come to mind—walled precincts that contrast with cleared circular places (Figure 3c; Asselbergs 2008:figs. 24–27). As Durán notes, such areas were suitable for dance, and, in one source, lightened circles without walls denote markets: i.e., some were more formal than others (Figure 2c, Asselbergs 2008:fig. 12). The Lienzo de Quauhquechollan, as in Codex Mendoza, show them pierced by roads or with routes passing nearby. A more daring idea is that the circularity was cosmic in intent, to fix markets “in the center of the universe” (Russo 2005:75). That might have been reflected in the walls and four-part entrances of an unusual, rectangular depiction of a market in the Relación Geográfica of Cempoala, Veracruz (Figure 3). The object or place in the center with scalloped edge is the target of movement, a focus within a broader precinct.

Figure 3. Market with four entrances, Cempoala, Veracruz, 1580 (JGI XXV-10, Benson Latin American Collection, The General Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin,

A vignette from the Codex Mendoza injects a certain pathos. Fathers instructed 6-year old boys to go to the market so that they might collect spilled maize or “beans and other miserable things that the traders left scattered” (Berdan and Anawalt 1997:120). The Codex is notorious for its austere model of parenting. Some punishments involved beating, jabbing with maguey spikes; dry chile was forced into the nostrils of immobilized children. A less literal view of the vignette is that it concerned “the disciplining of material and domestic space in order to achieve cosmic order” (Driggers 2020:119fn24). The raw nopal tuna gnawed by one child mirrors, in a symmetry of human and vegetal states, “their shared ‘rawness’ in Mexica thought” (Driggers 2020:119fn24). But I see a harsher reality. It is possible the scene reveals the depth of food insecurity in the Mexica metropolis—recall Duran’s mention of hunger and enslavement. Every bean or grain counted. Moreover, the scratching, plucking, and furtive chewing affect the archaeological study of markets. They might well have been intensively scavenged. What was dropped by vendors or buyers on the floor of the market did not necessarily stay put.

Figure 3. Scavenging in the market at age six, Codex Mendoza, 1541 (folio 58r, © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford).

A major concern in Mesoamerican studies is how later material, or that far away, relates to other reaches of its vast sprawl. This applies to markets. After much debate, most Mayanists concede the presence of such facilities during the Classic Period (e.g., Cap 2015; Dahlin et al. 2007; King 2015; Martin 2012). As one example of many, what had seemed to be unrelated features—a proposed water-conservation measure for agriculture at Ixtutz, Guatemala—can now be reinterpreted as market stalls (Chase and Chase 1983; cf. Chase et al. 2015:230; Jacobo 1993, who detected unusual concentrations of phosphate in this zone).

In 1984, equipped with a preliminary map from Ian Graham, I did a compass survey of Dos Pilas, Guatemala, a Classic Maya city with many inscriptions. Graham was a superlative mapper, a legend with limited resources yet boundless gumption. But he had not noticed that certain low walls on his plan went over masonry. They connected as a system of concentric walls, not just in its main plaza but around the pyramid of El Duende about 1 km to the east. Theodolite mapping in 1986 for my doctoral research laid these out in far greater detail (Figure 4; Houston 1987:Maps 3, 5; reproduced in Houston 1993:Site Maps 1, 3). In my dissertation, I interpreted the small, rectangular features marked in pale red as a “squatter” settlement and the walls, here in light blue, as “defensive bulwarks” of late date; these consisted of material obviously robbed from preexisting buildings (Houston 1987:383, 386).

Figure 4. Concentric walls at Dos Pilas, Guatemala (Houston 1987:Map 3).

There was always a problem. The walls went directly over buildings, in ways that did not make any practical defensive use of the elevated palace to the south. The layout seemed instead to be planar or geometric, designed to preserve a regular concentricity, a determined circularity. Nor, being chock-a-block, did the “squatter” settlement conform to any clear pattern of contemporary communities. I also had doubts the section to the north was ever finished. The builders appear to have piled up field stone at regular intervals, a standard practice for lengths of masonry, but they failed to connect them. Excavations by Joel Palka in these deposits, as part of a wider project by Vanderbilt University, later found abundant trade goods (Fine Grey) and confirmed the density of platforms (Palka 1980; Palka et al. 1991).[3] In 1984, guards at the site had shown me pieces of jade beads recovered from the “squatter” village. They had disturbed the alignments and low walls to make it easier to cut grass in the plaza. Loose stones dulled their machetes and were thus collected and piled up at the base of trees. The small platforms were probably far more numerous in the past.

My doubts grew when, decades later, I visited the site of Pueblito, Guatemala, with my former student, Sarah Newman. In important research that has yet to be followed up, Juan Pedro Laporte and his team discovered what appeared to be market stalls and identified them as such (Laporte and Chocon 2008). During my stay, I saw and walked the same sorts of concentric walls that I knew well from Dos Pilas, but here concentrated on the monumental plaza with plain stelae; the area with stalls lay a few meters away. Market stalls seem also be present at nearby Ixtutz, Guatemala (Chase and Chase 1983; Chase et al. 2015; Jacobo 1993). The pattern of relatively late, c. 8th-9th century walls occurs at a number of sites, a few with the concentric walls that baffled me at Dos Pilas (Figure 5). As at Dos Pilas, Xuenkal, Yucatan, excludes a major construction; a wall at Cuca, also in Yucatan, climbs over a substantial platform; and there have been suggestions that the walls at Ek Balam, Yucatan—their thickness is greater than elsewhere—tend to be more symbolic than defensive (Lundy 2016:100, citing William Ringle and George Bey, the original mappers and excavators of the ruin).

Figure 5. Walls, some concentric, at Ek Balam (Houck 2004:fig. 2, map provided to Houck by William Ringle), Cuca (Webster 1978:fig. 5), and Xuenkal (Manahan et al. 2012:fig. 2).

A lidar survey confirms that these concentric systems are found far beyond settlements in Yucatan, appearing also in southwestern Campeche (Figure 6; Ruhl et al. 2019). The discoverers believe that these settlements, which they identify as markets, are distinct from the “hastily erected defensive walls…or more carefully constructed fortifications” of sites such as Cuca or Dos Pilas (Ruhl et al. 2018:88). But perhaps the concentric arrangements are closer than first apparent: all have a post-hoc quality, look (at least superficially) to be Late Classic or Terminal Classic in date, abut or pass over preceding construction, and selectively exclude monumental architecture. At times, the estrangement from past dynastic rituals could be acute. At Dos Pilas, as I saw from mapping in 1984 and 1986, the rupture was blunt and brutal. Walls elsewhere were more seamlessly integrated with preexisting buildings.

Figure 6. Concentricity and probable markets, G-LiHT transects, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (Ruhl et al. 2018:fig. 3, excerpt).

“Symbolic” is an expansive yet loose term. But, to come full circle (so to speak), these finds could reflect a particular moment in Classic and Terminal Classic history. Spaces and planar shapes deemed canonical—appropriate to this or that function—arose from pragmatic choices. If these were markets, a matter to be confirmed by close study on the ground, then they closed off access, protected stored goods (what vendor leaves a stall unsecured?), afforded a sense of security for economic transactions, and assisted regulation, monitoring, and even taxation. Goods moving in and out could be monitored. Nor is there reason to exclude defense, for marketing and warfare were known companions in Postclassic Mexico. But there was also a strong sense of signaling. As hinted by the TIĀNQUIZ sign, markets should, by broad understanding, be notionally circular: they are, as much as any square or rectangular plaza, a canonical space. Accordingly, a later emblem of centrality and orderly trade may have arisen from a Maya precedent in the final years of the Classic period, or at least from eastern Mesoamerica in general.[4] Links with the Aztec or speakers of Nahuatl are documented by several Maya gods that tie into central Mexican ones; reciprocally, the Dresden Codex, a Maya book, records several Mexican deities (Taube and Bade 1991; Whittaker 1986).

Possibly, the walls also kept people in. This is the most speculative and disquieting part of the argument: some of these facilities may have been pens, the corrals of people. The degree to which the Classic Maya slaved is unclear. The non-locals (11–16%) found by chemical studies of bone at Tikal—the samples are not large, however—could reflect this practice (Wright 2012). Aztec neck-sticks are almost copies of those on the much-afflicted, Late Classic captives at Tonina (see above). Pietro Martire d’Anghiera mentions that a native canoe encountered by Columbus was “drawn by naked slaves with ropes around their necks,” and Diego de Landa leaves no doubts about the abundance of slaving, often to trade for cacao, and attributed “this evil” to a particular group, the Cocom, i.e., he historicized it, fixed it as a development in time (Tozzer 1941:36, 36fn175, 94). For the Classic Maya, Mary Miller notes many ceramic figurines, including finely dressed women, with what appear to be slave-ropes around their necks (personal communication, 2019).

Was this, as Andrew Scherer suggests to me, the darker side of the Terminal Classic? Dynasties might raid, but they could also shield. Their unraveling, the evident movements of people, and the new ethnic presences documented by Simon Martin (2020:290–294, 296–297, fig. 73) led potentially to vigorous profit and a frayed social contract. This might have been especially the case for the “internationalization” of slaving, a trade highlighted by early Colonial sources. In Africa, according to a chilling appraisal by two economic historians, the “marginal value of people as captives [rose] above their marginal value as producers to be taxed…[with an] incentive to produce ‘outsiders’ who can be raided” (Whatley and Gillizeau 2010:573). For the Yoruba in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, war yielded slaves, slaving drove war, with no small capital outlay required to mount campaigns and to house slaves in enclosures known as ita (Ojo 2008:80–81). Brokers, chiefs, warriors—all profited from human misery. For a time, and perhaps among the Terminal Classic Maya, fluid trade could coexist with fragmenting societies.

[1] The term for “slave” in Nahuatl (TLĀCOH-TLI) is a near-homophone for “staff, pole” (TLACŌ-TL, David Stuart, personal communication, 2020; see Karttunen 1983:256). This may have been a metonym, an object standing for (and even depersonalizing) its referent or perhaps, because of the divergent vowels, the association was fortuitous.

[2] Durán refers to another altar that has yet to be discovered by urban excavation (Stuart 2018:23). The distant analogy of Maya altars suggests a logical dyad, the moon. Altars or ballcourt markers with moon deities include Caracol Altar 25, Tenam Rosario Altar 1, and Quirigua Altar Q.

[3] The broader mesh of trade in the region has since been emphasized to the south, in and around the upper and middle reaches of the Pasión River, Guatemala (Kovacevich 2006; Demarest et al. 2014).

[4] The operative concept is probably the pan-Mayan word pet, “circular” or “round” (Kaufman and Norman 1984:128). To my knowledge, the glyphic version of this, a circle within a circle, was first deciphered by Nikolai Grube. The graphic origin is doubtless that of a hard stone ear spool, an object of great value and patient manufacture. The sign is employed as a verb to indicate the creation of some rounded thing and, less literally, as the completion of a carving. See K1180, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (#1988.1182), in which a monkey-scribe holds up a rounded object near a verb PET-ta-ja, pehtaj, “it is rounded” (photograph courtesy of Justin Kerr). The insertion of the hand and rounded object into the vertical, glyphic passage is probably a self-conscious integration of text with image.


My thanks go to Charles Golden, Takeshi Inomata, Simon Martin, Mary Miller, Joel Palka, Andrew Scherer, David Stuart, and Karl Taube for useful discussion, and to Oswaldo Chinchilla and Nicholas Dunning for help with figures. Sarah Newman defrayed the costs of our productive visit to Pueblito and was, as ever, full of insight and energy. For Nahuatl words, including those spelling in hieroglyphs, I use the spellings with vowel length in the authoritative dictionary by Karttunen (1983). The online dictionary edited by Stephanie Wood is also a wide-ranging tool for scholars (


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Webster, David. 1978. Three Walled Sites of the Northern Maya Lowlands. Journal of Field Archaeology 5(4):375–390.

Whatley, Warren, and Rob Gillezeau. 2011. The Impact of the Transatlantic Slave Trade on Ethnic Stratification in Africa. The American Economic Review 101(3):571–576.

Whittaker, Gordon. 1986. The Mexican Names of Three Venus Gods in the Dresden Codex. Mexicon 8(3):56–60.

Wright, Lori E. 2012. Immigration to Tikal, Guatemala: Evidence from Stable Strontium and Oxygen Isotopes. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 31:334–352.

Yesterday’s Moon: A Decipherment of the Classic Mayan Adverb ak’biiy

by David Stuart (University of Texas at Austin)

Deciphering the Adverb Ak’biiy, “Yesterday”

Maya inscriptions contain a few terms or phrases that we can classify as temporal adverbs, helping to specify the timing of events relative to the text’s internal time-frame. One such term is sahm-iiy, spelled sa-mi-ya, “earlier today,” which I identified some years ago in two moon age records at Palenque (Figure 1) (first presented in Houston, Robertson and Stuart 2000). In this context, before the verb hul-iiy, sahm-iiy simply states that the new moon appeared only within a day of some notable event in the narrative “present.” The full phrase illustrated here can be translated as sahm-iiy hul-iiy, “earlier today it arrived.” Its suffix -iiy is the Classic Mayan form traceable to proto-Mayan *-eer, “ago, before,” and is an extremely common deictic suffix found on most if not all of these adverbs that mark a point in the past. It can appear on intransitive verbs, adverbs, as well as on some enumerated nouns. Grammatically, sahm-iiy and its relatives work in a way similar to standard day-counts that reckon a span of time from some earlier event to up to a present one. For example, we find in other lunar day-counts the expressions jo’lahuun-ij-iiy (15-ji-ya),  “fifteen days ago…”, or wuk-bix-iiy (7-bi-xi-ya), “seven days ago.”

sahmiiy glyph
Figure 1. Parallel examples of sahm-iiy hul-iiy, “earlier today it arrived.” (a) PAL: Palace Tablet, Q10-R10, (b) PAL:T.XXI bench edge. Drawings by D. Stuart.

Here I identify another temporal pronoun that I read as ak’b-iiy, “yesterday,” or “the night before.” Like the examples just cited, these occur in records of moon ages, where short-term temporal expressions of less than thirty days are routinely found. The first instance comes from Stela F at Qurigua (Figure 2a), as part of the moon age record accompanying the Long Count 1 Ahau 3 Zip (March 14, 761 CE). Here before the verb hul-iiy (hu-li-ya), “it arrived,” (Macleod 1990), we find a glyph consisting of a turkey’s head with the suffix sign ya. Infixed into the turkey is a bi syllable. The second case comes from Zoomorph O’ (Figure 2b), where the same glyph appears but now with the prefix a-, also before hul-iiy. These related glyphs have remained undeciphered until now, but they have generally been recognized as indicating new moon, or the start of the lunar month.

ak'biiy glyphs
Figure 2. Two examples of ak’b-iiy hul-iiy, “yesterday it arrived.” (a) QRG Stela F, F6, (b) QRG: Zoo O’, J1-I2. Drawings by D. Stuart

There is good evidence to show that the turkey head is read AK’, based on the noun ak’ or ak’ach, “turkey hen.” In the inscriptions of La Corona, the very same sign appears in the spelling of the personal name Chak Ak’ Paat Kuy, where it alternates with the syllabic comination a-k’a (Figure 3) (Houston, Stuart and Zender 2017, Stuart and Zender 2018). The same turkey sign also occurs on Stela 1 of Dos Pilas in a variant of the “dance” verb AK’-ta-ja (Figure 4b) (see Grube 1990), suggesting it may be a head variant or a graphic elaboration of the more abstracted AK’ sign we find more frequently in that position (we will return to the connection between these signs a little further on).

Ckak ak'
Figure 3. The AK’ turkey logogram in a name from La Corona. (a) CRN: Elem. , (b) CRN:Elem. 56, pB1, (c) CRN: Elem. 56, pF2. Drawings by D. Stuart

ak'taj verbs
Figure 4. Substitution of AK’ in AK’-ta-ja, ak’t-aj, “he dances” (a) DPL: Stela 11, (b) DPL: Stela 1. Drawings by D. Stuart.

On Quirigua Stela F we therefore have a plausible reading AK’-bi-ya for the glyph before hu-li-ya. On Zoomorph O’ we have the very same expression, but with an a added as a prefix on AK’. The bi infix again looks to be present (photos are murky), so the full form here seem to be a-AK’-bi-ya. There can be little doubt that these two glyphs spell the temporal adverb ak’b-iiy, a form found in Ch’olan languages meaning “yesterday,” or “last night,” based upon the noun ahk’ab, “night.” Note its use in these sentences from from Ch’orti and Ch’ol:

ak’bi patneen, yesterday I worked (Wisdom 1950)
ac’bi tsa’ huliyon ilayi, yesterday I arrived here (Aulie and Aulie 1978)

In the last example cited, it is interesting to see that Ch’ol ac’bi serves as an adverb before a derived form of hul, “to arrive,” much as we find in the case of the Lunar Series examples from Quirigua. The same term can be traced more widely throughout lowland Mayan languages (all shown in their original orthographies).

Ch’olti’: acbihi, yesterday (Moran 1935)
Ch’orti’: ak’bi, yesterday, of yesterday (Wisdom 1950)
Ch’ol: ’ak’-b’i, yesterday; ayer (Hopkins, et al 2008)
Ch’ol: ac’bi, ayer (Aulie and Aulie 1978)
Chontal: ?äk’-bi, yesterday, before (Knowles 1984)
Chontal: äc’-bi, ayer (Keller and Luciano 1997)
Tzeltal: ahkab-ey, anoche (Polian 2020)
Tzotzil: ak’ub-e, anoche (Kaufman and Justeson 2003)
Yukatek: ak’be’, anoche, la noche anterior (Barrera Vásquez 1980)

In the two contexts from Quirigua the full verbal expression is therefore ak’biiy huliiy, “yesterday it arrived,” the subject being the lunar month of 29 or 30 days. This might be roughly understood to saying that the moon is simply one day old. However, we should exert some caution in assuming so, and reflect further on the descriptive language the Maya used in such records. The moon’s “arrival” is not simply the astronomical new moon, which corresponds to its dark, invisible phase. “Arrival” should be understood as referring to the moon’s first visibility, as a thin waxing crescent in the darkened sky. Landa made this point in his Relación, wherein he states that “they counted (the lunar month) from the time at which the new moon appeared until  it no longer appeared”  (Tozzer 1941:133). This is confirmed, I believe, by the form of the HUL logogram used in the vast majority of moon age records, which depicts a hand pointing at the crescent (see Houston 2012). The “pointing at the moon” form of HUL is especially clear in its Early Classic examples (Figure 5). All of this is to say that first visibility would fall a two or three days (depending on timing) after astronomical new moon. Thus ak’biiy huliiy can be best analyzed as an explicit statement about first visibility happening “yesterday,” falling two or even three days after the astronomical new moon.

HUL signs
Figure 5. Selection of Early Classic HUL logograms, emphasizing its origin as a hand pointing at the crescent moon. (a) RAZ: Tomb 1, (b) COP: St. 63, (c) CLK: Celt, (d) PNG: St. 30, (e) RSB: HS 3. Drawings by D. Stuart.

ak'biiy Coba
Figure 6. Alternate spelling of ak’biiy huliiy from COB: Panel D. Drawing by D. Stuart.

Apart from Quirigua, there may be one other example of ak’biiy in a text from Coba. This is Panel D, the unusual rectangular panel or altar with a spiral-shaped inscription. This text opens with a Lunar Series, probably a continuation of a calendrical text now lost. The initial glyph of the text (Figure 6) is “Glyph D” of the Lunar Series, incorporating the verb hul-iiy (HUL-li-ya). Before this we have a glyph shows an infixed bi element and a ya suffix. I suggest the main sign here is the alternate logogram for AK’, known from the frequent dance verbs mention above (AK’-ta-ja) (see Figure 4a). At first I wondered if this could be a spelling of bix-iiy, using a logogram for BIX that I identified in 1996 (Stuart 2012). However, it is possible to distinguish that form from the somewhat similar AK’, which consistently shows two darkened elements along the internal curved line. BIX seems to regularly feature a single darkened element, with an infixed bi. I suspect that this AK’ is graphically related to the turkey head variant, perhaps originating as a pars pro toto of it.

The use of the turkey AK’ in these spellings brings up a couple of interesting points regarding hieroglyphic orthography. First, we have here the rare use of a logogram for purely phonetic purposes (the adverb ak’biiy having nothing to do with turkeys). It also reflects a high degree of phonetic sensitivity in Maya script. As we have seen, the derived form ak’b-iiy results from two morphophonemic process that work on the underlying noun ahk’ab, “night.” The first is vowel syncope. In Ch’olan languages, any stem of more than two syllables, such as that formed by the combination of ahk’ab and -iiy, sees the loss of its penultimate vowel, in this case a (Kaufman and Norman 1984:86). The second process is the loss of the h before a cluster of two consonants. The root for “turkey” is ak’, lacking the internal h we find in ahk’ab. As Marc Zender has pointed out to me (personal communication, 2020), a spelling such as a-AK’-bi-ya appears to be a remarkably precise means of representing the phonetic result of these standard processes. A similar situation presumably exists in the spellings of the verb for “dance,” usually spelled AK’-ta-ja (see Grube 1990), at times with the very same AK’ turkey sign. The proto-Ch’olan verb root is ahk’ot, and the addition of the intransitivizing suffix -aj necessitates the same two processes just described, the result being ak’t-aj, “(s)he dances.”

Thus far I have not encountered the temporal adverb ak’biiy outside of the context of moon age records. This is not terribly surprising, given how Lunar Series passages focus on short-term time frames involving less than thirty days, sometimes focused on time changes within a single day, as in sahm-iiy.

Moon Ages and Correlations

The ak’biiy huliiy statements may be significant in considering the astronomical correlations of certain Maya calendar dates. For example, the Long Count on Quirigua, Stela F is 1 Ahau 3 Zip, falling on March 11, 761 according to the 584283 correlation. This is astronomical new moon, which occurred in the pre-dawn hours of that day.

YEAR 0761
New Moon          First Quarter       Full Moon         Last Quarter
Mar 11 05:43      Mar 18 01:19        Mar 25 04:59   Apr 2 05:49
(dates and times in Universal Time minus 6 hours).

It should be emphasized that astronomical new moon describes a phase of complete invisibility before the first sliver of the crescent is visible. Yet we know in Maya terms that the moon’s “arrival” was its first appearance to the naked eye, as discussed above, and as indicated by the visual forms of several HUL logograms (Prager 2020).  It is very difficult to see the young waxing crescent of the moon within 24 hours of astronomical new moon, in fact, suggesting that visibility with the naked eye during the night spanning March 11 and 12 would have been extremely unlikely. The night of March 13 is a more likely time for the moon’s true “arrival” and visibility. If we align these lunar phenomena with the different correlation constants for, we have:

584283, night of March 11, 761 – Astronomical new moon (invisible)
584284, night of March 12, 761 – initial waxing crescent, minimal visibility
584285, night of March 13, 761 – waxing crescent, newly visible
584286, night of March 14, 761 – one day after visibility

Here we see that the moon record on Stela F, explicitly stating that the moon “arrived yesterday,” accords best with either the 584285 (March 13) or perhaps even more so with the 584286 correlation (March 14) proposed by Martin and Skidmore (2012).

The ak’biiy huliiy date on Zoomorph O’ is the accession of the ruler we know as “Sky Xul,” on 9 Edznab 1 Kankin. In the 584283 correlation this falls on October 9, 785. New moon, the period of invisibility, had occurred just before midnight on October 7, into October 8, and would have continued for another 24 hours. First visibility would most likely have been no earlier than the night of October 10 or 11.

YEAR 0785
New Moon          First Quarter       Full Moon         Last Quarter
Oct 7 23:02        Oct 15 17:35         Oct 22 08:42    Oct 29 12:08
(dates and times in Universal Time minus 6 hours).

Using the 584285 constant, the accession date is October 11, and with the 584286 it falls on October 12. The ak’biiy statement on Zoomorph O’ therefore is in keeping with either of these correlations, but not so much with the 584283. Of the two, the 584286 may even seem more fitting, marking the arrival of the moon, or first visibility, on October 11. Zoomorph G celebrated the Period ending 5 Ahau 3 Muan, only 22 days after the accession of Sky Xul. Its moon age is recorded is recorded as 23 days, precisely what we would expect if we reckon from Zoomorph O’ and its ak’biiy statement of the moon being first visible on October 11. It is worth noting that these two uses of ak’biiy at Quirigua also correlate well with the probable eclipse record at Santa Elena Poco Uinic Stela (July 16, 790), which seems best anchored in the 584286 correlation, as discussed by Martin and Skidmore (2012).

These are only cursory observations about the correlation issue, and far more thought needs to go into these questions. The main point to stress is that, until recently, Maya epigraphers simply classified the two glyphs we can now read as ak’biiy and sahmiiy as general indicators of “new moon.” Now we can be more precise about their meanings. One is “earlier today,” and another is “yesterday.” The implications of these decipherments should be pondered further, for they might help in fine-tuning the correlation of the ancient Maya calendar with our own.

Note: Moon phases are from the historical lunar tables available on (

References Cited

Aulie, William H., and Evelyn W. de Aulie. 1978. Diccionario Ch’ol-Español, Español-Ch’ol. Mexico City: Instituto Lingüistico de Verano.

Grube, Nikolai. 1992. Classic Maya Dance: Evidence from Hieroglyphs and Iconography. Ancient Mesoamerica 3(2):201-218

Hopkins, Nicholas A., Ausencio Cruz Guzmán, and Kathryn Josserand. 2008. A Chol (Mayan) Vocabulary from 1789. International Journal of American Linguistics 74(1).

Houston, Stephen. 2012. Heavenly Bodies. Maya Decipherment, July 16, 2012.

Houston, Stephen, David Stuart, and Marc Zender. 2017. The Lizard King. Maya Decipherment, June 15, 2017.

Kaufman, Terence, and John Justeson. 2003. A Preliminary Mayan Etymological Dictionary.

Kaufman, Terrence, and William Norman., 1984. An Outline of Proto-Cholan Phonology, Morphology and Vocabulary. In: J.S. Justeson and Lyle Campbell (eds.), Phoneticism in Mayan Hieroglyphic Writing, 77-166. Institute for Mesoamerican Studies Publication No. 9. SUNY, Albany.

Keller, Kathryn, and Plácido Luciano G.. 1997. Diccionario Chontal de Tabasco (Mayense). Serie de Vocabularios y Diccionarios Idígenas “Mariano Silva y Aceves,” Número 36. Tucson: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Knowles, Susan Marie. 1984. A Descriptive Grammar of Chontal Maya (San Carlos Dialect). Ph.D. Dissertation, Tulane University.

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

MacLeod, Barbara. 1990. Deciphering the Primary Standard Sequence. Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Texas, Austin, TX.

Morán, Pedro [sic]. 1935. Arte y diccionario en lengua cholti. Edited by William Gates. Maya Society publ. 9.

Polian, Gilles. 2020. Tseltal-Spanish multidialectal dictionary.
Dictionaria 10. 1-8109. DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.3660891 (Available online at, Accessed on 2020-08-01.)

Prager, Christian. 2020. A New Logogram for “to Arrive” – Implications for the Decipherment of the Month Name Cumku. Textdatenbank und Wörterbuch des Klassischen Maya, Research Note 13. Universität Bonn.

Stuart, David. 2012. The Verb Bix “Go, Go Away.” Maya Decipherment, January 23, 2012.

Stuart, David, and Marc Zender. 2018. Epigraphy and History at La Corona: Contingency and Surprise in Epigraphic Discovery.  Paper presented at the 83rd Annual Meetings of the SAA, Washington, D.C.

Toxxer, Alfred M. 1941. Landa’s Relación de las Cosas de Yucatan: A Translation. Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, vol. XVIII. Peabody Museum, Cambridge, MA.

Wisdom, Charles. 1950. Materials of the Chorti Language. Middle American Cultural Anthropology Microfilm Series 5, Item 28. University of Chicago Library.

All the Small Things

Stephen Houston

For the small people in my life, and for those soon to arrive

In his study of the sublime, Edmund Burke observed that, “[i]n the animal creation, out of our own species, it is the small we are inclined to be fond of; little birds, and some of the smaller kinds of beasts (Burke 1757:97). These creatures are beautiful; they inspire affection and pleasure. Then there are the things that are gigantic, uncontrolled, unbalanced, even monstrous. Marked by excess, they trigger awe, fear or distaste: “[a] great beautiful thing, is a manner of expression scarcely ever used; but that of a great ugly thing, is very common” (Burke 1757:97). Smallness pleases, largeness overwhelms. A feeling of vulnerability besets the viewer of that “great ugly thing” disliked by Burke (Mack 2007:54). For him, beauty and delight came in petite guise.

Among the Classic Maya, life-sized images were reserved for stone or perhaps wood, a material mastered by Maya sculptors but now largely gone because of tropical decay (Doyle and Houston 2014, 2016). The only clay effigy of comparable size dates later. A foot survives from a Postclassic statue found in 1921 at Mound I, Tayasal, Guatemala. Clearly of unusual size, it might once have sat in a temple. [1] For their part, stone carvings drew close to—or even exceeded—”one-to-one-ism,” a mimetic approximation of an actual human frame (Houston 2019; see below).

Yet the Maya made many small things. Abundant at some sites, scarce at others, “figurines” are described by a diminutive, very much a reduced version of what they depict (Halperin 2014:37–43). This is no less true of so-called “miniature” vessels or containers (Figure 1). [2] Varied in form and surface treatment, they tend to have restricted openings, if with slightly everted lips around the rim. Stoppers of perishable material held the contents in place. Whether the vessels were small so as to enhance portability, house a valuable substance, or made for some other reason remains the issue here.

Figure 1. Miniature ceramics, Magdalena, Guatemala, note ko-lo ch’o-ko on ‘a’ , to upper left (A. L. Smith and Kidder 1943:fig. 52).

Smallness has many motivations. The diminutive implies an innate comparison with the human body, “the gold standard in the realm of measurement” (Mack 2007:53; see also Hamilton 2018:28). The object being seen or held is related visually and experientially to the person doing the beholding. That gamut of size can run, in two whimsical examples, from the smallest Hebrew Bible, on a 0.5 mm2 chip, easily blown off a finger tip by a puff of air (Jaffe-Katz 2009), to, somewhere out on the Plains, a ball of twine so large it would flatten any fool trying to lift it—competition heats up over where that ball might be (Hwang 2014). The small, regardless of time or place, is also right for small people. Conceptually, the small-scale is to full-scale as a child is to an adult. For practical reasons too: in little hands, a doll is easier to grasp than a baby, the consequences less dire if dropped. There is playful imitation, a rehearsal for later roles. Caring for a doll or using a small tool helps to prepare for the local norms of adult work (Mack 2006:139–157).

The hand-held nurtures a feeling of intimacy. Holding an object pleases the viewer, a point made long ago by Claude Lévi-Strauss (1966:23–24). Large and “formidable” things put the viewer at a disadvantage; a mental image can only be pieced together after multiple views, one angle at a time. But more than pleasing, small objects lend themselves to eroticism. In 18th and 19th-century Anglo-America, miniaturists painted on ivory a lover’s eye with arched eyebrow or a full-lipped mouth. The images went into a locket or a slim tablet the size of a wallet. Private, kept close to the heart, they were at once a recollection of past contact and a promise of future raptures. And, contrary to Lévi-Strauss, they were small yet partial. The task of imagining the whole was less an unpleasant or onerous effort than the main point of such reverie.

Sometimes the painter was the lover. In 1828, Sarah Goodridge, a celebrated miniaturist, depicted her breasts for the statesman Daniel Webster (Figure 2; Barratt and Zabar 2010:125, fig. 12, #256). The painting highlighted, among other attributes, a single mole at the midline. It is a visual billet-doux, and the recipient must have known of this blemish. But the painting also idealized Goodridge’s body. She was nearly 40 years old, and these were the breasts of a younger woman. Perhaps the reception was not what Goodridge hoped for. Recently widowed, Webster soon married another.

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Figure 2. “Beauty Revealed,” by Sarah Goodridge, 1828, 6.7 x 8 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006.235.74, CC0 1.0.

In such images, the meanings are non-general, the recipients targeted. This is where tactility comes into its own, in that the effects occur at close distance. The hand can and should hold them (Goldring 2019:2). Smallness also draws attention to the finely made, to a surfeit of detail, to precious material whose minute working asks for a second or third look. An opulent housing may attract the attention of others, and a private statement becomes (nearly) public by its glittering package (Goldring 2019:2). The Phoenix Jewel, designed by Nicholas Hilliard for Queen Elizabeth I of England, astonishes because of its flamboyance and, as a big part of its allure, the fine chasing and enameling, the summit of craftsmanship in this period (Goldring 2019:114–115). [3] Objects like this condense time, so great was the care that went into them. The viewer understands and enjoys that investment. And in what must be a cross-cultural impulse, exquisite things invite repeated visits. Minoan seals astound by their microscopic excellence, surely the focus of the makers and owners who handled them, and a revelation to those lucky enough to visit the Heraklion Museum in Crete (Weingarten 2012). Much later, Lorenzo the Magnificent spent hours scrutinizing his collection of gems and stone vases (Dunkelman 2010; Hellenstein 2013), and some of the largest collections of Russian Fabergé exist in the collections of the British royal family, who exchanged these bibelots as gifts ( If there is such a thing as court culture, the small but sensational played an important role within it.

But the emotions are not always about pleasure. Writing of “tiny stone animals” in the Andes, Catherine Allen discerns “love, awe, reverence, gratitude, and, yes, anxiety and fear” (Allen 2016:416). The last two arise because the pebbles or carved rocks are, in a sense, persons with their own powers, or they relate to grand forces brought, as small sized objects, into the household (Allen 2016:419; see also Mack 2006:162–181). Smallness can be potent and microcosmic, relating to landforms and overall structures of the universe (Dehouve 2016:507–512). In the Andes, for example, families prosper by collecting and shaping stones imbued with the spirits of mountains (Allen 2016:418, 429). Yet with that use comes risk. A power strong enough to assist can slip out of control, and a blessing becomes a peril.

In sum, small things give pleasure by being hand-held, appreciated at one glance (if part of an imaginative process that ripples wider), and exemplary in skill and artful use of precious materials. These features make them precious, coveted, collectable, hoardable. As toys for children, they are literally playful. But by scale, by being smaller versions of much larger things—and inherently non-normative—they inspire a certain awe. What they represent lends some essence of the original to its copy. In some cases, they house spirits that make even the small seem powerful. And, above all, the small inspires a response, along with a range of wishes, emotions, and creative results (Stewart 1993).

Size is an absolute, characterized loosely or by precise measurement. Scale is inherently about comparison, a suggestion made by Andrew Hamilton (2018:27) in his invaluable study of Inca scale, size, and proportion. For him, scale can be loosely descriptive (“tiny, small, large, gigantic”), but has to be in relation to something else. Some are: (1) “reduced,” being smaller than their presumed original (a llama, house model, terraced fields with huaca, water courses, and puma, a textile with Inka checkerboard); (2) “enlarged,” being larger than their natural inspiration (an Aztec grasshopper or chapulín some 47 cm long); or (3) “commensurate,” being the same size as an original (Hamilton 2018:31, 244, pl. 70)—in other words, examples of “one-to-one-ism” (see above). There are, in some instances, ritual or spiritual implications to the relations thus established. A “co-activity” occurred in which “humans coordinate[d] their activities with nonhuman agents” (Pitrou 2016:479). This insight does need detail, however. The size and scale of a llama in gold or silver, or a grasshopper of lustrous stone but monstrous proportions, are not simply aesthetic in origin. They are not made just because they could be made. There were reasons and meanings behind them, a panoply of manufactures and uses, patrons and makers, an intended placement, either concealed or in view, along with names, identities, essences.

Maya data are deeply concerned with smallness. There are contemporary texts, rich resources from Mayan languages, and many relevant objects. The Ch’olan languages have the following: Ch’olti’, the language closest to may Classic-period inscriptions, has com (kom), as in com aic, “small thing,” com uinic, “small man,” coman, “idol,” comcom, “a little pot with a neck,” se-se, “small,” and tzitic tzitic (tz’itik?), “very small” (Ringle n.d.). Or, in Ch’orti’, there are b’ik’it, “small, little,” chuchu’, “small, little, young,” or the negation ma noj, “not big” (Hull 2016:70, 108, 144, 265); Ch’ol provides b’ik’it, “small,” ch’ok, “young, small, and tz’ita’, “a little bit” (Hopkins et al. 2010:22, 53, 249). More distantly related languages offer: Colonial Tzotzil bik’it, “little, narrow, thin, humble,” ch’am, “little, small, trifling,” or machal, “modest, even phlegmatic” (Laughlin 1988:166, 196, 253), or present-day Tzoztil ‘unen, “small, young, unripe, new (moon), leaf, rising (sun)” (Laughlin 1975:74). Tzeltal records bik’it, “pequeño, chico,” ch’in, “pequeño, chico,” ch’ujch’, “pequeño, menudo, diminuto,” pek’el, “bajo, pequeño,” tut/tutu’, “pequeño, chico (Polian 2017:156, 225, 234, 491, 577). Yukatek, lush with words, yields chan, chan chan, kom, ma’ noh, ts’e, and so on (Barrera Vásquez et al. 1980:83, 84, 334, 498, 880).

What is clear from this incomplete list is that: (1) the terms can apply to things, humans, and idols alike; (2) they can negate by overt comparison with their opposite (ma’ noh, “not large”); (3) words can intensify by means of reduplication (se-se [tz’e-tz’e?], tzitik tzitik [tz’itik tz’itik?], chuchu, tutu’, chan chan); (4) cognates exist across several languages (bik’it, chuchu’/ch’uhch’); and (5) bio-metaphors exist, or an expansive reference from one thing, a small or young being, to a new moon or rising sun, and vegetal growth that is small, and likened reciprocally to a child (ch’ok). Diminutives themselves have, in some Mesoamerican languages, a self-deprecatory quality, sometimes combined with honorifics (Romero 2014:69). They might also affirm a mode of polite, careful address (Brown 1993). Tzotzil projects the use of diminutives as part of story-telling or entreaty (Laughlin 1975:17–19). Tenderness and delicacy are there, but also an almost humble (even wheedling) tone if to a social superior or a supernatural. That Latin American Spanish makes pronounced use of diminutives raises the possibility of indigenous influence on such usage (Eddington 2017; Walsh 1944).

From the Classic period, an inventory of reduced-scale objects would include (Figure 3): a temple (wayib) for a dynastic god at Copan, Honduras (Fash 2011:160, fig. 184); a micro-stela from Tikal, Guatemala (Moholy-Nagy, with Coe 2008:fig. 218, gg); another said to be from Uaymil, Campeche (photograph from John Bourne; Zender and Reents-Budet 2012:103–102, #83); and a city precinct of limestone, also from Tikal, with small holes that may represent chultunes or storage cavities (Laporte and Fialko 1995:fig. 74; n.b: this model, not a maquette for builders, shows a degree of architectural compaction that would be impossible in Maya cities; it does not correspond to any known sector of Tikal). These are consistently smaller, both absolutely and at reduced scale, in comparison to their inspirations. The micro-stelae do not have the long, deep bases of actual monuments—without such “espigas,” real stelae would list by imbalance or soil creep or topple with gusts of hard wind. The Copan temple model, a dwelling for a deity, is set apart by its smallness. By its marked, notable reduction in scale, it offers a hint of “co-activity” with the humans living nearby. Although crudely executed, a miniature stela said to be from Uaymil, Campeche, appears to bear the name of its carver. Evidently, despite its regrettable opacity, the stela was valued. A closer reading of its text could tell us much about the meaning of smallness among the Classic Maya.

Figure 3. Reduced scale among the Late Classic Maya: House “model” for god, Copan, Group 10L-2 (photograph by Barbara Fash, Fash 2011:160, fig. 184); miniature stela, Tikal, Op. 20D–72/43 (7.5 cm high, Moholy-Nagy, with Coe 2008:fig. 218, gg); Uaymil, Campeche Mexico (56.5 x 12.8 x 9.7 cm, photograph from John Bourne, TL 2009.20.196); Tikal “maquette,” Structure 5C-54 (Laporte and Fialko 1995:fig. 74).

Scalar inventions are in some ways the basis of Maya writing. The glyphs are, in a word, “calibrated.” They are images adjusted to a glyphic domain where variant scale cannot be accommodated within a single band of writing (Andréas Stauder, personal communication, 2019). The glyphs for a pyramid platform, a frontal stairway leading to its summit, and a stone-pedestaled altar on the Copan Hieroglyphic Stairway are nowhere near their relative scale—they have passed through a graphic process that makes them equivalent in size (Figure 4). Such calibration is necessary to all hieroglyphic systems. They must obey linearity, a language-based sequencing, but be framed within an area set off as writing. They are “reduced” but clarified further by a second adjustment in which relative size no longer mattered. Each glyph was probably central to Maya concepts of civic settlement. These were the places where ritual duties were performed. In what seems a necessary duality, platformed buildings existed with open-air altars used for sacrifice, sometimes of humans (see Caracol Altars 22 and 23; Grube 2020:fig. 13). To judge from glyphic reading order, the platforms took rhetorical precedence over the altars.

Figure 4. Stepped platform of two levels and pedestaled altar, Copan Hieroglyphic Stairway, Honduras, upper portion (Gordon 1902:pl XII, H).

Reduced scale ceramics are found on Maya sites, if not in great number. But they do appeal to collectors, as in the large troves in the Kislak Collection at the Library of Congress (Dunkelman 2007:11, 12, 13, 42, most descriptions by John B. Carlson) and a set of unprovenanced examples in the Museo de Antropología e Historia de Guatemala, most in its storerooms. Simply put, they are highly collectable. They are a discrete category of small size and, on a piece-by-piece basis, modestly priced on the art market. Their use and formal composition show evidence of variety and playfulness. Not at few at Uaxactun, Guatemala, display what might be called “componential inventions.” In trompe l’oeil fashion, they appear to fuse two distinct shapes, an open bowl with a water jug. They are small yet, even at that size, playing with much bigger forms.

Figure 5. Componential inventions, “bowls” with inserted “tinaja,” Tzakol or Early Classic miniatures, Uaxactun, Guatemala (R. Smith 1955:66, A10, 11).

The metaphors in such miniatures vary greatly. They can be versions of trophy heads or skulls, one at the Library of Congress with pummeled, swollen eyes and lips (Figure 6a; for larger examples, see Chase and Chase 2018:fig. 75; Inomata et al. 2010:fig. 8.46, likely modeled as a deceased captive). A piece from the Aguateca palace complex appears to show a figure in which the miniature becomes its satchel held by tumpline (Inomata et al. 2010:fig. 8.28f); another exhibits a small bug, probably a firefly, on a small vase (Inomata et al. 2010:fig. 8.27g). Others are skeuomorphs—cross-media transfers—from perishable to non-perishable materials, as in a gourd-shaped miniature from Uaxactun or flat, canteen-like flasks that might have reflected leather or wooden originals (Figure 6b; cf. flat, horizontally elongated flasks in Eppich 2011, a shape well-suited to figural scenes), or the small houses common in square shapes, sloping roofs with fringed thatch or leaves (Figure 6c). Churned out in large number, these last exemplify the mold-made productions that heightened access to hieroglyphic texts and high-style images (Card and Zender 2016; Matsumoto 2018, 2019). Curiously, many seem to have been produced in the area of Copan, the Motagua River Basin, but with eventual find spots in areas that had little evident literacy in glyphs: readable texts that were unread if admired. What is worth noting too is that many miniatures have counterparts in larger pots, but not all do, especially the “flat” or “canteen-like” flasks. For unclear reasons, the imagery is largely decoupled from the probable function of the miniatures, one of the few exceptions being a flask with a tobacco plant (e.g., Houston et a. 2006:fig. 3.9b).

The wit here is notable, a skull like a receptacle, a “house” that stored limited contents, a gourd that did the same. They resemble, and are likened to, things they are not, but with a looser semblance of function. That marking of special shape and small holdings—tobacco is one likely content (Houston et al. 2006:114–116, figs. 3.9–3.10; see also Loughmiller-Cardinal and Zagorevski 2016)—may explain their inclusion in special deposits or caches at Caracol, Belize (e.g., Chase and Chase 2018:fig. 72a), and Tikal (Problematic Deposits 116, 169, Culbert 1993:figs. 114b, 148g, 155b), or in the Barranca Escondida chasm at Aguateca, Guatemala (Inomata et al. 2010:fig. 8.59). These are variant sizes in symbolically marked spaces. The presence of copal or resin in some such miniatures hints at other sacred offerings to be combusted by fire (R. Smith 1955:figs. 9k, 12n).

Figure 6. Miniatures and metaphors: (a) swollen, bleeding head, perhaps with eyes removed (Kislak Collection, Library of Congress); (b) a “gourd” (A. L. Smith and Kidder 1943:fig. 52d); (c) “house” with God D, quetzal bird, and dwarf, Tazumal, El Salvador (Card and Zender 2016:fig. 4); and a “house” flask with ballplayer scene (Yale University Art Gallery, 2018.12.8, gift of Peter David Joralemon).

A few, up on four supports, are more likely to be sedan chairs. A creature sprawls on its roof, and four feet elevate it for resting on an uneven or muddy surface. Both are portable, one by a single hand, the other, judging by the handbars, by at least two heaving porters (see also K6759). Other miniatures have two small “ears” for lashing the stopper or suspension around the neck—if with tobacco powder, a short distance to the nose (Inomata et al. 2010:figs. 8.15c, 8.16a, 8.19a, b, 8.25h, 8.27g).

Figure 7. Miniature as sedan chair, Magdalena, Guatemala (left, see Figure 1a, above), and Late Classic vase (right, K767, courtesy Justin Kerr).

In fact, an image of a male rat or pocket gopher may display a unique image of a miniature in use. The rodent clutches a small object that may be self-referential, the flask in use, close to the face (Figure 8).

Figure 8. Miniature shown in possible use, Bodega, Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología (photograph Stephen Houston).  

The glyphs on the flasks and miniature jars need their own study. A few refer explicitly to tobacco snuff (see above), but, notably, the owner is not always specified: in flexible phrasing, “the dwelling [yotoot] of his or her snuff [may]” applies to the first owner all the way to the last. One who is specified carries almost a casual, stripped-down record, a-ku MO’-‘o, “Turtle Macaw,” without the titles that would further identify him.

Most texts are, if legible, highly formulaic, with glyphs repeated and reordered into what seems a jumble. One has an upside text (American Museum of Natural History 30.2/ 6083). These glyphs are generally syllabic, perhaps a nod to consumers unfamiliar with the language: ko-lo, che?-ye/HA’?-ka, AJAW, AJ-cha?-la, XOOK?, and, most clearly, ch’o-ko (e.g., K7122; one molded text may even allude to a “great youth,” CHAK ch’o-ko). The presence of this, a term for “youth,” could refer to these as flasks intended for young men as gifts in rites of passage (Houston 2018:80–81). At the least, their broad occurrence suggests a certain degree of impersonality, a more generic sort of reference. Yet the biometaphors for small things may indicate an alternative: the ch’ok are the objects themselves (Figures 1, 7). A flask with incised, post-fire text reinforces this possibility with a name-tag that simply reads, u-ch’o-ko ch’a-jo?-ma, u ch’ok ch’ajoom, “[this is] the ch’ok of the incense [priest]” (Coe 1971:137, pl. 76).

That there was aesthetic and emotional regard for miniature vases seems undeniable. Metaphors informed their shape and decoration. They may have satisfied cravings if filled with snuff, or served rituals as handy places for copal (tobacco might also be burned on such occasions). They were not just lowly and workaday but could find their way, votive-like, into sacred caches or, testifying to royal use, on the floors and benches of a rapidly abandoned palace. Like a locket, they could be kept on one’s person. The beauty of other small things invoked yet other metaphors. A small conch of unknown provenance has on it a text that spells out “[this is] his hummingbird conch” (Figure 9). [4] Not because any such bird cavorts on its surface, but because “hummingbird” was an expression—and is so used today—for a “very small” thing in Ch’orti’ Maya (Hull 2016:462). In that language, superbly documented by Kerry Hull, it concerns living things, a turkey (or, today, a chicken), a dog, rooster (gayu, from Spanish gallo), a person or, in this example, a small conch cradled in the hand. A tiny bird, anomalous in many ways—fragile yet fierce, of shocking speed and wayward flight—extends to a once-living shell that was probably a rarity in the place it was made.

Figure 9. Small conch, u-tz’u-nu2 HUB-nu, u tz’unun hub, “his hummingbird conch” (photographer unknown).

Reduced scale has many meanings, not all, for the ancient Maya, explicable on available evidence. The allusions could be “playful,” even if to a scooped-out head. (Amusement is a universal but not what prompts it.) And if affection and humility are discernible a millennium out, those feelings may also have enveloped small things. The small and the large appear to intensify responses to them. Some objects were crude, perhaps modeled by children, but there is no proof that the young were involved other than, perhaps, as recipients. Moreover, Burke’s conviction that only large things inspired awe has grounds for disbelief. From the Preclassic period on, the stone effigies of Chahk, the ferocious storm and rain god, were mostly small: powerful in ways that could split trees and blast rock yet rest in the hand; wielders of lightning some decimeters high at most; cut with care, brought to high polish, each quite tactile (e.g., Coe 1973:25, pl. 1, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, ANT.236866; Princeton University Art Museum, y1990-74; American Museum of Natural History 30.3/ 2507). Where these were kept in Classic or earlier times cannot be known. Yet, although things of awe, they could, by human contact, by their small, holdable size, come under human control.

[1] For the Tayasal image: The Hollis repository also contains a photograph of a large seated figure from Laguna Cilvituk, a fired effigy that also dates to the Postclassic period (58-34-20/53638). The Tayasal statue might have had the same pose, the legs drawn up in throned position.

[2] As a label, “miniature” comes from the practice of limning small paintings. It derives from Latin minium, “red lead” or “cinnabar (see the Trésor de la Langue Française informatisé,;s=1921873545;).

[3] On the Phoenix Jewel:

[4] The term for conch may lose vowel complexity over time: hu[bi] and, in possessed form, yu-bi are attested (, position D1, the other from a photograph kindly shared by David Stuart). The example here contains a logograph HUB and a subfixed bu. For incisive discussion: Zender (2017:16–17, fn32), who proposes, for future discussion, a spelling less about vowel complexity than “selected [so as] to minimize orthographic variation in possessed contexts.”


My thanks go to Simon Martin for organizing a session, on Feb. 25, 2020, at the Kluge Center, Library of Congress, where I first presented some of these ideas. The meeting was stimulating, and a warm memory from just before the pandemic. Karl Taube was helpful in discussing little gods who were also “big,” and Christina Halperin and David Stuart were supportive too.


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Maya Creatures IV: Why Do Dogs Dress Up?

Stephen Houston and Andrew Scherer

To the memory of Robert M. Laughlin (1934–2020)

Quoting a psalm, Carl Linnæus began a major treatise on classification with words of praise for his Creator: “How great are your works! … how filled the Earth with your possessions!” [1] A few pages in, citing Seneca, he laid out his vision of this divine plan (Linnæus 1758:6, 12). Deus creavit, Linnaeus disposuit — “God creates” but “Linnaeus disposes” (Reid 2009:23). For him, political metaphors such as “empire” and “kingdom” embraced, among other classes, the novel term of “mammalia” for creatures that nursed their young and dominated the regnum animale. In that broader kingdom were other creatures, including birds, amphibians, fish, insects, and, last and least, worms, creatures without feet or wings, eyes, ears or nostrils. But, unlike plants, all could sense and move. The most basic category, lapides or “rocks,” simply “piled” up (Linnæus 1758:6).

Mammalia had one ambiguous occupant. To Linnæus, humans were the final and most perfect of the Creator’s works. Tasked with venerating their maker, they lodged at the summit of his classification yet also jostled with “simians,” lemurs, and bats (Linnæus 1758:7, 18). For theological reasons, this was a claim with consequences, disturbing at the time to Linnæus himself ( Darwin, after all, lurked only a century away. Creatures so classified might represent a divine plan or share features arising from common descent. Each involved a different story or explanation. One had a sentient agent, an “author” of it all. The other unfolded in ways conditioned by gradual, unwitting process.

For Linnæus, relations between species and their settings—their “ecology”—was not of central concern, although he did pay attention to certain kinds of behavior. By an early theory of his, barn swallows left Sweden seasonally, not by flying south, but by wintering at the bottom of ponds (Reid 2009:23). Nor did he ignore time, for fossils clearly indicated some shifts from the past (Reid 2009:27). Folklore mixed with precise observation. In formative years, by some evidence, he might have believed in trolls.

For those who do not live in 18th-century Sweden, or write to others in Latin epistles, Linnæus still offers four relevant queries: (1) what, in other places and times, is an animal?; (2) are their traits changeable?; (3) what stories account for such animals?; and (4) how, if at all, are humans animals or animals human? These are sovereign questions of science but especially for anthropology. Much recent thinking on these matters comes from those who look at the peoples of Amazonia. Philippe Descola (2013, 2017) and Eduardo Vivieros de Castro (1998) are central contributors here, although their subtle ideas and debates evade rapid summary (see Vanzolini and Cesarino 2014, also Fitzgerald 2013; Halbmayer 2013; on inter-species communication, Kohn 2013; for antecedents, von Uexküll 2010 [1934, 1940]).

One theme stands out. People everywhere follow “schemas” that link, contrast, and relate themselves to other beings (Descola 2013:112–116). Descola (2013:207–209, 233, fig. 2) posits several, which he organizes into a grid of attributes defined by their “interiorities” (souls or minds) and “physicalities” (outward form, matter, and behavior). In Mesoamerica, for example, “analogism” involves living things that possess multiple essences and bodies (Descola 2013:226). A plurality of souls or energies inhabit quite different beings, but those surging forces may also extend from one to the other. Their “interiorities” are dissimilar, as are their “physicalities.” Exemplified by Amazonia, “animism” presents a major contrast, consisting of humans and other creatures with “similar interiorities” and “dissimilar physicalities” (Descola 2013:233, fig. 2). Whatever their external appearance, often of great diversity, animals may be “human” too. They share an interiority with us, or perhaps, if they were once like us, they no longer are (Halbmayer 2013:13). Stories help to explain how that happened.

Descola (2013: 129) absorbs plants into his classification, if lightly so, but he would not seem to entertain the possibility of other sorts of life. For some Maya, sources insist, malignant sewing machines, automobiles, evangelical music, scissors, rainbows, and ravenous outcrops harbor their own energies and willful minds, as, anciently, did water and whirlwinds (Houston 2006; Pitarch 2011:43, 44, 49; Stuart 2007). In a few of these, “[a]nger churns, along with an unforgiving appetite for vengeance” (cf. Houston 2014:79; n.b.: variation in such ideas and their underlying rationales are the norm, even within a single community [Laughlin 2000:105]). In general, Descola and Vivieros de Castro pass over the world of artifice and material culture, the objects and features not thought to be alive in Western thought (Houston 2014:78). Nor is it certain that one ontology excludes others, a point made by some Amazonian specialists in response to Descola (Coehlho de Souza 2013:427–428), or that the schemas fall into tidy Lévi-Straussian grids. This is not to discount the careful effort and intellectual ambition behind Descola’s work. Influenced by Keith Thomas (1983) on English animals, he has focused more recently on shifting relations between humans and birds (Descola (2001; 2017:118–121). Such creatures—talking, mimicking, emotional, intelligent, yet feathered and flying—serve as productive foils for people. No ideas on earth, not even ontological schemas, want for history (e.g., Atıl 1981; Boia 1995; Pastoureau 2005; Sahlins 2017; Salisbury 1994).

What is human or animal intrigued the Classic Maya and their descendants. Consider the terms for “animal.” In Colonial Tzotzil, they are tagged by locomotion or habitual position, with words relating to quadrupedalism. Thus: kot (Laughlin 1988, I:224) and, in other languages, koht (Tzeltal, Polian 2017:44, 87). In Ch’ol, there is a numeral classifier, kojt, for “animals,” as well as an intransitive verb, kojt, for standing on four legs (Hopkins et al. 2010:100, 103). In several languages, plants are “seeded” yet also planted, with no chance of mobility, whether on four legs or two (Ciudad Real 2001:479). Plants stay put. Curiously, Ch’orti’ employs a similar root for “person,” pak’ab’, perhaps because of pervasive beliefs about the vegetal, maize-like nature of humans (Hull 2016:322). The use of human anatomy to describe plants is common in languages such as Tzotzil. Humans and plants may be described by similar expression, hair equated to corn silk, or a lazy man to unproductive land (Laughlin 2000:tables 2–4).

Yukatek also contributes -kot for such “animals without reason” (Ciudad Real 2001:120), specifically quadrupeds (Barrera Vásquez et al. 1980:338; see also Common Ch’olan *kot, “bent over, crouching, like an animal [Kaufman and Norman 1984:123]). Possibly affected by Christian belief, Ch’ol refers, in an “obsolete” term, to animals by means of negation and a studied contrast with humans. They are creatures “without souls” (ma’ch’ujlel, Hopkins et al. 2010:138). In Q’eq’chi’, “animal,” xul, implies those who are unbaptized, wild, a label applied in rebuke to unruly children (Sam Juárez et al. 1997:420–421). Humans, by comparison, are winik. They have 20 digits, a sum implied by the fingers and toes tallied together. But they are also imbued with will and destiny in a calendrical framework organized in part by this number (Houston and Inomata 2009:57–58). People count with their bodies, a finger or hand at a time. Days are latent in those digits.

What binds rather than separates animals and humans is a sense that both are “born” of a female, al, and that both have “fleshy” bodies, bak’etel (Tzeltal, Polian 2017:119, 334, 684; cf. the possibly related Ch’orti’ arak’, “animal” [Hull 2016:40; cf. Wisdom 1950:453, arak, “domestic animal”; also in Yukatek, Barrera Vásquez et al. 1980:10; Ciudad Real 2001:62)]. Charles Wisdom notes that, in Ch’orti’, ar, “mammal, animal” is “opposed to plant” [Wisdom 1950:452]). Tzeltal speaks of “animals,” chambahlum, by seeming to combine two formidable creatures, “snake,” chan, and “jaguar,” bahlam, to encompass all animals (Polian 2017:178; cf. 138, 178; n.b.: by phonological assimilation, the nasal consonant n goes to m before a bilabial b; for “jaguar,” see Ch’ol bahlum [b’ajlum]; Hopkins et al. 2010:212).

These distinctions, of habitual posture, relative mobility and wildness, or fleshiness, extend to certain plants. A late 6th-century vase in the Mint Museum–Randolph shows a variety of “just-so” stories worthy of Rudyard Kipling (Figure 1). One collection of Mayan tales calls them “‘how’ and ‘why’ stories” (Shaw 1971:24). The scene to the left could have been called “How the Jaguar Got Its Spots.” Holding a conch, ink receptacle, and brush, a rodent applies (one presumes) the spots on a feline—in all likelihood, a visual story that serves as etiology, an account of cause-and-effect. The pliant jaguar is in the kot position, if resting on its haunches. He sits atop what may be the Jaguar God of the Underworld, en face, with three stones in its mouth. A possible participant to the right—see the rodent’s tail reaching out, tendril-like, to touch this image—is a seated figure with hand raised to the forehead. Long ago, David Stuart identified this pose as the lamentation gesture associated with skeletal death gods or beings in distress (personal communication, 1983). Such a pose occurs with the Maize God, sinking in his canoe, on the incised bones from Tikal Burial 116 and also with a foreign day sign for “Death” on Jimbal Stela 1:B4. [2] On the vase are three stones just beneath this figure. Around his body flares an aureole of the serrated but succulent leaves (pencas) of the agave plant. From this plant comes the alcoholic beverage pulque, chih in Classic Ch’olti’an (Houston et al. 2006:120, 122, fig. 3.16). This is extracted from fluids (aguamiel) that pool, after human scraping, at the core of the plant (Parsons and Parsons 1990:35–45).

Figure 1. How the jaguar got its spots, and the agave plant full of woe (close-up, K1558, photograph courtesy Justin Kerr).

The figure in woe is personified agave, often shown with bony features or, in alternate form, with the head of the rain deity, Chahk (Figure 2; see also Ek’ Balam, Room 29sub, Mural of the 96 Glyphs, V1, On occasion, the penca may be a variant of that god, with the syllable ‘o on its forehead (Houston et al. 2006:123, fig. 3.19; note, however, that this sign may simply be a stylized agave leaf). The agave plant appears to be ground, as agave can be, to process its fibers in either a green or burned state (penca cruda or penca asada); eventually, the strands will be plied into netting and cloth (Stuart 2014; see also Parsons and Parsons 1990:152). Possibly, the skeletal nature of the agave plant relates to the death-like, unconscious states induced by alcohol or the rooting of agave in hard, rocky landscapes (David Stuart, Karl Taube, personal communications, 2020); Chahk too has stony associations in the context of certain month names, perhaps because of lightning strikes by this god and its vitalizing effects on bedrock (cf. La Muerta Monument 1, Guatemala [Suyuc et al. 2005:fig. 9]). [3]

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Figure 2. Head of O’ Chahk(?) as agave for grinding or roasting (left, K1882), and personified agave in partly skeletal form (K1558, photographs courtesy Justin Kerr).

Or the metaphor of death ran deeper. By tradition, the tool for cutting the plant, a hooked blade known in highland Mexico as a tajadera, bears an eerie resemblance to hooked blades in Teotihuacan that snag hearts or drip with clotted, sacrificial blood (cf. Parsons and Parsons 1990:28, pls. 21–22; O’Neil 2017:fig. 25.5; Sugiyama 2017:pl. 61). Perhaps this was an agricultural trope for bloodletting and sacrifice. Slicing away at a penca to pry at its center recalled a similar act on a human torso. Because of its slashing, intrusive nature, the extraction of pulque killed the plant that yields it. For humans, heart extraction did the same (see Dehouve 2014).

Conceivably, the dark area around the agave deity represents the collecting node of raw liquid, aguamiel, the three stones below an allusion to the roasting of the plant for grinding into spinnable fiber, or even to a witz or hill (Parson and Parson 1990:152, 160–163). The evident pairing with the rodent and feline remain a mystery. What possible story was being told? The three stones under the agave plant and the jaguar suggest some commonality of hearth-like heat, beyond the speculations about the roasting of pencas and the stony, dry soil on which agave thrives. Taube wonders if those stones were simply allusions to witz or hills (personal communication, 2020). But most important here: the immobile plant bears arms, legs, fleshy body (if skeletal head). He wears a loincloth, has a mouth for eating, drinking, and talking, eyes to see. That the companion scene appears as an etiological image, an explanation for why the jaguar has spots, suggests it operates in the same domain of first things. To exist in a story, to interact with others, the plant must be animalized or made partly human.

Two observations: first, almost all creatures in Maya imagery are conventionalized; and, second, their visual treatment likely accords with a concept of “mythic prototypes” (Houston and Martin 2012). Classic images of animals can show remarkable sensitivity to behavior, a spider monkey scratching its armpit or a dog using its hind leg to relieve an itch in a hard-to-reach place (Figure 3). But armadillos (Dasypus novemcinctus) have many more armored bands than in Maya images, which greatly reduce the number of triangular osteoderm scales. Conventionalization isolates and enhances an essential identifier. But no bat known to the Maya flashed eyeballs or, in some cases, cross-bones on their wings, nor did most scratching dogs have jaguar paws. These highlight another feature, the mythic prototype, a “first exemplar” or, with the jaguar-dog, a distinct hybrid like nothing in nature: “[t]o see and depict such things and beings might have been, for the ancient Maya, a binocular process. It perceived the specific in the general, and the general amidst the wondrous particulars of ever-present myth” (Houston and Martin 2012). Less an armadillo, than the armadillo, or that armadillo, not any bat, but a very particular bat or monkey of which stories were told.

Figure 3. Conventionalized and mythologized animals: armadillo (upper left), Yaxha Offering 10 (YXMM 098, Wurster 1999[?]:30); bat (upper right, Museum of Fine Arts Boston MA 1988.1187, photograph courtesy Justin Kerr); spider monkey (lower left, K7525, photograph courtesy Justin Kerr); and hybrid dog (lower right, K7525, photograph courtesy Justin Kerr).

The monkey and the hybrid dog in Figure 3 are a kind of being identified some 30 years ago in Maya texts and imagery: the way, dream-“alter” or companion spirit (for decipherment and initial catalogue, Houston and Stuart 1989; Grube and Nahm 1994). For Descola (2013:208–217), such creatures in Mesoamerica embodied “analogism,” although it is doubtful he knew (or knows) of the glyphic evidence. The Mayanist literature on these beings is large, as is the number of controversies about their precise nature or role (for an excellent, illustrated review, see Just 2012, esp. pp. 131–132). Most appear in single registers (e.g., K531, K771, K1181, K5512, K9291), or they float in multiple registers, a few on a ground line. Several fly because they are creatures of the air, birds, bats, insects; others disobey gravity (K791, K927, K1211). A few lie almost on their bellies, constrained by the low height of a bowl that displays them (K1203). The format controls the scene, not vice versa. Hinting at unpredictability, they whip up to wild or indecorous motion (K3392). Mouths often gape; they are noisy, shake rattles or blow flutes and conches.

And they do things. One bowl displays, in order, a man-bat throwing stones, a person cutting off his own head, a small jaguar lashed to a stick held up by a human-animal, a partly defleshed jaguar brandishing an enema syringe and the olla to hold that liquid (K3395). They are never just a jaguar, just this or that animal. They involve hybrid, combinatory, naturally impossible creatures that exist in different times of day (dog and jaguar) or parts of the forest (deer on the ground, monkey in trees). Or they are beings, like skeletons, that should not walk but do. Making the impossible possible, they go to the essence of dreams and the physical liberations and unease of that experience. Notably, none have anything to do with each other. They are seemingly heedless of their neighbors on the pots. In a few cases there are subtle graphic integrations between them. A vase at the Princeton Art Museum shows a triadic pattern of sight-lines that plays out across the surface (Figure 4). These are probably a nod, too, to three viewing frames on a cylindrical vessel. Unlike the entire image, they could be seen without pivoting the vase. The standing figures are probably not in that position because of any hierarchy of spirits, but to “pace” and configure the graphic triads.

Figure 4. Interlocking eye-lines across field of way spirits, Ik’ kingdom (triangles added to K791, The Princeton Art Museum, Princeton, NJ PUAM# y1993-17, photograph courtesy Justin Kerr).

Others sport with discrete, non-integrated figures that nonetheless retain the dominant orientation of reading: starting at left, moving right (Figure 5). Note that the final figure—the first figure correlates, probably, with the beginning of the rim band text—swivels awkwardly, despite his body orientation, to match the other faces. All are hybrid animals, tapir-cats, fire-snorting peccaries, deer with eyes swinging out of their orbits. Yet none exhibit the kot, four-legged position that should confirm their animality. The bipedalism reinforces another element: they wear clothing, their privates are covered. The personified agave plant from the Mint Museum–Randolph has a loin cloth as well (Figure 2).

Figure 5. Facial orientation of way (K1743, photograph courtesy Justin Kerr).

The way beings exhibit another quality. They have a visual history. The glyph for them is attested in Early Classic texts, if mostly in what appear to be references to the Holmul area or temples (WAY[bi], loci where deities lay dormant until “awokened” (Estrada-Belli et al. 2009:246–248, fig. 10; Houston and Inomata 2009:fig. 2.3). The list of where way do not appear is impressive. It localizes to a very few kingdoms or regions: the Ik’ territory (named after the main component of its Emblem glyph), centered on the western reaches of Lake Peten Itza in Guatemala, in and around the so-called “Mirador” basin, but also north to Calakmul, Naranjo, and especially the polity of El Zotz. That city and its surroundings innovated this form of spiritual display. Several of its way occur on a number of pots—the reasons for their co-occurrence are unclear. Some are unique, as on K9254 (Figure 6). It displays a tailed, part-human, moving acrobatically, legs aloft, the hands doing the work. Indeed: the text describes him as mi-bi/BIX?-ni?, “no road/no goes [walks?],” followed by a reference to his status as a way (for BIX, see Stuart 2012). The way glyph materializes in a variant form, with infixed “ajaw,” that was first identified by David Stuart (personal communication, 1990). Karl Taube (2005:25–28, figs. 2–3) suggests it might be a version of the acrobatic Maize god, a form of a world tree that would be disinclined to move.

Figure 6. “Walking” (or not-walking”) on hands (excerpt, K9254, photograph courtesy Justin Kerr).

The first appearance of such tableaux at El Zotz, and hence of the Classic period, date to the first years of the 7th-century AD. They last for only a few generations, culminating sometime between AD 625–650. Most of the painters must have known each other, or they came from ateliers working over a relatively short span. The ceramics have a red background (a hallmark of local ceramics [de Carteret 2013]), unprovenanced but of similar date, highlighting an unusual graphic variant of a pronoun in their rim band texts; polychrome accents embolden their texts. The El Zotz vases also reveal a wide gradient of execution and legibility. The most skilled have regular spacing and a careful discharge of brush ink (K4922, K7525). Others display legible texts, but maladroit use of ink and diminished control over glyph sizes (K5084, K7720, K9098). At the far end are bare competence and sometimes worse (K1379).

There were regional emphases of way in these sets of drinking vessels. In the menagerie: ti-IL HIX, “Tapir Feline/Jaguar” (perhaps linked to Xultun, Guatemala); K’an Baah Ch’o “yellow pocket-gopher rat” (found modeled in stucco on the wall facade at Tonina, Mexico); a deer with extruded eyes on optical stalks (found also on “codex-style” vases to the north of El Zotz); a deer-monkey, ‘o-chi-la MA’X; a kind of fox, CHAK? ta-na~TAHN-na wa-xi~xa, “Red Chest Fox”; a hunter’s bundle with his conch and a deer head extruding a snake; a feline with enema equipment; and a fire-breathing bat and peccary. Why these way and no others were featured here has not been explained.

A well-known attribute is their relation to exalted dynastic titles and, on occasion, to places. At El Zotz, for example, a hunting death god was the way of local kings (Figure 8). Yet the vague, generic use of the royal titles, without reference to specific historical figures, raises the chance the way do not exist in contemporary time—i.e., they may not have a direct connection to dynastic figures of the Late Classic period. On one vase, a way is associated with Naah-5-Chan. This was the celestial abode of the so-called “paddler” gods, named after their service in a canoe with the Maize God (K791, Figure 4).

Figure 8. A local way of the kingdom of El Zotz; note the wasp-nest in his antler (excerpt, K2023, photograph courtesy Justin Kerr).

Only one figure, a male in swirling water with fishes (HA’-la wi-WINIK-ki, “watery man/person”), appears to relate intrinsically to an Emblem, one with bubbling, swirling fluid as a key component (Figure 9, K1256; see Helmke et al. 2018). In fact, all scenes potentially relate to mythic periods, their red background indexing ancient times when such gatherings took place: an ordering of gods (tz’ahkaj) at the “place of the sun,” K’IN-chi-IL (e.g., K7750). What had been a local aesthetic preference for red backgrounds may have acquired the symbolic nuance of “pre-dawn” events in a dim realm on the verge of sunlit ordering (Hamann 2002).

Figure 9. A Way, “Watery Man/Person” with Emblem glyph of swirling water (excerpt, K1256, photograph courtesy Justin Kerr).

Such are the way: asocial or even anti-social, active in wild ways, loud, far from the decorum of kings, composite in nature, the impossible made possible, gravity itself in question, and possibly timeless in their nature and depiction. The political grafting in some cases—a ruler mentioned for the dynasties of Tikal, Palenque, etc.—was projected far backwards, to unnamed, generic holders of high titles. Or rather, the assumption that such figures are depicted in dynastic time, when the pots were painted, is unproven. They are just as likely to exist in myth or some “other-time,” an alternative, parallel state. The historical references to their owners have few secure ties to the scenes on the body of these ceramics. A pot from the area of El Zotz refers to the local way; the renowned “Altar de Sacrificios” vase, clearly from Lake Peten Itza, and the territory of 13 K’uh, mentions its regional way, Chak Bahlam (with blood-gorged mouth; K3120, MNAE 07901). But these are the exceptions. Their association with other spirits on pots continues to baffle.

Why do these spirits occur, and in a particular order? The apparently random arrangements are highlighted on a vase in the Princeton Art Museum (Figure 10; cf. Figure 4). A courtly scene is explicable, a social hierarchy made visible—these are even clear in the divine analogies to courts that appear to have been “established” at the beginning of the Era, on 4 Ajaw 8 Kumk’u (K2796 and its expansion on K7750). The spatial organization of way conform to no sure rules.

Figure 10. Disposition of Emblems and place names with way on Late Classic vase, Ik’ kingdom (K791, The Princeton Art Museum, Princeton, NJ PUAM# y1993-17, photograph courtesy Justin Kerr).

Behind Linnæus was not just the meticulous comparison of formal, anatomical features or broad behavior. There was the Old Testament, a story, if one to be doubted at his peril. (Dismissal of the Bible was a bold step he had no interest in taking.) Stories as gendered as those of the Book of Genesis seem also to have configured Classic Maya practice. Time and distance shaped such story-telling. In Maya writing, all supposed speech acts, those that report conversations, are either in times somewhat past—those on Piedras Negras Panel 3 may involve people no longer alive at time of carving (Houston and Stuart 1993; Law et al. 2013; Zender 2017). Or they occurred in mythic time, long past, or in some alternative, concurrent stream of existence.

Some are a distinct subset, the y-ala-j-iiy expressions recording one-way comments between gods, hummingbirds, dwarves, rabbits, dog-coatis, kinds of parrot, and receptive ladies (e.g., K2026, K4999, K7727, K8885). They are hardly conversations, which imply give-and-take. In emotional tone, they veer from solemn to comical, and many involve that exalted personage, God D. Typically, hierarchs speak to subordinates, no back-talk allowed. Exceptions include lowly beings reporting on some disconsolate failure, a dearth, or having too much of something else (K2026). In texts, the conversation comes first, then its social contextualization. One incised alabaster bowl has that quotative contextualization on its bottom, only legible when the object is lifted for imbibing its contents (Princeton University Art Museum, 2002-370, K3296).

Two features of these interactions are worth noting. In fact, they apply to most animals in Classic Maya imagery. First, creatures in active interaction with humans usually wear human clothing. A few vases exhibit journeys—of a duration indicated, perhaps by sequent day names (the reversed day names, Ak’ab, Ik’, Imix, suggest a return trip or some more subtle unspooling of time). A spotted dog pads along beneath a lord’s litter as his evident companion, sounding alarms, sniffing out game (Figure 11). In the image to the left, a dog is a dog. In that to the middle, it may paw its master’s foot (God D’s) in entreaty, but it sits as a human might and wears a loincloth and cross-tie bracelets; the rope around the neck is an indication, along with the white cloth, of its captive, controlled state. To be truly interactive, in mythic contexts, the animals adopt human attributes. Presumably, this transformation enabled intelligible speech. Dogs dressed up because, this implies, full sociality requires some human attributes. An interactive ecology grounded in field and forest is transposed to human courts and built space.

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Figure 11. Animals that do and do not dress up, two dogs and a ti-la ch’o-ko, “tapir youth” (left and center photographs courtesy Justin Kerr, “Aussie Pot,” photographer unknown).

With that interaction made possible, human females can have affective relations that range from nursing or coddling a small mammal to embracing a rabbit lover (Halperin 2014:fig. 4.28b), or they might be carried off (ku-cha-ja) by randy deer equipped with the pectorals, collars, and belts of human males (K1182, K2794); wrapped with masculine loincloths, woodpeckers speak to herons (K4931). They dress like people, they sit like them too. This is a matter of shared interiority, with acknowledgement of a dissimilar physicality that nonetheless blurs with humans. It also relates, in a manner consistent with Vivieros de Castro, to a “time when the cosmos’ multiple entities shared a generic human condition and were thus able to communicate with each other,” only to suffer, at some point “severe disruption, which results in the transformation of the numerous types of humans that existed…into the different present-day species of animals” (Vanzolini and Cesarino 2014). Writing of Tzotzil beliefs, Robert Laughlin (1979:2) observes: “[a]t a later stage in the history of the world animals still talked and men travelled as thunderbolts. Spooks and jaguars were rampant” (see also Shaw 1971:12). For the Classic Maya, this was not about a dominant schema, whether of animism or analogism. Depending on story and setting, it had aspects of both.

A festival of “humanimals” appears on the “Vase of the 31 Gods” (Figure 12). Not endowed with texts, it implies them in abundance, the exclusive reliance of imagery perhaps being the point. Viewers had to know these tales, relations, motivations, and outcomes of this bustle of intense conversations. The animals show surface dissimilarities, but many human properties too, including an upright, seated posture, loincloths, collars, and bracelets. The red background points to some far time.

Figure 12. Vase of the 31 Gods (K1386, photograph courtesy Justin Kerr).

Yet, despite the absence of glyphs, there is both a quasi-textual parsing and quasi-textual sequencing in the multiple ground-lines and presumed top-to-bottom ordering (Figure 13). The viewer needed to understand a great deal about the outcomes of these various meetings. The huddles could not have taken place at once, for God D makes several appearances. In possible self-reference, the images may even allude to the bowl that exhibits the images: three such receptacles occur in lower registers to the right, once in the company of a jaguar offering an enema syringe. This is a convivial assembly. And more than most, the complex, multi-frame scene offers a compendium of “humanimals,” with much still to decode.

Figure 13. Presumed grouping and “reading order”; contrastive outlines highlight distinct sets of interactions; “star” indicates possible beginning (photograph courtesy Justin Kerr).

The second observation confronts an overlooked attribute of Classic Maya images. Where genitalia are visible, or clothing worn, they seem all to be male or, at least gender-neutral or male default. Clothing is highly gendered in Maya imagery, serving as a surrogate for a less discreet display of penises or other primary or secondary characteristics. The deer that carried off human females: male. Scribal monkeys: male. The dogs discussed above: male. Lovers of women: male. The visual cues to females, principally by showing them with their young, are almost non-existent in Maya imagery, including the figurines of wide use and, in some sites, wide distribution (Halperin 2014:fig. 4.17, 4.23). Tales assembled by various scholars refer generically to this or that animal, yet, to curious extent, females of those species are scarcely mentioned. [4] Tricksters, found throughout the region, seem also to be masculine (cf. the Amazon, Basso 1997:111, 216.226, which nonetheless draws a line from tricksters to normative male aggression; Allen Christenson also comments to us that the K’iche’ Título de Totonicapán refers to one of the trickster “hero-twins” as female). Males or the gender-neutral appear to be the default in story-telling. Yet the effect is not always laudatory. Rendering animals as male underscores the androcentricity (male-centered quality) of Classic elites. It also implies that human males are more prone to animal-like behaviors and unchecked desires.

Images that pair male and female animals can be counted on one hand (Figure 14). A whistle from El Kinel, Guatemala, identifies a male turkey by his wattle and ostentatious jewelry, including a necklace. The female is, as in nature, of plainer, less strutting sort. A finer point may be discerned, that royal males were frequently shown in eye-catching display, “peacocking” in a word. But for cultural and aesthetic reasons: it would be an overreach to invoke evolutionary theories about securing mates (Prum 2017). Or, for animals and captives, the display of penises related to their innate bestiality, as well as to deliberate acts of humiliation—a zoöphobic trope attested in other Maya evidence (Houston et al. 2006:207–219). When more human than animal, the privates are covered. When less human, or degraded socially, they are not.

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Figure 14. Gender in animal depiction: (a) tom turkey and hen, El Kinel, Guatemala; (b) tom turkey figurine, Piedras Negras Operation 41D-21-2; (c) female monkey in human garb and pose, Piedras Negras Operation 46F-19-1; and (d) dog(?) in huipil (K3844, photograph courtesy Justin Kerr).

Yet, an ultimate explanation for the gendering may have to do with a profound inequality of the time. Most documented makers of images were men, who seem to have devised and upheld an androcentric mode of depiction (Houston et al. 2006:51–56; Houston 2016). Among the few female animals are a monkey, dressed as a human but with simian face (Figure 14c), and what may be a dog or fox, robed in a huipil or female garment (Figure 14d). The red-background, “glowing” eyes produced by excision, and darkness on foregrounded figures bespeak a different state, perhaps a very different time. The glyphs nearby (Sak 3 Ook K’inich) do not indicate a female, however. Unlike others in the image, this figure may have no caption.

Animalia indeed: the evidence points to a thorough-going, masculine (or male-default) skewing, whatever the explanation. Almost all way are male, with only two exceptions (e.g., K2286), and those lack animal features or an explicit way designator. Trans-species sociality, however, including an ability to converse, scheme, and cavort sexually, needed more than that. There had to be human poses and raiment, a replication, with slight hints of animality, of human society itself.

Such dialogue was not of an everyday present. It took place in the far past, or in some alternative, even timeless existence that was nonetheless “true” (Shaw 1971:24): in Tzotzil, batz’i, “true” but also “‘primary’, ‘actual’, ‘essential’, ‘very’, and ‘principal'” (Gossen 1974:78). This separation was no less applicable to Maya deities. With few exceptions, they did not interact with historical figures in narrative scenes from the Classic period. Those that do seem to have been cradled or held as magical fetishes, as at La Amelia or the diminutive, squirming Chahk and flower-breathing jaguars at Xultun. [5] Others took the form of vitalized carvings, of which only a few survive (e.g., Fields and Reents-Budet 2005:158–159, 191–192, #58, #89).

Howard Bloch (2004:69–71), a specialist on Medieval France, stresses that the fables around interactions with animals are never timeless. They respond to reflections about tumultuous change, in his case the development of cities, courts, and urban spaces. Flourishing Maya courts, more and more congested cities, a distancing from untouched jungle, may have led Maya calligraphers and carvers to reflect like Linnæus on what was human, beast or both.


[1] For other entries in the “Maya Creatures” series, see Maya Musk, Dragons, Mosquitoes, Teeth, Fox.

[2] As noted by Stuart: the Jimbal glyph, with the number “13” and square, non-Maya cartouche. It is clearly the day sign “Death,” to judge from its position between 12 “Snake” and “1 Deer.”

[3] The syllable hi, which derives from his stone-like head, may come from a common term for “sand,” *hi in Common Ch’olan (Kaufman and Norman 1984:120). Possibly this was understood in Classic times as a material related to the vitrified product (fulgurite-like residues) of lightning strikes.

[4] For contrastive traditions with female-animal transformations and “animal-wives,” see Goddard (2018) and Kobayashi (2015). Consult Steiner (2005) for a less subtle claim about long-standing, Western beliefs in the equivalence of humans and animals. Sorabji (1993:10) reports on Plato’s view of animals as reincarnated humans, a clear assertion of spiritual parity. See also Shaw for Mayan tales (1971:17–18). On monkeys, Laughlin (1979:8, 41, 259), Thompson (1930, 1970:361–363), as well as Foster (1945) and Siegel (1943). George Foster does refer to female dogs in a non-Mayan, Popoluca tale (Foster 1945:226). For a thematic orientation to Maya myth, as based on distinct kinds of personage, see an insightful study by Chinchilla Mazariegos (2017). Allen Christenson (personal communication, 2020) observes that, in K’iche’, both humans and companion spirits are capable of reasoned thought, no’j. For useful sources on the “humanimal,” there are Mechling (1989), Ritvo (1997), Sax (1998, 2017), and Zipes (2012).

[5] The pose may correspond to the expression, 1-tahn, “first [thing] of the chest.” Usually, this applies to the relation of a mother to a child, perhaps from birth order, but a sense of intimate, physical custodianship may explain the gesture here. Rulers at Palenque, especially Kan Balam, employed such an expression with deities and buildings (Temple of the Inscriptions, West Panel:S11, Tablet of the Cross:G17).


This essay developed, along with other efforts, from a 2012–2014 Sawyer Seminar funded by the Andrew G. Mellon Foundation, “Animal Magnetism: The Emotional Ecology of Animals and Humans,” organized by Susan Alcock, John Bodel, and Stephen Houston; the sponsor was Brown’s Program in Early Cultures, which those three directed. In 2012, the kernel of these thoughts were given by Houston as part of that Seminar. Charles Golden, David Stuart, and especially Karl Taube helped as always; Allen Christenson provided relevant evidence from K’iche’ sources. “K” numbers correspond to Justin Kerr’s indispensable archive of rollout photographs, used here with his kind permission.


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A Sacrificial Sign in Maya Writing

Dmitri Beliaev and Stephen Houston

The human hand is, aside from the face, the most expressive of body parts. Held a certain way, fingers placed just so, it can reassure, offend, accentuate, direct. Among the Maya, as David Stuart observes, an extended pinky stands for elegance and skill. Dancers showed it, scribes too, perhaps to keep ink from smudging or to balance a brush over a page (

The hand also inflects terms for making and doing. In English, there are words like “command,” “mandate,” “manipulate,” all taken in part from Latin manus, “hand”; a person can be “handy” (dexterous); and, in Germanic languages, a sense of emotion merges with a tactile sense of “feeling” (e.g., Alpenfels 1955:15–16). The time depth of these notions goes far back, perhaps to a distant past. By various theories, the hand became associated, as humanity evolved, with effective tool use, meaningful gestures, hierarchy, and “goal-directed action” (Cochet and Byrne 2013:531).

The ancient Maya certainly associated the human hand with action and broader sets of meaning (e.g., Houston et al 2006:30; Palka 2002; Stuart 2002). Much gets mapped on this extremity. In Ch’olti’, for example, a Mayan language of the Colonial period, the pinky is the “child of the hand” (v-y-al ca cab [yal ka k’ab]). Ch’orti’, its descendant language, identifies the thumb as the “mother” of the other fingers (u tu’ uk’ab, Houston et al. 2006: 30). But, apart from glyphs like K’AB, “hand” (or syllabic k’a-ba)—and a few characters derived from hand measurements (e.g., a valuable study by Boot 2003:6; see also M. Coe 2003:199–200; Zender 2004)—many such signs show objects being held, scattered, indexed or supported in some way. To tabulate a few: []AL, CHOK, CH’AM, K’AL, TZAK, TZUTZ, along with rarities of more debatable reading. There is, for instance, a hand grasping a stone that may record one of several sounds, JATZ’ (Lopes 2003; Zender 2004:5–8) or perhaps tz’o or TZ’ON (Stuart 1997, see independent work on tz’o by Albert Davletshin [2001]). [1]

To throw a stone is the most basic aggression. Such projectiles are to be found in Maya sites, and doctoral research by Omar Alcover Firpi suggests many more weapons like them exist, often tossed by archaeologists unaware of their function (Alcover 2020). In fact, one complex mythic narrative—hinting at some Maya “rape of the Sabines,” with children and bleeding women, as well as suggestions of forced movement—depicts a male flinging a white stone from a hilly redoubt (Figure 1a). Another glyph, occurring most often in names, represents a hand holding an atlatl. As a glyph, that weapon could be oriented horizontally and vertically in the hand, and is mainly limited to the Early Classic period (Figure 1b, c, d, e). It appears in the name of the Teotihuacan overlord “Spearthrower Owl,” who ruled from AD 374 to AD 439 (Figure 1b–e, Stuart 2000:481–489). Its reading is thought by some to be the same as the hand grasping the stone, JATZ’, “hit, strike” (Davletshin 2001; Stuart 1997). On Tikal Stela 31, there are subtle links to the images just below the glyphs. A figure on the left side of the monument—the ruler on front was his clear focus—orients the atlatl towards the center; on the right side, another figure reverses the atlatl so as to maintain that consistent orientation to the ruler (Jones and Satterthwaite 1982:figs. 51a, b). Both of these companions, likely an earlier king, Yax Nuun Ahiin, in posthumous depiction, wear different headdresses. Perhaps this advertised distinct roles for the same person.

Figure 1. Hands that grasp and hurl: (a) stone-throwing event in mythic time (excerpt, K5451, courtesy of Justin Kerr); and hand grasping atlatl, jatz’oom (b, c, Tikal Marcador:C3, E9; d, Tikal Stela 31:L4; e, Tikal Stela 31:N3, photographs from the Proyecto Atlas Epigráfico de Petén, courtesy of the Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología de Guatemala, drawings, Jones and Satterthwaite 1981:figs. 51a, 52a).

The difficulty of analyzing this category of signs lies in their iconic composition. Since they represent a hand holding an object, it is hard to distinguish the basic form of the sign from superimposed glyphs that augment its reading. For example, on Altar 1 from Itzimte, Guatemala, a hand grasps a personified flint that potentially serves as a separate logogram. A royal name at Late Classic Itzimte, Jun Tzak Took’, confirms that the glyphs record two word signs, TZAK and TOOK’ (Beliaev and Vepretskii 2018:fig. 3). A similar pattern occurs on Stela 2 from Río Azul, Guatemala, where a TZAK hand grasps the head of God K (K’AWIIL) in the royal name Tzahkaj K’awiil (Beliaev 2017; Beliaev et al. 2017:118–120). Understanding these examples requires attention to context and variant spellings. Unitary signs, if complex in shape, need to be separated from those with two glyphs.

An undeniable logograph is a hand grasping a hooked obsidian blade, the standard shape for this dark, imported, sacrificial material (Figure 2, see also Houston 2014:23–27, fig. 15).

Figure 2. Obsidian-in-Hand glyph as part of name, Altar de Sacrificios Stela 12:C1–C3 (, Aug. 25, AD 524 [Julian], J. Graham 1972:fig. 35). The photograph appears to depict the blade with a faint sign for “dark.”

When its exotic nature is emphasized, often with Teotihuacan-related imagery, a gob of blood drips off the end. If took’, “flint,” inflicts the injuries of war, often in connection with the Sun God, obsidian, taaj, cuts flesh in acts of sacrifice; in fact, deity impersonators may do some of this work (see also Saturno et al. 2017:4, 8; see also Taube 1991). One implement, flint, seems of the day, the other, to judge from the ‘ak’ab markings on obsidian, of the dark and night (its natural black sheen fits too). In the example above, from Altar de Sacrificios, it is probably no coincidence that the being linked to the “Obsidian-in-Hand” sign is a deity whose mouth fills with blood.

Yet there can be some overlap of function in these materials. A vase from the early 8th century AD shows an otherwise unique image of a figure holding up an obsidian blade. In front, a subordinate displays a split or tear in his bulging back (Figure 3). From that split emerges a serpent, along with a tandem effusion of growth. The person cut in this way seems remarkably unperturbed, for his arms cross in patient subordination. The text above records, in its first part: 13 Ak’bal 1 TE’? Zotz’ ju-ta-ja ‘Flint-Wound”-PAAT?-ti. The unusual verb may relate to Colonial Yukatek <hut.ah ub>, “to saw wood” (Acuña 1993:225) [2] and Colonial Tzeldal <ghut> “to make stripe marking,” “to mark with iron tool” (Ara 1986:298). Another term in Yukatek, hutul, “nacer los brutos animales” (‘to be born, the brutish animals’), correlates with the rip or tear, a common visual allusion to birth or emergence (Cuidad Real 2002:270). At the least, the flint and depiction of the human back gloss the scene. Textually, the serrated flint stands in for sacrificial obsidian.

Figure 3. Splitting or sawing of person’s back with obsidian blade or knife (Robicsek and Hales 1981:fig. 9).

Similar signs for “tearing” or wounding” occur with an obsidian blade or knife (David Stuart, personal communication, 2001). Often, this complex, multi-component sign fuses with another glyph (Figure 4). A warrior at Itzan, Guatemala—his count of captives (20) is impressive—refers to a captive’s name that joins the sign with BAHLAM, “jaguar” (Figure 4b, Beliaev et al. 2020:171, 173). A similar name, possibly of the same individual, occurs at Ixtutz, Guatemala: u-CHAN-na-“Wound-by-Obsidian”-BAHLAM-ma (Figure 4a). Elsewhere, the “Wound-by-Obsidian” may refer to an object. One is “raised up” in a text on a Spondylus shell from Piedras Negras Burial 13, the presumed tomb of Ruler 4 of that site, excavated by Dr. Héctor Escobedo in 1997 (Figure 4c). Or, at Dos Pilas, Guatemala, another is “received,” ch’am, as though something palpable were held in the hand (Figure 4d). Notably, the first bears the obsidian glyph, the second does not, yet the ‘a subfix suggests an equivalence between the variant forms.

Figure 4. “Wound-by-Obsidian” glyphs, obsidian blade and wound or damaged face highlighted in yellow: a) Ixtutz Panel 2, Block 4, S1–T1, text reversed because of clockwise reading order around the panel (photographs by the Atlas Epigráfico de Petén, Russian State University for the Humanities); b) Itzan Hieroglyphic Stairway 1, Block 4, B1–B2 (photograph by Ian Graham, rubbing by Merle Green Robertson); c) Piedras Negras Burial 13 (drawing by Stephen Houston); and d) Dos Pilas Hieroglyphic Stairway 3, Block III:D3 (drawing by Stephen Houston).

Possessed versions, with or without the obsidian, appear on a small altar from the kingdom of Yaxchilan (with ya prefix and an unclear subfix, Figure 5b, Grube and Luin 2014:42–43, fig. 6); Copan Stela J:E8, with subfixed la; and Tikal, Stela 10:G8, also with la (Figure 5c, Jones and Satterthwaite 1982:fig. 15). The earliest form of this sign dates to the 6th century AD. It is the example on Tikal Stela 10 (ca. AD 506). Close review of photos taken in 2013 by the Atlas Epigráfico de Petén of the Russian State University for the Humanities demonstrates that the wounded head bears an element marked by “darkness” on its forehead (Figure 5c). Presumably, this is an obsidian blade. A chronologically close (AD 537) example from Yaxchilan Lintel 37 (Figure 5a, I. Graham 1979:83) represents an obsidian blade adorned by feathers that pierces the wounded head (Fig. 5a). The original form of this sign depicted the direct action of cutting by an obsidian blade. Later, it developed along two parallel lines: (a) omitting the obsidian element and (b) placing the obsidian in front of the head.

Figure 5. Paleographic shifts and possessed forms of the “Wound-by-Obsidian” sign: (a) Yaxchilan Lintel 37:A4 (drawing by Ian Graham); (b) Tikal Stela 10:G8 (photographs by the Atlas Epigráfico de Petén, Russian State University for the Humanities, courtesy of Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología de Guatemala); and (c) Yaxchilan-area altar, position 7 (photographs by the Atlas Epigráfico de Petén, Russian State University for the Humanities, courtesy of Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología de Guatemala).

These clues point to a word that, depending on inflection, begins with a- and ends in -a’ or -al). It seems very probable, as David Stuart suggests to us, that the basic reading concerned a widespread word yah or ya’, “permanent wound,” and a related concept of “pain, soreness” (e.g., Barrera Vásquez et al. 1980:958–959; Kaufman 2003:1338; Wisdom 1950:764; Polian 2017:682, has yah, “lesión permanente, achaque [herida que nunca sanó por completo y sigue doliendo],” ‘permanent wound, achaque [injury that never heals completely and continues hurting]’; drawing on present-day Tzotzil Maya, Laughlin [1975:384] records yayih, “be wounded or cut, be broken up [fruit]”). [3] Perhaps homophones were at play too. The placement of the cut raises the disquieting possibility that the facial wound resulted from flaying. Skin masks appear in a number of Maya images (Houston et al. 2006:20, fig. 1.11), and, as David Stuart also suggests to us, with acute insight, there may be a depiction of a heaped, flayed skin in a scene of captive torture and brutalization (K6674; see also Houston 2008). [4] The hafted, circular “eccentric” above that folded, browned skin resembles excavated blades from Maya caches or burials, and also the Aleut, Inuit or Yupik ulu, ᐅᓗ, a curved implement for skinning and flaying animals (Frink et al. 2002). “Eccentric” lithics may not simply have been for display or insertion into tombs and caches. They sliced soft skin and flesh. The unlidded eyes in the “Wound-by-Obsidian” sign indicate the possible removal of their eyelids and surrounding skin.

A prince of Yaxchilan, Chooj, “Puma,” is also labeled by this conflation, but with BAAH, perhaps to mean “Head” or “First” person of “Wound-by-Obsidian,” Baah Ya’ (Figure 6; reading of “puma” from Marc Zender, personal communication, 2004). This accords with a possible ranking of people associated with “Wound-by-Obsidian,” a pattern recalling in turn BAAH with took’, “flint” or te’, “wood, staff” (Houston 2014:27–28, fig. 17).

Figure 6. Unprovenanced lintel, Yaxchilan-area, BAAH-“Wound-by-Obsidian [YA’?-‘a]” CHOOJ ch’o-ko PA’-CHAN-na-AJAW (photograph by Stephen Houston).

The natural advantages of obsidian, its ability to slice cleanly, drives home a connection between what might be described as its surgical use and its role in sacrifice. Another unprovenanced pot shows the Sun God in recumbent, newborn posture, his umbilicus—as understood at first glance—being cut by God L with a dark knife of obsidian (Figure 7). Unexpected inversions and alternations mark the scene: a male midwife, jauntily smoking his cheroot; a companion with dark face (rather like the taaj, “obsidian” personages shown with dark pigment at Xultun, Guatemala (Rossi 2017:93, fig. 4); and a “newborn,” the Sun God, shown, if not old, at least as robust and mature. A scene of birth is complicated, however, by the event—a change-of-state verb that is not yet deciphered—and, possibly, yo?-OHL-la K’INICH-AJAW, “the heart of the Sun God.” The contrived, liminal nature of the date, 13 Chuwen 19 Zip, is made clear by the numbers. It is the highest possible numeral for the trecena, and the most days of the month before it shifted to the next. The small, trilobate “flowers” on the “umbilicus” resemble clotted blood, the cord itself, perhaps, the intestine or a large artery (for a similar, almost vegetal extrusion from a heart sacrifice, see K9227). A nocturnal god saws away at a being who exemplifies the day. A birth looks also to be a painful death. In symbolic terms, the reverse may also have been true.

Figure 7. The “birth/sacrifice” of the Sun God (photographer unknown).

But how to read the “Obsidian-in-Hand” sign? A decisive piece of evidence comes from a vase in the Museo VICAL at the Casa Santo Domingo hotel in Antigua Guatemala (Figure 8a, d). The glyphs are somewhat slovenly or uneven, and a in a style far earlier than the two figures depicted on the pot in Teotihuacan gear (Beliaev et al. 2017). The person to the right is none other than Sihyaj K’ahk’, the Teotihuacan warrior mentioned before; that to the left is otherwise unattested, ku po-ma yo-OHL AHIIN, Kupoom Yohl Ahiin. A likely variant of his name occurs on one of the carved bones from Tikal Burial 116, but there with the “Obsidian-in-Hand” in place of the ku po-ma (Figure 8b). Another Late Classic vase records its owner as someone of precisely the same name (Figure 8c). On that vase, he is known as the “North Dog [tz’i’] Lord,” and the thought comes to mind that this is some reference to a coyote, a canine of higher, drier, northerly lands, such as those of Teotihuacan itself. This reference, as with the Tikal bone or the Museo VICAL pot, may be a Late Classic retrospection of an Early Classic personage, or it pertains to a later individual taking that name.

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Figure 8. Kupoom Yohl Ahiin, “Cutter [of] the Crocodile’s Heart”: a) Museo VICAL vase, B1–B4 (IDAEH registration, drawing by Philipp Galeev); b) Tikal Miscellaneous Text 336 (drawing by Sergei Vepretskii, cf. Moholy-Nagy 2008:fig. 195, h, which omits some of these features); c) unprovenanced “codex-style” vase (drawing by Stephen Houston; and d) the Museo VICAL vase (drawing by Philipp Galeev).

Current narratives about relations between the Maya and Teotihuacan correctly highlight a few important people, but there are other figures mentioned as well. One known as “Sihyaj ‘Dart’,” may, for example, not be Sihyaj K’ahk’ but, Houston believes, a distinct figure with his own, later arrival (cf. Hombre de Tikal:F5). A number of plates and pots indicate a larger field of dramatis personae at this critical time of interaction. OHL for “heart” is a logograph deciphered by Houston in 1989—the reading was signaled by a prefixed yo syllable and a postfixed la; the AHIIN, “crocodile,” finds confirmation in a spelling of ‘a-hi-*na on a vase at the Museo Popol Vuh in Guatemala City (K3058, David Stuart, personal communication, 2001).

Kup is key here. The root is attested in Ch’olti’, the language closest to most Classic texts: cupu, como palo u otro cosa equivale, “as in wood or other equivalent thing” (Robertson et al. 2010:306). Even closer is an entry in a dictionary of Colonial Tzotzil: kup, “afeitar a tijeras…cortar con sierra…matar sacrificando hombres,” ‘cut with scissors…cut with a saw…kill sacrificing men’ (Laughlin 1988, I:225). Or, in the same source, in fuller exposition: kupvanej ta moton ch’u, “human sacrifice,” with the connotation of sawing in a rite “endured” with “pain” (Laughlin 1988, I:225). There are other revealing details: “sacrificar y matar hombre comunmente dicen: xekupvan, jkup, i.e., corto o aserro. aquel acto de sacrificar asi. kupvanej ta smoton ch’u, porque xekupvan no es propiamente sino cortar como aserrando” (‘to sacrifice and kill people they usually say: <xekupvan, jkup>, i.e. cut or saw; that act of sacrificing like this [is] <kupvanej ta smoton ch’u>, because <xekupvan> is not properly [to cut] but to cut like sawing’) (Laughlin 1988, III:749). Edward Calnek, drawing on colonial Tzeltal, identifies a category of priest involved in human sacrifices: <ghcupauh> “sacrificador” (‘sacrifice’), and <ghcupvinic> “sacrificador” (‘sacrificer’) (Calnek 1988:1). The last term is of special interest because it is translated as “cortador de hombres” (‘cutter of men’), a specialized category of ritual specialist (Calnek 1988:49).

The form of a transitive root with an agentive suffix -oom is also found in the jatz’oom plausibly deciphered by colleagues (see above). A striking feature of the probable burial of Yax Nuun Ahiin at Tikal is its richness, including many features linked to Teotihuacan. But it also held a crocodile (Wright 2005:90, 91). The bones may not be preserved from that long-past excavation, but a reasonable inquiry is whether they present osteological evidence of heart extraction. Indeed, this may have been one of the roles of the figure on the vase at the Museo VICAL, Kupoom Yohl Ahiin, “Cutter [of] the Crocodile’s Heart.”

Heart extraction from animals is well-known in Mesoamerica, undertaken with felines, deer, turkeys, and other creatures (Tiesler and Olivier 2020:184; see also Chávez Balderas 2017). Done with deft motions of an obsidian blade, it would go quickly with a crocodile: necessarily so, unless the animal were drugged, made unconscious or tightly bound. Without such preparation, the beast would have been most uncooperative. Indeed, a Postclassic mural from Structure Q.95 at Mayapan, Yucatan, shows a bound crocodile floating in water, its lashed snout hissing out fragrant breath (Millbrath et al. 2010:7–8, fig. 7). This mural lay flat on the floor, with some stucco “lipping” on the sides. The conceit seems to have been of a mythic sea in correct, horizontal orientation. Those stepping on it were in the figurative act of wading. Or this was more than a visual conceit. The lipping hints at the presence of a shallow stuccoed basin, although, as Karl Taube points out to us, its location in a temple summit makes this less likely. What may be a jeweled spear penetrates its abdomen, close to the thorax. Alternatively—the painting is damaged and heavily restored—the wound may represent the results of heart extraction, the jewels an effusion of precious blood. [5] In Mesoamerica, crocodiles were often identified with the earth, an aged creator god, and reenactments of prior destructions of the world (Taube 2018 [1989]. For one ritual in early colonial Yucatan—the practice was doubtless pre-Conquest—a crocodile (lagarto) was painted and presumably sacrificed (de la Garza ed. 1983, 1:72; Taube 2018 [1989:110]).

Kupoom Yohl Ahiin pertains to animals. A final, telling piece of evidence comes from a vase in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (Figure 9). A disembodied deity, an incense bowl on its head, tugs away at the innards of a prone captive. This god with jaguar ear—close to that of a variant read TE’, but showing a world tree—is also mentioned further on, in a discontinuous text placed in various locations on a dark background. The date may be 7 Ben *6 Mak (there is repainting here), but the event for this horrific scene is ku-pa-ja, kuhpaj, “he is being cut, sawn, sacrificed.” This must rank as one of the most vivid evocations of heart extraction through or below the thorax.

Figure 9. Kuhpaj, ku-pa-ja, as glyph for heart sacrifice (K1377, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Landon T. Clay, 1988.1179)


[1] The tz’o reading is supported, as Stuart notes, by spellings such as ja-?tz’o-ma, “beater?” (K2058), tz’o-na-ja, “shoot, throw,” in a ballgame context (Yaxchilan HS 2, Step VII:Q1; El Peru HS 1, Blocks XIV-XIV, Ian Graham field drawing), tz’o-no/’o?-niA-AKAN-na, “Groaner [Who] Throws [Stones]” (K791), and tz’o-to-la EK’ HIX, “Twisted Star Jaguar,” a term for a jaguar way enveloped by a snake, its whole body festooned with star signs (K1230, K1652, K5632). Tz’on is attested in Yukatek, in connection with rifle shots but also blowguns, and in Chontal for “shoot,” a transitive verb (Barrera Vásquez et al. 1980: 889; Knowles 1984:475). An unpublished “codex-style” sherd records nu?-tz’o/TZ’ON XIB above an image of young, mythic blow gunner; he may also relate, as an ‘a-SIBIK?-TE’, to a kind of celt/mirror bedecked tree nearby. The asterisms are notable in a number of these images: the jaguar way and, in the scene at Yaxchilan, dwarves with stars and evident tails or flatulence—tropes for meteors? In Room 2 of the Bonampak murals a figure in its band of asterisms above a battle appears to fling or shoot stars with an atlatl (Miller and Brittenham 2013:fig. 196, and personal observation by Houston during videography of the original). Some years ago, Marc Zender pointed out to Houston clues to a reading of ‘A Chak Ju’te‘ for a title attested on a carved shell at Aguateca (‘a-CHAK-ka ju-‘u-TE’) and, in logographic form, on a small but exquisitely painted vase from Burial 196 at Tikal (AJ-CHAK-JU’T?-TE-‘e, Culbert 1993:fig. 84; Inomata 1997:fig. 14). This is close to a Ch’orti’ word for “blowgun,” probably of onomatopoeiac origin from sudden aspirations of air: huht te’, “blowgun” (Wisdom 1950: 472). The logographic version at Tikal could derive from Ch’orti’ hut, ‘face of person or animal, front side or surface; facial appearance, manner or expression, appearance” (Wisdom 1950: 474). Thus, the epithet at Aguateca, which pertains to a royal youth, reads, “He of the great (chak) blowgun.” The title may have been literal, a reference to an accomplished hunter if of small game. Or there was a more freighted allusion: a youthful identity blended with the “hero twins” who blowgun the Principal Bird Deity out of a primordial world tree (e.g., K1226).

[2] The gloss hutahul, “saw wood” (Barrera Vásquez et al. 1980:258), seems to be an erroneous transcription of <hut.ah ub>, which, in the Vienna Dictionary, spells an active stem *hutah and a passive stem *hutub in one line (see also Bolles 2001,

[3] If merely a variant, the flint with the wounded back may read Ya’ Paat.

[4] The scene appears below, in an image courtesy of Justin Kerr (K6674). For comparable, crescentic blades—some are full crescents, others partial, some perforated, others not—see W. Coe (1959:figs. 11, 16k), Pendergast (1, 1979:fig. 23a; 2, 1982:figs. 37a, 62d, 63d; 3, 1990:figs. 17e, i, 158h, 160, c, e), Willey (1972:fig. 169, 170, who calls them “Elaborate Perforated Forms”). Many have basal tangs or knapped outsets near the handle. Perhaps, as in the image here, they helped to fit a carved mount. One wonders, with disquiet, what might be in the pink vase with basketry lid. Other organs or body parts? For a depiction of an eccentric in use, see K8351 and To judge from Aztec carvings, such flaying involved heart sacrifice, as revealed by sutured, transverse cuts across the chest (; Museum der Kulturen Basel, Sammlung Lukas Vischer). Yet whole-body flayings may been one of several practices. Smaller, buccal flayings appear on some figurines and at least one ceramic mask (Schmidt et al. 1998:#102, 114, 115). These could have resulted from the V-shaped incisions seen in the glyph. Less thorough flayings might have taken place in pressed conditions on the battlefield—compare with the scalps secured rapidly by Plains warriors and other groups, including Europeans (Grinnell 1910:303–306). More elaborate processing of bodies perhaps occurred with captives under fuller control.

[5] The rendering by Barbara Escamilla Ojeda shows the sacrificial crocodile (Milbrath et al. 2020:fig.7).

[6] Not just adults experienced the agony of heart extraction. There are infants or mannikins too (black and white photograph by Stephen Houston, color by Justin Kerr, used with permission).

Acknowledgements As always, friends helped with our research. These include Nicholas Carter, Charles Golden, Albert Davletshin, Simon Martin, Andrew Scherer, Josh Schnell, David Stuart, Karl Taube, Alexandre Tokovinine, and Marc Zender, and, kindly providing a pre-publication article, Vera Tiesler and Guilhem Olivier. Note that this essay employs the spellings and spelling conventions favored by Robertson et al. (2007). “K” numbers identify photographs by Justin Kerr.


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