A New Variant of the Syllable k’o in Maya Writing

by David Stuart (The University of Texas at Austin)

Figure 1. A new variant of the k’o syllable

This brief note presents evidence for the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphic sign syllable k’o in Maya hieroglyphic writing (Figure 1). While not a common element of the script, it has enough appearances and varied contexts to allow for a number of significant new textual readings and understandings, some of them touched upon here. Seeing this sign as a CV syllable represents a change of heart in my own thinking regarding the sign’s function, which earlier I had assumed to be a logogram of unknown value (Stuart 2012). Its syllabic function now seems clear however, based on substitution patterns and in light of the discovery of Altar 5 from La Corona, where it appears in a previously unknown verb spelling that strongly indicates a k’o value (Stuart, Canuto, Barrientos and Gonzalez 2018).

First a word on the sign’s graphic form. At first glance it appears to be composed of two elements and in fact Thompson, in his well-known sign catalog (1963), designated its components as two separate signs: T174:530. However, from its varied contexts it is clear that that it is a single element whose form varies little of the course of several centuries. The sign appears in both Early and Late Classic contexts, and as far as I am aware it does not appear in the codices. Its graphic or iconic origin is difficult to discern, but it seems to reflect a “stony” substance, given the common “cauac” markings on both lower and upper part. It is important to distinguish the sign under consideration from the similar combination of T174:528, where the lower part is the standard “cauac.” The upper element (T174) appears in a variety of other signs, including the logogram SIBIK (“ink, soot, charcoal”) proposed long ago by Nikolai Grube, and in the sign representing ink within a shell inkpot, possibly the syllable t’o (Zender 2004:260).

Figure 2. The “fist” variant of k’o. (a) stand alone example, (b) in a spelling of the name a-po-k’o chi-hi (Aj Pok’ Chih), K5722, (drawing by D. Stuart) (c) in yo-k’o-lo, Copan, Str. 9N-82 bench (drawing by B. Fash) (d) in the name YAX-k’o-jo a-AHK (Yax K’oj Ahk), Chancala-area panel (Drawing by C. Prager)

The sign in question is not the first k’o syllable identified in Maya writing. Another k’o representing a closed hand or fist was proposed a number of years ago by Linda Schele (Figure 2a). Her reasoning was based on the sign’s appearance with -jo in contexts that suggested the reading k’oj, “mask,” including the spelling of the personal name YAX-k’o-jo a-ku, Yax K’oj Ahk, which I would translate as “Green Mask Turtle” (Schele 1992:122-123) (Figure 3c) (Schele at the time advocated for a mythical role of this name, whereas I prefer to see it as a historical personage, associated with the court near Chancala, Chiapas). Her identification of the fist variant of k’o came to be widely accepted, especially in light of its consistent appearance with other Co value signs (Figure 2b-d). This sign is perhaps best known in the spellings k’o-ba or k’o-jo-ba that appear as part of the so-called “era expression,” a standardized sequence of terms usually associated with the supposed start date of the Long Count, 4 Ahau 8 Cumku (Figure 3).  There has long been a temptation to see these pointing to the root k’ob found in the Yucatecan word for “hearth,” k’óoben, but such an analysis seems unlikely, as it is cognate to an original root k’uub found in Eastern Mayan languages (see Kaufman and Justeson 2003: 438). As we will see, its range of contexts and the occasional inclusion of jo suggest a more likely connection to the root k’oj or k’oh and related words for “mask, image,” as in the spellings first noted by Schele. 

Figure 3. The “fist” k’o syllable in possible spellings of k’o(h)ob or k’ojob, “mask, image”. (a) Quirigua, St. C, (b) Copan, CPN 19469. (Drawings by D. Stuart)

As shown in Figure 4a below, this hand variant of k’o appears in a woman’s name on Tortuguero Monument 8 (Figure 4a), spelled IX-ya-na-k’o-jo, perhaps Ix Yan K’oj (the fist is oriented differently, but this is a known pattern of variation of k’o signs at nearby Palenque). In an alternate version of the name on Monument 6, the fist looks to be replaced by T174:530 (Figure 4b). These appear in parentage expressions for the  local ruler Bahlam Ajaw (see Gronemeyer 2004), so there can be little doubt they refer to his mother, as alternate spellings of the same name. In the case of Monument 6 (Figure 4b), the form of the final jo sign first identified by Houston (1988) appears more elaborate than what we usually see, with the addition small u-shaped nubbins to one side and a “ma”-like element above. I believe that these are features of the jo sign’s original and unabbreviated form. Figure 5 shows a range of jo forms over time. Working from the idea that the final element in the name on Monument 6 is jo, I then considered the possibility that T174:130 might be an alternate version of k’o.

Figure 4. Comparison of two female names at Tortuguero, both perhaps read Ix Yan K’oj. (a) Mon. 8, (b) Mon. 6. (Drawings by D. Stuart)
Figure 5. Four examples of the jo syllable arranged chronologically, showing their graphic range. (a) Tortuguero, Mon. 6, (b) Piedras Negras, Pan. 2, (c) Copan, CPN 19469 (disc altar), (d) Dresden 6b. (Drawings by D. Stuart)

A similar substitution also appears in spellings of a term found on several small stones that evidently served as censer stands or pedestals. These appear to be based on the same “image, mask” term noted above k’ojob ~ k’o(h)ob), where we see the “fist” k’o alternating with the new form under discussion here (Figure 6). The spellings are either U-k’o-ba li, possibly for u k’o(h)ob-il,”the image of…,” or the slightly more elaborated U-k’o-ba-TUUN-li, for u k’o(h)ob tuun-il, “the image-stone of…”.  This agrees with Schele’s early ideas on k’o-ba or k’o-jo-ba in other contexts. K’ojob or k’o(h)ob are based on the noun root k’oj or k’oh, “mask, image” (note Chontal k’oh-op, “mask”), and they are fitting terms of reference for these small stone pedestals carved with personal portraits. I suspect these sculptures may have served as the bases for ceramic effigies or burners. At Palenque, these inscribed censer stands assume a more elaborate form as upright, three-dimensional heads (Figure 6c), stone versions of the massive ceramic stands found throughout the Cross Group and elsewhere (Cuevas García 2008).  It seems reasonable to suppose that, at Palenque at least, a k’o(h)ob tuun is a stone version of a k’o(h)ob, an “image” or “mask” that would refer to the ceramic forms of such portraits.

Figure 6. Small “image stones,” possibly called k’o(h)ob or k’o(h)ob tuun. (a) La Joyanca disc altar (drawings by M. Forné and D. Stuart), (b) Edzna, Hieroglyphic Altar 1 (drawing and photo by C. Pallán), (c) Palenque, stone censer stand (drawing by D. Stuart, photo by L. Schele)
Figure 7. The text of Altar 5 from La Corona, with the verb k’otoy in Block 9. (Drawing by D. Stuart)

Taken together, the evidence suggests a value of k’o for the single sign T174:130, and its appearance on Altar 5 of La Corona, in a previously unknown spelling, adds what I take to be a final confirmation (Stuart, et. al. 2018) (Figure 7). This verb appears at block 9, a CVC-Vy intransitive spelled ?-to-yi, where the initial sign is T174:530. We can assume, on the basis of synharmony, that we have a verb with the shape Cot-oy, indicating that the first sign is syllabic Co. As far as I can determine there is really only one attested intransitive root in Ch’olan languages that fits this pattern: k’ot, as in Ch’orti’ k’otoy, “to arrive (there)”. What immediately follows in the second part of block 9 ought to be a place name, and it seems to be written with the skeletal head variant of BAAK before TUUN-li. I’m guessing this is a name for a place where a local lord named Chak Tok Ich’aak journeyed to celebrate the Period Ending. The narrative here is highly unusual, but it seems to fit the well-known pattern we see in later La Corona texts, where local lords are often on the move to other locales.

Figure 8. (a) Spelling of lo-k’o-yi on a vase from Uaxactun, (b) a standard logographic form LOK’-yi from Dos Pilas, HS 2 (drawing and photo by D. Stuart)

The k’o reading is further strengthened by its appearance in yet another spelling of another distinctive –Vy verb, this time on a lidded tripod excavated long ago in Burial A19 of Uaxactun (Smith 1955:fig.8j) ceramic report (Figure 8a). This looks to be lo-k’o-yi, as a fully syllabic version of the familiar verb lok’oy, “he leaves, exits,” that is otherwise spelled as a logogram despicting a snake emerging from a hole (Figure 8b). The context of the verb makes it difficult to confirm its semantic role, but the syllabic combination is nonetheless highly suggestive, lok’-oy being one of the very view possible correlates. 

Figure 9. ya-k’o-ka, y-ahk’ol, “above, on top of.” (Drawing by D. Stuart)

One common setting for this new k’o syllable is in the glyph that I had previously analyzed as a noun meaning something like “effigy,” even though its phonetic reading was then unclear (Figure 9). Its uses at Palenque, Copan and Quirigua suggested that it refers to an object that is venerated, associated with deceased rulers or patron deities — what I called a “commemorative thing.” It was in this environment that I originally supposed that T174:130 functioned as a logogram, but I was mistaken in retrospect. As Stephen Houston has pointed out to me, if we analyze this grouping of signs as ya-k’o-la, we may well have the possessed noun y-ahk’ol, which we know is a relational noun for “above” or “on top of” in lowland languages (pCh *ahk’ol, Yuk *ok’ol).  In the main inscription on Copan’s Altar Q, y-ahk’ol appears before the name of the dynastic founder, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’. Here it seems that the dedication of an object (perhaps of a K’awiil effigy?) occurred “above” the deceased king — an apt physical description of the altar’s placement before Structure 16, atop Copan’s deep architectural stratigraphy, on the general axis point of the Hunal tomb where the founder was buried. Houston and I are presently completing an article that explores the important spatial aspects of the term ahk’ol, and its archaeological implications at Copan, Quirigua and elsewhere (Stuart and Houston, n.d.).

Figure 10. The raising of the headband “atop” the Triad deities of Palenque. From the Middle Tablet of the Temple of the Inscriptions (Drawing by D. Stuart).

In the tablets of Palenque’s Temple of the Inscriptions, this same term occurs in passages pertaining to the dressing and bejeweling of the three local patron deities known as the Palenque Triad (Macri 1990). There the ya-k’o-la glyph occurs as part of a repeating phrase u k’alhu’n yahk’ol…, “(it is) the paper (headband)-raising above…,” followed by the names of the Triad gods. This would seem to be in reference to the ritual adornment of gods or god-effigies with hu’n paper-cloth, perhaps headbands or headdress streamers much like those attested in the presentation of Aztec deity images. 


This informal note provides a quick outline of the evidence behind the new k’o variant. I believe it emerges from the varied settings as a firm reading, forcing me to change my earlier thinking on the sign’s possible role as a logogram.  One question that remains is whether this k’o syllable can be reduced to T174 by itself. I suspect this may prove to be the case, but I have yet to come across a definitive example. Also, there are a few other contexts of this k’o sign at Copan, Holmul, and other sites that remain to be fully analyzed and explained, and these may await further discussion in Maya Decipherment


I thank Tomás Barrientos, Dimitri Beliaev, Marcello Canuto, Stephen Houston, Simon Martin and Marc Zender for their help in the research leading up to this note.

References Cited

Cuevas García, Martha. 2008. Los incensarios efigie de Palenque. Mexico, D.F.: UNAM and INAH.

Houston, Stephen D. 1988. The Phonetic Decipherment of Mayan Glyphs. Antiquity, 62(234), 126-135.

Gronemeyer, Sven. 2006. The Maya site of Tortuguero, Tabasco, Mexico: Its History and Inscriptions. Acta Mesoamericana vol. 17. Markt Schwaben, Germany: Verlag Anton Saurwein.

Macri, Martha. 1990. Prepositions and complementizers in the Classic Period inscriptions. In Sixth Palenque Round Table 1986, ed. by V. Fields, pp. 266-272 (Merle Greene Robertson, series editor). Norman: University of 0klahoma Press.

Schele, Linda. 1992. Workbook for the XVIth Maya Hieroglyphic workshop at Texas, March 14-14, 1992. Department of Art and Art History and the Institute for Latin American Studies, The University of Texas. 

Smith, Robert E. 1955. Ceramic Sequence of Uaxactun, Guatemala, Vol. II: Illustrations. MARI Publication no. 20. New Orleans: MARI, Tulane University. 

Stuart, David. 2012. On Effigies of Ancestors and Gods. Maya Decipherment, January 20, 2012. https://mayadecipherment.com/2012/01/20/on-effigies-of-ancestors-and-gods/

Stuart, David, Marcello Canuto, Tomas Barrientos and Alejandro González. 2018. A Preliminary Analysis of Altar 5 from La Corona. The PARI Journal XIX(2):1-13. http://www.mesoweb.com/pari/journal/archive/PARI1902.pdf

Thompson, J. Eric S. 1963. A Catalog of Maya Hieroglyphs. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Zender, Marc. 2004. A Study of Classic Maya Priesthood. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Archaeology, University of Calgary.

A Northern War: Coba vs. Oxkintok

by Simon Martin, University of Pennsylvania

The past three decades have seen a transformation in our understanding of the history of the southern Maya lowlands. A wealth of new data has allowed us to track the political fortunes of individual polities, revealing much about the distribution of power across an ancient landscape and how it changed through time. These impressive advances in the south, however, stand in stark contrast to the situation in the north, where knowledge of this sort remains very meager.Fig.1 COB St.1 Whole

The inscriptions of the northern Maya lowlands are restricted in both their number and their thematic range: showing the usual emphasis on calendrical rituals and building dedications, but very little in the way of historical events and site interactions. Northern sites also suffer from poor preservation—the limestone of this region seems particularly prone to erosion—and many have suffered considerable later disturbance to their monuments. To assess the macro-political realities of this zone we can often do no more than draw inferences from the imposing scale and sculptural splendor of sites such as Coba, Edzna, Xcalumkin, Oxkintok, Santa Rosa Xtampak, Ek Balam, Uxmal, and Chichen Itza, taking them to be the counterparts of better-known southern players such as Tikal, Calakmul, Piedras Negras, Palenque, Naranjo, and Copan.

Such is the vacuum of information that the epigraphic evidence we do possess acquires a disproportionate significance, and every addition is a valuable gain. Such an addition comes, I believe, in a short text on Coba Stela 6 (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Coba Stela 6 (drawing by Ian Graham, Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Harvard University)

Like those in the south, Coba stelae often show images of prisoners, their wrists bound or their arms tied behind their backs. However important they are as individuals, these unfortunates are the symbolic reductions, the pars pro toto embodiments, of military triumphs against rival polities. The seated captive at lower left on Stela 6 is in relatively good condition and accompanied by a two-glyph caption (Figure 2a, b). The first of these signs is not especially clear, but the second shows the number “7” followed by a human head with a couple of internal lines.

Fig.2 COB Str.6 Details

Figure 2a, b. Detail of Coba Stela 6 showing a captive and his caption at H1-H2 (photograph and drawing by Ian Graham, Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Peabody Museum, Harvard University).

This same combination can be found at Oxkintok, some 230 km due west of Coba, where it serves as an important political title (García Campillo 1992:196, Fig.13, 1994) (Figure 3a, b). At least 10 examples can be identified there (Graña-Behrens 2006:117), a number of them associated with baahkab status and the exalted rank of kaloomte’. Such contexts suggest that it represents a “problematic” emblem glyph: one that lacks the standard k’uhul x ajaw structure but serves much the same role (ibid.; see Houston 1986). It appears not only on monuments but on a few Chochola-style ceramics naming Oxkintok lords (García Campillo 1992). In most cases the numeral “7” is clear, though it is replaced on one occasion by its head variant, the Jaguar God of the Underworld (Lacadena García-Gallo 1992) (Figure 3c). In well-preserved examples the head has the curved internal lines and cheek spot we find in XIB “(young) man.” That spot is divided by one or two lines, possibly a diagnostic feature, and the whole head can be replaced by a simpler form showing the spot alone, a unique convention if xib is indeed the target term (Figure 3d).

Fig.3 Oxkintok EGs NEW

Figure 3. The “7 Title” at Oxkintok: (a) Hieroglyphic Stairway 2, Step 1 (from Graña-Behrens 2002:Table 108; (b) Structure MA-11 Stucco Text (from García Campillo 1992:Fig.12); (c) Ballcourt Ring, Side B pU (drawing by the author); (d) Chochola-style vessel K4931 (drawing by the author)

On this evidence we have very good reason to think that the captive hails from Oxkintok. Indeed, it seems highly probable that he was the ruler of that distant site. The timing of the conflict presumably fell sometime between the two dates recorded on Coba Stela 6, 613 and 623 CE, when Coba and Oxkintok were two of the most important centers in the region. It would be many years before Ek Balam, Uxmal, and Chichen Itza rose to supersede them. It is interesting that the only other recognizable inter-polity conflict in the north also involves Coba, although this time it was on the losing side. Edzna Stela 19, from 692, shows a captive whose lengthy name-phrase concludes with a-ja ko-ba or “Coba person” (Grube 2003:360; Pallan Gayol 2012:97). That title precludes the possibility that this was a captured king and he must instead have been a noble or military specialist. Edzna, almost 280 km west of Coba and 110 km south of Oxkintok, was another thriving center of the seventh century and a fitting adversary. While Coba clearly engaged with these northern neighbors, it retained a distinctive character, not least in its ceramic complex (e.g. Esparza Olguín 2016:Fig.2.11, 2.12-2.15). Indeed, a number of features suggest that it was just as closely connected to the “Peten” culture of the south.

We can take it that these violent encounters reflect jockeying for power between important regional centers, but isolated captures don’t shed much light on the particular context in which they take place. Who was the aggressor? Where did the clash take place? What were its ramifications? Without a miraculous haul of new texts it is unlikely that we will never know the history of the northern Maya lowlands to any meaningful extent. By necessity, therefore, we will have to continue to give weight to quantitative and qualitative assessments. Here the extraordinary 98 km causeway linking Coba to Yaxuna, explicitly described as a SAK bi-hi “white road” (Stuart 2006), is a compelling argument for the huge power of the Coba kings. Much like Calakmul and Tikal, Coba was surely the architect of its own hegemonic “imperium”—one maintained or enhanced by military conflict with rival polities right across the peninsula.



Esparza Olguín, Octavio Q. 2016. “Los monumentos esculpidos de Cobá, Quintana Roo. Un estudio desde las perspectivas epigráfica y arqueológica.” PhD thesis, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico City.

García Campillo, José Miguel. 1992. Informe Epigráfico sobre Oxkintok y la cerámica Chochola. In Oxkintok 4, Misión Arqueológica de España en México, Proyecto Oxkintok Año 1990, edited by Miguel Rivera Dorado, 185–200. Ministerio de Cultura, Madrid.

—.1994. Comentario General sobre la Epigrafía en Oxkintok. In VII Simposio de investigactiones arqueologicas en Guatemala, 1993, edited by Juan Pedro Laporte and Héctor Escobedo, 711-725. Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, Ministerio de Cultura y Deportes, Guatemala.

Graña-Behrens, Daniel. 2002. “Die Maya-Inschriften aus Nordwestyukatan, Mexiko.” PhD dissertation, University of Bonn.

—.2006. Emblem Glyphs and Political Organization in Northwestern Yucatan in the Classic Period (A.D. 300-1000). Ancient Mesoamerica 17:105-123.

Grube, Nikolai. 2003. Hieroglyphic Inscriptions from Northwest Yucatan: An Update of Recent Research. In Escondido en la Selva: Arqueología en el Norte de Yucatán, edited by Hanns J. Prem, 339-370. Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia and University of Bonn, Mexico City and Bonn.

Houston, Stephen D. 1986. Problematic Emblem Glyphs: Examples from Altar de Sacrificios, El Chorro, Río Azul, and Xultun. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing 3. Center for Maya Research, Washington, D.C.

Lacadena García-Gallo, Alfonso. 1992. El anillo jeroglífico del juego de pelota de Oxkintok. In Oxkintok 4, Misión Arqueológica de España en México, Proyecto Oxkintok Año 1990, edited by Miguel Rivera Dorado, 177–184. Ministerio de Cultura, Madrid.

Pallán Gayol, Carlos. 2012. A Glimpse from Edzna’s Hieroglyphics: Middle, Late and Terminal Processes of Cultural Interaction Between the Southern, Northern and Western Lowlands. In “Maya Political Relations and Strategies: Proceedings of the 14th European Maya Conference”, edited by Jarosław Źrałka, Wiesław Koszkul, and Beata Golinska. Contributions to New World Archaeology 4:89-110.

Stuart, David. 2006. The Inscribed Markers of the Coba-Yaxuna Causeway and the Glyph for Sakbih. Mesoweb: <www.mesoweb.com/stuart/notes/Sacbe.pdf>

A Parallel Long-Reckoning between the Chilam Balam of Chumayel and a Hieroglyphic Inscription from Yaxchilan

by Jorge L. Orejel (Infosys Limited)

Editor’s Note:

In 1990 Jorge Orejel, then a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, made an important contribution to Maya epigraphy with his decipherment of the “axe/comb” hieroglyph as ch’ak, “to chop” (Orejel 1990). This glyph appears in the Dresden Codex as well as in historical inscriptions where it represents a term for conquest and military defeat, as we have explored recently in the complex chronicles of warfare on Naranjo’s Stela 12. Jorge wrote his decipherment in the series Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, published by The Center for Maya Research and its later iteration, the Boundary End Archaeological Research Center. Several years ago he submitted another study on the fascinating text on Step VII of Yaxchilan’s Hieroglyphic Stairway 2, where the same ch’ak verb occurs three times in a mythological context. My father George Stuart, the editor of the RRAMW since it inception, was ill around the time Jorge submitted his second contribution, and with my dad’s passing in 2014 the paper failed to appear as part of that long-lasting series. The Research Reports may yet be re-conceived as an ongoing publication, but in many ways its function has been supplanted by other outlets, including this Maya Decipherment blog. In that spirit we here present Jorge’s paper at long last in on-line form, without further delay, appearing many years after it was first written.

I would like to thank Jorge for his infinite patience, and to Jeff Splitstoser for his hard work in getting the article formatted.

– David Stuart


Orejel, Jorge L. 1990. The “Axe/Comb” Glyph as ch’ak. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, number 31. Center for Maya Research, Washington, D.C.

Click here for A Parallel Long-Reckoning between the Chilam Balam of Chumayel and a Hieroglyphic Inscription from Yaxchilan, by Jorge L. Orejel.

Step VII of Yaxchilan Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 (Drawing by Ian Graham, Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Program, Peabody Museum, Harvard University)


Snake on a Stick

by Stephen Houston

Two things I want to unsee: an eyelash viper (Bothriechis schlegelii) coiled at face level in a low tree (Figure 1); and a “Barba Amarilla” (Bothrops atrox), an aggressive viper, slithering with shocking speed into the upper reaches of a hut (click Snake in rafter for an Amazonian parallel, ending in foul language). The forest poses many dangers, but climbing, venomous snakes induce an unease most of us would rather not feel. Sometimes it is better to forget these experiences.    

Figure 1 Eyelash viper, Cahuita, Costa Rica (photograph by Pavel Kirillov, Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0).

Not surprisingly, the Classic Maya noticed such reptiles and their alarming behavior. Indeed, there is a glyph that shows a snake looping around a horizontal bar, which, in one image (Figure 2, K3844), clearly bears a TE’ or “wood” marking: the bar is a stick, branch or beam. Another feature is that most such spellings begin with a color, “red” (chak, K3844), or “green-blue” (yax, K2752, and an unprovenanced “turtle shell” of jade, doubtless a miniature imitation of a percussive instrument; note the yu-k’e-*se, “noisemaker,” tag [see Zender 2010: 84]; cf. Dumbarton Oaks Flanged Pectoral:B4 [Fields and Tokovinine 2012: 159]). The reading is a little less clear, but, to judge from its spelling—usually by itself, once with ke, an evident syllabic reinforcement—the glyph recorded a word ending in -k.

Figure 2. Snake on a stick sign, with color designations, final example outlined in yellow (“K” photos used by permission of Justin Kerr, © Kerr Associates).

Most such spellings occur in the following sequence: a color (the attribute just mentioned) + “snake on a stick” + a mammal, ranid, even a dove? (K2572, spelling u-ku-na, like ukum?, “paloma” in Yukateko [Barrera Vásquez et al. 1980: 898–899]; for a word sign lacking a color, see K3007). The examples in Figure 3 are assembled with an argument in mind, that “snake on a stick” is not just a word sign ending in -k; it alternates with syllabic le-ke and thus carries a value of LEK. The ke on K3844 suggests this is more than a speculative proposal (note, however, that the examples in K5451 and 5722 are unlikely to cue the same historical figure). If the argument has merit, a sculptor’s name in Figure 3 would add another color, k’an, “yellow.”

Figure 3. Possible substitutions between the word sign, “snake on a stick,” and syllabic le-ke (“K” photos used by permission of Justin Kerr, © Kerr Associates; to right is a sculptor’s signature, pencil drawing by David Stuart from a looted, confiscated piece now in the Pomona Bodega, Tabasco, Mexico.)

The relevant glosses divide into two sets.

Cluster of terms for “good” and its congeners

Western Mayan  *lek “bueno” (Kaufman 2003: 203)

Ch’ol  lek, adj. “good,” “bueno” (Hopkins et al. 2011: 127)

Tzendal  lec(lek), “poseer”; lec(lek), “Hermosa cosa,” “digno” (Ara 1986: 319–320).

Tzotzil  lek, “elegant, gallantly, genteel, graceful, handsome, polished” (Laughlin 1988, I:243); lek, “good” (Laughlin 1975: 208)

Cluster of terms for “hanging over, suspended”

Ch’olti’  lechbun, “hang it, suspend it” (Robertson et al. 2010: 306)

Ch’orti’  lekb’u, transitive positional, “hang, suspend” (Hull 2016: 252); lekwan, positional, “hang over” (Hull 2016: 253)

Pokomam  lekli, participle of leka, “cosa, que esa colgada, como paño” (Feldman 2000: 231)

The first provides a more direct meaning that may attach to animals (“good,” “elegant,” “worthy”). In fact, in the 1990s, David Stuart suggested to me that the syllabic spelling of le-ke might correspond to “good” (see also Houston et al. 2009: 22, fig. 2.4; my thanks to Alexandre Tokovinine for reminding me of this citation). The second recruits a homophone suitable for graphing (“hanging over, suspended”). The terms for “hang,” “hang over” or “suspend” relate plausibly to the unnerving behavior of snakes up in trees or the roof beams of thatched homes. A final entry from a dictionary source ties lek to an actual, transverse house beam: Yukateko lekeb, “viga…el tercer poste transversal, el de más abajo que une a las tijeras” (Barrera Vásquez et al. 1980: 444). Of course, Mayan speakers often refer to a roof beam in traditional houses as the “road of the rat” (Wauchope 1938: Tables 4, 7, 9, 14). In houses, snakes ascend for a reason, to go after meals.

Yet the entry in Ch’olti’ (lechbun), along with the instability and relatively late date of the k/ch transition in Ch’olan languages (Law et al. 2014), raises another possibility. Perhaps lech was the relevant term in modern languages. In Ch’orti’, that word associates with open, snarling mouths (Hull 2016: 251), a nuance that links logically to roaring jaguars and croaking ranids. The toad or frog in K3844 (Figure 3)—or is it a turtle?—gapes noticeably.

As with most proposals for decipherment, the suggestion is now in place, awaiting further tests…and the need to forget about real snakes on sticks.


Ara, Fray Domingo de. 1986. Vocabulario de Lengua Tzeldal Según el Orden de Copanabastla. Edited by Mario Humberto Ruz. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Barrera Vásquez, Alfredo, Juan Ramón Bastarrachea, and William Brito Sansores. 1980. Diccionario Maya Cordemex. Mérida, Yucatan: Ediciones Cordemex.

Feldman, Laurence. 2000. Pokom Maya and Their Colonial Dictionaries. Report submitted to the Foundation for Mesoamerican Research, Inc.

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A New Drawing of the Tablet of the Foliated Cross from Palenque

by David Stuart (The University of Texas at Austin)


One of my current projects is to update and prepare for publication my transcriptions and analyses of the art and inscriptions of the Cross Group temples at Palenque, Mexico. These three shrines (the Temples of the Cross, Foliated Cross and Sun) were major elements in the architectural landscape of the site, known in ancient times by the name Lakamha’. The integrated design and narratives of these temples is conveyed through a triadic framework of space and time, integrating the dynastic history of Palenque with a primordial mythology involving the so-called Palenque Triad, the deities who were the patron gods of the city. The three temples were dedicated on January 8, 692, in anticipation of the looming k’atun ending, and at a time of major political change at Palenque, in the wake of the passing of K’inich Janab Pakal. My preliminary transcriptions and analyses of the inscriptions were presented in raw form a number of years ago at the 2006 Maya Meetings at UT-Austin; the current book project will present this data in a more analytical and interpretive way, looking at architecture, landscape, art and narrative in terms of a holistic design.

As part of this project I made the decision to produce new drawings of the main Cross tablets – the first to be made in over four decades. Here I post my newish rendering of the Tablet of the Foliated Cross, the large panel placed in the back of the inner shrine of the Temple of the Foliated Cross. It is based on a variety of sources, including stunning new photographs kindly provided by Jorge Pérez de Lara. Working with these tablets over many years, it became increasingly clear to me and colleagues that earlier drawings had many subtle but important inaccuracies. Redrawing them has very time consuming, but I think worthwhile effort, given new digital rendering methods. And rather than sit on this while I very slowly churn them all out, I thought I would share it for others to use for study. I will be making corrections and tweaks (and more stipples) to this and and other drawings from time to time, so it will be updated at some point.

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Palenque’s Temple of the Foliated Cross in 2012 (Photograph by D. Stuart)

It’s almost imposssible to summarize the significance of this image in a few sentences, but here goes:  the tablet shows a central icon of bejeweled maize, a symbol of the deity Unen K’awiil, a personification of young maize and the most important of the three Triad gods. The corn plant is flanked by two portraits of K’inich Kaan Bahlam, Pakal’s eldest son, corresponding to important moments in his life as adult king (left) and as six-year old heir (right). The inscription links Unen K’awiil’s mythic birth with the making of his new god effigy to be housed in the temple (a rebirth of sorts), offering parallels to K’inich Kaan Bahlam’s own biography, including his own birth and accession. It’s a masterful presentation of narrative symmetry, especially when viewed in relationship to the art and texts of the two neighboring shrines.

The drawing is for free use, but please contact me for any use in publications, or if higher-res versions might be needed. Any reproductions for teaching, etc., can simply include the credit “Drawing by David Stuart.”

Back in 1977 I helped my mentor Linda Schele make corrections to her own drawings of these same beautiful tablets. Making fresh versions has taken me back to our long afternoons together in the Cross shrines 42 years ago, where I learned so much about Maya art and writing.

TFC tablet drawing