Watery War

by Stephen Houston

For Héctor Escobedo Ayala, my friend of decades  

Violence and water do not mix. Weighted down by armor, the Emperor Frederick I drowned in the Göksu river on his way to the Holy Land. A similar drama enfolded the American G.I.s landing on Omaha Beach. Dodging bullets, the soldiers sank, choking, under heavy packs. “[F]loating in the water… they didn’t know they were in the water, for they were dead” (Pyle 1986:280).

Rimmed by seas, living along rivers and streams, the Classic Maya must have fought in this way. Yet the evidence is surprisingly thin and late. There is a gold disk from the Cenote of Sacrifice at Chichen Itza that shows warriors on canoes, others on plank-like craft, a naked figure floating belly-down between them (Lothrop 1952: 51, fig. 35; see also the linked port of Isla Cerritos, Yucatan, an island endowed with a seawall, Andrews et al. 1988; Clark 2015: fig. 3.4). Murals from the Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itza supplement that scene with an array of canoes—the warriors’ shields just visible in surviving paint—and a single, light-haired figure floating in water: his legs splay out as intestinal gases bloat the body (Figure 1). The jade beads in the hair recall an earlier image, from the early eighth-century AD, of a captive incised on a bone found in Burial 116 at Tikal. That figure is at once humiliated and beautified (Moholy-Nagy 2008: fig. 200a, c). By common Maya convention, he anticipates his defeat by appearing, dressed for failure, in sacrificial garb.


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Figure 1. Floating captives and war canoes (renderings by Jean Charlot; Morris et al. 1931: pls. 145 [left], 147 [right]). 


In the murals, the captives’ hair is blond. This may be less from Viking blood—an actual suggestion by fantasists (Vikings at Chichen)—than because it has been bleached for the Sun God, a figure with the same color of hair (Ishihara-Brito and Taube 2012:466). Perhaps the captives were intended for his eventual consumption or they came from the east, a direction associated with the deity; or, to make a final stab at an insoluble puzzle, their hair signaled some unknown ethnic distinction. In paintings at Chichen Itza, bodies and canoes alternate with a rich, ethno-classification of sea life, including turtles, mollusks, crustaceans, and fish, one stingray extending its barbed spine (Finamore and Houston 2010: pl. 69).

In the so-called “Codex-style” images on Classic ceramics, there are images of the maize god in surging, unsettled water up to his chest (K1333, 1338, 1343, 1346, 1365, 1366, 1395, 1489, 1562, 2011, 2096, 3428, 4117, 5002, 8201; also Robicsek and Hales 1981: 70–74). He is met by mythic warriors and, to his back, figures holding the tokens of royal tribute. These remain an enigma, relatable, presumably, to some agricultural trope or even the seasonal timing of war. Yet, in the Maya region generally, with local variations, rainy seasons do not correspond to an increased incidence of conflict in the historical record. Indeed, quite the opposite seems to be true, from glyphic evidence in the form of secure dates and practical considerations of movement and manpower (Simon Martin, personal communications, 2014, 2019, and in work soon to appear). The pots are also without provenance (for an exception, see García Barrios 2011: 85–86, fig. 11) and, with a few exceptions, retouched by restorers. Reliable examples (Robicsek and Hales 1981: Vessels 95, 98, 99) vary in their glyphic dates (1 Ik 15 Sak in one example [Vessel 98], 7 Ajaw 2 K’ayab in another [Vessel 95]). One names an assailant as the “great youth” (Chak Xib [Vessel 98]), and the event itself is described as a “chop-water” (CH’AK?-?-HA’ [Vessel 95]). Some ferocity, it seems, fell directly on the liquid. In a number of images, the warriors’ line of sight inclines to the water, not to other figures.

A vessel from northern Guatemala provides unexpected evidence. It also obeys Houston’s First Law of Epigraphy: “glyphs thought necessary for decisive interpretation shall be eroded or missing.” (Even less cheery than the Runologists’ “for every text there shall be 20 specialists with 21 different views.”) There are two images, both provided by the ever-generous Justin Kerr. One is in color, the other black and white. Blessedly, the latter is unretouched, heightening confidence in details (Figures 2 and 3).


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Figure 2. Watery conflict, in color, retouched surface (K8592, © Kerr Associates).


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Figure 3. Watery conflict, unretouched surface (K8592, © Kerr Associates).


The slightly corpulent or full bodies, figural dynamism, long eyelashes, and stylistic range of the mid- to late-eighth-century AD indicate a probable origin in the Ik’ kingdom of western Lake Peten Itza and areas just to the west (Just 2012: figs. 93–96, 141–144, pls. 6, 16, 17). A closer match, with a similar dark rim that contains asterisms, was excavated by Takeshi Inomata in Str. M7–35 at Aguateca, Guatemala (Inomata 1997: fig. 15). Equipped with named, courtly figures, that vessel must date to the final half or quarter of the eighth-century AD.

Despite the erosion—looters or low-end dealers tend to over-clean sherds—the scene is almost certainly historical. There is a Calendar Round (possibly 10 *Chuwen 14 ‘Color Month’), but that is less telling then the absence of any mythic figures. Instead, there are warriors with body paint and two captives with matted and disheveled hair. Two glyphic captions, each highlighted by an almost pink hue, tag figures in the scene. One identifies the warrior at the prow of a canoe, poised to strike with his atlatl: the crooked spur is fully evident (Figure 4; Simon Martin, personal communication, 2019). The tag may also refer to a second warrior in the water, just off the prow, but flaked paint makes this difficult to resolve.


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Figure 4. Atlatl with dart, close-up, unretouched surface (K8592, © Kerr Associates).


The other caption is more securely tethered. It applies to a captive who is up to his thighs in the lake, stream or river below the canoe (Figure 5). A warrior pins his arms back. Another, more important figure grasps his hair in the standard chuk, ‘seize, grab’, pose. Presumably, he was responsible for the capture. He may also have jabbed or pummeled the captive in the face, for blood spills out in copious flow. Enticed, a crocodile and a turtle with k’an sign swim close to this possible meal. (The k’an and size of the chelydrid suggest he is the daunting snapper turtle, a creature found by David Stuart in many royal names.) In the canoe, another captive cowers. Perhaps he has just been hoisted onboard. A bare-headed figure holds a spear in one hand and gestures with the other. Was this intended to still or reassure the captive? An unlikely outcome. Looking away, a standing warrior paddles the boat into position.


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Figure 5. A turtle paddles close to the captive’s blood, close-up, unretouched surface (K8592, © Kerr Associates).


The similarity is obvious to the battle scene in Room 2 of the mural building in Bonampak, Mexico. Asterisms perch above that dark tableau of violent conflict. There are body blows, trampled warriors, trumpets, and, at the end, a human harvest of captives (Miller and Brittenham 2013: 105–106); in Room 2, the darkened solar disks above may correspond to eclipses, a dire omen. The night-time scene on the vessel from Aguateca—a jaunty figure smoking a cigarillo cues the time of day (Inomata 1997: fig. 15, right)—had star signs too. The eroded vase goes one better with a scorpion whose back carries a direct analogue to scorpion asterisms at Cacaxtla, Mexico, Copan, Honduras, and elsewhere (Brittenham 2015: 99–104, fig. 138; Fash 2011: 167). The flaming snouts hint at the passage of comets or meteors, a smoking asterism found in the skyband on Piedras Negras Stela 11 (David Stuart, personal communication, 1998; Stuart and Graham 2003: 57).


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Figure 6. Celestial scorpion with star sign on its body, close-up, unretouched surface (K8592, © Kerr Associates).


The text is illegible and its participants unknown. In all likelihood, the setting was some watery part of Peten, Guatemala, in the later eighth-century AD, and possibly within or near the Ik’ kingdom. But the overall image, an historical battle in and on water, is unique for the Classic Maya.

Karl Taube raises another possibility, that the captives were thrown into the water for sacrificial spearing (personal communication, 2019). They did not so much “sleep with the fishes,” in Mafia argot, as feed them. The captive in the boat cowers because he is next in line. This grim alternative has a certain plausibility given the presence of what may be sacrificial pools in some royal courts (Barrientos Quezada 2014: 604–619). At Cancuen, Guatemala, one such basin, with a step-in and stairways to facilitate use, contained at least 38 bodies; another, to the north of the site, had at least 15 (Barrientos Quezada 2014: 616, 619). Most bones exhibited trauma by unspecified “sharp instruments” (Barrientos Quezada 2014: 617). The excavators have interpreted this as a massacre, but a sacrificial pool, fed by springs—and perhaps equipped with ravenous creatures—adds a vivid if unpleasant ritual to Classic Maya practice. Blood spreads quickly in water, and, in links to agricultural or seasonal rituals, similar trauma may have awaited captives in flooded ballcourts or other sacred receptacles fed by natural springs (Taube 2018: 266, 282, 298). I have personally seen small crocodiles in small, temporary ruts in jungle roads, well away from lakes or streams. How on earth did they get there? Where did they come from? It would not take much for crocodiles and snappers to crawl to an inviting pool.

For the moment, perhaps, the chuk gesture on the pot, as well as the canoe and precise date, suggests a more martial interpretation—that this is a specific, datable conflict on water. But there is simply not enough text to confirm this. Yet I do think of a feature that has puzzled many Mayanists. This is a mid-river structure near Yaxchilan, built on bedrock out of carefully laid masonry and lying some meters from the western banks of the Usumacinta River (Figure 7). Roughly triangular in form, the “point” of the pier carves into the flow of water, deflecting debris and giving solidity to the whole. One theory is that the feature supported an immense suspension bridge (O’Kon 2005). I doubt this completely. The opposite bank, in Guatemala, has no such support. A visit in low water indicates that the pier, the probable base of a small platform, was more about monitoring traffic (for taxation?) and throwing atlatl darts at unwelcome visitors. In low water, spears and darts from Yaxchilan would fall short of the opposite bank. With the pier in place, a small citadel mid-stream, the weapons would hit with force. Watery war lay within reach.



Figure 7.  Likely fortification, low-water, looking southeast, Usumacinta River, Yaxchilan, with Dr. Héctor Escobedo as scale (photograph by Stephen Houston, 1995). 



Acknowledgements Justin Kerr kindly sleuthed his files for a rollout, and, as always, past and present, Simon Martin, David Stuart, Karl Taube provided useful comments. Figure 7 shows how good and patient a friend Héctor has been, including our years of adventure and mis-adventure on the Usumacinta. The martial theme is equally consistent with his distinguished family. I dedicate this essay to him.



Andrews, Anthony P., Tomás Gallareta Negrón, Fernando Robles Castellanos, Rafael Cobos Palma, and Pura Cervera Rivero. 1988. Isla Cerritos: An Itzá Trading Port on the North Coast of Yucatán, Mexico. National Geographic Research Spring 1988: 196–207.

Brittenham, Claudia. 2015. The Murals of Cacaxtla: The Power of Painting in Ancient Central Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Clark, Dylan J. 2016. The Residential Spaces, Social Organization and Dynamics of Isla Cerritos, an Ancient Maya Port Community. Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University.

Fash, Barbara W. 2011. The Copan Sculpture Museum: Ancient Maya Artistry in Stucco and Stone. Cambridge, MA: David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, Harvard University.

Finamore, Daniel, and Stephen Houston. 2010. Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea. New Haven: Yale University Press.

García Barrios, Ana. 2011. Análisis iconográfico preliminar de fragmentos de las vasijas estilo códice procedentes de Calakmul. Estudios de Cultura Maya 37: 65–95.

Inomata, Takeshi. 1997. The Last Day of a Fortified Classic Maya Center: Archaeological Investigations at Aguateca, Guatemala. Ancient Mesoamerica 8: 337–351.

Ishihara-Brito, Reiko, and Karl A. Taube. 2012. Mosaic Mask. In Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks, edited by Joanne Pillsbury, Miriam Doutriaux, and Reiko Ishihara-Brito, and Alexandre Tokovinine, 464–474. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Number 4. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Just, Bryan. 2012. Dancing Into Dreams: Maya Vase Painting of the Ik’ Kingdom. Princeton: Princeton University Art Museum.

Lothrop, Samuel K. 1952. Metals from the Cenote of Sacrifice, Chichen Itza, Yucatan. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology 10(2). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Miller, Mary, and Claudia Brittenham. 2013. The Spectacle of the Late Maya Court: Reflections on the Murals of Bonampak. University of Texas Press, Austin; INAH and CONACULTA, Mexico City.

Moholy-Nagy, Hattula. 2008. Tikal Report No. 27, Part A: The Artifacts of Tikal: Ornamental and Ceremonial Artifacts and Unworked Material. University Museum Monograph 127. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Morris, Earl, Jean Charlot, and Anne A. Morris. 1932. The Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itza, Yucatan. Publication 406. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington.

O’Kon, James A. 2005. Computer Modeling of the Seventh Century Maya Suspension Bridge at Yaxchilan. International Conference on Computing in Civil Engineering 2005, July 12–15, 2005, Cancun, Mexico. https://doi.org/10.1061/40794(179)124

Pyle, Ernie. 1986. Ernie’s War: The Best of Ernie Pyle’s World War II Dispatches, ed. David Nichols. New York: Simon and Schuster. 

Robicsek, Francis, and Donald M. Hales. 1981. The Maya Book of the Dead, The Ceramic Codex: The Corpus of Codex Style Ceramics of the Late Classic Period. Charlottesville, Virginia: University of Virginia Art Museum.

Stuart, David, and Ian Graham. 2003. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 9, Part 1: Piedras Negras. Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.

Taube, Karl. 2017. The Ballgame, Boxing, and Ritual Blood Sport in Ancient Mesoamerica. In Ritual, Play and Belief in Evolution and Early Human Societies, edited by Colin Renfrew, Iain Morley, and Michael Boyd, 264–301. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

New Publication of the Komkom Vase

An important new publication is out on the fabulous “Komkom Vase,” written by Christophe Helmke, Julie Hoggarth and Jaime Awe. Their excellent study provides a detailed epigraphic and historical look of this important Maya vase dating to the early ninth century. Beautifully published by Precolumbia Mesoweb Press.

Precolumbia Mesoweb Press presents A Reading of the Komkom Vase Discovered at Baking Pot, Belize, by Christophe Helmke, Julie A. Hoggarth, and Jaime J. Awe. Monograph 3. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco. Paperback, 144 pages, fully illustrated in color.

Available for purchase via www.mesoweb.com

The Komkom Vase (Photo by David Stuart)

Preliminary Analysis of La Corona, Altar 5

A new article has appeared in The PARI Journal on the recently discovered Altar 5 from La Corona, Guatemala, written by David Stuart, Marcello Canuto, Tomas Barrientos and Alejandro González. The altar is significant for being the earliest known monument from the site, and its historical reference to a previously unknown local king points to connections to nearby El Peru (Waka’) and, by extension, to the Kaanul dynasty. There is also an interesting spelling of a verb never before seen: k’o-to-yi for k’otoy, “he arrives there.”

Link to article here: A Preliminary Analysis of Altar 5 from La CoronaThe PARI Journal 19(2):1-13.

La Corona, Altar 5, now on display at MUNAE, Guatemala City. (Photograph by D. Stuart)

A “Lost City” in the Heartland

by Stephen Houston (Brown University)

For Andrew Craig Houston and Sarah Newman on their birthdays

A “lost city” evokes mystery and romance. Desirable traits include a remote location, preferably in jungle or underwater, a longstanding, rumored existence that is rich in legend, a sensational name, perhaps some lurid hint of treasure. What specialist does not cringe at “Lost City of the Monkey God,” “Z” or Paititi? (For samples of sane writing, see Grann 2010; Preston 2017.) The Maya lidar revolution, which exposes entire landscapes to view, will eventually “find” all that is now “lost” (Chase et al. 2011; Chase et al. 2014). There can be no legendary cities if lidar manages to detail each bump a meter or more in height. But a visible landscape is not the same as an interpreted one. Communities carried names and history, which can only be retrieved from glyphic evidence.

One of the objectives of Maya epigraphy is a small maneuver with great impact: lifting a city or dynasty from the “lost” category and lodging it among the “found.” Glyphic texts sometimes refer to people or places not otherwise linked to known locations. Growing knowledge tends to depopulate that category, of which several examples come to mind: a trove of unprovenanced sculptures now tied securely to La Corona, Guatemala (Stuart 2001b; see also Canuto and Barrientos 2013); and a group of carvings from El Reinado, hitherto attested on a text at Yaxchilan, lying halfway between that city and the old logging town and chicle station of La Libertad, Guatemala (Stuart 2012). There is also a smattering of cities in southeastern Campeche, all gradually being assigned to this or that ruin (Grube 2004, 2005).

Quite literally, these places lie off the beaten path, with the result that specialists need to use ingenious methods of detection to find them. Think of Sak Tz’i’, “White Dog,” which played a strong historical role in the Usumacinta drainage in Mexico and adjacent Guatemala (Bíro 2005; Martin and Grube 2008:126, 137). “Gravity” models and other techniques of geographical science have been able to estimate its likely location from mention at known sites (Anaya Hernández et al. 2003; Bíro 2005). Yet the mot juste is “estimate.” Proof must await a text in situ, glyphs that record sak tz’i’ as part of a local royal title. Plausible arguments can identify one candidate, Plan de Ayutla, Chiapas (Martos López 2009:73–74). But, to be solved, a glyphic puzzle needs glyphic evidence. In the case of Sak Tz’i’, that is soon to come (Charles Golden and Andrew Scherer, personal communication, 2014).

A second challenge is the potential slippage between place names and royal emblems—i.e., those endowed with ajaw, “lord,” epithets, often prefixed by k’uhul, “sacred.” The Ik’ emblem, for example, almost surely relates to sites in and around the eastern portion of Lake Peten Itza in Guatemala. It does not, as previously believed, simply refer to its assumed location of Motul de San José, a substantial site northwest of the lake. In 2004, I noted the presence of its main title on Stela 1 from Tayasal/Flores, an observation made independently by others (Tokovinine and Zender 2012:fig. 2.8). Dominion or sovereignty may not only cover a single city, no matter how large or impressive. It may also apply to settlements nearby.

In the early 1990s, I began to notice, and to file away, glyphic citations of what appeared to be an unknown city in the vicinity (and, as we shall see, probably to the south) of the sprawling dynastic capital of Tikal, Guatemala. Two references occur at Tikal itself. One is in a graffito from Room 1, east wall, of Structure 5C-49-5, the second largest in this sector and a building that looks south towards the patio in front of the Mundo Perdido complex (Fig. 1, Trik and Kampen 1983:fig. 29c; see also Laporte and Fialko 1995:80–81, fig. 38, 54). According to excavations, the final phase of this structure dated to the late 600s, but caches or interments within it trended somewhat later, to the 700s (Laporte and Fialko 1995:81). Graffiti are notoriously glyph-deficient, but this is a legible exception. The text falls into single columns, an unusual arrangement suggesting some codical model or perhaps an archaizing touch (Houston 2004:286–287); this disposition is also found in caves like Naj Tunich, Guatemala (e.g., Stone 1995:figs. 7–3, 7–6 to 7–11).


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Figure 1. Graffito, Tikal Structure 5C–49 (Trik and Kampen 1983:fig. 29c).


One passage—specialists need to revisit the original—contains a glyphic date. The month number is evidently one more than it should be (see MacLeod and Stone 1995:Table 2, for other instances at Naj Tunich). A plausible correction indicates one of three possibilities by the Martin-Skidmore correlation of Maya and European calendars: 6 K’an *7 Pax, Dec. 22, 697;  6 K’an *7 Pax, Dec. 10, AD 749; or 6 K’an *7 Pax, Nov. 27, AD 801. The closeness of the first to the winter solstice, the shortest date of the year (those thereafter getting steadily longer), gives some reassurance of its relevance. But I have qualms about the accuracy of the published drawing. The reality is that all dates work equally well, assuming, indeed, that 6 K’an *7 Pax does not allude to a more distant past.

As for the event, it is clearly a change-of-state verb, almost certainly lok’oyi, “leave” (Alfonso Lacadena, personal communication, 1998) or even, in dynastic contexts, the more allusive “go into exile,” a usage well-attested on Dos Pilas Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 (Guenter 2002). What follows appears to be ju-t’u?-AJAW, Jut’ Ajaw (Fig. 2). The ju has been understood for some time (Grube 2004:65–66, 72), and the t’u is one of my proposals based on a spelling for “rabbit,” t’u-lu, on a pot in an Australian private collection. That idea was buttressed by David Stuart’s suggested spelling of bu-t’u, “fill,” on the Palace Tablet at Palenque. This passage and its transitive verb (u-bu-tu’-wa) may report on the non-vascular embalming (“filling”) of Kan Bahlam of the city, perhaps on his day of death. The tropics would demand a rapid response to a decaying body, ranging from evisceration to packing the abdominal cavity with herbs. In Medieval Europe, where such elite practices are documented, evisceration was followed by wadding and stuffing with moistened cotton and powders of crushed aloe, rosemary, wormwood, myrrh, and marjoran (Brenner 2014; see also Weiss-Krejci 2005). Allspice (Pimenta dioica) might have served this purpose at sites like Río Azul, Guatemala (Scherer 2015:88). But what of ju-t’u itself? It matches no modern place name in the area, and the form of the word, with final, glottalized t’, is uncommon in Mayan languages. Yukateko employs hut’ to mean “narrow,” plausibly some feature of landscape (Barrera Vásquez et al. 1980:259), but I have little confidence it applies here.



Figure 2. Spellings with the t’u syllable: (a) ju-t’u?-AJAW, Tikal graffito, Str. 5C-49, Room 1, East wall (Trik and Kampen 1982:fig. 29); (b) t’u-lu, polychrome vessel, private collection, Australia (photographer unknown); and (c) u-bu-t’u-wa  (photograph by Mark Van Stone, Mesoweb link).

From the very same building comes another version of the title, but here with prefixed title and personal names. This is on an incised vase, first shown to me by Juan Pedro Laporte in 1990 and found with an adult male in a partly looted tomb from the final phase of Str. 5C-49 (Fig. 3, at top; Laporte and Fialko 1995:81, 81 fn58, fig. 68). The owner of this vessel carries the “wise one” epithet (‘itz’aat) decoded long ago by David Stuart, along with a personal name consisting of yuklaj, a positional verb for “it is shaking” (Stuart 2001a), and ch’a-ka-ta, a word rather more difficult to parse. Perhaps it transcribes some nominalization of an aggressive act of “cutting” or “chopping” (Orejel 1990), including, if I may speculate, a vowel-harmonic –V[V]t that occurs with terms like ebeet, “messenger” or “servant” (Houston 2018:104–105, for discussion of the so-called “headband bird” as a logographic version of this spelling). The incised vase, which dates by style to the eighth-century AD, reveals that this figure was in middle age. His “k’atun” notation shows him to be 40 to 60 years old.


Slide2.jpg Figure 3. Comparison of names at Tikal and Naj Tunich, Guatemala: at top, Tikal PNTA-215, ‘i-tz’a-ti yu-ku-[la]ja ch’a-ka-ta ju-t’u-AJAW (photographs by Marc Zender); and, below, Drawing 88, yu-ku-la-ja ch’a-ka-ta ju-t’u (Stone 1995:fig. 8-88c).  


Precisely the same name, with the same title, embellishes a wall in the upper-level maze passage of the Naj Tunich cave (Fig. 3, below, Stone 1995:230, fig. 8-88c; MacLeod and Stone 1995:fig. 7-3). The “imix”-like t’u sign and its “stone” infix are clearer \than at Tikal. The text at Naj Tunich is even more informative because it forms part of a cluster of texts that, despite the angled, awkward arrangement, displays a certain cohesion of style and continuity of phrasing (Fig. 4; the painter seems to have struggled with the broken, uneven surface). A multitude of people are mentioned, each cued by the yi-ta-ji expression that indicates proximity or close participation. Several have unusual names (ni-chi-?-K’AHK’, “Flower-Fire,” tz’a-ya-ja-K’AHK’, “Watered? [doused?] Fire,” k’u-k’u i-chi-?, “Quetzal Owl?), and one of them (Tz’ayaj K’ahk’) came from the large city of Caracol, Belize (K’AN-tu-ma-ki), about 58 km north of the cave (for the tz’a-ya as a fire expression, see also Caracol Stela 22:A12 [Grube 1994:fig. 9.30]). If these passages do form a single, continuous text, then the date is likely to have been counted back from a future event (‘i-ko-jo-yi) at 8 Ajaw 8 Uo, March 19, AD 692, a few years before the possible assignment for the graffito at Tikal (for another ko-jo-yi, if with a ju-JUL-pi [Sacul?] lord, see Drawing 49; MacLeod and Stone 1995:fig. 7-25; also Carter 2016:239). A distance number (3 winal, 13 heew), segues backwards to a likely 13 Manik’ 0 K’ayab, Jan. 6, AD 692 (MacLeod and Stone 1995:table 3). This date in turn is only a little over a month after a Calendar Round on Tikal Altar 5, (Jones and Satterthwaite 1982:37–38, fig. 23, table 5).



Figure 4. Drawing 88, Naj Tunich, Guatemala (Photograph by Chip and Jennifer Clark, Stone 1995:fig. 8-88). 


The name at Naj Tunich is preceded by an u-tz’i-ba, “his painting,” an indication of authorship (MacLeod and Stone 1995:176; Houston 2016:396–397, fig. 13.3). Is the painter, ni-chi-?-K’AHK’, the same as Yuklaj Ch’akat, the lord of ju-t’u? Or is there an opaque expression in between, thus recording two names? The expression resembles a statement of patronage (ya-na-bi-IL) between sculptors and their masters, but that cannot be shown decisively (Houston 2016:fig. 13.6). My suspicion is that there are two names, not one.

What is clear is that ju-t’u lords make an appearance in the middle years of the Late Classic period. The title may belong to a class of emblems clumsily designated (by me) as “Problematic Emblem Glyphs” (Houston 1986): sites with curious names and aberrant titles, but clearly royal and sovereign. In some cases they are linked to important cities. This zone has many small kingdoms but a limited epigraphic record of fairly late date (Carter 2016). With luck, ju-t’u may someday be identified on a stray monument from a mapped but unstoried ruin—not, as the fairy tale goes, “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” but south of Tikal and north of Naj Tunich.



Anaya Hernández, Armando, Stanley P. Guenter, and Marc U. Zender. 2003. Sak Tz’i’, A Classic Maya Center: A Locational Model Based on GIS and Epigraphy. Latin American Antiquity 14(2):179–191.

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Bíro, Pétér. 2005. Sak Tz’i’ in the Classic Period Hieroglyphic Inscriptions. MesowebBíro

Brenner, Erich. 2014. Human Body Preservation—Old and New Techniques. Journal of Anatomy 224(3): 316–344

Canuto, Marcello, and Tomás Barrientos. 2013. The Importance of La Corona. La Corona Notes 1(1). MesowebImportance.

Carter, Nicholas P. 2016. These Are Our Mountains Now: Statecraft and the Foundation of a Late Classic Maya Royal Court. Ancient Mesoamerica 27(2):233–253.

Chase, Arlen F., Diane Z. Chase, Jaime J. Awe, John F. Weishampel, Gyles Iannone, Holley Moyes, Jason Yaeger, M. Kathryn Brown, Ramesh L. Shrestha, William E. Carter, and Juan Fernandez Diaz. 2014. Ancient Maya Regional Settlement and Inter-Site Analysis: The 2013 West-Central Belize LiDAR Survey. Remote Sensing 6(9):8671–8695.

Chase, Arlen F., Diane Z. Chase, John F. Weishampel, Jason B. Drake, Ramesh L. Shrestha, K. Clint Slatton, Jaime J. Awe, and William E. Carter. 2011. Airborne LiDAR, Archaeology, and the Ancient Maya Landscape at Caracol, Belize. Journal of Archaeological Science 38:387–398.

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An Update on CHA’, “Metate”

by David Stuart (University of Texas at Austin)


In an earlier post on Maya Decipherment I proposed a reading KA’ or CHA’ for a long-elusive sign known as the “bent cauac” (at right). I suggested that it derived from the representation of a metate, or grinding stone, the word for which is *kaa’ in proto-Mayan and cha’ in all Ch’olan languages, including modern Ch’orti’. The occasional –a sign suffix found in a few examples, as shown here, seemed to offer good support for the identification, pointing to the presence of a glottal-stop after a in the logograph’s root, therefore Ca’. The widespread word for metate would certainly fit the bill.

I’ve come across another occurrence if the “bent cauac” that may offer confirmation of the reading, indirectly pointing to its precise logographic value as CHA’.  But the context is highly unusual, for the sign seems to operate as a syllabic sign, in clear substitution with chi in a familiar spelling of the title k’inich. This raises some larger epigraphic issues about how CV syllables and logograms of similar phonetic shape (CV’, in this case) may have sometimes blurred in function and usage, at least during a certain stage of Maya scribal history.

Figure 2. Name phrases from the vases, showing alternation of chi and ‘metate’ sign in the third block. (Photos: J. Kerr)

The substitution comes from two Late Classic vases in the “Ik’ style,” produced in the region around Lake Peten Itza in what is now northern Guatemala (Just 2012). The two vessels (K533 and K8889 in Justin’s Kerr’s database) were clearly painted by the same artist/scribe – an important point that we will return to later. A royal name, Yajawte’ K’inich, is written in the rim texts of each, referencing a local king who is depicted in the scenes below. His name is common throughout the corpus of Ik’ vessels (Tokovinine and Zender 2102:44-45). If we look closely at the extended name phrases themselves, we see obvious parallels (Figure 2). First we have u-baahil ahn(?) introducing a deity’s name, a version of the so-called “deity impersonation phrase” I have described before, found numerous other inscriptions (Houston and Stuart 1996). This serves to link a historical individual (named later) with a deity or supernatural with whom his/her identity is fused. Here it clearly names the solar deity Wuk Chapaht Tz’ikiin(??) K’inich (Ajaw), first identified in the 1980s in the inscriptions of Copan and other sites. The ruler’s name then follows, written as Yajawte’ K’inich, then the title “the captor of Ik’ Bul.” On K533 we find a fairly standard and recognizable form of the sun god’s name, with a K’INICH logogram followed by chi (see Just 2012:164)However, in the parallel sequence from K8333 the chi hand is replaced by our metate sign, making for a very strange combination. The bent cauac element, no matter what its value, plays no role in what is otherwise a very standard name for the sun god. There seems little choice but to analyze it here as a direct substitution for the syllable chi, where the metate element now takes on a syllabic role, presumably as cha (K’INICH-cha …weird!). The scribe of K8333 uses the conventional cha sign in spelling U-cha-nu, in the penultimate glyph of the illustrated phrase, perhaps as a way to highlight the playful nature of his earlier spelling,

If true, this phonetic function for the metate sign leads to a couple of interesting points.  First, it offers good evidence that the base value of the sign is indeed CHA’, not KA’. This makes sense given the presence of cha’ as “metate” throughout Ch’olan (*KA’ or *KAA’ seemed possibilities as more archaic forms, but less likely). Second and more broadly, it indicates a degree of playfulness on the part of a scribe who opted to steer clear of old, established spellings and introduce something completely outside of convention. Elsewhere the metate never appears syllabic cha, and I suspect its use as such here would have struck any ancient reader (like a modern epigrapher) as odd, even to the trained eye of a fellow Maya scribe of the period. In addition, the use of cha in spelling k’inich falls well outside the familiar rules of synharmony and disharmony, a set of conventions that was came to be tweaked anyway by the end of the Classic period. With K’INICH-cha we seem to have an example of individual scribal innovation, and a very playful one at that.

Crossovers between syllables and logograms occur throughout the history of the Maya script – BIH, “road,” can very often serve as bi, and CH’OH(OK), “rat,” is the basis for the syllable ch’o, and so on.  I believe that the painter of these vases used this familiar precedent to come up with his playful idea to use CHA’ as cha. In certain settings (calligraphic, less formal ones?) scribes may have felt a bit more freedom to draw upon these possibilities and display their creative skills as glyphic composers. For any courtly scribe the act of writing was an act of designing, often creatively and unexpectedly. In any event, all this highlights once again that the spellings found in Maya hieroglyphs were seldom truly “fixed,” as long as scribes conformed to the established rules of graphic variation. The example from the two Ik’ vases demonstrates how at least one ancient painter may have pushed some of these boundaries and conventions, and others no doubt did the same, in different ways. Epigraphic studies will always explore and refine the nature of scribal rules, but it would seem that, at least for some scribes, some leeway was possible in bridging the categories of logograms and syllables.

Figure 3. Two Ik’-style vases with parallel rim texts, K533 and K8889. (Photos: J. Kerr)

References Cited

Houston, Stephen D., and David Stuart. 1996. Of Gods Glyphs and Kings: Divinity and Rulership among the Classic Maya. Antiquity 70:289-312.

Just, Bryan R.. 2012. Dancing into Dreams: Maya Vase Painting of the Ik’ Kingdom. Princeton University Art Museum and Yale University Press.

Tokovinine, Alexander, and Marc Zender. 2012. Lords of Windy Water: The Royal Court of Motul de San Jose in Classic Maya Inscriptions. In Motul de San Jose: Politics, History and Economy in a Classic Maya Center, A.E. Foias and K.F. Emery, eds., pp. 30-66. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.