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).


Figure 1.jpg

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.

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

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.

Grann, David. 2010. The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon. Vintage, New York.

Grube, Nikolai. 1994. Epigraphic Research at Caracol, Belize. In Studies in the Archaeology of Caracol, Belize, edited by Diane Z. Chase and Arlen F. Chase, 83–122. Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute Monograph 7. Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute, San Francisco.

—. 2004. Cuidades perdidas mayas. Arqueología Maya 12(67):32–37.

—. 2005. Toponyms, Emblem Glyphs, and the Political Geography of Southern Campeche. Anthropological Notebooks 11:89–102.

Guenter, Stanley P. 2002. The Inscriptions of Dos Pilas Associated with B’ajlaj Chan K’awiil. MesowebDos Pilas

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, DC.

—. 2004. Writing in Early Mesoamerica. In The First Writing: Script Invention as History and Process, edited by Stephen D. Houston, 274–309. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

—. 2016. Crafting Credit: Authorship among Classic Maya Painters and Sculptors. In Making Value, Making Meaning: Techné in the Pre-Columbian World, edited by Cathy L. Costin, 391–431. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C.

—. 2018. The Gifted Passage: Young Men in Classic Maya Art and Text. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Jones, Christopher, and Linton Satterthwaite. 1982. Tikal Report No. 33, Part A: The Monuments and Inscriptions of Tikal: The Carved Monuments. University Museum Monograph 44. University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Laporte, Juan Pedro, and Vilma Fialko. 1995. Un reencuentro con Mundo Perdido, Tikal, Guatemala. Ancient Mesoamerica 6:41–94.

Loten, H. Stanley. 2002. Tikal Report 23A: Miscellaneous Investigations in Central Tikal. University Museum Monograph 114. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia.

MacLeod, Barbara, and Andrea Stone. 1995. The Hieroglyphic Inscriptions of Naj Tunich. In Images from the Underworld: Naj Tunich and the Tradition of Maya Cave Painting, by Andrea Stone, 155–184. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2008. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. Second ed. Thames and Hudson, London.

Martos López, Luis Alberto. 2009. The Discovery of Plan de Ayutla, Mexico. In Maya Archaeology 1, edited by Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore, 60–75. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco. Plan de Ayutla

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

Preston, Douglas. 2017. The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story. Grand Central Publishing, New York.

Scherer, Andrew K. 2015. Mortuary Landscapes of the Classic Maya: Rituals of Body and Soul. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Stone, Andrea. 1995. Images from the Underworld: Naj Tunich and the Tradition of Maya Cave Painting. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Stuart, David. 2001a. Earthquake! MesowebEarthquake! Stuart Notes.

—. 2001b. Las ruinas de La Corona, Petén, y la identificación del “Sitio Q.” Paper presented at the XV Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala, Guatemala City, Guatemala.

—. 2012. The Hieroglyphic Stairway at El Reinado, Guatemala. MesowebEl Reinado.

Tokovinine, Alexandre, and Marc Zender. 2012. Lords of Windy Water: The Royal Court of Motul de San José in Classic Maya Inscriptions. In Motul de San José: Politics, History, and Economy in a Classic Maya Polity, edited by Antonia E. Foias and Kitty F. Emery, 30–66. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Trik, Helen, and Michael E. Kampen. 1983. Tikal Report No. 31: The Graffiti of Tikal. University Museum Monograph 57. Univeristy Museum, Philadelphia.

Weiss-Krejci, Estella. 2005. Excarnation, Evisceration, and Exhumation in Medieval and Post-Medieval Europe. In Interacting with the Dead: Perspectives on Mortuary Archaeology for the New Millennium, edited by Gordon Rakita, Jane Buikstra, Lane Beck and Sloan Williams, 155–172. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.


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.

If…Alabaster Could Talk

by Stephen Houston (Brown University), David Stuart (University of Texas, Austin), and Marc Zender (Tulane University)

Among the most valued objects in a Maya court must have been bowls of an almost sugary white stone. Some are opaque, especially those from the Early Classic period. Others, of Late Classic date, consist of a thin-walled, translucent travertine (Tokovinine 2012:128–129; see also Houston 2014:258; Luke 2008). The challenge of shaping such material into drinking bowls presented difficulties across Mesoamerica (Diehl and Stroh 1978; Saville 1900). For us, the obstacle is of a different sort, that of determining the precise origin(s) of this rare stone. Banding in several examples suggests crypto-crystalline deposits from caves, possibly even manufacture of bowls in one general area (Tokovinine 2012:129)—although, if that were true, inscriptions on some bowls would confirm reworking or subsequent carving by local literates (Houston 2014:259). Seasonal oscillations in water flow and accretion resulted in the bands (Kubler 1977:5 fn1), opening the possibility of direct dating and, with further study, clues to climate change (Douglas et al. 2016; Wong and Breecker 2015).

Hieroglyphs and imagery point to the use of the travertine bowls for chocolate drinks and, in one case, from the Ethnologischen Museum, Berlin, as receptacles for alcohol poured into clysters for enemas (Grube and Gaida 2006:Abb. 3.1). Fragments occur in Classic Maya palaces, as at Aguateca Structure M7-22, the so-called “House of Masks,” and on the summits of pyramids, such as Dos Pilas Str. L5-49. Whole bowls—a rarity given the delicacy of travertine and its tendency to breakage—come mostly from tombs savaged by looters (Houston 2014:249). Years ago, in the first weeks of the first season at Caracol, Belize, Houston saw, with Arlen and Diane Chase, a travertine bowl  in a looter’s tunnel behind Structure B20 (Chase and Chase 1987:fig. 15a; see also Prager and Wagner 2013). In a tearing hurry, looters cleared out Tomb 3 of that building, leaving the bowl just days if not hours before we arrived.

An inscribed travertine bowl has just flashed briefly on the internet, the image now gone, the find spot unknown. The text, on a small bowl with sharply everted rim, contains two dates, one with a Calendar Round of 8? Eb 10 Zac, perhaps corresponding to (Julian Date, August 26, AD 770), and a future event of, 11 Ahau 18 Mac (Julian Date, October 8, AD 790). In a final passage, it also records, for the first time, a term in Maya glyphs for “alabaster”:  [‘i]T’AB[yi] u-xija-yi, ‘i-t’ab-y-i u-xix-jaay (Fig. 1).


Figure 1. Glyphic passage on alabaster vessel (drawing by David Stuart). 


The passage is fully legible. The verb, based on t’ab, “rise, go up” (Stuart 1998:417), harbors an infixed ‘i particle that, in temporal terms, folds the text back to the earlier date (Houston 2012). A probable yi infix signals the intransitive, change-of-state nature of the verb as well as a conjectural marker of single-argument predicates (-i; John Robertson, personal communication, 2000). What follows is a possessive pronoun, to be expected after such a verb, then a doubled xix (cued by two dots above the xi syllable). In a separate glyph block, but clearly linked to the xix, are the syllables ja-yi, spelling a term for “thin vessel, cup,” often in reference to vessels with slightly everted rims (Hull 2016; Lacadena and Wichmann 2004:144; Martin 2012:67, figs. 16, 17). The xix must be an adjective that describes the cup.

Mayan languages offer a suite of related words for “alabaster,” including an entry, “white xix,” from the Motul Dictionary of Yucatec compiled, probably, by Antonio de Ciudad Real in the final decades of the 16th century or the beginning of the 17th (Fig. 2, Table 1). Xix accords neatly with a label for an alabaster bowl, and this is its first known attestation in glyphs. What remain to be explored are subtleties of ethnogeology. Here is a term for a milky-white, nearly glowing stone (depending on quality and direction of light), sugary to the touch, coveted by elites and royalty. Yet it might also be applied to rough, commonplace materials: pebbled, sedimentary “gravel” (gravilla, cascajo) or “round rocks” (rocas….redondeadas) redeposited from elsewhere. Some skein of thought, perhaps of stone affected by water (cave flowstone accords with that class), might bind these terms together, as shaped by an etiology of stone conceived over centuries and across languages.


Screen Shot 2018-07-06 at 5.00.00 PM.png

Figure 2. Dictionary entry for çac xix [sak xix], ‘alabastro’  or “white xix” (Motul Dictionary, folio 94r, John Carter Brown Library, facsim. Codex Ind 8). 


Table 1. The root Xix in Greater Lowland Mayan languages.

Colonial Yucatec       <çac xix>        alabastro                         Dicc. Motul, folio 94r

Modern Yucatec        ch’áak-xìix      stalactite                        Bricker et al. 1998:79, 259

Itzaj                                xixil tunich      cascajo de piedra         Hofling with Tesucún 1994:676

Colonial Tzeltal        <xiximton>     cascajo                            Ara 1986:417 [folio 123v]

Modern Tzeltal          xixinton          rocas y gravilla redondeadas provenientes de una                                                                                         roca conglomerática previa Polian 2017:670

                                         xixim=ton       grava, cascajo                Kaufman & Justeson 2003:441

Colonial Tzotzil        <xixibton>     pebble                              Laughlin 1988:302

Modern Tzotzil          xixibton           river pebble                   Laughlin 1975:322


Note: The title is taken from a poem by Yusef Komunyakaa about Sir Harold Acton’s pleasure palace in Florence, “Blackamoors, Villa La Pietra,” 2016, Alabaster. The opulent setting seemed fitting here.



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.

Bricker, Victoria R., Eleuterio Po’ot Yah, and Ofelia Dzul de Po’ot. 1998. A Dictionary of the Maya Language as Spoken in Hocabá, Yucatán. Salt Lake City:University of Utah Press.

Chase, Arlen F., and Diane Z. Chase. 1987. Investigations at the Classic Maya City of Caracol, Belize: 1985–1987. Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute, Monograph 3. San Francisco: Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute.

Diehl, Richard A., and E.G. Stroh, Jr, 1978. Tecali Vessel Manufacturing Debris at Tollan, Mexico. American Antiquity 43(1):73–79.

Douglas, Peter, Mark Brenner, and Jason Curtis. 2016. Methods and Future Directions for Paleoclimatology in the Maya Lowlands. Global and Planetary Change 138:3–24.

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

Hofling, Charles A., with Félix Fernando Tesucún. 1997. Itzaj Maya Dictionary. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

Houston, Stephen D. 2014. Miscellaneous Texts. In Life and Politics at the Royal Court of Aguateca: Artifacts, Analytical Data, and Synthesis. Aguateca Archaeological Project First Phase Monograph Series, Volume 3, edited by Takeshi Inomata and Daniela Triadan, 258–269. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

Hull, Kerry. 2016. An Analysis of Jaay Vessel Usage among the Ancient and Modern Maya. Unpublished ms.

Kaufman, Terrence, with John Justeson. 2003. A Preliminary Mayan Etymological Dictonary. Kaufman with Justeson

Kubler, George. 1977. Aspects of Classic Maya Rulership on Two Inscribed Vessels. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology No. 18. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University.

Lacadena, Alfonso, and Søren Wichmann. 2004. On the Representation of the Glottal Stop in Maya Writing. In The Linguistics of Maya Writing, edited by Søren Wichmann, 103–162. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

Laughlin, Robert M. 1975. The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of San Lorenzo Zinacantán. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

— 1988. The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of Santo Domingo Zinacantán, Volume 1, Tzotzil-English. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Luke, Christina. 2008. Carving Luxury: Late Classic Maya Stone Vase Traditions in Mesoamerica. In New Approaches to Old Stones: Recent Studies of Ground Stone Artifacts, edited by Yorke M. Rowan and Jennie R. Ebeling, 298–319. London: Equinox.

Martin, Simon. 2013. Hieroglyphs from the Painted Pyramid: The Epigraphy of Chiik Nahb Structure Sub 1-4, Calakmul, Mexico. In Maya Archaeology 2, edited Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore, 60–80. San Francisco: Precolumbian Mesoweb Press.

Polian, Gilles. 2017. Diccionario Multidialectal del tseltal. Ms. in possession of authors.

Prager, Christian, and Elizabeth Wagner. 2013. A Possible Hieroglyphic Reference to Yax K’uk’ Mo’ at Caracol, Belize. Mexicon 35(2):31–32.

Saville, Marshall H. 1900. An Onyx Jar from Mexico in the Process of Manufacture. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 13:105-07.

Stuart, David. 1998. “The Fire Enters His House”: Architecture and Ritual in Classic Maya Texts. In Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture, edited by Stephen D. Houston, 373–425. Washington, D. C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Tokovinine, Alexandre. 2012. Fluted Bowl, Fluted and Incised Bowl. In Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Number 4: Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks, edited by Joanne Pillsbury, Miriam Doutriaux, Reiko Ishihara-Brito, and Alexandre Tokovinine, 120–129. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Wong, Corinne I., and Daniel O. Breecker. 2015. Advancements in the Use of Speleothems as Climate Archives. Quaternary Science Reviews 127:1–18.





What Writing Looks Like

by Stephen Houston (Brown University)

Beginning as puffs of air, channeled and shaped by the throat and mouth, words travel out from the body to reach other human ears. After cognitive processing, the puffs release their message, and communication ensues. [1] But words create their own problems. How is an assortment of meaningful exhalations, clicks, articulations, bellows, flutings, and affrications made more permanent and their recollection preserved beyond the memory of speakers and listeners? As many have observed, that is exactly what writing does. It takes ephemeral and invisible words and transforms them into fixed and visible graphs, to be seen as much as any picture. [2]

The ability to picture language creates its own kinds of play. Other graphic possibilities present themselves, other ways of linking with images. Other sorts of information become available. The claim that writing only concerns a phonic or linguistic message is a partial understanding at best, misleading at worst. Frolics with graphs, a luxuriation in their visible, material nature—these can be as important as any representation of sound. For Classicists, there is a relevant scene painted by Douris in Athens, at c. 490–485 BC (Fig. 1). In it, a schoolmaster holds a partly opened scroll, whose text reads: MOIΣAMOI AΦIΣKAMANΔPON EYPΩNAPXOMAI AEINΔEN. Translations of this sentence seem to vary by the translator, but it concerns a Homeric appeal to a muse and a reference to a good place for singing by the banks of the fast-flowing Scamander (Skamandros, the modern Karamenderes River in Turkey).



Figure 1. A schoolroom scene by the painter Douris, red-figure kylix, c. 490–485 BC, Athens, (Berlin, Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen 2285).


One theory suggests that we are looking at a bemused schoolmaster and a botched text from an “F” student: a subtle joke about dullards (Sider 2010:548). A representation (a painting by Douris of a scroll and a schoolmaster) embeds a second representation (a record of sound and meaning in an addled text). But the eye darts between the two levels. It reads the text, yet it also depicts those phrases as something physical, an inking on papyrus that opens up within a picture. In other instances, such as a vignette in an illuminated manuscript from c. AD 1450–1475, there can be a mind-bending mix: a representation of a representation of a representation (Fig. 2, Houston 2018b). An image of a northern Italian apothecary’s shop shows jars rimmed with pseudo-Hebrew or pseudo-Kufic characters, the latter a simulation—a representation—of legible writing.

Figure 2. Ibn Sina/Avicenna, Canon Medicinae, Bibliotheca Universitaria, Bologna, Italy, MS 2197, fol. 492.


Some pictured texts come close to trompe l’oeil, that clever trick by which the viewer or reader is led to confuse and blur materials (Fig. 3). In this way, a two-dimensional image triggers the perception of a three-dimensional object (Houston 2014:61, 62, 147fn.40). Miriam Milman (2009:22–23) explains how to activate the ruse: make the object as close as possible in size to the original it replicates; blend it into surroundings; limit depth; avoid live subjects that move; and create edges that do not compromise the deception. As one case of many, a painter, perhaps Ludger tom Ring the younger (1522–1583), created an open missal (a book for saying mass) that offers a tantalizing glimpse of a gilded page (likely a Crucifixion), surrounded by columbine, insects, corn flowers, and musical notation. The pages flutter slightly, about to be consulted, and a leather strap marks the first passage that is about to be read (Loeb Open Missal). There must have been some market for these ingenious deceptions, for a nearly identical painting is in the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence (N. Cat. 00124048, Inv. 1890, 6191). Other than a possible signature under the music (“Ludevi rinki”) no part of the text is readable. The work itself may have been an amusing surprise that lay on a sloping stand in a bookseller’s shop (Stirling 1952:33). Glossy and expensive, it hinted at knowledge that could never be accessed.



Figure 3. The Open Missal, attributed to Ludger tom Ring the younger, c. AD 1570, Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, 1956.5).


A later painting, by Laurent de La Hyre (1606–1656), also displays a text as though in three-dimensional space (Fig. 4). A literate audience was the intended target, one that would recognize the figure as a liberal art (“Grammar”), watering a plant that is out-of-scene—thirsty growth stands for young minds. On its ticker tape, there reads in Latin: “a meaningful utterance which can be written down, pronounced in the proper way.” The whole was inspired by an illustrated book, Iconologia, 1603, by Cesare Ripa (Wine et al. 1993:23–25). It formed part of a larger set of seven half-length panels extolling each of the liberal arts. A bookish audience, smug its own accomplishments, would have appreciated the painting and wanted its message multiply among the young. The letters seem to move in real space. They distort, and some of the letters disappear in part. The back of the text occurs too, the letters washed out in a brown-tinged reversal. An artful ploy simulates what the eyes might actually see in a hand-held scroll.



Figure 4. Allegory of Grammar, Laurent de La Hyre, 1650 (National Gallery of Art, London, NG6329, photograph by Stephen Houston).


The Classic Maya showed writing in the same way: as representations of representations, on physical objects in pictorial space. [3] For example, most Maya books are shown, as first suggested by Robert Sonin and amply documented by Michael Coe, in the form of leporellos or screenfolds (Coe 1973:91; Coe 1977:332–33, figs. 4–7). A few are unopened or about to be read (Fig. 5).



Figure 5. Opossum scribe (K’IN-ni ya-sa u-chu) with Maya codex and vulture accountant (k’a?-na u-su) holding single sheet with numbers, perhaps a mythic Long Count date of (BAMW Photography). 


Others are folded up tidily, two pages viewable at a time (Fig. 6). A curious feature, not often noted, is that the books are being examined or painted in an impossible manner. The scribe sits perpendicular to the correct position for writing, for the folds are always vertical in a book, not horizontal as shown here. Doubtless this was for clarity of presentation. A scribe in front of a book would obscure it to the viewer.



Figure 6. Trickster rabbit-scribe, northern Guatemala/southern Campeche, c. AD 725 (K511, Princeton University Art Museum, y1975–17, photograph © Justin Kerr, used with permission).


Another feature is that, with one exception, such pictured books never disclose their contents. Viewers can readily identify a codex by its sumptuous jaguar-pelt covering and the thin, smoothed excellence of its page-edges (usually 4 to 10 visible, i.e., rather terse works by the standards of surviving examples). But they are not given any view of the glyphs within. The exception is late, a vessel from the final decades of the Classic period (a vase by the same artist may be found in the Museo Popol Vuh, Guatemala, #5335, Chinchilla Mazariegos 2005). It shows a mythic tableau of animals bringing offerings of food and drink that are presumably being tallied in an open book by two monkey scribes (Fig. 7). The deity receiving these treats may be a high god known to specialists as “God D,” but with unusual touches, for he is borne aloft by a coiled snake (on the combinatory complexity of this character, see Martin 2015:214–215, fig. 37). Unexpectedly, the book shows, at slight angle, in awkward display, some bars, cross-banded signs, and a few dots. These offer a casual hint of content, rapid flicks of ink to suggest writing, but not its detail. On present evidence, all such scenes are mythic, the participants gods or supernaturals. Not a one appears to be dynastic. Indeed, historical images are decidedly phobic about depicting books, despite the undoubted presence of many such tomes in Maya cities (a lone dynastic image may include a codex, but, oddly, it serves only as a support for the mirror of a preening lord, K6341).



Figure 7. Monkey scribes, scene of food tribute or serving, Peten, Guatemala, c. AD 800 (K3413, photograph © Justin Kerr, used with permission).


Far more evident are glyphs on depictions of ceramics (Figs. 8, 9, 10). They appear where they should, as rim bands, but largely as pseudo-script, ovoids with thickened outlines and interior features in more delicate, thinner lines (Houston 2018b). They offer a graphic primer of what Maya scribes thought the formal attributes of writing should be.



Figure 8. Vessel with (pseudo-)glyphs, c. AD 700 (K2800, photograph © Justin Kerr, used with permission).

The tributary scene mentioned before revels in such labels on ceramics (Fig. 9). Each animal—as a whole, they constitute a near-complete typology of Maya mammals and quadrupeds—offers up a drinking vessel with prominent glyphs on the side visible to the viewer. The lucid presentation seems not to involve legibility, however, for they appear to repeat pseudo-glyphs (a large sign with appended suffixes) that resemble the glyph for “sky,” ka’n. The scribe, a painter with a hand for inventive scenes roiling with energy, was probably someone with only a light grip on glyphic literacy. His two works demonstrate a familiarity with a few signs and their customary arrangement as suffixes and larger glyphs, but he had little understanding beyond graphic display. His writing was pure picture.



Figure 9. Animals serving food, Peten, Guatemala, c. AD 800 (K3413, photograph © Justin Kerr, used with permission).


The tenuous line between legibility and pseudo-writing is less a necessity than a strategy for other scribes, as in the fully literate Akan Suutz’, a painter of a vessel now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Fig. 10, M.2010.115.12, see also K1599). The main text on the vessel is legible, even bold and confident. This is someone who understood, as do illustrators today, the impact of the la ligne claire (Clear Line; Ligne Claire). Small vessels throughout the scene have glyphs that appear to repeat, if with the usual alternation or juxtaposition of “affixes” and larger signs. Yet there is also an expert execution of a “12 Ajaw” on a jar for pulque. That may correspond to a date of, in the Maya Long Count system, (an ending for a 20-year span often commemorated with Ajaw signs written in this way, without months), or, in the Western calendar, a Julian Date of Jan. 21, AD 771.



Figure 10. Polychrome vessel from area of Tikal or even Aguateca or Dos Pilas, but likely made near Lake Peten Itza, Guatemala (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, M.2010.115.12, see also K1599). 


The lively scenes of marketing found in Structure Sub 1-4 at Calakmul, Mexico, offer both examples of glyphs painted on textiles (a possible u chu-?, u chuy, “sewing”?), but also, in another panel, a cup lifted to the lips of an atole drinker (Fig. 11, Carrasco Vargas and Cordeiro Baqueiro 2012:fig. 8, close-up fig. 33; Martin 2012:64–65, fig. 6). A different technique intruded here, “a minutely incised inscription” with yu-li (Martin 2012:64) that may refer to atole or maize-drink, ordinarily spelled ul, or to the act of carving or incision itself, yul-il (Houston 2016:424–425, fn9). Post-fire texts do not occur Late Classic pottery, especially in such a prominent position, but, with this enhancement, the legible text evoked the direct action and presence of a scribe.


incised CLK.jpg

Figure 11. Glyphs on blue-painted atole bowl, Structure Sub 1-4, Calakmul, Mexico (Carrasco Vargas and Cordeiro Baqueiro 2012:close-up fig. 33, photograph by Rogelio Valencia Rivera, Proyecto Arqueológico Calakmul). 


Glyphs on textiles afford an insight about gender. By common belief—the assertion is plausible yet hard to prove—most weavings were done by women (Halperin 2016:435). Yet there is also overwhelming evidence that the scribes and literate sculptors were men (Houston 2016). The occurrence of pseudo-writing on some textiles (Fig. 12, left), but legible texts on others (Fig, 12, right, Laporte and Fialko 1995:82, fig. 69), may have several explanations. If an actual textile is being shown, then this may reveal variable literacy among those painting textiles. Note that few appear to be woven into the fabric, i.e., they were added later. Or, if the painter of the pot is the relevant party, then it simply speaks to their representation of textiles.



Figure 12. Polychrome vessels with glyphs on textiles: (left) sash around waist, with pseudo-writing (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, M.2010.115.12, see also K1599); and (right) vase from Tikal, Burial PNT-007, with seemingly legible signs (K2697, photograph © Justin Kerr, used with permission).


The glyphs on a vessel from Tikal inspire confidence that literate productions appeared in some of these images, including a possible reference to a male youth (Fig. 13ch’o-ko? CHAK-la-ya ‘a?).



Figure 13. Close-up of glyphs, vase from Tikal, Burial PNT-007, with seemingly legible signs (K2697, photograph © Justin Kerr, used with permission).

A conundrum for any person looking at ancient art is that divide, at times close, at times yawning, between depiction and the depicted. These are no snapshots. They express a considered view of what to show and how to show it. But the occlusions, partly visible in several images (Fig. 12, leftFigs. 13, 14, 15), along with Laurent de La Hyre’s, Allegory of Grammar (Fig. 4), reinforce a view that an ocular effect is being entertained here, that painters and carvers are displaying not what they know to be there but what they can see (Houston 2016:fig. 13.5). Occasionally, glyphs are obscured by another piece of cloth or ornament (see also a partial sculptor’s name, in the Princeton University Art Museum, #2012–78, Houston 2016:fig. 12.5, in a lead from Bryan Just). The glyphs painted at the end of Classic period in the Bonampak murals refer explicitly to “cloth” in one case (u bu ku), but to secondary painting in another (u tz’i ba-li), to the medium of transmission, line-like paint applied after weaving, and to the intended display surface. These probably operated in a setting of tributary offering (hence the T’AB-yi, “raise up,” in Fig. 14, Room 1, Caption 5c; Houston 2018a:152). Texts specified that someone painted them, that they were offered, and that the textile belonged to someone, perhaps a maker, perhaps an owner.



Figure 14. Pictured texts on textiles, Bonampak Murals (images by Stephen Houston and Gene Ware, drawing by Stephen Houston, courtesy of Bonampak Documentation Project).


This pattern has also been attested in a carving now in the Dumbarton Oaks collection,  Washington, D.C. (Fig. 15Tokovinine 2012:69–71, fig. 32, 33). It refers to the painting on the cloth and to the ownership (or making) of that cloth, but by someone whose name disappears behind a (now-eroded) belt ornament. The statements are almost coy in providing the phrasing of possession but not any particulars about personal identity.



DO Chancala overlay.jpg

Figure 15. Chancala-area panel, Chiapas, Mexico, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, PC.B.537 (drawing by Alexandre Tokovinine, with added highlighting in red of text on textile).


The art historian Meyer Schapiro paid close attention to pictured text in Western art. Some of his observations are parochial, as in his categorical insistence that writing consisted of “arbitrary marks” violating the “unified whole” of a pictorial work (Schapiro 1996:119). In the Maya case, sundering imagery and writing hardly makes sense for an iconically based script. But, to useful extent, Schapiro was concerned with the “material reality of the spoken and written word” (Schapiro 1996:120) and with the problem of viewpoint. Was inserted text to be “read” by a figure within a picture, a seated Evangelist examining a Gospel oriented to his “gaze”? Or was the pertinent observer “outside,” looking at that same Gospel but now laid out for clarity, not as any real book would be? Evolutionism creeps in: for Schapiro the latter was “an archaic object-oriented attitude,” to be contrasted with “the foreshortenings and overlappings that transform the constant shapes of objects,” crafting “an image coherent to the eye with a unifying perspective” (Schapiro 1996:121, 132, 141, 181).

“Archaic,” “ordered,” “whole,” “coherent,” and “unifying” are words of prejudicial intent. Schapiro’s voting record is clear. Yet pictured writing among the Classic Maya recalls similar patterns and a roughly parallel contrast of “attitude.” During a few decades in the Classic period, perhaps over a century, and in certain kingdoms or ateliers only, the need for presentational clarity gave way, in playful experiment, to what the eye could see, not what was known to be there. (Codices seemed strenuously off-limits.) This could be understood by the culturally laden term of “realism,” but it points more to a privileging of viewers, a means of summoning direct experience, and bringing observers into physical communion with acts on record. For the Maya, this was what writing looked like.


Note 1.  “Communication” is sometimes not quite the right label. Speaking to oneself can be seen as a disorder in Western psychiatry, which orders up lithium and other drugs to control such an impulse. To more recent thinking, chatter without an audience helps to organize the brain and to direct the tasks we perform (Kirkham et al. 2012). Moreover, in communicating with others, lip-reading offers a non-phonic option, provided that labial movement can be clearly seen (Auer 2010).

Note 2. Tactile scripts like braille and the “night writing” of Charles Barbier de la Serre present another story of sensory messaging. They are, as relatively recent innovations, far more restricted in use (Weygand 2009: 39, 299).

Note 3. Left to the side is an unusual occurrence: glyphs that appear as objects when they are most unlikely to have been seen in this way (e.g., K771, in which an “8 Ajaw” day sign “sits” on a surface, much like seated figures—all supernaturals—posed nearby). Year-bearers, numbered days marking the shift of years, also perform in this way (Stuart 2004:fig. 4).


Acknowledgments  Megan O’Neil kindly shared an image of the vessel at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.



Auer, Edward T., Jr. 2010. Investigating Speechreading and Deafness. Journal of the American Academy of Audiology 21(3):163–168. Speechreading

Carrasco Vargas, Ramón, and María Cordeiro Baqueiro. 2012. The Murals of Chiik Nahb Structure Sub 1-4, Calakmul, Mexico. In Maya Archaeology 2, ed. Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore, 8–59. San Francisco: Precolumbia Mesoweb Press.

Chinchilla Mazariegos, Oswaldo. 2005. Cosmos and Warfare on a Classic Maya Vase. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 47:107–134.

Coe, Michael D. 1973. The Maya Scribe and His World. New York: Grolier Club.

Coe, Michael D. 1977. Supernatural Patrons of Maya Scribes and artists. In Social Process in Maya Prehistory: Essays in Honour of Sir Eric Thompson, ed. Norman Hammond, 327–47. New York: Academic Press.

Halperin, Christina T. 2016. Textile Techné: Classic Maya Translucent Cloth and the Making of Value. In Making Value, Making Meaning: Techné in the Pre-Columbian World, edited by Cathy L. Costin, 433–467. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Houston, Stephen D. 2014. The Life Within: Classic Maya and the Matter of Permanence. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Houston, Stephen D. 2016. Crafting Credit: Authorship among Classic Maya Painters and Sculptors. In Making Value, Making Meaning: Techné in the Pre-Columbian World, edited by Cathy L. Costin, 391–431. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Houston, Stephen D. 2018a. The Gifted Passage: Young Men in Classic Maya Art and Text. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Houston, Stephen D. 2018b. Writing that Isn’t: Pseudo-Scripts in Comparative View. Unpublished ms., www.academia.edu.

Kirkham, Alexander J., Julian M. Breeze, and Paloma Marí-Beffa. 2012. The Impact of Verbal Instructions on Goal-Directed Behaviour. Acta Psychologica 39(1):212–219. Speaking Aloud

Laporte, Juan Pedro, and Vilma Fialko. 1995. Un reencuentro con Mundo Perdido, Tikal, Guatemala. Ancient Mesoamerica 6:41–94.

Martin, Simon. 2012. Hieroglyphs from the Painted Pyramid: The Epigraphy of Chiik Nahb Structure Subt 1-4, Calakmul, Mexico. In Maya Archaeology 2, ed. Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore, 60–81. San Francisco: Precolumbia Mesoweb Press.

Martin, Simon. 2015. The Old Man of the Maya Universe: A Unitary Dimension of Ancient Maya Religion. Maya Archaeology 3, ed. Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore, 186–227. San Francisco: Precolumbia Mesoweb Press

Milman, Miriam. 2009. Does “Real” Tromp l’oeil Exist. In Art and Illusions: Masterpieces of Trompe l’oeil from Antiquity to the Present Day, ed. Annamaria Giusti, 21–32. Florence: Mandragora.

Schapiro, Mayer. 1996. Words, Script, and Pictures: Semiotics of Visual Language. New York: George Braziller.

Sider, David. 2010. Greek Verse on a Vase by Douris. Hesperia 79(4):541–554. Schoolroom

Sterling, Charles. 1952. La nature morte de l’antiquité à nos jours. Paris : P. Tisné.

Stuart, David. 2004. New Year Records in Classic Maya Inscriptions. The PARI Journal 5(2):1-6. Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute, San Francisco. Stuart Yearbearers

Tokovinine, Alexandre. 2012. Carved Panel. In Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks, eds. Joanne Pillsbury, Miriam Doutriaux, Reiko Ishihara-Brito, and Alexandre Tokovinine, 68–73. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, No. 4. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Weygand, Zina. 2009. The Blind in French Society from the Middle Ages to the Century of Louis Braille. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Wine, Humphrey, Paul Ackroyd, and Aviva Burnstock. 1993. Laurent de La Hyre’s “Allegorical Figure of Grammar.” National Gallery Technical Bulletin 14:22–33. Allegorical Figure


The Ugly Writing

by Stephen Houston (Brown University)

In Western thought, much rests on Greek precedent. “Calligraphy” or “beautiful writing,” to give one example, descends from the condition of κάλλος “beauty” and -γραϕος “written” (“calligraph” and “calligraphy,” OED Online 2018). To notorious extent, “beauty” exists in the eye of the beholder. For the ancient Greeks, its meanings might slip and slide between “noble,” “well-done,” and “virtuous,” if with “the kind of appeal that inspires desire” (Konstan 2014:170). The aesthetic dimensions of “beauty” would await the Renaissance, for the Greeks of Classical times rarely applied the term to a work of art (Konstan 2014:179). When aesthetics took over, critics like Pierre Bourdieu came to see “beauty” and “taste” as “ascetic, empty…the renunciation of pleasure,” a withered husk of delight (Bourdieu 1984:493; see also Konstan 2014:186). Or, as a concept, “beauty” became a quality divorced from “sensual, practical, and ethical issues” (Nehamas 2007:3).

Calligraphy as “beautiful writing” makes sense on many levels, if couched within different traditions of practice. In China, the focus on brushstrokes led to joint evaluations of text and painting.  A vast corpus of critical literature assisted that endeavor, including glosses added to the paintings themselves (Bush and Shih 1985; Cahill 1997:5–6). The Aztecs, for their part, thought of good scribes in terms of their internal properties (“honest, circumspect, far-sighted, pensive”) but above all as “judge[s] of colors” (Dibble and Anderson 1961:28).

But what of “ugly writing”? A suitable term, “cacography,” derives from a Greek word for “ugly,” “vile,” “useless,” or, by evocative, etymological link, to excrement (Liddell and Scott 1940:124)? The Aztecs knew of such works too, made by scribes who were “dull, detestable, irritating” (Dibble and Anderson 1961:28). Painting “without luster,” a bad scribe “ruins colors, blurs them, paints askew” (Dibble and Anderson 1961:28). Interior failings resulted in bad work, sloppiness betrayed an unworthy maker. Some ugly writing might reflect biography: arising at times of apprenticeship, when learning takes place, or in old age as the hand loses muscular control. Neophytes create uneven, awkward displays of signs (Fig. 1). Or, quite simply, more general standards might lapse when larger shifts happened to convulse society. Mastery of execution, regularity of sign use, a disciplined placement of writing in relation to picture, careful choice of color, sustained evidence of confident practice—perhaps these become less important when the minds of patrons or readers weigh down with other challenges. Their discernment atrophies or fails to develop in the first place.



Figure 1. Writing board of an apprentice scribe, Dynasty 11, c. 2030 BC, wood, whitewash, and ink, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 28.9.5.


These are the attributes of some Egyptian writing during Intermediate Periods (Figures 2, 3). Hieroglyphs: baselines that swoop, askew in layout, each sign variable, lop-sided, nary a straight line in sight. Resembling crude ostraka, the underlying stone bulges or fractures with inadequate preparation and smoothing. Epigraphers usually suspend judgment. As in wise parenting, there can be no favorite children, no period better than any other. In fact, a Classic Mayanist learns this to their peril when talking to specialists in other periods. At the Brooklyn Museum, one such text is said to be, in upbeat description, “simple but lively” (Brooklyn Museum 39.1). Yet these examples distill the essence of ugly writing. The patrons must have been satisfied, for they had accepted the work and affixed them to their tombs. But broader comparisons give them failing grades. They illustrate aesthetic and scribal decline, a systemic lapse in standards, problematic writing for problematic times.



Figure 2. Stela of Khuu, Gebelein area(?), First Intermediate Period, c. 2100 BC. Turin, Museo Egizio, S.1276, acquired by Ernesto Schiaparelli about 1905 (photograph by John Baines). 



Figure 3. Stela of Tetu and Nefertjentet, First Intermediate Period, El-Assasif, Thebes, Egypt, c. 2124–1981 BC. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, Rogers Fund 1919, 19.3.33. 


Ugly writing exists among the Maya. Rich in content, basically, even fully, legible in its deciphered signs, the Codex Madrid in the Museo de América has its admirers but also some detractors (Fig. 4): David Kelley (1976:15) described its “frequent errors” and many a “dyslexic lapse” across its lime-sized, Ficus-bark pages. Several scribes, perhaps up to 9, were involved in its making (Lacadena 2000:56). One, labeled “Scribe 5” by Alfonso Lacadena, is seemingly unbothered by sagging glyph-lines, and another two, his “Scribe 3” and “Scribe 8” respectively, invert spellings (mu-ti > ti-mu, nu-tz’u for tz’u-nu-*nu). A “hand” is, of course, an invention of connoisseurship (Houston 2016). If cautiously defined, it presents a reasoned hypothesis, a statistical chance, that certain attributes mark a particular artist or scribe. Here, Kelley’s “dyslexic” lapse affects at least two scribes and probably more, indicating that these “errors” of reading order reflect a variant, more opaque pattern of spellings in the place and time when the Codex Madrid was composed. Heavy, almost disproportionate lines mark some pages, the ink poorly or erratically controlled (M19, 21), and sign or glyph block size varies widely (M35). This differs strongly from the taut, minute execution of the Dresden Codex, also by more than one scribe (Coe and Kerr 1997:178–179). Again, the point does not concern the message, which might be perfectly serviceable. It is the vehicle of transmission that wants for disciplined regularity and able execution.



Figure 4. “Errors” and compositional irregularity in the Codex Madrid, with scribal “hands” discerned by Alfonso Lacadena García-Gallo (2000).


Book-writing involved an intimate act. Much hinges on the use of brush or quill and their steady control by the hand in artful pose, pinky aloft (David Stuart has called this the “pretty hand,” an exquisite gesture that might also be used by dancers; personal communication, 2014). Monumental carving had a different, far more muscular dynamic, and was far slower in execution. It could be ugly indeed. A carving from Chuncan on display in the Baluarte de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad Museum [Museo de la Arquitectura Maya] in Campeche shows a distended body, one outsized hand doubtless casting incense, the other holding a pouch for that offering of pellets (Fig. 5). The stone is not exceptionally well-preserved, but the glyphs sag, exhibit variant sizes—they almost certainly named the figure, but one wonders if they were ever crisply sculpted or appeared as more than suggestive shapes. Long-gone paint might have clarified some of the signs on other sculptures in the Baluarte Museum—not a few, as in a scene of a deity riding a skeletal deer, appear almost to block out glyphs yet supply no discernible detail. The one readable sign is an Ajaw below, possibly tied to a katun (20-year) ending of 2 Ajaw 13 Tzec, in AD 751.



Figure 5. Chuncan Stela 1, Museo Baluarte de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad [Museo de la Arquitectura Maya], Campeche (photograph by Stephen Houston). 


A later example is Calakmul Stela 50, said by its discoverers to be “rather crude” (Ruppert and Denison 1943:111). That is an understatement. The lower torso has been drastically reduced, the glyphs made surprisingly large given the size of the main figure. A face on the belt is scratched out or lightly incised, as is a pectoral. This must be one of Calakmul’s latest monuments, at the tail end of its royal line. Irregular spacing famously occurs on another late carving, Yaxchilan Lintel 10 (Graham and von Euw 1977:31). The sculptor crammed glyphs into the final passages of the text, and its overall grid of signs curved away from any neat regularity. As at Calakmul or with the Codex Madrid, the evaluative milieu had changed from earlier times. Ugly writing is not solely about execution—it is also about reception. Earlier readers would have recoiled from Stela 50 at Calakmul; clearly, at its time of carving, patrons and viewers did not. Or, if they did, they no longer enjoyed access to the carving standards of Stela 51, a masterwork of modulated surface and light (ironically enough, this carving is reproduced on the same page as Stela 50; Ruppert and Denison 1943:pl. 50c).


Calakmul Stela 50.png

Figure 6. Calakmul Stela 50 (Ruppert and Denison 1943:pl. 50b).  


Some ugly writing must have come from faltering, initial steps in training. While excavating the Acropolis at Piedras Negras, a team led by Linton Satterthwaite uncovered masonry blocks that, on closer look, proved to have trial designs on them (Fig. 7, Satterthwaite 1965:figs. 2, 6). These would have been reused not long after their carving, hinting that monumental work did not take place in ateliers but on-site. Several scenarios suggest themselves. This might have been an opportunistic gathering of apprentices at a location where flattened stone was abundant. Or, perhaps, the training was motivated by another task nearby, the carving of wooden lintels over doorways in the Acropolis. Their wide span could only have been covered by wood, now long-gone, their decay causing most of the masonry vaults to collapse. Yaxchilan is celebrated for its sculpted lintels; Piedras Negras might have had just as many if not more, but of a material that did not last.

Miscellaneous Stone 3 shows a laborious incision of a grid—one can nearly hear the master: “start with this!” The glyphs, perhaps placed later, out-of-grid, occur in varying sizes. One sign might just be a term for “strong youth,” keleem, a suitable autograph for a young carver. Did this self-absorbed man-boy incise his own name? Miscellaneous Stone 8 labors with a grid, if one that is poorly aligned. The sequence seems secure, commencing with the grid, then come the major glyph outlines, and a trial excision of recessed areas. The most finished block, at C2, experiments with suffixes that are out of proper position, the ni, wa, and AJAW topsy-turvy in relation to glyphs in other blocks. The carver might have pivoted around the stone, probing different lines of attack and alternative ways of handling a chisel or burin. The haptics of sculpting may be on display here. There were no disappointed patrons with this piece (although maybe an annoyed master), only slabs that would soon pass into the bulk of a palace.



Figure 7. Trial pieces at Piedras Negras, mid-8th century AD (Satterthwaite 1965:figs. 2, 6), both from Court 2, Acropolis (MS 3, Structure J-9; MS 8, Structure J-12). 


By any measure, the Copan Hieroglyphic Stairway, now under intensive study by Barbara Fash and David Stuart, contains glyphs of the highest quality. Those in the first-phase, bottom risers are especially accomplished (Houston, Fash, and Stuart 2014/2015:26–27). They may not have been carved by the same person—their sheer number makes that unlikely—but they do exhibit a tendency towards “homography,” a uniform style in riser after riser. By contrast, the upper stairway is highly “heterographic,” with a multitude of different hands, possibly as many as 45 (Houston, Fash, and Stuart 2014/2015:35). There is much to admire in those blocks, and one glyph that inspires a contrary emotion: a day sign, properly pedestaled, but with a singularly inept Ajaw-face (Fig. 8). Was this a trial piece by an apprentice or the results of a rushed commission? There is a perceptible disparity between the lower part of the day sign cartouche, plus the adjacent wa under the month name Tzec, and the cramped, slovenly, flat parts above. Did two different carvers operate within a single glyph block? General standards were competent-to-high at this time. The day and months signs occupy the bottom reaches of that range.



Figure 8. Day and month sign on the upper Hieroglyphic Stairway, Copan, Honduras (Gordon 1902:pl. V, F2).


Scholarship is seldom advanced by subjectivity. Yet, in all probability, for Maya writing, declines in standards are perceptible and isolable. Socially meaningful, they also reveal much about training, conduits of access, and evaluative milieux. The beholding eye can detect some of their defects: a thorough-going irregularity in glyph size or shape of grid; signs that lose their capacity to establish contrasts; in painting, a poorly controlled charge of the brush; and, when compared with other examples, an idiosyncratic variation that reduces the influence of precedent or scribal tradition. These are not the same as “pseudo-glyphs,” signs that become pictures of texts, a stylistic evocation, an ornamental place-holder with little to no content (Calvin 2006, 2013; Houston 2017). A decline in standards expresses, probably, a broader fraying in the transmission of information, a problem in society itself (Houston 2008). Ugly writing offers lessons worth studying. By their indirect example, they define achievement and rare excellence. By awkward stumbles, they help us to discern shifting standards and the reasons behind them.



Acknowledgements   John Baines was most helpful with an image of regrettable writing from Egypt. Karl Herbert Meyer supplied a lead about the stela from Chuncan.



Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. London: Routledge.

Bush, Susan, and Hsio-yen Shih, eds. 1985. Early Chinese Texts on Painting. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cahill, James. 1997. Approaches to Chinese Painting, Part II. In Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting,  Yang Xin, Richard M. Barnhart, Nie Chongzheng, James Cahill, Lang Shaojun, and Wu Hung, 5–12. New Haven: Yale University Press.

“calligraph, n.1”. OED Online. June 2018. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/26430? (accessed June 16, 2018).

“calligraphy, n.”. OED Online. June 2018. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/26437?redirectedFrom=Calligraphy&amp; (accessed June 16, 2018).

Calvin, Inga E. 2006. Between Text and Image: An Analysis of Pseudo-Glyphs on Late Classic Maya Pottery from Guatemala. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Colorado, Boulder.

Calvin, Inga E. 2013. A Different Discourse: An Analysis of Late Classic Period Maya Pseudo-Glyphs.” Paper presented at “More than an Utterance: Indecipherable Scripts and the Materiality of Communication,” organized by Alice Yao, Chicago, Nov. 24.

Coe, Michael D., and Justin Kerr. 1997. The Art of the Maya Scribe. London: Thames & Hudson.

Dibble, Charles E., and Arthur J. O. Anderson. 1961. Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, Book 10—The People. Santa Fe Salt Lake City: School of American Research/University of Utah Press.

Gordon, George B. 1902. The Hieroglyphic Stairway, Ruins of Copan: Report on Explorations by the Museum. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnologyy Vol. 1, no. 6. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Houston, Stephen. 2008. The Small Deaths of Maya Writing. In The Disappearance of Writing Systems, eds. John Baines, John Bennett, and Stephen Houston, 231–252. London: Equinox.

Houston, Stephen D. 2016. Crafting Credit: Authorship among Classic Maya Painters and Sculptors. In Making Value, Making Meaning: Techné in the Pre-Columbian World, edited by Cathy L. Costin, 391–431. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C.

Houston, Stephen. 2017. Writing That Isn’t: Pseudo-Scripts in Comparative View. Ms. for publication in volume at the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, ed. Christopher Woods.

Houston, Stephen, Barbara Fash, and David Stuart. 2014/2015. Masterful Hands: Morelli and the Maya on the Hieroglyphic Stairway, Copan, Honduras. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 65/66: 15–36.

Kelley, David H. 1976. Deciphering the Maya Script. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Konstan, David. 2014. Beauty: The Fortunes of an Ancient Greek Idea. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Graham, Ian, and Eric von Euw. 1977. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 3, Part 1: Yaxchilan. Cambridge, MA; Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.

Lacadena García-Gallo, Alfonso. 2000. Los escribas del Códice de Madrid: Metodología paleográfica. Revista Española de Antropología Americana 30:27–85.

Liddell, Henry G., and Robert Scott. 1940. A Greek-English Lexicon. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Nehamas, Alexander. 2007. Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in the World of Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Ruppert, Karl, and John H. Denison, Jr. 1943. Archaeological Reconnaissance in Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Peten. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication 543. Washington, D.C.

Satterthwaite, Linton. 1965. Maya Practice Stone-Carving at Piedras Negras. Expedition Winter:9–18.