The Throne in the Basement 3

This post follows up on a recent entry devoted to the “Del Río Throne” of Palenque, which stood inside House E of the Palace until it was dismantled in June, 1787. It’s clear that the inscribed bench is much more recent in date than the building that housed it, placed by a later king in what was essentially Pakal’s throne room. The time difference between the throne and the surrounding space presents an interesting situation for those interested in how the Palace grew and transformed over the course of the Late Classic period.

According to the Tablet of the 96 Glyphs, House E was dedicated on October 30, 654, just two years after K’inich Janab Pakal had celebrated the great K’atun ending on This was a pivotal time in Palenque’s early history — Pakal had already been king since 615, but he had apparently held little power in those earlier decades, during what was a troubled political period instigated long before by wars with Calakmul and its allies. When House E was built it must have seemed a bold expression of Pakal’s new-found authority, and it helped set the stage for the architectural transformation of the Palace in the years that followed.

The style of the Oval Palace tablet dates to about the time of the building’s construction in 654, and shows a retrospective scene of the crowning of a young Pakal by his mother, Ix Sak K’uk’. Interestingly, the Del Rio throne itself is much later in date. As Mathews and Schele pointed out, the throne’s inscription records a series of royal accessions beginning with Pakal and continuing on to include his sons who ruled, K’inich Kan Bahlam and K’inich K’an Joy Chitam. An even later king may have been mentioned, since we know that the end portion of the text is still missing. Pakal’s grandson, K’inich Ahkal Mo’ Nahb, is featured in the late calligraphic text beautifully painted above the Oval Tablet, so this king’s modifications of the space may also have included a refurbishment of the throne (see Marken and Gonzalez Cruz 2007:154). At the very least we can be sure that the Del Río throne is significantly later than the Oval Palace Tablet, and that it presumably replaced one or more earlier thrones occupying the same space, beginning of course with the time of House E’s formal dedication in 654.

As it happens, the enclosed passages of the Palace’s lower levels — the so-called subterraneos — hold three table-like thrones, two of which are set against side walls of corridors, without any association with doors. One of these thrones (see photo), barely noticed by anyone who walks by in the wet, dark hallway, is inscribed with many eroded glyphs, including a Long Count date and, at the end, the clear name of K’inich Janab Pakal. The style is very early, similar to what we see on the Oval Palace Tablet and other inscribed blocks of the subterraneos. So why was this and another uncarved throne placed in these lower passageways? The subterraneos themselves seem to have been built and conceived as “buried” spaces, and were accessible through two stairways leading from two upper buildings, Houses E and K, which all look to be roughly contemporary with one another. There is good reason to believe these were all employed together as symbolic space integrating the underworld and the throne room (Baudez 1996; Stuart and Stuart 2008). What’s important here is that the subterraneos are directly attached to Pakal’s throne room above, located just up the stairs.

Given the late date of the Del Rio throne in House E, I have to wonder if the early inscribed bench now hidden away in the subterraneos served as the original royal seat beneath the Oval Tablet. That is, when replacing Pakal’s original throne with a new more elaborate one, did the Maya simply put the old seat in the basement, down the dark steps nearby? It does make sense to me, and the style of the faint glyphs is just about perfect for the time period of House E’s dedication.

So, here’s a thought: why not return Pakal’s early throne, or better yet a good copy, to its rightful place in House E? After all, Pakal’s throne room needs a throne!

Sources cited:

Baudez, Claude F.. 1996. Arquitectura y escenografía en Palenque: un ritual de entronización. RES 29/30.

Marken, Damien, and Arnoldo Gonzalez Cruz. 2007. Elite Residential Compounds at late Classic Palenque. In Palenque: Recent Investigations at the Classic Maya Center, pp. 135-160. D. Marken, ed. Altamira Press.

Stuart, David, and George Stuart. 2008. Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya. New York: Thames and Hudson.

o-ba-ma-a 11








Now for something completely different.

Usually this weblog is for Maya glyph news and the exchange of scholarly ideas, but I’m shifting gears a bit today to offer a political twist on things. Last night I designed a glyph for “Obama,” and through the miracle of the internet anyone can now purchase t-shirts, coffee mugs, tote bags, etc., from the store now up on the cafepress website. Please feel free to spread the word. 

By the way, I make no money at all on this. It’s just for the fun (weirdness?) of it, and to express support for Barack Obama during our all-important election here in the US.

“Mayanists for Obama” on-line store

Notes on Palenque’s “Del Rio Throne” 3

The elegant carved throne that once stood inside of Palenque’s House E, in the center of the Palace complex, exists today mostly as a few battered fragments stored in the archaeological bodega at the ruins. In 1787, the explorer Antonio del Río came across the throne (although he was not the first), which he described as a “plain rectangular block, more than two yards long by one yard and four inches broad and seven inches thick, placed upon four feet in the form of a table, with a figure in bas relief in the attitude of supporting it.”  The throne was clearly in situ as del Río described it; he and his Maya laborers quickly set about dismantling the monument so that he could send one of the supports back to Spain, thus offering material proof of his remarkable discoveries at the ruins. The throne itself was probably broken and damaged at this time, and its fragments no doubt suffered considerably more in the ensuing years, strewn about the floor below the famous Oval Tablet. At some more recent point a few of the remaining fragments were taken to the Palenque bodega, where Peter Mathews and Linda Schele eventually photographed them. They published this useful drawing of the throne and its carved faces and supports, shown here (by Schele, from Mathews and Schele 1979). 

The modern reconstruction drawing offers a reasonable view of the throne’s form, but I would like to suggest some modifications that might convey a better sense of its original design. Schele positioned the fragments so that the inscription opens on the front, with a record of K’inich Janab Pakal’s accession to office, on the famous day 5 Lamat 1 Mol (marked as columns A and B in her drawing). This of course makes good sense, except for the fact that the inscription almost surely began on the left side of the throne, not on the front. As we see in Schele’s drawing, the surviving right front corner of the throne shows the hieroglyphic text running around onto the right side; without a doubt, then, the inscription must have had a corresponding section on the left side of the slab. I therefore suggest that columns A-F still are the initial portions of the text, but that they originally were found on the throne’s left face.

It seems reasonable to suppose that there were four such equal sections of the inscription placed around the throne — one on each side and two on the front, making a total of 24 columns. The two front portions of the text originally flanked a central rectangular image of a person wearing a heron headdress, perhaps the ancestor Pakal himself. Of the front text panels, only the right-hand portion remains, which I suppose might now be designated as columns M-R. All told, much more of the text seems to be missing than previously supposed.

To summarize the arrangement of the incomplete text:

Left side: columns A-F

Front: columns G-L (missing) and M-R (formerly G-L)

Right side: columns S-X (formerly M and N, with U-X missing)

At first I considered that a second profile may have originally been part of the central image, facing the portrait one that now partially survives. But Almendáriz’s drawing, inaccurate as it is, clearly shows just one head in the central location between the glyph panels. Also, taking the old drawing into account, along with the new placement of A-F glyph columns, I think we can extend the width of the original throne slightly more than Schele showed in her published drawing, perhaps another by 10-20 cms., if not more. This would accomodate the somewhat larger iconographic image that is indicated by Almendáriz’s sketch.

All these ideas remain speculative until one can again directly examine the stored fragments at Palenque, but until then I think we may have a slightly better understanding of the throne’s original look and format.

Source cited:

Mathews, Peter, and Linda Schele. 1979. The Bodega of Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks.

Stephen Houston Receives MacArthur Award Reply

Great news was announced today that Steve Houston, contributor to this blog (and a fine scholar besides), has received a MacArthur Award. Huge congratulations, Steve, for such a well-deserved honor, and being such a really smart person. Three cheers!

An official announcement from the MacArthur Foundation came Tuesday morning. And a story from the Brown University website offers more on Steve and his remarkable work.

Unusual Signs 1: A Possible Co Syllable 4

Over the coming weeks and months I will be offering musings on certain rare or usual Maya hieroglyphic signs, some of which haven’t been catalogued or ever discussed in the literature.

The first is what I take to be a syllabic element, appearing in contexts that strongly point to a Co value. Many have probably taken this sign to be three separate elements (a stacking of ma, TAL and perhaps ka) but I suggest it is in fact a single sign, sometimes overlaid by other elements with which it combines to spell roots. I know of four good examples of this mystery sign, although I’m sure others exist out there in the corpus of Maya texts. Here’s a run-down of the four illustrated here, with a sketch of their environments:

Example a (drawing by Peter Mathews): From the inscribed earspools of Altun Ha, in a woman’s personal name. Here it precedes an early form of the lo syllable, topped by NAAL? and a bow-tie knot element below, the reading of which is ambiguous.

Example b (drawing by Sven Gronemeyer): On Monument 8 of Tortuguero (Block G) our sign appears in second position after the syllable mo, and before no? and probably se. The context suggests the entire glyph may be part of the nominal phrase of the local ruler Bahlam Ajaw, named in the following block, but I have no good understanding of the sign sequence.

Example c (drawing by Ian Graham): From Tortuguero, Monument 6 (G11), in what looks to be a transitive verb construction, with the ergative u- pronoun and the suffix –Vw. I take the core elements here to be our mystery sign with lo superimposed over the central portion. This context is key, for all transitive verb roots are spelled synharmonically (CV1-CV1); if combined here with lo, the unknown sign reasonably should be Co as well. The order of elements is not obvious, but I lean to the sequence being U-Co-lo-wa, pointing to a transitive verb root Col.

Example d (drawing by David Mora-Marin): In a text from an Early Classic inscribed celt of unknown provenance, we see the probable sequence U-?(ko), again making use of an infixed element. Once more the order is somewhat ambiguous, though I tend to see this infixed sign as coming in second position. The missing portion of this short text make it impossible to know just what we are looking at here, but it looks to be a possessed noun (u Cok?).

Four contexts do not make for an easy decipherment, but we might be safe in thinking the sign is a syllable of Co phonetic shape, as indicated by it’s clustering with lo, mo, no? and ko in the cases illustrated. But what is the consonant? To begin determining this, we would have to know whether the sign is an alternate version for some Co syllable already identified in the script, or instead if it might fill one of the blanks now in the syllabic grid. This answer isn’t obvious, but I see no evidence to suggest our sign a substitution for some already known element, such as ch’o, bo or jo, and so on. It’s a somewhat subjective call, but I suspect the sign will eventually correspond to one of the missing Co spots of the grid, such as so, t’o, tzo, and tz’o.

This is probably enough speculation for now. Nevertheless, I find it interesting that proto-Ch’olan has the transitive verb root *tzol, “to line-up,” but no transitive roots attested for *sol, *t’ol, or *tz’ol. This quick-and-dirty assessment admittedly means little at this preliminary stage. So it’s time to pour myself a cup of coffee and go back to the dictionaries, and find a few more examples of the sign.