In Memoriam – Pierre Robert Colas 1

The world of Mesoamerican studies is shocked and saddened to learn of the tragic death of Dr. Pierre Robert Colas, Professor of Anthropology at Vanderbilt University. Robbie, as many new him, was a rising star in the field of Maya archaeology and epigraphy; his senseless and unspeakable loss will be felt by all his friends, students and colleagues for years to come.

Information on last night’s tragedy remains sketchy, but news updates are available through this weblog established by Vanderbilt University. Importantly, those who knew Robbie can there post thoughts and words of remembrance. All prayers and condolences go out to his family and loved ones.

The xa syllable as an example of onomatopoeia? 1

by Stephen Houston

A well-known feature of language is onomatopoeia, the practice of creating and using words to imitate a sound. “Wham!” and “bang!” appear in cartoons, and various languages refer to a dog’s bark as anything from vov vov (Swedish) to bow wow (English).  In Swedish, the language of my childhood, a dog was for this very reason a vov, at least to the very young. Such words can be unearthed in all Mayan languages. Modern Tzotzil, for example, has pom for “bong” or “beat,” ‘o’ for the sound of gagging, even tzan for the sound of a ringing bell (Laughlin 1975:64, 89, 282). Fun, whimsical, evocative: onomatopoeia creates many chances for linguistic play and expression.

It unsurprising, then, that the ancient Maya drew on onomatopoeia in devising their writing system. One possible example is the syllable xa, deciphered by the editor of this blog, after an early, exhilarating view of the newly discovered cave paintings at Naj Tunich. The pa-xa in one text, along with another spelling in the Dresden Codex, nailed the reading of the month name, pax (or, we now know, a harmonic spelling of it, as disharmonic spellings, pa-xi, are also attested).  From the outset, the xa sign probably operated as a syllable, especially when placed within YAX-xa – the earliest versions of “grue” (green-blue, yax) do not have the infix, and, in my judgment, the sign ought to be transcribed as a two-part spelling, at least until the xa became, by Late Classic times, an almost unconscious additive to the logograph.

In the 90s, I began to notice odd ornaments on a few xa syllables, especially at Tikal.  There was, for example, MT30, with what appeared to be YAX-xa-NAL-la (see Figure 1, above left) (see Endnote 1).  Or we had MT9 (above, right), which, as Dave Stuart suggested from the position of the sign, simply spelled “again” or “more,” xa, perhaps in reference to drinking – an early record of a toast?  Another example (Figure 3, below), a probable adjective xa-k’a-la, was recently found at Palenque, on the Temple XXI bench excavated

by INAH and now on display in the Palenque Museum. The depictions of Maya rattles, as on the so-called Deletaille Tripod (Fig. 4, below; Hellmuth 1988:fig. 4.2), make it clear that the xa is, at least in these versions, a rattle with handle. It has tufts at the end, and is pierced by slits to allow the release of resonant sound, rather like the F-hole on a stringed instrument.

The problem is, Mayan languages do not use xa for “rattle.”  Highland languages employ other onomatopoeic terms, like *chij.chijtzojtzoj, and tzujtzuj, (“Eastern Mayan,” K’iche’ and Mopan, respectively, Kaufman 2003:752) or chinchin in Ch’orti (Wisdom n.d.).  A glyphic label is known, too: chikab, attested in Ch’olti’, the target descendant of most linguistic matter in the inscriptions, and on the handle of a rattle looted in all likelihood from or near the site of Naranjo, Guatemala, and now in the Ethnographic Museum in Berlin (Grube and Gaida 2006:213). The musicians in the murals at Bonampak affirm that rattles were usually held in pairs. It can be no coincidence that the examples from the area of Naranjo are in a paired set, the better to perform a syncopated cha-cha-chá with maracas. In modern Mexican examples, I understand that the pairs tend to be configured for different pitches, hence the need for two rattles.

How to explain the xa sign as a rattle?  I conjecture that the glyph could reflect some lost term for rattle or, as a more basic explanation, onomatopoeia itself. The sound of a Maya maraca could easily be imagined as xa, a susurration like the swish of beans or seeds in a rattle. Curiously enough, shac-shac is the traditional name for maracas in Trinidad, so the sound has registered as such in some ears around the Caribbean basin. A glance at other Maya syllables raises the possibility of yet other examples of onomatopoeia. A few years ago, Marc Zender pointed out to me the ‘o bird mentioned in the Ritual of the Bacabs (Roys 1965:138 ) – clearly the source of the syllable with its bird head and tufted feather above the beak. I now wonder about syllables like the pi bird or the ‘i that devours the eyes of jaguars (also mentioned in the Bacabs [Roys 1965:134] as a kind of hawk), and terms like k’uk’, “quetzal,” and mo’, “macaw,” all explicable as Maya perceptions of the squawks, croaks, and cries of bird life in the jungle.

Endnote 1:  The text is on a rattle handle, one of set. (The rattles themselves were almost certainly of gourd and have long since rotted away.) This complicates the reference, in that the sign could be a logograph here, perhaps in reference to a mythic location. I suspect the texts on Tikal MT29 and 30 are central to any understanding of Classic Maya music. They refer to mythic events, including the burning and death of the deity of wind and music. Karl Taube remains the essential source on this being, as discussed in a variety of papers (e.g., Taube 2004).


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

Hellmuth, Nicholas M. 1988. Early Maya Iconography on an Incised Cylindrical Tripod. In Maya Iconography, eds., E. P. Benson and G. Griffin, 152-174. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kaufman, Terence. 2003. A Preliminary Mayan Etymological Dictionary. Accessed June 16, 2008.

Laughlin, Robert M. 1975. The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of San Lorenzo Zinacantán. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology Number 19. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution.

Roys, Ralph L. 1965. Ritual of the Bacabs: A Book of Maya Incantations. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Taube, Karl A. 2004. Flower Mountain: Concepts of Life, Beauty, and Paradise among the Classic Maya. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 45: 69-98.

Wisdom, Charles n.d. Materials on the Chorti Language. University of Chicago Microfilm Collection of Manuscripts of Cultural Anthropology 28. Chicago.

A Caracol Emblem Glyph at Tikal Reply

by Simon Martin
The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA

The inscriptions of Tikal have been scoured by epigraphers for many a year, but they still have the ability to surprise. I was leafing through the copy proofs of Hattula Moholy-Nagy’s new volume on Tikal artifacts (Tikal Report 27A) not so long ago when I saw a photograph of a text I’d previously seen only as a drawing. It was a close-up of a stucco-covered vessel found in Burial 195, the tomb of the sixth-century king dubbed Animal Skull.

As is widely known, this grave was flooded soon after its dedication and a slurry of mud deposited across its floor, burying many of its contents. A meticulous excavation by Rudy Larios and George Guillemin in 1965 revealed empty cavities in the now-hardened sediment, the remains of decayed wood and other perishable materials. Once filled with Plaster of Paris they could be recovered in whole or in part, in some cases revealing original stucco coatings with surviving color and painted designs. One of these objects was a small, covered bowl. The lid was almost complete and bore a 13-glyph Primary Standard Sequence in good preservation—perhaps bearing a woman’s name—a text now designated Miscellaneous Text 219. The style and coloring technique resembles those on the other stucco-covered pot in Burial 195, although it doesn’t appear to be in the same hand. The text on another stucco-coated item in the tomb, this time a ceramic plate, has a similar style but the artist is plainly different.

The body of the lidded vessel and the text it carried were in much poorer shape. Labeled Miscellaneous Text 277, it has only two surviving glyphs, the first no more than a fragment of border. The second is broken, yet unmistakably supplies the sequence K’UH-K’AN-tu-ma-ki for k’uhul k’antumaak—the emblem glyph of Caracol. With a blank section of stucco following, it falls at the end of a phrase, just where we might expect to find such a title.

Even today, when we have so many other ways of investigating Classic Maya politics, emblem glyphs remain a fundamental tool with which to examine relationships between sites. An isolated case such as this—damaged and lacking even the name of the person it refers to—can hardly carry the burden of great significance. We cannot even be sure that the vessel carrying it comes from Caracol. Nevertheless, it is interesting that such a title should appear in this particular grave at this particular time, and in this sense it does have a context in which it can be placed.

Animal Skull’s predecessor, Wak Chan K’awiil (formerly “Double Bird”) had close connections to Caracol and installed its king Yajaw Te’ K’inich II in 553. But relations soured rapidly and three years later, in 556, Wak Chan K’awiil attacked his former client. Six years after that, in 562, the Tikal king was defeated in a “star war” and disappears from history. The phrase describing the defeat on Caracol Altar 21 is badly damaged and the name of the victor unclear. Elsewhere I have argued that the Snake kingdom under its king Sky Witness is a better candidate than Caracol’s Yajaw Te’ K’inich, but we can only hope that some future find will make the matter clear. Certainly this marks the beginning of close ties between these two polities.

We don’t know how soon after 562 Animal Skull was inaugurated as Tikal’s 22nd king, and his rule is largely a historical blank. He has no known stelae and what little information we have comes from texts on unprovenanced ceramic vessels and those found within Burial 195. The tomb inscriptions appear on a set of four carved wooden boards (that survive today as plaster casts) and two polychrome plates. The first of the boards and one of the plates carry the same Long Count date, the Period Ending of 593. This makes it very likely that his grave was dedicated before the next K’atun-ending in 613. Several ceramic vessels name his mother, a royal woman from the site of Bahlam “Jaguar,” while only one (from Burial 195) refers to his father, and this name is otherwise unknown and lacks any identifying title. As Christopher Jones first suggested, there are good grounds to doubt that Animal Skull descended from the existing royal patriline—although this is not to say that he was without some claim to legitimacy.

We are left to ask how and why a vessel carrying a royal Caracol name came to be in Burial 195. It is safe to assume that it had some symbolic purpose, but in the absence of any sure knowledge we can only guess what this might have been.

Just a generation earlier, Caracol was a sworn enemy of Tikal and at least partly responsible for a major military defeat—one of the more consequential in Tikal’s long history. Yet, by the time of Animal Skull’s death an object naming a Caracol lord was chosen to be among a relatively small number of goods in his last resting place—a special location by any standard.

One scenario might see Caracol as having fallen into the Tikal fold once more, with this vessel in some way signaling their renewed subordination. Because we lack a dedication date for Burial 195, we cannot know whether Yajaw Te’ K’inich II (553-593) or his son Knot Ajaw (599-613) was in power at the time. However, Yajaw Te’ K’inich and his younger son K’an II ( 618-658 ) were clear allies of the now-dominant Snake kingdom (the latter was affirmed in his kingship by the new Snake king Yuknoom Ti’ Chan) so any such ties to Tikal would realistically be restricted to the reign of Knot Ajaw, K’an II’s half-brother. The situation would need to have been dynamic indeed for relations to yo-yo quite so rapidly, and comes in the absence of any evidence for Animal Skull’s political strength. We would, I think, need to see new inscriptional evidence for this model for it to be persuasive. The same might be said of another possibility, that the vessel was booty seized in a successful new attack.

A further scenario sees greater stability following the war of 562. Here the evident disruption of the Tikal patriline is an especially important consideration. Animal Skull could have introduced a regime more to the liking of the victors, perhaps one politically beholden or subservient to them. Burial 195 was not very wealthy in terms of its jade and other valuables, and seems to reflect somewhat straitened times. Although Animal Skull seems to have some connection to distant Altar de Sacrificos—perhaps as the father to one of its kings—to date he lacks the credentials of his immediate successors as a true reviver of Tikal fortunes. Is the woman named on the lid the one with Caracol connections, could she have married into the Tikal line? We might never know. However, just like the serendipitous survival of this emblem, some unexpected piece of data might fall into our hands one day and bestow a clarity we currently lack.


Further reading:

Martin, Simon. 2003. In Line of the Founder: A View of Dynastic Politics at Tikal. In Tikal: Dynasties, Foreigners, and Affairs of State, edited by Jeremy A. Sabloff, pp. 3-45. School of American Research Advanced Seminar Series, School of American Research Press and James Curry, Santa Fe and Oxford.

2005. Caracol Altar 21 Revisited: More Data on Double Bird and Tikal’s Wars of the Mid-Sixth Century. Precolumbian Art Research Institute (PARI) Journal 6(1):1-9.

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

Dates for the 2009 Maya Meetings Reply

The dates for the 2009 Maya Meetings in Austin have now been firmed-up for February 23- March 1, 2009. An earlier posting on our Maya Meetings website had announced it as coming a week later, but we’ve had to make the adjustment in order to secure a wonderful new space on campus, the AT&T Conference Center.

Our 2009 symposium (coming after the workshops) will focus on the History and Politics of the Snake Kingdom, highlighting on discoveries and decipherments at Calakmul and sites within its large geopolitical sphere. Simon Martin will co-host along with yours truly. Speakers for the symposium and all of the workshop leaders will be announced near the end of summer, so check the Maya Meetings website for updates. 


A Stela from Pajaral, Guatemala Reply

Few people visit the interesting ruins of Pajaral, El Petén, Guatemala, located, not far from Laguna San Diego, to the west of Lake Petén Itzá, and in the general vicinity of another important and related site, Zapote Bobal. Ian Graham paid a brief initial visit to Pajaral in the 1970s, and several archaeologists from IDAEH and the Proyecto La Joyanca surveyed briefly around the ruins staring about eight years ago. I had an opportunity to visit there over the course of two days in 2001, recording fragments of sculpture that had been revealed earlier by my colleagues Veronique Breuil and Salvador López, both then of the Proyecto La Joyanca, and they kindly provided me the chance to photograph and record a number of these new monuments, including this Early Classic stela (still un-numbered).

Only the base of the stela exists today, showing the feet of a standing ruler above a large rectangular panel, depicting the face of a witz, or mountain. The two hieroglyphs near the feet are surely the name of this local king, readable as Yajawte’ K’inich. Interestingly, this same name was used by a much later Pajaral king shown on another stela (dating to we recorded that same season. The Yajawte’ K’inich name appears at other sites as well, including with at least one ruler at the neighboring Ik’ polity, centered at nearby Lake Peten Itzá.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this monument fragment is the witz design below, with its two snakes eminating from the mouth, and passing through the BIH earspools. This appears elsewhere in Early Classic iconography, and Karl Taube has rightly equated this with the och bih (“road-enter”) expression for death. I suspect that it reinforces the common notion in Mesoamerican thinking that hill and mountains are abodes of deceased ancestors. To me, the most striking detail of the witz mask are the jaguar ears seen above the earspools, marking this place — that is, Pajaral — as “Jaguar Hill,” or Hixwitz.

Before 2001 we had known of the Maya kingdom called Hixwitz from mentions at other sites (Yaxchilan, Piedras Negras, Itzimte), but it was the discovery of this and two other monuments at Pajaral and nearby Zapote Bobal that finally nailed its location, once and for all. Pajaral and Zapote Bobal were evidently served as captitals of Hixwitz, perhaps at different times during the Classic period. The large isolated hill at Pajaral, with its huge staircase and acropolis on top, is very likely the original “Jaguar Hill.”