Catherwood’s Drawing of Copan, Stela F 3

Looking recently at Frederick Catherwood’s 1839 rendering of the back of Copan’s Stela F (published in Stephens’ Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan), I was struck by the presence of three glyphs that I had never seen, now missing or damaged on the original monument. The first photograph of the stela, taken by Alfred Maudslay in 1884, shows that the glyphs were already missing over four decades after the Stephens and Catherwood visit. All modern studies of the inscription have passed over this wonderful old drawing, but it’s obviously worth a very close look.

The general gist of this inscription has long been known (Stuart 1986, Newsome 2001). The dedication date is 5 Ajaw 3 Mak, and the text refers to the placement of the stela (lakamtuun) of Waxaklajuun Ubaah K’awiil (Ruler 13) on that day. The monument also seems to have had its own proper name, probably referencing Ruler 13’s own god impersonation on that ceremonial day.

Blocks A3 and A4 are now destroyed, but just enough can be seen in Catherwood’s drawing to propose their reconstruction. A3 looks to be the preposition TI- or TU- in front of a larger, murky glyph with a numerical superfix. As we will see, the context strongly suggests it is reconstructable as TI-4-AJAW, “In (K’atun) Four Ajaw,” given the mention of “15 K’atuns” ( in the next block. A4 is half-effaced, but there is little doubt in Catherwood’s image that it is I-tz’a-[pa] or I-tz’a[(pa)-ja], for the verb i tz’ahpaj, “then it is erected…”. This makes perfect sense, given that the verb for the following dedicatory statement of the stela has been thought missing. Now we have it.

Like a number of Copan inscriptions, the Stela F text is unusual in some ways. The placement of repeating ti– and tu– propositions in front of the chronological glyphs (B1-B3) is noteworthy, after the “Initial Series Introducing Glyph” (A1) where no Initial Series exists. Reading from B1 through A4 we have:

ti Jo’ Ajaw Uxte’ Mak
ti tahnlam-il
ti Chan Ajaw
tu Jo’lajuun Winikhaab(?)
i tzahpaj…

On Five Ajaw, the Third of Mak,
At the half-diminishing
in Four Ajaw,
in the Fifteenth K’atun,
then it is erected, …

So, the dedication day 5 Ajaw 3 Mak ( is halfway into 4 Ajaw (13 Yax, not recorded). This is short-hand method of recording a Long Count date, not unlike examples known from the inscriptions of northern Yucatan. The proper name of Stela F comes in blocks B4-A6, before u k’aba’ u lakamtuun, “it is the name of his large stone” (B6, A7). Interestingly, block A5 is also much clearer in Catherwood’s drawing, showing a very clear spelling U-CHOK-ko-K’ABA’-a (u chok k’aba’, “its young name”) as part of the complex name phrase for the monument. Later, after A6, we come to an extended name phrase for the king, continuing up to A9. The text closes with some sort of descriptive phrase involving a collection of “lords” (ajawtak), possibly royal ancestors who oversaw the ritual and the king’s impersonation.

Catherwood’s drawing was made with a camera lucida under very difficult conditions, and at a point when he had no familiarity with the intricacies of Maya art and writing (Copan was the first great ruin they investigated). His careful rendering confirms what we had suspected was missing in the Stela F inscription, and so there is no great surprise in this analysis. But it’s good to see that this first great artist in Maya archaeological research still provides valuable information for modern epigraphy.

te-mu and te-ma as “Throne” 1

by Stephen Houston

In the early 90s, I happened to be looking at one of Justin Kerr’s most beautiful rollouts, of a fragmentary stuccoed scene (K1524). In it, the Maize god (or some comely youth) sits on a throne, entreated by an aged god — this last is, of course, none other than the deity who helps paddle the Maize god on his watery journey. To the side, other youths dress (?) a dancer, who is, perhaps, a version of the figure on the throne. The loss of the text is regrettable, as it might have helped to explain the scene. There may well be a connection to the dressing and paddling of the Maize god on related images, such as the Museo Popol Vuh vase.

Despite its ruined state, the vessel is a masterwork. The pooled paint and gently blurred outlines impart a truly pulsing energy to the surface, a quality seen on few other vessels. It continues to be one of my favorites.

However, what really drew my attention were the glyphs in red outline that ran along the throne. The scribe had highlighted these with a dark blue wash, making the glyphs somewhat difficult to read. But I could make out the so-called alay (still a problematic reading, in my view), t’abayii (as we would now decipher it, thanks to Dave Stuart), then, [u te mu…]. A quick look at the relevant dictionaries showed that tem was a perfectly acceptable name-tag, and of rather broad distribution among lowland Mayan languages:

Yukatek (Barrera V., p. 783): “poyo o grada, altar o poyo”
Ch’olti’ (Moran source, #2711, 2712 in Bill Ringle’s reworking): “asiento, banco”
common Ch’olan (Kaufman/Norman list, #511): “seat” …with common Mayan *teem

The final term became interesting a few years later. This was because of our much reviled but–let it be said!–obviously correct publication on disharmony, done with fellow co-conspirators David Stuart and John Robertson. The vowel length was predictable, given the final, if somewhat unusual, -u in the spelling. (Our colleagues Alfonso Lacadena and Soren Wichmann have come to prefer a te’m spelling, but we are not yet convinced of it.) I then remembered another such name-tag, on a masonry throne excavated by Eric Thompson in the 30s, at San Jose, Belize (then British Honduras, see Thompson’s 1939 CIW monograph, pl. 9 in particular). Here, too, was a dedicatory context, including a clear indication that the “bat” glyph pertained to the working of stucco. One can just make out a probable u-te-*ma?/*mu. I have since seen paintings of a secure u-te-mu in a similar, if earlier, context from Calakmul, as photographed by Simon Martin. A similar spelling was probably on K5388. Unfortunately, the relevant parts of the text are in bad shape.

The finds on the pot and at San Jose were useful at the time, and continue to be so. They augmented our list of name-tags, contributed a probative, disharmonic spelling, as predicted by a prior linguistic reconstruction, and helped remove–for me anyway–any lingering doubts about Landa’s te as a sign with roots in the Classic period. (Whether the “tree/wood” TE’ ever functions syllabically is quite uncertain.) The question remains of how to read the stray “throne” logographs that appear in the inscriptions, as on the Temple XIX platform so nicely reported by DS (e.g., P4) or, for that matter, the so-called “palanquin” signs that pepper the inscriptions. Their readings are surely different. The palanquin attaches a final syllable that, I sense, triggers disharmony, thus: CVht, CVVt or CV’t — I recall that Dmitri Beliaev suggested pit or, perhaps more likely, pi’t, as the most viable reading.

A Childhood Ritual on The Hauberg Stela 7

In a few Classic Maya texts we find records of coming-of-age ceremonies involving royal children, where bloodleting seems a dominant theme. These ritual events haven’t yet been collectively discussed or analyzed in the literature (at least as far as I know) so I hope this brief post might help point the way for further thought, especially with regard to the interpretation of an important ealry Maya monument known as the Hauberg Stela (see the third and last image, scrolling below).

We can first turn to the vivid but damaged depiction of one such childhood rite on Panel 19 from Dos Pilas, shown here.


At center stage we see the young prince shedding drops of blood into a dish, standing before a kneeling priest who holds a stingray spine — the instrument of choice for genital bloodletting in much of ancient Mesomerica. The boy’s mother and father (Ruler 3 of Dos Pilas) look on from the left, as do also two attendants at right, one called the “guardian of the boy.” The main inscription is too damaged to read in full, unfortunately, but it does mention the ch’ok ajaw title (“prince”) as well as the fact that the ritual was witnessed by “the twenty-eight lords.” Evidently this sort of youth ceremony was a major political event in its own right.


Texts at other sites seem to describe very similar sorts of episodes. In a passage from Stela 3 of Caracol, show here, we read of a ceremony called yax ch’ab, involving the five-year old youngster named Sak Baah Witzil — he would would later reign as the important ruler Tum Yohl K’inich (also known as “Kan II,” in Martin and Grube’s Chronicles of Maya Kings and Queens). As others have noted, yax ch’ab is surely a bloodletting ceremony, literally meaning “first penance” or “first creation.” Ch’ab alone is a key term used for adult bloodletting ceremonies, as best seen on Yaxchilan, Lintel 24. According to the Caracol passage, the boy’s father oversaw the ritual according to the same passage, making for an even more precise parallel to the Dos Pilas scene.

(Another yax ch’ab ritual is recorded on the side of Tikal’s Stela 10, a much eroded monument, but the context is not so clear; it too could well refer to a childhood bloodletting ceremony.)


This brings us the remarkable Huaberg Stela, a key Early Classic sculpture dating to about 200-300 AD, now in the collections of the Princeton University Art Museum. The miniature stela shows a standing figure in supernatural attire, cradling a long serpent that arches above his head. Images of conjured ancestral figures climb the body of the snake, and another likely ancestor image emerges from the gaping maw above. The main verb in the accompanying text is again yax ch’ab, “first penance,” leading me to consider the Hauberg Stela as a commemoration of a young boy’s first bloodletting, perhaps involving also a performance of deity impersonation. The unusual small size of the monument — it’s only about 80 cms in hieght — may be due to it being a “child-size” stela.

Published studies of the Hauberg Stela don’t mentioned this connection to youth ceremonies, so my take on it goes against established wisdom in some ways. For example, the entry in the Lords of Creation exhibit catalog (Fields and Reents-Budet 2005) repeats the long-held view first tentatively advanced by Linda Schele (1985) that the Hauberg Stela depicts a king named “Bak T’ul” in a bloodletting “vision quest” (a term, by the way, I strongly object to). Bloodletting it certainly is, but based on a closer reading of the glyphs and drawing key comparisons, I think a good case can be made that the Hauberg Stela instead celebrates a royal child’s auto-sacrifice, a “First Penance.”

(By the way, “Bak T’ul” is not the correct reading of the personal name in any case, whether it be a child or adult. It looks instead to be CHAK, “red,” before an undeciphered animal head sign erroneously analyzed before as a rabbit, t’ul.)

* * *

Further reading:

Fields, Virginia, and Dorie Reents-Budet. 2005. Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship. Los Angeles: LACMA

Schele, Linda. 1985. The Hauberg Stela. Bloodletting and the Mythos of Maya Rulership. In Fifth Palenque Round Table, 1983, edited by M.G. Robertson and V. Fields, pp. 135-150. San Francisco: PARI

Cracking the Maya Code coming to PBS TV – April 8, 2008 10

Mark the calendars — David LeBrun’s magnificent new documentary Cracking the Maya Code is set for broadcast on PBS’s Nova series this coming April 8 at 8 PM EST. The film, produced by Night Fire Films, is based on Mike Coe’s vivid book on the history of Maya glyph decipherment, Breaking the Maya Code. David showed a two-hour version of the film at the recent Maya Meetings held in Austin, and received a much-deserved standing ovation.

Nova will broadcast an edited one-hour version, and is set to launch their full website on March 25. The preliminary website says…

“Cracking the Maya Code” is a definitive look back at how a handful of pioneers deciphered the intricate system of hieroglyphs developed by the Maya civilization. Based on the book Breaking the Maya Code by Michael Coe, this is one of the greatest detective stories in all of archeology, and it has never been told in depth on television before. With magnificent footage of Maya temples and art, this documentary has been many years in the making and culminates in the fascinating account of this once-magnificent ancient civilization’s ingenious method of communication.

UPDATE (3/27): The full Nova website is now up, though I haven’t looked it over closely yet.