Palenque’s Two of a Kind? Reply

Some years ago I came across an obscure publication on the shelf of my old office in the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, cataloging some of the holdings in storage at the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City (Cardós de Méndez 1987). In it I was suprised to find a photo of an eroded limestone panel I had never known before, depicting two standing figures and a band of illegible glyphs at the top (at right in photo below). Despite the poor preservation, the large thin relief sculpture clearly had a Palenque look about it, especially in the distinctive proportions, poses and profiles of the two men. The photograph was subsequently reprinted by Mayer (1995: Pl. 218) who in his catalog also noted a likely Palenque attribution.


It struck me at the time that the panel could be related to a far more familiar Palenque sculpture, a similar sized panel now on display in the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Washington, D.C. (in photo at left). There we see a young K’inich K’an Joy Chitam dancing “on the hill” as an impersonator of Chahk, the god of rain and storms (the king is not shown postumously, as was once widely beleived). The preservation of the Dumbarton Oaks carving is nearly perfect, but I’ve long wondered if it was part of some larger sculptural program. The feet of the seated figures (both proud parents) seem to be cut off at the edges of the stone, as of they continued on to adjacent sections. The inscription too might be considered incomplete; although it is self-contained in terms of content, describing the scene below, it seems to start rather abruptly, as if something came before. The last glyphs, recording a temple dedication, also seem somewhat short-winded.

Comparing the photographs again the other night, I was reminded how the two look similar enough to be partners, perhaps part of a larger sequence of relief carvings that graced the rear wall of a temple. The two standing figures on the Mexico City panel face away from each other, as if looking on to other scenes to each side. The photo posted here arbitrarily places the Dumbarton Oaks panel to the left, but the opposite arrangment is equally plausable. There is certainly not enough here to discern a true fit of sculptural details, but the band of glyphs above the two men does seem a good visual match. Perhaps, then, another still-missing component shows a layout like we see on the Dumbarton Oaks panel, providing a balance within the larger and complex composition of the monument, whatever it was.

Again, confirmation based on measurements and on a direct inspection of the Mexico City panel will be necessary to confirm the connection.

* * * *

The Mexico City panel has been published in:

Cardós de Méndez, Amalia. 1987. Estudio de la colleción de escultura maya del Museo Nacional de Antropología. Collecion Catálogos de Museos. Mexico D.F.: INAH

Mayer, Karl Herbert. 1995. Maya Monuments: Sculptures of Unknown Provenance, Supplement 4. Graz, Austria: Academic Publishers

For discussions of the Dumbarton Oaks panel from Palenque, see:

Coe, Michael D., and Elizabeth P. Benson. 1966. Three Maya Relief Panels and Dumbarton Oaks. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology, Number 2. Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks

Miller, Mary, and Simon Martin. 2004. Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya. Singapore: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Stuart, David. 2005. The Palenque Mythology: Sourcebook for the 3oth Maya Meetings. Austin: Department of Art and Art History, University of Texas at Austin

A Classic Maya Bailiff? 3

by Stephen Houston

Epigraphers have long puzzled over a title in Classic inscriptions. This is the ba-te’, usually spelled ba-TE’ but sometimes, as at Dos Pilas and Yaxchilan, BAAH-TE’. Historically minded readers of this blog will remember the late, great Heinrich Berlin. A person of great insight, he posited a similar reading for what we now know, thanks to Dave Stuart, to be the KALOOMTE’ title. (That title deserves far closer study, as do all the “tree” titles. Students take note!) Berlin had been intrigued by the TE’ at the end of KALOOMTE’, leading him to consider a set of words in Yukatek, including ba’te’el, “fight, war,” taken from “axe,” baat and “cacique,” batab. Knorosov, Joyce Marcus, and Chris Jones endorsed the reading or at least mentioned it in some of their publications. As with many good ideas, it had a strong run…and then died away under press of better evidence. Yet there is still the question: What are we to make of the ba-te’ and BAAH-te’ that do appear in the inscriptions? Are they related to the terms that interested Berlin?

The bate’/baahte’ is neither ubiquitous nor rare in Classic texts. One example occurs at Tonina, on Monument 145:C1, where it follows the name of K’inich Baaknal Chahk and serves as an adjective for a kind of ajaw. The ruler obviously felt that this was an important marker of royal identity. Farther afield is Chinaja St. 1, last seen in the von der Goltz collection, in Guatemala City, I believe. It records U-ba-TE’ between the names of a captive and a local ajaw. The syntax is a little opaque, as is the referent of U-ba-TE’. I can think of several options, some more likely that others: (1) the captive, X, is the “guarded one” of Y, who, in turn, served as the bate’ of Z, a local ruler; (2) the captive, X, is the bate’ of the local ruler, Y; or even (3) the guardian and bate’ expression appear in couplet form, “is captured, the guardian of X, the bate’ of Z.” The drawing of the text is adequate but perhaps insufficient to come to any firm conclusion. The panel probably had a mate—a common pattern in the Pasión region—with another captive facing right, in a sculpture placed on the opposite side of a stairway. At least it’s clear that, at Chinaja, bate’ had something to do with conflict.

In texts at Dos Pilas and other sites, the title tends to precede pitzil, “ballplayer” (Dos Pilas Hieroglyphic Stairway 4, Step V:M2-N2) or it appears with rulers in the act of ballplay (Yaxchilan Hieroglyphic Stairway 2:G3). Then there are the titles with numbered katuns. Yaxchilan Hieroglyphic Stairway 3:F1-G2 refers to 5-‘k’atun’ ba-TE’ 5-‘k’atun’ pi-tzi-la, nicely combining the two labels. This alone might tempt the incautious to entertain some link to batey, a ceremonial ballgame of Taino in parts of the Greater Antilles—not to be discounted outright, given lithic evidence of contact, but probably not so compelling either. The instances of bate’ at Chichen Itza are more opaque, appearing in the Ak’ab Tz’ib lintel and the Temple of the IV Lintels. Clearly, bate’ was an epithet at some northern sites. The usual pattern is ‘AXE-OHL’ followed by the ba-TE’, once spelled ba-TE’-‘e, as on a sculpture from the Barbachano collection. The latter leaves little doubt that the term ended in a vowel. In fact, I am hard pressed to think of many spellings in which the TE’ (T89) sign functioned syllabically, as some have proposed. The ye-TE’ with captives remains just such a puzzle. In my view, it contains three morphemes, not two.


None of this would be particularly interesting, new or revealing save for the recent appearance of a probative context. This is a spelling of the name and titles of a figure in one of the most remarkable scenes I’ve seen of Maya gore and pain-making (see above). Exquisitely painted, it displays a presentation of captives and is now in a private collection in New York City (K6674). The main text records a “spearing,” ju-la-ja, and an arrival, hu-li, probably on the same day. I saw the vessel last summer, and the owner kindly made high-quality images available to me. Over to the left is a standing figure who looms over two captives, one the worse for wear, with eyes gouged out. Both captives have jagged wounds that ooze blood. (This must have been the “spearing” mentioned above, along with the “arrival” of the duo at court.) The standing figure holds a dark wooden staff in one hand, making it hard to avoid the impression that we are looking at a custodian of captives—rather like a bailiff at court or royal servants who held staffs as badges of authority in European courts. To this day, Black Rod summons the House of Commons to the Queen’s Speech in the House of Lords; Gold Stick and Silver Stick serve in the Queen’s bodyguard. And, of course, the lone “staff” of this blog, Dave Stuart, takes his role from a term for a physical support.

It is possible that the caption in front of the wooden staff applies to the captive immediately to the right. But I doubt it. The more likely referent is our bailiff, who was called: t’u-bu a-AJAW-WINIK-ki ba-TE’, t’ub ajaw winik bate’. Admittedly, the final TE’ fails to include the small superfix that usually appears with TE’. Yet I cannot imagine what other value it could have in this setting. In fact, the sign accords nicely with the TE’ icons to be seen in objects of wood, such as the canoes depicted on bones from Tikal Burial 116, and with a clear analogue, K’UK’-NAB-TE’ (with this form), as part of a name on Panel 3 at Piedras Negras. The reading also fits with a group of titles that link ba or BAAH, “head,” with objects related to war and objects at court. Bonampak alone has people, all non-royals, called ba-to-k’a, ba took’, “head flint” (the figure slicing at captive’s hands in Room 2, in a title also at Tonina), ba-pa-ka-la, ba pakal, “head shield,” for a “warrior,” and more courtly figures who appear to be called, ba-TZ’AM?-ma, ba tz’am, “head throne.” (Incidentally, some of us have suspected that the supposed po syllable in these spellings is a logogram. Dave has considered TZ’AM as a good bet, following a reading once proposed by Marc Zender, in part because of a substitution on a molded text in the Dieseldorff collection in the National Museum in Guatemala City. I’m sure he’s right.) There is a still a chance that the spellings are more than metonyms—namely, things that stand for larger wholes, such as “sweat” for “labor.” The spellings could embed an assimilated agentive a, so that ba-to-k’a > ba [a] took’, “head person of the flint.” The only reason to doubt this view is the presence, at Bonampak, of a ba-hi, which reduces the chances of an assimilated agentive.

Houston blog figure

Piedras Negras St. 12 weighs in with the helpful ba-che-bu, ba(ah) chehb, “head quill,” first noted, I believe, by Nikolai Grube.

So, by this proposal, “head stick/wood” describes someone who wielded a stick or staff. It could have been a badge of office, an actual object for herding and abusing captives, perhaps even a role in the ballgame, either as a field position (a captain?) or as someone who played – this may be a stretch! — a stick game. These are attested in ancient America, if uncommon among the ancient Maya. Courtiers used the label, but kings too.

And, of course, bate’ had nothing to do with “axe” or related words.

Copan’s Playful Infixes 1

Infixation is a common graphic principle of the Maya script, involving the size reduction of one sign or glyph and its insertion (infixation) within the space of another sign. For example, the title Ik'(a’) Ajaw, “the Ik'(a’) Lord,” is usually spelled with the two sequential signs IK’ and AJAW, but at least one example from a text at Machaquila shows the head variant AJAW with a small IK’ sign placed inside the head sign, where it more resembles a jade ear ornament than a separate, readable element. In transcribing glyphs with infixes, I prefer to use parentheses around the value of the reduced sign, placing this directly adjacent to the value of the larger one. Hence (IK’)AJAW instead of the more straightforward IK’-AJAW.

Scribes at Copan used sign infixation as well, and three examples illustrated here are remarkable in their degree of artistry and playfulness.


The drawing labeled (a) shows the calendar round record “12 Manik Seating of Yaxk’in,” the date of the death of Copan’s Ruler 12. Note that the month glyph consists of three signs (YAX-K’IN-ni) which is inserted within CHUM (“sit”). Usually, of course, any month name simply follows the chum verb.

In example (b) we see a distance number from the so-called “Corte Altar,” dating to the early reign of Yax Pahsaj Chan Yopaat (Ruler 16). The seated figure is HAAB (“year”) with a numerical prefix 2. The thigh of the HAAB character (clearly a Water Serpent) shows an infixed 6-WINIK (6 Winals), indicating a distance number of 2.6.0 — a rounded interval that connects two dates in the inscription ( and

In (c) we find a loose block from a larger text, probably once on Temple 11, bearing the name of the dynastic founder K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ and a Copan emblem glyph. Noteworthy here is the YAX sign placed at the back of the quetzal/macaw’s head. In all other spellings of this important royal name, the YAX is presented as a seperate sign.

A common idea may underlie these three examples. All involve infixes upon larger signs that are bodily representations — the CHUM sign (which originated as a seated human torso), the full figure of HAAB, and the quetzal/macaw bird. The infixed elements mark something about the natures or characteristics of those bodies: that is, the body that sits in (a) is Yaxk’in; the 6 Winals in (b) is temporally an extension on, a characteristic of, two years already elapsed; and the YAX in (c) is a “green/blue” color designation marking the body of the avian hybrid that forms the founder’s name.

These Copan infixes are a bit more complex than what we see at Palenque or other sites, but the underlying idea is the same. The origin of this visual convention seems more artistic than mundanely scribal, rooted perhaps in older iconographic treatments of human and animal bodies.

Of Beads and Cylinders 1

by Steve Houston

Some months ago I happened to see a remarkable object in a small private collection. It is a stone cylinder c. 12 cm. in height, c 7 cm. in diameter. Mary Miller had also shown me photos of the piece many years ago, in the ‘80s. I did a drawing of it at the time – which I cannot now find for the life of me!


The cylinder belongs to a genre of Early Classic objects, none of great size, that show the heads of what I take to be deceased lords. This ID is suggested by the closed eye and the disembodied nature of the portraits. One such object is on human bone, the other occurs on a sculpture drawn by Dave Stuart. (Both images are shown below.) On the human bone, the name of the deceased ruler appears in the headdress, a standard practice in Maya imagery, from earliest times to the end of the Classic period, a millennium later.


But what is the cylinder, and what does its text say?

First the date: The combination of the 5 Chuwen in the 260-day calendar and an early G2 (the so-called “lord of the night,” plus title” that occur in the 2nd and 3rd places of the vertical text) limits us to a few options, especially in view of the early style of the cylinder. The range of dates can’t be more than a century and is probably rather less than that. The Maya sometimes prized economy of expression, and the cylinder exemplifies this drive to concision.

As I was looking at the piece, it suddenly occurred to me that I had seen the name before or at least a name close to it — the nominal signs are, of course, the glyphs that stretch over the final blocks of the vertical text. The glyphs also appear as elements in the headdress of the portrait to the other side of the cylinder. I’ve attached a rather poor drawing I did in ’81 or so of Balakbal Stela 5, with a date of in the Maya system, May 16 (Julian), AD 406 in ours. (Perhaps I shouldn’t apologize too much for the drawing. The photo of the stela was grainy and uncooperative.)


Note the similarity, illustrated here, between the name on Stela 5 and that on the cylinder. In the first glyph there appears the “cruller” device that wraps around the eye and passes through the earspool. The cylinder makes it clear, both in text and imagery, that the final name of this lord is that of the Rain God, Chahk. Most of the same attributes are in place, from the hair-knot to the serpent-tongue, and, in the inscription, a distinctive shell-earspool – a collection put together by Karl Taube in his classic book on Maya deities makes this point neatly. I wish the Chahk were clearer on Stela 5, but the text has become damaged at just this point.


What do we know of Balakbal? Ruppert and Denison’s publication for the Carnegie, Archaeological Reconnaissance in Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Peten, shows that it lies in a remote place very close to the border of Peten, Guatemala, and the Mexican states of Quintana Roo and Campeche. The compass map by Ruppert and Denison reveals that the site has a so-called “E-group,” a massive set of buildings oriented to dawn-events that is a characteristic of the Maya Preclassic and into the Early Classic. Thus, this is likely to be an early site, at least in part, and the date of Stela 5, among the most important, early texts we know, fits well with this impression.

Back to the dating of the cylinder. Balakbal Stela 5 is difficult to make out, like many early Maya inscriptions. But its main date ( 9 Etznab 16 Pop, May 14, AD 406) is most likely an accession, followed a short time later by the celebration of an important calendrical ceremony, presided over by the new ruler — and, I suspect, the figure on the cylinder. The reference to accession is expected for the simple reason that the right side of the stela may record the death of his predecessor only a short time before (31 days, to be exact).

The link to Balakbal gives us a possible linchpin for assigning a date to the cylinder. Of course, 5 Chuwen, G2, has to come after the dates on Stela 5, and probably by more than a short period, as we are likely to be dealing with a posthumous object. These are the possibilities, given the clues from Stela 5 (all dates in the Julian system).

(1), May 27, AD 407
(2), Oct. 17, AD 417
(3), March 14, AD 420
(4), Aug. 10, AD 426
(5), Jan 5, AD 433

Later dates are biologically possible, but they begin to stretch beyond what I would find stylistically feasible. Date (1) seems too early for me, which leaves the following four. Unless there is some clue that escapes me, I cannot sort out which might be correct. I suspect, however, that the latest two are more likely to be correct, given what we know of most spans of rule. The intended readers must have found certain things obvious. The sculptor understood this and didn’t bother with a complete date, to our frustration. (The Stuart text with the Initial Series in the Maya system is far fuller and more explicit.)

So, we have a date or range of dates – if predicated on a number of assumptions–an identifiable (if deceased) personage, a possible find-spot at or near Balakbal, Campeche, and a standard verb to indicate dedication or offering (this is the possible t’abayi verb, with a reading proposed by Dave Stuart in 5th position within the text). This leaves the highly enigmatic yu-BAAH.

It could be that this is a disharmonic spelling, one with a “complex” vowel, thus the yuub. That’s reasonable, yet I believe such a spelling may not work with the so-called “pocket gopher” glyph (BAAH). At this stage in Maya writing, the “gopher glyph” functioned, to an exclusive extent, as a rebus for “portrait, body,” baah (Dave, Karl, and I explain this in our book, The Memory of Bones).

I believe we are looking at a unique spelling that is nonetheless consistent with what we know of Maya words at this time. The y-u-baah is a possessed object, hence y- for the third-person, “his” (in this case, although “her” and “its” are possible, too), followed by the name of the thing being possessed, then the name of the possessor. The /baah/ is explained by the portrait on the other side.

…but what of the /u/ in between? Long ago, John Justeson of SUNY-Albany suggested that there were glyphs for “bead, necklace,” spelled [U] in the writing system. There is a handsome study of this by Dave Stuart, in this blog, who points to a clear demonstration of U as “bead” in a particular spelling at Tonina, Chiapas. (There’s another, eroded example at Tonina on Monument 7, so it isn’t a singular example.) I had also entertained the idea of a reading involving the root for “hearing,” ub, with assimilation of the final “b” into baah. Thus, a “hearing/sensing” image. But I think this interpretation is more of a stretch.

In short, the cylinder may be a “bead-image” or “bead-portrait” of the ruler. The shape fits, of course, and the Maya were known to have created particular objects of “jewelry” (or simulacra of them) in outsized form, as in a number of gigantic earspools that could not have been worn by anybody but a giant. We also know that a great deal of jewelry (whether literal or figurative) depicted ancestors.

This may be what occurs on the cylinder. I have seen finely polished stone cylinders from a number of Maya sites, including, I dimly recall, an example excavated by Dave Stuart at Arroyo de Piedra, in 1990. Are these “plain versions” of carved cylinders? Just as plain stelae evoke monuments embellished with images of rulers?

There may be more of these than we think. I attach an image of a small, rectangular stone, found in a niche by Sarah Jackson during the 2000 field season at Piedras Negras. The setting: Group C, just off the Northwest Group Plaza. In 1932, Linton Satterthwaite of the University Museum at Penn found very similar objects in Structure O-7, all of which just seem to sit there, without plastering or rooting in the substrate. Behind Sarah’s niche was a buried bench with various offerings of ceramics, as shown in the second photo.

Are stones like this altars or “rectangular columns,” as Satterthwaite called them…or, rather more strangely, plain versions of “ancestral jewels”? Beads of square section are, of course, attested in Maya jewelry.

UPDATE: A copy of Steve’s drawing of the cylinder will be posted here later — Dave has a copy somewhere in his files…

The Dallas Bone 1

One of my favorite Maya artworks is this intricately incised bone dating to about 600 A.D., now on display in the Dallas Art Museum. It’s been published and analyzed before (sort of), and is well-known to most scholars, but whenever I see the original I’m always stunned by its tiny size — less than 10 cms. in height.


The scene depicts the crowning of a king, in all likelihood a mythical figure based on the Maize God. An elderly gent resembling God L holds aloft an elaborate royal headdress in the form of the Principal Bird Deity, shown also perched on the celestial band above the throne. The iconography references, I think, an important storyline from ancient Maya origin mythology, where a great supernatural bird — probably based on an eagle, and a basic symbol of royal authority since Preclassic times — descended from the heavens to engender kingship as a political and cosmological paradigm. The story is depicted on many other objects, including the famous Blowgunner Vase (Kerr 1226), where we see a melding of this ancient story with somewhat different motifs and episodes of the later Popol Vuh epic. Marc Zender has traced some aspects of it as well in his discussion of the verb ehm, “to descend.” The San Bartolo mural shows the most vivid scene of the Principal Bird’s descent on the center of its west wall, as Bill Saturno, Karl Taube and I will present in a formal publication in the coming year.

The date recorded on the Dallas Bone is “5 K’an End of Yaxk’in,” perhaps a day of great mythological significance. I say this because in the 260-day calendar 5 K’an comes just two days after 3 Ik’ — the single day written next to with the descending Principal Bird image at San Bartolo. That, in turn, comes two days after the important 1 Ajaw featured in the Blowgunner Vase, and which obviously served as the basis of the name Hun Ajaw (meaning in a mythical sense “First, Original Lord”). So, for what it’s worth, we have three very different references to the myth of the bird that fall into a nice sequential arrangement: 1 Ajaw – 2 Imix – 3 Ik’ – 4 Ak’bal – 5 K’an. I’m as yet unsure what this all means, but the pattern seems worth further consideration.

One interesting aspect of the Dallas Bone’s design is the careful arrangement of the text within the scene. The four glyphs above the headdress provide the date (5 Kan End of Yaxk’in) and the main verb (k’ahlaj, “it was fastened…”). Then the text passes over to the floating glyph at far left, labeling the headdress (? hu’n), before it continuing down to the three glyphs above the image of the seated recipient, reading t-u-baah Lem ? Ixiim?, “…upon the head of Shiny-?-Maize(?).” It’s a fine example of an artist’s carefully considered integration of text and image.

The inscription:

5-“K’AN” / TI’-HAAB / YAX-K’IN-ni / K’AL-ja / ?-HU’N-na / tu-BAAH-hi / LEM?-?-IXIIM?

Jo’ K’an(?) (u-)ti’-haab Yaxk’in k’ahlaj ? hu’n t-u-baah Lem(?) ? Ixiim

(On the day) Five K’an the ‘end’ of Yaxk’in, the ? headdress is fastened upon the head of Shiny-?-Maize(?).