Alfred Maudslay’s insight 1

While skimming through Alfred Maudslay’s memoir, A Glimpse at Guatemala (1899), I came across this interesting paragraph (p. 255) from his chapter devoted to “The Hieroglyphic Inscriptions,” where he briefly characterizes the nature of the script:

An attempt was . . . made by Landa to construct an alphabet and to give a short example of phonetic writing; but in this he was not successful, for whatever phonetic value the glyphs may possess was probably of a syllabic and not of an alphabetic character, and Landa’s alphabet has proved to be to students almost as great a puzzle as the hieroglyphics themselves (emphasis added).

Maudslay’s passing statement about the “syllabic . . .character” of Maya writing was never followed up directly, of course. His lost insight reminds me of Charles Bowditch’s reasoned statements about the historical nature of inscriptions at Piedras Negras, published just a few years after Maudslay’s book and which anticipated Proskouriakoff’s work by more than five decades. Oddly, neither idea took root in those very early days of Maya glyph research.

An Early Classic Cave Ritual 5

by Steve Houston

A few months ago, I happened to visit the Museo Principe Maya in Coban, Guatemala. It is an impressive (and now registered) collection, with dozens of important objects. Few visitors go there, however. The museum lies on a side-street and is unknown, it seems, to the local office of tourism. The staff was baffled when asked about it.

But find it we did, with some pleasant surprises.

The image below comes from a piece of cave flow-stone — under a cm. thick, and obviously cut from a cave, with carbon black painting and a thick, daubed white, perhaps some kind of kaolin. (I vaguely recall seeing this object in an issue of Mexicon but cannot find that reference now. Stanley Guenter was certainly there before me, and had prepared a number of written descriptions of objects, all out in nice, bilingual display.) The entire object is close to a meter high, perhaps a little more than that from side to side. Unfortunately, it’s also behind glass, which makes photography somewhat difficult. For all that, the flow-stone is one of the most important cave texts found in the last 20 years. It’s not on a par with Naj Tunich, of course. But it still provides fascinating glimpses into Early Classic ritual and gives us some notion of a pan-Maya event celebrated in at least two caves.

The iconography on the flow-stone shows two figures, both lords, at least to judge from the jaguar pelts. They are probably not people of the highest rank, as can be seen by their distinctive gathered headdresses, of a type that sometimes occurs with subordinate lords. (Dave Stuart has a full discussion of the headdress in his book on the Palenque Temple XIX texts, esp. figs. 106-107, 108-110.) I would guess that the figures are, in fact, priests of some sort. The animals above the headdresses are doubtless their personal names. The reading of the title for such lords is still under discussion, but *abaat, “worker, servant,” is one possibility. (The term is cognate with a documented expression for “messenger,” noticed by Dave in the 90s and presented in our book with Karl Taube, The Memory of Bones.)

What’s important here is that the date can be worked out — it has to be ( 9 Ajaw 3 Muwaan, Jan. 31, AD 426, Julian. The event is clearly one of the censing. Small nodules of ch’aaj sprinkle from the hand of the person to the left, down to what may be an incense burner.

So, a high-end cave text, painted expertly on thin flow-stone, comemmorating a major period-ending. It involves one of the earliest images of figures with a distinctive headdress (another of comparable date is known from Rio Azul, as illustrated in Dave’s discussion).

It gets even more interesting: Dave pointed out to me that what is probably the *exact same date* also occurs in a painting from the Jolja cave, and with two people as well. At Jolja, the figures have black body-paint, just as on the Coban stone, and one of them holds a torch, of the sort used in burning offerings, like incense or paper. The gesture of the figure to the left is that of incense-sprinkling, again like the figure from the Principe Maya. Karen Bassie has done an excellent, e-report on the Jolja finds, at:

In any case, comparable events of great ritual importance took place in at least two caves, separated by what I presume to be quite a distance — the artifacts in the Coban museum tend to come from the Peten, not Chiapas. The quality in both instances is high, even of royal commission, and the dates are both 9 Ajaw, itself suggestive of the underworld or cthonic settings — I’m thinking here of the 9 Ajaw house on Tikal Altar 5, which specifies the burial place of Lady Tuun Kaywak. In the Early Classic, the date at Jolja and on the Coban flow-stone would only fall on major Period Endings (katun or lahuntun endings) at fairly rare intervals, as in, and then again (aside from our date), at Dave and I have to wonder if the cave rituals were prompted in some way by preparations for the change of the Baktun a few years later.

“Hit the Road” Reply


My earlier post on the Tikal ancestor “White Owl Jaguar” included a brief mention of the phrase jatz’ bihtuun, appearing in the long narrative recorded on the exterior of the Temple of the Inscriptions (Temple VI). It’s a rare verb expression, appearing only on that one Tikal text and also on Naranjo Altar 2, where it was first identified by Nikolai Grube. It’s clearly based on the transitive verb root jatz’, “to strike, hit something,” but bihtuun has been trickier to nail down. As mentioned in that previous post, bihtuun had been earlier analyzed as meaning “paved surface,” but both Steve Houston and I independently considered a somewhat different thought, suggesting it may be an alternative term for “stone road” (bih, “road” + tuun, “stone”). This was based solely on the etymology apparent in the glyphic spelling, and therefore hard to confirm. Beyond that question, what could “hitting” be about?

I’ve recently come across important lexical data that confirms our suspicions about jatz’ bihtuun. In colonial Yukatek, in the Motul Dictionary or Calepino Motul, we find two revealing entries:

be tun, camino o calzada de piedra
hadz be, abrir camino por matorrales

Thus Classic Mayan jatz’ bihtuun, literally “to strike a stone road,” turns out to be a phrase referring to the creation or opening of new causeways. The two inscriptions at Tikal and Naranjo provide specific dates we can consider for the construction and elaboration of associated road features at those sites.

More on the nine-year solar cycle at Tonina 1

Back in 2002 I pointed out the appearance of a strange calendar cycle mentioned in three inscriptions at Tonina, apparently equaling a span nine solar years (9 x 365 days, or in Maya notation, 9.2.5). Stations in this cycle are marked in the inscriptions with a distinctive glyph, depicting a human profile head with a prominent “chinstrap”-like element over the mouth, followed by a -TE’ suffix. In my original analysis the extant dates were actually 18 solar years apart, but a telling reference to one station being the “second” in the reign of K’inich Baknaal Chahk suggested that the true cycle was nine solar years in length. If this seems confusing (it is to me…) maybe my original note posted on Joel Skidmore’s Mesoweb site will clarify.

Several months ago, Yuriy Polyukhovych circulated his analysis of a newly unearthed inscription at Tonina, discovered around 2005-6 by Juan Yadeun and his team (grácias, Yuriy!). This appears on a temple doorjamb that once accompanied a richly decorated and vividly colored wall, all of modelled stucco. Yuriy saw there mention of another date with the same “chinstrap” glyph, easily readable as 10 Ok 18 Xul. This falls exactly nine solar years (9.2.5) after the earliest attested such station mentioned on Monument 141, and confirms its true nature as marker of a nine-year cycle. Here, then, is an updated list of attested stations, with the newest in boldface. 1 Chikchan 18 Xul 10 Ok 18 Xul 6 Men 18 Xul 11 Chikchan 18 Xul

The 10 Ok 18 Xul reference is also interesting for what the stucco jamb inscription goes on to mention. As Yuriy pointed out in his analysis, this was also the dedication day for “the wall” itself (u kot), coming 89 days after the a “fire-entering” activation rite of a structure. This building dedication was, in turn, just nine short days after K’inich Baaknal Chahk’s one K’atun anniversary as king — an event and day mentioned in yet another stucco text, as discussed in my previous post. The 10 Ok station would have been the third such “chinstrap” period ending in K’inich Baaknal Chahk’s reign.

Incidentally, the style of the stucco wall and its glyphs looks to be far later than the dates and events recorded in the text, suggesting a possible reuse or refurbishment of the space by a later ruler.

Stucco Glyphs from Tonina Reply


Juan Yadeun’s excavations at Tonina, Chiapas, have revealed a number of beautiful stucco glyphs that once formed an inscription of at least 25+ blocks, most now on housed at the regional site museum, with several others on view the Museo Nacional de Antropología e Historia in Mexico City. On a recent visit to the MNAH I was interested to see two of the glyphs, in different cases, that seem to form a reconstructable date: “3 Eb” and “End of Pop” (see upper two glyphs marked “C” in the accompanying image, below). This Calendar Round turns out to fall on the Long Count, the one K’atun anniversary of the accession of the important Tonina ruler K’inich Baaknal Chahk. Another stucco glyph in the MNAH case reads tzutz-uy, “it ends,” which may well have accompanied this date, preceding “the first K’atun,” written with yet another glyph now at the Tonina museum.

Two other stuccoes on display at the MNAH (A and B) are “on 13 Ajaw” and part of a Distance Number “3.12.” Together, the various peices are enough to suggest that the following two dates were recorded in the original inscription, now partially reconstructable, as shown in the image below (extant elements are in italics): 13 Ajaw 18 Pax (Period Ending)

+ 1.3.12 3 Eb End of Pop (anniversary)

The inscription surely included a number of other dates as well, among them one probably referring to the building’s dedication, as indicated by y-otoot, “his/her house…” I’m reasonably sure other fits and connections will be possible, once we check images of other loose glyphs from the text.

Reconstructed elements: