Palenque’s Temple of the Skull Reply

The sole surviving portion of the stucco decoration on the Temple of the Skull (Temple XII) at Palenque is — no surprise — a skull. Visitors to the ruins might notice it just as they enter the ruins, looking up at the temple’s one remaining pier. The skull was clearly part of a larger composition, and its position at the base suggests it served as a pedestal for a standing figure, much like the skeletal heads (seeds?) beneath the feet of the royal portraits on piers of the Temple of the Inscriptions.

Looking recently at the deer skull, I noticed that its shell ears (or ear ornaments) have a distinctive and telling appearance. At first they appear to be the same as the spondylus shell ears characteristic of the gods Chahk or GI, but on closer look one can see that he upper halves of each shell are half-covered in jaguar pelt. This odd feature occurs in only one other setting in Maya art and writing: on the rather strange long-lipped head that substitutes for WAY-wa-la or WAY-la, written several times in Palenque’s inscriptions (see second jpg attached with this post). We don’t know the exact reading of the head (I’ll provisionally refer to it as WAYWAL?), but it’s consistently paired with BAAK, BAAK-le or BAAK-la in a title used by two Palenque kings, K’inich Kan Bahlam and K’inich K’uk’ Bahlam. The entire combination my read something like Baakel Waywal, but the semantics are obscure to me; baak, “bone,” is perhaps related to the standard Palenque emblem glyph, the head variant of which is a deer skull. At any rate, the two main elements of the strange title, BAAK and WAYWAL?, therefore seem to be conflated in the stucco decoration on the temple. It’s an iconographic version of the hieroglyph.

The identification should point to a close association between the Temple of the Skull and one of the two rulers mentioned, K’inich Kan Bahlam or his great nephew K’inich K’uk’ Bahlam. To me the style of the stucco looks not too terribly late and more in line with the earlier king.


(So, could the rich tomb discovered beneath the Temple of the Skull in 1994 be that of K’inich Kan Bahlam? I would never put this in print, so forget you ever read it…)

Galindo’s Glyphs 2


In his 1831 visit to Palenque, explorer Juan Galindo removed four stucco glyphs from the Temple of the Inscriptions, most likely from one of its inscribed outer piers (Piers A or F). Drawings of the glyphs – truly excellent for the time — were published in Galindo’s report of 1834, and Heinrich Berlin reproduced these in his 1970 article “Miscelánea Palencana” (Journal de la Société des Américanistes, vol. LIX, pp. 107-108). Even so, the glyphs remain obscure today and seldom studied. Last year I did these drawings, based solely on the old images Galindo published. I’ve never seen photographs of the glyphs, if they exist.

Three of the glyphs seem to be part of the opening I.S. from Pier A. Considering these in connection with other date elements from Pier A (a “Kawak” day sign and an I.S.I.G. with a Pax patron), Berlin rightly proposed this as the best solution for reconstructing the opening date: 9 Kawak 17 Pax G9

The fourth and last of Galindo’s glyphs is ye-TE’-na-hi, probably a variant spelling of the proper name (9-(Y)EHT(?)-NAAH) given to the tomb and temple on the west panel of the Inscriptions text. If they were removed together, it suggests that the peir I.S. corresponds to the dedication of the Temple of the Inscriptions. Dedication dates on stucco piers may be a pattern at Palenque, also seen on House A of the Palace and on the Temple of the Sun.

The ceiba tree on K1226 11


We all know the ceiba tree so naturalistically represented on vase K1226, but there are a few things to say about the facial motif and other elements shown on the tree’s trunk. What follows is probably obvious to many, but it will hopefully correct a few misconceptions that reappear from time to time in writings about this famous vase.

The face at the base of the ceiba tree, shown frontal-view, is not the same as the “mirror” face we see on the cruciform trees depicted at Palenque, as is often assumed (see Pakal’s sarcophagus lid). Instead — and again this is already known to many — the face is the deity known as the “Patron of Pax,” recognizable by the jaguar paw attached to the top of his ear spool (i.e., there is no jaguar hiding behind the tree, swatting at the alacran). As I showed back in the early 80s, the Pax Patron is a hieroglyphic sign that can be used as the head-variant of TE’, “tree.” The same head marks the base of trees in other representations; K1345 offers a good comparison, with the TE’ in a more conventional profile view.

What may be new to a few out there is the YAX sign just to the left of the tree’s trunk, attached to the TE’ and offering a visual balance to the paw. This is the “iconographic” YAX identical to what we see often on the top if God D’s head, where it helps to indicate his full name Yax Itzamnaaj. On K1226, the elements combine to give an emblematic hieroglyph YAX-TE’, for yaxte’, “ceiba.”

No big deal, but maybe a clarification.


A political transition at Palenque? Reply

Once when perusing the early Palenque history recorded in the east tablet of the Temple of the Inscriptions, I noticed an fascinating pattern in the accession records of the eight rulers recorded up to and including K’inich Janab Pakal. The verb is always “seating” but the prepositional phrase that follows, specifying the office or status attained, differs among the kings and the queen who precede Pakal.

As we see here, at least four (and probably five) of the early kings attained an office or status simply written HU’N-na, for hu’n, “paper, headband.” Only when Ajen Yohl Mat came to power in the early seventh century does to the usual ajawlel, “rulership,” status appear:

Ahkal Mo’ Nahb’ I – Seated as Hu’n
K’an Joy Chitam I – Seated as ? (missing)
Ahkal Mo’ Nahb’ II – Seated as Hu’n
Kan Bahlam I – Seated as Hu’n
Ix Yohl Ik’nal – Seated as Hu’n

Ajen Yohl Mat – Seated in Ajawlel
Muwaan Mat – Seated in Ajawlel
K’inich Janab Pakal – Seated in Ajawlel

In 599 A.D. (during Ix Yohl Ik’nal’s rule) Palenque was defeated by Calakmul, and I have to wonder if the shift indicated by these “office” glyphs was directly related to the political upheaval of those times. It would appear that the new “ajaw-ship” of the later kings was connected to Palenque’s own resurgence after the Calakmul wars, when the stage was set for Pakal’s long and remarkable reign.

Reading the Water Serpent as WITZ’ 3


The “Water Serpent” is a major but poorly understood character in Maya iconography. Also known as the “Waterlily Serpent” or the “Imix Monster,” the large jawless snake typically wears on its head a water lily pad and blossom with a nibbling fish or two. It seems to serve as an animate representation of water, as when we see it used as a glyphic head variant of HA’, “water.” For this reason I prefer to call it the “Water Serpent.”

The Water Serpent appears many times on ceramics, usually within symbolism of the so-called “Underwater World” (Hellmuth provides a good analysis of these settings in his important 1987 book Monster und Menschen in der Maya-Kunst). On sculpture, the Water Serpent appears most frequently as ritual costumes worn by rulers andother nobles in connection with Period Ending rites.

I have long suspected that the Water Serpent is an ancient Maya manifestation of the varied aquatic spirits described throughout the ethnographic literature of Mesoamerica, many of which are considered snakes or other reptiles. The Ch’orti’ Maya speak of the Ch’ihchan or Nohchan, which Wisdom described as a “deity of rain and spirit of water.” Both names literally mean “Big Snake,” and one may well be very old, used as the reading of an ancient glyph (NOH?-CHAN) that is essential to many of the Water Serpent’s glyphic names (I’ll get to that some other time).

The glyph representing the Water Serpent has two interchangeable forms. One emphasizes the “imix” element while another shows a “dotted winal” atop the head (see the Tikal, Stela 31 example in accompanying illustration). Both are strongly related to aquatic and waterlily imagery and iconography. As noted, the fist of these is sometimes used to spell HA’, “water,” in a few settings (as in Palenque’s place name LAKAM-HA’) but this is a rare usage, animating the standard “imix” form of HA’. I suspect another logographic value of the Water Seprent glyph must be at work in many contexts, where HA’ seems unlikely.

Copan’s texts offer some important clues about the Water Serpent’s true reading (see the accompanying illustration). On the side of Stela C, we see a reference to some curious variant of the creature involved with a mythic period ending ritual. The name (also cited in several other texts across the Maya area) is written HA’-?-EK’ 1-wi-WATER.SERPENT, with the snake displaying a wi- superfix. The Water Serpent routinely appears in the personal name of Copan’s Ruler 12 (usually written K’AHK’-(U-)TI’-WATER.SERPENT-K’AWIIL), and on the Hieroglyphic Stairway we find the inclusion of a strange bat sign after the snake – an element that never appears in any of the other examples of this royal name. The bat is the syllable tz’i and, depending on context and probably some subtle visual differences, at times also xu. I suggest that the bat is also a phonetic complement to the Water Serpent logogram.


The clues together offer witz’ as a word worth investigating. As it turns out, witz’ is a widespread root in Mayan languages meaning “water spray,” “splash (of water).” In Ch’orti’, witz’ is a noun cited by Wisdom meaning “waterfall.”

Far more needs to be presented on this, but for now I believe the evidence is strong for a decipherment of the Water Serpent sign as WITZ’ (not to be confused with WITZ, “hill”). It leads me to think that the snake is truly “animate water,” but emphasizing its “splashiness” and coursing movement in streams and rivers.