A Universe in a Maya Lintel I: The Lamb’s Journey and the “Lost City”

by Andrew Scherer (Brown University), Charles Golden (Brandeis University), Stephen Houston (Brown University), and James Doyle (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The most complex images often require multiple sets of eyes (and minds) to probe their creation, meaning, and afterlives. Lavished with care at their making, they may, if excavated or looted, embark on journeys to far times and places, beyond any possible imagining by the patrons who commissioned them. This four-part series—on discovery, Classic-era history, color use, and cosmology (Maya Lintel II; Maya Lintel IIIMaya Lintel IV)—targets an enduring enigma in Maya archaeology: a set of two lintels, notable for their preservation and elaborate iconography, seen and photographed by a colorful adventurer, Dana Lamb, in 1950 (Lamb and Lamb 1951:332). The find was of sufficient interest to appear in Ian Graham’s memoir (Graham 2010:462–467), which commented tartly on Lamb’s elastic, even tenuous relation to fact: “[t]he tale [of their discovery] is, of course, ridiculous” (Graham 2010:463). Lamb compounded that absurdity with the map emblazoned on the endpapers of his book (Figure 1). The “Lost City Area” covers half of Peten, Guatemala, the northernmost slivers of the departments of Huehuetenango, Quiche, and the Alta Verapaz, and, with expansive generosity—why not throw them in too?—parts of Campeche, Chiapas, and Tabasco in Mexico.


Figure 1. The “Lost City Area” (Lamb and Lamb 1951:front endpaper).


Lamb’s photographs, which had been shared with Gordon Ekholm at the American Museum of Natural History, give some savor of the lintels and their condition at the time of discovery (Figures 2 to 4). The rough, load-bearing sections above and below the images (where such sections can be seen) make it certain that the carvings spanned doorways. They were lintels, not wall panels.



Figure 2. Laxtunich Lintel 1, top section, April 1950; the lintel has been lifted from a face-down position, its load-bearing surface still intact to the left (courtesy American Museum of Natural History). 



Figure 3. Dana Lamb with Laxtunich Lintel 1, April 1950 (courtesy American Museum of Natural History). 



Figure 4. Laxtunich Lintel 2, top section, April 1950; note the still intact, load-bearing portion to lower right and stacked stones from a collapsed vault or door jamb to upper right (courtesy American Museum of Natural History). 

The later existence of these sculptures is tragic. They were sawn up, thinned to reduce their weight—the residue most likely discarded in situ—and taken by mule or tumpline from Lamb’s “Lost City,” which he had decided to call Laxtunich, ‘”Lasch-Tu-Nich’ (phonetic spelling), the Place of Carved Stones” (Lamb and Lamb 1951:332; presumably, the neologism derived, after some shredding of phonology, from Lacandon ra’ch, “scratch” [Hofling 2014:285–286]; cf. Ch’orti’ lajchi, “scratch” [Hull 2016:241]).

Their illicit journey from Laxtunich is murky at best. According to Graham (2010:453), a guard at Yaxchilan, Mexico, “had caught sight [in about 1963] of men with mules appearing out of the bush on the opposite [Guatemalan] bank of the river…The men then unloaded the mules’ cargo of sculptured stone panels, concealed them under jungle trash, and departed…the panels remained there for several days before men returned with a boat to take them.” Scholars have long known that the lintels contain clues to their original, general location. The presence of the Yaxchilan Emblem, a supreme title of rulers, and depictions of a later king of that kingdom, Chelew Chan K’inich, places them firmly in some part of Yaxchilan territory (Zender et al. 2016:36).

Were the “panels” seen by the guard from Yaxchilan or were they another set of carvings from Guatemalan territory? What Graham can confirm is that the lintels resurfaced in the collection of the late William P. Palmer III of Falmouth, Maine, or rather, after his death, within a storage facility in Zurich, Switzerland (Graham 2010:465–466). Grainy photographs show them trimmed of their butts and backs, with an occasional scale marked by a European-style, cross-barred “7” (Mayer 1984:98–99, pls. 203, 204). Palmer, who died in 1982, aged 49, was an active collector from about 1958 to 1973 (Palmer as collector). A graduate of the University of Maine, Palmer donated a trove of Mesoamerican material to the Hudson Museum at that institution (Palmer Hudson). [Note 1] The lintels clearly ended up elsewhere. Graham (2010:515n3) believes that Panama was a way-station on their eventual path to Europe, a circuitous route designed “to obscure their source” and, presumably, to facilitate their shipment to buyers abroad. According to Graham, a possible seller might have been the Mexican economist, collector, and dealer, Dr. Josué Sáenz, from whom Palmer appears to have bought a number of pieces. At that time, in the lead-up to the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, Sáenz was the President of the Mexican Olympic Committee, a highly visible position (Witherspoon 2008). He might have had fears of confiscation, electing instead to liquidate some of his investments in Pre-Columbian art. We cannot know but suspect Palmer had these (and other) Maya sculptures by about 1968 if not before.

After their appearance in those photographs, the murk deepened…until 2013 and 2015. Lamb’s carvings have since come to light. Both are now in private collections. The carving we label “Laxtunich Lintel 1,” seen again in 2015, was accessible to the extent that our team could undertake technical assays and detailed photography of its surface (the third in this series reports on that work). The other lintel, “Laxtunich Lintel 2,” was examined by Houston in 2013, if more cursorily. The re-emergence of these storied carvings occasions a fresh evaluation of their images and an inevitable attempt, given more recent fieldwork, to pin down Lamb’s journey to Laxtunich. These thoughts build on the Dana and Ginger Lamb Papers at the Sherman Library and Gardens (Sherman Library) and fieldwork by Golden and Scherer in the Sierra del Lacandόn region of Petén, Guatemala, and Chiapas, Mexico. A superb study has also appeared on the Lambs, who had fascinated, among other people, Franklin D. Roosevelt yet also managed to vex J. Edgar Hoover and his myrmidons (Huffman-Klinkowitz and Klinkowitz 2006:80–81, 83–85).

Dana and Ginger Lamb in Context

As the title suggests, the Lambs’ Quest for the Lost City (Lamb and Lamb 1951), the only primary source on the lintels, capitalized on the Maya-as-lost-civilization zeitgeist in which only the most brave and cunning adventurer-explorers could delve into the dark forests of the Maya lowlands. Certainly, the earliest detailed studies of the Maya were carried out by truly hardy chroniclers—Stephens, Charnay, Maudslay, and Maler, to name a few. These first explorers combined meticulous documentation with a healthy dose of grit to traverse the then-remote jungles of Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. By mid-twentieth century, however, the lone intrepid explorer was largely extinct (the recently deceased Ian Graham being a notable exception). Maya studies was largely in the hands of institutionally supported scientific archaeological teams, such as those supported by the Carnegie Institution of Washington and the University of Pennsylvania. Although these early scientific expeditions advanced our understanding of the ancient Maya, they did little to satisfy public hunger for tales of exotic jungle adventure.

Enter Dana and Ginger Lamb. Almost two decades prior to the publication of Quest for the Lost City, and shortly after their marriage in 1933, the couple set out on a three-year journey in a homemade canoe from California to Panama. They chronicled this voyage in their first book, Enchanted Vagabonds, published in 1938 with the help of a bookseller named June Cleveland (Huffman-Klinkowitz and Klinkowitz 2006:24–25). After its release, they embarked on a successful public speaking tour. Enchanted Vagabonds drew on the long-standing public fascination with adventure-exploration. Yet, in their tale, the Lambs offered something new and appealing. Explorers of yesteryear were for the most part privileged men from the upper crust of European and American society. Dana and Ginger were youthful, middle-class, plucky newlyweds from California, 37 and 26 years old respectively, when Enchanted Vagabonds was first published.

In many respects, Quest for the Lost City, was Enchanted Vagabonds 2.0—a follow-up story of adventure but now in the remote and treacherous forests of southern Mexico, a place populated with “mysterious” natives (the Lacandon Maya) and lost ruins. More than a ten-year gap separates the publication of Enchanted Vagabonds and Quest for the Lost City, at least some of which was spent by the Lambs traveling in Mexico. Quest for the Lost City was finally published in 1951 and remains in print today, its current paperback cover boldly proclaiming “America’s most dangerous couple explores the jungles of Central America…An Adventure Travel Classic.” The book dramatically builds to a final conclusion, the discovery of an entire “lost city,” Laxtunich itself. Quest for the Lost City was followed by a film of the same name in 1954, released by Sol Lesser Productions (Quest for Lost City). Lesser fit the bill: he had guided and promoted the Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weissmuller and later served as American producer (and Academy Award winner) for Kon-Tiki, an account of Thor Heyerdahl’s voyage across the Pacific.

For the layperson, Quest for the Lost City is a gripping page-turner. However, anyone familiar with southern Mexico will realize that, even by the mid-twentieth century, the region travelled and described by the Lambs was not nearly as vast, remote, and unknown as they report. Nearly all scholars (and many a layperson, judging by recent Amazon reviews of Quest for the Lost City), deride the book as a fabrication and the Lambs as charlatans looking to turn a profit from a credulous American audience. This sense is only heightened by the 1955 follow-up film of the same title, in which the Dana and Ginger pass off well-known and traveled sites like Yaxchilan and Palenque as ruins lost deep in the jungle. By this point, too, the heading of their stationery says it all: “Dan and Ginger Lamb, Exploration—Motion Pictures” (AMNH Files, letter to Gordon Ekholm, dated July 6, 1950). Yet there is no doubt the Lambs (or, as we will see, at least Dana) did visit an archaeological site, his “Site 5,” that at the time (and to this day) remains unknown to scholars. His notes offer the only description we have of the site, and he and his companions took the only known in situ photographs of the remarkable Laxtunich carvings.

So what exactly were the Lambs up to in southern Mexico, and where is the so-called site of Laxtunich?

In Search of Laxtunich

Lamb’s own account of visiting the site is, as Graham observed, pure claptrap. It offers swarming bugs, an overwhelming thirst, barely resolved by slurping from bejuco de agua (“we drank too much and were sick”), aqueducts and artesian wells like “miniature ‘volcanoes’,” as well as, towards nightfall, “the frightening, swelling song of a hurricane” (Lamb and Lamb 1951:330–331). And a tree fall that had, after this “titanic, terrific, stupendous, slam-bang show…carried away our beautiful temple” in one final cataclysm (Lamb and Lamb 1951:334; to be sure, on its reverse, a photograph in the AMNH archive refers to a tree fall on the lintel building). All the “beautiful stone carvings had been shattered and tossed to the jungle floor,” and the Lambs, amazed, saw that were now “on an island surrounded by a muddy sea of water” (Lamb and Lamb 1951:335). Despite a bout of malaria—”Dan, I can’t breathe. I’m burning up!”—Ginger soldiered on, trying “to lend a hand” (Lamb and Lamb 1951:332–333). After manfully carving a canoe, Dana Lamb succeeded in paddling them to safety.

Dana’s field notebook, a personal letter he wrote to Ginger, and his hand-drawn maps tell a different story. Our presumption is that, in these records, Dana offers some semblance of accuracy. That he was a compulsive fabulist is reflected in his correspondence with Ekholm a short time after his visit to Laxtunich. Lamb seems to place the discovery sometime in June, at the latest in early May, a date contradicted by his notebook, which assigns the find to April 7 (AMNH archive, letter to Ekholm, July 6, 1950; “We got in yesterday [July 5] after over a month off in the unexplored area in Guatemala”). In a marked photo of Lintel 2, he claimed it has been “found at site #5 [Laxtunich] in Guatemala in June 1950” (AMNH archive). What stratagem lay behind this pointless deceit? Nor was Ginger even present at the discovery. Was the thrill of their narrative—always a marital adventure, a cheerful collaboration of paired souls—more important than any commitment to veracity? One gathers that Lamb tended to self-grandiosity and a compulsion to rework personal experience into high drama: each event would serve its role in the script of his life.

On April 2, 1950, Dana travelled to Agua Azul, a now-abandoned airstrip on the Chiapas side of the Usumacinta River, about 7 km upstream (southeast) from the Guatemalan community of Bethel. Dana received reports of “large ruins on the Guatemalan side of the Yaxchilan Ruins” and that there “is a boy who thinks he knows where they are” (Dana Lamb, Personal Journal, April 3, 1950). On April 4, Dana and a number of local guides headed downstream in a cayuco (a canoe carved from the trunk of a tree) past Yaxchilan to a point then known as Salvamento, an area that corresponds to the first bend in the Usumacinta River north of Yaxchilan (Canter 2007:7). Dana reports the distances by river as 8.5 leagues (the equivalent of 47.2 km) from Agua Azul to Yaxchilan and 3.5 leagues (19.4 km) from Yaxchilan to Salvamento, again by river. The actual distances are closer to 35 km and 16 km respectively, the point being that, while Dana is not a bad judge of distance (it is unclear what maps he had with him when he was writing his journal), he tends to overestimate the distances covered.

After that first day’s travel Dana and his companions established a beach camp on the Guatemalan side of the river, and the next day he reports that “we hiked down river [sic] opposite an arroyo called Enenete [Anaite] then cut a trail inland almost due north” (April 5). What follows is Dana’s description of that day’s journey, edited to remove his vivid commentary on the various accomplishments and shortcomings of his travel companions:

“We found a chicley [sic] trail after going thru heavy bamboo and undergrowth for about a mile. From here the trail lead up and down thru low hills for about two miles. . .the going was not easy in the heat…at noon when we stopped for lunch there was no water…after lunch we continued on. This trail used to be wide and well traveled but has not been used in many years. So we had to cut around the fallen trees and open trail most of the way…After traveling 6 leguas [sic] we stopped for a rest and Jose and Armando said they were going ahead to scout the trail. We waited for over an hour and then they returned with a pot full of muddy water. Instead of scouting trail they had gone off to a Lechugal about a mile away for water.”

Although we do not have personal experience with the inland journey from this point on the Usumacinta River, the route Dana reports is likely the same as that described by Ron Canter (2007:7): “on the Guatemalan shore, a ravine leads east up to a small plateau 80 m above the river. From there it is a relatively easy climb NE out of the river gorge.” On his map, Canter notes the existence of a nineteenth-century trail running between La Pasadita and Centro Campesino, the area across from Yaxchilan that was home to an invader community in the first decade of this century (Figure 5). Teobert Maler (1903:104–105) notes the existence of “forest trails” connecting Tenosique to the Arroyo Yaxchilan (a stream that passes about 4.5 km to the southeast of the site of Yaxchilan on the Guatemalan side of the Usumacinta River). Indeed, our own reconnaissance attests to the existence of many overgrown logging trails running between the area of Yaxchilan and north and northeast towards La Pasadita. In 1998, Golden (et al. 1999) and a group of colleagues made the trip from Yaxchilan to La Pasadita along just such a route.


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Figure 5. Excerpt of Ron Canter’s Río Usumacinta Navigation Survey (Canter).

Scherer and Omar Alcover undertook a similar journey in 2014, reaching and departing from La Pasadita via two separate logging trails. Both paths were relatively clear at the time, having been re-opened by settlers during the illegal invasion at Centro Campesino in the first decade of the new millennium (Figure 6).

BlogMap - Purple Path.jpg

Figure 6. Southern Sierra del Lacandόn National Park showing likely area of Laxtunich in Guatemala. The red path indicates trails used by Scherer and Alcover in 2014 trip between Centro Campesino and La Pasadita. The purple path represents the least-cost route between Salvamento and El Tunel, the hypothetical path walked by Dana Lamb (compare with Figure 8). “W” denotes aguadas. Partly spoked dircle is a cenote at El Tunel. Chevron is a point along the arroyo that traverses the region, illustrated in Figure 5.

Moreover, Scherer and Alcover traveled with guides who had decades of experience in the region, and thus were able to move with relative dispatch on their journey. They traveled at brisk clip, if with heavy packs, along a route that took them 22 km in 8 to 9 hours from Centro Campesino to La Pasadita (Figure 7). From our experience, 20 km is a generous maximum estimate for any distance covered by Dana and his companions while cutting trails.

Figure 7.JPG

Figure 7. Walking a recently opened logging trail south of La Pasadita, Guatemala, 2014, taken near the aguadas in Figure 6 (photograph by A. Scherer). 

Of the two trails travelled by Scherer and Alcover in 2014, the one closest to the Usumacinta River is about 6.75 km northeast of the point from which Dana likely left that body of water. Dana’s own hand-drawn map suggests they moved in a general northward direction (it is unknown, although likely, that he carried a compass, Figures 8 and 9). From Dana’s description, he and his companions travelled about four to five km (three miles) north or northwest before lunchtime. He then suggests they travelled 6 leagues, the equivalent of 18 miles or 33 km, before their next rest after lunch, when two of his companions went ahead to scout the trail and returned with the muddy water. A frustrated Dana writes in his journal, “I was anxious to go on ahead and get to the ruins before dark but Jose said he was not sure of the trail and that we could not make it before dark. Reluctantly we hit the side trail to the Lechugal & slung our hamocks [sic]” (April 5).

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Figure 8. Dana Lamb’s map of trails leading from Salvamento, Guatemala (image from Julie Huffman-Klinkowitz, courtesy Sherman Library and Gardens). 


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Figure 9. Dana Lamb’s notation of his “Site 5” (Laxtunich), with notation “Pictures of carved stones were made here” (image from Julie Huffman-Klinkowitz, courtesy Sherman Library and Gardens). 

Dana is almost certainly mistaken about the 33 km that he and his companions covered between lunchtime and their evening stop at the watering hole. To put this scale in perspective, Piedras Negras is just a bit more than 40 km in a straight line north of Yaxchilan. A starting point around Salvamento and the Arroyo Anaite, 33 km to the north or northwest would simply funnel them into the narrow valley approaching Piedras Negras, while 30 km in any other direction east or northeast would require crossing the arduous and precipitous hills of the Sierra del Lacandón. Dana would surely have noted this in his journal.

Since they were re-cutting an overgrown trail, a more reasonable estimate is that Dana and his companions walked between 6 to 10 km total by mid-afternoon, placing them in all probability somewhere along one of the very same overgrown trails south of La Pasadita hiked by Scherer and Alcover in 2014. According to Lamb’s own map (which has no scale) the water source is at a latitude just north of the Laguna Santa Clara in Chiapas, a distance that would be about 13 km due north. Again, that is likely incorrect in view of the time needed to move such a distance over an overgrown path. On their own return journey from La Pasadita, Scherer and Alcover identified an exceptionally muddy aguada along one of the old logging trails, about 7.5 km in a direct line from the Usumacinta River (longer if following the overgrown trails). This is a potential, although by no means certain, candidate for the watering hole visited by Dana and his companions.

Dana and his companion returned to the trail the next day and, according to him, “hiked three leguas (12 mi) to a dry arroyo then cut a trail about one mile due W. to the ruins” (April 6). Dana then writes and crosses-out: “After we had finished our. After a supper of beans and rice we hit the hamocks [sic].” He finally settles on: “On the Way into the ruins Arnold shot a small deer and we had a late supper of cooked venison [sic]. There is no water in this area so we used Agua de Bejuca [sic]” (April 6). Again, it is highly implausible that Dana and his companions hiked 12–13 miles (19-–21 km) on the second day of their journey. All known logging trails in this area follow a north or northwesterly path. Had they crossed beyond the known northern limits of the Yaxchilan kingdom (Tecolote, La Pasadita, etc.), the party would have slogged through the bajo around the Laguna La Pasadita, and into the formidably rugged terrain to the north. An eastward path would have kept them within the kingdom and brought them into the vicinity of Oso Negro. But, again, the old logging paths they appear to have been traveling do not cut an easterly route. More likely, Dana and his companions travelled 10 km or less that second day.

An important clue to Laxtunich’s location is the dry arroyo recorded by Dana. Although we do not know its precise route over the landscape, Scherer and Alcover twice crossed an arroyo that drains into the Laguna La Pasadita (Figure 10, see Figure 6 for its location along one of the trails). This arroyo passes through the site of Tixan, where it was dammed in ancient times. Similarly, Golden and colleagues camped near an arroyo in this same vicinity in March of 1998, when it held a thin trickle of water. This is likely the same arroyo that flows through the site of El Tunel, apparently passing through a cave (hence the name of the site, Muñoz and Román 2004:20). When Scherer and Alcover crossed the arroyo near Tixan in 2014, it carried little water, although volume increased when they encountered it a second time near its confluence with the Laguna La Pasadita. Dana notes no other arroyos in his journal. If we assume a generally northward route of travel, the arroyo near La Pasadita, Tixan, and El Tunel would have been the first such waterway encountered by the Lamb party. That it was dry offers no surprise in that they were traveling at the very end of the dry season. In contrast, Scherer and Alcover observed the arroyo at the height of the rainy season, and even then it held little water.


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Figure 10. Dam on a partially dry arroyo near Tixan, Guatemala (photograph by A. Scherer).


After a night camping near the ruins, Dana and his companions travelled to “Site 5,” where they spent the entire day exploring. As Dana describes in his journal, in an entry dated April 7:

“At one time this place was a large city. Now all of it is in ruins except one temple which is partly destroyed. There are two beautifully carved temple stones here. The best I have ever seen. They measure about four feet wide and six feet long but are broken in half. We spent all day exploring around and moving the stones so we could get pictures of them. At noon we had more venison and then worked at the Temple. This ruin is completely unknown so we decided to name it the Place of the Carved Stones, in Maya it is Lashch Tu Nich.”

Dana’s descriptions of the monuments accord well with the photographs that were taken at the site (Figures 2–4). Both lintels are in situ, both broken medially, each fallen from the doorway of a collapsed vaulted structure. Dana also drew a sketch of the site center of Laxtunich, though it is exceptionally vague in its detail, showing a series of plazas and ruined buildings (Figure 11). He marks the two lintels as “alter [sic] stones,” indicating they were found in front of the same structure. Another useful feature of Dana’s map is the presence of a “Dry Sonote” [sic] in the upper left corner of the map, a feature that will be key to identifying the site center of Laxtunich in the future.

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Figure 11. Dana Lamb’s sketch map of Laxtunich (image from Julie Huffman-Klinkowitz, courtesy Sherman Library and Gardens).


On April 8, Dana and his companions made their return trip, reaching the Usumacinta River in a single day’s journey. Because Dana and his companions were backtracking on a now-open trail, it is reasonable to suggest they travelled about 15 km or so that day. By April 25, Dana was back in Tenosique where he penned a letter to Ginger (who at the time, and directly contrary to the published account, was in the United States). Here he summarizes the trip: “Enrique Nevelo, Manuel and I went down the Usumacenta [sic] to a place below Yaxchilan then headed deep into Guatemala. We found a beautiful little ruin with some of the finest stone carving I have ever seen. It was a rough trip as there is no water in this area and we had to live off of Agua de Bejuco.”

According to the same letter, Dana made a series of other visits to sites in the area over the next two weeks, including a stop at Yaxchilan on the return from Laxtunich as well as trips to Bonampak and what is likely Lacanja. Photographs of these visits appear in Quest for the Lost City. He concluded his journey at El Cedro, where he took a plane back to Tenosique. Ginger appears to have flown down in early May, and they spent the next month or so again traveling in southern Mexico, presumably shooting additional photos and video for Quest for the Lost City, although with no evidence they returned to the unknown site in Guatemala.

Where is Laxtunich?

Matching Dana’s description of his travels and his maps with our own experience in the region, we believe it highly likely that Laxtunich lies somewhere in the vicinity of La Pasadita and a cluster of poorly explored sites that includes El Tunel, Capukal, and Tixan. It is far less plausible that Laxtunich corresponds to La Pasadita or its twin, Tecolote, located a few kilometers to the west. Tecolote has many collapsed vaulted structures, but its most remarkable feature is a single well-preserved standing structure with fragmentary murals (Scherer and Golden 2009) that Dana would have seen and recorded in his notes. Moreover, there is no cenote at Tecolote nor is it near an arroyo. Similarly, La Pasadita does not have a cenote and its principal structure was still standing in 1950, likely with its own carved lintels and murals still in place. If Dana had visited La Pasadita we can assume he would have made note of such striking images.

Capukal and El Tunel were first visited by archaeologists in 2004 during a brief reconnaissance trip by René Muñoz and Edwin Román (2005; Golden et al. 2005). El Tunel was revisited in 2005 by Juan Carlos Meléndez and Scherer who also managed to reconnoiter the site of Tixan (Meléndez and Scherer 2005; Vasquéz et al. 2006). The archaeologists discerned an abundance of settlement at each of these sites but, owing to a lack of time on both visits, they were unable to identify or pinpoint their epicenters. In that regards it is important to keep in mind that Dana reports only a single monumental structure that was already partially in ruins during his visit in 1950. Thus, even if archaeologists had reached the principal structure of Laxtunich in 2004 or 2005, it is entirely possible they may have overlooked the structure, assuming that by that time its vault was fully collapsed.

Of these named sites, Capukal is the least credible as Dana’s Laxtunich. Muñoz and Román note that the buildings at Capukal disperse into a pattern reminiscent of Fideo, a known Late Preclassic site to the northwest. Further, the only ceramic observed on the surface during reconnaissance at Capukal dated to the Early Classic period (Muñoz and Román 2005:20). In contrast, Tixan and El Tunel possess architecture more closely reminiscent of known secondary centers of Late Classic period Yaxchilan. Tixan was only briefly visited by Meléndez and Scherer in 2005 and they were never able to locate its political and architectural center, if indeed it has one. It exhibits an area of extensive settlement, and further survey is needed to determine to what degree settlement may be more or less contiguous between the areas currently identified as La Pasadita, El Tunel, and Tixan.

El Tunel, on the other hand, was more thoroughly surveyed by both Muñoz and Román and then by Meléndez and Scherer. Meléndez and Scherer (2005:62) observed the careful use of both large block and smaller flat stone similar to details observed in buildings at Tecolote and La Pasadita. These features characterize the well-preserved constructions of the Late Classic period in the kingdom of Yaxchilan (Figure 12). Moreover, defensive walls have been identified in the vicinity of El Tunel, similar to those found at Tecolote and La Pasadita (Muñoz and Román 2004:19).

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Figure 12. Preserved wall on a structure at El Tunel; Juan Carlos Meléndez provides human scale (photograph by A. Scherer).


Even more compelling, Muñoz and Román detected the presence of at least one collapsed vaulted structure at El Tunel with the remains of a looted crypt (Muñoz and Román 2004:19). Vaulted buildings with such crypts have also been identified at Tecolote and La Pasadita, and such patterns similarly echo the sub-floor crypts found in palace structures at Yaxchilan and Bonampak (Miller and Brittenham 2013:24, fig. 33). The collapsed vaulted structure found by Muñoz and Román should be considered a possible contender for the source of the Laxtunich lintels, though they did not observe any monument carcasses during their investigations. Recall that, as noted above, the name El Tunel is in reference to an arroyo that flows near the site. Finally, during their reconnaissance of the site, Meléndez and Scherer observed a dry cenote at El Tunel, although they failed to take detailed notes regarding its relationship to other structures at the site (see its location on Figure 6).

A least-cost path plotted from several starting points in Guatemala opposite the Arroyo Anaite to El Tunel creates a path similar in appearance to Lamb’s sketch map, and seems to cross at or near similar landmarks, including well-used trails (compare Figures 6 and 8). Moreover, this modeled path crosses the real path marked by Scherer and Alcover. near where they encountered two water-holes (aguadas), perhaps the source of Lamb’s “muddy water.” If El Tunel is indeed Laxtunich, and the computer-modeled path is anything like that followed by Lamb and his companions, the actual distance traveled from river to site (barring wayward turns) would be in the vicinity of 13 km (~ 8 mi).



In short, all evidence indicates the site of Laxtunich is located somewhere to the east of Tecolote, to the west of Oso Negro, and in the general vicinity of La Pasadita, El Tunel, Tixan, and Capukal. This is an area of generally dense settlement where much of the Late Classic period architecture conforms to that of the greater Yaxchilan kingdom. Of these, in our judgment, El Tunel is the best contender as the source of the Laxtunich lintels. It has architecture in Late Classic period Yaxchilan style, it possesses at least one collapsed vaulted structure with a looted crypt, has defensive walls, a dry cenote, and is located near an arroyo—all features of Laxtunich noted in Dana’s journal. The chances are high that slabs of sliced limestone are still there, left by looters in the 1960s. It is a shame indeed that Lamb did not follow through, as he had promised to Gordon Ekholm in 1951, on a more scholarly publication for the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s “Notes in Middle America” series (sic, “Notes on Middle American Archaeology and Ethnology.” AMNH archives, letter dated Jan. 25, 1951). The recollections might have been sharper, the details more accurate. But the pledge to Ekholm was probably yet another deception. A factually grounded essay would have undermined the tall tales in his book.

Quest for the Lost City and the two Laxtunich lintels persist as part of a frustrating yet fortunate chapter in Maya studies. The adventures reported by Dana and Ginger are, we now know, fabrications meant to sell a book. They do little to advance our understanding of the ancient Maya. Yet the true, unreported story—of a foreign visitor who spent a few days in the jungle in the company of local guides—is not unlike how we ourselves “discover” new archaeological sites (though such tales hardly make for fascinating storytelling). The Laxtunich lintels are masterworks of Maya art, torn from their source and rarely seen by scholars, much less appreciated by the greater public. Yet Dana’s photographs exist. He drew us maps that give us a general sense of the site’s location and, most important, took detailed notes of his travels to the site. From these clues, we can be reasonably secure in knowing not only the country of origin (Guatemala) but even the 20 km2 area of the Sierra del Lacandόn National Park that likely produced the lintels. Future survey in the region, as aided by remote sensing and the search for thinned remnants, will doubtless transform Lamb’s “lost city” into one that is found.


Acknowledgments  Some of the ideas presented in this series of blogs were first presented at the Center for the Advanced Study of Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art, where Houston held an Ailsa Mellon Bruce Senior Fellowship in 2014–2015 (Houston and Urton 2015), and at the Wayeb Meetings in Moscow (Houston et al. 2016). The Lamb archive at the Sherman Library and Gardens, Corona del Mar, California, was most generous with access, as was Dr. Charles Spencer, Sumru Arincali, Barry Landua, and Kristin Mable at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), New York. Mary Miller first drew our attention to the Lamb-Ekholm correspondence at the AMNH. Ron Canter’s map of the Usumacinta was most helpful, as was Julie Huffman-Klinkowitz, who supplied crucial pieces of information from her collection of Lambiana. Michael Coe provided recollections of that Mayanist “Howard Hughes,” William Palmer III.


Note 1. William Pendleton Palmer III (1932–1982) was an heir to a Cleveland, Ohio, steel and mining fortune. His grandfather, William Pendleton Palmer (1861–1927), had amassed that wealth by working his way up from an apprenticeship to Presidency of the American Steel and Wire Company; along the way, he also served as a Director of the Cleveland Trust Co., H. C. Frick Coke Co., and the Bank of Commerce (WPP), with substantial investments in the Hanna Mining Company of Cleveland (Hanna and Palmer and Hanna). A member of the American Antiquarian Society from 1914 on, and President of the Western Reserve Historical Society from 1913 until his death, the Founder had collected a quantity of Civil War manuscripts and Lincoln memorabilia, indeed, on all aspects of antebellum life, for eventual donation to the Society, “Cleveland’s oldest cultural institution” (Western Reserve and Collection). The Founder would not have known his namesake—he died five years before Palmer III was born. But his acquisitive urges and antiquarian interests had some impact. For a time, Palmer III was one of the most energetic collectors of Maya pieces in the world. Our only account of him, “a bit like Howard Hughes, but on a less extravagant scale, and far more generous,” comes from Michael Coe (personal communication, Aug. 23, 2017; quotation from Coe 2006:199), who met Palmer while preparing “The Maya Scribe and His World” exhibit for the Grolier Club in New York City (April 20 to June 5, 1971). Learning that the collector had a large number of Classic Maya pots, Coe was flown on Palmer’s private plane, piloted by a retired Air Force colonel, to Falmouth, Maine, where Palmer lived. (Palmer was, according to Coe and Graham, the then-owner of Bar Harbor Airlines.) Coe remembers two totem poles from the Northwest Coast lying prone, and somewhat forlorn, outside the main residence. The cellar of a second building was given over to racks of magazines and newspapers curated by an older man. When asked about this surprising hoard, “a quarter century’s worth of old numbers of the New York Times, Newsweek, and other newspapers and journals,” Palmer replied, “I just want to look things up when I feel like it” (Coe 2006:199). Coe did not see the Laxtunich lintels, which might already have been in Switzerland.


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Coe, Michael D. 2006. Final Report: An Archaeologist Excavates his Past. Thames and Hudson, London.

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Golden, Charles W., Edwin Román, A. Rene Muñoz, Andrew Scherer, and Luis A. Romero. 2005. Reconocimiento y patrones de asentamiento en la Sierra del Lacandón, Petén. In XVIII Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala, 2004, edited by J.P. Laporte, B. Arroyo y H. Mejía, 284–295. Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala City.

Graham, Ian. 2010. The Road to Ruins. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Hofling, C. Andrew. 2014. Lacandon Maya-Spanish-English Dictionary / Diccionario Maya Lacandón-Español-Inglés. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Houston, Stephen, and Gary Urton. 2015. Incontro. Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., April 2.

Houston, Stephen, James Doyle, David Stuart, and Karl Taube. 2016. Sun, Night, Earth, and Stone: The Politics of Belief on a Classic Maya Lintel. Paper presented at the 21st European Maya Conference, Moscow, Oct. 22.

Huffman-Klinkowitz, Julie, and Jerome Klinkowitz. 2006. The Enchanted Quest of Dana and Ginger Lamb. University Press of Mississippi, Jackson.

Hull, Kerry. 2016. A Dictionary of Ch’orti’ Mayan-Spanish-English. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Lamb, Dana, with June Cleveland. 1938. Enchanted Vagabonds. Harper, New York.

Lamb, Dana, and Ginger Lamb. 1951. Quest for the Lost City. Harper, New York.

Maler, Teobert. 1903. Researches in the Central Portion of the Usumatsintla Valley: Report of Explorations for the Museum – Part Second. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Vol. II, No. 2. Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Mayer, Karl-Herbert. 1984. Maya Monuments: Sculptures of Unknown Provenance in Middle America. Translated by Sandra Brizee. Verlag von Flemming, Berlin.

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Witherspoon, Keith B. 2008. Before the Eyes of the World: Mexico and the 1968 Olympic Games. Northern Illinois University Press, DeKalb.

Zender, Marc, Dmitri Beliaev, and Albert Davletshin. 2016. The Syllabic Sign we and an Apologia for Delayed Decipherment. The PARI Journal 17(2):35–56.



Bamboo–A Neglected Maya Material?

by Stephen Houston (Brown University), Karl Taube (UC-Riverside), Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach (UT-Austin), and Timothy Beach (UT-Austin)


Building sites in Hong Kong often show a collision between tradition and modernity: bamboo scaffolds, some thirty stories high, envelop skyscrapers under construction (Figure 1; Waters 1998; also Sky-high scaffoldsBamboo spider-men). The virtues of the material are that it is “primitive without being old-fashioned, time-saving without being insecure, and economical without being impracticable” (Waters 1998:20). Less eloquent explanations are that, unlike scaffolds of metal, bamboo can be stored in the open without risk of theft; the material is also inexpensive, sustainable, flexible, reusable (up to three times, depending on conditions of storage), quickly erected, and cantilevered with relative ease over empty spaces (Waters 1998:26, 30).



Figure 1. Bamboo scaffolding, Causeway Bay neighborhood, Hong Kong (Photograph by Claire Gribbin, Creative Commons License).


Bamboo tends to be seen as quintessentially oriental. Its tender shoots, processed to remove toxins (cyanogenic glycosides, also in cassava), find their way into many dishes, and an entire sub-genre of Chinese painting, the “Four Gentlemen” or “Noble Ones,” focuses on its depiction along with peers like the plum blossom, chrysanthemum, and orchid (bamboo embodies the summer, the others, respectively, winter, autumn, spring; see also Cahill 1997:187–192; see also Bickford 1999:147, on literary and visual traditions of bamboo and other plants; Hsü 1996:25, on links to gentlemanly virtue). The experience of a bamboo forest, as Houston has experienced it on the outskirts of Kyoto, figures among the “100 Soundscapes of Japan” under protection by the Japanese Ministry of the Environment (Torigoe 1999).

But bamboo occurs more widely than that, and with consequences for understanding the ancient Maya. According to one source, “New World bamboos account for approximately half of the total generic and specific bamboo diversity” (Clark 1990:126; for Guatemala, see McClure 1973:88, 105, 106). An ethnobotany of the Tzotzil in Zinacantán, Chiapas, accords a page to them, and gives the plants a full array of local terms: bix (the generic category, “all bamboos, reeds or sprawling, reed-like plants,” Breedlove and Laughlin 2000:150), muk’ta ne kotom, yaxal otot, antzil bix, ton bix, chanib, and k’ox ne kotom (Figure 2; re: muk’ta ne kotom, “large coati tail,” there is a ko-to-ma on La Rejolla Stela 1:I9 [files at the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Peabody Museum, Harvard University], but the context is unclear; note, too, that the term “bamboo,” evidently of Malay origin, did not enter European languages until the 1590s or later, etymology). Some grow to over 20 m long, within “ravines in the understory of tropical deciduous forests in the lower temperate and lowland areas” (Breedlove and Laughlin 2000:150). Others are cut by men but brought home to women for use in looms, or do service as banner poles or the staffs of shamans (Breedlove and Laughlin 2000:150). A vigorous shake of a staff will protect the shaman from watchdogs. Many native species are known in Guatemala (bamboo in Guatemala). Today, in the Peten, the northernmost province, workers on archaeological projects used saplings or bamboo in equal measure, depending on proximity (Andrew Scherer, personal communication, 2017).


bamboo breedlove.jpg


Figure 2. Bamboos among the Tzotzil Maya (Breedlove and Laughlin 2000:plate 10). 


While charged with working on the stuccoes of the Diablo pyramid at El Zotz, Guatemala, one of us (Taube) noted the presence of scaffold images with unusual attributes (Taube and Houston 2015:219–221). Criss-crossed poles had cross-wise stripes (a sign of darkness or even the color red? [see Stone and Zender 2011:124–125]), symmetrical volutes at what appeared to be natural joins in the material, and signs of lashing to keep the frame solid (Figure 3A). It soon became clear that the sign appeared on a variety of so-called “accession scaffolds” ranging in date from the San Bartolo murals of c. 100 BC to stelae at Piedras Negras, Guatemala, of Late Classic date (Figure 3C; Taube and Houston 2015:fig. 5.12). Other such trussed scaffolds exist, as on Stelae 1 and 2 at Cancuen, Guatemala, but there with what appear to be ta/TAJ signs for “pine,” also a lightweight material (Maler 1908:plates 12.2, 13.1; Figure 3B). For the first set of images, Taube conjectured that the vegetal material was none other than bamboo, in which small tufts shoot directly out of the surface (the culm internodes), often at joins (Figure 4).



Figure 3. Bamboo in Maya imagery: (A) Diablo Structure F8-1 Sub IB, with cross-bands indicated (image by CAST); (B) Cancuen Stela 1, east side, with queen, pine struts cued (Maler 1908:plate 13.1); and (C) Piedras Negras Stela 11, base (drawing by David Stuart). 



 Figure 4. Bamboo: (A) trunk with tufts at natural breaks [culm nodes] (Creative Commons); and (B) curling tufts, Sagano Bamboo Forest, Arashiyama district, Kyoto, Japan (photograph by Stephen Houston).


A singular advantage of Maya text and image, where both stand in close relation, is that, if plausibly interpreted, one helps to explain the other. It is possible that two spellings buttress the reading: one comes from a tomb painting at Río Azul, the other from the name of the Temple of the Foliated Cross (or at least its interior temple) at Palenque (Figure 5; see also the spelling on the altar of Temple XXI:G10). The example at Palenque may be our best point of entry, for it appears to contain bamboo struts, as well as two other elements (a snouted being and K’AN crosses). The one missing element, other than the NAAH for “structure,” are three vertical sprouts of vegetation. That is, an epigraphic control exists in which bamboo and its glyphic referent appear to be isolable. In fuller form, as at Río Azul, another part of the sprouted glyph appears, in this case a sign with vertical lines and horizontal dots. This glyph recalls another, a slightly distinct one, with tufts rather than leaf-like extrusions, that carries a proposed reading of AK or AKAN, “grass” (Stuart 2005:180 fn.59).



Figure 5. Bamboo in imagery, possibly in text: (A) East wall of Río Azul Tomb 6 (photograph by George F. Mobley, courtesy George Stuart); (B) glyphs of the Temple of the Foliated Cross, Alfarda:H1 (drawing by Linda Schele, photographer unknown); (C) roof of interior shrine, Temple of the Foliated Cross, bamboo cross-struts with K’AN crosses, corresponding to elements of name glyph (drawing by David Stuart); and (D) wall panel from interior shrine, Temple of the Foliated Cross (drawing by Linda Schele, Schele and Mathews 1979:#302). 


But what to make of the sign that appears to refer to bamboo, the element with three vertical shoots? Pondering this evidence, Houston posited a reading of JAL because of the subfixed la syllable at Río Azul; a second such version, spelling ch’o-ko ?JAL-la yi-?cha-ni AJAW, is far later, from a jamb in Temple XIX at Palenque [Stuart 2005:fig. 20a]). Moreover, the YAX-JAL-la NAAH, “Green-blue Bamboo House” (a notional arbor?), seemed quite similar to the term for “bamboo” in Tzotzil: yaxal otoot (the latter being the word for “dwelling,” see above).

Of further interest were the following entries in Ch’orti’ Maya, the language closest to most of the inscriptions (Wisdom 1950, with the usual substitution in that language of r for l in some contexts):

harar                 ‘reed [generic], carrizo (a tall wild grass), arrow’

harar ak           ‘cane grass, reed grass [generic]; zacate amargo (tall wild carrizo-like                                                grass)’

noxi’ harar       ‘a wild cane’

…and the telling gloss,

mak te’ harar   ‘vara de bambu (lowland dwarfish bamboo)’

Makte’ is simply a term for “fence” (“enclosure-tree/wood”), here specified as to construction material. Note too that, in cognate terms, j substitutes for h in many other Mayan languages, hence har/hal equates in such cases to jal (Kaufman 1983:1158). The usual trajectory of glyphic research is for someone else to have been there first. So too here, in a lexical listing by Erik Boot (2009:26, 82). Boot however, focused on “reed,” when other plants, namely, varieties of bamboo, might have been the actual target here.

The implications for Maya civilization are potentially momentous. Bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants in the world. The Guinness Book of World Records mentions species known to thrust upwards at 91 cm a day (Guinness). The rhizome-dependent pattern of growth in bamboo also makes them, to many a gardener’s dislike, hard to control yet endlessly abundant under certain conditions. Was this, in fact, an overlooked resource in Mayanist research, planted, tended, harvested, and widely employed when other vegetation proved scarce because of deforestation?

In the Orient, bamboo goes into buckets and all manner of receptacles, medicines, building materials, delectable food (again, if processed). A list from a traditional village in China dizzies with possibilities: “They live in bamboo houses, eat bamboo shoots, wear bamboo hats and shoes, cook food in utensils made of bamboo culm internodes, walk over bamboo bridges or cross rivers on bamboo rafts, and farm with bamboo tools” (Yang et al. 2004:161, Table 4). Such broad use, including use in the making of musical instruments, occurs throughout the indigenous Americas (Berlin et al. 1974:131; Judziewicz et al. 1999). Utensils in some Maya imagery might have been made of this perishable material, providing, according to one proposal, the formal source of Maya cylinder vases, later reproduced in fired clay (Bruhns 1994). The segmentation of bamboo also characterizes the depiction of atlatl or spear-throwers at the beginnings of the Late Classic period (Figure 6). Bamboo would have been grown, selected for desired width, and cut to suitable length.



Figure 6. Possible use of bamboo atlatl or spear-throwers (K2036, Photograph by Justin Kerr, © Justin Kerr). 

Other thoughts intrude: were the external holes in walls at Tikal simply for ventilation, or did some serve as footings for bamboo scaffolds? The relentless assault on plaster in the tropics, with the logical need for future repair, might explain these features (Figure 6, upper left; see also Coe 1990:figs. 209, 321; also, Penn Tikal Archive, #C63-004-0021, for close-up views of Temple I and its comparable holes). That is, provision was made for continued refurbishment or washes of lime-plaster. The complete decay of some vault-struts, now seen only as holes, many round, raise the possibility that at least some of them were of bamboo. Moreover, at Piedras Negras, Guatemala, Houston and his team found bushels of bajareque, mud placed on wattle that had baked into near-ceramics by random (or set) fires in buildings. The bajareque often preserves evidence of cylindrical wattle, perhaps also of readily harvested bamboo (unfortunately, few sections are long enough to detect its distinct segmentation); a similar find, wit. Such remains were found with wattle-and-daub at Cerén, El Salvador (Lentz and Ramírez-Soza 2002:34). And if deforestation were at all relevant, as appears to be true in many places, bamboo, with its rapid in growth and varied use, might even have been cultivated.



Figure 7. Upper left, back of Structure 5D-23, 1st-B, rear elevation, holes highlighted in red (Coe 1990:fig. 129), and, lower right, bajareque, Operation PN11A-3-4 (photograph by Stephen Houston).


A chart of biosilicates extracted from the main aguada or reservoir in El Zotz, Guatemala, reveals a possible signature of this cultivation: the abundance, in the Late Classic period, of “native grasses,” which may represent the residue of bamboo (Figure 8; Beach et al. 2015:272). Bamboo has been found in late tombs in Río Bec, Mexico (Dussol et al. 2016:67), as well as in Chinikiha, also in Mexico (Trabanino and Núñez 2014: 156), but it seems also that the “great anatomic homogeneity of the monocotyledons [a flowering plant category to which bamboo belongs], as well as the lack of an anatomic reference collection specific to neotropical bamboos,” complicates their precise detection (Dusoll et al. 2016:67, for quotation, 63). Further, as archaeological residue, bamboos are fragile, preserve poorly, and “rapid combustion [of them] generally does not produce charcoal remains” (Dusoll et al. 2016:66). Another specialist underscores the problems of identification: “Poaceae pollen [in the taxonomic family that contains bamboo] is very plain in appearance via light microscopy, and the palynologist must always be careful not to confuse maize pollen with the similar-looking pollen of other grasses, aquatic grasses, or bamboos” (Morse 2009:177, citing Horn 2006:368). For his part, Kazuo Aoyama (personal communication, 2017), the most expert practitioner of microwear analysis in the Maya region, has actually tested bamboo and found it indistinguishable from other woods and pithy material in its effect on lithics (Aoyama 1989:202; Aoyama 1995:131; 1996:Tables 3.13. 3.14). Its “signature” appears to be ambiguous.

Perhaps, as has been suggested for pine, such plants were more commonly used than supposed, to be grown, moved, and traded as valued resources (Lentz et al. 2005). Its working, if discernible as to family or genus, may yet appear as residue on Maya stone tools (Andrew Scherer, personal communication, 2017). Or, like bamboo in many places, the plants grew to copious extent but became less salient in Maya lives as the forests (and other vegetal materials) recovered, populations declined, and need dropped. Of sufficient importance to appear in Classic art, and in dynastic and godly shrines, bamboo had receded in cultural and practical importance: it had become the stuff of shamans’ staffs yet sidelined from widespread use.



Figure 8. Diagram of biosilicates, including possible bamboo pollen from El Zotz, Guatemala (Beach et al. 2015:Fig. 12.5).


Acknowledgements  This essay benefitted greatly from discussions with David Stuart, who drew our attention to the Boot citation. Our good colleague, Jeffrey Moser, helped with sources on Chinese painting, Kazuo Aoyama commented on bamboo and microwear, Barbara Arroyo provided a key source, and Andrew Scherer offered comments on plant use in Peten, Guatemala.



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Yang Yuming, Wang Kanglin, Pei Shengji, and Hao Jiming. 2004. Bamboo Diversity and Traditional Uses in Yunnan, China. Mountain Research and Development 24(2): 157–165. traditional uses

The Fourth Wall

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

A fraternity of animals awaits visitors to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. There, on a page of the Indian epic, the Rāmāyaṇama, monkeys and bears gather as part of Rama’s army, soon to attack Rāvaṇa, his mortal enemy (Figure 1, Jain-Neubauer 1981:55, fig. 21). Commissioned in the early 1700s by some Rajput prince, the miniature had a devotional use, but it also served to entertain and instruct, as revealed “on special occasions” to “the eyes of connoisseurs” (Jain-Neubauer 1981:9). The lateral flow of events is consistent with these paintings. Yet there, in grinning vignette, a monkey peers out at us. His bear and monkey companions are quite stolid by comparison, for the most part looking stiffly at the enemy fortress to the left. A few stroke and clutch each other in worry or maybe they yearn to claw their way into battle.



Figure 1. Detail of Pahari miniature, Rāvaṇa sends out Śuka to spy on Rāma’s army, c. AD 1725–30, Guler State, India, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 17.2745 (photograph by Basile Baudez). 


The grinning monkey has broken the “fourth wall.” He has penetrated the divide between those inside a text, image or performance and those outside. In a sense, the spectator has become a participant. Shakespeare deployed this effect in various plays, as did Thornton Wilder in Our Town and Martin Scorsese in Goodfellas. The director Konstantin Stanislavski, father of “method acting,” and a fixture of avant-garde productions from my college years, used it to rethink modern theater.

Literary theory and cinematic studies might see the fourth wall as a “meta-reference,” an actor’s awareness that he or she exists within a work of art. There are others, those outside, who look on. As the wall crumbles, they are coaxed into the “storyworld” of a text or image (Kukkonen 2013:65), and a particular time, space, and frame reach out to enfold the viewer. The results may vary, but one can imagine responses like empathy, surprise or amusement. There is another subtlety too. In the Indian miniature, viewers may believe this is a flat painting, no monkeys present. Yet, in a word devised by the philosopher Tamar Gendler, they alieve that world of bears and heroic kings to be true and accessible (Gendler 2008). We see the monkey, and he sees us. Most likely, of course, viewers know there is no assembly of animal warriors. They are happy, however, to suspend that notion, the better to immerse themselves in the story. People can feel and believe several things at once.

Most Maya narrative images are of distinct if related storyworlds. In them, the viewer is distanced, a witness at best. [Note 1] There are exceptions, to be sure, ones that transport the spectator across the fourth wall. A monkey might look out from a perch on a mythic mountain, as cheeky as any Rajput beast, or an owl from under the bed of a cuckolded god. Indeed, owls are often shown this way. Perhaps the Maya did so to emphasize their sight or to evoke the en face conventions of the distant city of Teotihuacan [some of the earliest glyphs with frontal owls occur in personal names linked to that far place]; Figure 2A, B). Other figures are human. One is a tortured captive looking out plaintively in an image where everyone else seems to ignore the viewer (Figure 2C). By implication, the people in charge could not care less (to my mind, Maya art hints at a faint sense of disdain for the viewer, almost a devaluing of their status [but see Note 1]). Another presents a high-ranking subordinate who spells out gesturally, with fussy precision, how such minions should pose (Figure 2D). Even his hat is slightly risible, and the image in general expresses an important record of one major kingdom abasing itself before another.




Figure 2. Breaking through the fourth wall: A) Berlin Vase (K6547); B) birds under bed (K1182); C) captive in tributary scene (K680); and D) emissary from Calakmul at Tikal (K5453).  


The frontal view of a face or body as a sign of misery is hardly common in Maya art. But it does appear as a consistent theme after the first years of the Late Classic period. And there is so much misery to go around: a gutted captive (with wispy mustache?), takes time from his agony to peer through the fourth wall (Figure 3A); a sacrificial baby lies uncomfortably on its belly, face contorted to the viewer (Figure 3C); a possible captive lolls his head, a bound figure just barely visible to the right (Figure 3D); and a cuckolded god of the hunt languishes–is he ill?–while a deer carries off his probable wife (Figure 3E). Among the few glyphs with such faces is the head of a dead person with eyes closed, mouth in a rictus (Figure 3B, final sign).



Figure 3  Misery and pain in frontal view: A) captive on a sacrificial altar (K8351); B) head of deceased person as syllable na, AJ-pa-sa-hi-na, name of ‘its’aat, Xcalumkin-area, Campeche, Mexico (Kimbell Art Museum, K8017; cf. Xcalumkin Lintel 1:M1–N1); C) baby splayed for sacrifice (K1247); D) exhausted captive (?, K1645);  and (E) cuckolded hunting god (K1559).


The convention does not just appear on pottery. Panel 4 from Piedras Negras intensifies the discomfort by showing a captive who not only looks out at the viewer but hangs his head upside down, a frequent position for trophy heads on warrior’s bodies (Figure 4). Mary Miller pointed out to me long ago that Maya artists had a far freer and more innovative hand in playing with depictions of captives. Logically, those bodies were also the way to experiment with displays of emotion (Houston 2001). Was there a hint of pity in these images or was it simply Schadenfreude?




Figure 4. Piedras Negras Panel 4, detail, AD 658 (photograph by Teobert Maler). 


Accentuating the frame of a scene–or escaping its limitations–brings up an important feature of Maya imagery. There is a sustained intent to preserve and maintain clarity, to be complete and also, with texts, completely legible or viewable. Yet a change occurs in the visual culture of the Maya during the AD 600s. A fascination seems to grow for the ocular experience itself, with what the eye can see from a particular vantage point, with how materials respond to gravity, a body mass slumps, a cloth folds and wrinkles, how feathers wave to wind or movement. Has sketching begun, practices analogous to the minute, preparatory observations by Dürer or da Vinci of a certain textile or flexed hand? This ocular culture, if it can be described as such, engenders a kind of illusionism, a playful interest in implying the existence of glyphs behind images, bodies that move out of frame but are still held to exist off-frame. The viewer both believes (we presume) that there is no such body but, in Gendler’s term, alieves it be present. A captive’s body or foot goes off frame, in carvings by the great master Mayuy (Figures 5A, B), but the convention also operates in painting (Figure 5C).




Figure 5. Going off-frame: A) Kimbell Lintel, c. AD 783, AP 1971.07 (photograph by Justin Kerr); B) Laxtunich Lintel (photograph by James Doyle); and C) Birth Vase, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (K1247). 


In glyphs there is a witty and demanding lack of clarity, a game played with the reader who must fill in the missing parts. This is especially clear in two areas of production: the school of painters around the western side of Lake Peten Itza in northern Guatemala (involving the so-called “Ik’ site,” identified by titles clearly applicable to a number of different places in that region), and another to the north, in association with the powerful dynasty of Calakmul (Figures 6 and 7). The patterns tend to be that verbs (ak’oot) or titles (kaloomte’) get occluded or, on one vase (K1256), a bit of blood-soaked paper extends from a way spirit to the very glyph for way. The painted texts on clothing in the Bonampak murals show the same illusionistic game. They combine belief and alief, emphasizing what the viewer’s (or painter’s) eye can see (Miller and Brittenham 2013:230, Captions I-5B, I-5C, I-6B). This is not only on paintings, but, as on a panel at Dumbarton Oaks, the carved depiction of a text on the hem of a kilt or garment (Tokovinine 2012:fig. 33).



Figure 6. Glyphic “occlusion” on Ik’-site pots: A) Altar vase (photograph by Otis Imboden, courtesy of George Stuart); B) tributary scene with partial concealment of kaloomte’ title (K1728); C) feather panache over captive’s name (K1439); D) baah tz’am title and historical scene (K5418); E) jaguar ornament over dance verb (K1439); and F) panache over chocolate recipe (K764).


The examples on “codex-style” vases are far more sparing, with a very slight degree of occlusion (Figure 7). What intrigues us in both traditions of painting is that, at least notionally, the glyphs lie behind the figures depicted on these vases. There is no foregrounding of explanatory texts or captions. They are exactly the opposite of Mayuy’s framed, out-of-sight bodies. His carvings stress the clear exposition of texts over bodies; these paintings emphasize bodies and image over the text.



Figure 7. Glyphic “occlusion” on codex-style vases (photographs by Justin Kerr). 


A final example was drawn to my attention by Bryan Just (Figure 8). Found on the base of the carving of an Itzam or Old god (Martin 2016), it illustrates a novel attitude about attending to what the eye can see, not what needs to be literally and fully present for maximum legibility (see also Houston 2015:fig. 13.5). The text is one of the first known sculptor’s signatures, as well as the first labeling of a carving’s patron. But there is a striking oddity. The carving was not finished where an eye would be unable to see it while the object rested on a surface. This game of illusion, of implying rather than showing, of fascination with situated viewing, seems aesthetic but not only that: it suggests discussion about the nature of sight itself and how it might enlist active and knowledgeable minds. By breaking the fourth wall, it burrows equally into the heart.



Figure 8. Base of carving on Itzam effigy, Princeton University Art Museum, 2013–78 a-b (photograph by Justin Kerr, K3331). 


Acknowledgements   My best thanks go to Basile Baudez for drawing my attention to the image from India and its source, and to Bryan Just and David Stuart for discussion of glyphic overlay and illusionism. Justin Kerr offered all his customary generosity with rollout photographs.


[Note 1]  Free-standing sculptures, as at Copan and Tonina, are categorically different. As single figures, they rely on viewers to address the carving or to admire an eternally frozen dance, perhaps to speak with this proxy of royal or captive bodies. There is no frame to separate viewers, and a punctured (or non-existent?) fourth wall becomes central to their function. Compelling a kind of interaction, the images cannot be complete without it.



Gendler, Tamar S. 2008. Alief and Belief. Journal of Philosophy 105(10): 634–663.

Houston, Stephen. 2001. Decorous Bodies and Disordered Passions: Representations of Emotions among the Classic Maya. World Archaeology 33(2):206–219.

Houston, Stephen. 2016. Crafting Credit: Authorship among Classic Maya Painters and Sculptors. In Making Value, Making Meaning: Techné in the Pre-Columbian World, edited by Cathy L. Costin,  391–427. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC.

Jain-Neaubauer, Jutta. 1981. The Rāmāyaṇama in Pahari Miniature Painting. L. D. Institute of Indology, Ahmedabad.

Kukkonen, Karin. 2013. Studying Comics and Graphic Novels. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester.

Martin, Simon. 2015. The Old Man of the Maya Universe: A Unitary Dimension to Ancient Maya Religion. In Maya Archaeology 3, edited by Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore, 186–227. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

Miller, Mary, and Claudia Brittenham. 2013. The Spectacle of the Late Maya Court: Reflections on the Murals of Bonampak. University of Texas Press, Austin; INAH and CONACULTA, Mexico City.

Tokovinine, Alexandre. 2012. Carved Panel. In Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks, edited by Joanne Pillsbury, Miriam Doutriaux, Reiko Ishihara-Brito, and Alexandre Tokovinine, 68–73. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Number 4. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC.

The Lizard King

by Stephen Houston (Brown), David Stuart (UT-Austin), and Marc Zender (Tulane)

The Maya region abounds in reptiles: by one count there are as many as 240 distinct species in Guatemala alone. It would not be surprising, then, if the Classic Maya took note of them and even mentioned some in their writing. The references could even be exalted, extending to royal names or to those of high nobles. At Bonampak and sites nearby, a ruler (or two) went by the name AJ-SAK-te-le-se/TELES, Aj Sak Teles, “He, the White Lizard” (see Tokovinine 2012:65, also Bonampak Stela 1:K1 [Figure 1A]), Stela 2:G4, Lintel 3, A9 (Figure 1B), Bonampak Structure 1, Room 2, East Jamb:A1–B1 [Miller and Brittenham 2013:240], and Dumbarton Oaks Panel 2:D1-C2, L4-K5 [Figure 1C, Mathews 1980:figs. 2, 3, 7]). This term may be linked to its label in Tzotzil, teleš, for Basiliscus vittatus, a crested lizard with the surprising ability to run at a good clip over water (Laughlin 1970:335; note, however, that the compiler of this dictionary sees it as Spanish in origin, from “Andrew,” perhaps a doubtful surmise). Another lord on a late vase from Señor del Peten (or “Nuevo Veracruz”), Quintana Roo, reveals a second lizard name, also equipped with a color designation (Cortés de Brasdefer 1996): AJ-YAX-to-lo-ki?, Aj Yax Tolook, “He, the Green/Blue Lizard” (Figure 1E, see also K3026, CHAK ch’o-ko KELEEM ‘a-*la-tzi to-lo-ko 4-‘e?-*k’e? [Figure 1D]). This appears also to be a kind of basilisk lizard, tojrok in present-day Ch’orti’–for some reason, the puréed brains of this reptile appear to have been used for medicinal purposes (Hull 2016:410).


Figure 1.  Probable lizard names in Late Classic texts: A) Bonampak Stela 1:K1 (photographer unknown); B) Bonampak Stela 2:G4 (drawing by Peter Mathews; C) Dumbarton Oaks Panel 1:D1-C2 (photograph from Dumbarton Oaks); D) K3026 (courtesy Justin Kerr, copyright Justin Kerr); and E) Señor del Peten vase (Cortés de Brasdefer 1996:fig. 5). 

Another lizard name, probably also for a basilisk–was there no end to their wonder for this creature?–has recently come to light. Excavations by Tomás Barrientos, Marcello Canuto and their team at La Corona, Guatemala, recovered a remarkably preserved, all-glyphic block that the project has labelled “Element 56” (Stuart et al. 2015). Dating to April 9, AD 690, the block provides one of those minute clues, seemingly insignificant but indispensable for decipherment, that enliven and advance Maya epigraphy.  The clue appears in the name of a local ruler who was the younger brother of the preceding ruler. His name contains much of interest: CHAK-AK’, “Great or Red Turkey,” a distinct lizard head, then ku-yu, kuy, probably for a kind of owl (for discussions of these readings in other contexts, see Grube and Nahm 1994:703–704; the AK’ is suggested by an ‘a-k’a spelling at pB4–pA5 on La Corona Panel 3, in a piece held by the Israel Museum, #B95.0149, K5865; other uses of the turkey head for AK’, often without the full wattle [a hen rather than a gobbler?], come to our attention on Caracol Stela 6:C12, ya-?AK’-wa, Dos Pilas Stela 1:B2, AK’-ta-ja, and Palenque, Temple of the Inscriptions, Middle Tablet:M6, ya-AK’-wa).


Figure 2. Variant forms of royal name at La Corona, Element 56; Element 56: pF2-E3 (top) and pB1-pA2 (bottom). 

Such chains of animal names appear with celebrated personages like Kaan-Bahlam of Palenque. At La Corona, this lord’s name included two birds (the turkey and owl) and what is, to judge from its scutes and scaly skin, a reptile of some sort. La Corona ran the gamut of such references, including rulers named after a cricket, snake, and dog.) The relevant clue to the reptile is the ti syllable inserted underneath. Ordinarily, this would hardly signify, for any number of words might end in a t, with varying vowel complexity depending on the word.

But here we can draw on another “substitution set,” a sequence of signs that helps to establish controls even if the overall meaning remains opaque. This sequence embroiders several texts, most from the Early Classic period, two come from the city of Yaxchilan, Mexico, another from Caracol, Belize (Figure 3). An unhappy truth for Maya epigraphers is that we can sometimes read the sounds being spelled by signs but can not, to any persuasive degree, grope towards their meaning. So is it with this set: ‘i-ti pa-ti yi-pi ya-je-la (the ‘i alternates with a vulture plucking out the eye of a dog, perhaps some onomatopoeic name for such birds). Clearly, at least at Yaxchilan, the set forms part of a lavish string of fuller names and titles employed by certain rulers.


Figure 3. Title sequence: A) Caracol Stela 23:I1-J1 (drawing by Nikolai Grube); B) Yaxchilan Lintel 22:A1-B3 (drawing by Ian Graham); and C) Yaxchilan Lintel 47A4-D3 (drawing by Ian Graham.

The mystery of what this sequence might mean cannot be solved at this time. What is of immediate concern are the two reptile heads in place of the pa-ti. By standard, and warranted, epigraphic supposition, one alternates with the other, and the ti surely serves as a syllabic complement to a CVC or CVCVC word sign. Paat or pa’t, from the disharmonic ti, yields welcome results: a basic source on Ch’orti’ Maya, the target language for most decipherments, gives us “ah pat, lagartija (small lizard, probably the newt, or e’t)” (Wisdom n.d., though we doubt the “newt” identification), and a yet more complete compilation, by Kerry Hull, supplies “ajpat. anim. largato, largatija. lizard” (Hull 2016:41). These terms are securely cognate with a range of words for “lizard” or basilisk, ix=pa7ch or ix-pa’ch in more conventional phonological notation (Kaufman 2003:641; note that Terrence Kaufman derives the word from Mije-Sokean languages, a link that, if it exists, must have gone far back into the Preclassic period). To this Yukatek adds: (ah) pach “lagarto coronado con cresta y macho” (Barrera Vásquez et al. 1980:616). The internal glottal stop relates anciently to the vowel complexity attested in the Classic spelling. Most of these terms probably connect as well to words for “back, spine,” paat or paach, depending on the language. In syllabic form, the name materializes in the area of Lacanha or Bonampak (Figure 4): a lord from that area went by yi-ch’a-ki pa-ti, Yich’ak Paat/Pa’t, “Claw of the Crested Lizard,” on Piedras Negras Panel 2, and another figure, attested on an unprovenanced altar at the Art Institute of Chicago, was called a-ku[lu] pa-ti, Ahkul Paat/Pa’t, “Turtle-ish Crested Lizard” (AIC #1971.895).




Figure 4.  Other probable examples of “Crested Lizard” names:  left, Piedras Negras Panel 2:I’1–J’1 (drawing by David Stuart); and right, Art Institute of Chicago, Altar:G1 (photograph from the Art Institute of Chicago, courtesy Richard Townsend, drawing by David Stuart). 

This crested lizard, probably some variant of a basilisk, figures in a number of images (Figure 5). The most elaborate shows an enigmatic scene in which two reptiles are being brutalized by black-painted figures, one caparisoned as a water bird–a digging stick seems to serve as a weapon for one tormentor, while the other slings rocks. A miserable-looking crocodile sits nearby on a throne, his arms bound around his back. Evidence of a feast–a tamale bowl and pulque vase (see the white froth)–complete the image, although the reptiles do not appear to relish the moment. Has a party been interrupted, will they be included, after suitable butchering and cooking, as part of the meal?


Figure 5. Probable paat or pa’t lizards: A) Stoning and torture of captured crocodile and paat/pa’t lizard; and B) paat/pa’t lizard on primordial mountain (K6547, Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin).     

The link of basilisks and drinking bowls marks one final image, on a late 6th-century, early 7th-century bowl from Altun Ha, Belize (Figure 6).  The lizard with flowery ornament on its brow long tail and dotted crest occurs in a watery scene that also contains the sign for musk or mead, the latter perhaps being the more likely connotation (cf. Figure 3B, 3C above; for another sign of musk or mead, Pendergast 1990:fig. 152a).  Leaning over slightly, his arm rises in servitude–was this tied in some way to the tableau of torture, either as prelude or epilogue?  Many of these bowls display pizotes or monkeys, the creatures most likely to poach succulent cacao pods, or they highlight birds of a pleasant, watery world (see Taube’s contribution to Ogata et al. 2006).  Whether any of these associations explain the royal name at La Corona remains a subject for future thought.


Figure 6. Bowl from Burial C-16, Altun Ha (Pendergast 1982:fig. 106d).  



Acknowledgements  Warm thanks go to the Universidad del Valle and Tulane teams, directed by Tomás Barrientos and Marcello Canuto, for granting access to the La Corona panel.



Barrera Vásquez, Alfredo, Juan Ramón Bastarrachea, and William Brito Sansores. 1980 Diccionario Maya Cordemex. Ediciones Cordemex, Mérida, Yucatan.

Cortés de Brasdefer, Fernando. A Maya Vase from “El Señor del Petén.” Mexicon 18(1): 6.

Grube, Nikolai, and Werner Nahm. A Census of Xibalba: A Complete Inventory of Way Characters on Maya Ceramics. In The Maya Vase Book: A Corpus of Rollout Photographs of Maya Vases, Volume 4, edited by Justin Kerr, 686–715. Kerr Associates, New York.

Hull, Kerry. 2016. A Dictionary of Ch’orti’ Mayan-Spanish-English. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Kaufman, Terrence S. 2003. Preliminary Mayan Etymological Dictionary. Report to the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. On-line resource at http://www.famsi.org/reports/01051/pmed.pdf.

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

Mathews, Peter. 1980. Notes on the Dynastic Sequence of Bonampak, Part 1. In Third Palenque Round Table, 1978, Part 2, edited by Merle G. Robertson, 60–73. Proceedings of the Tercera Mesa Redonda de Palenque, June 11–18, 1978. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Ogata, Nisao, Arturo Gómez-Pompa, and Karl A. Taube. 2006. The Domestication and Distribution of Theobroma cacao L. in the Neotropics. In Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao, edited by Cameron L. McNeil, 69–89. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Pendergast, David M. 1982. Excavations at Altun Ha, Belize, 1964–1970, Volume 2. Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto.

Pendergast, David M. 1990. Excavations at Altun Ha, Belize, 1964–1970, Volume 3. Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto.

Stuart, David, Marcello Canuto, Tomás Barrientos, and Maxime Lamoureax St-Hillaire. 2015. Preliminary Notes on Two Recently Discovered Inscriptions from La Corona, Guatemala. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and IconographyLa Corona block

Tokovinine, Alexandre. 2012. Carved Panel. In Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks, edited by Joanne Pillsbury, Miriam Doutriaux, Reiko Ishihara-Brito, and Alexandre Tokovinine, 58–67. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Number 4. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC.

Wisdom, Charles. 1950. Materials of the Chorti Language. Middle American Cultural Anthropology Microfilm Series 5, item 28. University of Chicago Library. [Retyped by Brian Stross]

Information Storage & the Classic Maya

by Stephen Houston, Charles Golden, and Andrew Scherer

Of late, university libraries have tended to exile books and print journals to off-campus storage. The purge makes room, as at Brown University, for “digital studios,” work spaces, and spots where students might snack on Dining Service muffins. The electronic media are new, but not the challenge of how to store portable reading material. Certain media get bulky. If valuable or spiritually precious, they require yet other forms of storage and access.

Think of the Mediterranean. Clay tablets of Linear B, in Mycenaean Greek, were nestled in baskets with small “carelessly manufactured” labels to indicate contents (Linear B) or they were found close to the resources being inventoried by tablets (Palaima and Wright 1985: 257, 260). Long-term storage does not seem to have been the aim, and, at Pylos, where such archives were studied in detail, storage was relatively limited (Palaima and Wright 1985: 259). The Romans left more overt evidence of storage. For grouping and ease of transport, papyri could be inserted into cylindrical containers known as capsa, of which a clear illustration occurs in the House of Marcus Lucretius at Pompeii (Figure 1).


Figure 1.  Fresco of instrumentum scriptorium, c. AD 45-79, House of Marcus Lucretius, Pompeii. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples. 

More secure storage involved cabinets with doors, of which a smattering appear in frescoes, the side of a sarcophagus at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and, in an early Christian context, a plate in the Codex Amiatinus from Monkwearmouth-Jarrow in northern England (Figure 2). Such armoires allowed books to be locked up and their contents arranged in ways logical to users.

Figure 2.jpg

Figure 2.  Upper left, papyrus and tablet storage on shelves, c. AD 200, Buzenol, Belgium (Musée du Cinquantenaire, Brussels); lower left, detail of sarcophagus showing Greek physician, c. AD 300, Ostia (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Nº 48.76.1); right, Ezra the Scribe writing in front of armoire with books, AD 692 (Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Cod. Amiati 1, f. 5r; see also Menighini and Rea 2014: 122, 186, 206). 

These examples from the Old World raise questions about information storage elsewhere. Most Maya books, for example,are readily identified in painted imagery on polychrome pots by their jaguar-hide coverings, some more squared-off than others (see the pioneering study by M. Coe [1977]). Thickness is hard to judge, but, after looking at the proportions of bodies nearby, they could be an armful, 10–15 cm. thick at least and probably rather more than that.A constant disappointment for Mayanists is that no books survive in good shape from the Classic period (Carter and Dobereiner 2016). Were they stuffed into bags, lodged in recessed shelving (of which some occur in Maya palaces) or sequestered in temple summits?  There are no archives like those at Pylos or Roman villas with carbonized scrolls and furniture. But there is one possibility: Maya screenfold books, configured like leporello or concertina bindings in Europe, were stored in individual receptacles that highlighted their singular, precious nature. (For opera lovers: “leporello” probably derives from the long list of sexual conquests itemized by a character of that name in Mozart’s Don Giovanni).

One relevant clue is in the form of a stone box recovered from the Hun Nal Ye cave, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala (Woodfill et al. 2012: 98). Two other boxes of ceramic, each with lids, were found nearby, lodged at different levels of flowstone (Woodfill et al. 2012: fig. 6). Carved in two different phases at least, the box accords roughly with the shape of the surviving Maya codices (Woodfill et al. 2012: 98, 107): 38 cm long, 21 cm wide, 10.9 cm tall, with an internal receptacle sufficient to contain a book. By comparison, the four Maya books have the following measurements (M. Coe et al. 2015: 121, organized by relative date, earliest to latest): Grolier, average page width: 12.5 cm, greatest page height: 18.0 cm, probable page height: 23 cm; Madrid, average page width: 12.2 cm, average page height: 22.6 cm; Paris, average page width: 13.0 cm, average page height: 24.8 cm; Dresden, average page width: 9 cm, average page height: 20.5 cm. The Hun Nal Ye “coffer” obliges by showing a reference to a lunar month in both glyphic and iconographic form on its lid–a possible reference to a moon-related codex?–and images of supernaturals holding books on the sides of the box. Regrettably, when opened, the box from Hun Nal Ye yielded only the calcified femur of a tapir, doubtless not its original contents.


Figure 3. The Hun Nal Ye coffer. Photograph by Jorge Pérez de Lara. 

Other rectangular boxes, usually of ceramic, are known in the Maya region. Here is a partial list (see also Figure 4; see also Arte Primitivo 3/06/2017 auction, #191; Golden has also seen such a lidded stone box on display in the Museo Chichicastenango; see also Pillsbury et al. 2015: figs. 29, 30). The variance is wide, but so is the relative size of books in Mesoamerica. The Codex Borgia, for example, measures 27 x 27 cm, the Codex Cospi 18 x 18 cm.  There are necessary cautions, to be sure: most such boxes, when recovered in context, contained cache items of sundry sort, not the flecks of a decayed book (W. Coe 1990: 322–324). But the boxes could easily have been repurposed, a receptacle to be later cached in buildings, caves or under stelae.

Table 1:  Ceramic boxes

Princeton Art Museum, body                                    17 cm (wd) x h. 23.5 cm (ht) 

Tikal Cache 119 (excludes legs)                               35 cm (l) x 25.2 cm (wd) x 27 cm (ht)

Caracol S.D. C141C-2                                                  23 cm (l) x 16 cm (wd) x 13 cm (ht)

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, M.2008.59  45.09 cm (l) x 27.31 cm (wd) x 35.56 cm (ht)

Christies box                                                                 23 cm (l) x 13 cm (wd) x 16 (ht)

Guaytan subfloor, tomb 1, Structure 24                  41 cm (l) x c. 23 cm (wd) x c. 18 cm (ht) (from photo, without lid)

Quirigua Stela E                                                          c. 30 cm (l) x  20 cm (wd) x 15 cm (ht)(judged from photo, unlidded)

Quirigua Zoomorph G                                                31.5 cm (l) x 20 cm (wd) x 27 cm (ht)

A sample of images gives some sense of their variety, a few like boxes, others resembling house models (Figure 4).  The first photo even shows one such box during its excavation in the North Acropolis at Tikal.

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Figure 4. Ceramic boxes from Maya region: (A, B) Cache 119, from court fronting Structure 5D-26, North Acropolis (Culbert 1993: fig. 105a); (C) Caracol Structure A1 (drawing courtesy of Arlen Chase, Caracol Project, University of Nevada-Las Vegas); (D) subfloor cache, Guaytan, Guatemala (Smith and Kidder 1943: fig 41c, c’); (E) Hu Nal Ye Box (Woodfill et al. 2012: 98, photo by Jorge Pérez de Lara); (F) Quirigua Stela E cache and Zoomorph G cache (Strömsvik 1941: 81, fig. 32b, c); (G) unprovenanced, Christies Paris, May 2007, Lot 115.

And perhaps some were sealed neatly with ritual paper, as on La Florida Stela 9, although this could also have been a holder for a stingray spine (Figure 5). The point is that these books do not suggest the presence of bulk- or mass-storage. Some were kept in “bespoke” boxes, not so much Taschen-style, deluxe editions as objects of sacred meaning, to be set apart, kept apart, ritually activated, perhaps even sprinkled with incense and other offerings.

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Figure 5. Detail of La Florida Stela 9 (Graham 1970: fig. 9b). 

In the tropics, however, permanent storage is hard to achieve with pounded bark paper and lime-sizing. Bugs, moisture, wear-and-tear, and flaking surfaces will all have their effects–there is, after all, a reason why no books survive entire from the Classic period. The discovery of elaborate notations on the walls of Structure 10K-2 at Xultun, Guatemala, present another interpretive possibility, of cross-media play and targeted preservation (Saturno et al. 2012; Rossi et al. 2015).

That these texts and notations relate to books seems assured. But what was that relation? Were they test jottings and compositional experiments, a unidirectional “flow” from wall to a target codex? Or was the tie to books rather more complex, even bi-directional? Houston has long felt that the Early Classic text on the walls of Uaxactun Structure BXIII had some bearing on the nature of that relation: the horizontal text, replete with archaic day signs, has the savor of a basal historical notation (Smith 1950: fig. 47). Eventful days, with pendant, explanatory texts in place, leaven those of little consequence, their contents left empty. (We are reminded of Louis XVI’s daily note when Parisians stormed the Bastille: rien, “nothing”…although, in fairness to that dullard king, this comment probably referred to how many animals he had bagged that day in hunt.)

But why were such transfers necessary? Another example has come to light in an exploration by Golden and Scherer (together with René Muñoz and Guatemalan colleagues), in Tecolote, Guatemala, an outpost of Yaxchilan on the northern borders of that kingdom (Scherer and Golden 2009; for regional context, see Scherer and Golden 2012). In its central room, Structure D3-1, viewers would tilt their heads slightly and look up at an arresting sight: what appears to be an entire, unfolded codex or, rather, one side of it (Figures 6 and 7), a leporello flattened out on the wall of a darkened room.

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Figure 6. Frontal view, Structure D3-1, Tecolote; figure sits by the doorway to the “codex” room. 

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Figure 7. Tecolote Structure D3-1, highlighting, in red, the unfolded “codex.” 

The quality and execution of the signs were of high order (Figure 7), although the poor preservation only offers an occasional glimpse of legible text.


Figure 7. Close-up, unfolded “codex,” Tecolote Structure D3-1. 

More revealing are the discernible measurements of the text, with two individual glyph blocks shown here in contrastive green and blue (Figure 8). The red line marks the extension of the text, which seems to contain no images. In this respect, it is closer to the “dynastic texts” studied by Simon Martin: all-glyphic, and with some complicated stemma that involves other notations, some likely to have been on perishable media (Secrets). If a direct transfer–we have no assurance of this, of course–the “codex” measured some 35 cm high and at least 2.30 m long. Such height and length could easily have been accommodated in a few of the boxes above.

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Figure 8. Mosaic tile of “codex” on wall. 

The most interesting question here is not, did the Maya copy from one medium to another, but, rather, why did they do so at all? One explanation is that these were practice pieces or compositional experiments intended for transfer to books. Nonetheless, some notations at Xultun were incised, and draft copies would probably work best on an expedient material like leaves. Meticulous painting on a plaster wall is not the obvious choice for a trial run. The goal here seems instead to have been a consultable permanence: distant parallels include the manumission texts, 1300 in total, that inscribe stones in the Delphi Sanctuary in Greece (Delphi), or small temple texts in Angkor, of a size to suggest painted precursors in dried leaves or other, small-scale formats (Khmer). That some of the Maya examples come from the final century of dynastic civilization underscores its intellectual vitality but also, perhaps, a hint of anxiety that such learning would not last.


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