Sculptors and Subjects: Notes on the Incised Text of Calakmul Stela 51

by Simon Martin (University of Pennsylvania), Stephen Houston (Brown University), and Marc Zender (Tulane University)

Figure 1. Calakmul Stela 51 (photograph by Frances Morley, courtesy of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions at the Peabody Museum, Harvard University)
Figure 1. Calakmul Stela 51 (photograph by Frances Morley, courtesy of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions at the Peabody Museum, Harvard University)

Calakmul is justly famed for the quantity of its carved monuments, although their lamentable state of preservation means that very few can now be appreciated in their original form. One of the exceptions is Stela 51, which Sylvanus Morley described as “the most beautiful monument at Calakmul” (1933:200) (Figure 1). It was discovered with others at the base of Structure I by Cyrus Lundell in 1931 and first documented on the Carnegie Institution’s expedition to the site in 1932 (Morley 1933:200; Ruppert and Denison 1943:111, Fig.50c). The stela was stolen at some point in the 1960s, when it was cut into portable slabs, but later recovered. It currently stands in the Sala Maya of the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City.

The central portrait is that of the Calakmul king Yuknoom Took’ K’awiil, who erected the monument in 731 CE, making it one of the last of his reign. Our interest here lies not in this image, or even the main inscription found on the front and sides. Rather, it focuses on a small text incised into the background. This mat-like arrangement of 14 glyph-blocks suffered losses when the monument was broken up by looters, but we are fortunate that a photograph taken by Frances Morley on the 1932 expedition shows the undamaged text (Figure 2a). This has allowed a new drawing to be made, incorporating a few details better seen in more recent sources (Figure 2b).[1]

Analysis of this inscription is aided by a partial duplicate found on Calakmul Stela 89 (Ruppert and Denison 1943:121, Fig.53b; Grube 1992). This second monument was also commissioned in 731 CE and associated with Structure I, although it was not set at the base but high on an upper tier of the temple. It is stylistically related to Stela 51 and hewn from the same type of hard limestone.[2] It now resides at the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum in Cologne, and a new drawing based on photographs from the museum archive is also presented here (Figure 3). The text on Stela 89 is somewhat abbreviated, but nonetheless contributes some valuable additional data.

Figure 2. The incised text on Calakmul Stela 51 (F1-J1): a) Photograph by Frances Morley (courtesy of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions at the Peabody Museum, Harvard University); b) Drawing by Simon Martin.
Figure 2. The incised text on Calakmul Stela 51 (F1-J1): a) Photograph by Frances Morley (courtesy of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions at the Peabody Museum, Harvard University); b) Drawing by Simon Martin.
Figure 3. The incised text on Calakmul Stela 89 (K1-8). Drawing by Simon Martin (based photographs from the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum, Cologne).
Figure 3. The incised text on Calakmul Stela 89 (K1-8). Drawing by Simon Martin (based photographs from the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum, Cologne).

Small, incised texts of this kind are now well known to be sculptor’s signatures. All of them feature the “lu-bat” compound that David Stuart (1989a:154) first recognized as a reference to carving and incision. Subsequent research has since extended it to stucco work as well, and it even appears on mold-made ceramics where only the master form was carved. In its possessed version, with a yu-prefix, the compound can be understood as “his carving,” and is followed by the name of the artisan responsible for the work (when suffixed by an –il, it signals a relation to an object, as in “the carving of a dwelling” [see Yaxchilan Lintel 25:P1-Q1]). The idea that these are personal signatures finds its strongest support in a set of eight found on El Peru Stela 34, each of which is rendered in a distinctive hand (Stuart 1989b, cited in Coe 1992:251, Fig.62).

We see the possessed lu-bat compound on Calakmul Stela 51 at G1, the name of the sculptor beginning at G2 with SAK-?-ni. The bird-head here resembles that for MUWAAN “hawk” but lacks the diagnostic feathers in its mouth (sometimes joined by a claw) that mark a predator of fellow birds. This plainer version stands a good chance of reading IKIN “owl,” a term that is widely, if thinly, attested across the Maya region and may be a reference to a particular species (Kaufman 2003:611).[3] The name continues at G3 with yu[ku]-?-?-TOOK’, a sequence shared with the aforementioned king, Yuknoom Took’ K’awiil. It is missing the terminal k’awiil both here and at K3 on Stela 89, though this is also true of many versions of the royal name. The next sequence in both versions provides a political affiliation, the non-standard emblem glyph K’UH-?cha-TAHN-na WINIK for k’uhul ‘chatahn’ winik. This is a title with deep roots in the region, which was used at Calakmul itself (Martin 1996, 2008) as well as at a number of sites lying to its south (Boot 1999). During the Late Classic rulers of ‘Chatahn’ commissioned the well-known codex-style ceramics, with the most prodigious production taking place under its ruler Yopaat Bahlam towards the end of the seventh century CE. Yopaat Bahlam’s home center remains unknown but the appearance of his name at Tintal on a different ware, red-on-cream, makes this sizable city 68 km south of Calakmul one of the contenders (Hansen et al. 2006). After an obscure sign at H1b the nominal concludes at H2 with SAK-WAY-si sak wayis, a title carried by the rulers of sites situated south of Calakmul and north of El Peru. At most of these centers it carries a k’uhul prefix, but this is never employed in the case of ‘Chatahn’—presumably because it was already carried in k’uhul ‘chatahn’ winik.

A new “lu-bat” compound at H3 introduces a second name, this one beginning SAK-? The unknown head-form with forward-swept hair and pursed lips is something of a rarity. The corresponding sign on Stela 89 at K6a is ‘o, raising the possibility that it is another form with that value. Next at I1 we see yi-BAAH/ba. Though it is conceivable that there is some kind of possession here, we can see no clear evidence that it links two people in this case. The name continues at I2 with TZAK-BAHLAM-ma “Conjure(d) Jaguar,” which is repeated on Stela 89 at K7.

The next compound on Stela 51, at I3, is somewhat effaced but seems to incorporate the term AJAW “lord.” As a title it would present a counterpart to the k’uhul ‘chatahn’ winik epithet seen in the previous phrase. The two signs that would form its subject are NAAH “first” and another that initially resembles WITZ “mountain/hill.” Political titles beginning with naah are not at all common, but one is seen at Uxul, a site 30 km to the southwest of Calakmul (Grube 2005:92-93, Fig.6). Examples on Uxul Stela 6 and Stela 10 include AJAW and function as emblem glyphs based on the local toponym (Grube 2008:Fig.8.51, 8.55).

The relevant main sign there, surviving in complete form on Uxul Stela 14 (Grube 2008:Fig.8.62), is a rare one that shares features with the syllabogram lu, but is distinguished by its pronounced inner curl and the absence of a comb-like element. This uncatalogued “lu-semblant” is undeciphered yet seems to have separate logographic and syllabic values, and may even group more than one similar-looking hieroglyph. If we return to Calakmul Stela 51 and compare it to the main sign of I3 we find a close match. Despite the absence of an additional suffix present at Uxul, this appears to be the same title.

Intriguingly, the phrase on Stela 89 differs at this point, and, instead of this emblem, we find the humbler sequence AJ-NAAH-ku-ma at K8. This constitutes a title of origin or association reading aj naahkuum or “Naahkuum person.” The recurrence of the naah element gives reason to believe that the core reference is the same in both texts; in turn suggesting that ku-ma might be a syllabic substitution for the lu-semblant logogram. This would make KUUM or KU’M potential values for that particular variant. The short-vowel word kum appears as “pot” in certain Mayan languages (Kaufman 2003:983). If the relationship between the two naah-initial terms in these texts is all that it seems to be then we have a named lord of Uxul, a center which may have been known, at least in part, as naahkuum.[4]

The name of our prospective Uxul lord continues at I4 on Stela 51, with a different spelling of the sak wayis title known to be used at this site, this time bearing the k’uhul “holy” prefix. The final compound, at J1, seems to feature a snakehead, but is otherwise too eroded to read. Neither of these signs has a counterpart on Stela 89.

* * *

The incised texts on Calakmul Stela 51 and 89 are conventional sculptor’s signatures in a number of respects, but are unusual in two significant ways. First, they are the only ones to name major lords and indicate that they were personally responsible for the creation of the work. There are a few cases in which artisans carry high social position, but no others in which the governing elite of distant political centers are specified in this manner. We need not take this at face value, but instead consider the ways that these characters may have commissioned these two monuments and stand as symbolic or rhetorical producers—an adaptation of the normal function of signatures. What both ‘Chatahn’ and Uxul shared was their close affiliation to Calakmul and their subordination to that great capital for at least a century of the Late Classic. That status is clearly pivotal to understanding why they appear in this context.

This leads to the second feature, the introductory ye-be-yu sequence at F1 that we have thus far passed over. This is unique to Stela 51 and we surmise that it is linked to the unusual prominence of the featured characters. Although still not completely understood, one possibility is that the term is based on the root eb “to give/deliver” that developed from Proto-Mayan *ab “work” (Kaufman 2003:58; see also Kaufman and Norman 1984:119 for the derived Proto-Ch’olan nouns *ebet “messenger” and *ebtel “work”). Another possibility is that it relates to the Proto-Mayan root *ye’ ~ *ya’ “to give” (Kaufman 2003:775). In Proto-Ch’olan we find the form *ye’-be  “to give” (Aulie and Aulie 1978:123; Kaufman and Norman 1984:137; Kaufman 2003:775) in which *-be functions as an “indirect object marker” (Kaufman and Norman 1984:139). The latter is attested in both branches of the Ch’olan language, although it has yet to be identified in Classic Mayan inscriptions. This second interpretation would see the initial y- as part of the root, implicating a passive or mediopassive construction along the lines of “it is given him/them” or “it gets given him/them.” The role of the terminal yu as a verbal suffix is unclear—it could yet prove to have a phonological role that forms a bridge to the prevocalic yu of the lu-bat compound—and this is one of the uncertainties that render the precise semantics a little opaque. Nonetheless, either verbal root would imply that the text on Stela 51 is a statement of gifting or tributary payment, and if this is so then this small inscription is a revealing statement about the relationship and obligations between Calakmul and two of its leading clients.


1. Additional details were taken from a sketch by Ian Graham made in its current condition, together with photographs by Jorge Pérez de Lara and Michel Zabé. The glyph designations are revised from those used in Ruppert and Denison (1943:111).

2. These monuments are part of a set from this same date executed in stone that may have been imported to the site. Joel Skidmore (pers. comm. 2014) reminds us of the potential relevance of this point to the ideas that follow.

3. A matching SAK-?IKIN-ni compound appears as the name of a different individual on the vase K2784 and K2803 in Justin Kerr’s database (

4. The similarity of this name to that of Nakum, a major center in the eastern Peten, would be no more than coincidental.

Calakmul Stela 51 signature text:

F1 ye-be-yu
G1 yu-?xu[lu]
G3 yu[ku]-?[?]-TOOK’
G4 K’UH-?cha-TAHN-na
H1 WINIK-ki-x-?-ti?
H3 yu-?xu[lu]
H4 SAK-?o
I1 yi-BAAH/ba
I4 K’UH-WAY-si
J1 x-x-CHAN?-x

Calakmul Stela 89 signature text:

K1 yu-?xu[lu]
K3 yu[ku]-?[?]-li-TOOK’
K4 K’UH-?cha-TAHN-WINIK-ki
K5 yu-?xu[lu]
K6 SAK-o-x-BAAH/ba
K8 AJ-NAAH-ku-ma


We would like to express our thanks to Barbara Fash of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions at the Peabody Museum, Harvard University, and Anne Slenczka of the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum, Cologne, for their assistance with images. Additionally, Jorge Pérez de Lara generously provided one of his photographs for study and Joel Skidmore made helpful comments.


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