An Early Classic Bird Vase 1

by David Stuart (The University of Texas at Austin) and Peter Stuart (Hampshire College)

Figure 1. Two views of bird effigy vase. From Fields and Reents-Budet (2005:209)

Figure 1. Two views of bird effigy vase. From Fields and Reents-Budet (2005:209)

Early Classic Maya ceramics often assume imaginative three-dimensional forms, especially the modeled and incised black-ware vessels produced in the central Peten region between about 300-500 AD, or what is sometimes called “Tzakol III,” using the chronological typology first developed out of the Uaxactun excavations. One such vessel is a lidded bird effigy shown here, identified in its accompanying five-glyph inscription as an uk’ib drinking vessel. Although not the finest masterpiece of Maya ceramic art, it does bear an interesting text that may tell us something about the vase and the species of bird it represents.

In their brief discussion of this vase Fields and Reents-Budet (2005:208) identify the bird as a cormorant, a species of water–bird otherwise common on painted vases of the Classic period. However, we believe that the vase shows a very different type of bird, perhaps a rare representation of a great-tailed grackle or Mexican grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) – a noisy and cunning bird that is noticeably widespread in the Maya region (and ubiquitous here in Austin) which often seen drinking from standing and running water. The watery associations of the bird are indicated by the small turtle attached to its front, serving perhaps as a handle for the body of the vase.

Figure 2. Drawing of the hieroglyphs on the back of the bird effigy. The top-most glyph is in the medallion behind the bird's head. Drawing by David Stuart

Figure 2. Drawing of the hieroglyphs on the back of the bird effigy. The top-most glyph is in the medallion behind the bird’s head. Drawing by David Stuart

Fields and Reents-Budet (2005:208) note that the name of the owner is written “on the disk attached the back of the cormorant’s head.” This is probably not true. Given its location, the glyph is more likely to be the name of the bird and, by extension, the name of the vessel itself. This is strongly suggested by the inclusion in the glyph of the signs mu-ti, known elsewhere to spell muut, “bird” – a reading long-known since its first identification by Knorosov in the almanacs of The Dresden Codex. Also, it is common to find name glyphs written in circular medallions on the heads of people, especially in Early Classic Maya art (Stuart 2000:484).

The placement of the medallion glyph suggests that it can be read as the opening of the entire text that runs below. The very next glyph is yu-k’i-bi, for y-uk’ib, “his drinking vessel,” followed by three glyphs on the vessel’s body that note of the vessel’s contents (ixiimte’) and the name of the owner, who we can call Mam Ajaw. The text is fairly straightforward as follows, with only one sign in the final name glyph lacking identification (as far as I am aware, the sign is unique to this vessel).

A:  BAAK-mu-ti-la
B:  yu-k’-bi

baakmuutiil yuk’ib ixiimte’ mam ajaw mihiin(?) ? muwaan

Baakmuutiil is the drinking vessel for the ixiimte’ of Mam Ajaw Mihiin(?) ? Muwaan.

The text thus names the vessel and the designaties it contexts and owner, much as we see in other early examples of the dedicatory formula on Maya vases.

As a brief aside, it is worth noting that the text on our bird vessel shows a rare use of the word ixiimte’, “maize tree” working alone to indicate of the vessel’s contents. Far more common is the combination ixiimte'(el) kakaw, a standard term for chocolate drink throughout the Classic period (Stuart 2007; Martin 2006). As Martin notes in his nuanced analysis of cacao imagery in Maya art and iconography, “maize tree” refers not to a specific plant species, nor to maize itself, but to a broader idea of “magical bounty that grew from the flesh of the Maize God” (Martin 2006:177-178). This more generalized concept of a fruiting Maize God is visually indicated by representation of the Maize God as a cacao tree. On our vessel, the ixiimte’ hieroglyph thus stands as a shorthand reference to the vase’s chocolate contents. Martin illustrates an identical truncated phrase (yuk’ib ixiimte’) from another Early Classic cacao vase (Martin 2006:Figure 8.16b).

Now back to our bird: If baakmuutil is some sort of designation for the vessel that incorporates the word for “bird” (muut), then what might it mean? Baak of course is “bone,” as the form of the initial sign element shows. A “bone bird” seems an obscure term, but in Tzeltal and Tzotzil Mayan we find it is the name of a zanate, or grackle:

Tzeltal (Slocum and Gerdel 1965): bacmut, (el) sanate

Tzendal (Ara 1986:247) bacmut bacni, tordo

Tzotzil (Laughlin 1975:77): bak mut, “bone-bird” or “skinny-bird,” boat-tailed grackle, Cassidix mexicanus

As Laughlin notes, the meaning of bak here may be as an adjective “skinny,” a sense that also existed in Classic Mayan, where the noun baak can mean both “bone” and “prisoner” (a “bony” person.). The entry from Ara’s colonial Tzendal word list gives bacni (“skinny-nose”) as an alternate term for “tordo,” probably in reference to the grackle’s prominent, elongated beak (ni is both “nose” and “bird’s beak”). We have not encountered bak mut outside of Tzeltalan languages, and a number of other terms for zanates can be in lowland Mayan languages. In Ch’ol, Hull and Fergus (2011) note four distinct terms for grackle species: ak’xi’, kel, wachil, and xunub.

Laughlin identifies bak mut as a boat-tailed grackle. However, ornithologists today distinguish boat-tailed grackles from their southern neighbors, great-tailed grackles. In the Maya region they do not overlap, and of the two only the great-tailed grackle occurs there. The boat-tailed grackle, although very similar in appearance, is found only on the coasts of the extreme southeastern U.S. and most of Florida.


Figure 3. Great-tailed Grackle. Photograph by David Mendosa.

We believe that the identification of the bird vase as a great-tailed grackle is also suggested by two of its physical features. First, the dark, shiny surface of the vase, typical of many Tzakol III vessels, may be used to replicate the bird’s distinctive glossy black feathers. Second, the prominent ringed eyes on the vase — an unusual feature in Maya bird representations — seems a good rendering of a grackle’s striking yellow eyes, as seen in the accompanying photo.

One point regarding the hieroglyphic spelling. The -Vl suffix on baakmuutiil is interesting. Such suffixes are widespread in Classic Mayan and in modern Mayan languages, with numerous functions. Often they derive abstract nouns from other nouns or adjectives, or else they can derive concrete nouns from adjectives or abstract concepts. Here the suffix on the core noun baakmuut may point to an interesting case of an “abstracted” grackle, or an exemplar or image that carries the essence of “grackle-ness.”

Finally, we see some playfulness or humor in the design of this grackle vase. The label “skinny bird” seems intentionally ironic for the portly form of the vessel. And these noisy birds were no doubt common in many ancient Maya communities, gathering in numbers around ponds and pools to drink and bathe. How appropriate, then, for an ancient Maya artisan to craft an uk’ib in the form of a highly visible “drinker” from nature.

To conclude, Classic Mayan terms for particular bird species, such as baakmuut or yuhyuum, “oriole”, are gradually being clarified, due to the fact that they often have corresponding forms in modern Mayan languages. As the ancient faunal terminology grows researchers will continue to gain small but interesting insights into how the ancient Maya related to the natural world around them.

Sources Cited:

Ara, Domingo de. 1986. Vocabulario de lengua Tzeldal según el orden de Copanabastla. Edición de Mario Humberto Ruz. UNAM, Mexico, D.F.

Fields, Virginia, and Dorie Reents-Budet. 2005. Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred maya Kingship. Scala, New York.

Hull, Kerry, and Rob Fergus. 2011. Ethno-ornithological Perspectives on the Ch’ol Maya Reitaku Review, col. 17, pp. 42-92.

Laughlin, Robert M. 1975. The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of Zinacantan.

Slocum, Marianna,  and Florecia Gerdel 1965. Vocabulario Tzeltal de Bachajon. ILV, Mexico, D.F.

Stuart, David. 2000. ‘The Arrival of Strangers’: Teotihuacan and Tollan in Classic Maya History. In Mesoamerica’s Classic Heritage: From Teotihuacan to the Aztecs, ed. by D. Carrasco, L. Jones and S. Sessions. pp. 465-513. University Press of Colorado, Boulder.

_________. 2007. The Language of Chocolate: References to Cacao on Classic Maya Drinking Vessels. In Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao, edited by Cameron L. McNeil, pp. 184-201. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Notes on a Sacrifice Scene 11

by David Stuart, The University of Texas at Austin

The Late Classic cacao vase K8719 (from Justin Kerr’s The Maya Vase Database) depicts one of the more grisly scenes of human sacrifice known from Maya art. (Happy Halloween!). The surrounding imagery and texts provide some interesting tidbits of information about the timing and setting of such events, and also how they related to the pomp and circumstance of royal performance in the courts of the Classic era.

Figure 1. Rollout of vase K8719  (Photograph by Justin Kerr).

Figure 1. Rollout of vase K8719 (Photograph by Justin Kerr).

In the scene we see a king seated upon what looks to be a portable throne and looking on a scene of decapitation sacrifice.  The victim, perhaps a war captive, lies prone upon a stone altar and before a small stela. His head lies atop the stone monument, placed on a surface of amate paper-cloth (huun) and suggesting some sort of corporeal metaphor involving the upright stone (see Stuart 1996 for a further discussion of stela-body symbolism). Judging by similar scenes (see K8351), the familiar stela-altar pairing one so often see at Maya sites was often a formal place for human sacrifice. Indeed, I suspect that most stelae-and-altars erected in the plazas (Figure 2) were conceived as settings for the execution of prisoners, much as we see on this vase. To the left of the dead victims are two performers in fantastic animal costumes, wearing red scarves. As Elliot Lopez-Finn points out to me, similar portly animal performers are depicted on other vessels (see K1835, K4947. K4960). And elsewhere many similar clawed figures with red scarves are explicitly identified as wahy beings, who I have interpreted as the spooky embodiments of witchcraft and dark forces wielded by Maya rulers and elites (Stuart 2005). On this vessel the costumed figures are performing in an extraordinary setting of courtly sacrifice, perhaps as executioners that embody the animated forces of the king’s power and control over life and death.

Figure 2. Uncarved stelae and altars at Tikal.

Figure 2. Uncarved stelae and altars at Tikal.

Figure 3. Main text caption from K8719. (Photograph by J. Kerr)

Figure 3. Main text caption from K8719. (Photograph by J. Kerr)

A lengthy text runs down the middle of the image above the slain victim (Figure 3). Unfortunately it shows considerable modern repainting and “touching up” by someone who knew nothing of hieroglyphs. Nevertheless, we can see that it is a complex name caption for the seated king, opening with a CR date and then perhaps the possessed noun u baah, “the person of…” (A2 and B2). The date looks to me to be 4 Ahau 13 Yax, correspond to the k’atun ending (August 16, 731 A.D.). The royal name and accompanying titles extend down into the vertical column. At B3 we see the well preserved sequence CHAN-na-K’INICH, after an initial name glyph that is largely illegible. This may well be the name Tayel Chan K’inich, in reference to the Late Classic king of the Ik’ polity who is named on a number of other vessels (Just 2012:102-123, Reents-Budet, Guenter, Bishop and Blackman 2013, Tokovinine and Zender 2013). A possible Ik’ emblem glyph might be at block A7, though again much garbled by the vase’s “restorer.”

A date of 731 A.D. agrees well with Tayel Chan K’inch, who we know from other sources to have been in power by 726 and seems to have ruled for at least a decade afterwards, perhaps a good deal more (Tokovinine and Zender 2012: 43). The k’atun ending would have been among the major ceremonial event of his reign, and I suggest that the scene on this vase depicts at least one of the ceremonies from that very day.

Ascribing this vessel to the Ik’ polity and its workshops also is in keeping with the general style and color palette of the scene. Orange-colored glyphs are known from other pots of this style. We also see elaborate animal costumes worn by rulers and other performers on many other Ik’ vessels (K533, 1439, among others). As already noted, I suspect that this pair of weird-looking performers are the sacrificers responsible for the beheading. The white color here, also worn by the king, may be significant, as we find white sacrificers also shown on K2781 and K8351.


Figure 4. The glyph aj laj, “finished one,” near the victim. (Photo by J. Kerr)

Placed near the stela and just above the legs of the sacrificial victim is a lone hieroglyph (Figure 4) readable as AJ-la-ja, for aj laj. This presumably is an agentive noun based on the root laj, meaning “end, finish, die,” found throughout lowland and highland Mayan languages (Kaufman [2003] reconstructs the common Mayan form as *laj or *laaj). The connections of this word to death are widespread, and are particularly acute in colonial Tzotzil, where we find laj meaning “be dead” and the nominalized form lajel, “death” (Laughlin 1988,I: 241). There can be little doubt that here we are meant to read the glyph on the pot as a somewhat obvious descriptor of the slain figure as “the finished one, the deceased.” As far as I am aware this is a unique example of such a title used to refer to a sacrificial victim.

Overall this vessel offers a remarkable and maybe even surprising look into the nature of Maya calendar ceremonies. Written records of k’atun endings, for example, feature the ritual acts of kings who “bind the stone” or “cast the incense.” They never directly mention human sacrifices nor the bloody anointing of stelae, and why they don’t raises an interesting issue worth pondering further. The wider canvas of a portable cylindrical vase perhaps allowed for such grisly displays, more so than the stiff and narrow face of a stone stela set in a plaza. For whatever reason, cacao vases that circulated at the courts of the Late Classic period were deemed a more appropriate media for the display of some darker subject-matter, including the gorier aspects of royal ceremony and performance.

Sources Cited:

Just, Bryan. 2012. Dancing into Dreams: Maya Vase Painting of the Ik’ Kingdom. Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton.

Kaufman, Terrence. 2003. A Preliminary Mayan Etymological Dictionary. PDF ms.

Reents-Budet, Dorie, Stanley Guenter, Ronald L. Bishop and M. James Blackman. 2013. Identity and Interaction: Ceramic Styles and Social History of the Ik’ Polity, Guatemala. In Motul de San Jose: Politics, History, and Economy in a Classic Maya Polity, edited by A. E. Foias and K. F. Emery, pp. 67-93. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Stuart, David. 1996. Kings of Stone: A Consideration of Stelae in Ancient Maya Ritual and Representation. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, nos. 29/30, pp. 148-171.

___________. 2005. Glyphs on Pots. Sourcebook for the 2005 Maya Meetings. Department of Art and Art History, The University of Texas at Austin.

Tokovinine, Alexandre, and Marc Zender. 2013. Lords of Windy Water: The Royal Court of Motul de San Jose in Classic Maya Inscriptions. In Motul de San Jose: Politics, History, and Economy in a Classic Maya Polity, edited by A. E. Foias and K. F. Emery, pp. 30-66. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

The Chocolatier’s Dog 6

by David Stuart, The University of Texas at Austin

Top and Side views of Monumentt 89 from Tonina (Adapted from Graham and Mathews 1996:118).

Top and Side views of Monumentt 89 from Tonina (Adapted from Graham and Mathews 1996:118).

The wonderful carving known as Monument 89 from Tonina, Mexico, is a small (36 cm. long) three dimensional sculpture representing a crouching dog. The animal rests on its belly and turns its head to the side and slightly upwards, perhaps to engage a viewer who would have seen it in its original setting. Apart from the cute subject-matter, Monument 89 is dear to my own heart, for it was the short inscription on the doggie’s back that gave a the key clue supporting the decipherment of the tz’i syllable sign back in the mid-1980s. As I argued then (Stuart 1987) the first of the four glyphs reads U-tz’i-i, for u tz’i’, “his dog.” The remaining glyphs name the owner of the animal.

U-tz’i-i / AJ-ka-ka-wa / 2-WINIKHAAB? / AJ-?-K’UK’?
u tz’i’ aj kakaw cha’ winikhaab(?) aj ? k’uk'(?)
“it is the dog of the cacao-person, the two-score year ?”

Comparison of the second glyph of Mon. 89 with a standard spelling of ka-ka-wa.

Comparison of the second glyph of Mon. 89 with a standard spelling of ka-ka-wa (kakaw).

In revisiting this sculpture I would like to draw attention to the dog’s owner, who was largely passed over in my earlier study. Interestingly, he seems to be labelled as aj kakaw, “the cacao person,” or “chocolatier.” The designation immediately recalls several personal references recently described in the murals of Calakmul, accompanying depictions of people cosuming various foods and handling other types of commodities (Carrasco Vargas and Cordiero Baqueiro 2013). The people are simply designated with titles such as aj ul, “the atole person,” aj atz’aam, “the salt person,” or aj may, “the tobacco-snuff person” (Martin 2013). These descriptors seem to refer to specialized roles in Calakmul’s palace economy, perhaps indicating sellers or tradespeople who dealt with specific commodities. The surviving portions of the Calakmul murals do not refer to any “cacao person,” but it would seem we have such a designation at Tonina in reference to the little dog’s owner. The final two glyphs seem to tell us something about his age, stating that he was into his second k’atun of life (20-40 years old). The final glyph of the name phrase, also a title of some sort with the aj- prefix, is difficult to analyze without closer inspection of the original stone.

The Ratinlinxul Vase (K584) (Photograph by Justin Kerr)

The Ratinlinxul Vase (K584) (Photograph by Justin Kerr)

An interesting connection between dogs, merchants and cacao was pointed out many years ago by Eric Thompson, in his discussion of the famous Ratinlixul Vase (Kerr no. 594) (Thompson 1970:137). He saw this vessel as a likely representation of a wealthy merchant being carried along in a hammock with a retinue of helpers, including a dog beneath. Thompson linked the image to Landa’s mention of rituals in the month Muan, when owners of cacao fields would sacrifice a dog with “markings of the color of cacao” during feasts in honor of the gods Ek Chuah, Chaac, and Hobnil. I’m not sure if I agree with Thompson’s connection to Landa, but his overall idea that the vase shows a trading party seems reasonable on the face of it. Alternatively, Justin Kerr has made a good case that this vase probably depicts a deceased lord on an underworld journey, with a dog serving as his guide to Xibalba’ (Kerr 2001). One could easily make a case that the Tonina dog carving, placed above Burial 1, was likewise a helpful guide for the deceased.

Call me sentimental, but I lean toward the idea that our Tonina dog wasn’t some Maya take on Cerberus, but rather was a real animal once beloved by a real person, apparently a chocolatier connected to the royal court of Tonina. The notion that some ancient Maya had pet dogs might seem a bit unusual in light of archaeological evidence that canines were part of the human diet in many ancient Maya communities, yet we have pretty good indications that, in elite circles at least, dogs were also often trusty companions. Soon my colleagues and I on the Proyecto Regional Arqueológico La Corona will publish an analysis of a charming sculpture excavated in 2012 that clearly portrays a seated royal lady in the company of her pet dog, shown running happily across the floor in front her throne.

For now, then, we can perhaps add a bit more to the story of the tz’i’ of Tonina: its owner was not the king, but rather someone close to the royal court who was a seller or distributor of chocolate, a key commodity in any ancient Maya royal household.


Carrasco Vargas, Ramón, and María Cordiero Baqueiro. 2013. The Murals of Chiik Nahb Structure 1-4, Calakmul, Mexico. Maya Archaeology 2, pp. 8-59, edited by Charles Golden, Stephen Houston and Joel Skidmore. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

Graham, Ian, and Peter Mathews. 1996. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 6, Part 2. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Kerr, Justin. 2001. The Last Journey: Reflections on the Ratinlinxul Vase and Others of the Same Theme.

Martin, Simon. 2013. Hieroglyphs from the Painted Pyramid: The Epigraphy of Chiik Nahb Structure Sub 1-4, Calakmul, Mexico. Maya Archaeology 2, pp. 60-81, edited by Charles Golden, Stephen Houston and Joel Skidmore. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

Stuart, David. 1987. Ten Phonetic Syllables. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, Number 14. Center for Maya Research , Washington, D.C.

Thompson, J. Eric S. 1970. Maya History and Religion. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.