An Innovative Ritual Cycle at Terminal Classic Ceibal

By Nicholas P. Carter, Harvard University

The site of Ceibal, in the southwestern Department of Petén, Guatemala, is well known for the exuberantly unconventional style and content of its Terminal Classic monuments. Among these, Stela 19 is especially interesting. The stela was erected in front of Structure A-5, on the east side of the South Plaza of Ceibal’s Group A (Figure 1). Group A was a major locus of royal construction activity during the Terminal Classic period, and the stela has long been understood to date to sometime in the ninth century A.D. Yet the precise date of the monument has proven difficult to establish because of damage to its inscription. This note proposes that the text alludes to the k’atun ending (May 5, A.D. 889), but that it does so using an innovative count of four thirteen-day periods following the period ending. This count appears in the context of other religious innovations at Ceibal, but it recalls earlier ritual cycles at other Classic sites commemorating and anticipating k’atun endings.

Figure 1. Group A at Ceibal, showing Structure A-5 at lower right. Map courtesy of Takeshi Inomata, University of Arizona.
Figure 1. Group A at Ceibal, showing Structure A-5 at lower right. Map courtesy of Takeshi Inomata, University of Arizona.
Figure 2. Ceibal Stela 19. Photograph by Linda Schele (103010), courtesy of the Foundation for Mesoamerican Studies, Inc.
Figure 2. Ceibal Stela 19. Photograph by Linda Schele (103010), courtesy of the Foundation for Mesoamerican Studies, Inc.

The front surface of Stela 19 (Figure 2) is carved with a relief portrait of a ruler scattering incense with one hand, a standard trope on Maya royal stelae. Unusually for such monuments, however, the celebrant’s face is covered with a mask depicting the duck-billed Wind God, and he wears a skirt of narrow cloth strips instead of the apron-like garment more typical for such scenes. The only text on the monument consists of eight glyph blocks, two high by four wide, in a panel below the ruler’s feet (Figure 3). All four of the leftmost glyph blocks contain dates with numeric coefficients of 1, while the four blocks to the right contain noncalendrical signs. However, the middle four blocks (positions B1, C1, B2, and C2) were effaced in antiquity, some of them almost completely (J. Graham 1990:57). This has contributed to confusion about the nature of the dates and the reading order of the text. J. Graham (1990:60) thought the signs at positions A1 and B1 comprised a Calendar Round date of 1 Ben 1 Pop, corresponding to a Long Count date of (January 9, A.D. 868). The implication would be that the text has to read from left to right in two rows of four glyph blocks, since one Calendar Round date immediately followed by a second such date (at A2 and B2) would be highly aberrant. Bryan Just (2004:27) placed the stela a little over thirty years later, around, on the basis of its style. Without committing to a specific date, Prudence Rice (2004:214) suggested that the inscription referred in some way to a half- or quarter-k’atun ending, indicated by the scattering of incense in the scene above.

Careful inspection of photographs by Ian Graham (I. Graham 1996:47) and Linda Schele (2005: photograph no. 103012) strongly suggests that the four leftmost glyph blocks contain tzolk’in dates exclusively, not full Calendar Round dates. The date 1 Ben at A1 is unmistakable. The date at B1 is not 1 Pop at all, but a tzolk’in date with a coefficient of 1; even though the interior details of the day name are destroyed, the contours of the cartouche are clear enough. The date at A2 is another well-preserved tzolk’in date, 1 Kawak. The date at B2 is destroyed except for traces of another numeral 1.

Figure 3. The inscription on Ceibal Stela 19. Drawing by the author after photograph by Linda Schele.
Figure 3. The inscription on Ceibal Stela 19. Drawing by the author after photograph by Linda Schele.

A set of four tzolk’in dates associated with calendrical rituals might suggest—at first—an ethnohistoric parallel with Maya celebrations of new haab years in the Calendar Round. Because each haab year has 365 days (eighteen months of twenty days, plus the five-day intercalary month of Wayeb at the end of the year), while there are twenty day names in the tzolk’in cycle, the first day of the haab year can only correspond to four tzolk’in day names, each five positions apart. Epigraphers call those tzolk’in positions Year Bearers because many Mesoamerican calendrical traditions use them to name haab years. For Late Postclassic Yucatec communities, the Year Bearers were Kan, Muluc, Ix, and Cauac. Diego de Landa recorded that “[i]n all the towns of Yucatan it was the custom to have at each of the four entrances to the town two heaps of stones, one in front of the other; that is, at the east, west, north, and south” (Landa 1978:62–67). Offerings to supernatural beings were made each year at one of the four stations, depending on which tzolk’in day would be the Year Bearer for the coming year: Kan corresponded to the southern altars, Muluc to the eastern, Ix to the northern, and Cauac to the western. Could Ceibal Stela 19 record similar rituals connected to the Year Bearers?

The two well-preserved tzolk’in dates on the monument, 1 Ben and 1 Cauac, indicate that it does not. While Cauac is one of the Postclassic Yucatec Year Bearers, Ben is not. The two day names are separated by six positions (counting from Ben to Cauac) or fourteen (counting from Cauac to Ben), whereas Year Bearers must be separated by multiples of five. Yet four dates, three of them definitely tzolk’in dates, all of them with coefficients of 1, and all so close to one another in the text, do point to a ritual pattern of some kind. If some of the dates are not Year Bearers, what could explain such a pattern?

Starting with the hypothesis that the stela dates to about the third k’atun ending of the tenth bak’tun, one possibility does suggest itself. Counting forward thirteen days from 1 Ahau 3 Yaxkin yields the date 1 Ben 16 Yaxkin. Thirteen days later is 1 Cimi 9 Mol, and thirteen days after that is 1 Cauac 2 Ch’en. If one further assumes that this inscription, like most others, reads in double vertical columns instead of in two horizontal rows, then the four glyphs at A1 through B2 can be reconstructed and connected to the k’atun ending. The elements in boldface below are preserved on the stela, while those in brackets are implied or reconstructed:

Carter table

The three surviving glyph blocks at the end of the text (D1, C2, and D2) all evidently contain nouns. D1 begins with the agentive pronoun AJ, “he of” or “one who,” followed by a direction, either OCH-K’IN (ochik’in, “west”) or EL-K’IN (elk’in, “east”), and then an eroded collocation. C2 contains the spelling PI’T-ta, pi’t (“palanquin”), and D2 consists of logographic K’UH. Conceivably, this “palanquin god” might have been one of the massive effigies carried on litters in war and ritual processions, illustrated, among other places, on late eighth-century wooden lintels at Tikal. Since the first four glyph blocks all contain dates, the verb can only have been in block C1. This is now totally effaced, but given the reference to a deity in blocks C2 and D2, it likely described a ritual of some kind.

A1 – B1: 1-BEN 1-[CIMI]
A2 – B2: 1-CAUAC 1-[EB]
C1 – D1: [ritual verb] AJ-?-K’IN-?-?-?K’UH
C2 – D2: ?-PI’T-ta K’UH
 juun ben, juun [?cham], juun ?chahuk, juun [eb], […] aj […] ?k’uh pi’t k’uh
On 1 Ben, 1 [Cimi], 1 Cauac, and 1 [Eb], [ritual verb] He of … God(?), Palanquin God.

On this view, the Stela 19 text records either four religious rituals that took place every thirteen days following the k’atun ending, or else a single rite that happened 52 days (4 × 13) after the k’atun ending. This proposed 52-day commemoration of a period ending is to the author’s knowledge unique in the hieroglyphic record, and appears to represent a Terminal Classic innovation local to Ceibal. The k’atun ending itself is recorded on three other monuments in Ceibal’s Group A—Stelae 3, 18, and 20—each of which varies in its own way from earlier Classic Maya standards for period ending stelae. Stela 3 was erected in front of the pyramidal Str. A-6, across the South Plaza from Str. A-5 (I. Graham 1996:17; Smith 1982:90). Its main figural panel depicts a ritual celebrant wearing a headscarf in place of the typical Principal Bird Deity headdress worn by most Classic Maya lords on k’atun-ending monuments. Below, gods of wind and music provide auditory accompaniment; above sit two rain gods whose wild hair, Tlaloc faces, and nominal square day signs (5 Alligator and 7 Alligator, both rendered in non-Maya style) may connect them to the peoples of coastal Veracruz. Stela 18, at the base of Str. A-20 in the Central Plaza, and Stela 20, at the base of the Str. A-24 stairway, both depict a lord wearing the “Toltec” warrior regalia common in Terminal Classic sculpture at Chichen Itza.

While the missing signs are unrecoverable, the proposals above have several points in their favor. The double-column reading order this analysis presumes is standard for Classic Maya monumental texts. The implicit reference to a k’atun ending makes sense of the incense-scattering in the scene above, just as Rice (2004:214) suggested, while the specific k’atun-ending date of is in line with Just’s (2004:27) stylistic date. All four tzolk’in dates must be separated by multiples of thirteen days because they share the same coefficient. In fact, the two fully preserved dates, 1 Ben and 1 Cauac, are 26 days apart—provided, as the reading order would suggest, that the latter date is the next 1 Cauac after 1 Ben.

Classic Maya ideas about numerology—inferred from representations of the cosmos, the properties of calendrical systems, and accounts of calendrical rites—provide a cultural context that makes sense of the proposed ritual cycle. The significance of the number thirteen is evident from the tzolk’in calendar, whose numeric component consists of a cycle of thirteen numbers. Thirteen periods of twenty days—the number of day names in the tzolk’in, and the number of days in one winal in the Long Count calendar—make 260 days, or the number of name-number combinations in the full tzolk’in cycle. The Maya identified four tzolk’in Year Bearer days, four aspects of the rain god Chahk, sets of four divine youths, and four cardinal directions associated with four sacred trees. Four cycles of thirteen days make 52 days, a number with its own esoteric resonance: positions in the Calendar Round, combining a tzolk’in date with a date in the ha’b calendar, recur once every 52 ha’b years.

While innovative in its reliance on thirteen-day periods, the proposed 52-day ritual cycle at Ceibal finds precedent in earlier texts from other Maya sites. Notable examples are the stelae erected by Copan ruler K’ahk’ U Ti’ Witz’ K’awiil in preparation for and commemoration of the three-quarters k’atun ending (November 11, A.D. 647) and the k’atun ending (October 15, A.D. 652). Here, the numbers 260 (13 × 20) and 40 take on particular importance. According to Stelae 2 and 12 at Copan, K’ahk’ U Ti’ Witz’ K’awiil celebrated the date with a pilgrimage to a place called Naah Kab—perhaps the hill just east of the Acropolis on which Stela 12 was erected—then returned to the same spot 260 days later, on, to conduct a second ritual. Fittingly, the full k’atun ending occasioned greater ceremony. Preparations may have begun with a rite on (October 21, A.D. 651), one 360-day Long Count year before the main event. 100 days later, on (that is, 260 days before the k’atun ending), the king celebrated a second ritual, commemorated on Stela 10 on a hill across the Copan Valley from Stela 12. On, 260 days after, he conducted another rite, also recorded on Stela 10. 40 days later, on, he performed still another ritual, this one involving an altar dedicated to the avian Sun God. 40 days after that, on the k’atun ending itself, the celebrations reached their climax with K’ahk’ U Ti’ Witz’ K’awiil’s dedication of stone monuments and invocation of Copan’s patron deities.

K’ahk’ U Ti’ Witz’ K’awiil emphasized intervals of 260 days because the tzolk’in calendar is 260 days long, so that a period ending in the Long Count would have the same date in the tzolk’in as the day 260 days before or after it. In Maya religious thought, the tzolk’in date of a day made it auspicious or unlucky, suitable for certain kinds of activities and not others, and days with the same tzolk’in date were in an esoteric sense the same day. Two of K’ahk’ U Ti’ Witz’ K’awiil’s monuments appear to refer to the yearly movements of the sun using a similar principle: as seen from Stela 12 on the east side of the Copan Valley, the sun would appear to set behind Stela 10 to the west about 20 days after the spring equinox and before the autumnal equinox (Morley 1920:143). The days on which those observations were made would thus have the same tzolk’in day name, though not the same number, as the days of the equinoxes themselves. A similar principle could be at work in the Ceibal Stela 19 cycle: sharing a numeric coefficient with 1 Ajaw, each of the four tzolk’in dates temporally echoes the k’atun ending.

Ceibal already stands out among Terminal Classic southern lowland Maya kingdoms for the long survival of its royal court and for that court’s ritual and representational innovations. Hitherto, those changing images and practices have been most evident in the site’s ninth-century portraiture and iconography. Most very late texts at Ceibal are limited to Calendar Round dates; although it is longer, the unconventional text on Stela 13 thus far defies secure interpretation. Stela 19 thus presents a unique window onto local ideas about numerology and the temporal echoes of important calendrical endings in the late ninth century. Those ideas themselves fit within an older intellectual tradition, to which the last kings of Ceibal made their own contribution.


The ideas presented above benefited from discussions with Thomas Garrison, Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, Katharine Lukach, Franco Rossi, Andrew Scherer, and David Stuart. Takeshi Inomata, David Schele, and the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies kindly provided illustrations, in the latter case a photograph.

Sources Cited

Graham, Ian. 1996. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 7.1: Seibal. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge.

Graham, John A. 1990. Excavations at Seibal, Department of Petén, Guatemala: Monumental Sculpture and Hieroglyphic Inscriptions. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, vol. 17, no. 1. Harvard University, Cambridge.

Just, Bryan. 2007. Ninth-Century Stelae of Machaquila and Seibal. Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Incorporated. <>

Landa, Diego de. 1978. Yucatan Before and After the Conquest. William Gates, trans. and ed. Dover Publications, New York.

Morley, Sylvanus Griswold. 1920. The Inscriptions at Copan, Honduras. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Washington, D.C.

Rice, Prudence M. 2004. Maya Political Science: Time, Astronomy, and the Cosmos. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Schele, Linda. 2005. The Linda Schele Photograph Collection. Accessed 7-29-2015. <;

Smith, A. Ledyard. 1982. Excavations at Seibal, Department of Petén, Guatemala: Major Architecture and Caches. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, vol. 15, no. 1. Harvard University, Cambridge.