RRAMW 64: The Logogram for Wax, “Grey Fox,” in Maya Hieroglyphic Writing

With this post we are pleased to present another new issue of the long-running series Research Reports on Maya Hieroglyphic Writing, published by the Boundary End Archaeological Research Center. Number 64 of the series is available here for download as a pdf, and future numbers will be posted here on Maya Decipherment. The full digital archive of the RRAMW series (1984-present) will soon be available on the BEARC website, and announced here as well.

RRAMW 64: A Logogoram for WAX “Grey Fox,” in Maya Hieroglyphic Writing by Christian Prager.

An Early Classic Bird Vase

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.

A Glyph for Yuyum, “Oriole,” in a Name at Bonampak

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

Among the many people depicted in Room 1 of the Bonampak murals is an official named Aj K’an Yuyum (Figure 1). His portrait, near the back corner of the chamber, is somewhat damaged and effaced. He seems to be a high-ranking noble, and he stands close by three elaborately dressed dancers on the center of the room’s lower register. In front of him is a similarly dressed man who bears the title sajal, often used for political and military figures of high elite status.

The hieroglyphs of his name caption are well preserved, and the first two glyph blocks of his name clearly read AJ-K’AN-na 2yu-ma. The remaining glyphs of his caption are syllabic spellings but are more difficult to make out fully: AJ-2ch’a-ta? ?-ma-ni (see Miller and Brittenham 2013:Figure 145). Perhaps one or both give a title based on some unknown place name.

Figure 1. Aj K'an Yuyum and his name caption, from Room 1 of the Bonampak murals. (Watercolor copy by H. Hurst; Caption drawing by D. Stuart)
Figure 1. Aj K’an Yuyum and his name caption, from Room 1 of the Bonampak murals.  (Watercolor copy by  H. Hurst; Caption drawing by D. Stuart)

Beyond his role as a named spectator at Bonampak, little can be said about Aj K’an Yuyum and his position in the local royal court; no other references to him are known. Here we would like to concentrate on his personal name, especially the unusual word spelled with the doubled yu sign and the main-sign form of ma. This combination is very probably an ancient attestation of yuyum, a word found in historical and modern sources for “oriole.” The noble’s full name then be would be “Yellow Oriole,” conforming to a widespread pattern of personal names based on colors and animal terms.

Yuyum is a word for “oriole” in lowland Mayan languages, including in Yucatecan and Cholan. Its first known attestation is in Beltran’s 18th century list of Yucatec faunal names as “un ave parecida al oropendula,” referencing a species closely related to orioles (see Perez 1898). It appears in modern Yucatec as well as yúuyum,“oriole” (Bricker et. al. 1998:319). In Bruce’s vocabulary of Lacandon yuyum is simply attested as “cierto pajaro” (Bruce 1968). Importantly, we also find it cited in Aulie and Aulie’s dictionary of Ch’ol (1978: 214) as yujyum, “bolsero espalda amarilla (icterus chysater),” specifically referencing the Yellow-backed Oriole.

A number of oriole species are common in the Maya region. These include the well-known Baltimore Oriole (which winters there), the Hooded Oriole, the Altamira Oriole, the Spotted-breasted Oriole, the afore-mentioned Yellow-backed Oriole, and the Streaked-backed Oriole. Whether all of these species were ever considered under a single term is difficult to know, given the vagaries of faunal classification in Mayan languages. Besides yuyum, there appear to be a number of more isolated words for different types of orioles: kubul in Yucatec (Bolles 2001), tzap’in in Itzaj (Hofling 1997:633), and kupulik in Ch’orti’ (Wisdom 1940), for example. Yet the consistent gloss of yuyum and its cognates as “oriole” across both Yucatecan and Ch’olan makes for a reasonable case that the word may be old and widely diffused in the lowland region.

FIgure 2. Orioles in the Murals of San Bartolo, North Wall. (Watercolor copy by H. Hurst.)
Figure 2. Orioles in the Murals of San Bartolo, North Wall. (Watercolor copy by H. Hurst.)

The only known representation of orioles in Maya art comes from another famous Maya wall painting, the Preclassic murals of San Bartolo (Figure 2). In the murals from Structure sub-1-A, we see depicted on the north wall a representation of a hanging nest surrounded by three small birds. This hangs from a tree that grows atop a cosmic mountain of emergence, associated with concepts of “flower mountain” in Mesoamerican mythology (Taube, et al. 2005:15-16). The small, extremely cute birds that flutter around the nest are yellow in appearance, with black bordering their wings and tails. Due to their coloration, and the fact that they do not have black on their backs like most Central American orioles, these are most likely Yellow-backed Orioles (icterus chysater), which are known to reside in the Maya area, and especially in higher elevations. Significantly perhaps, this is the very species given as the meaning of yujyum in Aulie and Aulie’s Ch’ol vocabulary, as noted earlier.

A good amount of work remains to be done on the identification of various bird species and other fauna represented in Maya art. We hope this small observation on the written and painted appearance of orioles will prove a useful contribution in such research.

Sources Cited:

Aulie, Wilbur, and Evelyn W. de Aulie. 1978. Diccionario Ch’ol. Summer Institute of Linguistics, Mexico D.F.

Bolles, John. 2001. Combined Dictionary–Concordance of the Yucatecan Mayan Language. FAMSI. On-line resource available at http://www.famsi.org/reports/96072/.

Bruce, Robert. 1968. Gramatica del Lacandon. Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, Mexico D.F.

Hofling, Andrew. 1997. Itzá Maya – Spanish – English Dictionary, Diccionario Maya Itzaj – Español – Inglés. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

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

Perez, Juan Pio. 1898. Coordinación alfabetica de las voces del idioma maya que se hallan en el arte y obras del padre fr. Pedro Beltran de Santa Rosa, con las equivalencias castellanas que en las mismas se hallan. Imprinta de la Ermita, Merida.

Taube, Karl, William Saturno, and David Stuart. 2005. The Murals of San Bartolo, El Peten, Guatemala. Part I: The North Wall. Ancient America 7. Boundary End Archaeological Research Center, Barnardsville, NC.

The Chocolatier’s Dog

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. http://www.mayavase.com/jour/journey.html

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.