More on the Paddler Gods

by David Stuart (The University of Texas at Austin)

Among the various gods we know from ancient Maya religion, the paired deities known as the Paddlers are among the most important and enigmatic. The two elderly-looking characters are probably best known as the canoe rowers depicted on several incised bones from Burial 116 at Tikal, and they nearly always operate in tandem (Figure 1). One has jaguar-like characteristics and resembles the so-called “Jaguar God of the Underworld” (JGU), whereas the other shows piscine features, as well as a diagnostic stingray-spine stuck through the septum of the nose. I refer to them as the Jaguar Paddler and the Spine Paddler, respectively.

Tikal canoe scene
Figure 1. Drawing on small incised bone from Burial 116 at Tikal, showing the Paddler gods on their mythic canoe. (From Trik 1963:fig.3a).
Paddlers variants
Figure 2. (a) Paddler names from Stela 8 at Dos Pilas (drawing by I. Graham), (b) on an unpublished stucco hieroglyph from Tonina (photo by D. Stuart, 1980)

Hieroglyphs for the two Paddlers were first recognized by Peter Mathews in his important analysis of Dos Pilas, Stela 8. He recognized their portrait glyphs (Figure 2a) embedded within a longer list of god names, perhaps a list of tutelary deities associated with the royal house (Mathews 2001[1977]:399). In the early 1980s I identified an alternate method of writing the Paddlers’ names in a pairing of ak’bal and k’in signs, always in that sequence, each encased in a distinctively-shaped cartouche (Stuart 1988:190) (Figure 2b). It was then that I introduced the term “Paddler Gods” as a convenient and neutral term of reference for the pair.  Little has been said or written about these two deities in the years since, and they still remain intriguing figures in Classic Maya myth and ritual performance.

From the Tikal bones we easily gather that the Paddlers were “underworld” figures of great importance, steering the Maize God and his animal companions — a parrot, monkey, iguana and some odd mammal (representing an ancient Maya faunal taxonomy?) — into the depths of the water. A simpler depiction of the same mythological event appears on a polychrome vase, K3033 in Justin Kerr’s database, where the canoe is clearly related to the Maize God’s dressing and “water-entering” (och-ha’) as part of the mythic cycle of his demise and resurrection.

TNA Mon 110
Figure 3. Tonina, Monument 110. Note the Paddlers’ names in block Q. (Drawing by I. Graham)

In ancient inscriptions we read nothing about the Paddlers in connection to the Maize God. Instead they seem to be especially important in Period Ending ceremonies. Monument 110 from Tonina is fairly typical of such references (Figure 3). The disc-altar was once placed before an upright statue of a ruler named K’inich ? K’ahk’ (Ruler 4), serving as a figurative receptacle for offerings on the Period Ending 5 Ahau 3 Mac (10 October, 721).  The circular inscription notes the dedication of the monument (block J), the king’s scattering rite (K), and the witnessing of the ceremony by two court officials (Mb-O).  The text closes with the verb yatij, perhaps “they bathe it” (P), followed by the names of the Paddlers (Q). Here their “bathing” might be best understood as a type of supernatural blessing or sanction.

Ixlu St 2
Figure 4. Ixlu, Stela 2, showing the Paddlers above a scattering scene. (Drawing by L. Schele).

The same idea seems to be depicted on a handful of late stelae from Tikal and environs, where the Paddlers, sometimes along other gods or ancestors, appear in clouds above scenes of kings casting incense or blood before a circular altar (Figure 4) (Stuart 1988). The connection between god and king could quite personal as well. On Stela 2 from Copan, celebrating the k’atun ending, Ruler 12 of Copan impersonates not only his distant predecessor on the throne, Tuun K’ab Hix (Ruler 4), but he also is said to embody the two Paddlers, describes as u mam k’uh, “his ancestral gods” (see Stuart 1988:212-214).

Quirigua St C Paddlers
Figure 5. Record of the Paddlers erecting a stone on, from Quirigua Stela C (drawing by D. Stuart).

The Paddlers’ deep involvement with Period Ending rites build on their documented roles as primordial actors in calendrical ritual.  On Quirigua Stela C, they  play a key role in the famous narrative of the foundational bak’tun-ending 4 Ahau 8 Cumku, when “thrice the stones were raised.” The first of these dedications was overseen by the Paddlers (Figure 5), establishing their prime importance in setting the mythological example that later kings would follow. It’s maybe relevant that the cyclical movement of time was symbolically encoded in the opposed night-day name of the two gods.

In this note I would like to highlight those handful of cases where we find a third figure mentioned along with the two Paddlers, creating some sort of expanded triadic set. This additional god is represented by another portrait glyph representing a young made deity with an elaborate floral headband and an IK’ sign as its ear spool (Figure 6).  He represents a figure has been discussed by Taube as a Classic counterpart of Paul Schellhas’ “God H” in the codices, and symbolically he seems to be associated with wind, music and the arts (Taube 1992, 2001). One wonders if he might be some vague Maya counterpart to the later Aztec deity Xochipilli, the “Flower Prince,” with similar associations. Just why this flowery wind-man accompanies the Paddlers remains a mystery, but he’s clearly a very important player in the godly sanction of Period Ending ceremonies.

Figure 6. The Paddler Triad.

As an aside, I should mention that this wind-head hieroglyph can operate as either the god’s name or as the animate form of the IK’ (“wind, breath”) logogram, day sign, or patron of the month Mac (Mak). As a name the reading must be different, as indicated by the example from Stela 12 of Piedras Negras where it appears with the suffix –na, indicating a completely different though unknown logographic value (see Figure 6, lower right). In addition, I think we should be careful not to call this character a Maya wind god, since a very different duck-billed character was explicitly called ik’ k’uh (“wind god”), no doubt an ancestor to Ehecatl, the wind deity of the Aztecs. The headband character shown here operates differently in Maya iconography, with strong wind or breath associations nonetheless, as Taube has shown.

With or without this curious wind figure, the Paddler gods actively oversaw and participated in royal world-renewal ceremonies at Period Endings. Evidently this role perpetuated their far older mythological role as ritual celebrants in primordial time.

References Cited

Mathews, Peter. 1977(2001).  Notes on the Inscriptions on the Back of Dos Pilas Stela 8. In The Decipherment of Ancient Maya Writing, ed. by S. Houston, D. Stuart and O. Chinchilla Mazariegos, pp. 394-415. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Stuart, David. 1988. Blood Symbolism in Maya Iconography. Maya Iconography, ed,. by G. Griffin and E. Benson, pp. 175-221. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Taube, Karl. 1992. The Major Gods of Ancient Yucatan. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art & Archaeology, 32.  Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC.

_________. 2001. The Breath of Life: The Symbolism of Wind in Mesoamerica and the American Southwest. In The Road to Aztlan: Art from a Mythic Homeland, ed. by V.M. Fields and V. Zamuro-Taylor, pp. 102-123. LACMA, Los Angeles.

Trik, Aubrey S. 1963. The Splendid Tomb of Temple I at Tikal, Guatemala. Expedition 6(1). The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania.

Lagunita’s Unusual “Six Ajaw Stone”

by David Stuart, The University of Texas at Austin

Stela 2 of Lagunita, Campeche. Photo: Ivan Sprajc.
Stela 2 of Lagunita, Campeche. Photo: Ivan Sprajc.

The rediscovery of the ruins of Lagunita, Campeche, by Ivan Sprajc and his team has been widely cited in the news of late. This is indeed an exciting development. The site was first visited back in the 1970s by Eric von Euw, who was then working with Harvard’s Maya Corpus program. He photographed and sketched a few stelae, but after his visit the site of Lagunita became “lost,” at least to archaeologists. When I was working on the Corpus Project, Ian Graham often mentioned to me how much he wanted us to go find Lagunita, but we never had the time given our other commitments in the field.

Figure 2. Lagunita, Stela 2. Photo: Ivan Sprajc.
Figure 2. Lagunita, Stela 2. Photo: Ivan Sprajc.

The hieroglyphic text on Lagunita, Stela 2 is perhaps the most interesting of those I know from the site (solely from von Euw’s photos and drawings; the new project there may reveal more cool things). It is read in individuals rows, not columns, and opens with the date 6 Ahau 13 Muan (711 A.D.). Thereafter we find a very unusual appearance of the Dedicatory Formula (or, more awkwardly, the “Primary Standard Sequence”) — the stock phrase we so often see on inscribed portable objects, especially ceramic vessels, but hardly ever on stelae. Here the “step” (T’AB?-ya) glyph is the main dedicatory verb, followed by a possessed noun referring to the stele itself: “his carved Six Ajaw stone (wak ajaw tuun).” Back in 2005 I commented on this odd Lagunita text in my overview of the Dedicatory Formula (Stuart 2005) (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Drawing od Dedicatory Formula on Lagunita, Stela 2. From Stuart 2005.
Figure 3. Drawing of Dedicatory Formula on Lagunita, Stela 2. From Stuart 2005.

The name of the ruler is eroded unfortunately, but he seems to be called a “four k’atun lord.”

It’s exciting that Lagunita is now found again, and it will be very interesting to see what other tidbits, epigraphic and otherwise, come from the site.


Stuart, David. 2005. Glyphs on Pots: Decoding Classic Maya Ceramics. Excerpt from the 2005 Sourcebook for the Maya Meetings, The University of Texas at Austin. Department of Art and Art History, UT Austin, Austin, TX.

Reconstructing a Stucco Text from Palenque’s Palace

by David Stuart, The University of Texas at Austin

Back in the early 1980s — I can’t recall exactly what year — I found myself intrigued by the badly preserved stucco inscription from House A of Palenque’s Palace. A few date elements were clearly visible, showing what had once been an Initial Series (I.S.) date, a partial Distance Number (2.9 or 3.9), and the remnants of a record of a station in the 819-day cycle. There was also a nice example of the Palenque emblem glyph in the very last glyph block, indicating the presence at one point of a king’s name, most likely that of K’inich Janab Pakal. The preserved “11 k’atuns” in the first column gave a good working time-frame for the text, falling firmly in Pakal’s reign.

Figure 1. Maudslay's photograph of Pier A from House A of the Palace, Palenque.
Figure 1. Maudslay’s 1891 photograph of Pier A from House A of the Palace, Palenque.

I looked up Eric Thompson’s reconstruction of the dates in this inscription, which he published as part of a “Carnegie Note” back in 1954 (Thompson 1954). He was unsure of many elements, and proposed two possible reconstructions of the dates: 9 Men 8 Tzec
-3.9 5 Cimi 19 Pop

or 4 Men 8 Tzec
-3.9 13 Cimi 19 Pop

Thompson hinged his reconstructions on the mandible visible on the head variant number on the k’in of the Initial Series (at B3; see the drawing below in Figure 2), which pointed him to a day number from 13-19.

I quickly saw problems with Thompson’s reconstructions, and my excitement mounted as I came up with a better solution. The presence of an 819 day count record — something Thompson couldn’t recognize at the time — meant we could easily anchor the placement of the 19 Pop preserved at position D3. Only one possible station would fit the time-frame: 1 Chuen 19 Pop.  The Distance Number at B8 must then reckon back to the missing Initial Series and its month is 8 Tzec at B4. Working backwards in this way I was thrilled to find that only one possibility would work: 5 Ahau 8 Tzec
– 3.9 1 Chuen 19 Pop

One detail Thompson didn’t consider was that the mandible on the k’in number could equally point to “0” as a possible reading. Everything seemed to fall into place, and at that point I did a pencil drawing of the glyphs based on Maudslay’s 1891 photograph (Figure 2) and thought the “new” solution to Pier A’s dates would make for a nice little article.

Some month passed, maybe more, before I saw that Heinrich Berlin had long before published the same solution, using precisely the same logic (Berlin 1965:340). His discussion of the Pier A text was buried in an article he had written on the inscription of the Tablet of the Cross — the same paper, in fact, wherein he had worked out much of the Early Classic dynastic history of Palenque (referring to the kings as “Topics”).  After seeing Berlin publication I immediately put aside my old drawing of Pier A and went on to other things. But looking back I find that Pier A’s text offers a good illustration of how one can utilize a small number of clues to solve what at first might seem a hopeless case.

Figure 2. Sketch of Pier A's inscription, with reconstructed components at right. (Drawing by D. Stuart)
Figure 2. Sketch of Pier A’s inscription, with reconstructed components at right. (Drawing by D. Stuart)

When I published my study of Maya architectural dedication rites in 1998, I briefly revisited Pier A in a table listing building dedication dates at Palenque (Stuart 1998:Table 1). There, strangely, I listed the date as 4 Cauac 7 Tzec — a mistake of one day. I think in my haste to finish the article I must have glanced at Maudslay’s photograph and took the apparent “7 Tzec” at face value, not remembering it was actually 8 Tzec in Berlin’s correct solution.

It’s hard to know what exact event was being commemorated on Pier A. Based on parallels elsewhere (the Temple of the Sun, for example) I strongly suspect it was a dedication record for the House A gallery itself, but no verb or revealing phrase is preserved from the area that would tell us (blocks D4-D6). The date would correspond to May of 668 A.D. As noted, the protagonist was without doubt K’inich Janab Pakal.

To put this event in some context, we have a number of other dedication dates for the various structures within the Palenque’s Palace.  House A was built some years after the central buildings of the complex (Houses E and C), at a time when Pakal was rapidly adding on to his impressive complex. And to set the record straight, correcting the mistakes in my old 1998 table, I list the actual dates from the Palace here, in chronological order:

Figure 3. "He of the Five Platform? Buildings," as title of K'inich Janab Pakal that probably refers to the Palace's main structures. From the Tablet of the 96 Glyphs. (Photograph by Jorge Perez de Lara.)
Figure 3. “He of the Five Platform? Buildings,” a title of K’inich Janab Pakal probably referring to the Palace’s main structures. From the Tablet of the 96 Glyphs. (Photograph by Jorge Perez de Lara.) 9 Lamat 6 Xul (654) – Subterraneos 9 Chuen 9 Mac (654) – House E 4 Cauac 2 Pax (661) – House C 5 Ahau 8 Tzec (668) – House A 6 Etznab 6 Zac (720) – House A-D (built by Pakal’s son, K’inich K’an Joy Kitam)

Two major buildings in the Palace complex do not have firm dates: one is House D, but its style and decoration suggests it was constructed around the time of House A, perhaps a little afterwards. The other is House B, on the south side of the courtyard of the captives. It too was almost surely Pakal’s edifice. I suspect that the five “houses” of the Palace (in order: E, C, A, D, and B?) were the five buildings referenced in one of Pakal’s important titles, “He of the Five Platform? Buildings” (Figure 3).

Figure 4. South end of House A of the Palace, showing Pier A in its present condition. (Photograph by D. Stuart).
Figure 4. South end of House A of the Palace, showing Pier A in its present condition. (Photograph by D. Stuart).

References Cited:

Berlin, Heinrich. 1965. The Inscription of the Temple of the Cross at Palenque. American Antiquity 30(3):330-342.

Stuart, David. 1998. “The Fire Enters His House”: Architecture and Ritual in Classic Maya Texts. In Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture, edited by Stephen D. Houston, pp. 373-425. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington D.C.

Thompson, J. Eric S. 1954. Memoranda on Some Dates at Palenque, Chiapas. Notes on Middle American Archaeology and Ethnology, No. 120. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Division of Historical Research, Cambridge, MA

A Game with a Throne

by Stephen Houston, Department of Anthropology, Brown University

For GS on his birthday

Epigraphy is, among others things, an exercise in good hygiene. As specialists, we tidy up. Through our drawings, a complex surface reduces to light stipple, a series of edges to inked lines of variable width. The results are there for all to see, in the form of legible images that facilitate study, comparison, and reproduction.

Yet the images do not quite capture a stone. Each sculpture has its own quarry marks and irregularities; there are peck-marks or chisel lines, along with signs of careful or rough handling. Such details seldom make their way into an epigraphic drawing. Nor, with a few exceptions, do our site maps, even good ones, display sculptures as they were first found. Instead, monuments appear in orderly rows, as though still standing (e.g., Graham and von Euw 1975, 2:6, 2:7). They are in the places where they should be, or might have been when freshly placed, not as they were when discovered.

At Caracol, green to Maya fieldwork—this was in 1985—I confronted the curious afterlife of Maya texts. The carvings seemed anything but tidy. Most lay in shocking disarray, broken into pieces, some far-flung. Later, at Dos Pilas, in 1986, I resolved to record such patterning. Fortunately, at that site, most monuments were still in original position. They had not much shifted from the time of the Maya Collapse.

It soon became clear that, with few exceptions, the stelae at Dos Pilas were hacked just above the butt. Felled by blows of an axe, the sculptures, cut at the “knees,” toppled either backwards or forwards, not by the impact of tree fall, but from concerted ancient effort. There was behavioral information here, worthy of mention. Inspired, I drew the plans of all sculptures at the site, their cross-sections (where possible), even the profiles and block arrangements of hieroglyphic stairways (e.g., Houston 1993:fig. 2-8, 3-3, 3-7, 3-8, 3-9, 3-10, 3-14). My maps showed fall patterns at larger scale, especially of the stela at the site (Houston 1993:Site Map 1, Grid L5, Site Map 3, Grid P5). I was not alone in this interest. Looking at Panel 19 after its discovery in 1990, Ed Shook, a wise, old hand at Maya archaeology, observed that many blows of an axe had played across its surface.

To me, this approach represented the future of epigraphy as a field discipline. Sculptures could and should be shown by presumed initial placement or as flat, reproducible surfaces. But they were also three-dimensional things tumbling through time—pieces of transported, worked stone touched variably by nature, reverence, and malice. As rocks, they had dimension, weight, signs of quarrying, chipping, knapping, chiseling, polishing, and painting, features that could be processed and massaged statistically. Yet, from my perspective, the conversation between lithicists and epigraphers has yet to begin beyond these faltering steps. (Enterprising students take note!)

The fact is, most sculptures get moved after discovery. Yet not everyone is inclined to note their original position. A photographer may pivot or adjust the monument to the right angle for photography. Or, as at Tonina in recent decades, archaeologists appear to trundle texts off to the local museum, where provenience is known to few (and God). Find-spot is certainly not mentioned in any public display or report available to scholars. This seems more than an oversight—it is an out-and-out shame. Initial documentation is the key, as is the act of making those observations available to others.

At Piedras Negras, where I worked from 1997 to 2000, and again in 2004, sculptures have shifted many times. Their original position is usually reconstructible and shown as such on maps. But their archaeological placement, as objects left by the Maya, remains enigmatic, in key examples. Héctor Escobedo, my co-director, found that J. Alden Mason—a gifted prose stylist and indifferent excavator—had heaped at least 4 to 5 m of backfill atop Stela 18. (Héctor was looking for the axis of Structure O-13, the pyramid that backed the stela.) Despite diligent search, we continue to be only vaguely aware of the original location of Stela 40, a monument showing ancestral rites that came from the terrace in front of Structure J-3.

Figure 1. PIedras Negras, Throne 1, now in the Museo Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, Guatemala City. Photograph by Mary Dodge.
Figure 1. PIedras Negras, Throne 1, now in the Museo Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, Guatemala City (Photograph by Mary Dodge)

Throne 1, now in the Museo Nacional de Antropología y Etnología in Guatemala City, is a more fortunate case (Figure 1). Found shattered in a recessed, corbelled niche in Structure J-6 of the palace, it had been duly recovered and pieces reassembled in their current form; a few small fragments, daubed bright red, occur in storage at the University of Pennsylvania Museum (see Figure 2 for J-6 and its access stairway, as cleaned off in 1933). The throne plays an important role in Maya cultural history, its ancient destruction being taken by J. Eric Thompson as possible evidence of “superstitious fear” by later Maya or of “revolting peasants” enraged at this “symbol of their civil bondage” (Thompson 1966:108).

Figure 1. Piedras Negras, Structure J-6 and frontal stairway, 1933 (photograph courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives)
Figure 2. Piedras Negras, Structure J-6 and frontal stairway, 1933 (Courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives)

Not long ago, while looking at the image taken by Linton Satterthwaite, Jr., of the throne after its initial clearing, I realized that a more precise documentation of the Throne 1’s afterlife was possible. A fuller study would involve a closer study of patched edges on the original in Guatemala City, especially of the horizontal text on the bench itself, but the photograph taken by Satterthwaite in 1932 spells out where many of the blocks were first found. By looking at outlines and areas of exposed carving, and inserting cleaned images of those fragments, one can see how the throne was broken apart (Figures 3a and 3b). I suspect that some of the blocks had been removed unwittingly when workers cleared fill. Too late, Satterthwaite, who tended to work out of the camp, found the error.

Figure 2. Position of blocks when found, Throne 1, 1932 (photograph courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives)
Figure 3a. Position of blocks when found, Throne 1, 1932 (Courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives)
Figure 3. Identifiable blocks, with higher-resolution images inserted (photograph courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives)
Figure 3b. Identifiable blocks, with higher-resolution images inserted (Courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives)

The throne was an obvious casualty of violence, just as Thompson said. The left and right sides of the throne had been removed from the niche and placed face-up, more-or-less in correct, relative position. But the human faces that adjoined them, also face-up, had been moved in one case—that of the figure to the left—all the way behind a frontal column. The snout of the witz lay on the step of the outer doorway. Strangely, the hieroglyphic supports, although in correct relative position, were both face-up, yet with each top touching the other in opposed position. The special targets of violence, and their weakest points structurally, were the human faces and points of transition to the witz. It seems likely that the throne back had been dragged out of its niche and only then attacked. One possible culprit, as suggested by David Stuart from Lintel 10 at Yaxchilan, is the final ruler of that site, K’ihnich Tatbu Jol (Stuart 1998).

Figure 5. Interior stairway leading from area of Throne 2 to upper, western room, 1999, Operation PN34a-18 (photograph by Zachary Hruby)
Figure 4. Interior stairway leading from area of Throne 2 to upper, western room, 1999, Operation PN34a-18 (photograph by Zachary Hruby)

The area of the throne was excavated by Ernesto Arredondo and me in 1998, and the area proved to have shallow stratigraphy (Houston and Arredondo 1998:108-109): an earlier, wider building, and bedrock only about 40 cm. below the final floor of Str. J-6. A stairway, only partly preserved, led from the throne room to an elevated floor to the west—this may have allowed the ruler to approach the throne without stepping outside to public view (Figure 4). No diagnostic sherds came from the lower level, but it surely dated to the Yaxche period, from about AD 625 to 750. The visible throne room was certainly Chacalhaaz in date, c. AD 750 to 830. Indeed, Throne 1 gives us a more precise date for this building known as cha-hu-ku-NAAH, perhaps Chahuk Naah, “House of Lightning” or “House of Thunder”: its dedication, probably written as EL-NAAH, took place on the Period Ending of, Nov. 3, AD 785. It is likely to have been Ruler 7’s first great commission in the Acropolis, a dramatic reconfiguration of Patio 1, the space in front, as a place for reception of tribute, captives, and visitors, but never of equals.

Figure 4. Piedras Negras Throne 3, found in fill within Structure O-17, 14 cm. long, found in 1999 field season (drawing by Stephen Houston)
Figure 5. Piedras Negras Throne 3, found in fill within Structure O-17, 14 cm. long, found in 1999 field season (Drawing by Stephen Houston)

Other fragmentary thrones are known at Piedras Negras. The University of Pennsylvania found one, Throne 2, re-used in the Str. K-6a ballcourt ([] 11 Ajaw *18 Ch’en. Aug. 21, AD 662 [Martin-Skidmore correlation]), and our project found Throne 3 (Figure 5) in the fill of Str. O-17, possibly an unfinished structure.

I believe the presence of two shattered thrones, both connected to Ruler 2, Itzam K’anahk, suggests some refurbishment of the Acropolis, where such thrones were presumably placed. Perhaps they had been destroyed during that construction and their pieces inserted into fill nearby. Throne 3 is probably earlier because of its ch’ok title. Indeed, it may be the sole remains of his very accession throne, for Ruler 2 was only 12 years of age when he succeeded to power.

Luis Romero, a Guatemalan archaeologist who worked with us on the Piedras Negras Project, has subsequently restored the J-6 stairway, finding at least one new cache in the process. When I last saw it, in 2004, the throne room looked sorry indeed, a hole punched in the back by idle looters, and the roots of a ramon tree curving in threatening arc towards the wall. The Throne Building is as forlorn as it was when left by assailants in the 9th century AD.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS I thank Eric Schnittke of the Penn Museum Archives for permission to reproduce Figures 2 and 3.


Graham, Ian, and Eric von Euw. 1975. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 2, Part 1: Naranjo. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Houston, Stephen D. 1993. Hieroglyphs and History at Dos Pilas: Dynastic Politics of the Classic Maya. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Houston, Stephen D., and Ernesto Arredondo Leiva. 1999. In Proyecto Arqueológico Piedras Negras, Informe Preliminar 3, Tercera Temporada, eds. Héctor Escobedo and Stephen Houston, pp. 105-118. Informe entregado al Instituto de Antropología e Historia de Guatemala.

Stuart, David. 1998. Una Guerra entre Yaxchilán y Piedras Negras? In Proyecto Arqueológico Piedras Negras, Informe Preliminar 2, Segunda Temporada, eds. Héctor Escobedo and Stephen Houston, pp. 389-392. Informe entregado al Instituto de Antropología e Historia de Guatemala.

Thompson, J. Eric S. 1966. The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization. 2nd ed. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Early Thoughts on the sajal Title

sajal glyph
Example of the sajal glyph (sa-ja-la) from Stela 12 at Piedras Negras.

by David Stuart

Back in 1985 I wrote an article called “New Epigraphic Evidence of Late Classic Maya Political Organization,” where I proposed the identification of a hieroglyphic title for certain subsidiary lords – basically elite court members who were not high rulers of kingdoms, many of whom seemed to rule at secondary centers surrounding larger capitals. This is the court title familiar today to students of Maya epigraphy and political organization as sajal, although at the time this reading wasn’t yet established.

The paper was circulated to a few fellow epigraphers working at the time, and I had originally intended to submit it to the journal American Antiquity (Freshman year at college soon got in the way, so I put it aside). Looking back nearly thirty years later, I see that the article is a good representative of that distinctive period in Maya decipherment when steady advances were taking place, even if our understanding of many details about Maya script were still a bit murky. For one, the paper hinges on what might be called a functional methodology in epigraphic analysis, without regard to any secure phonetic understanding of the glyph in question. This was a common approach in the 70s and early 80s, when the nature of the script’s visual cannons was not as clear as they would be a decade later. Moreover, in the 1980s the structures of Maya political organization were just coming into clearer focus; in this paper I was attempting to discern patterns in the geographical distribution of the sajal title in order to shed light on the borders between territorial units in the Usumacinta region. In some respects the conclusions drawn — that ancient territorial expanses and borderlands were knowable — anticipated the excellent archaeological surveys conducted in the same area by Charles Golden, Andrew Scherer and their colleagues (Scherer and Golden 2012).

In the original article I mistakenly refer to the sajal title as “cahal,” following the conventional wisdom of the time. This was based on our misreading the initial sign of the glyph as the syllable ka, not sa, as was clarified only a few years later, in 1988. Incidentally, the same misidentification lead to the early mistaken (and oft repeated) reading of the royal name at Copan as “Yax Pac”; today we know this king (Ruler 16) as Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat. There are a number of other points in this old article that I no longer believe, including the simplistic point that emblem glyphs should be seen as “family names” (emblems have various scopes of reference, I think, though they are generally best described as court names or designations).

One aspect of the sajal title that wasn’t treated in this article is its wider distribution pattern outside of the Usumacinta area. While the vast majority of examples of the glyph do indeed come from the Usumacinta region, we now know it was quite widespread geographically, with a number of appearances in texts from Xcalumkin and other southern Puuc centers, and even an isolated example at far off Copan.

The exact meaning of the word sajal has never been very clear, at least to my knowledge. It looks to be a derived noun based on a root saj, not easily traceable in Ch’olan and Tzeltalan. In Yucatec we do find the root sah meaning “to fear,” which I’ve long thought could prove a productive in-road, especially in light of a possible vague parallel from Classical Nahuatl. There the honorific term mahuizotl, “honor, fame, glory” is derived from the verb mahui, “to fear, be frightened.” A stretch to be sure, so much more mulling-over is needed.

New Epigraphic Evidence of Late Classic Maya Political Organization (1985 ms.)


Scherer, Andrew K., and Charles Golden. 2012. Revisiting Maler’s Usumacinta: Recent Archaeological Investigations in Chiapas, Mexico. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.