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.

Deathly Sport

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

On a scorching day in July 2006, my wife and I happened to visit a Roman necropolis at Carmona, just east of Sevilla, Spain – not for nothing is this called the sartén de Europa, with temperatures in excess of 46° celsius! But there, at Roman “Carmo,” the tombs were cool, richly painted in parts. Some dozens of meters away, we saw a triclinium (formal dining room) for funerary banquets and an amphitheater to house games in honor of the dead.

The ancient Mediterranean has a long tradition of such games. Homer, in the Iliad, speaks with appreciative bloodlust of the sporting events for Patroclus, the late, beloved companion of Achilles: “Raising their arms, their powerful fists, they [the participants] went at one another. Their hands exchanged some heavy punches, landing with painful crunches on their jaws. From their limbs sweat ran down everywhere” (Bk 23, lines 847-851, trans. Ian Johnston). Ultimately, the tradition passed to the Lucanians at Paestum, south of Naples —where the scene of a gladiatorial fray embellishes the walls of a tomb—to what may be the first gladiatorial contests, also funerary, held at Rome in 264 BC (Potter 2012:187-190). In all such cases, the games pulsed with recollection of once-vibrant dead. As John Bodel, a friend and Latin epigraphist reminds me, the nuances were further layered to include the most basic struggle of all, between life and death (see Ville 1981).

Was some Maya ballplay of a mortuary nature too? Did the hurly-burly of sacred sport—a celebration of chance but also of preparation and athletic skill—link to royal tombs?

The grimmer features of the Post-Classic (to early Colonial) ballgame bear repeating. The Xibalba of the Popol Vuh, an abode of gods with names like mortal diseases, thudded with ballplay. It was in a ballcourt that the lords of Xibalba buried the defeated brothers One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu (Christenson 2007:125). Hunahpuh and Xbalanque, miraculous sons of One Hunahpu, later played in the “ballcourt of their father,” “sweeping [it] clear” (ibid.:125). When they bested the lords of Xibalba, the twins “left behind” the “heart of their father [One Hunahpu]…at Crushing Ballcourt” (ibid.:191). “Here you will called upon’…‘They shall worship you first. Your name shall not be forgotten’” (ibid.:191).

The Popol Vuh, a much later source, does not always resonate with practices and beliefs of the Classic period. Yet here it might, in what appear to be precise or notional alignments between the central axis of a ballcourt and a known royal tomb.

The more precise examples:

(1) At Dos Pilas, Guatemala, the ballcourt composed of Structures L4-17 and L4-16 (Houston 1993:Site Map 1) defines an axis that passes directly south to a pyramid, Structure L5-1. Excavations in 1991 showed that the pyramid contained the tomb of Dos Pilas’ Ruler 2, in a crypt almost precisely aligned with the axis of the ballcourt (Figure 1; Demarest et al. 1991). The sculptures on the ballcourt, Panels 11 and 12, deploy a version of the Dos Pilas Emblem that dates a generation or so later than the pyramid (Houston 1993:Figures 3-17, 3-18).

Figure 1. Alignment of ballcourt and pyramid at Dos Pilas, Guatemala, with red rectangle indicating location of royal tomb (map by Stephen Houston).
Figure 1. Alignment of ballcourt and pyramid at Dos Pilas, Guatemala, with red rectangle indicating location of royal tomb (map by Stephen Houston).

(2) The small ballcourt near Temple I at Tikal, Guatemala (Structure 5D-74-1st), has a central axis aligning with Burial 116, tomb of Jasaw Kaan K’awiil, ruler of Tikal (Figure 2; Coe 1990:Figures 257b, 284-86). There is an earlier ballcourt—said vaguely to be “within a regional ‘Early Classic’ era (whatever this attribution may communicate to reader)” (Coe 1990:650). It aligns almost exactly with Burial 116. Conceivably, the earlier ballcourt dictated the placement of Burial 116, which is off-center in the pyramid, below ground level and towards the front. Again, the crypt lines up with the axis of Structure 5D-74-1st and 2nd.

Figure 2. Alignment of Str. FD-74 with Burial 116 under Temple 1; earlier ballcourt, where it survives, cue in green (map by the Tikal Project, University of Pennsylvania).
Figure 2. Alignment of Str. FD-74 with Burial 116 under Temple 1; earlier ballcourt, where it survives, cue in green (map by the Tikal Project, University of Pennsylvania).

Then the ballcourts with rougher alignments:

(3) The first ballcourt at Copan, Honduras, dating to ca. AD 470, has a central axis that points to the front stairway of the Margarita tomb, and to the vicinity of Hunal, the probable tomb of the founder (Figure 3; Sharer et al. 2005:Figure 5.2). The axes of the crypts have the same orientation as the ballcourt (Sharer et al. 2005:Figure 5-7).

Figure 3. Alignment of Copan ballcourt with the Margarita building, Hunal building marked in blue (map by the Early Copan Acropolis Program, directed by Robert J. Sharer).
Figure 3. Alignment of Copan ballcourt with the Margarita building, Hunal building marked in blue (map by the Early Copan Acropolis Program, directed by Robert J. Sharer).


(4) A suggestive example comes from Ceibal, Guatemala (Figure 4). Hieroglyphic Stairway 1, in Structure A-14, refers to the “fire-entering” of a tomb on Nov. 4, AD 747 (Graham 1996:59, Tablet 5:DD1). Presumably, the tomb lay nearby, perhaps behind the stairway, which seems to have been re-set in Classic times. Across from the stairway, but not precisely aligned with its axis, is the Structure A-19 ballcourt; its orientation leads to the join between Structures A-12 and A-14. Takeshi Inomata, who has been digging at Ceibal over the last years, kindly reports on what his project found. Digging in the southern end of Structure A-12, they discovered that the “construction mass dates to the Late Preclassic. Thin Late and Terminal Classic layers were sitting on the Preclassic building”; Takeshi also noted some evidence of an earlier Late Classic building beneath Structure A-14 (personal communication, July 2014). The question remains whether there is still a tomb to be found. The hieroglyphic text would indicate so (Stuart 1998:398, fn. 13).

Figure 4. Alignment of Ceibal A-19 ballcourt with possible tomb to the east (map by Ian Graham, Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project).
Figure 4. Alignment of Ceibal A-19 ballcourt with possible tomb to the east (map by Ian Graham, Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project).

(Incidentally, we have long assumed that the tomb mentioned on the Hieroglyphic Stairway belonged to a figure from the Early Classic period—someone named K’an Mo’ Bahlam. But I see no compelling reason to believe this, as the only date here is firmly Late Classic. To be sure, there is an Early Classic lord of Ceibal mentioned on Tablet 7, position MM1, of the Hieroglyphic Stairway, but with a different name. Notably, he is said to have played ball, pi-tzi!)

(5) A final example appears at the more distant location of Chichen Itza, Mexico, with a date some centuries later than #1-4. There, the Great Ballcourt lines up, at least approximately, with the enigmatic but suitably named Osario or “High Priest’s Grave,” the sole locus of attested royal burials at Chichen (Figure 5; Ruppert 1935; also Thompson 1938). The Great Ballcourt and the Osario date to about the same time, c. AD 1000-1100 AD (Braswell and Peniche May 2012:238).

Figure 5.  Alignment between the Great Ballcourt and the Osario at Chichen Itza (map by J. O. Kilmartin and J. P. O’Neil, with emendations by Karl Ruppert, Carnegie Institution of Washington).
Figure 5. Alignment between the Great Ballcourt and the Osario at Chichen Itza (map by J. O. Kilmartin and J. P. O’Neil, with emendations by Karl Ruppert, Carnegie Institution of Washington).

An empirical pattern doth not a theory make. Yet, at some sites, the Maya may have configured two buildings in unison. One contained a known or likely tomb or tombs, as at Chichen. (There must have been sustained knowledge of sub-surface remains.) The other was a ballcourt, its corridor pointing to a tomb, often at the same orientation. Several alignments seem more notional than precise, uncertain to satisfy a skeptic. And a few, as in my excavations with Héctor Escobedo at Structure K-5, Piedras Negras, could even be cenotaphic (Houston et al. 2008). A ballcourt, Structure K-6, lines up with a pyramid to a deceased queen but not, alas, to her tomb…or at least not one that we could find! (It could still lie off-axis, as we were only able to dig by means of a 2x2m shaft.) We do know the pyramid came first, and that the ballcourt, with its famous image of boxers, was a slightly later construction. In a personal communication, David Stuart also wonders whether Monument 171 at Tonina might be relevant (Stuart 2013): it shows a deceased lord playing with one still living.

Wendy Ashmore has written about ballcourt locations, emphasizing their southern position as “underworld” places of “transition” (Ashmore 1992:178, 179). I would mute her emphasis on “south” and suggest instead the dead could be to the north, south, and east too. Direction did not matter in these examples. Far more important was a specific mortuary intent and not, in Wendy’s words, a “cosmic template.” The fact that the glyph for tombs so often resembles half of the sign for a ballcourt—distinguished solely by the skull inside, nestled within a dark space (Stuart 1998:Figure 13)—raises the specter of a proposal. As in the Popol Vuh, some ballcourts bustled with the living but directed that activity towards the dead.

Acknowledgements: Takeshi Inomata of the University of Arizona generously responded to my questions about his excavations at Ceibal; Dave Stuart, too, helped with comments, as did John Bodel. I prepared some of these remarks for a workshop on Piedras Negras at Dumbarton Oaks, as facilitated by Dr. Colin McEwan, Joanne Pillsbury, and Mary Pye.


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