Deciphering the Tikal Emblem Glyph

The Tikal emblem glyph, MUT-la.
The Tikal emblem glyph, MUT-la, from the inscription on Tikal, Stela 31 (photograph by D. Stuart).

by David Stuart

Back in 1993 — over a k’atun ago — I circulated a short note to colleagues about a proposed decipherment of the Tikal emblem glyph main sign as the logogram MUT. Around the same time, working independently, my colleague Christian Prager developed much the same argument. The details behind this proposal weren’t ever circulated much more widely or published, so I here share a copy of the original hand-written note (I now must wonder why I wrote it out by hand and didn’t type the thing!).

As one can see in the short note, the evidence for the reading was fairly simple. I first pointed out that the principal variants of the Tikal emblem sign (also used for a time in the Petexbatun region at Dos Pilas and Aguateca) originated as representations of tied hair. This was perhaps best revealed to me by jade figurine I excavated in Copan back in 1987 (in the dedicatory cache of the Hieroglyphic Stairway) and illustrated in the note. The figure wears a tied huun headband, and the back of the figure’s head looks identical to the most familiar variant of the Tikal emblem. I next pointed out that another version of the knotted hair emblem sign used in the Petexbatun region often takes a mu- syllable prefix. Further, in a personal name at Yaxchilan, the emblem sign also takes a -tu suffix, presumably also as a phonetic complement (an eroded text from nearby Dos Caobas my show a full mu-tu substitution, but it’s hard to confirm at the moment). These clues pointed to MUT as a possible reading, and the following entry in the Diccionario Maya Cordemex of Yucatec Mayan seemed to lend support to the possibility: mut pol, rodete hacer la mujer de sus cabellos (a plait or braid women make with their hair).

In the context of the emblem glyph the knotted-hair sign routinely takes a -la suffix (as do a number of other EG main signs, as in BAAK-la at Palenque, KAAN-la for Dzibanche and Calakmul). This would indicate that the court name centered at Tikal and also in the Petexbatun region was Mutal or, more likely, Mutul — forms probably reflected in the historical place names Motul de San Jose and Motul, Yucatan.

The 1993 note on the Tikal emblem glyph decipherment.