by David Stuart
In April and May of this year the remains of an important hieroglyphic stairway were discovered at Structure 13R-10 at La Corona, Guatemala, during excavations undertaken by the Proyecto Regional Arqueológico La Corona, directed by Marcello Canuto (Tulane University) and Tomás Barrientos Quezada (Universided del Valle de Guatemala). This monument, now designated as Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 (HS 2) of La Corona, had been looted many decades earlier in the mid 1960s, and was clearly the source of many of the blocks long assigned to the “Site Q” corpus. Luckily the looters had missed the bottom-most step of the HS, which was discovered this year in the excavations overseen by Jocelyn Ponce of the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala. Photographs of the excavation and of some of the stones can be found here, on the project’s website.
As project epigrapher I paid a visit to La Corona in May of this year in order to document and study the new texts and sculptures (my first time back there, incidentally, since our first archaeological recconaisance back in 1997). In this post I summarize the preliminary findings about the inscription on Block V of HS 2, which contains a number of important historical information about La Corona’s political history, as well as a curious reference to the upcoming bak’tun ending 188.8.131.52.0 – something that of course came as a special surprise. This text would have been a noteworthy find in any year, but its revelation now, just months before December 21, is extraordinary timing indeed.
First, some important initial points regarding the Block V text:
- This is the second ancient source known to mention the period ending 184.108.40.206.0 4 Ahaw 3 K’ank’in (December 23, 2012). The other, Monument 6 from Tortuguero, Mexico, has been known since the 1980s, and in the last couple of years has received a good deal of attention.
- The main message of the new inscription is not at all about 2012 – rather it’s the commemoration of a visit to La Corona (Saknikte’) by the important Calakmul ruler Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ on January 29, 696 AD.
- This inscription also mentions, in an incomplete and damaged passage, the possible establishment of the Kan or Kanul royal court at Calakmul in 635. This agrees very well with the scenario proposed by Simon Martin, whereby the emblem glyph – i.e., court designation — of Calakmul shifted during the Late Classic.
- While perhaps disappointing to some, the newly found inscription has no prophetic message regarding what will happen in 2012. So why only mention the date but say nothing directly about its meaning or significance? Because it’s a future station of a big calendar cycle and so it was seen as worthy of mention in its own right. Ancient Maya scribes liked to record the comings and goings of various periods in their calendar, including future ones, because they were intimately tied to their political and religious life. In two texts they tied this future bak’tun ending to their contemporary world, mostly because of interesting numerological patterns that seemed cosmically relevant.
The late seventh century was a time of great political turmoil in the ancient Peten region. Calakmul, the seat of the Kan or Kanul royal court, had been an immensely powerful kingdom throughout the seventh century, during which time it continued to develop a long-standing rivalry with Tikal, its large neighbor to the south. Over many years Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’s father, Yuknoom Ch’een, had formed a large and complex alliance network throughout the southern Maya lowlands, surrounding Tikal’s territory and presumably disrupting much of its economic interests. Wars flared up among these rival factions throughout the decades of the seventh century, and culminated in a direct conflict between Calakmul and Tikal on August 3, 695, when Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ lost in battle to Jasaw Chan K’awiil, king of Tikal. Mayanists had long assumed that the Calakmul king died or was captured in this engagement, but the new La Corona text tells us otherwise: Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ was clearly active and on the move, visiting La Corona and perhaps other trusted allies in the wake of his own inglorious defeat. Another newly found La Corona text tells us that Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ died not long afterwards, on March 31, 698.
La Corona had been for decades a prominent ally of the Kan court, and the two centers were bound also through strong family ties. Yuknoom Ch’een’s daughter had married a local La Corona king, whose younger brother, Chak Ak’ach Yuk, was on the Saknikte’ throne in 696. Clearly Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ was visiting more than just political allies after his defeat – he was visiting his close family relations. In carving this small block, the local lord of La Corona was once more asserting and documenting his strong political and familial alliance with Calakmul.
So why the reference to the year 2012? As is usual, the reason mostly has to do with the cosmological dimensions of ancient Maya politics and kingship. Calakmul’s king had only recently celebrated an important ending of 13 K’atun calendar cycle, in the year 692 (220.127.116.11.0), and in this text he is called a “13 K’atun lord.” The scribe has used this important ritual fact to project forward to when the next higher period of the Maya calendar will also reach 13 – a sacred Maya number — which will come on December 21, 2012 (18.104.22.168.0). There is no prediction involved; it is simply a literary device used by the scribe to place local political history in a larger cosmological framework.
Preliminary Comments on the Text
The dates and events recorded on Block V are as follows, in chronological order:
- (a) 22.214.171.124.10 10 Ok 8 Kumk’u – Ballgame at Saknikte’ (La Corona) involving Yuknoom Ch’een of Calakmul
- (b) 126.96.36.199.4 12 Kan 17 Woh – Possible “Founding” of Kan court at Calakmul
- (c) 188.8.131.52.5 13 Chicchan 18 Woh – unknown; event missing
- (d) 184.108.40.206.17 8 Kaban 10 Kumk’u – Visit of Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ to Saknikte’; carving of k’an tuun.
- (e) 10.0.0.0.0 7 Ahaw 18 Sip – Future PE
- (f) 220.127.116.11.0 4 Ahaw 3 K’ank’in – Future PE
Three of these dates (a, c and d) are wholly or partially missing, but they are reconstructable using the Distance Numbers visible in the inscription. A key example is the DN 18.104.22.168, recorded in blocks E6 and F6, that counts from one such missing date to the future 10.0.0.0.0 7 Ahaw 18 Sip Bak’tun ending. The starting point for this calculation is 22.214.171.124.17 8 Kaban 10 Kumku. This is surely the date for the visit the Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’, mentioned at C5-D6. It seems likely to me that this same date was mentioned in the opening passage of the text (columns A and B) given how prominent it is featured.
Another Distance Number can be made out at C3 and D3, with “3 k’atuns” just visible in the final position. This leads to the visit from a still earlier episode, recorded in columns A and B. The well-preserved CR date at the bottom of column B is 13 Chickchan 18 Woh, which, in light of the DN, must be 126.96.36.199.5. The record at B6a of “17 Woh” suggests an event one day earlier, on 188.8.131.52.4 12 K’an 17 Woh.
It was on this day that we see a key historical record, written at B6b. This is a verb familiar from other Maya inscriptions, nearly always appearing in association with place names. There is as yet no firm reading for the logogram sign that is the basis for this verb, but we know it seems to refer to the “founding” or “beginning” of rulers or of royal courts at specific locations. For example, it appears on Palenque’s Temple XVII panel before the place name Lakamha’, where it seems to refer to the establishment of an Early Classic king at a new location. Likewise it occurs on Piedras Negras Throne 1 as an Early Classic event, together with the “Paw Stone” place name of Piedras Negras. I have along assumed it refers to the creation of new political seats of power, even despite a firm phonetic reading. Here, it appears above the snake head with a ka- prefix – a distinctive combination we otherwise know to be the Emblem Glyph of Calakmul and Dzibanche. It seems reasonable to suppose that this event refers to the “founding” of the Kan or Kanul (Snake) court at the great center we know today as Calakmul – an interpretation that agrees very well with Simon Martin’s brilliant reconstruction of shifting court identifies Calakmul history (Martin 2005). As Martin noted several years ago:
The “short dynastic count” indicates that Yuknoom Ch’een exercised a pivotal place in the self-definition of the dynasty and its time at Calakmul, consistent with the idea that he was involved in a special “reconstitution” of the polity—apparently involving the relocation of the royal seat to Calakmul by him or his predecessor (emphasis added). The conspicuous success of the Snake kings in extending a network of patronage and military power in the sixth century may have made a more southerly location advantageous—which is not to ignore the potential symbolic value of occupying an ancient site that was once part of the Preclassic “heartland.” (Martin 2005:7)
Martin posited that this establishment of the Snake emblem at Calakmul took place under Yuknoom Ch’een, who we know to have acceded in 636 AD, (or 184.108.40.206.10 8 Ok 18 Sip; the 1 k’atun anniversary of this appears on Altar 1 of La Corona). The “founding” event recorded on Block V is on 220.127.116.11.4 – just over a year prior to the king’s inauguration. I would therefore argue, still somewhat tentatively, that Yuknoom Ch’een’s reign began right on the heels of the Snake court’s transference to Calakmul from Dzibanche. This was without question one of the major political events of Classic Maya history.
Returning to the particulars of Block V, it is important to note that neither of the two Woh dates mentioned at the bottom of columns A and B seems to be the starting point of the damaged DN written at C3, D3, which involves a span of over three k’atuns. I base this assumption on the glyph at C4 (pi-tzi-ji?-ya yu(ku)-CH’EEN) which points to the DN as counting from a ballgame event involving Yuknoom Ch’een. With only this single text to consider we might be left at sea trying to calculate the details of these events and time-spans, but resolution and clarity may come from another text discovered this year in HS 2, which also records a pitz ballgame involving Yuknoom Ch’een. Its date is 18.104.22.168.10 10 Ok 8 Kumk’u – just a short few months before the Calakmul founding. If we use this as the baseline for the DN (3.1?.?.?), we will find that it fits very well with the chronological details still to be discussed.
The featured event in the block comes as the result of this DN calculation, linking a ballgame in the distant past to a new, contemporaneous event. The verb (C5a) is a familiar one, i huli (“and then he arrives”), and its subject is named at C6 is Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ (yu-ku-no-yi-ICH’AAK-ki-K’AHK’) – another famous Calakmul king who was Yuknoom Ch’een’s successor (the skeletal head in his name glyph probably relates to a rare (Y)ICH’AAK head variant found in some early inscriptions). The Calakmul ruler also assumes an interesting title in the glyph preceding his name (D5) written as 18-U-BAAH-CHAN-nu. Waxaklahuun Ub’aah Chan is otherwise known as the name for the so-called Teotihuacan War Serpent, found in much militaristic iconography. I suspect that it here refers to a supernatural aspect or identity of the visiting Calakmul king, who was perhaps formally dressed in the trappings of a Teotihuacan-inspired warrior. The same ruler has the title also in Stela 1 from La Corona, in connection with his celebration of the k’atun ending 22.214.171.124.0.
It is noteworthy that no date is given for this royal visit. We will see that we can reconstruct the date based on the clear DN that follows, but its absence here strongly points to its having been recorded at the beginning of Block V’s inscription, in the opening passage now completely lost. This middle portion of the inscription therefore seems to reiterate the featured event after a sequence of passages that have given it some important context: that the royal visit by Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ occurs 60 years after an earlier ballgame at La Corona involving Yuknoom Ch’een, and about so much time after the seminal events of that king’s reign.
One interesting grammatical feature of this passage is the use of an independent pronoun ha’i (ha-i) immediately after the verb at C5b. I interpret its use here as a means of rhetorical emphasis, marking a subject who is not Yuknoom Ch’een, who has just been mentioned in the preceding phrase. I would translate the passage thus:
i huli ha’i Waxakluhuun Ub’aah Chan Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ k’uhul Kan ajaw.
“…then it is he who arrives, Waxaklahun Ubaah Chan Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’, the holy Kan lord.”
The arrival passage goes on for a number of glyphs, and includes mention of the another name after yi-ta (at C7). This is difficult to identify, but the eroded glyph at E1 looks as though it might be the name of a familiar figure from La Corona history, Chak Ak’ach Yuk, who would in fact have been ruler of La Corona at this time. This seems to be confirmed by the parentage statement at E2 through F5, where we see the names of Chak Ak’ach Yuk’s mother and father, Ix Chak Tok Ich’aak (F3) and Chak Nahb Chan (E5). The son and the parents are well known from other La Corona texts.
The well preserved DN at E6-F6 is 126.96.36.199, linking the focus of the narrative – the royal visit – to an anticipated Period Ending in the future, recorded at F7-H1 as “7 Ahaw 18 Sip, the tenth Bak’tun.” So now we have the date of the king’s arrival firmly anchored:
9.13. 3.16.17 8 Kaban 10 Kumk’u
+ 6.16. 1. 3
10. 0. 0. 0. 0 7 Ahaw 18 K’ank’in
And taking the earlier ballgame of Yuknoom Ch’een into account, we now can firmly reconstruct the earlier DN as C3 and D3 as:
9.10. 2. 1.10 10 Ok 8 Kumk’u
+ 3. 1.15. 7
9.13. 3.16.17 8 Kaban 10 Kumk’u
The passage from G2-H5 does not pertain to the future bak’tun ending, but instead notes something else that took place on the day of the king’s visit to la Corona — the carving of a k’an tuun stone (at H2, surely Block V itself) at Saknikte’ by the local ruler Chak Ak’ach Yuk (G4). This was witnessed or sanctioned by the visiting Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’, named at G5.
This dramatic leap forward in the narrative timeframe coupled with by a rapid return to the narrative present mirrors a pattern I have discussed earlier. Other texts at La Corona and elsewhere use the same rhetorical “boomerang” to anchor the narrative in terms of Period Endings yet to come, but always with a reiteration of the main event. Tortuguero’s Monument 6 presents another example. The closing passage in that inscription occupies a position parallel to G2-H5 here – not as a description of what will happen, but as a restatement of contemporary events.
As already noted, the Calakmul king takes the very unusual title “the 13 k’atun lord” (H5), clearly in reference to this king’s celebration of 188.8.131.52.0 in 692, just three years earlier. This title is reminiscent of another I know on an Early Classic celt, where a ruler who celebrated the bak’tun ending 184.108.40.206.0 is named as a “9 bak’tun lord.” Interestingly, Stela 1 of La Corona notes the 220.127.116.11.0 date and its ritual celebration by Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’, which was then witnessed by Chak Ak’ach Yuk of La Corona. Again this points again to the tight relations between the two centers.
The placement of the “13 k’atun lord” title is in clear juxtaposition with what comes next – the record of 4 Ahaw 3 K’ank’in (18.104.22.168.0), 3 bak’tuns forward in time. One curious glyph that intercedes is at G6a, apparently ha-jo-ma. I am not certain how to analyze this possible verb or temporal statement, but the ending clearly incorporates the suffixes –Vj-oom, the latter being a common future marker (as in tzutz-j-oom, “it will end” or “it will have ended.”). It occupies the position where we would usually find a DN, before uht-oom, “it will happen.” I wonder if this might be in some way related to the Ch’olan temporal adverb hal, “a long time,” due to its future position in the narrative: “it will be a long time…” Might there be a –la infix in the forehead of the skull, to give ha-la-jo-ma? An attractive possibility, perhaps, but still highly speculative. The record of “3 bak’tuns” at the very end of the text of course tells us that the 2012 PE is three such periods after 10.0.0.0.0.
This remains a very preliminary assessment of the new La Corona inscription, and a more formal analysis of the block and the other new texts is now in preparation. The basic message of this one text is nonetheless clear: it commemorates a key political event in the life of La Corona’s court, namely the visit by a ruling king of Calakmul just months after he had been defeated in war. No details of the shifting geopolitics of this time are given, but we do have an emphasis on the episode’s temporal and cosmological context. Soon before his defeat at the hands of Tikal, Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ had been the celebrant of the great k’atun ending of the era, 22.214.171.124.0. His unusual title here “13 k’atun lord” emphasizes this key part of his identity, and is carefully juxtaposed with a mention of the like-in-kind 126.96.36.199.0 bak’tun ending in order to place the king’s rule and status on a much broader temporal stage. So even in inglorious defeat, Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ was still the King of Time.
Acknowledgements: I would like to express my special thanks to Marcello Canuto and Tomás Barrientos Quezada for their support, insights, and hospitality in the field. My activities at La Corona were supported by PRALC as well as the Mesoamerica Center in the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Austin.
UPDATE: It is important to clarify that the idea of a shift in the use of the Kan or Kanul emblem glyph from Dzibanche to Calakmul was also developed and published by Erik Velasquez Garcia, who presented his findings at the 2004 Mesa Redonda de Palenque. This important article was eventually published in 2008 (Velásquez Garcia 2008).
Martin, Simon, 2005. Of Snakes and Bats: Shifting Identities at Calakmul. The PARI Journal 6(2):5-15. http://www.mesoweb.com/pari/publications/journal/602/SankesBats.pdf
Velásquez Garcia, Erik. 2008. Los posibles alcances territoriales de la influencia política de Dzibanché durante el Clásico temprano: nuevas alternativas para interpretar las menciones históricas sobre la entidad política de Kan. In El territorio maya: memoria de la Quinta Mesa Redonda de Palenque, pp. 323-352, edited by Rodrigo Liendo Stuardo. México, D.F.: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.