Lagunita’s Unusual “Six Ajaw Stone” Reply

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.

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 west 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.


References Cited:

Ashmore, Wendy. 1992. Deciphering Maya Architectural Plans. In New Theories on the Ancient Maya, edited by Elin Danien and Robert J. Sharer, pp. 173-184. University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Braswell, Geoffrey E., and Nancy Peniche May. 2012. In the Shadow of the Pyramid: Excavations of the Great Platform of Chichen Itza. In The Ancient Maya of Mexico: Reinterpreting the Past of the Northern Maya Lowlands, edited by Geoffrey E. Braswell, pp. 229-263. Equinox, London.

Christenson, Allen J. 2007. Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Coe, William R. 1990. Excavations in the Great Plaza, North Terrace and North Acopolis of Tikal. Tikal Report 14. 6 vols. University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Demarest, Arthur, Héctor Escobedo, Juan-Antonio Valdés, Lori Wright, Kitty Emery, and Stephen Houston. 1991 Arqueología, epigrafía y el descubrimiento de una tumba real en el centro ceremonial de Dos Pilas, Peten, Guatemala. U tz’ib 1(1):14-28.

Graham, Ian. 1996. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 7, Part 1: Seibal. 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, Héctor Escobedo, and Zachary Nelson. 2008. Encontrando el contexto para la historia y la historia para el contexto: Excavaciones en la estructura K-5 de Piedras Negras, Guatemala. Mayab 20: 45-63.

Pontrandolfo, Angela, and Agnès Rouveret. 1992. Le tombe dipinte di Paestum. Franco Cosimo Panini, Modena.

Potter, David. 2012. The Victor’s Crown: A History of Ancient Sport from Homer to Byzantium. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Ruppert, Karl. 1935. The Caracol at Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication 454. Carnegie Institution of Washington, DC.

_____________. 1952 Chichen Itza: Architectural Notes and Plans. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication 595. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Sharer, Robert J., David W. Sedat, Loa P. Traxler, Julia C. Miller, and Ellen E. Bell. 2005. Early Classic Royal Power in Copan: The Origins and Development of the Acropolis (ca. A.D. 250-600). In Copán: The History of an Ancient Maya Kingdom, edited by E. Wyllys Andrews and William L Fash, pp. 139-199. School of American Research Press, Santa Fe.

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.

Stuart, David. 2013. Tonina’s Curious Ballgame.

Thompson, Edward H. 1938. The High Priest’s Grave, Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico. Anthropological Series, Field Museum of Natural History 27(1). Chicago.

Ville, Georges. 1981. La gladiature en Occident des origines à la mort de Domitien. Bibliothèque des écoles françaises d’Athènes et de Rome, fasc. 245e. Ecole française de Rome, Rome.

Naachtun’s Stela 24 and the Entrada of 378 3

by David Stuart (The University of Texas at Austin)

A recent press announcement in Guatemala revealed the discovery of two important early stelae at the site of Naachtun. The monuments are in bad shape, but one stela contains interesting and important information on aspects of the now famous entrada of Sihyaj K’ahk’ into the Peten region in 378 A.D.

Stela 24 from Naachtun, Guatemala. Photograph by Ignacio Cases.

Stela 24 from Naachtun, Guatemala. Photograph by Ignacio Cases.

As the project epigraphers Alfonso Lacadena and Ignacio Cases note, Stela 24 names a local ruler of Naachtun who is said to be the y-ajaw or y-ajawte’ (“vassal”, roughly) of Sihyaj K’ahk’ himself. The inscription references the dates 9 Oc 13 Mac and  10 Chuen 14 Mac — two sequential days before the stated arrival of Sihyaj K’ahk’ to Tikal on 11 Eb 15 Mac. One might surmise that this indicates Sihyaj K’ahk’s actual presence at Naachtun as he was making his way to Tikal, but it should be cautioned that the text merely states a political relationship, not an itinerary. This is itself important, for the inscription might well imply that Sihyaj K’ahk’ had some sort of political infrastructure in place in the Peten before his arrival to Tikal. Remarkable.

Back in 2000 I published an analysis of the historical texts surrounding the “11 Eb episode” in which I made the case that Sihyaj K’ahk’s arrived into the central Peten from the west and caused a major political disruption at Tikal and Uaxactun (Stuart 2000). Whoever Sihyaj K’ahk’ was — and we still don’t know much — he apparently had some significant political backing from Teotihuacan. Today we take the Teotihuacan entrada interpretation largely for granted, yet it is important to remember that in the late 1980s and 1990s the prevailing interpretation of the 378 event was very different, seeing it as a far more localized conflict between Tikal and Uaxactun. This was presented in dramatic fashion in Chapter 4 of Schele and Friedel’s A Forest of Kings (1990:130-164). My 2000 paper went against that grain and was quite controversial when it appeared. Nevertheless, subsequent finds at sites such as El Peru, La Sufricaya, and now Naachtun have demonstrated how the arrival of 378 was indeed a major disruption involving “strangers” from afar (to echo Proskouriakoff’s original insights) and resulting in wide-ranging changes in the politics and history of the Early Classic Maya.

Marcador och-ch'een

The och ch’een conquest glyph from the Marcador of Tikal.

In the years since that paper was written I’ve become even more convinced that the arrival of Sihyaj K’ahk’ was an outright conquest. Perhaps the most compelling and direct textual evidence comes from the so-called Marcador text of Tikal, in the passage that describes the arrival event in some detail. Here we see a secondary phrase introduced by the verb och ch’een, “enters the town,” or “enters the territory.” It’s a gorgeously rendered glyph (see photo) showing a snake’s tail (OCH) entering into the eye of the owl that is the head-variant of CH’EEN. There can be no mistake of its reading; och ch’een is awell-known term for military conquest found throughout Maya inscriptions, at sites such as Palenque and Dzibanche. This key piece of evidence supports the conquest model very explicitly, although I didn’t have it well-formed in my mind when I wrote that earlier analysis. (The CH’EEN reading came in 1998 or so, just as I wrote and circulated a first draft).

Of course there is still much we do not understand about the 378 entrada and its long-lasting repercussions. Even so, the broad outlines are discernible enough to allow us to say that the conquest of that year was a turning point in ancient Maya history. We now know that it was not a local conflict, but a transformative episode for the Early Classic period in general, instigated one way or another by Teotihuacan and its powerful political influence and military might. Its memory lasted for generations among the elite of the Maya lowlands, and had far-reaching effects on the political and ideological culture of the later Classic Maya.

Sources Cited

Schele, Linda, and David Freidel. A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya. William Morrow, New York.

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. 465-514. University Press of Colorado, Boulder.

BOOKS: Place and Identity in Classic Maya Narratives 1


A New Publication from Dumbarton Oaks:


by Alexander Tokovinine

Dumbarton Oaks Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology Series

Understanding the ways in which human communities define themselves in relation to landscapes has been one of the crucial research questions in anthropology. Place and Identity in Classic Maya Narratives addresses this question in the context of the Classic Maya culture that thrived in the lowlands of the Yucatan peninsula and adjacent parts of Guatemala, Belize, and Western Honduras from 350 to 900 CE. The Classic Maya world of numerous polities, each with its own kings and gods, left a rich artistic and written legacy permeated by shared aesthetics and meaning. Alexandre Tokovinine explores the striking juxtaposition of similar cultural values and distinct political identities by looking at how identities were formed and maintained in relation to place, thus uncovering what Classic Maya landscapes were like in the words of the people who created and experienced them. By subsequently examining the ways in which members of Classic Maya political communities placed themselves on these landscapes, Tokovinine attempts to discern Classic Maya notions of place and community as well as the relationship between place and identity.

Maya Hieroglyphic Syllabary Reply

glyphpg3I recently posted a pdf of a sign syllabary here on Maya Decipherment, under the new header category “Glyph Resources.” A number of other similar charts are available on the internet but many show a few small inaccuracies.  This syllabary only displays the principal variants of some signs and is in no way exhaustive; due to space constraints it omits some less common or obscure variants and forms.

The signs more-or-less reflect the style and paleography used by Maya scribes in the Late Classic period, around 700 A.D.

This is “Version 2″ of the chart, slightly modified from one I prepared for the Sourcebooks of the UT Maya Meetings in 2005. I plan to update the syllabary form time-to-time as new readings or other changes come along.

Maya Hieroglyph Syllabary