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

ARCHIVES: Glyphs on Pots 1

by David Stuart

At the 2005 Maya Meetings at the University of Texas at Austin I presented a short analysis and overview of the “Dedicatory Formula,” the standardized glyphic text found on countless Maya ceramics and other (mainly) portable objects. This is also sometimes known as the “Primary Standard Sequence” (PSS), following Michael Coe’s original identification. As we came to understand during the 1980s, the Dedicatory Formula is basically a glorified name-tag for important objects and artworks.  At its core is a possessed noun for the thing itself (i.e., “her cup”) and the owner’s personal name. More extended versions add other details, such something about its decorative mode (painted or carved) and function (“for cacao,” for example). The Dedicatory Formula held great meaning in the artistic and economic life of Maya courts during the Early and Late Classic periods, marking personal connections for important prestige objects and gifts.


Here I’m posting a pdf of the 2005 sourcebook that accompanied my part of that year’s presentation, hoping it might be a useful resource. It should be noted that it doesn’t cover everything, and that some of the information here and there might be slightly out of date.

Glyphs on Pots: Decoding Classic Maya Ceramics by David Stuart (pdf file)

ARCHIVES: Poe on Stephens 1

by David Stuart

From time to time some small interesting item from the early days of Maya archaeology catches my eye. For example, I recently came across Edgar Allen Poe’s brief review of John Lloyd Stephens’s Incidents of Travel in Central America Chiapas and Yucatan (1839), from an 1841 issue of Graham’s Magazine. Poe chided Stephens for having mistranslated a couple of lines of Hebrew in his earlier book on Egypt and Arabia, but he had kind things to say about the new work, even though he hadn’t even read it yet(?!):

We are not prepared to say that misunderstandings of this character will be found in the present “Incidents of Travel.”  Of Central America and her antiquities Mr. Stephens may know, and no doubt does know, as much as the most learned antiquarian. Here all is darkness. We have not yet received from the Messieurs Harper a copy of the book, and can only speak of its merits from general report and from the cursory perusal which has been afforded us by the politeness of a friend. The work is certainly a magnificent one — perhaps the most interesting book of travel ever published. An idea has gone abroad that the narrative is confined to descriptions and drawings of Palenque; but this is very far from the case. Mr. S. explored no less than six ruined cities. The “incidents,” moreover, are numerous and highly amusing. The traveller visited these regions at a momentous time, during the civil war, in which Carrera and Morazan were participants. He encountered many dangers, and his hair-breadth escapes are particularly exciting.

REPORT: Name and Image on Two Codex-style Vessels 3

by David Stuart

Among the many images in Justin Kerr’s wondrous database of Maya vases are two codex style vessels, K1552 and K1647 (Figures 1 and 2). These are part of a much larger set of vessels that bear symbols and iconography inspired by Teotihuacan, including images of so-called war-serpents and “Tlalocs” (see Robiscek and Hales 1981: Tables 5, 6, 7, 15, and 16). Many of these look to be painted by the same artist, including the two pictured here.

Rollout of Kerr 1552, showing jaguar paw and fire elements flanking a central k'an cross, in pseudo-Teotihuacan style. Photograph by Justin Kerr.

Figure 1. Rollout of Kerr 1552, showing jaguar paw and fire elements flanking a central k’an cross, in pseudo-Teotihuacan style. Photograph by Justin Kerr.

Rollout of Kerr 1647, showing two pseudo-Teotihuacan figures with jaguar paw and flame elements. Photograph by Justin Kerr.

Figure 2. Rollout of Kerr 1647, showing two pseudo-Teotihuacan figures with jaguar paw and flame elements. Photograph by Justin Kerr.

Compared those many vessels the imagery on K1152 and K1647 stands out. We see repeating ornate designs exhibiting k’an crosses, “fans” and other elements that commonly are used to evoke a Teotihuacan style in Late Classic Maya art (I suspect many of these elements have origins in butterfly imagery — another frequent theme of Early Classic central Mexican iconography). The design of K1152 is somewhat simpler than on K1647, where a human figure is added to the mix. He wears a so-called “tassled headdress” — here a rare Late Classic depiction — that is a familiar feature of Teotihuacan warriors throughout Mesoamerican art (Millon 1988).

Two elements seem to be featured in the repeating iconographic assemblages on each vessel — a protruding jaguar paw to the left of each design, and a prominent set of curving flames to the right. It’s an odd combination that doesn’t find parallel in the repetoire of Maya or Teotihuacan iconography, as far as I’m aware. But the paw and the flames are otherwise familiar as hieroglyphic elements that spell the core component of the royal name Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’, who ruled at Calakmul as the king of the Kaanal (or Kaanul) kingdom from to 686 to 697 CE. In truncated examples his name is simply written with a jaguar paw (ICH’AAK) and fire (K’AHK’), for Yich’aak K’ahk’, “Claw of Fire” (the phonetic prefix yi- in Figure 3d provides the prevocalic possessive pronoun y-).

FIgure 3. Name variants of the Calakmul ruler Yuknoom Yich'aak K'ahk'. (Drawings a and b by David Stuart; c and d by Simon Martin).

FIgure 3. Name variants of the Calakmul ruler Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’. (Drawings a and b by David Stuart; c and d by Simon Martin).

I have to wonder if the icons on the two related vessels are symbolic references to this important Calakmul king. Could the profiles shown on K1647 be his portrait? Throughout Maya art royal names could be routinely displayed in a similar fashion, where the elements of script often assumed the appearance of iconography. We often find such names in headdresses, for example, where the lines between image and script seem almost completely blurred (a playful overlap that Maya scribes and artists were apparently trained to feature and exploit).

The connection of these vases to Calakmul goes well beyond any strained visual link. It’s now firmly established that these and other codex-style vessels were produced in the so-called Mirador “Basin” (a geographical misnomer) at centers such as Nakbe, which were evidently in the close political sphere of Calakmul (Reents-Budet, et. al. 2010). The stylistic allusions to Teotihuacan are suggestive as well. According to a two different references in the inscriptions of La Corona, Yich’aak K’ahk’ assumed the unusual title Waxaklajuun Ubaah Chan, a name otherwise closely associated with the so-called Teotihuacan War Serpent. These can be found on Stela 1 and on Block V of Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 (Figure 4). The title probably alludes to Yich’aak K’ahk’s importance as a powerful warrior during a time he was warring with Calakmul’s great southern rival Tikal.

FIgure 4. Teotihuacan War Serpent title with the name of Yuknoom Yich'aak K'ahk', from Block 5 of Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 at La Corona. (Drawing by David Stuart)

Figure 4. The Teotihuacan War Serpent title with the name of Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’, from Block 5 of Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 at La Corona. (Drawing by David Stuart)

The timing for such a personal reference seems about right, too, for many if not most codex-style ceramics appear to have been produced in a relatively short span of a few decades in the late seventh and early eight centuries.

Readers might wonder why I haven’t addressed what the line of glyphs on the vessels actually say. The texts below the rims of the two vessels are nearly identical. Both are standard dedicatory formulae, marking them as drinking cups for cacao, and owned by a k’uhul cha(?)tahn winik, a “holy person” of place or court named Cha(?)tahn (the reading of one of the signs as cha in this context is uncertain; I suspect it may be a logogram of unknown value, and not the syllable sign cha). This may be an indirect reference to a character named Yopaat Bahlam, who carries this same title and is named on many codex style vessels. I suspect, as others probably have, that he was a local ruler of the Late Classic settlement at Nakbe or somewhere nearby, as well as being a subordinate ally under Calakmul’s power.

So in sum, I tentatively suggest that the two vases shown may have been painted ca. 690 CE to commemorate Calakmul’s warrior-king Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’. Their decorations look to be personal references to that k’uhul ajaw — emblem-like name glyphs melded with iconographic allusions to Teotihuacan. It’s probably significant that the writing system that was actually used at Teotihuacan consisted of proper names written in a similar emblematic manner (Taube 2000). The painter of these two vessels may have wanted to show the king’s name using a mix of Teotihuacan and Maya styles, not unlike the glyphs rendered in the Teotihuacan “font” in the Temple Inscription from Temple 26 at Copan (Stuart 2005).


Millon, Clara. 1988. “A reexamination of the Teotihuacan tassel headdress insignia.” In Feathered Serpents and Flowering Trees: Reconstructing the Murals of Teotihuacan, edited by Kathleen Berrin, pp. 114-134. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco.

Reents-Budet, Dorie, Sylviane Boucher Le Landais, Yoly Paloma Carillo, Ronald L. Bishop and M. James Blackman. 2010. Codex Style Ceramics: New Data Concerning Patterns of Production and Distribution. Paper presented at the XXIV Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatamala, 2010, Guatemala City.

Stuart, David. 2005. A Foreign Past: The Writing and Representation of History on A Royal Ancestral Shrine at Copan.  In Copan: The History of An Ancient Maya Kingdom, edited by E. Wyllys Andrews and William L. Fash.  pp. 373-394.  The School of American Research Press, Santa Fe.

Taube, Karl. 2000. The Writing System of Ancient Teotihuacan. Ancient America I. Center for Ancient American Studies, Barnardsville, NC and Washington, DC.