Bamboo–A Neglected Maya Material?

by Stephen Houston (Brown University), Karl Taube (UC-Riverside), Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach (UT-Austin), and Timothy Beach (UT-Austin)


Building sites in Hong Kong often show a collision between tradition and modernity: bamboo scaffolds, some thirty stories high, envelop skyscrapers under construction (Figure 1; Waters 1998; also Sky-high scaffoldsBamboo spider-men). The virtues of the material are that it is “primitive without being old-fashioned, time-saving without being insecure, and economical without being impracticable” (Waters 1998:20). Less eloquent explanations are that, unlike scaffolds of metal, bamboo can be stored in the open without risk of theft; the material is also inexpensive, sustainable, flexible, reusable (up to three times, depending on conditions of storage), quickly erected, and cantilevered with relative ease over empty spaces (Waters 1998:26, 30).



Figure 1. Bamboo scaffolding, Causeway Bay neighborhood, Hong Kong (Photograph by Claire Gribbin, Creative Commons License).


Bamboo tends to be seen as quintessentially oriental. Its tender shoots, processed to remove toxins (cyanogenic glycosides, also in cassava), find their way into many dishes, and an entire sub-genre of Chinese painting, the “Four Gentlemen” or “Noble Ones,” focuses on its depiction along with peers like the plum blossom, chrysanthemum, and orchid (bamboo embodies the summer, the others, respectively, winter, autumn, spring; see also Cahill 1997:187–192; see also Bickford 1999:147, on literary and visual traditions of bamboo and other plants; Hsü 1996:25, on links to gentlemanly virtue). The experience of a bamboo forest, as Houston has experienced it on the outskirts of Kyoto, figures among the “100 Soundscapes of Japan” under protection by the Japanese Ministry of the Environment (Torigoe 1999).

But bamboo occurs more widely than that, and with consequences for understanding the ancient Maya. According to one source, “New World bamboos account for approximately half of the total generic and specific bamboo diversity” (Clark 1990:126; for Guatemala, see McClure 1973:88, 105, 106). An ethnobotany of the Tzotzil in Zinacantán, Chiapas, accords a page to them, and gives the plants a full array of local terms: bix (the generic category, “all bamboos, reeds or sprawling, reed-like plants,” Breedlove and Laughlin 2000:150), muk’ta ne kotom, yaxal otot, antzil bix, ton bix, chanib, and k’ox ne kotom (Figure 2; re: muk’ta ne kotom, “large coati tail,” there is a ko-to-ma on La Rejolla Stela 1:I9 [files at the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Peabody Museum, Harvard University], but the context is unclear; note, too, that the term “bamboo,” evidently of Malay origin, did not enter European languages until the 1590s or later, etymology). Some grow to over 20 m long, within “ravines in the understory of tropical deciduous forests in the lower temperate and lowland areas” (Breedlove and Laughlin 2000:150). Others are cut by men but brought home to women for use in looms, or do service as banner poles or the staffs of shamans (Breedlove and Laughlin 2000:150). A vigorous shake of a staff will protect the shaman from watchdogs. Many native species are known in Guatemala (bamboo in Guatemala). Today, in the Peten, the northernmost province, workers on archaeological projects used saplings or bamboo in equal measure, depending on proximity (Andrew Scherer, personal communication, 2017).


bamboo breedlove.jpg


Figure 2. Bamboos among the Tzotzil Maya (Breedlove and Laughlin 2000:plate 10). 


While charged with working on the stuccoes of the Diablo pyramid at El Zotz, Guatemala, one of us (Taube) noted the presence of scaffold images with unusual attributes (Taube and Houston 2015:219–221). Criss-crossed poles had cross-wise stripes (a sign of darkness or even the color red? [see Stone and Zender 2011:124–125]), symmetrical volutes at what appeared to be natural joins in the material, and signs of lashing to keep the frame solid (Figure 3A). It soon became clear that the sign appeared on a variety of so-called “accession scaffolds” ranging in date from the San Bartolo murals of c. 100 BC to stelae at Piedras Negras, Guatemala, of Late Classic date (Figure 3C; Taube and Houston 2015:fig. 5.12). Other such trussed scaffolds exist, as on Stelae 1 and 2 at Cancuen, Guatemala, but there with what appear to be ta/TAJ signs for “pine,” also a lightweight material (Maler 1908:plates 12.2, 13.1; Figure 3B). For the first set of images, Taube conjectured that the vegetal material was none other than bamboo, in which small tufts shoot directly out of the surface (the culm internodes), often at joins (Figure 4).



Figure 3. Bamboo in Maya imagery: (A) Diablo Structure F8-1 Sub IB, with cross-bands indicated (image by CAST); (B) Cancuen Stela 1, east side, with queen, pine struts cued (Maler 1908:plate 13.1); and (C) Piedras Negras Stela 11, base (drawing by David Stuart). 



 Figure 4. Bamboo: (A) trunk with tufts at natural breaks [culm nodes] (Creative Commons); and (B) curling tufts, Sagano Bamboo Forest, Arashiyama district, Kyoto, Japan (photograph by Stephen Houston).


A singular advantage of Maya text and image, where both stand in close relation, is that, if plausibly interpreted, one helps to explain the other. It is possible that two spellings buttress the reading: one comes from a tomb painting at Río Azul, the other from the name of the Temple of the Foliated Cross (or at least its interior temple) at Palenque (Figure 5; see also the spelling on the altar of Temple XXI:G10). The example at Palenque may be our best point of entry, for it appears to contain bamboo struts, as well as two other elements (a snouted being and K’AN crosses). The one missing element, other than the NAAH for “structure,” are three vertical sprouts of vegetation. That is, an epigraphic control exists in which bamboo and its glyphic referent appear to be isolable. In fuller form, as at Río Azul, another part of the sprouted glyph appears, in this case a sign with vertical lines and horizontal dots. This glyph recalls another, a slightly distinct one, with tufts rather than leaf-like extrusions, that carries a proposed reading of AK or AKAN, “grass” (Stuart 2005:180 fn.59).



Figure 5. Bamboo in imagery, possibly in text: (A) East wall of Río Azul Tomb 6 (photograph by George F. Mobley, courtesy George Stuart); (B) glyphs of the Temple of the Foliated Cross, Alfarda:H1 (drawing by Linda Schele, photographer unknown); (C) roof of interior shrine, Temple of the Foliated Cross, bamboo cross-struts with K’AN crosses, corresponding to elements of name glyph (drawing by David Stuart); and (D) wall panel from interior shrine, Temple of the Foliated Cross (drawing by Linda Schele, Schele and Mathews 1979:#302). 


But what to make of the sign that appears to refer to bamboo, the element with three vertical shoots? Pondering this evidence, Houston posited a reading of JAL because of the subfixed la syllable at Río Azul; a second such version, spelling ch’o-ko ?JAL-la yi-?cha-ni AJAW, is far later, from a jamb in Temple XIX at Palenque [Stuart 2005:fig. 20a]). Moreover, the YAX-JAL-la NAAH, “Green-blue Bamboo House” (a notional arbor?), seemed quite similar to the term for “bamboo” in Tzotzil: yaxal otoot (the latter being the word for “dwelling,” see above).

Of further interest were the following entries in Ch’orti’ Maya, the language closest to most of the inscriptions (Wisdom 1950, with the usual substitution in that language of r for l in some contexts):

harar                 ‘reed [generic], carrizo (a tall wild grass), arrow’

harar ak           ‘cane grass, reed grass [generic]; zacate amargo (tall wild carrizo-like                                                grass)’

noxi’ harar       ‘a wild cane’

…and the telling gloss,

mak te’ harar   ‘vara de bambu (lowland dwarfish bamboo)’

Makte’ is simply a term for “fence” (“enclosure-tree/wood”), here specified as to construction material. Note too that, in cognate terms, j substitutes for h in many other Mayan languages, hence har/hal equates in such cases to jal (Kaufman 1983:1158). The usual trajectory of glyphic research is for someone else to have been there first. So too here, in a lexical listing by Erik Boot (2009:26, 82). Boot however, focused on “reed,” when other plants, namely, varieties of bamboo, might have been the actual target here.

The implications for Maya civilization are potentially momentous. Bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants in the world. The Guinness Book of World Records mentions species known to thrust upwards at 91 cm a day (Guinness). The rhizome-dependent pattern of growth in bamboo also makes them, to many a gardener’s dislike, hard to control yet endlessly abundant under certain conditions. Was this, in fact, an overlooked resource in Mayanist research, planted, tended, harvested, and widely employed when other vegetation proved scarce because of deforestation?

In the Orient, bamboo goes into buckets and all manner of receptacles, medicines, building materials, delectable food (again, if processed). A list from a traditional village in China dizzies with possibilities: “They live in bamboo houses, eat bamboo shoots, wear bamboo hats and shoes, cook food in utensils made of bamboo culm internodes, walk over bamboo bridges or cross rivers on bamboo rafts, and farm with bamboo tools” (Yang et al. 2004:161, Table 4). Such broad use, including use in the making of musical instruments, occurs throughout the indigenous Americas (Berlin et al. 1974:131; Judziewicz et al. 1999). Utensils in some Maya imagery might have been made of this perishable material, providing, according to one proposal, the formal source of Maya cylinder vases, later reproduced in fired clay (Bruhns 1994). The segmentation of bamboo also characterizes the depiction of atlatl or spear-throwers at the beginnings of the Late Classic period (Figure 6). Bamboo would have been grown, selected for desired width, and cut to suitable length.



Figure 6. Possible use of bamboo atlatl or spear-throwers (K2036, Photograph by Justin Kerr, © Justin Kerr). 

Other thoughts intrude: were the external holes in walls at Tikal simply for ventilation, or did some serve as footings for bamboo scaffolds? The relentless assault on plaster in the tropics, with the logical need for future repair, might explain these features (Figure 6, upper left; see also Coe 1990:figs. 209, 321; also, Penn Tikal Archive, #C63-004-0021, for close-up views of Temple I and its comparable holes). That is, provision was made for continued refurbishment or washes of lime-plaster. The complete decay of some vault-struts, now seen only as holes, many round, raise the possibility that at least some of them were of bamboo. Moreover, at Piedras Negras, Guatemala, Houston and his team found bushels of bajareque, mud placed on wattle that had baked into near-ceramics by random (or set) fires in buildings. The bajareque often preserves evidence of cylindrical wattle, perhaps also of readily harvested bamboo (unfortunately, few sections are long enough to detect its distinct segmentation); a similar find, wit. Such remains were found with wattle-and-daub at Cerén, El Salvador (Lentz and Ramírez-Soza 2002:34). And if deforestation were at all relevant, as appears to be true in many places, bamboo, with its rapid in growth and varied use, might even have been cultivated.



Figure 7. Upper left, back of Structure 5D-23, 1st-B, rear elevation, holes highlighted in red (Coe 1990:fig. 129), and, lower right, bajareque, Operation PN11A-3-4 (photograph by Stephen Houston).


A chart of biosilicates extracted from the main aguada or reservoir in El Zotz, Guatemala, reveals a possible signature of this cultivation: the abundance, in the Late Classic period, of “native grasses,” which may represent the residue of bamboo (Figure 8; Beach et al. 2015:272). Bamboo has been found in late tombs in Río Bec, Mexico (Dussol et al. 2016:67), as well as in Chinikiha, also in Mexico (Trabanino and Núñez 2014: 156), but it seems also that the “great anatomic homogeneity of the monocotyledons [a flowering plant category to which bamboo belongs], as well as the lack of an anatomic reference collection specific to neotropical bamboos,” complicates their precise detection (Dusoll et al. 2016:67, for quotation, 63). Further, as archaeological residue, bamboos are fragile, preserve poorly, and “rapid combustion [of them] generally does not produce charcoal remains” (Dusoll et al. 2016:66). Another specialist underscores the problems of identification: “Poaceae pollen [in the taxonomic family that contains bamboo] is very plain in appearance via light microscopy, and the palynologist must always be careful not to confuse maize pollen with the similar-looking pollen of other grasses, aquatic grasses, or bamboos” (Morse 2009:177, citing Horn 2006:368). For his part, Kazuo Aoyama (personal communication, 2017), the most expert practitioner of microwear analysis in the Maya region, has actually tested bamboo and found it indistinguishable from other woods and pithy material in its effect on lithics (Aoyama 1989:202; Aoyama 1995:131; 1996:Tables 3.13. 3.14). Its “signature” appears to be ambiguous.

Perhaps, as has been suggested for pine, such plants were more commonly used than supposed, to be grown, moved, and traded as valued resources (Lentz et al. 2005). Its working, if discernible as to family or genus, may yet appear as residue on Maya stone tools (Andrew Scherer, personal communication, 2017). Or, like bamboo in many places, the plants grew to copious extent but became less salient in Maya lives as the forests (and other vegetal materials) recovered, populations declined, and need dropped. Of sufficient importance to appear in Classic art, and in dynastic and godly shrines, bamboo had receded in cultural and practical importance: it had become the stuff of shamans’ staffs yet sidelined from widespread use.



Figure 8. Diagram of biosilicates, including possible bamboo pollen from El Zotz, Guatemala (Beach et al. 2015:Fig. 12.5).


Acknowledgements  This essay benefitted greatly from discussions with David Stuart, who drew our attention to the Boot citation. Our good colleague, Jeffrey Moser, helped with sources on Chinese painting, Kazuo Aoyama commented on bamboo and microwear, Barbara Arroyo provided a key source, and Andrew Scherer offered comments on plant use in Peten, Guatemala.



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The Fourth Wall

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

A fraternity of animals awaits visitors to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. There, on a page of the Indian epic, the Rāmāyaṇama, monkeys and bears gather as part of Rama’s army, soon to attack Rāvaṇa, his mortal enemy (Figure 1, Jain-Neubauer 1981:55, fig. 21). Commissioned in the early 1700s by some Rajput prince, the miniature had a devotional use, but it also served to entertain and instruct, as revealed “on special occasions” to “the eyes of connoisseurs” (Jain-Neubauer 1981:9). The lateral flow of events is consistent with these paintings. Yet there, in grinning vignette, a monkey peers out at us. His bear and monkey companions are quite stolid by comparison, for the most part looking stiffly at the enemy fortress to the left. A few stroke and clutch each other in worry or maybe they yearn to claw their way into battle.



Figure 1. Detail of Pahari miniature, Rāvaṇa sends out Śuka to spy on Rāma’s army, c. AD 1725–30, Guler State, India, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 17.2745 (photograph by Basile Baudez). 


The grinning monkey has broken the “fourth wall.” He has penetrated the divide between those inside a text, image or performance and those outside. In a sense, the spectator has become a participant. Shakespeare deployed this effect in various plays, as did Thornton Wilder in Our Town and Martin Scorsese in Goodfellas. The director Konstantin Stanislavski, father of “method acting,” and a fixture of avant-garde productions from my college years, used it to rethink modern theater.

Literary theory and cinematic studies might see the fourth wall as a “meta-reference,” an actor’s awareness that he or she exists within a work of art. There are others, those outside, who look on. As the wall crumbles, they are coaxed into the “storyworld” of a text or image (Kukkonen 2013:65), and a particular time, space, and frame reach out to enfold the viewer. The results may vary, but one can imagine responses like empathy, surprise or amusement. There is another subtlety too. In the Indian miniature, viewers may believe this is a flat painting, no monkeys present. Yet, in a word devised by the philosopher Tamar Gendler, they alieve that world of bears and heroic kings to be true and accessible (Gendler 2008). We see the monkey, and he sees us. Most likely, of course, viewers know there is no assembly of animal warriors. They are happy, however, to suspend that notion, the better to immerse themselves in the story. People can feel and believe several things at once.

Most Maya narrative images are of distinct if related storyworlds. In them, the viewer is distanced, a witness at best. [Note 1] There are exceptions, to be sure, ones that transport the spectator across the fourth wall. A monkey might look out from a perch on a mythic mountain, as cheeky as any Rajput beast, or an owl from under the bed of a cuckolded god. Indeed, owls are often shown this way. Perhaps the Maya did so to emphasize their sight or to evoke the en face conventions of the distant city of Teotihuacan [some of the earliest glyphs with frontal owls occur in personal names linked to that far place]; Figure 2A, B). Other figures are human. One is a tortured captive looking out plaintively in an image where everyone else seems to ignore the viewer (Figure 2C). By implication, the people in charge could not care less (to my mind, Maya art hints at a faint sense of disdain for the viewer, almost a devaluing of their status [but see Note 1]). Another presents a high-ranking subordinate who spells out gesturally, with fussy precision, how such minions should pose (Figure 2D). Even his hat is slightly risible, and the image in general expresses an important record of one major kingdom abasing itself before another.




Figure 2. Breaking through the fourth wall: A) Berlin Vase (K6547); B) birds under bed (K1182); C) captive in tributary scene (K680); and D) emissary from Calakmul at Tikal (K5453).  


The frontal view of a face or body as a sign of misery is hardly common in Maya art. But it does appear as a consistent theme after the first years of the Late Classic period. And there is so much misery to go around: a gutted captive (with wispy mustache?), takes time from his agony to peer through the fourth wall (Figure 3A); a sacrificial baby lies uncomfortably on its belly, face contorted to the viewer (Figure 3C); a possible captive lolls his head, a bound figure just barely visible to the right (Figure 3D); and a cuckolded god of the hunt languishes–is he ill?–while a deer carries off his probable wife (Figure 3E). Among the few glyphs with such faces is the head of a dead person with eyes closed, mouth in a rictus (Figure 3B, final sign).



Figure 3  Misery and pain in frontal view: A) captive on a sacrificial altar (K8351); B) head of deceased person as syllable na, AJ-pa-sa-hi-na, name of ‘its’aat, Xcalumkin-area, Campeche, Mexico (Kimbell Art Museum, K8017; cf. Xcalumkin Lintel 1:M1–N1); C) baby splayed for sacrifice (K1247); D) exhausted captive (?, K1645);  and (E) cuckolded hunting god (K1559).


The convention does not just appear on pottery. Panel 4 from Piedras Negras intensifies the discomfort by showing a captive who not only looks out at the viewer but hangs his head upside down, a frequent position for trophy heads on warrior’s bodies (Figure 4). Mary Miller pointed out to me long ago that Maya artists had a far freer and more innovative hand in playing with depictions of captives. Logically, those bodies were also the way to experiment with displays of emotion (Houston 2001). Was there a hint of pity in these images or was it simply Schadenfreude?




Figure 4. Piedras Negras Panel 4, detail, AD 658 (photograph by Teobert Maler). 


Accentuating the frame of a scene–or escaping its limitations–brings up an important feature of Maya imagery. There is a sustained intent to preserve and maintain clarity, to be complete and also, with texts, completely legible or viewable. Yet a change occurs in the visual culture of the Maya during the AD 600s. A fascination seems to grow for the ocular experience itself, with what the eye can see from a particular vantage point, with how materials respond to gravity, a body mass slumps, a cloth folds and wrinkles, how feathers wave to wind or movement. Has sketching begun, practices analogous to the minute, preparatory observations by Dürer or da Vinci of a certain textile or flexed hand? This ocular culture, if it can be described as such, engenders a kind of illusionism, a playful interest in implying the existence of glyphs behind images, bodies that move out of frame but are still held to exist off-frame. The viewer both believes (we presume) that there is no such body but, in Gendler’s term, alieves it be present. A captive’s body or foot goes off frame, in carvings by the great master Mayuy (Figures 5A, B), but the convention also operates in painting (Figure 5C).




Figure 5. Going off-frame: A) Kimbell Lintel, c. AD 783, AP 1971.07 (photograph by Justin Kerr); B) Laxtunich Lintel (photograph by James Doyle); and C) Birth Vase, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (K1247). 


In glyphs there is a witty and demanding lack of clarity, a game played with the reader who must fill in the missing parts. This is especially clear in two areas of production: the school of painters around the western side of Lake Peten Itza in northern Guatemala (involving the so-called “Ik’ site,” identified by titles clearly applicable to a number of different places in that region), and another to the north, in association with the powerful dynasty of Calakmul (Figures 6 and 7). The patterns tend to be that verbs (ak’oot) or titles (kaloomte’) get occluded or, on one vase (K1256), a bit of blood-soaked paper extends from a way spirit to the very glyph for way. The painted texts on clothing in the Bonampak murals show the same illusionistic game. They combine belief and alief, emphasizing what the viewer’s (or painter’s) eye can see (Miller and Brittenham 2013:230, Captions I-5B, I-5C, I-6B). This is not only on paintings, but, as on a panel at Dumbarton Oaks, the carved depiction of a text on the hem of a kilt or garment (Tokovinine 2012:fig. 33).



Figure 6. Glyphic “occlusion” on Ik’-site pots: A) Altar vase (photograph by Otis Imboden, courtesy of George Stuart); B) tributary scene with partial concealment of kaloomte’ title (K1728); C) feather panache over captive’s name (K1439); D) baah tz’am title and historical scene (K5418); E) jaguar ornament over dance verb (K1439); and F) panache over chocolate recipe (K764).


The examples on “codex-style” vases are far more sparing, with a very slight degree of occlusion (Figure 7). What intrigues us in both traditions of painting is that, at least notionally, the glyphs lie behind the figures depicted on these vases. There is no foregrounding of explanatory texts or captions. They are exactly the opposite of Mayuy’s framed, out-of-sight bodies. His carvings stress the clear exposition of texts over bodies; these paintings emphasize bodies and image over the text.



Figure 7. Glyphic “occlusion” on codex-style vases (photographs by Justin Kerr). 


A final example was drawn to my attention by Bryan Just (Figure 8). Found on the base of the carving of an Itzam or Old god (Martin 2016), it illustrates a novel attitude about attending to what the eye can see, not what needs to be literally and fully present for maximum legibility (see also Houston 2015:fig. 13.5). The text is one of the first known sculptor’s signatures, as well as the first labeling of a carving’s patron. But there is a striking oddity. The carving was not finished where an eye would be unable to see it while the object rested on a surface. This game of illusion, of implying rather than showing, of fascination with situated viewing, seems aesthetic but not only that: it suggests discussion about the nature of sight itself and how it might enlist active and knowledgeable minds. By breaking the fourth wall, it burrows equally into the heart.



Figure 8. Base of carving on Itzam effigy, Princeton University Art Museum, 2013–78 a-b (photograph by Justin Kerr, K3331). 


Acknowledgements   My best thanks go to Basile Baudez for drawing my attention to the image from India and its source, and to Bryan Just and David Stuart for discussion of glyphic overlay and illusionism. Justin Kerr offered all his customary generosity with rollout photographs.


[Note 1]  Free-standing sculptures, as at Copan and Tonina, are categorically different. As single figures, they rely on viewers to address the carving or to admire an eternally frozen dance, perhaps to speak with this proxy of royal or captive bodies. There is no frame to separate viewers, and a punctured (or non-existent?) fourth wall becomes central to their function. Compelling a kind of interaction, the images cannot be complete without it.



Gendler, Tamar S. 2008. Alief and Belief. Journal of Philosophy 105(10): 634–663.

Houston, Stephen. 2001. Decorous Bodies and Disordered Passions: Representations of Emotions among the Classic Maya. World Archaeology 33(2):206–219.

Houston, Stephen. 2016. Crafting Credit: Authorship among Classic Maya Painters and Sculptors. In Making Value, Making Meaning: Techné in the Pre-Columbian World, edited by Cathy L. Costin,  391–427. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC.

Jain-Neaubauer, Jutta. 1981. The Rāmāyaṇama in Pahari Miniature Painting. L. D. Institute of Indology, Ahmedabad.

Kukkonen, Karin. 2013. Studying Comics and Graphic Novels. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester.

Martin, Simon. 2015. The Old Man of the Maya Universe: A Unitary Dimension to Ancient Maya Religion. In Maya Archaeology 3, edited by Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore, 186–227. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

Miller, Mary, and Claudia Brittenham. 2013. The Spectacle of the Late Maya Court: Reflections on the Murals of Bonampak. University of Texas Press, Austin; INAH and CONACULTA, Mexico City.

Tokovinine, Alexandre. 2012. Carved Panel. In Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks, edited by Joanne Pillsbury, Miriam Doutriaux, Reiko Ishihara-Brito, and Alexandre Tokovinine, 68–73. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Number 4. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC.

The Lizard King

by Stephen Houston (Brown), David Stuart (UT-Austin), and Marc Zender (Tulane)

The Maya region abounds in reptiles: by one count there are as many as 240 distinct species in Guatemala alone. It would not be surprising, then, if the Classic Maya took note of them and even mentioned some in their writing. The references could even be exalted, extending to royal names or to those of high nobles. At Bonampak and sites nearby, a ruler (or two) went by the name AJ-SAK-te-le-se/TELES, Aj Sak Teles, “He, the White Lizard” (see Tokovinine 2012:65, also Bonampak Stela 1:K1 [Figure 1A]), Stela 2:G4, Lintel 3, A9 (Figure 1B), Bonampak Structure 1, Room 2, East Jamb:A1–B1 [Miller and Brittenham 2013:240], and Dumbarton Oaks Panel 2:D1-C2, L4-K5 [Figure 1C, Mathews 1980:figs. 2, 3, 7]). This term may be linked to its label in Tzotzil, teleš, for Basiliscus vittatus, a crested lizard with the surprising ability to run at a good clip over water (Laughlin 1970:335; note, however, that the compiler of this dictionary sees it as Spanish in origin, from “Andrew,” perhaps a doubtful surmise). Another lord on a late vase from Señor del Peten (or “Nuevo Veracruz”), Quintana Roo, reveals a second lizard name, also equipped with a color designation (Cortés de Brasdefer 1996): AJ-YAX-to-lo-ki?, Aj Yax Tolook, “He, the Green/Blue Lizard” (Figure 1E, see also K3026, CHAK ch’o-ko KELEEM ‘a-*la-tzi to-lo-ko 4-‘e?-*k’e? [Figure 1D]). This appears also to be a kind of basilisk lizard, tojrok in present-day Ch’orti’–for some reason, the puréed brains of this reptile appear to have been used for medicinal purposes (Hull 2016:410).


Figure 1.  Probable lizard names in Late Classic texts: A) Bonampak Stela 1:K1 (photographer unknown); B) Bonampak Stela 2:G4 (drawing by Peter Mathews; C) Dumbarton Oaks Panel 1:D1-C2 (photograph from Dumbarton Oaks); D) K3026 (courtesy Justin Kerr, copyright Justin Kerr); and E) Señor del Peten vase (Cortés de Brasdefer 1996:fig. 5). 

Another lizard name, probably also for a basilisk–was there no end to their wonder for this creature?–has recently come to light. Excavations by Tomás Barrientos, Marcello Canuto and their team at La Corona, Guatemala, recovered a remarkably preserved, all-glyphic block that the project has labelled “Element 56” (Stuart et al. 2015). Dating to April 9, AD 690, the block provides one of those minute clues, seemingly insignificant but indispensable for decipherment, that enliven and advance Maya epigraphy.  The clue appears in the name of a local ruler who was the younger brother of the preceding ruler. His name contains much of interest: CHAK-AK’, “Great or Red Turkey,” a distinct lizard head, then ku-yu, kuy, probably for a kind of owl (for discussions of these readings in other contexts, see Grube and Nahm 1994:703–704; the AK’ is suggested by an ‘a-k’a spelling at pB4–pA5 on La Corona Panel 3, in a piece held by the Israel Museum, #B95.0149, K5865; other uses of the turkey head for AK’, often without the full wattle [a hen rather than a gobbler?], come to our attention on Caracol Stela 6:C12, ya-?AK’-wa, Dos Pilas Stela 1:B2, AK’-ta-ja, and Palenque, Temple of the Inscriptions, Middle Tablet:M6, ya-AK’-wa).


Figure 2. Variant forms of royal name at La Corona, Element 56; Element 56: pF2-E3 (top) and pB1-pA2 (bottom). 

Such chains of animal names appear with celebrated personages like Kaan-Bahlam of Palenque. At La Corona, this lord’s name included two birds (the turkey and owl) and what is, to judge from its scutes and scaly skin, a reptile of some sort. La Corona ran the gamut of such references, including rulers named after a cricket, snake, and dog.) The relevant clue to the reptile is the ti syllable inserted underneath. Ordinarily, this would hardly signify, for any number of words might end in a t, with varying vowel complexity depending on the word.

But here we can draw on another “substitution set,” a sequence of signs that helps to establish controls even if the overall meaning remains opaque. This sequence embroiders several texts, most from the Early Classic period, two come from the city of Yaxchilan, Mexico, another from Caracol, Belize (Figure 3). An unhappy truth for Maya epigraphers is that we can sometimes read the sounds being spelled by signs but can not, to any persuasive degree, grope towards their meaning. So is it with this set: ‘i-ti pa-ti yi-pi ya-je-la (the ‘i alternates with a vulture plucking out the eye of a dog, perhaps some onomatopoeic name for such birds). Clearly, at least at Yaxchilan, the set forms part of a lavish string of fuller names and titles employed by certain rulers.


Figure 3. Title sequence: A) Caracol Stela 23:I1-J1 (drawing by Nikolai Grube); B) Yaxchilan Lintel 22:A1-B3 (drawing by Ian Graham); and C) Yaxchilan Lintel 47A4-D3 (drawing by Ian Graham.

The mystery of what this sequence might mean cannot be solved at this time. What is of immediate concern are the two reptile heads in place of the pa-ti. By standard, and warranted, epigraphic supposition, one alternates with the other, and the ti surely serves as a syllabic complement to a CVC or CVCVC word sign. Paat or pa’t, from the disharmonic ti, yields welcome results: a basic source on Ch’orti’ Maya, the target language for most decipherments, gives us “ah pat, lagartija (small lizard, probably the newt, or e’t)” (Wisdom n.d., though we doubt the “newt” identification), and a yet more complete compilation, by Kerry Hull, supplies “ajpat. anim. largato, largatija. lizard” (Hull 2016:41). These terms are securely cognate with a range of words for “lizard” or basilisk, ix=pa7ch or ix-pa’ch in more conventional phonological notation (Kaufman 2003:641; note that Terrence Kaufman derives the word from Mije-Sokean languages, a link that, if it exists, must have gone far back into the Preclassic period). To this Yukatek adds: (ah) pach “lagarto coronado con cresta y macho” (Barrera Vásquez et al. 1980:616). The internal glottal stop relates anciently to the vowel complexity attested in the Classic spelling. Most of these terms probably connect as well to words for “back, spine,” paat or paach, depending on the language. In syllabic form, the name materializes in the area of Lacanha or Bonampak (Figure 4): a lord from that area went by yi-ch’a-ki pa-ti, Yich’ak Paat/Pa’t, “Claw of the Crested Lizard,” on Piedras Negras Panel 2, and another figure, attested on an unprovenanced altar at the Art Institute of Chicago, was called a-ku[lu] pa-ti, Ahkul Paat/Pa’t, “Turtle-ish Crested Lizard” (AIC #1971.895).




Figure 4.  Other probable examples of “Crested Lizard” names:  left, Piedras Negras Panel 2:I’1–J’1 (drawing by David Stuart); and right, Art Institute of Chicago, Altar:G1 (photograph from the Art Institute of Chicago, courtesy Richard Townsend, drawing by David Stuart). 

This crested lizard, probably some variant of a basilisk, figures in a number of images (Figure 5). The most elaborate shows an enigmatic scene in which two reptiles are being brutalized by black-painted figures, one caparisoned as a water bird–a digging stick seems to serve as a weapon for one tormentor, while the other slings rocks. A miserable-looking crocodile sits nearby on a throne, his arms bound around his back. Evidence of a feast–a tamale bowl and pulque vase (see the white froth)–complete the image, although the reptiles do not appear to relish the moment. Has a party been interrupted, will they be included, after suitable butchering and cooking, as part of the meal?


Figure 5. Probable paat or pa’t lizards: A) Stoning and torture of captured crocodile and paat/pa’t lizard; and B) paat/pa’t lizard on primordial mountain (K6547, Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin).     

The link of basilisks and drinking bowls marks one final image, on a late 6th-century, early 7th-century bowl from Altun Ha, Belize (Figure 6).  The lizard with flowery ornament on its brow long tail and dotted crest occurs in a watery scene that also contains the sign for musk or mead, the latter perhaps being the more likely connotation (cf. Figure 3B, 3C above; for another sign of musk or mead, Pendergast 1990:fig. 152a).  Leaning over slightly, his arm rises in servitude–was this tied in some way to the tableau of torture, either as prelude or epilogue?  Many of these bowls display pizotes or monkeys, the creatures most likely to poach succulent cacao pods, or they highlight birds of a pleasant, watery world (see Taube’s contribution to Ogata et al. 2006).  Whether any of these associations explain the royal name at La Corona remains a subject for future thought.


Figure 6. Bowl from Burial C-16, Altun Ha (Pendergast 1982:fig. 106d).  



Acknowledgements  Warm thanks go to the Universidad del Valle and Tulane teams, directed by Tomás Barrientos and Marcello Canuto, for granting access to the La Corona panel.



Barrera Vásquez, Alfredo, Juan Ramón Bastarrachea, and William Brito Sansores. 1980 Diccionario Maya Cordemex. Ediciones Cordemex, Mérida, Yucatan.

Cortés de Brasdefer, Fernando. A Maya Vase from “El Señor del Petén.” Mexicon 18(1): 6.

Grube, Nikolai, and Werner Nahm. A Census of Xibalba: A Complete Inventory of Way Characters on Maya Ceramics. In The Maya Vase Book: A Corpus of Rollout Photographs of Maya Vases, Volume 4, edited by Justin Kerr, 686–715. Kerr Associates, New York.

Hull, Kerry. 2016. A Dictionary of Ch’orti’ Mayan-Spanish-English. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Kaufman, Terrence S. 2003. Preliminary Mayan Etymological Dictionary. Report to the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. On-line resource at

Laughlin, Robert M. 1975. The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of San Lorenzo Zinacantán. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology, Number 19. Washington, DC.

Mathews, Peter. 1980. Notes on the Dynastic Sequence of Bonampak, Part 1. In Third Palenque Round Table, 1978, Part 2, edited by Merle G. Robertson, 60–73. Proceedings of the Tercera Mesa Redonda de Palenque, June 11–18, 1978. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Ogata, Nisao, Arturo Gómez-Pompa, and Karl A. Taube. 2006. The Domestication and Distribution of Theobroma cacao L. in the Neotropics. In Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao, edited by Cameron L. McNeil, 69–89. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Pendergast, David M. 1982. Excavations at Altun Ha, Belize, 1964–1970, Volume 2. Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto.

Pendergast, David M. 1990. Excavations at Altun Ha, Belize, 1964–1970, Volume 3. Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto.

Stuart, David, Marcello Canuto, Tomás Barrientos, and Maxime Lamoureax St-Hillaire. 2015. Preliminary Notes on Two Recently Discovered Inscriptions from La Corona, Guatemala. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and IconographyLa Corona block

Tokovinine, Alexandre. 2012. Carved Panel. In Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks, edited by Joanne Pillsbury, Miriam Doutriaux, Reiko Ishihara-Brito, and Alexandre Tokovinine, 58–67. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Number 4. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC.

Wisdom, Charles. 1950. Materials of the Chorti Language. Middle American Cultural Anthropology Microfilm Series 5, item 28. University of Chicago Library. [Retyped by Brian Stross]

Information Storage & the Classic Maya

by Stephen Houston, Charles Golden, and Andrew Scherer

Of late, university libraries have tended to exile books and print journals to off-campus storage. The purge makes room, as at Brown University, for “digital studios,” work spaces, and spots where students might snack on Dining Service muffins. The electronic media are new, but not the challenge of how to store portable reading material. Certain media get bulky. If valuable or spiritually precious, they require yet other forms of storage and access.

Think of the Mediterranean. Clay tablets of Linear B, in Mycenaean Greek, were nestled in baskets with small “carelessly manufactured” labels to indicate contents (Linear B) or they were found close to the resources being inventoried by tablets (Palaima and Wright 1985: 257, 260). Long-term storage does not seem to have been the aim, and, at Pylos, where such archives were studied in detail, storage was relatively limited (Palaima and Wright 1985: 259). The Romans left more overt evidence of storage. For grouping and ease of transport, papyri could be inserted into cylindrical containers known as capsa, of which a clear illustration occurs in the House of Marcus Lucretius at Pompeii (Figure 1).


Figure 1.  Fresco of instrumentum scriptorium, c. AD 45-79, House of Marcus Lucretius, Pompeii. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples. 

More secure storage involved cabinets with doors, of which a smattering appear in frescoes, the side of a sarcophagus at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and, in an early Christian context, a plate in the Codex Amiatinus from Monkwearmouth-Jarrow in northern England (Figure 2). Such armoires allowed books to be locked up and their contents arranged in ways logical to users.

Figure 2.jpg

Figure 2.  Upper left, papyrus and tablet storage on shelves, c. AD 200, Buzenol, Belgium (Musée du Cinquantenaire, Brussels); lower left, detail of sarcophagus showing Greek physician, c. AD 300, Ostia (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Nº 48.76.1); right, Ezra the Scribe writing in front of armoire with books, AD 692 (Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Cod. Amiati 1, f. 5r; see also Menighini and Rea 2014: 122, 186, 206). 

These examples from the Old World raise questions about information storage elsewhere. Most Maya books, for example,are readily identified in painted imagery on polychrome pots by their jaguar-hide coverings, some more squared-off than others (see the pioneering study by M. Coe [1977]). Thickness is hard to judge, but, after looking at the proportions of bodies nearby, they could be an armful, 10–15 cm. thick at least and probably rather more than that.A constant disappointment for Mayanists is that no books survive in good shape from the Classic period (Carter and Dobereiner 2016). Were they stuffed into bags, lodged in recessed shelving (of which some occur in Maya palaces) or sequestered in temple summits?  There are no archives like those at Pylos or Roman villas with carbonized scrolls and furniture. But there is one possibility: Maya screenfold books, configured like leporello or concertina bindings in Europe, were stored in individual receptacles that highlighted their singular, precious nature. (For opera lovers: “leporello” probably derives from the long list of sexual conquests itemized by a character of that name in Mozart’s Don Giovanni).

One relevant clue is in the form of a stone box recovered from the Hun Nal Ye cave, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala (Woodfill et al. 2012: 98). Two other boxes of ceramic, each with lids, were found nearby, lodged at different levels of flowstone (Woodfill et al. 2012: fig. 6). Carved in two different phases at least, the box accords roughly with the shape of the surviving Maya codices (Woodfill et al. 2012: 98, 107): 38 cm long, 21 cm wide, 10.9 cm tall, with an internal receptacle sufficient to contain a book. By comparison, the four Maya books have the following measurements (M. Coe et al. 2015: 121, organized by relative date, earliest to latest): Grolier, average page width: 12.5 cm, greatest page height: 18.0 cm, probable page height: 23 cm; Madrid, average page width: 12.2 cm, average page height: 22.6 cm; Paris, average page width: 13.0 cm, average page height: 24.8 cm; Dresden, average page width: 9 cm, average page height: 20.5 cm. The Hun Nal Ye “coffer” obliges by showing a reference to a lunar month in both glyphic and iconographic form on its lid–a possible reference to a moon-related codex?–and images of supernaturals holding books on the sides of the box. Regrettably, when opened, the box from Hun Nal Ye yielded only the calcified femur of a tapir, doubtless not its original contents.


Figure 3. The Hun Nal Ye coffer. Photograph by Jorge Pérez de Lara. 

Other rectangular boxes, usually of ceramic, are known in the Maya region. Here is a partial list (see also Figure 4; see also Arte Primitivo 3/06/2017 auction, #191; Golden has also seen such a lidded stone box on display in the Museo Chichicastenango; see also Pillsbury et al. 2015: figs. 29, 30). The variance is wide, but so is the relative size of books in Mesoamerica. The Codex Borgia, for example, measures 27 x 27 cm, the Codex Cospi 18 x 18 cm.  There are necessary cautions, to be sure: most such boxes, when recovered in context, contained cache items of sundry sort, not the flecks of a decayed book (W. Coe 1990: 322–324). But the boxes could easily have been repurposed, a receptacle to be later cached in buildings, caves or under stelae.

Table 1:  Ceramic boxes

Princeton Art Museum, body                                    17 cm (wd) x h. 23.5 cm (ht) 

Tikal Cache 119 (excludes legs)                               35 cm (l) x 25.2 cm (wd) x 27 cm (ht)

Caracol S.D. C141C-2                                                  23 cm (l) x 16 cm (wd) x 13 cm (ht)

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, M.2008.59  45.09 cm (l) x 27.31 cm (wd) x 35.56 cm (ht)

Christies box                                                                 23 cm (l) x 13 cm (wd) x 16 (ht)

Guaytan subfloor, tomb 1, Structure 24                  41 cm (l) x c. 23 cm (wd) x c. 18 cm (ht) (from photo, without lid)

Quirigua Stela E                                                          c. 30 cm (l) x  20 cm (wd) x 15 cm (ht)(judged from photo, unlidded)

Quirigua Zoomorph G                                                31.5 cm (l) x 20 cm (wd) x 27 cm (ht)

A sample of images gives some sense of their variety, a few like boxes, others resembling house models (Figure 4).  The first photo even shows one such box during its excavation in the North Acropolis at Tikal.

Figure 4.jpg

Figure 4. Ceramic boxes from Maya region: (A, B) Cache 119, from court fronting Structure 5D-26, North Acropolis (Culbert 1993: fig. 105a); (C) Caracol Structure A1 (drawing courtesy of Arlen Chase, Caracol Project, University of Nevada-Las Vegas); (D) subfloor cache, Guaytan, Guatemala (Smith and Kidder 1943: fig 41c, c’); (E) Hu Nal Ye Box (Woodfill et al. 2012: 98, photo by Jorge Pérez de Lara); (F) Quirigua Stela E cache and Zoomorph G cache (Strömsvik 1941: 81, fig. 32b, c); (G) unprovenanced, Christies Paris, May 2007, Lot 115.

And perhaps some were sealed neatly with ritual paper, as on La Florida Stela 9, although this could also have been a holder for a stingray spine (Figure 5). The point is that these books do not suggest the presence of bulk- or mass-storage. Some were kept in “bespoke” boxes, not so much Taschen-style, deluxe editions as objects of sacred meaning, to be set apart, kept apart, ritually activated, perhaps even sprinkled with incense and other offerings.

Figure 5.png

Figure 5. Detail of La Florida Stela 9 (Graham 1970: fig. 9b). 

In the tropics, however, permanent storage is hard to achieve with pounded bark paper and lime-sizing. Bugs, moisture, wear-and-tear, and flaking surfaces will all have their effects–there is, after all, a reason why no books survive entire from the Classic period. The discovery of elaborate notations on the walls of Structure 10K-2 at Xultun, Guatemala, present another interpretive possibility, of cross-media play and targeted preservation (Saturno et al. 2012; Rossi et al. 2015).

That these texts and notations relate to books seems assured. But what was that relation? Were they test jottings and compositional experiments, a unidirectional “flow” from wall to a target codex? Or was the tie to books rather more complex, even bi-directional? Houston has long felt that the Early Classic text on the walls of Uaxactun Structure BXIII had some bearing on the nature of that relation: the horizontal text, replete with archaic day signs, has the savor of a basal historical notation (Smith 1950: fig. 47). Eventful days, with pendant, explanatory texts in place, leaven those of little consequence, their contents left empty. (We are reminded of Louis XVI’s daily note when Parisians stormed the Bastille: rien, “nothing”…although, in fairness to that dullard king, this comment probably referred to how many animals he had bagged that day in hunt.)

But why were such transfers necessary? Another example has come to light in an exploration by Golden and Scherer (together with René Muñoz and Guatemalan colleagues), in Tecolote, Guatemala, an outpost of Yaxchilan on the northern borders of that kingdom (Scherer and Golden 2009; for regional context, see Scherer and Golden 2012). In its central room, Structure D3-1, viewers would tilt their heads slightly and look up at an arresting sight: what appears to be an entire, unfolded codex or, rather, one side of it (Figures 6 and 7), a leporello flattened out on the wall of a darkened room.

figura 1.jpg

Figure 6. Frontal view, Structure D3-1, Tecolote; figure sits by the doorway to the “codex” room. 

Figure with 'codex-area'.jpg

Figure 7. Tecolote Structure D3-1, highlighting, in red, the unfolded “codex.” 

The quality and execution of the signs were of high order (Figure 7), although the poor preservation only offers an occasional glimpse of legible text.


Figure 7. Close-up, unfolded “codex,” Tecolote Structure D3-1. 

More revealing are the discernible measurements of the text, with two individual glyph blocks shown here in contrastive green and blue (Figure 8). The red line marks the extension of the text, which seems to contain no images. In this respect, it is closer to the “dynastic texts” studied by Simon Martin: all-glyphic, and with some complicated stemma that involves other notations, some likely to have been on perishable media (Secrets). If a direct transfer–we have no assurance of this, of course–the “codex” measured some 35 cm high and at least 2.30 m long. Such height and length could easily have been accommodated in a few of the boxes above.

Tec overlay of text.jpg

Figure 8. Mosaic tile of “codex” on wall. 

The most interesting question here is not, did the Maya copy from one medium to another, but, rather, why did they do so at all? One explanation is that these were practice pieces or compositional experiments intended for transfer to books. Nonetheless, some notations at Xultun were incised, and draft copies would probably work best on an expedient material like leaves. Meticulous painting on a plaster wall is not the obvious choice for a trial run. The goal here seems instead to have been a consultable permanence: distant parallels include the manumission texts, 1300 in total, that inscribe stones in the Delphi Sanctuary in Greece (Delphi), or small temple texts in Angkor, of a size to suggest painted precursors in dried leaves or other, small-scale formats (Khmer). That some of the Maya examples come from the final century of dynastic civilization underscores its intellectual vitality but also, perhaps, a hint of anxiety that such learning would not last.


Carter, Nicholas, and Jeffrey Dobereiner. 2016. Multispectral Imaging of an Early Classic Maya Codex Fragment from Uaxactun. Antiquity 90 (351): 711–725.

Chase, Diane Z., and Arlen F. Chase. 2008. ¿Qué no nos cuentan los jeroglíficos?: arqueología e historia en Caracol, Belice. Mayab 20: 93–108.

Coe, Michael. 1977. Supernatural Patrons of Maya Scribes and Artists. In Social Process in Maya Prehisotry: Studies in Honour of Sir Eric Thompson, edited by Norman Hammond, 327–347. Academic Press, London.

Coe, Michael, Stephen Houston, Mary Miller, and Karl Taube. 2015. The Fourth Maya Codex. In Maya Archaeology 3, edited by Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore, 116–67. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

Coe, William R. 1990. Tikal Report No. 14, Volume II: Excavations in the Great Plaza, North Terrance, and North Acropolis of Tikal. University Monograph 61. University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Culbert, T. Patrick. 1993. Tikal Report No. 25, Part A: The Ceramics of Tikal: Vessels from the Burials, Caches, and Problematical Deposits. University Museum Monograph 81. University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Graham, Ian. 1970. The Ruins of La Florida, Peten, Guatemala. In Monographs and Papers in Maya Archaeology, edited by William R. Bullard, Jr;. 425–455. Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol. 61. Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Meneghini, Roberto, and Rossella Rea, eds. 2014. La Biblitoteca Infinita i Luoghi del Sapare nel Mondo Antico. Electa, Milan.

Palaima, Thomas G., and James C. Wright. 1985. Ins and Outs of the Archives Rooms at Pylos: Form and Function in a Mycenaean Palace. American Journal of Archaeology 89: 251–262. (Palaima and Wright)

Pillsbury, Joanne, Patricia Joan Sarro, James Doyle, and Juliet Wiersema. 2015. Design for Eternity: Architectural Models from the Ancient Americas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Rossi, Franco D., William A. Saturno, and Heather Hurst. 2016. Maya Codex Book Production and the Politics of Expertise: Archaeology of a Classic Period Household at Xultun, Guatemala. American Anthropologist 117: 116–132.

Saturno, William A., David Stuart, Anthony F. Aveni, and Franco Rossi. 2012. Ancient Maya Astronomical Tables from Xultun, Guatemala. Science 336(6082): 714-717.

Scherer, Andrew K., and Charles Golden. Tecolote, Guatemala: Archaeological Evidence for a Fortified Late Classic Maya Political Border. Journal of Field Archaeology 34(3): 285-305.

Scherer, Andrew K., and Charles Golden. 2012. Revisiting Maler’s Usumacinta: Recent Archaeological Investigations in Chiapas, Mexico. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

Smith, A. Ledyard. 1950. Uaxactun, Guatemala: Excavations of 1931-1937. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication 588. Washington, DC.

Smith, A. Ledyard, and Alfred V. Kidder. 1943. Explorations in the Motagua Valley, Guatemala. Contributions to American Anthropology and History 41. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication 546. Washington, DC.

Woodfill, Brent, Stanley Guenter, and Mirza Monterroso. 2012. Changing Patterns of Ritual Activity in an Unlooted Cave in Central Guatemala. Latin American Antiquity 23(1): 93–119.

Secrets of the Painted King List: Recovering the Early History of the Snake Dynasty

by Simon Martin (University of Pennsylvania Museum)

Twenty years ago, I wrote a commentary on an intriguing set of codex-style vessels known as the Dynastic Vases (Martin 1997). Twelve in number, each of these cylindrical pots is painted with the same list of kings from the kaanul “Snake[-Place]” dynasty, supplying names, titles, and dates for their elevation to power.[1] The length of the sequence varies from vessel to vessel depending on its size, with the fullest version of 19 rulers appearing on the example labeled K6751 in the Kerr Archive ( and now to be found in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Figure 1). At least seven of their names match those seen on carved monuments, offering clear potential to draw alignments between the two sources. Indeed, beginning with a “founder” figure, the Dynastic Vases hold out the prospect of unlocking the entire early sequence of this important kingdom, constituting a record as important as the Temple of Cross Tablet has been for understanding the royal line of Palenque, or Altar Q and the Temple 26 Hieroglyphic Stairway for the sequence at Copan.

Fig.1 Painted King K6751 copy

Figure 1. Roll-out image of K6751 (photograph by Justin Kerr).

As the earliest researchers to work on the Dynastic Vases realized, the chronology of the text, consisting only of Calendar Round dates without a tie to the Long Count, is flawed (Robicsek and Hales 1981:157-159). Day- and month-names are consistent, but variations in their coefficients produce a number of impossible combinations—some arising from the inventions of modern restorers, but others plainly the work of ancient scribes. Not only do coefficients for the same date vary from one vase to the next, they even differ on vases decorated by the same painter (for the identification of four such painters see Martin 1997:849-850). Corrections can be attempted, but the true value always remains in doubt. All this made it impossible to pin down an “original” error-free scheme in 1997— but the difficulties ran even deeper. Where we knew of accession dates for the kings on monuments they did not correspond to those on the vessels. Indeed, dates conflicted to such a degree in some cases that they could not be placed at any point within their respective reigns. Even worse, the kings on the vases did not appear in anything like their expected order, with two attested Snake rulers from the Early Classic missing altogether. Incomplete, scrambled, and adrift in time, there seemed to be no possibility of reconciling the painted and carved versions. There was little choice but to project the list into a deeply archaic, or even legendary, past that far predated the historical one. Of the familiar names seen on the vessels not one of them would be a character we knew, all instead forebears from which later kings took their names.

Yet, despite two decades of pessimism on the matter, I am now sure that the Dynastic Vase sequence is a historical one, and that the timeframe covered by those 19 reigns falls within the Early Classic period. This paper explains how this change of heart came about, and why the painted king list is still a long way from giving up all its secrets.

* * *

There was always one feature on K6751 that kept a potential link to the historical kings alive. Towards the end of the text, filling the positions M2-M4, there is a Distance Number that counts forward a little over 104 years to the date 2 Akbal 11 Uo (Martin 1997:862-863).[2] This count can only realistically connect the accession of Ruler 19 on 9 Imix 9 Yaxkin (K5-L5)—an event expressed, like all others, as (u)-CH’AM[K’AWIIL]-wa uch’amaw k’awiil “he takes/receives K’awiil”—to a new event given at N4. There we find what appears to be OCH-HA’[bi]-hi ochha’bih “water (and) road-enters”—a conjoined form of the metaphors for death we otherwise see as ochbih or ochha’. Yet this verb has no subject. Where we would expect to find one we encounter the common term yu-k’i-bi yuk’ib “his drinking vessel,” followed by a personal name. If someone dies who is it? The long DN presumably rules out Ruler 19, meaning that the deceased person either goes unstated, is meant to be a reference to the vessel as a tomb offering, or refers to the vessel owner himself. As an aside, we find that person’s name on another codex-style vessel, K6754 (which has a very different narrative scene), suggesting that both pots may have come from the same looted burial.

Like all our dates, 2 Akbal 11 Uo is untethered in the Long Count. However, we might suspect that the purpose of the extended Distance Number is to connect the past with contemporary time. If so, the best fit would be in 696, since this is the era in which codex-style ware was in production. While the 104-year tally does not link the two Calendar Rounds correctly, if we use it to count backwards from 696 we reach 592, which is one of the years in which 9 Imix 9 Yaxkin can be placed. The 592 date is interesting because it falls within the reign of Scroll Serpent, a Snake king with the same name as Ruler 19, seen at L6. While this whole section is far from transparent, it does give some slim suggestion that Ruler 19 might be the historical Scroll Serpent.

So the matter rested for two decades. It was not to see change until widely dispersed finds at El Peru, Naranjo, Uaxactun, and Calakmul allowed Dmitri Beliaev and myself to identify a hitherto unknown Snake king called K’ahk’ Ti’ Ch’ich’ Aj Saakil (Martin and Beliaev 2017). K6751 made an early contribution here, since Ruler 16 from the list (K1b) has a matching K’ahk’ Ti’ Ch’ich’ name, demonstrating that this was a form used by the Kaanul dynasty. Elsewhere, Naranjo Stela 47 tells us that K’ahk’ Ti’ Ch’ich’—there under the name Aj Saakil—directly preceded the king known as Sky Witness (Martin et al. 2016) (see Figure 6). This is fully consistent with the historical dates we have, since K’ahk’ Ti’ Ch’ich’ was active in 556, while references to Sky Witness’s reign appear between 561 and 572. The relevance of all this is that the name of Sky Witness matches that of Ruler 17 (K2b). With the known dates for Scroll Serpent falling between 579 and 611, and the sure knowledge of a different Snake king ruling before him in 573 (Martin and Grube 2000:104), we can see that Rulers 16, 17, and 19 correctly follow the sequence on the monuments (Figure 2). By now there was cause to wonder, might the painted king list be historical after all?

Fig.2 Painted King

Figure 2. Comparison of names on K6751 with those from the monumental record (drawings by Simon Martin).

The complex story of the Snake kingdom, in which its Early Classic capital at Dzibanche (Velásquez 2004a, 2008a) shifted to one at Calakmul in the Late Classic (Martin 2005), has recently come into much greater focus. Thanks to the identification of Kaanul as a toponym at Dzibanche (Martin and Velásquez 2016:27-30) and the discovery of two remarkable texts at Xunantunich that explain the shift as the result of civil war (Helmke and Awe 2016a, 2016b), we can talk with more confidence about where the dynasty arose and why its transfer took place. If K’ahk’ Ti’ Ch’ich’ Aj Saakil was ruling at Dzibanche in 556—which all the circumstantial evidence would lead us to believe—then we are compelled to investigate Building VI Lintel 3 at the site (Martin and Beliaev 2017:5-6, Table 1). Carrying one of only two firm dates at Dzibanche, Lintel 3 records the Period Ending of, which took place in 554 (Figure 3). Unfortunately, it does not name its protagonist, who would have appeared on one or both of the preceding lintels, which are badly damaged in one case and destroyed in the other. However, it does record the king’s accession as a CHUM[*mu]-la-ji-ya KAL[*TE’]-ma-*li “seated into kaloomte’[-ship]”. This marks the subject’s elevation into the highest status ascribed to Classic Maya rulers, entirely in keeping with the powerful political position the Snake kingdom enjoyed at this time.

Fig.3 Painted King

Figure 3. Dzibanche Building VI Lintel 3 (photograph by Peter Harrison).

The syntax on Lintel 3 is not entirely straightforward and this, together with the less-than-perfect preservation of the wood into which it is carved, means that there are different ways to reconstruct the two Distance Numbers that fix the accession in time. After accounting for shrinkage and erosion to the three beams I made a relatively small, seemingly unimportant, amendment of 100 days to the chronology that placed the accession to the Long Count position in 550.[3] Any setting in this general timeframe would make K’ahk’ Ti’ Ch’ich’ a viable candidate, but the true significance of this date emerges only after comparing its Calendar Round with the one given for the accession of Ruler 16 on K6751, since both are 7 Lamat 6 Uo (Figure 4). This cannot be coincidental and demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt that Ruler 16 and K’ahk’ Ti’ Ch’ich’ are not namesakes but one-in-the-same person. It would follow that Ruler 17 is the Sky Witness we see on monuments at Los Alacranes, Naranjo, Caracol, Yo’okop, Dzibanche, Resbalon, and Pol Box, and Ruler 19 the Scroll Serpent who appears at Calakmul, Palenque, Naranjo, and Caracol.[4] This allows me to say something that I could not in 1997—that the vase text does include rulers known from inscribed monuments and that the entire painted king list fits within historical time. What are the implications of this turnaround? Can the outstanding, not inconsiderable, problems be resolved?


Fig.4 Painted King

Figure 4.  7 Lamat 6 Uo at J6 and (u)ch’am(aw) k’awiil k’ahk’ ti’ ch’ich’ at K1 on K6751 (conjoined image from a photograph courtesy of Los Angeles County Museum).

* * *

True codex-style wares were produced in the heart of the central southern lowlands, at a site in the domain of a k’uhul chatahn winik—a lordly title with deep roots in this region—which was under the direct influence of Calakmul. Three Dynastic Vase sherds have been found at Calakmul itself, demonstrating that the listing was directly pertinent to the regime there, doubtless naming the ancestors to which its kings traced their origin and legitimacy (Delvendahl 2005; Martin 2008a, 2012:140; García Barrios 2012:85-87). This is important when we think about the meaning of these lists to a contemporary audience. Their primary purpose was not documentation so much as lending special value and prestige to the pot, and the somewhat careless treatment of the dates must be seen in this light. The presence of at least one correct date could indicate that the Ur-text was accurate, and only garbled in the process of copying and re-copying over time.[5] We can now highlight the three major difficulties that stand between us and any comprehensive understanding of the Dynastic Vases, all arising from the divergences between painted and carved sources: (1) conflicts in the sequence, (2) missing kings, and (3) dating discrepancies. From here on we enter speculative terrain.

The scrambled order of kings on the Dynastic Vases once seemed like a significant obstacle, yet it is overcome with ease if Ruler 10 (Yuknoom Ch’een), Ruler 13 (Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’), Ruler 15 (Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’), and Ruler 18 (Yuknoom Ti’ Chan) were not the seventh century kings we know by those names but earlier namesakes instead. Indeed, the now-established sequence of Rulers 16, 17, and 19 requires that they be so. Moreover, we probably know the first of these characters, since a ruler called Yuknoom Ch’een—a predecessor to the great Late Classic king of that name—is the protagonist of the Dzibanche Captive Stairway (Nalda 2004; Velásquez 2004b, 2005) (Figure 5).[6] This monument cannot be dated with certainty, but it is appropriately early in terms of style. This is most evident in the large identifying name-glyphs the prisoners wear on the back of their belts and their unusual wavy hair, for which the closest parallel is a captive pictured on Uaxactun Stela 19, dating to 357 (Martin 2009; see Graham 1986:177-178).[7]

Fig.5 Yuknoom Ch'een I & IIFigure 5. Names of the earlier and later kings using the name of Yuknoom Ch’een: a) Ruler 10, K6751 (H5); b) Yuknoom Ch’een I, Dzibanche M.5 (A3); c) Yuknoom Ch’een II, codex-style vase from Tomb 4, Calakmul Structure II; d) Yuknoom Ch’een II, Dos Pilas Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 East (photographs provided by the Los Angeles County Museum and Dorie Reents-Budet, drawings by Simon Martin).

If this problem has evaporated an important one remains, and it is our second major difficulty. The positions in the sequence occupied by Rulers 15 and 18 are precisely those where we would expect to find our missing kings Tuun K’ab Hix (537-546) and Yax Yopaat (573). Explaining their absence is a trickier proposition.

Fig.6 NAR 47 List

Naranjo Stela 47 explicitly describes Tuun K’ab Hix, K’ahk’ Ti’ Ch’ich’ Aj Saakil, Sky Witness, and Scroll Serpent as the chan tz’akbu(ul) k’uhul kaanul ajaw “four holy Snake[-Place] kings in order” (Martin et al. 2016:617) (Figure 6). It will be noted that there is no mention of an intervening ruler between Sky Witness and Scroll Serpent—a position taken at Dzibanche by Yax Yopaat and on K6751 by Yuknoom Ti’ Chan. This suggests that Stela 47 refers less to a strict list of successors than it does to the four overlords who directly supervised the Naranjo king during his long reign. The 18th king, whatever his identity, may not have ruled long enough to consolidate his power and for this, or some other reason, was not acknowledged as an overlord by Naranjo.

Figure 6. Four Snake kings on Naranjo Stela 47: Tuun K’ab Hix (A3b), Aj Saakil (A4a), Sky Witness (A4b), and Scroll Serpent (A5a) (drawing by Alexandre Tokovinine).

The absence of Tuun K’ab Hix is a bigger issue, since he was clearly a substantial figure who, in addition to installing that same Naranjo king in 546, lost a subordinate in a conflict with Yaxchilan in 537 and sent a daughter to marry the ruler of La Corona in 520 (Martin 2008b:4). The Dynastic Vase sequence cannot claim to represent the greatest kings of the Snake dynasty if he is omitted. A possible explanation here is that the Kaanul regime contained more than one lineage, perhaps even parallel lines that ruled from different centers (Marc Zender, pers. comm. 2017). The latter has a certain appeal because of the appearance of non-Kaanul toponym with Scroll Serpent in 593, raising the possibility of greater locational complexity to the kingdom’s history (Martin 2005:7; Martin and Velásquez 2016:26). If more than one lineage were involved, then the Dynastic Vases might represent only the branch from which the Calakmul kings claimed descent. Tuun K’ab Hix and Yax Yopaat would belong to a different patriline and be of no interest to the scribe who composed the master text of the vases. While this idea has its attractions, the twin royal seats portion of it is weakened by the appearance of Yax Yopaat at Dzibanche, where we also find evidence for K’ahk’ Ti’ Ch’ich’, Sky Witness, and Yuknoom Ch’een I. But another option is available to us. Although K’ahk’ Ti’ Ch’ich’ Aj Saakil is sometimes represented by his full name, he is more commonly identified by one or the other of its two parts—which effectively serve as alternates. The same dual-naming practice recurs in the eighth century at Calakmul, where Yuknoom Took’ K’awiil is called by a different appellative outside the city and its closest affiliates. If this were a feature repeated on the painted king list then both our missing kings might be present on K6751, but masked under different names. In this scenario Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’ (Ruler 15 at J5b-I6) would be another name for Tuun K’ab Hix and Yuknoom Ti’ Chan (Ruler 18 at K4) an alternative moniker for Yax Yopaat. Without a way to confirm or contradict either option the question must remain in abeyance for the present, with the missing kings left unexplained.

This brings us to the third major difficulty, the chronological divergences between the painted and inscribed sequences. Two instances are now particularly salient. After the accession of K’ahk’ Ti’ Ch’ich’ the K6751 text moves to that of Sky Witness, an event that it assigns to the Calendar Round 10 Caban 10 Pop. However, this combination does not occur within the 561-572 span we currently have for that king, with the two closest placements falling either much too early in 543 or much too late in 595. A second case comes where K6751 puts the accession of Scroll Serpent to the previously noted 9 Imix 9 Yaxkin, whereas Calakmul Stela 33 clearly states that he became an ajaw on 11 Caban 10 Ch’en (Martin 1997:862). The latter is fixed to (579), while the closest point the painted version can be placed is (592), some 13 years later. For the inauguration date of K’ahk’ Ti’ Ch’ich’ to be entirely correct and others not simply awry, but wildly so, must give us pause.

Are we, in fact, asking the right question of the data? As we have seen, K’ahk’ Ti’ Ch’ich’s accession was not into the standard status of ajaw, but specifically into that of kaloomte’ (Figure 7a). As my colleagues David Stuart and Marc Zender (pers. comms. 2017) have urged me to consider, might these ill-fitting dates refer to separate ceremonies that mark progress to that exalted rank? This kind of statement is extremely rare and otherwise only known from Tikal, where it occurs in the inaugurations of the kings Jasaw Chan K’awiil in 682, Yik’in Chan K’awiil in 734, and Yax Nuun Ahiin II in 768 (Figure 7b). One further instance at Palenque, a differently phrased back-reference to the accession of K’inich Kan Bahlam II in 684, exhausts the list. That Dzibanche, Tikal, and Palenque were all powerful hegemons when these phrases appear gives ample reason to see this expression as indicative of special power and authority. In the case of Yik’in Chan K’awiil and K’inich Kan Bahlam, at least, other inaugural statements make clear that they became an ajaw on the same day as they acquired kaloomte’ status—there was no delayed ceremony in their cases.

Fig.7 Chumlaj Kaloomte' 2Figure 7. Seating into kaloomte’[-ship]: a) Dzibanche Building IV Lintel 3 (pI2-J2a); a) Tikal Stela 21 (B10-A11) (photographs by Peter Harrison and William Coe).

Nevertheless, we do have an interesting parallel elsewhere, though to find it we must travel far from the central lowlands to the eastern periphery of the Maya world. In 724 K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat became the king of Quirigua under the auspices of Waxaklajuun Ubaah K’awiil of Copan—an event expressed by means a selection of different verbs, including uch’am(aw) k’awiil “he receives/takes K’awiil” (Looper 2003:Fig.2.1a). But 14 years later, in 738, he seized his overlord and beheaded him. At this point he underwent a second uch’amaw k’awiil event and, although the relevant text on Stela J (H5-G6) does not say so directly, it must be at this point he begins to use the kaloomte’ title that, as a vassal, would previously have been denied to him.[8] Here is a better precedent for what could be happening on the Dynastic Vases, if under very different circumstances.

It is certainly possible that Scroll Serpent became an ajaw in 579, but a kaloomte’ only in 592—perhaps after some notable political or military accomplishment. This might also motivate the inclusion of the kaloomte’ title in his short identifying phrase on K6751, a feature only otherwise associated with Ruler 2.[9] When it comes to Sky Witness, it is clearly much harder to argue that he acquired the highest title in 595. It is true that his name appears as the protagonist of an attack on Palenque in 599, which has long been enigmatic, and conceivably the two dates are related in some way (though see Note 13). But at least until that anomaly can be explained, it is easier to interpret 10 Caban 10 Pop as a straightforward copying error.[10]

A further idea, developed from other evidence, is that at certain places and times the Classic Maya operated a system of dual-rulership, consisting of a senior and junior king. We have a number of occasions on which two contemporary characters carry full emblem glyphs, whether as father and son, or as brothers. Rather than an honorific paving the way to future power, these shared titles could indicate joint governmental responsibilities (Houston 2012:171), especially at powerful centers where administrative workloads may have been higher than most, and a greater-than-normal emphasis put on unquestioned succession.

A good example turns up at Calakmul itself, where the reigning king Yuknoom Ch’een II elevates his presumed son, Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ II, to full k’uhul kaanul ajaw status by 662, when he was just 14 years of age (Martin 2009, 2014:356). Yuknoom Ch’een, almost 62 at the time and perhaps not expecting to live too much longer, seems here to be establishing not an heir-apparency but a junior kingship. But even for co-kings closer in age one key distinction would remain: only the senior figure would carry the kaloomte’ title. On Ucanal Stela 4 we see two lords, one identified as a k’uhul k’anwitznal kaloomte’, the other as a k’uhul k’anwitznal ajaw (Martin 2014:76). Though this is a late monument, this might not be a new system but an existing one newly brought to the fore. Similarly, at Motul de San José a long-established monarch is joined by a younger partner with a full emblem glyph, someone who acquires the kaloomte’ title only after the senior king’s death (Tokovinine and Zender 2012:46). The same might be said for the young lords bearing emblems who perform on the Bonampak Murals (Houston 2012:167). All were ranked beneath the true king and kaloomte’ holder. A further instance could be relevant and lend still more credence to this scenario, since it comes from a fragment of inscribed vessel discovered at Dzibanche (Velásquez and Balanzario 2016). It names a k’uhul kaanul ajaw who is also a sukuwinik ch’ok kaloomte’ “Older Brother Prince, Kaloomte’”. We know from comparable cases at Palenque and La Corona that statements of age-seniority such as this signify that there are two brothers—one the ruler, the other the baah ch’ok destined to succeed him. In a kaloomte’-bearing kingdom that junior person would likely also be an emblem-carrying k’uhul ajaw. We find precisely this dual status held by Upakal K’inich, the younger brother and heir of K’inich Ahkal Mo’ Nahb III of Palenque, who might better be considered his junior co-king (Miller and Martin 2004:232; Stuart 2005:40, 189).[11]

These features find an interesting and potentially important parallel in the Postclassic Maya highlands. Bartolomé de Las Casas (1909:615-617) describes an intricate structure of governance for the K’iche’ polity based at Utatlan: consisting of a supreme king as well as a king-elect, each from a separate lineage, whose sons held the ranks of major and minor “captain,” presumably a military command.[12] Each lord would advance in turn from one position to the next up the hierarchical chain (though if they were judged insufficiently capable they could be passed over). This system ensured that whoever reached ultimate power would have served in all the lower offices, and therefore have both maturity and experience in governing as well as in leading armies. Postclassic Maya kingship has always been set apart from its predecessor, but perhaps this practice had deeper roots in the culture. It might not have been a ubiquitous practice for the Classic Maya but, rather a situational strategy that met the needs of particular times and circumstances.

Whether this has any relevance at all to the conundrums of Dynastic Vases remains unclear, but it is one of the few ways that the seemingly aberrant dates of K6751 might be intentional and, more or less, correct. Conceivably, their mismatched positions allude to a senior-junior kingship system for the Snake dynasty at Dzibanche—in which, after the death of the standing kaloomte’ the title passed to the current ajaw, and a new candidate was drawn into that status. The hypothesis allows for a delayed, enhanced accession, but also makes it possible that this powerful polity was continuously ruled by a monarch of the highest rank, without the lacuna that is otherwise implied by a new solo king working his way toward kaloomte’ status.[13]

But before we get too enthusiastic about this scenario, we would do well to acknowledge an impediment that might be enough to dissuade us from it—in this case at least. We must accept, for example, that junior kings could perform Period Endings, as Scroll Serpent does for (583) in the retrospective text on Calakmul Stela 33 (Martin 1996). More significantly, the same inscription moves on to the (593) ceremony, without mentioning the supposedly key date 9 Imix 9 Yaxkin date we have on K6751. Whether relevant or not, it should also be noted that he carries no kaloomte’ title here, or in another inscription recalling of the 593 commemoration on Calakmul Stela 8.[14]

* * *

With the 550 date now in hand, one might attempt a reconstruction of the chronology for the Dynastic Vases (though I confess some reluctance to do so, given the continuing uncertainties). The scheme set out in Table 1 works its way back in time using the minimum number of required corrections, alighting on the next available Calendar Round position in each case.[15] Since any reign longer than 52 years will slip through such a calculation, additional columns have been introduced at two points where a very long reign seems possible (there may be one other). A dating scheme without longer reigns puts the accession of the dynastic founder Skyraiser to the year 232. This is probably too conservative. If we instead count back from 550 using an average reign-length of 22.5 years—which is derived from the Copan and Palenque sequences, as well as 881 years of English and British history (Martin 1997:853-854)—we reach the year 212. Doing the same calculation from 592, the best date available for Ruler 19, would put the origin of the dynasty still earlier, to about 187. Interestingly, all of these estimates would make the Kaanul line of Dzibanche less ancient than its great rival, the Mutul dynasty of Tikal. Similar calculations performed on Tikal’s count of kings put its founding before 100 (Martin 2003:5, n.6). This differential is clear when we consider that K’ahk’ Ti’ Ch’ich’s reign as the 16th king of Dzibanche overlapped with that of Wak Chan K’awiil, who was 21st in the Tikal line.

Microsoft Word - *Secrets of the Painted King Table 1.docx

To conclude, the Dynastic Vase sequence, against the odds and despite all its errors and unexplained anomalies, has a basis in history and presents the first 19 kings of the Snake dynasty. The texts that seemed so deficient at one time, have begun to suggest that only our understanding of them is inadequate. The direct link between this sequence and a monument at Dzibanche gives us added confidence that this city was indeed the capital of the Early Classic Snake kings, in line with the evidence of names, titles, and a Snake toponym already uncovered there. Though other options have found favor, this is good evidence that the origins of this important dynasty were in modern-day Quintana Roo, Mexico. If we can fathom the puzzles that remain—rather than be bamboozled by numerous chak chay[16]—we might yet cast some light on the structure of the Snake kingdom in its first incarnation. We must hope that future epigraphic finds, from Dzibanche and elsewhere, will ultimately unravel its secrets. If the history of research thus far is anything to go by, there will be more surprises ahead, and yet more opportunities to rethink the “Serpent State.”



[Note 1] The ending on toponyms spelled by a la suffix is as yet unknown and should properly be rendered –Vl. However, in line with recent publications this paper will from here on use Kaanul, with no implication that this is correct.

[Note 2] Here the winikhaab or “K’atun” unit has been suppressed or obscured by the i-u-ti-ya i uhtiiy “then (it) happened” verb. The spelling of the month Uo here receives the unique spelling of wo-hi woh, the form in use in Yucatan when the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century (Martin 1997:854). An alternative to the Classic form IHK’-AT ihk’at that we see in other spellings in the inscriptions—even elsewhere on the Dynastic Vases (see K6751 J6b)—the terms presumably coexisted, but woh may have been the vernacular form for the vase painters. The strangeness of this section is increased by the proportions and alignment of the glyphs, which have the awkward task of filling the skewed remaining space at the end of the text. The painter seems to have stopped and restarted his work, possibly adding some part—the possessed vase and name phrase in particular—on a later occasion.

[Note 3] This scheme reconstructs a base-date of, 6 Ik 10 Kankin (552) from a Distance Number of 1.4.18 that counts from there to the Period Ending, 9 Ahau 3 Uayeb (554). A second Distance Number of 2.12.14 links the base-date (which likely marks the building’s dedication) to the preceding accession event on, 7 Lamat 6 Uo (550) (Martin and Beliaev 2017:Table 1).

[Note 4] This finding suggests that we take a fresh look at the Snake royal names from the Dzibanche region and specifically the potential versions of Sky Witness’s moniker. Blocks CX15-CX17 of the Resbalon Hieroglyphic Stairway, associated with a Snake emblem glyph, provide the core elements of his name in the form u-?UT[T650] CHAN-na (Martin 1997:861). Stela 3 at Pol Box gives a closely related version, with the addition of a hand-based compound that can also be recognized on Block CX14 from Resbalon (Esparza and Pérez 2009:9-10). Octavio Esparza proposed that the hand was a later-disused YUK logogram, elaborated with no and ma to represent yuknoom. The case for this is much strengthened by an inscribed bone recovered from an important burial in the Temple of the Cormorants at Dzibanche (Velásquez 2008b). This also appears to have a Sky Witness name, this time introduced by a clear yuknoom: yu[ku]-no-ma ?UT-tu[T650-CHAN]-na. Returning to Resbalon, we can now say that the fullest name appears there as ?YUK-no-ma u-?UT[T650]-CHAN K’AHK’-BAHLAM?. As Erik Velásquez (2008b) suggests, the tomb of Sky Witness—richly equipped with jade—has surely been found at Dzibanche.

[Note 5] See Carter (2016:350-351) for a discussion of some of the copying errors on the Dynastic Vases.

[Note 6] The value ?CH’EEN is represented by two logograms, one a bird’s head, the other a more variable sign that focuses on bones and dark places (Vogt and Stuart 2005:157-163). Originally, the bird was distinguished by a tri-lobed eyelid and what often looks like a bundle of sticks on its facing left-side. However, by Late Classic times both features could be dispensed with and a pared down raptor-head suffices to spell the word. Nevertheless, Figure 5c shows two faint strokes through the eye that may allude to the lobed form.

[Note 7] Several of the component blocks from this stairway carry Calendar Round dates, the clearest being 5 Chicchan 3 Yaxkin (seen twice), 6 Men 18 Pax, and perhaps 10 Chicchan? 18 Xul (see Velásquez 2004b). Even without a tie to the Long Count, calculation shows that if these positions are correct they are quite widely spaced in time, spanning in excess of 20 years. The Long Count counterparts that fit a projected reign for Ruler 10, as well as meshing with the style parameters offered by Uaxactun Stela 19, fall into the second column of potential correlations in Table 1 of this posting.

[Note 8] Altar M is the earliest known product of K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat’s reign and carries a text describing its own making in 734, four years prior to the conflict with Copan (Looper 2003:59-61). Oddly, it is owned by some other person (an ancestor or father?) and the king supervises its dedication. His titles are damaged, but appear to include the nohol kaloomte’ “South Kaloomte’” epithet he bears on Stela J (C14-D14). Nevertheless, I am reluctant to see this as evidence for his use of this high status prior to the split with Copan. Either this monument is deliberately retrospective, or indicates that K’ahk’ Tiliw had politically detached himself prior to the decisive clash.

[Note 9] We have no knowledge of this early period, but ascribing the kaloomte’ epithet to Ruler 2 (a feature of most Dynastic Vases) may serve to distinguish him from the founder as the first king to claim or be ascribed that rank.

[Note 10] The easiest amendment would be to the initial coefficient, and a number of alternatives fall within the required 556-582 range: *3 Caban 10 Pop for (575), *4 Caban 10 Pop for (563), *7 Caban 10 Pop for (579), *8 Caban 10 Pop for (567), *12 Caban 10 Pop for (571), and *13 Caban 10 Pop for (559). Selecting an alternative coefficient for Pop (0, 5, or 15), while keeping 10 Caban, produces no eligible results. In Table 1, I use *12 Caban for the arbitrary reason that it is the simplest copying error for 10 Caban available.

[Note 11] Additionally, there is the case presented by Naranjo Stelae 18 and 46, in which two ch’ok—certainly brothers, perhaps even twins—were promoted during the reign of their presumed father K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Chaahk (Martin et al. in press). The manner in which the order of their names is reversed on each monument, as if to avoid prioritizing one over the other, suggests that they were equals intended to be future co-rulers of some kind.

[Note 12] I am indebted to Frauke Sachse (pers. comm. 2017) for pointing out this parallel.

[Note 13] This system might also offer a way of understanding the 599 date for Sky Witness at Palenque. Theoretically, this character could be a later namesake of the 17th ruler, a sub-king of Scroll Serpent who we otherwise have no record of.

[Note 14] The later interest in Scroll Serpent could well be motivated because he was the father of Yuknoom Ch’een II, the first Snake king to rule at Calakmul (Martin and Grube 2000:106). A damaged Distance Number on Stela 33 might connect to the birth of Yuknoom Ch’een on (600), the king who commissioned this monument in 657. It could also be significant that Scroll Serpent completes the K6751 list. Although patently not the last Snake king before the reign of Yuknoom Ch’een II, the painted king list may nevertheless draw attentional attention to this putative father.

[Note 15] Amendments were made by comparing the full range of vases in search of workable combinations (although several are so overpainted as to be worthless for this exercise), or identifying coefficients that can be considered canonical rather than exceptional. At times the process amounts to no more than guesswork. It is noticeable that necessary corrections cluster toward the early part of the sequence (i.e. Rulers 1-6 in Table 1), possibly a hint that later dates are more reliable.

[Note 16] A close relative of the herring.


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