An Innovative Ritual Cycle at Terminal Classic Ceibal 3

By Nicholas P. Carter, Harvard University

The site of Ceibal, in the southwestern Department of Petén, Guatemala, is well known for the exuberantly unconventional style and content of its Terminal Classic monuments. Among these, Stela 19 is especially interesting. The stela was erected in front of Structure A-5, on the east side of the South Plaza of Ceibal’s Group A (Figure 1). Group A was a major locus of royal construction activity during the Terminal Classic period, and the stela has long been understood to date to sometime in the ninth century A.D. Yet the precise date of the monument has proven difficult to establish because of damage to its inscription. This note proposes that the text alludes to the k’atun ending (May 5, A.D. 889), but that it does so using an innovative count of four thirteen-day periods following the period ending. This count appears in the context of other religious innovations at Ceibal, but it recalls earlier ritual cycles at other Classic sites commemorating and anticipating k’atun endings.

Figure 1. Group A at Ceibal, showing Structure A-5 at lower right. Map courtesy of Takeshi Inomata, University of Arizona.

Figure 1. Group A at Ceibal, showing Structure A-5 at lower right. Map courtesy of Takeshi Inomata, University of Arizona.

Figure 2. Ceibal Stela 19. Photograph by Linda Schele (103010), courtesy of the Foundation for Mesoamerican Studies, Inc.

Figure 2. Ceibal Stela 19. Photograph by Linda Schele (103010), courtesy of the Foundation for Mesoamerican Studies, Inc.

The front surface of Stela 19 (Figure 2) is carved with a relief portrait of a ruler scattering incense with one hand, a standard trope on Maya royal stelae. Unusually for such monuments, however, the celebrant’s face is covered with a mask depicting the duck-billed Wind God, and he wears a skirt of narrow cloth strips instead of the apron-like garment more typical for such scenes. The only text on the monument consists of eight glyph blocks, two high by four wide, in a panel below the ruler’s feet (Figure 3). All four of the leftmost glyph blocks contain dates with numeric coefficients of 1, while the four blocks to the right contain noncalendrical signs. However, the middle four blocks (positions B1, C1, B2, and C2) were effaced in antiquity, some of them almost completely (J. Graham 1990:57). This has contributed to confusion about the nature of the dates and the reading order of the text. J. Graham (1990:60) thought the signs at positions A1 and B1 comprised a Calendar Round date of 1 Ben 1 Pop, corresponding to a Long Count date of (January 9, A.D. 868). The implication would be that the text has to read from left to right in two rows of four glyph blocks, since one Calendar Round date immediately followed by a second such date (at A2 and B2) would be highly aberrant. Bryan Just (2004:27) placed the stela a little over thirty years later, around, on the basis of its style. Without committing to a specific date, Prudence Rice (2004:214) suggested that the inscription referred in some way to a half- or quarter-k’atun ending, indicated by the scattering of incense in the scene above.

Careful inspection of photographs by Ian Graham (I. Graham 1996:47) and Linda Schele (2005: photograph no. 103012) strongly suggests that the four leftmost glyph blocks contain tzolk’in dates exclusively, not full Calendar Round dates. The date 1 Ben at A1 is unmistakable. The date at B1 is not 1 Pop at all, but a tzolk’in date with a coefficient of 1; even though the interior details of the day name are destroyed, the contours of the cartouche are clear enough. The date at A2 is another well-preserved tzolk’in date, 1 Kawak. The date at B2 is destroyed except for traces of another numeral 1.

Figure 3. The inscription on Ceibal Stela 19. Drawing by the author after photograph by Linda Schele.

Figure 3. The inscription on Ceibal Stela 19. Drawing by the author after photograph by Linda Schele.

A set of four tzolk’in dates associated with calendrical rituals might suggest—at first—an ethnohistoric parallel with Maya celebrations of new haab years in the Calendar Round. Because each haab year has 365 days (eighteen months of twenty days, plus the five-day intercalary month of Wayeb at the end of the year), while there are twenty day names in the tzolk’in cycle, the first day of the haab year can only correspond to four tzolk’in day names, each five positions apart. Epigraphers call those tzolk’in positions Year Bearers because many Mesoamerican calendrical traditions use them to name haab years. For Late Postclassic Yucatec communities, the Year Bearers were Kan, Muluc, Ix, and Cauac. Diego de Landa recorded that “[i]n all the towns of Yucatan it was the custom to have at each of the four entrances to the town two heaps of stones, one in front of the other; that is, at the east, west, north, and south” (Landa 1978:62–67). Offerings to supernatural beings were made each year at one of the four stations, depending on which tzolk’in day would be the Year Bearer for the coming year: Kan corresponded to the southern altars, Muluc to the eastern, Ix to the northern, and Cauac to the western. Could Ceibal Stela 19 record similar rituals connected to the Year Bearers?

The two well-preserved tzolk’in dates on the monument, 1 Ben and 1 Cauac, indicate that it does not. While Cauac is one of the Postclassic Yucatec Year Bearers, Ben is not. The two day names are separated by six positions (counting from Ben to Cauac) or fourteen (counting from Cauac to Ben), whereas Year Bearers must be separated by multiples of five. Yet four dates, three of them definitely tzolk’in dates, all of them with coefficients of 1, and all so close to one another in the text, do point to a ritual pattern of some kind. If some of the dates are not Year Bearers, what could explain such a pattern?

Starting with the hypothesis that the stela dates to about the third k’atun ending of the tenth bak’tun, one possibility does suggest itself. Counting forward thirteen days from 1 Ahau 3 Yaxkin yields the date 1 Ben 16 Yaxkin. Thirteen days later is 1 Cimi 9 Mol, and thirteen days after that is 1 Cauac 2 Ch’en. If one further assumes that this inscription, like most others, reads in double vertical columns instead of in two horizontal rows, then the four glyphs at A1 through B2 can be reconstructed and connected to the k’atun ending. The elements in boldface below are preserved on the stela, while those in brackets are implied or reconstructed:

Carter table

The three surviving glyph blocks at the end of the text (D1, C2, and D2) all evidently contain nouns. D1 begins with the agentive pronoun AJ, “he of” or “one who,” followed by a direction, either OCH-K’IN (ochik’in, “west”) or EL-K’IN (elk’in, “east”), and then an eroded collocation. C2 contains the spelling PI’T-ta, pi’t (“palanquin”), and D2 consists of logographic K’UH. Conceivably, this “palanquin god” might have been one of the massive effigies carried on litters in war and ritual processions, illustrated, among other places, on late eighth-century wooden lintels at Tikal. Since the first four glyph blocks all contain dates, the verb can only have been in block C1. This is now totally effaced, but given the reference to a deity in blocks C2 and D2, it likely described a ritual of some kind.

A1 – B1: 1-BEN 1-[CIMI]
A2 – B2: 1-CAUAC 1-[EB]
C1 – D1: [ritual verb] AJ-?-K’IN-?-?-?K’UH
C2 – D2: ?-PI’T-ta K’UH
 juun ben, juun [?cham], juun ?chahuk, juun [eb], […] aj […] ?k’uh pi’t k’uh
On 1 Ben, 1 [Cimi], 1 Cauac, and 1 [Eb], [ritual verb] He of … God(?), Palanquin God.

On this view, the Stela 19 text records either four religious rituals that took place every thirteen days following the k’atun ending, or else a single rite that happened 52 days (4 × 13) after the k’atun ending. This proposed 52-day commemoration of a period ending is to the author’s knowledge unique in the hieroglyphic record, and appears to represent a Terminal Classic innovation local to Ceibal. The k’atun ending itself is recorded on three other monuments in Ceibal’s Group A—Stelae 3, 18, and 20—each of which varies in its own way from earlier Classic Maya standards for period ending stelae. Stela 3 was erected in front of the pyramidal Str. A-6, across the South Plaza from Str. A-5 (I. Graham 1996:17; Smith 1982:90). Its main figural panel depicts a ritual celebrant wearing a headscarf in place of the typical Principal Bird Deity headdress worn by most Classic Maya lords on k’atun-ending monuments. Below, gods of wind and music provide auditory accompaniment; above sit two rain gods whose wild hair, Tlaloc faces, and nominal square day signs (5 Alligator and 7 Alligator, both rendered in non-Maya style) may connect them to the peoples of coastal Veracruz. Stela 18, at the base of Str. A-20 in the Central Plaza, and Stela 20, at the base of the Str. A-24 stairway, both depict a lord wearing the “Toltec” warrior regalia common in Terminal Classic sculpture at Chichen Itza.

While the missing signs are unrecoverable, the proposals above have several points in their favor. The double-column reading order this analysis presumes is standard for Classic Maya monumental texts. The implicit reference to a k’atun ending makes sense of the incense-scattering in the scene above, just as Rice (2004:214) suggested, while the specific k’atun-ending date of is in line with Just’s (2004:27) stylistic date. All four tzolk’in dates must be separated by multiples of thirteen days because they share the same coefficient. In fact, the two fully preserved dates, 1 Ben and 1 Cauac, are 26 days apart—provided, as the reading order would suggest, that the latter date is the next 1 Cauac after 1 Ben.

Classic Maya ideas about numerology—inferred from representations of the cosmos, the properties of calendrical systems, and accounts of calendrical rites—provide a cultural context that makes sense of the proposed ritual cycle. The significance of the number thirteen is evident from the tzolk’in calendar, whose numeric component consists of a cycle of thirteen numbers. Thirteen periods of twenty days—the number of day names in the tzolk’in, and the number of days in one winal in the Long Count calendar—make 260 days, or the number of name-number combinations in the full tzolk’in cycle. The Maya identified four tzolk’in Year Bearer days, four aspects of the rain god Chahk, sets of four divine youths, and four cardinal directions associated with four sacred trees. Four cycles of thirteen days make 52 days, a number with its own esoteric resonance: positions in the Calendar Round, combining a tzolk’in date with a date in the ha’b calendar, recur once every 52 ha’b years.

While innovative in its reliance on thirteen-day periods, the proposed 52-day ritual cycle at Ceibal finds precedent in earlier texts from other Maya sites. Notable examples are the stelae erected by Copan ruler K’ahk’ U Ti’ Witz’ K’awiil in preparation for and commemoration of the three-quarters k’atun ending (November 11, A.D. 647) and the k’atun ending (October 15, A.D. 652). Here, the numbers 260 (13 × 20) and 40 take on particular importance. According to Stelae 2 and 12 at Copan, K’ahk’ U Ti’ Witz’ K’awiil celebrated the date with a pilgrimage to a place called Naah Kab—perhaps the hill just east of the Acropolis on which Stela 12 was erected—then returned to the same spot 260 days later, on, to conduct a second ritual. Fittingly, the full k’atun ending occasioned greater ceremony. Preparations may have begun with a rite on (October 21, A.D. 651), one 360-day Long Count year before the main event. 100 days later, on (that is, 260 days before the k’atun ending), the king celebrated a second ritual, commemorated on Stela 10 on a hill across the Copan Valley from Stela 12. On, 260 days after, he conducted another rite, also recorded on Stela 10. 40 days later, on, he performed still another ritual, this one involving an altar dedicated to the avian Sun God. 40 days after that, on the k’atun ending itself, the celebrations reached their climax with K’ahk’ U Ti’ Witz’ K’awiil’s dedication of stone monuments and invocation of Copan’s patron deities.

K’ahk’ U Ti’ Witz’ K’awiil emphasized intervals of 260 days because the tzolk’in calendar is 260 days long, so that a period ending in the Long Count would have the same date in the tzolk’in as the day 260 days before or after it. In Maya religious thought, the tzolk’in date of a day made it auspicious or unlucky, suitable for certain kinds of activities and not others, and days with the same tzolk’in date were in an esoteric sense the same day. Two of K’ahk’ U Ti’ Witz’ K’awiil’s monuments appear to refer to the yearly movements of the sun using a similar principle: as seen from Stela 12 on the east side of the Copan Valley, the sun would appear to set behind Stela 10 to the west about 20 days after the spring equinox and before the autumnal equinox (Morley 1920:143). The days on which those observations were made would thus have the same tzolk’in day name, though not the same number, as the days of the equinoxes themselves. A similar principle could be at work in the Ceibal Stela 19 cycle: sharing a numeric coefficient with 1 Ajaw, each of the four tzolk’in dates temporally echoes the k’atun ending.

Ceibal already stands out among Terminal Classic southern lowland Maya kingdoms for the long survival of its royal court and for that court’s ritual and representational innovations. Hitherto, those changing images and practices have been most evident in the site’s ninth-century portraiture and iconography. Most very late texts at Ceibal are limited to Calendar Round dates; although it is longer, the unconventional text on Stela 13 thus far defies secure interpretation. Stela 19 thus presents a unique window onto local ideas about numerology and the temporal echoes of important calendrical endings in the late ninth century. Those ideas themselves fit within an older intellectual tradition, to which the last kings of Ceibal made their own contribution.


The ideas presented above benefited from discussions with Thomas Garrison, Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, Katharine Lukach, Franco Rossi, Andrew Scherer, and David Stuart. Takeshi Inomata, David Schele, and the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies kindly provided illustrations, in the latter case a photograph.

Sources Cited

Graham, Ian. 1996. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 7.1: Seibal. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge.

Graham, John A. 1990. Excavations at Seibal, Department of Petén, Guatemala: Monumental Sculpture and Hieroglyphic Inscriptions. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, vol. 17, no. 1. Harvard University, Cambridge.

Just, Bryan. 2007. Ninth-Century Stelae of Machaquila and Seibal. Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Incorporated. <>

Landa, Diego de. 1978. Yucatan Before and After the Conquest. William Gates, trans. and ed. Dover Publications, New York.

Morley, Sylvanus Griswold. 1920. The Inscriptions at Copan, Honduras. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Washington, D.C.

Rice, Prudence M. 2004. Maya Political Science: Time, Astronomy, and the Cosmos. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Schele, Linda. 2005. The Linda Schele Photograph Collection. Accessed 7-29-2015. <;

Smith, A. Ledyard. 1982. Excavations at Seibal, Department of Petén, Guatemala: Major Architecture and Caches. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, vol. 15, no. 1. Harvard University, Cambridge.

Preliminary Notes on Two Recently Discovered Inscriptions from La Corona, Guatemala 10

by David Stuart (The University of Texas at Austin), Marcello Canuto (Tulane University), Tomás Barrientos Quezada (Universidad del Valle de Guatemala), and Maxime Lamoureax St-Hillaire (Tulane University)

During the 2015 excavation season at La Corona, Guatemala, two new sculpted blocks were recovered in excavations of the site’s main palace overseen by one of the authors, Maxime Lamoueax St-Hilaire. Both blocks are parts of larger compositions that were removed from their original settings and re-set in a masonry wall near the northeast corner of the palace complex. The precise archaeological context of the discovery will be presented separately, and described in detailed at the upcoming SImposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala.

Each stone has been assigned an “Element” designation in accordance with the nomenclature system developed for La Corona’s corpus of sculpture (Stuart et. al. 2015). Each stone seems to be part of a larger panel or sculpted step, so it is important to note that their designations may be modified in the future to reflect new understandings of their original form and presentation.

Also, we should stress that the following commentary is itself preliminary. More formal and complete presentations will appear as part of the series La Corona Notes, and in subsequent publications sponsored by the Proyecto Arqueológico Regional La Corona, directed by Marcello Canuto and Tomás Barrientos Quezada.

Element 55

Element 55 shows a small intricately carved scene of a costumed ruler engaged in a dance performance. The date is the period ending 7 Ahau 3 Cumku, or January 20, 702 A.D. The accompanying hieroglyphs name the ruler as ? Ti’ K’awiil, a prominent king of Calakmul sometimes known in the literature as “Took K’awiil'” (a designation based on his variant name glyphs; see Martin and Grube 2000:112). This appears to be the left-half of a larger scene that would have presented another figure facing the dancer, in all likelihood a local La Corona ruler.

The main portion of the text (from B1 to D6) reads:

u baah ti ahk’ot ? ti’ k’awiil k’uhul kaanul ajaw elk’in(?) kaloomte’ ux te’ tuun

“(it is) his person in (the act of) dancing, ? Ti’ K’awiil, the Holy Kaanul Lord, the east Kaloomte’, (at) ux te’tuun.”

La Corona, Element 55. Preliminary drawing by Mary Kate Kelly. (Please do not re-publish without permission of the Proyecto Arqueológico Regional La Corona).

La Corona, Element 55. Preliminary drawing by Mary Kate Kelly. (Please do not publish without permission of the Proyecto Arqueológico Regional La Corona).


The inscription on the left side of the block gives the Calendar Round date 7 Ahau (A1) 3 Cumku (A4), along with Glyphs G9 (A2) and F (A3). This corresponds with the half-k’atun period ending falling on The verb phrase (B1) and the name and titles of the king (C1-D5) make up most of the rest of the text, ending in a place name uxte’tuun (Calakmul), indicating where the dance performance took place. The glyphs are very finely carved in a style reminiscent of Block V from Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 (the somewhat infamous “2012 block”). A certain scribal flair is evident in these hieroglyphs which display unusual head variant signs and ornate forms, such as the unusual “east” glyph (D4) displaying the head of the sun god K’inich Ajaw emerging from the open maw of an alligator.

The name of ? Ti' K'awiil from Dos Pilas Stela 8. Drawing by Ian Graham.

The name of ? Ti’ K’awiil from Dos Pilas Stela 8. Drawing by Ian Graham.

The Calakmul ruler depicted, ? Ti’ K’awiil (“Took’ K’awiil”) assumed the throne in 698, as revealed in two historical texts unearthed in 2012 (one at La Corona, another at El Peru) (Stuart et. al., 2014). He is named on several other monuments at Calakmul, and a particularly beautiful version of his name, similar to the one given here, occurs Stela 8 of Dos Pilas. The ruler’s dance on marked a special occasion in his life history, being the first major period ending of his reign.  He would live at least three more decades and be responsible for some of Calakmul’s most beautiful monuments, including those erected around Structure 1 on

Element 56

Element 56 is a all-glyphic block, probably the second part of a longer text with its first portion still missing. In format this partial inscription is very much like the “2012 block” discovered a few years ago in Hieroglyphic Stairway 2. It displays precisely the same grid dimensions as that block, in fact, and dates to just a few years before. Its style bears a strong resemblance to other texts known from La Corona dating to the end of the seventh century.

La Corona, Element 56. Preliminary drawing by David Stuart. (Please do not publish without permission of Proyecto Arqueológico Regional La Corona).

La Corona, Element 56. Preliminary drawing by David Stuart. (Please do not publish without permission of Proyecto Arqueológico Regional La Corona).

Summary of inscription:

The partial text recounts several important events involving the La Corona ruler named Chak Ak’ Paat Yuk, leading up to his accession in 689 and culminating in the dedication of an ancestral shrine for the new king’s deceased parents in 690.

The text emphasizes aspects of Chak Ak’ Paat Yuk’s political career, and especially close interactions with the king who reigned at Calakmul in those years, Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’. Some of the history mentioned on Element 56 describes ceremonial dressing and adornment, no doubt reflecting the complex process of royal investiture before Chak Ak’ Paat Kuy’s inauguration on September 9, 689. He returned to Saknikte’ two weeks later on September 23, to establish his new political presence, and shortly thereafter focused his attention on the construction of a shrine (wayib, “sleeping place”) for his father and mother, who died within a few months of each other over twenty years earlier, back in 667.

It is difficult to know what the missing first half of this inscription had to say, but we suspect it may have opened with a Long Count date 3 Ben 11 Zip and an accompanying record of the shrine dedication. It may also have had something to say about the end of the reign of Chak Ak’ Paat Yuk’s older brother, K’inch ? Yook, who is last heard from in 683.

We should mention that the name Chak Ak’ Paat Kuy refers to the same individual we have previously called Chak Ak’ach or Chak Ak’ach Yuk (“Red Turkey”). The new name reflects a revision based on clearer spellings in this new inscription (Houston, Stuart and Zender, in preparation).

Discussion, Dates and Episodes 9 Chicchan 13 Muan (December 7, 688) (missing)

The inscription opens in mid-passage, clearly indicating it was once part of a larger text. First glyph (pA1) is the place name SAK-NIK-TE’, for the local toponym of La Corona, Saknikte’, meaning “white blossom.” The date iassociated with this episode is missing but it can be reconstructed based on the time interval indicated afterward. The event is missing, but given what comes next it seems reasonable to suppose that this passage once recorded Chak Ak’ Paat Kuy’s departure from Saknikte’ as he heads off to Calakmul. 13 Muluc 17 Muan (December 11, 688) (pB3-pA4)

Four days later a new event takes place, written with the phrase pehkaj yichnal yuknoom yich’aak k’ahk’ kaloomte’ “he was summoned(??) before Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’, the kaloomte’” (pB4-pA6). That is to say, the La Corona ruler has an important meeting and conference with Calakmul’s king. It is possible that his older brother K’inich ? Yook had recently passed away or otherwise been de-installed as ruler at La Corona, leading to the need for a face-to-face discussion.  6 Muluc 12 Ch’en (August 8, 689) (pA7-pB7)

Many months later we find Chak Ak Paat Kuy beginning an investiture rite, probably while he is still in Calakmul. The first of these events is recorded here, possibly taking place at dawn or sunset (a temporal adverb appears at pC1). The verb statement is unique, never seen before in any Maya text: po-tza-ja U-pa-ti, for pohtzaj u paat, possibly “his back is wrapped” (pD1-pC2). This happened under the watchful direction of the Calakmul king. We suspect that the La Corona nobleman was being given a ceremonial snake back-rack, much like the one we see depicted on Element 55. A similar costume is shown worn by his older brother K’inich ? Yook on La Corona’s Panel 1.  3 Cauac 2 Yax (August 15, 689) (pD3b-pC4a)

One week later Chak Ak’ Paat Kuy’s “say huun is tied (kahchaj).” We are not quite sure what a say huun is, but it probably is some paper-cloth adornment or accessory, possibly a type of headband or wristlet. Whatever it is, the same event is recorded as a pre-accession rite on Aguateca’s Stela 1 and also at Naranjo’s Stela 32. Here the spelling of the object is sa-HUUN, whereas elsewhere it is more fully sa-ya-HUUN.  6 Ik 5 Yax (August 18, 689) (pC5)

Three days later “he sets-up(?) at Ahktuun.” The phrase is somewhat enigmatic, but it may indicate the La Corona lord’s movement in or around Calakmul as he prepared for his upcoming accession ceremony, recorded in the next passage. The verb is the same one we often find associated with formal “foundation” events for royal courts at new locations. Ahktuun (literally “turtle-stone”) is the basis for a word for “cave” (often spelled actun in modern Yukatek), although here it may refer to an architectural or urban feature. The passage also cites the verb huli, “he arrived” in connection with an enigmatic place name (tz’i?-ni). 12 Imix 4 Zac (September 9, 689) (pD6b-pC7a)

Here we have the record of Chak Ak Paat Kuy’s accession as king. The episode mirrors an accession reference we have on La Corona, Stela 1, falling just one day earlier. The king’s name and title phrase is especially long, and includes elements not seen elsewhere (although his name on HS2, Block 5 shows a few parallel elements).  3 Etz’nab 1 Ceh (Septmeber 26, 689) (pF4-pE5)

Seventeen days later Chak Ak’ Paat Kuy finally seems to be back at La Corona. As the inscription here puts it very directly, ? t-u-hulil ti tax ajaw, “he ‘sets-up’ upon his arrival as the new king.”  8 Ahau 8 Uo (March 16, 692) (pG2-pH2)

In the last two columns we read how the “arrival” just cited took place 2.9.2 before 8 Ahau 8 Uo, “when will occur 13 k’atuns.” This is an anticpatorty record that establishes the events in relation to cosmic time, noting their proximity to the upcoming k’atun ending.

Closing passage of Element 56, noting the fire-entering ceremony at the parents' mortuary shrine (

Closing passage of Element 56, noting the fire-entering ceremony at the parents’ mortuary shrine (“sleeping place”). Photograph by David Stuart. 3 Ben 11 Zip (April 9, 690) (pH4-pG5)

The text closes with a stand-alone record of a major ceremony that occurred after the arrival and before the k’atun ending. This is och-k’ahk’ “fire-entering” – a dedication or activation rite at an architectural feature called “the three platform houses.” This almost certainly refers to a collection of structures atop the palace at La Corona. This is the designation of the “the wayib (shrine)” for Chak Nahb Chan and Lady Chak Tok Chahk, the mother and father of Chak Ak’ Paat Kuy and his elder brother and predecessor K’inich ? Yook.


Both stones are partial commemorations of important ceremonies. One is a visual record of a calendar dance ritual at far-off Calakmul, perhaps involving a local ruler as well. The other is a detailed textual record of a local nobleman’s transformation into a ruler under the close supervision of Calakmul’s powerful king, culminating in a ceremony honoring his beloved parents.

This note represents a preliminary analysis of two newly excavated sculptures from La Corona. More detailed analyses will appear in future issues of the La Corona Notes. More to come.

UPDATE: I would like to thank Jens Rohark for pointing out glaring inconsistencies in my initial conversions of the dates on Element 56. These have now  been corrected to reflect the Martin and Skidmore 584286 correlation.


Several colleagues have offered valuable thoughts and comments on these new finds, including Stephen Houston, Marc Zender and Simon Martin. Many thanks to them. The authors would also like to thank the Instituto de Antropología e Historia de Guatemala (IDAEH) and the Ministerio de Cultura y Deportes for their continued support in the excavation, conservation and analysis of the two sculptures presented here. We would also like to extend our appreciation to PACUNAM and to the National Geographic Society for their financial and logistical support of the Proyecto Arqueologico Regional La Corona (PARLC) in the 2015 season. The individual authors also acknowledge the help and assistance of their respective academic institutions, Tulane University, the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, and The University of Texas at Austin.


Houston, Stephen, David Stuart and Marc Zender. In preparation. The Reanalysis of a La Corona King’s Name. To appear in La Corona Notes.

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2000. Chronicles of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. Thames and Hudson, London.

Stuart, David, Marcello Canuto and Tomas Barrientos Quezada. 2015. The Nomenclature of La Corona Sculpture. La Corona Notes, Number 2. Mesoweb.

Stuart, David, Marcello Canuto, Tomás Barrientos, Jocelyne Ponce and Joanne Baron. 2015. Death of the Defeated. Historical Data on Block 4 of La Corona’s Hieroglyphic Stairway 2. La Corona Notes, Number 3.

Big Writing

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

The biggest text or inscription, discussed in a post by David Stuart (Most Massive Inscription), prompts another question. What is the largest writing, the most sizable character in any known script?

A recent trip to China revealed the most complex sign in that system (58 strokes, for Biángbiáng, a noodle we slurped by full moon, at Ramadan, in the Muslim quarter of Xi’an). In terms of sheer size, however, there are certain texts worth noting in the People’s Republic of China (Figure 1). Cheery red, an auspicious color for that society, they appear on separate billboards looking out from Xiamen in the People’s Republic. The intended recipient is the island of Kinmen or Quemoy in the Republic of China. Size gets the message across, “Peaceful Reunification” and “One Country Two Systems.” Built to last, a text on Quemoy, written in an older form of Chinese script, counters with its own slogan, “Three Principles of the People Unite China.” The declarations seem to be on auto-pilot, in mindless riposte to each other. Perhaps people read or notice them. I doubt it, though.  

Bigger texts, with bigger characters, occur elsewhere. The Hollywood sign, shaved down to 45 ft from its original height of 50 ft, is the most celebrated example (Figure 2). Also from China, recently spied from a rain-soaked Bund in Shanghai, is a garish nighttime display, I♥SH. Judging from floor height, each pixelated letter is about 100 feet high. Western states in the US insist on their own gigantism. To mark a school or university, they disfigure the sides of mountains with capital letters (Figure 3). The good people of Quartzsite, Arizona, intent on setting a record for Guinness, at least did so in non-permanent form. Using their own bodies, they formed a slightly wayward “Q” (for “Quartzsite”). Yet the unbeatable champions are the most ephemeral, the sky-writing that, having made its point, loses out to the wind (Figure 4). Or, in an example of pure megalomania, found for me by Steve Chrisomalis, there is the name of a sheikh in Abu Dhabi, visible from space (Sheikh’s Name from Space). Each letter is approximately 500 m long. The sheikh, a member of the royal family, has since had the letters removed, apparently at the insistence of his kin. He still owns the world’s largest jeep, built at a scale of 4:1 (Hamad). 

Bigness has a reason. It obtrudes, insists on being read. It imposes. To create or maintain such letters or characters involves a level of control or will that is beyond the ordinary. There is also sheer legibility and the intended size of an audience. The letters had better be big to be seen from Quemoy, the Bund, a valley bottom in Utah or by people spread out across Los Angeles. Yet these observations, all clearly valid, do not quite capture the local decisions or conditions behind big signs. Why should a university be allowed to impair the beauty of a mountain, a developer erect “Hollywood[land]” or the owner of a Chinese skyscraper broadcast a banal saying to thousands?  Is the owner the “I” of that display or is the love of Shanghai a sentiment that each viewer is obliged to share?

Being big, then, is to be unavoidable, to underscore clout, and to be seen by many.  The Maya evidence shows why some of this holds true, but why scale could have other motivations. There is little doubt that the large size of the stucco glyphs on the Temple of the Inscriptions, Tikal, has much to do with ensuring legibility from far below (Tikal Temple VI). Dimensions are about 85 cm across (Martin 2015:2). This also applies, probably, to the abysmally published glyphs of Early Classic date on the roof comb of Structure A-2 at Río Azul, Guatemala (Adams 1999:fig. 3-19; Figure 5). Other glyphs of large size must have had alternative motivations. Río Azul is also known for the large directional witz or “hill” glyphs that adorn the walls of now-decayed tombs (their erosion is one of the scandals of Maya archaeology; Figure 6). Then there are the inexplicably large glyphs on the sides of Yaxha Stela 3–their exact dimensions are unavailable to me now, but, if memory serves, they measure well in excess of 40 cm high (Figure 7). The real Maya champions, however, are not those on Tikal Temple VI, but the “giant ajaw” glyphs and “giant ajaw” altars that concentrate at sites like Caracol, Belize (e.g., Altar 6, Figure 8, Beetz and Satterthwaite 1981:84, fig. 21b). None of these signs ever exceed human height, evidently an operative limit. For those that stand alone, there may have been an existential property at play.  The glyphs are almost figural, glyphic but atextual. Their size reflects a mindset in which practical reasons for large scale–visibility, assertion, intrusion–gave way to signs made big because they existed as places and people.


My thanks go to Steve Chrisomalis, Simon Martin, and Felipe Rojas for their thoughts on Bigness.


Adams, Richard E. W. 1999. Río Azul: An Ancient Maya City. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Beetz, Carl P., and Linton Satterthwaite, Jr. 1981. The Monuments and Inscriptions of Caracol, Belize. University Museum Monograph 45. Philadelphia: University Museum, University of Pennsylvania.

Martin, Simon. 2015. The Dedication of Tikal Temple VI: A Revised Chronology. The PARI Journal 15(3):1-10.

“The Ancient World’s Most Massive Inscription” 2

by David Stuart, The University of Texas at Austin

Looking through the most recent issue of Archaeology magazine, I was fascinated to read about the 2nd-century inscription of Diogenes of Oinoanda, Turkey, which once adorned an immense wall of a public stoa at the site. The Greek text is now in hundreds of fragments and much of it is still missing. It’s a remarkable monument in many respects, stunning for its sheer size as well as for what it says: an summation and eager exhortation of Epicureanism, the ancient philosophical school that emphasized materialism, good living, and a healthy skepticism of divine power over human affairs. I was particularly interested by the article’s simple statement that the Oinoanda text was “the ancient world’s most massive inscription.” It’s original size, as presently understood, is thought to have covered between 200-260 square meters of wall space. That’s big.

Portion of the Diogenes inscription from Oinoanda, Turkey.

Portion of the Diogenes inscription from Oinoanda, Turkey.

Copan's Hieroglyphic Stairway in 1987

Copan’s Hieroglyphic Stairway in 1987

Well, I wondered, how would this compare to the ancient Maya inscription on Copan’s Great Hieroglyphic Stairway? That monument has been an intense subject of my own research for many years now, working is close collaboration with colleagues at Harvard, Brown, Penn, and in Honduras. Over the past three decades we’ve been able to reconstruct a significant  amount of the original inscription and we have a very good idea of what it once said (B. Fash 2011; W. Fash 2002; Houston, Fash and Stuart, in press; Stuart 2005). In several public talks I’ve made the informal claim that the Copan stairway represents the largest text ever built as a single monument, but I now have to doubt that this is the case. In its final version (an earlier monument was roughly half its final size) the inscribed staircase consisted of over 63 steps that were each approximately 7.5 meters wide. The height of the entire staircase as presently reconstructed is about 21 meters. That covers about 158 square meters of space, so smaller than Diogenes’ massive inscription. Within the Maya area Temple VI at Tikal, with its huge inscribed roof comb, might offer some competition to Copan’s stairway. The roof comb itself is 12.5 meters high, and the hieroglyphic text covers a little under 100 square meters by rough calculation.

This all led me to wonder too about the size of the famous cliff inscriptions of Behistun, Iran, which were so important in Henry Rawlinson’s work in the decipherment of Old Persian cuneiform (Behistun’s parallel texts is also written in Elamite and Babylonian). The size of the entire inscribed surface at Behistun is 15 x 25 meters, or 375 square meters — far larger than either the Oinoanda texts and the Copan stairway (Archaeology may need to credit Behistun, then, as the “most massive”).

The Behistun inscription

The Behistun inscription

However, it might not be accurate to call these two old world examples single texts. The Oinoanda inscription is composed of three different treatises written by Diogenes, accompanied by smaller collected sayings and letters by Epicurus. Several texts are combined together, in other words. And at Behistun we have three parallel versions of the same text each presented in a different script and language.

In contrast it seems that the scribes of Copan designed the final version of the Hieroglyphic Stairway as a single inscription. As I argued some years ago (Stuart 2005) the stairway text was built in two phases.  An early version dedicated by the king Waxaklajuun Ubaah K’awiil (Ruler 13) in 710 A.D. provided a lengthy treatise on Copan’s royal history, culminating the dedication of the tomb of K’ahk’ Uti’ Witz’ K’awiil (Ruler 12). A later king, K’ahk’ Yipyaj Chan K’awiil (Ruler 15), decided to update this very visible statement of history. In 755 he expanded on his predecessor’s earlier text, bridging the kingdom’s very recent turbulent history with the glories of the distant past and ultimately to the story of the court’s dynastic founder K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’. The later king made a clear effort to integrate his addition seamlessly with the earlier text, both rhetorically and in aspects of visual design.


If we acknowledge that the two phases finally constituted one long inscription, perhaps a case could still be made that Copan’s hieroglyphic stairway, in its final iteration, bears the largest single inscription from the ancient world. While incompletely preserved, its long text does seem more or less cohesive, lacking the discrete sections and partitions we see at Oinoanda and Behistun. I wouldn’t want to force this point too strongly, of course, given how much is still missing of the stairway inscription. We will never be quite certain of its final form and presentation. Besides, the comparisons mean little in the end beyond being an academic exercise. What we can say is that Copan’s huge stairway text occupies a special place alongside those old world examples (and perhaps others I’ve overlooked) as unusually massive displays of the written word, where textuality and ancient monumentality intersect.


Fash, Barbara. 2011. The Copan Sculpture Museum: Ancient Maya Artistry in Stucco and Stone. Peabody Museum Press and DRCLAS, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Fash, William. 2002. Religion and Human Agency in Ancient Maya History: Tales from the Hieroglyphic Stairway. Cambridge Archaeological Journal (12)1:5-19.

Houston, Stephen, Barbara Fash and David Stuart. In press. Masterful Hands: Morelli and the Maya on the Hieroglyphic Stairway, Copan, Honduras. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, forthcoming.

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.

NEW BOOK: The Maya (Ninth Edition) 7


The Maya (Ninth Edition)

By Michael D. Coe and Stephen Houston

Thames & Hudson, 2015

The Maya has long been established as the best, most readable introduction to the New World’s greatest ancient civilization. Coe and Houston update this classic by distilling the latest scholarship for the general reader and student.
This new edition incorporates the most recent archaeological and epigraphic research, which continues to proceed at a fast pace. Among the finest new discoveries are spectacular stucco sculptures at El Zotz and Holmul, which reveal surprising aspects of Maya royalty and the founding of dynasties. Dramatic refinements in our understanding of the pace of developments of the Maya civilization have led scholars to perceive a pattern of rapid bursts of building and political formation. Other finds include the discovery of the earliest known occupant of the region, the Hoyo Negro girl, recovered from an underwater cavern in the Yucatan peninsula, along with new evidence for the first architecture at Ceibal.

Michael D. Coe, Author
Michael D. Coe is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Yale University. His books include The Maya, Mexico, Breaking the Maya Code, Angkor and the Khmer Civilization, and Reading the Maya Glyphs. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.
Stephen D. Houston, Author
Stephen D. Houston is Dupee Family Professor of Social Sciences at Brown University. His most recent book is The Life Within: Classic Maya and the Matter of Permanence.

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