Puzzle Writing

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

For Justin Kerr, with boundless admiration

Transparency is not always the aim of writing. Signs can also baffle and please by means of scribal ingenuity. Sometimes the puzzle relates to esoteric matters or “magical” diagrams, as in “Sator Squares” from the ancient world. These devices were four-directional palindromes, read left-right, right-left, up-down, down-up, invoking, perhaps, deities and Latin verbs for “work” and “wheels.” Examples exist in far-flung places like Pompeii, Dura-Europos in Syria, (Figure 1, Yale University Art Gallery), and Cirencester, England (Sator Squares). Decidedly pre-Christian, Sator Squares even infiltrated Christian settings of the Early Modern period (St. Barnabas, England). As symbol and puzzle, they clearly had “legs.” Their appeal carried them across millennia.


Figure 1. Sator Square from Dura-Europos, Syria, c. AD 165–256, Yale University Art Gallery, #1933.298. 

The Classic Maya seem to have had some fun too. The setting is not a slab or painted wall at Pompeii but a pot that is among the most finely painted to survive from the Classic period. Personally, I find it hopelessly subjective to speak of the “greatest Maya painting on a pot.” (It is an exercise in futility to engage in an aesthetic tournament between past and present standards of beauty.) But here, in this instance, the hyperbole fits (for an image, Coe and Houston 2015:pl. XVIII; also Boot 2008, the first to acquire, study, and disseminate images of the ceramic). Dating to about AD 750, the vase has a named calligrapher, ‘RABBIT’-bu (T’ulub?). Such references are rare. Its presence here signals special esteem for the painter. The pot belonged, as do many of the most carefully executed pot paintings, to a youth. In this case, the boy or teenager was associated with the Peten Itza (‘i-IK’-‘a) region of northern Guatemala.

This is not the place to discuss the rich complexities of the pot. Its fascinating spellings deserve separate study. Note, for example, the unusual pronouns (an absolutive -eet for the 2nd-person singular, “you,” another absolutive, –oon, “we” [Boot 2008:12]) and the late collapse or near-homophonic play of distinct words (juun [“one]~ hu’n [“paper, book”] > huun?, highlighted here in 1 pik ka[‘]nal k’uh, 1 pik kabal k’uh, “8,000 Celestial Gods, 8,000 Terrestrial Gods.” (In 1986, I had noted a similar alternation of the number “1” and a sign for “book” on two ceramics, one in a private collection in Guatemala City).

Instead, what draws our attention is a set of four Monkey figures conversing with God D on his throne (Figure 2). A text near God D makes it clear that he speaks to an assembled group of Chuween, doubtless the four Monkeys seated to lower left (Note 1). The TE’, “tree, wood,” probably serves as a numeral classifier for the number “4.” However, as an alternative, the Popol Vuh recounts the transformation of an earlier set of “wood” people into monkeys, for “their flesh was merely wood” (Christenson 2007:90; see also Boot 2008:28). Is that the reference here? Nothing on their bodies would indicate wooden substance. The contrastive appearance of the monkeys is intriguing, veering from human and elderly to simian or deity-like. A few are elderly (as cued by beards), one may be younger. The varied faces, along with the differing headdresses, hint at the poorly understood subtleties of mythic Monkeys.


Figure 2. Detail of vase (rollout by BAMW Photography). 

The figure to far left, presumably of lowest rank, has a large olla (liquid jar) in front, as does the monkey to the far right. A lively touch is that the small simian head-glyph above the latter combines a glyph for consumption–a small head with water sign in the mouth–and the monkey’s head itself (Figure 3, see Houston et al. 2006:fig. 3.5). He must have been a thirsty fellow.


Figure 3. The drinking monkey glyph (detail, BAMW Photography).

The lead Monkey is central to our discussion of puzzle-writing (Figure 4). He is the only figure on the vase whose mouth both opens and emits a flow of….what?  One suggestion is that it forms “a stream of red liquid” (Boot 2008:8). In my view, it more likely corresponds to speech scrolls in Maya imagery, a means of showing a forceful if invisible utterance and, at times, of linking it to glyphic text (Houston et al. 2006:154–163). The glyphs are, with a few exceptions, relatively easy to read: yax k’ax winik, “the first jungle/forest men” (aside from its resonance with the Popol Vuh, k’ax being more of a Yukatekan word [Barrera Vásquez 1980:387], uhtiiy, “it happened [at],” a likely independent pronoun, ha’o’b, “those,”a reading first pointed out to me by David Stuart (e.g., Hull et al. 2009:38–39; Mora-Marín 2009:120), for spelling, see Robertson et al. 2007:48); and a mythic place name, possibly featuring the flower of the tobacco plant (Simon Martin, personal communication, 2013; see Stuart and Houston 1994:77, fig. 92). [Note 2] A collection of the independent pronoun appears in Figures 5 and 6. The wa-wa-li is more difficult to interpret, but it may record w-aw-il, “my shouts [howling]?” or “my shouters [howlers?],” aw being a root for hearty vocalizations going far back to the beginnings of Mayan languages (Kaufman and Norman 1984:116; for the pronoun, a pre-vocalic first-person singular, see Law 2014:table 31). A few other texts appear to use this expression, including two versions on a pot with inebriated (and noisy?) youths (Figure 7).


Figure 4. The main monkey and his text (detail, BAMW Photography). 


Figure 5. Independent pronoun, ha’o’b, “those,” in Maya texts (Calakmul, upper left, field drawing by David Stuart; rollout, lower left, by Justin Kerr, downloaded from Museum of Fine Arts website, recording the “First Gods, First Lords”; and La Corona Panel 2, drawing by Linda Schele, perhaps referring to multiple sculptors, a suggestion made to me by Dmitri Beliaev).


Figure 6. Parallel phrase on Copan Stela A, referring to “those, the cache-openers [pasno’m], cache-coverers [makno’m]” (-no’m ending first interpreted by David Stuart, photographer unknown). 


Figure 7. wa-wa-li/IL spellings (photograph by Justin Kerr, drawing by the Tikal Project, University of Pennsylvani).

The enigma is in their reading order. A conventional view would have them as in the figure to the left: left to right, top to bottom (Figure 8). But that is probably wrong. The speech scroll—in multiple strands to signal the flow of distinct words?—issues from the mouth, then, in the figure to lower right, touches the glyph for “First Forest.” The next glyph, “person,” is directly below, emitting its own scroll that winds its way up to the “it happened [at],” followed by the place name at #4. What do we do with the ha’o’b and wawil/wawal? The looping strands, which go “off-scene” only to reappear, at #6, suggest that the former came before the latter. By the conventions of this pot, strands appear to be start slender, then expand. Of course, it is possible that #5, 6, came prior to the others, but the scrolls from the mouth suggest otherwise. The key is to follow their twists and turns.


Figure 8. Comparison of two possible reading orders. 

For scholars, writing is serious stuff. Careers collapse or soar on the fortunes of a decipherment or after review of a small, solemn bin of essays. Yet Maya glyphs were about wit too, as playful as any monkey god. Readers would start this text, and…let go. The sinuous red lines carried them away, in a scribal frolic that continues to charm.

Note 1. The che-he-na spelling is not recording, I suspect, the first person “I,” –een, as in “I say” (cf. Hull et al. 2009:36). On ceramic texts and Ceibal Hieroglyphic Stairway 1, among other places, a switch from an involved declaration (“I say”) to the statement of a name may require too many pivots in point-of-view. Not unprecedented, but awkward. For this reason, I prefer an interpretation by Nikolai Grube: “así dice,” akin to Ch’ol che’en (1998:549). Furthermore, unusual pronouns in Maya script tend to involve divine or “mythic” actors, or those operating in a more remote if non-mythic past. Piedras Negras Panel 3 is a pertinent example, for it surely depicts a number of people long-dead at the time the panel was carved. To my knowledge, the first presentation of such pronouns was in a paper for the Society of American Archaeology meetings (Houston and Stuart 1993).

Note 2. The spellings of ha-‘i may not yet be fully resolved. One reasonable view sees them two separate morphemes, ha’ and ‘i (e.g., Hull et al. 2009:36, 38, albeit with provisos; Mora-Marín 2009:fig. 4). This would provide a deictic clitic at the end, an -i, “this, here,” reconstructed for Common Mayan (Mora-Marín 2009:table 4). But a late version from Caracol Ballcourt Marker 3 (ha-‘a?) suggests an alternative: that the earlier form was haa’, as triggered by disharmony and the appended ‘i syllable. By a process well-attested at Copan and Naranjo, this term might later have shortened to ha’.  A challenge is that, on present study, no such length is reconstructible for earlier forms of ha’ (Kaufman and Norman 1984:139).


Barrera Vásquez, Alfredo. 1980. Diccionario Maya-Español, Español-Maya. Ediciones Cordemex, Mérida.

Boot, Erik. 2008. At the Court of Itzam Nah Yax Kokaj Mut Preliminary Iconographic and Epigraphic Analysis of a Late Classic Vessel. Maya Vase Essay 

Christenson, Allen J. 2008. Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Coe, Michael D., and Stephen Houston. 2015. The Maya. 9th edition. Thames & Hudson, London.

Grube, Nikolai. 1998. Speaking through Stones: A Quotative Particle in Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions.” In 50 años de estudios americanistas en la Universidad de Bonn, edited by Sabine Dedenbach-Salazar Sáenz, Carmen Arellano Hoffmann, Eva Konig, and Heiko Prumers, 543–58. Verlag Anton Sauerwein Schwaben.

Houston, Stephen, and David Stuart. 1993. Multiple Voices in Maya Writing: Evidence for First- and Second-Person References. Paper presented at the 58th meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, St. Louis.

Houston, Stephen, David Stuart, and Karl Taube. 2006. The Memory of Bones: Body, Being, and Experience among the Classic Maya. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Hull, Kerry, Michael D. Carrasco, and Robert Wald. 2009. The First-Person Singular Independent Pronoun in Classic Ch’olan. Mexicon 31(2):36–43.

Kaufman, Terrence S., and W. Norman. 1984. An Outline of Proto-Cholan Phonology, Morphology, and Vocabulary. In Phoneticism in Mayan Hieroglyphic Writing, edited by John S. Justeson and Lyle Campbell, 77–166. Institute for Mesoamerican Studies, Publication 9. State University of New York, Albany.

Law, Danny. 2014. Language Contact, Inherited Similarity and Social Difference: The Story of Linguistic Interaction in the Maya Lowlands. John Benjamins, Amsterdam.

Robertson, John, Stephen Houston, Marc Zender, and David Stuart. 2007. Universals and the Logic of the Material Implication: A Case Study from Maya Hieroglyphic Writing. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing no. 62. Universals

Stuart, David, and Stephen Houston. 1994. Classic Maya Place Names. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology 33. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C.

An Intriguing Date on the Tz’unun Panel 2

by David Stuart, The University of Texas at Austin


Figure 1. Inscribed block from Tz’unun, Belize (Photograph by Bruce Love)

The latest issue of the journal Mexicon has on its cover a photograph of a inscribed panel recently discovered at the ruins of Tz’unun, in northwestern Belize (Hanratty, et. al., 2016) (Figure 1). The new find is of particular interest because the four glyphs on the stone (part of a much longer original text) include an example of the Kaan or Kaanul emblem, k’uhul kaanul ajaw, at the upper left. As many readers know, the history of the Kaanul kingdom and its rulers is undergoing much scrutiny and revision these days, especially in the wake of several new epigraphic finds (Helmke and Awe 2016a, 2016b; Martin 2017; Stuart 2012). For this reason the discovery of any text that refers to this dynasty is of considerable interest, even a partial inscription like we see on the Tz’unun panel.

The three other glyph blocks on the Tz’unun panel record a short Distance Number of 12 days and the CR to which it leads. Mexicon‘s very brief description of the Tz’unun block states that the CR date is 7 Ahau 18 Mol (Hanratty, et. al., 2016). However, I believe it is far more likely to be 7 Chicchan 18 Mol, using a form of the day sign that represents the so-called “serpent segment.” A horizontal line clearly bisects the interior of the day sign, and the scutes of the snake’s body are just visible below. Hints of diagonal lines above conform to this form of Chicchan as well. This variant of Chicchan is common in the inscriptions at Caracol in the early seventh century, and appears from time to time in later texts.

The style and paleography on the Tz’unun panel reminds me a good deal of the Caracol Hieroglyphic Stairway (Martin 2017), while not quite as ornate. I therefore think a likely placement of the CR in the Long Count is 7 Chicchan 18 Mol, or August 7, 639 AD. Twelve days earlier is 8 Ben 6 Mol, or July 26, 639 AD. Unfortunately we have no idea what events were being recorded in this text – we are left with only the dates and the intriguing emblem title.

That said, the year 639 AD would have been an interesting one in the history of the Kaanul kingdom. As the recent finds at Xunantunich have demonstrated, a ruler named Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan was executed less than a year later in 640. And three years earlier, in 636, we have tantalizing records of a war between two rival factions of Kaanul lords, with Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kan (of Dzibanche?) defeated and Yuknoom Ch’een assuming the throne at Calakmul a short time later (Helmke and Awe 2016b; Martin 2017). My proposed revision of the date on the Tz’unun block, if correct, falls after the defeat of Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kan but before his execution. Who, then, is the Kaanul king being named at Tz’unun? We cannot say, but given the possible timing of the narrative it seems that the longer inscription might have contained elements of this fascinating political story, noting episodes we lack elsewhere. Let’s hope more of this new inscription someday comes to light.


Hanratty, Colleen, Bruce Love, Stanley Guenter and Tom Guderjan. 2016. First Evidence of the Ka’an Dynasty in Northern Belize. Mexicon XXXVIII(6):142.

Helmke, Christophe, and Jaime Awe. 2016a. Death Becomes Her: An Analysis of Panel 3, Xunantunich, Belize. PARI Journal 16(4):1-14.

__________________________. 2016b. Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth: A Tale of the Snake-head Dynasty as Recounted on Xunantunich Panel 4. PARI Journal 17(2):1-22.

Martin, Simon. 2017. The Caracol Hieroglyphic Stairway. Maya Decipherment, January 20, 2017. https://decipherment.wordpress.com/2017/01/20/the-caracol-hieroglyphic-stairway/

Stuart, David. 2012. Notes on a New Inscription from La Corona. Maya Decipherment, June 30, 2012. https://decipherment.wordpress.com/2012/06/30/notes-on-a-new-text-from-la-corona/

The Caracol Hieroglyphic Stairway

by Simon Martin, University of Pennsylvania

The summer of 2016 produced discoveries of tremendous importance for understanding the political history of the Classic Maya lowlands. While excavating Structure A9 at Xunantunich, Belize, Jaime Awe and his team unearthed two inscribed monuments of rare significance, their contents revealed in detailed textual analyses by Christophe Helmke (Helmke and Awe 2016a, 2016b). These inscriptions support and elaborate some existing proposals, while supplying entirely new twists to the story. What follows are a few thoughts inspired by these finds.

Xunantunich Panels 3 and 4 were immediately recognizable as parts of a hieroglyphic stairway first uncovered at the site of Naranjo (Maler 1908:91-93, Pls.24-28; Morley 1937-38.2:42-59; Graham 1978:107-110). There Teobert Maler uncovered 12 blocks bearing outlined medallions of text in two different formats, one of nine glyph-blocks and the other of four. The Xunantunich stones differ in their larger size and the inclusion of two of the smaller medallions apiece. That the monument had a complex history, with portions of it moved in ancient times, was already clear from the discovery a lone block at Ucanal—first designated in the Naranjo series as Step XIII and later as Ucanal Miscellaneous Stone 1 (Graham 1978:107, 110, 1980:153-154). In regard to its content, it has long been realized that the narrative focus falls on the career of the Caracol king we know as K’an II, repeating much of the information we find on his Caracol Stela 3 (Beetz and Satterthwaite 1981:12-22, Figs. 3, 4; Stone, Reents, and Coffman 1985:273-274, Table 1). In this light the stairway’s presence at Naranjo was initially explained as a “conquest monument” erected by K’an II to celebrate his subjugation of Naranjo (Schele and Freidel 1990:174, 178). But there were a number of holes in that argument, and I later suggested that the steps did not originate at Naranjo but were instead brought there from an original setting at Caracol (Martin 2000:57-58).

Xunantunich Panel 4b

Figure 1. Inscribed fragment from Caracol, Str. B5 (drawing by S. Martin, after one by N. Grube in Grube 1994:Fig.9.14a)

That idea was provoked not simply by the Caracol subject matter, but by an inscribed stone fragment excavated by Arlen and Diane Chase from rubble at the foot of Caracol Structure B5 (see Grube 1994:113, Fig.19.4a) (Figure 1). It shared the outlined border and rounded corners of the stairway medallions and, anecdotally, was carved from the same pale grey limestone that one can see when visiting the Naranjo steps stored in the British Museum. Importantly, when the drawing was sized to the scale of those blocks it proved to be a very close match (Martin 2000:Fig.12; see also Helmke and Awe 2016:Fig.3b). The hypothesis put forward was that the Caracol fragment was a discarded piece of the same monument. There is no way to be sure when the stairway was broken up and removed, but we know that Naranjo attacked Caracol in 680, forcing its king to flee, and the 168 days that the Caracol king was exiled would seem to be a good opportunity to seize such a trophy. With two further parts now found at Xunantunich, the dispersal of this dismembered monument proves to be wider still, and Helmke and Awe (2016a:4) have noted the likely significance of both Ucanal and Xunantunich as one-time allies, associates, or clients of Naranjo in the Late Classic period. In short, there may be political meaning behind the distribution.


Figure 2. Step V of the Naranjo Hieroglyphic Stairway (HS. 1) (drawing by I. Graham, from Graham 1978:108. Courtesy of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Peabody Museum, Trustees of Harvard University)

Xunantunich Panel 4 has been identified as part of the opening statement of the inscription, directly following the Long Count of, falling in 642, on Step V of the Naranjo Hieroglyphic Stairway (Helmke and Awe 2016b:9, Fig.9) (Figure 2, 3a).[1] The first medallion completes the essentials of the Period Ending and names its presiding deities, but the second pivots to describe a key political upheaval of the time, the shift of the dominant portion of the Snake dynasty from Dzibanche to Calakmul (ibid.:16) (Figure 3b). Such a transfer had been posited from converging lines of evidence pointing to a “reconstitution” of the polity at Calakmul during, or shortly before, the reign of its most important king Yuknoom Ch’een II (Martin 2005). That such an explicit statement is now forthcoming—describing first the negation and then the formation of political authority at the toponyms of Dzibanche (kaanul) and Calakmul (uxte’tuun) respectively—confirms the historicity of this event and demonstrates the significance it held for its contemporaries (Helmke and Awe 2016b:13-16; Martin and Velásquez 2016). The implications of its placement here at the very start of the narrative are startling, since it compels us to see the entire monument as a single metahistory, in which each event contributes to the greater story of the transfer.


Figure 3. Text medallions from Xunantunich Panel 4 (drawings by S. Martin after those by C. Helmke in Helmke and Awe 2016b:Fig.11)

The other find at Xunantunich, Panel 3, has contributed entirely new information (Helmke and Awe 2016a:8-10, Fig.7). Here the first medallion offers us the death-date of K’an II’s mother in 638, while the second presents a further death in 640, this time specified as ti-ye-TUUN-ni ti yehtuun, literally “at the edge of the stone.” The exact meaning of this construction continues to be debated, but there is little doubt that it is associated with an act of violence consistent with execution. The subject is named as Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan and his full k’uhul kaanul ajaw title establishes him as a previously unknown Snake monarch. As Helmke and Awe point out, this sheds immediate light on Step I from Naranjo, where the partially surviving name of this king—absent his title—has him suffering a “star war” defeat in 636 at the hands of another Snake lord, this one a lesser kaanul ajaw, I’ve previously nicknamed Yuknoom Head (see Martin and Grube 2000:106). From this we learn that the break between Dzibanche and Calakmul was a violent one, a conflict that we can essentially characterize as a civil war. Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan evidently spent four years as a captive, or on the run, before he was put to death. Crucially, Panel 3 comes at the very end of the text, its chronology advancing to the same Period Ending in 642 with which the stairway begins. This is the last action recorded on the monument and therefore constitutes its narrative closure—perfectly in line with the metahistorical purpose set out on Panel 4.

* * *

If this summarizes what the Xunantunich discoveries have told us thus far, what other implications can be seen to arise from them? With Panel 4 established as the second block in the program, I believe we can go further with this re-assembly and here I would like to offer a speculative scheme for the next four step-blocks, of which three are currently known. The first move is to suggest that the reference to the Calakmul toponym 3-TE’-TUUN-ni uxte’tuun that ends Panel 4 is part of a pair and joins the other Calakmul toponym, chi[ku]-NAHB chiiknahb, that begins Step XII from Naranjo (Figure 4a). These place-names are paired, in this order, on La Corona Element 13 (formerly Site Q Ballplayer 1) (Stuart and Houston 1994:28-29, Fig.29; also Schele and Miller 1986:257-258, Pl.101), and appear together again on Step VI—if there employed for a different purpose (see below).


Figure 4. Steps XII and XI from the Naranjo Hieroglyphic Stairway (HS.1) (drawings by I. Graham, from Graham 1978:110. Courtesy of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Peabody Museum, Trustees of Harvard University).

But this is not the only argument one can make for the sequencing of these blocks. After a “focus marker” the text on Step XII moves directly to the verb i-pi-tzi-ji ipitzij “then ball is played,” with no subject named. An unusual event to be associated with a Period Ending, this is precisely the verb that re-appears at the close of the program when Xunantunich Panel 3 refers to the upcoming mark (Helmke and Awe 2016a:7, 11, Fig.9).[2] This association is even better evidence that Step XII should be inserted at this point. Symbolic ballgames are regularly associated with monumental steps, where they were staged to celebrate success in war and the subsequent tormenting of prisoners (Miller and Houston 1987:52-63). Indeed, Step XII goes on to name the steps in question with a-ku-?-TUUN-ni u-K’ABA’-ba-a ?-tuun uk’aba’ “?-stone is the name of.” It has been appreciated for some time that this passage continues on Step XI, which begins ye-bu for yehb “the stair of” and then provides the beginning of a royal name (Figure 4b). There can be little doubt that this takes us into the extended name phrase of K’an II.


Figure 5. Steps IX and III from the Naranjo stairway (HS. 1) ([a] drawing by I. Graham, from Graham 1978:109. Courtesy of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Peabody Museum, Trustees of Harvard University; [b] drawing by S. Martin after photograph by T. Maler)

The next suggested join is less certain. Step II contains the name and emblem glyph of K’an II and would seem to be a possible fit here. However, that text goes on to list two deities which supervise the king’s actions, a construction that does not typically fit with the syntax and subject matter we have here. Instead, Step IX, which also includes the name and titles of K’an II, shares the same double-size glyphs as Step XI and, for this reason alone, is a better candidate (Figure 5a). It might have followed Step XII directly, or via one or more other now-missing steps that made for an even longer nominal sequence. Since Step IX does not include a Caracol emblem glyph or other terminal titles we must assume, lacking a suitable candidate, that the following step is missing. The next contender for a continuation of the sequence is Step III, which is dedicated to the parentage of K’an II (Martin in Grube 1994:107) (redrawn here as Figure 5b). While it could have been placed at other points in the narrative, this first reference to the king would be a typical position. The combined scheme is set out in Figure 6, below.


Figure 6. A speculative scheme for the opening sequence of the Caracol Hieroglyphic Stairway. (a) NAR HS.1, Step V; (b, c) XUN Pan. 4; (d) NAR HS.1, Step II, (e) NAR HS.1, Step XI; (f) missing; (g) NAR HS.1, Step III. (Drawings of the Naranjo HS by I. Graham, courtesy of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Peabody Museum, Trustees of Harvard University; drawings of Xunantunich panel by S. Martin, after those by C. Helmke in Helmke and Awe 2016b:Fig. 11)

From here on we must turn to the chronology of the stairway, which is one of the more important contributions of the new studies (Helmke and Awe 2016b:Table 2). We still do not know how many step-blocks were in the original composition, but the number of proven joins suggest that a good proportion are already in hand. Of the 13 steps from Naranjo and Ucanal, seven can be fixed in relative order by means of their dates and distance numbers, while four undated ones receive suggested placements in this study. This leaves only two blocks, Steps II and IV (Figure 7a, b). The closest parallel for the supervision of deities on the first of these appears on Caracol Stela 3 at C5-D5, where the same divine oversight takes place at K’an II’s accession in 618. It is not unlikely that the stairway text referred to this important event and one might posit that Step II is a surviving part of that account. If so, this is an area where two or more adjoining blocks must be missing, since we have no Distance Numbers to count to and from that point. Step IV presents a steeper challenge. The text looks very much like a truncated version of the one on Stela 3 at D10b-D14a. There a series of actions are recounted for the day in 622, including the arrival of what seems to be a god effigy of some sort and the presentation of a gift, using the ya-k’a-wa yak’aw verb seen on Step IV, where the Snake king Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’ is named as the bestower (the gift may well be the effigy itself). However, Step IV ends with a Distance Number of 14.7.10, which is too large to fit into the slowly accumulating chronology of the stairway as we currently understand it. Since Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’ acceded in 622 and died in 630 it cannot link events within his reign. Wherever this stone fits, it is an outlier of some kind, directing us to another event of unknown significance in the future or past.[3]


Figure 7. Steps II and IV of the Naranjo hieroglyphic stairway (HS.1) (Drawings by I. Graham, from Graham 1978:107-8. Courtesy of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Peabody Museum, Trustees of Harvard University)

* * *

But there is a final nagging feature of the stairway narrative that demands our attention. As we have seen, the known text discusses two characters that bear the full k’uhul kaanul ajaw title of Snake kings, Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’ (in 630) and Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan (in 636 and 640), as well as one carrying the lesser epithet of kaanul ajaw Yuknoom Head (in 631 and 636) (Figure 8a). Conspicuous by his absence is the Snake king in power when the stairway was commissioned in 642, Yuknoom Ch’een, who had assumed the throne six years earlier in April 636—an event that, according to the new chronology, the stairway completely ignores.[4] I have previously wondered if Yuknoom Head could not be some pre-accession guise for Yuknoom Ch’een since, if true, it would resolve a number of difficulties (Martin 2005:7, n.9).


Figure 8. Comparison of names of Yuknoom Head from Steps VI and I of the Naranjo hieroglyphic stairway (drawings by S. Martin after personal inspection of the originals).

To examine this question, we should begin by comparing what we know of each character. In addition to his mentions on the stairway, Yuknoom Head is twice named on Caracol Stela 3, at D20a and F4a, where he is linked to conflicts in 627 and 631. The later of the two is the great triumph also commemorated on Step VI, his conquest of Naranjo by means of a “star war.” The earlier one is a battle credited to K’an II which is done yiitij/yitaaj “with” Yuknoom Head (this phrase is syntactically scrambled so that the Caracol emblem glyph can complete the rear face text). This no doubt indicates cooperative military action between the two polities, though not necessarily as equals. Although Yuknoom Head is without title here, the reference is consistent with his lack of kingly status since Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’ was alive at this time. When Yuknoom Head battles the next k’uhul kaanul ajaw, Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan, in the “civil war” of 636 he is identified with a combination where his title ka-KAAN[AJAW] overlays his name, which can be seen only as yu[ku] at top and li below (Figure 8b). This is not a unique case, not dissimilar amalgams occur in the texts of the later Calakmul king Yuknoom Took’ K’awiil, for example on Calakmul Stela 52 at G1.[5]

Turning now to Yuknoom Ch’een, until recently we knew nothing of his career before his attack on Dos Pilas in 648 (Guenter 2003). However, one of the new La Corona panels delivers a much earlier reference, describing a ballgame he conducted at that site in February 635 (Stuart 2012). It is notable that this date falls between the two mentions of Yuknoom Head on the stairway. The ballgame occurs 54 days before a “foundation” event—a verb associated with both newly installed and restored royal authority—which appears to take place at Dzibanche (Stuart 2012; Martin and Velásquez 2016). Evidence from Calakmul establishes that Yuknoom Ch’een took the role of “founder” in its short dynastic count, clearly claiming that he was the first Snake king at that site (Martin 2005:7-8). However, on Step VI a reference to Yuknoom Head as “at Uxte’tuun, Chiik Nahb Person” appears to place him as the first Snake dynast at Calakmul (Tokovinine 2007:19-21). Yuknoom Ch’een acceded to office just 58 days after Yuknoom Head’s victory over Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan, and the two events seem connected—indeed that the second appears to be dependent on the first (see also Helmke and Awe 2016b:18).

To recap, here is a chronology of the major events falling between 630 and 640:       630     Death of Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’ (Ucanal Misc. Stone 1)

         01.04.09 +       631     Naranjo conquered by Yuknoom Head (Naranjo HS Step VI & Caracol St. 3)

         03.03.07 +       635     Ballgame of Yuknoom Ch’een  (La Corona Elements 33 & 35)

               02.14 +       635     Foundation at(?) kaanul  (La Corona Element 33)

               16.08 +       636     Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan defeated by Yuknoom Head (Naranjo HS. Step I)

               02.18 +       636     Accession of Yuknoom Ch’een  (Calculated from La Corona Altar 1)

          04.04.07 +       640     Execution of Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan  (Xunantunich Panel 3)


What are we to make of all this? Lacking a clear solution, we are left with two main scenarios:

(1) Yuknoom Head and Yuknoom Ch’een were contemporaries, perhaps siblings or a father and son. The former was established at Calakmul by at least 631 (kaanul having at some point replaced an existing dynasty there) and after the death of Tajoom Ukab K’ahk’ he fought the next king and holder of the k’uhul kaanul ajaw title Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan. He succeeds but, possibly wounded or killed, disappears at much the same moment and Yuknoom Ch’een quickly takes on the kingly mantle; or (2) The same set of events unfold but Yuknoom Head is either a pre-accession name, or simply a distinct or more elaborated moniker, for Yuknoom Ch’een. It would be the same person who establishes a base at Calakmul, attacks Naranjo, triumphs in the civil war, and assumes the full Snake title.

There are pros and cons to both positions. If the stairway seeks to encapsulate the instantiation of legitimate authority and practical power at Calakmul, how can the first true Snake king there—and the current one at that—be excluded from the narrative? Was the immense influence that Yuknoom Ch’een later displayed based on no more than his good fortune in inheriting the accomplishments of his predecessor, or was it instead grounded in spectacular successes from his early career? The strongest counter-argument is that it would be very unusual for a pre-regnal name to so closely resemble that of an eventual king. That point recedes if the form were instead an unusually complete or alternative name for Yuknoom Ch’een, since Classic Maya kings had lengthy nominal sequences and the short name ubiquitously ascribed to him can only be one part of it. Snake kings seem especially prone to having different parts of their name emphasized at different places and times (e.g. Martin and Beliaev, in press). Even so, it is patently an obstacle that no other source associates him with the form given at Caracol.

* * *

To conclude, the finds at Xunantunich provide valuable new insights into Caracol’s hieroglyphic stairway and the events it describes. It is a Period Ending monument, but one dedicated to the ritual ballgame that appropriately chimes with the martial flavor of the whole text. Beyond that, its rhetorical purpose is to assert K’an II’s support for the new Snake order, presenting its own wars against Naranjo as contributions to the decisive Calakmul triumph over that rival in 631. K’an II was a self-declared client of the kaanul dynasty, having received his royal headband in a ceremony supervised by Yuknoom Ti’ Chan in 619, the year after his initial accession (Martin 2009, 2014:184). He continued to be a dutiful subject ally in the time of Yuknoom Ti’ Chan’s successor, Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’—accounting for the positive contact with that king—but evidently took common cause with Yuknoom Head against Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan. Alex Tokovinine (pers. comm. 2016) suggests that the wars between Naranjo and Caracol arose because they backed different sides in the civil war. Here Naranjo, itself a long-time vassal to the kaanul kings, would play the loyalist and thus enemy to the aspiring power of Calakmul, whereas Caracol supported the breakaway and the stairway celebrates the success of that choice. Yet the general struggle must have begun somewhat earlier, in the time of Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’, since Caracol was at odds with Naranjo from at least 626. The data demonstrate that as early as 642 the rise of Calakmul was considered to be a significant development in the political landscape of the central lowlands, one worthy of special record. The following decades of Yuknoom Ch’een’s rule would more than bear out that judgement, as the Snake dynasty drew ever more royal houses into its orbit and came closer than any of its rivals to forming a Maya “imperium.”


My thanks go to David Stuart, Stephen Houston, and Christophe Helmke who made helpful comments in the development of this text.


[1] Theoretically, there could be an intervening Lunar Series on another block or blocks. However, the direct join between Glyph F on Naranjo HS Step VI and 18 K’ank’in on the first medallion of Xunantunich Panel 4 makes that unlikely.

[2] David Stuart (pers. comm. 2016) reminds me of a pair of monuments at Ceibal (Seibal)—Stela 5 and 7— that show a single king equipped with ballplaying gear, where the texts also associate a Period Ending with a game.

[3] Following incremental insights and corrections from Spinden and Joyce, Morley (1937-38.2:44) connected this Distance Number of 14.7.10 to the terminal mark of This would date the missing event to in 628, which has no outside corroboration but does at least have the merit of falling within the reign of Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’.

[4] It could be argued that the lack of interest shown in Yuknoom Ch’een was because K’an II had, by means of his support for the new regime, pulled away from kaanul supervision. There may be something to that, but the grandiosity of this monumental statement—which serves to glorify Calakmul—must place as much of an eye on the present and future as it does on the past.

[5] The names of Yuknoom Head and Yuknoom Took’ K’awiil share several features. Both show the yu[ku] conflation atop a human face with a dot on its cheek, together with a li suffix (Martin 2005:5, n.5). The same form appears in the name of an unrelated sculptor on Calakmul Stela 51 (Martin, Houston, and Zender 2015) and, more distantly, at Palenque where K’inich Kan Bahlam II is associated with the same name as a child (Tablet of the Foliated Cross, G4, and Tablet of the Sun, J2). Variable elements are cloth-like projections extending over the cheek, an infixed k’in sign that might signal CH’EEN (none of the examples are sufficiently well-preserved to be clear on this point), and a TOOK’ “flint” sign. Yuknoom Head’s name does not include these, but on Caracol Stela 3 at D20a we might see the presence of the arm-and-stone motif that cues the god-name YOPAAT, but that identification remains uncertain.


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

Graham, Ian. 1978. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Vol. 2, Part 2: Naranjo, Chunhuitz, Xunantunich. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

1980. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Vol. 2, Part 3: Ixkun, Ucanal, Ixtutz, Naranjo. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Grube, Nikolai. 1994. Epigraphic Research at Caracol, Belize. In Studies in the Archaeology of Caracol, Belize, Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute Monograph 7, edited by Diane Z. and Arlen F. Chase, pp.83-122. Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute, San Francisco.

Guenter, Stanley Paul. 2003. The Inscriptions of Dos Pilas associated with B’ajlaj Chan K’awiil. www.mesoweb.com/features/Guenter/Dos Pilas/

Helmke, Christophe, and Jaime Awe. 2016a. Death Becomes Her: An Analysis of Panel 3, Xunantunich, Belize. PARI Journal 16(4):1-14.

__________________________. 2016b. Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth: A Tale of the Snake-head Dynasty as Recounted on Xunantunich Panel 4. PARI Journal 17(2):1-22.

Maler, Teobert. 1908. Explorations in the Department of Peten, Guatemala and Adjacent Region Topoxté, Yaxhá, Benque Viejo, Naranjo: Reports of Explorations for the Museum. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology 4(2). Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

Martin, Simon. 2000. At the Periphery: The Movement, Modification and Re-use of Early Monuments in the Environs of Tikal. In The Sacred and the Profane: Architecture and Identity in the Southern Maya Lowlands, edited by P.R. Colas, K. Delvendahl, M. Kuhnert, and A. Pieler, pp. 51-62. Acta Mesoamericana 10, Markt Schwaben.

___________. 2005 Of Snakes and Bats: Shifting Identities at Calakmul. The PARI Journal 6(2):5-15.

___________.  “On the Trail of the Serpent State: The Unusual History of the Kan Polity.” Paper presented at the 33rd Maya Meetings at Texas “History and Politics of the Snake Kingdom”, February 23rd-March 1st 2009. University of Texas at Austin.

____________. 2014 The Classic Maya Polity: An Epigraphic Approach to Reconstructing a Pre-Hispanic Political System. PhD thesis, University College London.

Martin, Simon, and Dmitri Beliaev. In press.  K’ahk’ Ti’ Ch’ich’: A New Snake King from the Early Classic Period. The PARI Journal 17(3).

Martin, Simon, Stephen Houston, and Marc Zender. 2015. Sculptors and Subjects: Notes on the Incised Text of Calakmul Stela 51. Maya Decipherment: https://decipherment.wordpress.com/2015/01/07/sculptors-and-subjects-notes-on-the-incised-text-of-calakmul-stela-51/https://decipherment.wordpress.com/2015/01/07/sculptors-and-subjects-notes-on-the-incised-text-of-calakmul-stela-51/

Martin, Simon, and Erik Velásquez. 2016. Polities and Places: Tracing the Toponyms of the Snake Dynasty. The PARI Journal 17(2):23-33.

Morley, Sylvanus G. 1937-8. Inscriptions of Peten. Carnegie Institution of Washington Publication 437: 5 Vols. Washington, D.C.

Miller, Mary Ellen, and Stephen D. Houston. 1987. The Classic Maya Ballgame and its Architectural Setting: A Study of Relations between Text and Image. Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 14:46-65.

Schele, Linda and David Freidel. 1990. A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya. William Morrow, New York.

Schele, Linda and Mary Ellen Miller. 1986. The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. Sotheby’s and Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth.

Stone, Andrea, Dorie Reents, and Robert Coffman. 1985. Genealogical Documentation of the Middle Classic Dynasty of Caracol, El Cayo, Belize. In Fourth Palenque Round Table, 1980, Volume IV, edited by Elizabeth P. Benson, pp. 267-276. Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute, San Francisco.

Stuart, David. 2012. Notes on a New Text from La Corona. Maya Decipherment: https://decipherment.wordpress.com/2012/06/30/notes-on-a-new-text-from-la-corona/

Stuart, David, and Stephen D. Houston. 1994. Classic Maya Place Names. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology No.33. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C.


Tributary Texts

by Stephen Houston, Brown University 

At Calakmul, Mexico, sculptures were not just made by craftsmen who recorded their contribution via “signatures” or “autographs” (Stuart 1989; also Houston 2016). Several sculptures probably came from political subordinates, in offerings shipped by magnates to the overlord (Martin, Houston, and Zender 2015; Zender et al. 2016: 46–47 [link]). [Note 1] Consider one possibility, Calakmul Stela 51, a monument with unusual, almost voluptuous touches. Exuberant volutes roll through the ruler’s hair, in what I take to be a sycophantic nod to royal vanity. The surface puffs out with striking, volumetric handling. And, as though bursting forth, elements of the headdress extend beyond the sculptural frame (see, too, Stela 89, created by the same carvers; Ruppert and Denison pls. 50c, 53b).

This is virtuoso work, meant to impress…perhaps the royal beneficiary above all. As yet, there is no adequate, in toto presentation of the Calakmul monuments. Simon Martin (2014) is, of course, refining the history of the site and its region, and that work is likely to be definitive on current data. [Note 2] But we can say this: Stela 51 was of some size, 4.12 m in overall height, 3.10 m in length of carving. Stela 89, doubtless delivered at the same moment (its recorded date is 274 days after Stela 51’s), is half that, at 1.55 m in length of carving. Did this disproportion have something to do with ease of transport or reducing the physical burden of that transport?  In fact, their stone appears to have been “[h]ewn from a dense, durable limestone, presumably imported from some distance” (Martin and Grube 2008: 113). I am sorry to say that epigraphers, myself included, seldom if ever record quantitative measures of stone hardness. Perhaps we should. Anomalies might reveal themselves, as in the case of the re-carved Panel 10 at Dos Pilas. That sculpture, “evidently of nonlocal material,” a “fine-grained and dense limestone,” is wholly different from the softer stone in other carvings at the site (Houston 1993: 72, fig. 3–1). The re-carving hints that Panel 10 was transported from elsewhere, something that might have been done, as at Aguateca, Guatemala, for the sculptures of vanquished, enemy kingdoms (Houston 2014).

Another tributary text comes to mind. Step IV on Yaxchilan Hieroglyphic Stairway 3 has elicited, at least to me, a sense of anomaly since its publication by Ian Graham (1982:170). The style is notably ham-handed in comparison to other carvings on the stairway (Figure 2). Rather than the tidy layout of other treads, which link thematically to the presentation of important captives, these glyphs appear in slovenly manner. Signs slope and sag, their outlines bulge. The look is less of disciplined carving than painterly “facture,” a reflection of originals rapidly executed in pigment. Few rows follow the same alignment, and some glyph blocks vary greatly in size. Even the final column bows to the right before coming back to its intended vertical alignment. There is also a real chance that the limestone itself differed from other treads. According to Graham (1982: 165), its weathering is quite distinct from the other, lower steps of the stairway. This indicates harder stone or, perhaps, later placement. (Such insertions are known at Yaxchilan: Lintel 21, from the Late Classic period, occurs with Early Classic companions in the lintel series of Structure 22.) Were imported stones usually harder, to avoid damage en route?  Step IV also has it own dedication date of, and for an unusual “owner,” a ruler, Shield Jaguar III, in impersonation mode.


Figure 1. Step IV, Yaxchilan Hieroglyphic Stairway 3, drawing by Ian Graham (1982: 170 [Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project, Peabody Museum, Harvard University]).

The concluding phrases of the text are far smaller than those referring to royalty such as Shield Jaguar (B4), his mother (A5–B5), and his father, Bird Jaguar III (B6, Figure 2). They would seem to follow a sumptuary pattern: the ensuing names belong to at least one person of lesser, sajal status. Thus, reduced social importance = smaller signs. The text is unambiguous, stating that the carving was raised up (t’ab but without the usual yi, probably a problem in Graham’s drawing). It belonged to someone named “guardian of Yellow(?) Bat,” in the company of 12 Pat, a term linked to tribute by David Stuart (Stuart 1998: 384, fig. 6).
Figure 2. Parsing of final phrase in Step IV. “IS” indicates “Initial Sign,” as part of a dedicatory phrase. Original drawing by drawing by Ian Graham (1982: 170 [Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project, Peabody Museum, Harvard University]).
The descriptive for the carving or kind of sculpture (u-k’a?-li) is known elsewhere (e.g., Xcalumkin Lintel 1:G1, Xcombec “St. 1”:C3), although it tends to be rare at sites to the south of the Puuc hills or the Campeche coast. One, for example, may occur at Naj Tunich (u-k’a ha in Drawing 51 [Stone 1995: pl. 11]). Nonetheless, it is fair to say that, after discussions with David Stuart, the reading remains opaque or at least debatable. Stuart and I are both dubious that this relevant glyph for the monument type is simply a syllabic k’a. That matter can be left for later. What commands our attention is that this slab, so wildly discrepant from its neighboring treads, seemingly of different stone, refers to its possession by a subordinate who uses a title of war. [Note 3] Another figure, employing a possibly title for tributaries, comes second. As at Calakmul, the lords of Yaxchilan may have exhibited stones brought at some effort from subordinate sites, either extracted from subsidiary lords or given by them in respectful service.
[Note 1] The shipment of carvings existed in tandem with the option of sending carvers (Houston 2016: 407, fig. 13.11).
[Note 2]  To be sure, there is Marcus (1987). To my critical eye, this monograph is a model of how not to do such a report. It is brief, unreliable, under-cited, and badly illustrated, with a monographic length that results less from quantity of text than creative formatting of pages.
[Note 3] I am mindful that the yatz’in? might include another pronoun, signaling the presence of yet a third name in this text. But I think this doubtful.
Acknowledgements  Thanks go to Simon Martin, Mary Miller, and David Stuart for comments on the ideas herein.
Graham, Ian. 1982. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 3, Part 1: Yaxchilan. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
Houston, Stephen D. 1993. Hieroglyphs and History at Dos Pilas: Dynastic Politics of the Classic Maya. University of Texas Press, Austin.
Houston, Stephen D. 2014. Monuments. In Life and Politics at the Royal Court of Aguateca: Artifacts, Analytical Data, and Synthesis. Aguateca Archaeological Project First Phase Monograph Series, Volume 3, edited by Takeshi Inomata and Daniela Triadan, 235-257. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.
Houston, Stephen D. 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, 391–431. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C.
Marcus, Joyce. 1987. The Inscriptions of Calakmul: Royal Marriage at a Maya City in Campeche, Mexico. Technical Report 21. Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Martin, Simon. 2014. The Classic Maya Polity: An Epigraphic Approach to a Pre-Hispanic Political System. Ph.D. diss., University College London.
Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2008. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. 2nd ed. Thames and Hudson, London.
Martin, Simon, Stephen Houston, and Marc Zender. 2015. Sculptors and Subjects: Notes on the Incised Text of Calakmul Stela 51. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography Calakmul
Ruppert, Karl, and John H. Denison, Jr. 1943. Archaeological Reconnaissance in Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Petén. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication 543. Washington D.C.
Stone, Andrea J. 1995. Images from the Underworld: Naj Tunich and the Tradition of Maya Cave Painting. University of Texas Press, Austin.
Stuart, David. 1989. Hieroglyphs on Maya Vessels. In The Maya Vase Book: A Corpus of Rollout Photographs of Maya Vases, Volume 1, edited by Justin Kerr, pp. 149-160. Kerr Associates, New York.
Stuart, David. 1998. “The Fire Enters His House”: Architecture and Ritual in Classic Maya Texts. In Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture, edited by Stephen D. Houston, pp. 373-425. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington D.C.
Zender, Marc, Dmitri Beliaev, and Albert Davletshin. 2016. The Syllabic Sign we and an Apologia for Delayed Decipherment. The PARI Journal 17(2):35–56 ©

“Kill All the Lawyers”

by Stephen Houston, Brown University 

…said Dick the Butcher, a miscreant in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part II, act IV, Scene II, Line 73. What Shakespeare meant and whether this was side-splitting to a late Elizabethan audience are matters best left to specialists. (My brother and brother-in-law are lawyers, so I hardly share the sentiment.) What concerns us here is the treatment of scribes, keepers of recondite knowledge and official memories, as well as the clerks, we presume, in adjudications among the Classic Maya. Since the 1980s, Mary Miller has suggested that artists served as tribute or war booty in dynasties of the time (Schele and Miller 1986:219–220; also Miller 2000, Miller and Brittenham 2013: 110, 112). This proposal found favor with Kevin Johnston, who also reported on the possible mutilation of scribal hands. Cruel mistreatment removed, not their skill, but any capacity to apply it in the future (Johnston 2001). [Note 1] Few scholarly studies make their way into a poem for The New Yorker, but this one did, and by a winner of the Pulitzer Prize (Williams 2001). The complex movements and political subordination of sculptors have grown clearer with research into such “loans” and cross-polity transfers of sculptural talent (Houston 2016a: fig. 13.11; see also Zender et al. 2016: 46–47, fig. 10). Some carvings may even have come as tribute from subordinate lords.

That phrase, “kill all the lawyers,” brings us back to the vulnerabilities of Maya kingdoms. Consider the front of Moral-La Reforma Stela 1, now on display in the Museo de Antropología “Carlos Pellicer Cámara,” Villahermosa, Tabasco (Andrews 1943: figs. 13, 27; Pavón Abreu 1945: fig. 3; also Martin 2003: 46–47). Located near the Río San Pedro Mártir, the city of Moral-La Reforma has acquired a bewildering richness of names: Reforma II, Reforma, Moral, Morales, Balancán-Morales, Acalán. By fiat of the Mexican authorities, it is now simply Moral-La Reforma. The city contains at least five stelae and an Emblem that I identified in 1983 but did not have a chance to publish. Stela 1 dates to April 9, AD 756 (Julian, 8 Ajaw 8 Zotz’), although it offers other, probably earlier dates that are impossible to reconstruct in the absence of better images. As with many Maya sites, the corpus of monuments at Moral-La Reforma is both readily accessible and in bad need of decent rendering. Drawings from the 1940s remain a basic source—not a good sign. To be sure, superb vignettes have appeared in an article by Simon Martin (2003).

Stela 1 in particular has one of the most northerly examples of a sculptor’s signature (front, just by the K’awiil scepter of the dancing ruler), as well as a complex embroidery of dates in addition to its Initial Series. I count at least four. The back of the carving displays what looks to be a capture, the victor in unusually active pose (Figure 1). His foot presses against the groin of the captive, whose mouth opens in agony. He may even howl. Certainly his head pulls back and lower lip juts up. Yet this may not be an image from battle. The closer analogy is to gladiatorial combat (Houston 2016b; Taube and Zender 2009). Both figures grasp what appear to be stone saps. One of the weapons, held aloft by the victor, will soon land on the face or glance off the raised elbow of the victim. A strip of kab or earth signs below, passing along all sides of the stela, provides a sense of firmament. On this side of the stela it would also absorb blood. Why these signs were thought necessary, as, for example, at Dos Pilas and Calakmul, is poorly understood. Did they refer to some specific setting or quality of surface? The event must have been explained by the vertical text to the far right. The text at left names the loser, a figure labeled Itzam K’anahk, a royal epithet at Piedras Negras (Martin 2003: 47). A Piedras Negras affiliation is unlikely here, however, in that the following Emblem does not match its usual form. The name does recall “Itzamkanak,” a large community some 50 km northeast of Moral-La Reforma, visited by Cortés on his way south to deal with rebels in Honduras (Scholes and Roys 1968: 110–111, map 3). Yet the connection is distant in time and involves a toponym rather than a personal name.

Figure 1.jpg

Figure 1. Moral-La Reforma Stela 1, back (photograph shared by Ian Graham, 1983; negative housed in the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project, Peabody Museum, Harvard University).

The combat covers only one surface. The main image curves around the sides. This scene is visually dominant, although, in epigraphic terms, the back carries the Initial Series anchoring all dates on the stela. Here is the nub of the argument. The main figure, whose name may be jo?-wo-KAN-K’AWIIL (Martin 2003: 47), dances between two seated figures, both captives. Each has arms bound behind the back and looks up to the person controlling their destiny (Figure 2). The differential in size is telling. It may represent their relative size, and perhaps the youth (or dwarfishness?) of the figure to the left.

Figure 2.jpg

 Figure 2. Bound captives on Moral-La Reforma Stela 1, front (Andrews 1943: fig. 26).

The truly unusual feature is that both seem to have tails. There must have been a frisson when the viewer saw, at first, human figures and then, glancing around the sides, a wholly non-human attribute. The figure to the left is eroded and thus more tentative. Curving up his back and to the sides of the monument is what may be a scorpion tail. His lips resemble, however, the duck-bill of a wind god. The far clearer example marks the individual to the right. By Maya convention, his position signals higher status. The tail is well-preserved, beginning as a Muwaan bird attached to the area of his tailbone and then looping out as a centipede, ending in its open maw.

Karl Taube has pointed out that this tail occurs on mythic monkeys, howlers or Alouatta pigra, with deep ties to the sun and, by extension, to the count of days, k’in (Taube cited in Newman et al. 2015: 89). He is the harbinger of dawn, then as now. For the Classic Maya, he also existed on a gradient of bestial-to-human, often with visual evidence of scribal skill. An especially early and well-preserved version was found in Burial 9 at El Diablo, an elevated acropolis within El Zotz, Guatemala (Figure 3a, upper; Newman et al. 2015: 88–95). Later versions may humanize him slightly, string the tail with eyeballs, and, most relevant, outfit him with scribal equipment, including books and brushes (Figure 3b). The example on the celebrated “Princeton vase” (K0511, Figure 3a, lower right) expresses, in my view, the decapitation of a humanoid version with snub nose, the muwaan head concealed; the same looping tail is strung with eyeballs. I have long suspected the trickster rabbit, writing in a book to the side, “off-image” below, was up to some mischief. Had his tricks led to the killing of the scribe? The principal executioners appears to include a duck-billed avatar of the wind god. He is the figure leaning over, axe in hand, upper body just out-of-view.

Figure 3b.jpg

Figure 3a. Examples of mythic howler-scribes, two with clear muwaan-bird heads (top, Vessel 1, Burial 9, El Diablo, c. AD 375, drawing by Kallista Angeloff, Proyecto Arqueológico El Zotz; bottom images copyright Justin Kerr, Kerr Associates). 

Figure 3.jpg

Figure 3b. Mythic howler scribe, labeled as Chak Ch’ok, “Great Youth” (photographer unknown). 

The captive on Moral-La Reforma would thus seem to be a person whose identity has been fused with a mythic scribe. That role may well have accorded with his abilities prior to capture. As suggested by Miller and Johnson, scribes could be taken in battle and, in some cases, bound, displayed, and perhaps killed. The chu-ka-ja, chuhkaj, “is grabbed,” expression above his tail (Andrews 1943: fig. 13) may refer to his actual date of capture, although the scene of possible gladiatorial activity on back muddies the story. Could these have been the two captives, forced into combat, as part of a narrative that began on the front of the stela? Or was it precisely the reverse, a bloody melee leading to the display? Adequate drawings may eventually provide an answer.

For the Classic Maya, the existence of two identities, condensed into one person, is well-attested (Houston and Stuart 1986: 297–302). This extended to captives, too, as in this example studied by Simon Martin (Miller and Martin 2004: 182). An historical figure, a lord Yax Ahk from Anaayte’, probably on the Usumacinta River, was dressed as a perpetual loser, an old god of fire and darkness (Figure 4a; his probable name, “Fiery Ear Jaguar,” may occur below, from a vessel in a private collection in Australia). In other scenes, he is crushed with stones or burned with torches held by mythic youths. Framing dynastic conflict with known beginnings, middles, and ends must have had its own sense of inevitability and, to winners, reassurance. At Moral-La Reforma, those roles may have involved human repositories of skill and knowledge, in deprivation of enemy kingdoms.

Figure 4.jpg

Figure 4a. Tonina Monument 155, c. AD 700, note smoking ear (photographer unknown). 


Figure 4b. Possible name of mythic figure, K’AHK’-chi-ki-ni BAHLAM-[la]ma YAX-‘Cord’-KAN-na, historical name on vessel, private collection, Australia.

Note 1. Visitors to Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow will hear the (probably) apocryphal story of its architect, Postnik Yakovlev, blinded by Ivan the Terrible so that nothing so beautiful would be built again. As for the argument for scribal mutilation among the Maya, I find it plausible but the elements to prove it, i.e., caches of finger bones or a scene of blood-letting from hands in Room 1 at Bonampak, a bit indecisive. It is hard to know who lost their fingers (the deposits are mute on this score) or why a person was slicing at (complete) digits in the Bonampak murals.

Acknowledgments   My thanks go to Simon Martin, Mary Miller, and Karl Taube for discussions of this monument and related images.


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