New Publication of the Komkom Vase Reply

An important new publication is out on the fabulous “Komkom Vase,” written by Christophe Helmke, Julie Hoggarth and Jaime Awe. Their excellent study provides a detailed epigraphic and historical look of this important Maya vase dating to the early ninth century. Beautifully published by Precolumbia Mesoweb Press.

Precolumbia Mesoweb Press presents A Reading of the Komkom Vase Discovered at Baking Pot, Belize, by Christophe Helmke, Julie A. Hoggarth, and Jaime J. Awe. Monograph 3. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco. Paperback, 144 pages, fully illustrated in color.

Available for purchase via


The Komkom Vase (Photo by David Stuart)

Preliminary Analysis of La Corona, Altar 5 Reply

A new article has appeared in The PARI Journal on the recently discovered Altar 5 from La Corona, Guatemala, written by David Stuart, Marcello Canuto, Tomas Barrientos and Alejandro González. The altar is significant for being the earliest known monument from the site, and its historical reference to a previously unknown local king points to connections to nearby El Peru (Waka’) and, by extension, to the Kaanul dynasty. There is also an interesting spelling of a verb never before seen: k’o-to-yi for k’otoy, “he arrives there.”

Link to article here: A Preliminary Analysis of Altar 5 from La CoronaThe PARI Journal 19(2):1-13.

La Corona, Altar 5, now on display at MUNAE, Guatemala City. (Photograph by D. Stuart)

A “Lost City” in the Heartland

by Stephen Houston (Brown University)

For Andrew Craig Houston and Sarah Newman on their birthdays

A “lost city” evokes mystery and romance. Desirable traits include a remote location, preferably in jungle or underwater, a longstanding, rumored existence that is rich in legend, a sensational name, perhaps some lurid hint of treasure. What specialist does not cringe at “Lost City of the Monkey God,” “Z” or Paititi? (For samples of sane writing, see Grann 2010; Preston 2017.) The Maya lidar revolution, which exposes entire landscapes to view, will eventually “find” all that is now “lost” (Chase et al. 2011; Chase et al. 2014). There can be no legendary cities if lidar manages to detail each bump a meter or more in height. But a visible landscape is not the same as an interpreted one. Communities carried names and history, which can only be retrieved from glyphic evidence.

One of the objectives of Maya epigraphy is a small maneuver with great impact: lifting a city or dynasty from the “lost” category and lodging it among the “found.” Glyphic texts sometimes refer to people or places not otherwise linked to known locations. Growing knowledge tends to depopulate that category, of which several examples come to mind: a trove of unprovenanced sculptures now tied securely to La Corona, Guatemala (Stuart 2001b; see also Canuto and Barrientos 2013); and a group of carvings from El Reinado, hitherto attested on a text at Yaxchilan, lying halfway between that city and the old logging town and chicle station of La Libertad, Guatemala (Stuart 2012). There is also a smattering of cities in southeastern Campeche, all gradually being assigned to this or that ruin (Grube 2004, 2005).

Quite literally, these places lie off the beaten path, with the result that specialists need to use ingenious methods of detection to find them. Think of Sak Tz’i’, “White Dog,” which played a strong historical role in the Usumacinta drainage in Mexico and adjacent Guatemala (Bíro 2005; Martin and Grube 2008:126, 137). “Gravity” models and other techniques of geographical science have been able to estimate its likely location from mention at known sites (Anaya Hernández et al. 2003; Bíro 2005). Yet the mot juste is “estimate.” Proof must await a text in situ, glyphs that record sak tz’i’ as part of a local royal title. Plausible arguments can identify one candidate, Plan de Ayutla, Chiapas (Martos López 2009:73–74). But, to be solved, a glyphic puzzle needs glyphic evidence. In the case of Sak Tz’i’, that is soon to come (Charles Golden and Andrew Scherer, personal communication, 2014).

A second challenge is the potential slippage between place names and royal emblems—i.e., those endowed with ajaw, “lord,” epithets, often prefixed by k’uhul, “sacred.” The Ik’ emblem, for example, almost surely relates to sites in and around the eastern portion of Lake Peten Itza in Guatemala. It does not, as previously believed, simply refer to its assumed location of Motul de San José, a substantial site northwest of the lake. In 2004, I noted the presence of its main title on Stela 1 from Tayasal/Flores, an observation made independently by others (Tokovinine and Zender 2012:fig. 2.8). Dominion or sovereignty may not only cover a single city, no matter how large or impressive. It may also apply to settlements nearby.

In the early 1990s, I began to notice, and to file away, glyphic citations of what appeared to be an unknown city in the vicinity (and, as we shall see, probably to the south) of the sprawling dynastic capital of Tikal, Guatemala. Two references occur at Tikal itself. One is in a graffito from Room 1, east wall, of Structure 5C-49-5, the second largest in this sector and a building that looks south towards the patio in front of the Mundo Perdido complex (Fig. 1, Trik and Kampen 1983:fig. 29c; see also Laporte and Fialko 1995:80–81, fig. 38, 54). According to excavations, the final phase of this structure dated to the late 600s, but caches or interments within it trended somewhat later, to the 700s (Laporte and Fialko 1995:81). Graffiti are notoriously glyph-deficient, but this is a legible exception. The text falls into single columns, an unusual arrangement suggesting some codical model or perhaps an archaizing touch (Houston 2004:286–287); this disposition is also found in caves like Naj Tunich, Guatemala (e.g., Stone 1995:figs. 7–3, 7–6 to 7–11).


Figure 1.jpg

Figure 1. Graffito, Tikal Structure 5C–49 (Trik and Kampen 1983:fig. 29c).


One passage—specialists need to revisit the original—contains a glyphic date. The month number is evidently one more than it should be (see MacLeod and Stone 1995:Table 2, for other instances at Naj Tunich). A plausible correction indicates one of three possibilities by the Martin-Skidmore correlation of Maya and European calendars: 6 K’an *7 Pax, Dec. 22, 697;  6 K’an *7 Pax, Dec. 10, AD 749; or 6 K’an *7 Pax, Nov. 27, AD 801. The closeness of the first to the winter solstice, the shortest date of the year (those thereafter getting steadily longer), gives some reassurance of its relevance. But I have qualms about the accuracy of the published drawing. The reality is that all dates work equally well, assuming, indeed, that 6 K’an *7 Pax does not allude to a more distant past.

As for the event, it is clearly a change-of-state verb, almost certainly lok’oyi, “leave” (Alfonso Lacadena, personal communication, 1998) or even, in dynastic contexts, the more allusive “go into exile,” a usage well-attested on Dos Pilas Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 (Guenter 2002). What follows appears to be ju-t’u?-AJAW, Jut’ Ajaw (Fig. 2). The ju has been understood for some time (Grube 2004:65–66, 72), and the t’u is one of my proposals based on a spelling for “rabbit,” t’u-lu, on a pot in an Australian private collection. That idea was buttressed by David Stuart’s suggested spelling of bu-t’u, “fill,” on the Palace Tablet at Palenque. This passage and its transitive verb (u-bu-tu’-wa) may report on the non-vascular embalming (“filling”) of Kan Bahlam of the city, perhaps on his day of death. The tropics would demand a rapid response to a decaying body, ranging from evisceration to packing the abdominal cavity with herbs. In Medieval Europe, where such elite practices are documented, evisceration was followed by wadding and stuffing with moistened cotton and powders of crushed aloe, rosemary, wormwood, myrrh, and marjoran (Brenner 2014; see also Weiss-Krejci 2005). Allspice (Pimenta dioica) might have served this purpose at sites like Río Azul, Guatemala (Scherer 2015:88). But what of ju-t’u itself? It matches no modern place name in the area, and the form of the word, with final, glottalized t’, is uncommon in Mayan languages. Yukateko employs hut’ to mean “narrow,” plausibly some feature of landscape (Barrera Vásquez et al. 1980:259), but I have little confidence it applies here.



Figure 2. Spellings with the t’u syllable: (a) ju-t’u?-AJAW, Tikal graffito, Str. 5C-49, Room 1, East wall (Trik and Kampen 1982:fig. 29); (b) t’u-lu, polychrome vessel, private collection, Australia (photographer unknown); and (c) u-bu-t’u-wa  (photograph by Mark Van Stone, Mesoweb link).

From the very same building comes another version of the title, but here with prefixed title and personal names. This is on an incised vase, first shown to me by Juan Pedro Laporte in 1990 and found with an adult male in a partly looted tomb from the final phase of Str. 5C-49 (Fig. 3, at top; Laporte and Fialko 1995:81, 81 fn58, fig. 68). The owner of this vessel carries the “wise one” epithet (‘itz’aat) decoded long ago by David Stuart, along with a personal name consisting of yuklaj, a positional verb for “it is shaking” (Stuart 2001a), and ch’a-ka-ta, a word rather more difficult to parse. Perhaps it transcribes some nominalization of an aggressive act of “cutting” or “chopping” (Orejel 1990), including, if I may speculate, a vowel-harmonic –V[V]t that occurs with terms like ebeet, “messenger” or “servant” (Houston 2018:104–105, for discussion of the so-called “headband bird” as a logographic version of this spelling). The incised vase, which dates by style to the eighth-century AD, reveals that this figure was in middle age. His “k’atun” notation shows him to be 40 to 60 years old.


Slide2.jpg Figure 3. Comparison of names at Tikal and Naj Tunich, Guatemala: at top, Tikal PNTA-215, ‘i-tz’a-ti yu-ku-[la]ja ch’a-ka-ta ju-t’u-AJAW (photographs by Marc Zender); and, below, Drawing 88, yu-ku-la-ja ch’a-ka-ta ju-t’u (Stone 1995:fig. 8-88c).  


Precisely the same name, with the same title, embellishes a wall in the upper-level maze passage of the Naj Tunich cave (Fig. 3, below, Stone 1995:230, fig. 8-88c; MacLeod and Stone 1995:fig. 7-3). The “imix”-like t’u sign and its “stone” infix are clearer \than at Tikal. The text at Naj Tunich is even more informative because it forms part of a cluster of texts that, despite the angled, awkward arrangement, displays a certain cohesion of style and continuity of phrasing (Fig. 4; the painter seems to have struggled with the broken, uneven surface). A multitude of people are mentioned, each cued by the yi-ta-ji expression that indicates proximity or close participation. Several have unusual names (ni-chi-?-K’AHK’, “Flower-Fire,” tz’a-ya-ja-K’AHK’, “Watered? [doused?] Fire,” k’u-k’u i-chi-?, “Quetzal Owl?), and one of them (Tz’ayaj K’ahk’) came from the large city of Caracol, Belize (K’AN-tu-ma-ki), about 58 km north of the cave (for the tz’a-ya as a fire expression, see also Caracol Stela 22:A12 [Grube 1994:fig. 9.30]). If these passages do form a single, continuous text, then the date is likely to have been counted back from a future event (‘i-ko-jo-yi) at 8 Ajaw 8 Uo, March 19, AD 692, a few years before the possible assignment for the graffito at Tikal (for another ko-jo-yi, if with a ju-JUL-pi [Sacul?] lord, see Drawing 49; MacLeod and Stone 1995:fig. 7-25; also Carter 2016:239). A distance number (3 winal, 13 heew), segues backwards to a likely 13 Manik’ 0 K’ayab, Jan. 6, AD 692 (MacLeod and Stone 1995:table 3). This date in turn is only a little over a month after a Calendar Round on Tikal Altar 5, (Jones and Satterthwaite 1982:37–38, fig. 23, table 5).



Figure 4. Drawing 88, Naj Tunich, Guatemala (Photograph by Chip and Jennifer Clark, Stone 1995:fig. 8-88). 


The name at Naj Tunich is preceded by an u-tz’i-ba, “his painting,” an indication of authorship (MacLeod and Stone 1995:176; Houston 2016:396–397, fig. 13.3). Is the painter, ni-chi-?-K’AHK’, the same as Yuklaj Ch’akat, the lord of ju-t’u? Or is there an opaque expression in between, thus recording two names? The expression resembles a statement of patronage (ya-na-bi-IL) between sculptors and their masters, but that cannot be shown decisively (Houston 2016:fig. 13.6). My suspicion is that there are two names, not one.

What is clear is that ju-t’u lords make an appearance in the middle years of the Late Classic period. The title may belong to a class of emblems clumsily designated (by me) as “Problematic Emblem Glyphs” (Houston 1986): sites with curious names and aberrant titles, but clearly royal and sovereign. In some cases they are linked to important cities. This zone has many small kingdoms but a limited epigraphic record of fairly late date (Carter 2016). With luck, ju-t’u may someday be identified on a stray monument from a mapped but unstoried ruin—not, as the fairy tale goes, “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” but south of Tikal and north of Naj Tunich.



Anaya Hernández, Armando, Stanley P. Guenter, and Marc U. Zender. 2003. Sak Tz’i’, A Classic Maya Center: A Locational Model Based on GIS and Epigraphy. Latin American Antiquity 14(2):179–191.

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

Bíro, Pétér. 2005. Sak Tz’i’ in the Classic Period Hieroglyphic Inscriptions. MesowebBíro

Brenner, Erich. 2014. Human Body Preservation—Old and New Techniques. Journal of Anatomy 224(3): 316–344

Canuto, Marcello, and Tomás Barrientos. 2013. The Importance of La Corona. La Corona Notes 1(1). MesowebImportance.

Carter, Nicholas P. 2016. These Are Our Mountains Now: Statecraft and the Foundation of a Late Classic Maya Royal Court. Ancient Mesoamerica 27(2):233–253.

Chase, Arlen F., Diane Z. Chase, Jaime J. Awe, John F. Weishampel, Gyles Iannone, Holley Moyes, Jason Yaeger, M. Kathryn Brown, Ramesh L. Shrestha, William E. Carter, and Juan Fernandez Diaz. 2014. Ancient Maya Regional Settlement and Inter-Site Analysis: The 2013 West-Central Belize LiDAR Survey. Remote Sensing 6(9):8671–8695.

Chase, Arlen F., Diane Z. Chase, John F. Weishampel, Jason B. Drake, Ramesh L. Shrestha, K. Clint Slatton, Jaime J. Awe, and William E. Carter. 2011. Airborne LiDAR, Archaeology, and the Ancient Maya Landscape at Caracol, Belize. Journal of Archaeological Science 38:387–398.

Grann, David. 2010. The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon. Vintage, New York.

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

—. 2004. Cuidades perdidas mayas. Arqueología Maya 12(67):32–37.

—. 2005. Toponyms, Emblem Glyphs, and the Political Geography of Southern Campeche. Anthropological Notebooks 11:89–102.

Guenter, Stanley P. 2002. The Inscriptions of Dos Pilas Associated with B’ajlaj Chan K’awiil. MesowebDos Pilas

Houston, Stephen D. 1986. Problematic Emblem Glyphs: Examples from Altar de Sacrificios, El Chorro, Río Azul, and Xultun. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing 3. Center for Maya Research, Washington, DC.

—. 2004. Writing in Early Mesoamerica. In The First Writing: Script Invention as History and Process, edited by Stephen D. Houston, 274–309. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

—. 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.

—. 2018. The Gifted Passage: Young Men in Classic Maya Art and Text. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Jones, Christopher, and Linton Satterthwaite. 1982. Tikal Report No. 33, Part A: The Monuments and Inscriptions of Tikal: The Carved Monuments. University Museum Monograph 44. University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Laporte, Juan Pedro, and Vilma Fialko. 1995. Un reencuentro con Mundo Perdido, Tikal, Guatemala. Ancient Mesoamerica 6:41–94.

Loten, H. Stanley. 2002. Tikal Report 23A: Miscellaneous Investigations in Central Tikal. University Museum Monograph 114. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia.

MacLeod, Barbara, and Andrea Stone. 1995. The Hieroglyphic Inscriptions of Naj Tunich. In Images from the Underworld: Naj Tunich and the Tradition of Maya Cave Painting, by Andrea Stone, 155–184. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2008. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. Second ed. Thames and Hudson, London.

Martos López, Luis Alberto. 2009. The Discovery of Plan de Ayutla, Mexico. In Maya Archaeology 1, edited by Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore, 60–75. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco. Plan de Ayutla

Orejel, Jorge. 1990. The “Axe/Comb” Glyph as Ch’ak. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing 31. Center for Maya Research, Washington, D.C.

Preston, Douglas. 2017. The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story. Grand Central Publishing, New York.

Scherer, Andrew K. 2015. Mortuary Landscapes of the Classic Maya: Rituals of Body and Soul. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Stone, Andrea. 1995. Images from the Underworld: Naj Tunich and the Tradition of Maya Cave Painting. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Stuart, David. 2001a. Earthquake! MesowebEarthquake! Stuart Notes.

—. 2001b. Las ruinas de La Corona, Petén, y la identificación del “Sitio Q.” Paper presented at the XV Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala, Guatemala City, Guatemala.

—. 2012. The Hieroglyphic Stairway at El Reinado, Guatemala. MesowebEl Reinado.

Tokovinine, Alexandre, and Marc Zender. 2012. Lords of Windy Water: The Royal Court of Motul de San José in Classic Maya Inscriptions. In Motul de San José: Politics, History, and Economy in a Classic Maya Polity, edited by Antonia E. Foias and Kitty F. Emery, 30–66. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Trik, Helen, and Michael E. Kampen. 1983. Tikal Report No. 31: The Graffiti of Tikal. University Museum Monograph 57. Univeristy Museum, Philadelphia.

Weiss-Krejci, Estella. 2005. Excarnation, Evisceration, and Exhumation in Medieval and Post-Medieval Europe. In Interacting with the Dead: Perspectives on Mortuary Archaeology for the New Millennium, edited by Gordon Rakita, Jane Buikstra, Lane Beck and Sloan Williams, 155–172. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.


An Update on CHA’, “Metate” Reply

by David Stuart (University of Texas at Austin)


In an earlier post on Maya Decipherment I proposed a reading KA’ or CHA’ for a long-elusive sign known as the “bent cauac” (at right). I suggested that it derived from the representation of a metate, or grinding stone, the word for which is *kaa’ in proto-Mayan and cha’ in all Ch’olan languages, including modern Ch’orti’. The occasional –a sign suffix found in a few examples, as shown here, seemed to offer good support for the identification, pointing to the presence of a glottal-stop after a in the logograph’s root, therefore Ca’. The widespread word for metate would certainly fit the bill.

I’ve come across another occurrence if the “bent cauac” that may offer confirmation of the reading, indirectly pointing to its precise logographic value as CHA’.  But the context is highly unusual, for the sign seems to operate as a syllabic sign, in clear substitution with chi in a familiar spelling of the title k’inich. This raises some larger epigraphic issues about how CV syllables and logograms of similar phonetic shape (CV’, in this case) may have sometimes blurred in function and usage, at least during a certain stage of Maya scribal history.


Figure 2. Name phrases from the vases, showing alternation of chi and ‘metate’ sign in the third block. (Photos: J. Kerr)

The substitution comes from two Late Classic vases in the “Ik’ style,” produced in the region around Lake Peten Itza in what is now northern Guatemala (Just 2012). The two vessels (K533 and K8889 in Justin’s Kerr’s database) were clearly painted by the same artist/scribe – an important point that we will return to later. A royal name, Yajawte’ K’inich, is written in the rim texts of each, referencing a local king who is depicted in the scenes below. His name is common throughout the corpus of Ik’ vessels (Tokovinine and Zender 2102:44-45). If we look closely at the extended name phrases themselves, we see obvious parallels (Figure 2). First we have u-baahil ahn(?) introducing a deity’s name, a version of the so-called “deity impersonation phrase” I have described before, found numerous other inscriptions (Houston and Stuart 1996). This serves to link a historical individual (named later) with a deity or supernatural with whom his/her identity is fused. Here it clearly names the solar deity Wuk Chapaht Tz’ikiin(??) K’inich (Ajaw), first identified in the 1980s in the inscriptions of Copan and other sites. The ruler’s name then follows, written as Yajawte’ K’inich, then the title “the captor of Ik’ Bul.” On K533 we find a fairly standard and recognizable form of the sun god’s name, with a K’INICH logogram followed by chi (see Just 2012:164)However, in the parallel sequence from K8333 the chi hand is replaced by our metate sign, making for a very strange combination. The bent cauac element, no matter what its value, plays no role in what is otherwise a very standard name for the sun god. There seems little choice but to analyze it here as a direct substitution for the syllable chi, where the metate element now takes on a syllabic role, presumably as cha (K’INICH-cha …weird!). The scribe of K8333 uses the conventional cha sign in spelling U-cha-nu, in the penultimate glyph of the illustrated phrase, perhaps as a way to highlight the playful nature of his earlier spelling,

If true, this phonetic function for the metate sign leads to a couple of interesting points.  First, it offers good evidence that the base value of the sign is indeed CHA’, not KA’. This makes sense given the presence of cha’ as “metate” throughout Ch’olan (*KA’ or *KAA’ seemed possibilities as more archaic forms, but less likely). Second and more broadly, it indicates a degree of playfulness on the part of a scribe who opted to steer clear of old, established spellings and introduce something completely outside of convention. Elsewhere the metate never appears syllabic cha, and I suspect its use as such here would have struck any ancient reader (like a modern epigrapher) as odd, even to the trained eye of a fellow Maya scribe of the period. In addition, the use of cha in spelling k’inich falls well outside the familiar rules of synharmony and disharmony, a set of conventions that was came to be tweaked anyway by the end of the Classic period. With K’INICH-cha we seem to have an example of individual scribal innovation, and a very playful one at that.

Crossovers between syllables and logograms occur throughout the history of the Maya script – BIH, “road,” can very often serve as bi, and CH’OH(OK), “rat,” is the basis for the syllable ch’o, and so on.  I believe that the painter of these vases used this familiar precedent to come up with his playful idea to use CHA’ as cha. In certain settings (calligraphic, less formal ones?) scribes may have felt a bit more freedom to draw upon these possibilities and display their creative skills as glyphic composers. For any courtly scribe the act of writing was an act of designing, often creatively and unexpectedly. In any event, all this highlights once again that the spellings found in Maya hieroglyphs were seldom truly “fixed,” as long as scribes conformed to the established rules of graphic variation. The example from the two Ik’ vases demonstrates how at least one ancient painter may have pushed some of these boundaries and conventions, and others no doubt did the same, in different ways. Epigraphic studies will always explore and refine the nature of scribal rules, but it would seem that, at least for some scribes, some leeway was possible in bridging the categories of logograms and syllables.


Figure 3. Two Ik’-style vases with parallel rim texts, K533 and K8889. (Photos: J. Kerr)

References Cited

Houston, Stephen D., and David Stuart. 1996. Of Gods Glyphs and Kings: Divinity and Rulership among the Classic Maya. Antiquity 70:289-312.

Just, Bryan R.. 2012. Dancing into Dreams: Maya Vase Painting of the Ik’ Kingdom. Princeton University Art Museum and Yale University Press.

Tokovinine, Alexander, and Marc Zender. 2012. Lords of Windy Water: The Royal Court of Motul de San Jose in Classic Maya Inscriptions. In Motul de San Jose: Politics, History and Economy in a Classic Maya Center, A.E. Foias and K.F. Emery, eds., pp. 30-66. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

If…Alabaster Could Talk

by Stephen Houston (Brown University), David Stuart (University of Texas, Austin), and Marc Zender (Tulane University)

Among the most valued objects in a Maya court must have been bowls of an almost sugary white stone. Some are opaque, especially those from the Early Classic period. Others, of Late Classic date, consist of a thin-walled, translucent travertine (Tokovinine 2012:128–129; see also Houston 2014:258; Luke 2008). The challenge of shaping such material into drinking bowls presented difficulties across Mesoamerica (Diehl and Stroh 1978; Saville 1900). For us, the obstacle is of a different sort, that of determining the precise origin(s) of this rare stone. Banding in several examples suggests crypto-crystalline deposits from caves, possibly even manufacture of bowls in one general area (Tokovinine 2012:129)—although, if that were true, inscriptions on some bowls would confirm reworking or subsequent carving by local literates (Houston 2014:259). Seasonal oscillations in water flow and accretion resulted in the bands (Kubler 1977:5 fn1), opening the possibility of direct dating and, with further study, clues to climate change (Douglas et al. 2016; Wong and Breecker 2015).

Hieroglyphs and imagery point to the use of the travertine bowls for chocolate drinks and, in one case, from the Ethnologischen Museum, Berlin, as receptacles for alcohol poured into clysters for enemas (Grube and Gaida 2006:Abb. 3.1). Fragments occur in Classic Maya palaces, as at Aguateca Structure M7-22, the so-called “House of Masks,” and on the summits of pyramids, such as Dos Pilas Str. L5-49. Whole bowls—a rarity given the delicacy of travertine and its tendency to breakage—come mostly from tombs savaged by looters (Houston 2014:249). Years ago, in the first weeks of the first season at Caracol, Belize, Houston saw, with Arlen and Diane Chase, a travertine bowl  in a looter’s tunnel behind Structure B20 (Chase and Chase 1987:fig. 15a; see also Prager and Wagner 2013). In a tearing hurry, looters cleared out Tomb 3 of that building, leaving the bowl just days if not hours before we arrived.

An inscribed travertine bowl has just flashed briefly on the internet, the image now gone, the find spot unknown. The text, on a small bowl with sharply everted rim, contains two dates, one with a Calendar Round of 8? Eb 10 Zac, perhaps corresponding to (Julian Date, August 26, AD 770), and a future event of, 11 Ahau 18 Mac (Julian Date, October 8, AD 790). In a final passage, it also records, for the first time, a term in Maya glyphs for “alabaster”:  [‘i]T’AB[yi] u-xija-yi, ‘i-t’ab-y-i u-xix-jaay (Fig. 1).


Figure 1. Glyphic passage on alabaster vessel (drawing by David Stuart). 


The passage is fully legible. The verb, based on t’ab, “rise, go up” (Stuart 1998:417), harbors an infixed ‘i particle that, in temporal terms, folds the text back to the earlier date (Houston 2012). A probable yi infix signals the intransitive, change-of-state nature of the verb as well as a conjectural marker of single-argument predicates (-i; John Robertson, personal communication, 2000). What follows is a possessive pronoun, to be expected after such a verb, then a doubled xix (cued by two dots above the xi syllable). In a separate glyph block, but clearly linked to the xix, are the syllables ja-yi, spelling a term for “thin vessel, cup,” often in reference to vessels with slightly everted rims (Hull 2016; Lacadena and Wichmann 2004:144; Martin 2012:67, figs. 16, 17). The xix must be an adjective that describes the cup.

Mayan languages offer a suite of related words for “alabaster,” including an entry, “white xix,” from the Motul Dictionary of Yucatec compiled, probably, by Antonio de Ciudad Real in the final decades of the 16th century or the beginning of the 17th (Fig. 2, Table 1). Xix accords neatly with a label for an alabaster bowl, and this is its first known attestation in glyphs. What remain to be explored are subtleties of ethnogeology. Here is a term for a milky-white, nearly glowing stone (depending on quality and direction of light), sugary to the touch, coveted by elites and royalty. Yet it might also be applied to rough, commonplace materials: pebbled, sedimentary “gravel” (gravilla, cascajo) or “round rocks” (rocas….redondeadas) redeposited from elsewhere. Some skein of thought, perhaps of stone affected by water (cave flowstone accords with that class), might bind these terms together, as shaped by an etiology of stone conceived over centuries and across languages.


Screen Shot 2018-07-06 at 5.00.00 PM.png

Figure 2. Dictionary entry for çac xix [sak xix], ‘alabastro’  or “white xix” (Motul Dictionary, folio 94r, John Carter Brown Library, facsim. Codex Ind 8). 


Table 1. The root Xix in Greater Lowland Mayan languages.

Colonial Yucatec       <çac xix>        alabastro                         Dicc. Motul, folio 94r

Modern Yucatec        ch’áak-xìix      stalactite                        Bricker et al. 1998:79, 259

Itzaj                                xixil tunich      cascajo de piedra         Hofling with Tesucún 1994:676

Colonial Tzeltal        <xiximton>     cascajo                            Ara 1986:417 [folio 123v]

Modern Tzeltal          xixinton          rocas y gravilla redondeadas provenientes de una                                                                                         roca conglomerática previa Polian 2017:670

                                         xixim=ton       grava, cascajo                Kaufman & Justeson 2003:441

Colonial Tzotzil        <xixibton>     pebble                              Laughlin 1988:302

Modern Tzotzil          xixibton           river pebble                   Laughlin 1975:322


Note: The title is taken from a poem by Yusef Komunyakaa about Sir Harold Acton’s pleasure palace in Florence, “Blackamoors, Villa La Pietra,” 2016, Alabaster. The opulent setting seemed fitting here.



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