Forgetting Chocolate: Spouted Vessels, Coclé, and the Maya

by Stephen Houston (Brown University)


The Romans and the Greeks before them cherished the taste of a particular resin. Tapped from silphium, a wild plant growing along the coast of North Africa, the flavoring went well with roast meat, brought savor to tripe, udder, and sow’s womb, partnered nicely with vegetables, salted tuna, and sea squirt (an invertebrate anchored to ocean floors), helped digestion, and even went into eye-drops (Dalby 2000:17–19). But its popularity and fussy conditions of growth undid the plant. Grazing sheep displaced its natural habitat, and the last root went down the gullet of the Emperor Nero (Dalby 2000:18).

Beloved foods come and go. How many Europeans still consume garum, that smelly fish sauce—Pliny the Elder called it a “secretion of putrefying matter”—traded throughout the Mediterranean and into the furthest reaches of the Roman empire (Curtis 1983:232)? Legionnaires in a British or German military camp doubtless grumbled if they failed to receive their ration or special issue of oil. In the United States, molasses, a viscous treacle resulting from cane refining, sweetened many foods in the 19th century, but gradually gave way to refined sugars. Boston’s Molasses Disaster of 1919, in which a burst tank released a brown tsunami 15 feet high, killing 21 people, would be unthinkable today, for a variety of reasons (Molasses Disaster; I am told that on hot days a cloying odor still fills the neighborhood). Mostly, though, such quantities are not needed. Shoofly pie, of gooey molasses, is no longer much on the menu, although it was in my Pennsylvania childhood.

Consider, if one can, another unthinkable: forgetting chocolate or cacao, from a plant found wild and later cultivated in ancient America. Avid debate surrounds the pharmacological effects of this “chemical kaleidoscope”—whether it serves as an anti-depressive or libido enhancer cannot be easily shown (S. Coe and M. Coe 1996:28–34). But craved it was, in many forms. As a liquid, for example, chocolate “introduce[d] Europe to the pleasures of alkaloid consumption” (Coe and Coe 1996:31). Yet there are grounds for believing that, as an elite consumable, it did indeed drop out of use in one area, the Grand Coclé of Panama. Mortuary deposits in that area, as excavated by Samuel Lothrop and J. Alden Mason—as well as looters and “amateur archaeologists”—revealed staggering wealth, especially in gold but also hundreds of vessels and other goods (Lothrop 1937, 1942; Hearne and Sharer 1992). An element of that wealth, flaunted in feasts, may have been the consumption of chocolate by techniques imported from northern Central America or Mesoamerica, and perhaps indirectly from the Maya.

The main clue is a particular shape of ceramic. In his final opus, James Ford, striving for a grand synthesis of New World diffusion—heroically, for he was dying of cancer—charted the movement of ceramic “complexes” across “Formative” America (Ford 1969). One diagnostic: the “jar with bridge spout” or “teapot vessel,” long-understood by most specialists in Mesoamerica and northern Central America to characterize early agricultural settlements (Figure 1; Ford 1969:19, 21, 116, 120–123, Chart 16; on Ford and his diffusionist interests, see Willey 1988:68–70). Not all spouted jars or vessels are the same, of course. These evinced a consistent shape: a bulbous body (sometimes with a well-defined circumference at the mid-line); a vertical if slightly inclined neck; a flattened eversion around the rim; and a straight or gently inclining spout often, but not always, connected to the rim by a ceramic bridge. Volume varied, as did the presence of paint or modeling into effigies.


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Figure 1. Bridge spouts and “Formative” America, esp. Chiapas, Tehuacan, and Veracruz, as excerpted from a chart by James Ford (1969:Chart 16). Dark squares mark time, visible here in 500 year increments from bottom to top, 1500 BC to AD 500. 


A notable strand in Mayanist archaeology is a claim for function. Thomas Gann, working in what was then British Honduras, called one example “the usual Maya chocolate pot” (Figure 2; Gann 1918:77, 128, fig. 74, quotation on p. 128). Mostly he seemed skeptical. Another had “a curious upturned spout” so configured “that it would be impossible either to drink or pour out the contents therefrom” (Gann 1918:77). And: “they were supposed” to have been used for chocolate “but drinking from them must have been a feat of legerdemain” (Gann 1918:77). Where did Gann get the idea? Who had “supposed” this use in the first place? One suggestion is that it came from a description of chocolate vessels “with spouts” by the “Anonymous Conqueror,” among the few Spaniards to leave an eyewitness account of the conquest of Mexico (Spouts; see Merwin and Vaillant 1932:64fn2).

The finest to survive may be an archaicizing object, the stone “Diker Bowl” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the text appears to refer to drinking from the vessel, and possibly to a glyph for seed or grano (pulverized beans?, Houston 2011). Not surprisingly, some of these—and other, even earlier ceramics—have tested positive for theobromine, a key constituent of chocolate (Henderson et al. 2008:18939–18940; Joyce and Henderson 2007:649–651; Powis et al. 2002:97–98; Powis et al. 2011:8597–8599). Whether these drinks were alcoholic or not is an intriguing proposal. Some suggest the first such drinks arose from fermented cacao pulp, i.e., they were inebriants, not a frothed, non-alcoholic beverage made from water and ground beans (e.g., Joyce and Henderson 2010:170). But using residues to distinguish the two remains a challenge.




Figure 2. Chocolate pots among the Maya: (left) “Mound 31,” near the Río Nuevo, Belize (Gann 1918:fig. 74); (right) the “Diker Bowl,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, #1999.484.3 (Diker MMA, photograph courtesy of Justin Kerr, pencil drawing by Stephen Houston, see Houston 2011 Diker Archaicism). 


More recent scholarship takes the reasonable tack that the spout helped in spuming chocolate drinks, a well-known practice in Mesoamerica (McAnany et al. 1999:138; Powis et al. 2002:94). To prepare the drink, someone blew into the spout, in contrast to later practices in which liquid chocolate was beaten with a stick or poured back and forth to raise a head of spume (S. Coe 1994:141): pure taste as the bubbles burst, leaving flavor behind. It is impossible to prove, but this might have followed shifts in perceived hygiene. Did some find it disagreeable to drink chocolate touched, perhaps, by another’s saliva…particularly that of a servant? Or was the change motivated by a need for heightened drama? I have seen this myself. On the north coast of Asturias, Spain, while gorging on razor clams, I once admired a waiter pouring cider from beaker to cup. Not a drop spilled as he drew the beaker further and further away, attaining at last an arc over a yard long.

Generations ago, in a time of diffusionist thought, the broader link between the “chocolate pots” and points south seemed self-evident. Raymond Merwin and George Vaillant (1932:64) noted that the form was “common at Coclé in Panama,” and, in his doctoral dissertation of 1921, published in 1926, Samuel Lothrop observed similar shapes in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, “related to the group of Maya pottery usually known as chocolate pots,” if of far later date (Figure 3; Lothrop 1926:117). The comparison made sense, for Lothrop was one of the last archaeologists to work in all parts of the Americas and, with colleagues, had looked closely at early links across the region (Lothrop 1927; Willey 1976). 


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Figure 3. Turkey effigy jar, Bolsón, Guanacaste, Costa Rica (Lothrop 1926:pl. XIII).


The Coclé vessels are notable for their quantity and quality (Figure 4). Yet, the chance that these held chocolate and that such drinks were of intense interest to Coclé elites appears to have faded away. Over the last decades, The archaeological literature shows little to no mention of chocolate in early Panama. One specialist expresses skepticism about much contact with Mesoamerica (Cooke 2005:155; but see Coggins and Shane 1984:pls. 44–50; Lothrop 1952; Pendergast 1970; Pillsbury et al. 2017:#164, for secure evidence of Coclé gold at Altun Ha, Belize, and Chichen Itza, Mexico). In another essay, he targets “rank” and “status” in the Grand Coclé region, commenting on prestigious drinks in the balsería “ritual game” of the Guaymí of Panama but not, at least in that paper, extending such ties back in time (Cooke 2004:274). Nor do drinks make an appearance in a recent, elegant synthesis of evidence from the Grand Coclé (Cooke 2011).



Figure 4. Spouted jars from Grave 26, Sitio Conte, Panama (Lothrop 1942:fig. 197). 


The diffusionist tendency of earlier archaeology has been a migraine from which some areas have only just recovered: localism, in-situ process, the dignified integrity of regions—these are all concerns that merit a sympathetic response. But then there is chocolate. In a classic study of the Bribri, a Chibchan group along the border of Costa Rica and Panama, Alanson Skinner recorded drying platforms for cacao and the consumption of cacao with plantains, the latter to sweeten the former (Skinner 1920:55, 93, 94). Lothrop (1942b:113) himself mentions Nahua (or Nahuatl?) groups in Panama, evidently engaged in the production or trade of cacao. That account also gives them a “tail more than a third of a yard long,” so one wonders a little about its reliability.

Girolamo Benzoni’s Historia del Mondo Nuevo (2017[1565]:75) does report on the widespread use of cacao in “Muhammad’s Paradise” (a.k.a, Nicaragua): “The fruit is like an almond and grows in a shell about the size of a pumpkin…When it is ripe, the seeds are removed and placed in the sun to dry. When they want to drink, they roast the seeds in a pan over the fire, and then they use the stones they use to make bread to grind them. They put this paste in vases (which are like gourds grown in a certain tree that is found in every part of the Indies) and add warm water bit by bit.” Obligingly, he illustrates a cacao tree, dry seeds, and, of rather less relevance, a woman making fire—was this image about roasting seeds (Figure 5)? To be sure, there is a view that cacao in Nicaragua was of relatively recent origin, having been brought there by Nahua speakers migrating from the north (Stanislawski 1983:8, citing Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, cronista de Indias). Not all agree. The widespread mention of such cultivation down into Panama suggests far greater antiquity, especially for the processing of beans rather than simply the fermentation of pulp (Steinbrenner 2006:265, 267; see also Young 1994:15, for a line between these methods as far south as Colombia).



cachuate tree benzoni 177.jpg

Figure 5. A cacao tree (cacauate) under sheltering arbor, with probable seeds drying in the background (Benzoni 1565, Lib. II:103, Benzoni scan). 


Has the cultivation and use of cacao by Coclé elites been forgotten or overlooked, by both archaeologists and later chiefs? Is cacao the silphium or garum of ancient Panama?

The jars at Sitio Conte and elsewhere have an almost startling similarity to those of the Preclassic Maya and other peoples in northern Central America. In colonial times, not far from Coclé, cacao was processed into beans, presumably for liquid consumption. And there is demonstrable if perhaps indirect contact attested in the form of gold work brought north well before the Spanish conquest. A comment found on-line hints that similar thoughts about cacao have occurred to the curators of the “Beneath the Surface: Life, Death, and Gold in Ancient Panama,” a 2015 exhibit from the University of Pennsylvania Museum (“Straws” for Chocolate).

The main puzzles are the dates. Local specialists suggest that such spouted ceramics in the Grand Coclé must be at least 3–4 centuries after they ceased to be used in the Maya region (Cooke 2011, esp. 158, at c. AD 750–900). Yet, oddly enough, in the Huastec region of Veracruz, Mexico, that same shape is roughly the same date or just before Sitio Conte (Huastec AMNH; Harner Collection). Too much can be made of formal resemblances. Similar jars could service divergent functions, distinct recipes or drinks. But the charge should also be clear: that the Grand Coclé spouted vessels need testing for theobromine. If the alkaloid is present, they will join gold, emeralds, and sperm whale teeth as luxurious items, chocolate vessels, used long ago in Panama.


I thank John Hoopes and Jeffrey Quilter for discussions about spouted pots from Panama; Claudia Brittenham, Charles Golden, and Andrew Scherer offered helpful comments too.


Benzoni, Girolamo. 2017. The History of the New World: Girolamo Benzoni’s Historia del Mondo Nuevo, edited by Robert C. Schwaller and Jana Byars. Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park.

Coe, Sophie D. 1994. America’s First Cuisines. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. 1996. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, London.

Coggins, Clemency C., and Orrin C. Shane, III, eds. 1984. Cenote of Sacrifice: Maya Treasures from the Sacred Well at Chichén Itzá. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Cooke, Richard G. 2004. Rich, Poor, Shaman, Child: Animals, Rank, and Status in the ‘Gran Coclé’ Culture Area of Pre-Columbian Panama. In Behaviour behind Bones: The Zooarchaeology of Ritual, Religion, Status and Identity, edited by Sharyn O’Day, Wim van Neer, and Anton Ervynck, 271–284. Oxbow, Liverpool.

Cooke, Richard G. 2005. Prehistory of Native Americans on the Central American Land Bridge: Colonization, Dispersal, and Divergence. Journal of Archaeological Research 13(2): 129–187.

Cooke, Richard G. 2011. The Gilcrease Collection and Gran Coclé. In To Capture the Sun: Gold of Ancient Panama, by Duane H. King, Richard G. Cooke, Nicholas J. Saunders, John W. Hoopes, and Jeffrey Quilter, 129–173. Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, OK.

Curtis, Robert I. 1983. In Defense of Garum. The Classical Journal 78(3):232–240.

Dalby, Andrew. 2000. Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Ford, James A. 1969. A Comparison of Formative Cultures in the Americas: Diffusion or the Psychic Unity of Man. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology 11. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.

Gann, Thomas, W. 1918. The Maya Indians of Southern Yucatan and Northern British Honduras. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 64. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Hearne, Pamela, and Robert J. Sharer, eds. 1992. River of Gold: Precolumbian Treasures from Sitio Conte. University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Henderson, John S., Rosemary A. Joyce, Gretchen R. Hall, W. Jeffrey Hurst, and Patrick E. McGovern. 2007. Chemical and Archaeological Evidence for the Earliest Cacao Beverages. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 104 (48): 18937–18940.

Houston, Stephen. 2011. Bending Time Among the Maya. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography Bending Time

Joyce, Rosemary A., and John S. Henderson. 2007. From Feasting to Cuisine: Implications of Archaeological Research in an Early Honduran Village. American Anthropologist, n.s, 109(4):642–653.

Joyce, Rosemary A., and John S. Henderson. 2010. Forming Mesoamerican Taste: Cacao Consumption in Formative Period Contexts. In Pre-Columbian Foodways: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Food, Culture, and Markets in Ancient Mesoamerica, edited by John E. Staller and Michael Carrasco, 157–173. Springer, New York.

Lothrop, Samuel K. 1926. Pottery of Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Contributions from the Museum of the American Indian, Volume VIII. Heye Foundation, New York.

Lothrop, Samuel K. 1927. Pottery Types and Their Sequence in El Salvador. Indian Notes and Monographs, Vol. 1, No. 4. Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, New York.

Lothrop, Samuel K. 1937. Coclé: An Archaeological Study of Central Panama, Part I: Historical Background, Excavations at the Sitio Conte, Artifacts and Ornaments. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Vol. VII. Cambridge, MA.

Lothrop, Samuel K. 1942a. Coclé: An Archaeological Study of Central Panama, Part II. Pottery of the Sitio Conte and other Archeological Sites. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Vol. VIII. Cambridge, MA.

Lothrop, Samuel K. 1942b. The Sigua: Southernmost Aztec Outpost. In Proceedings of the 8th American Scientific Congress, Volume II: Anthropological Sciences, edited by Paul Oehser, 109–116. Department of State, Washington, DC.

Lothrop, Samuel K. 1952. Metals from the Cenote of Sacrifice, Chichén-Itzá, Yucatán. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Vol, 10(2). Cambridge, MA.

McAnany, Patricia A., Rebecca Storey, and Angela K. Lockard. 1999. Mortuary Ritual and Family Politics at Formative and Early Classic K’axob, Belize. Ancient Mesoamerica 10:129–146.

Merwin, Raymond E., and George C. Vaillant. 1932. The Ruins of Holmul, Guatemala. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology No.2, Vol 3. Harvard University, Cambridge.

Pendergast, David M. 1970. Tumbaga Object from the Early Classic Period, Found at Altun Ha, British Honduras. Science 168: 116–118.

Pillsbury, Joanne, Timothy Potts, and Kim N. Richter, eds. 2017. Golden Kingdoms: Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas. J. Paul Getty Museum and Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.

Powis, Terry G., Fred Valdez, Jr., Thomas R. Hester, W. Jeffrey Hurst, and StanleyM. Tarka, Jr.  2002. Spouted Vessels and Cacao Use among the Preclassic Maya. Latin American Antiquity 13(1):85–106.

Powis, Terry G., Ann Cyphers, Nilesh W. Gaikwad, Louis Grivetti, and Kong Cheong. 2011. Cacao Use and the San Lorenzo Olmec. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 108(21):8595–8600.

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Young, Allen M. 1994. The Chocolate Tree: A Natural History of Cacao. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.



Conference: The 2018 Mesoamerica Meetings at UT-Austin Reply

The 2018 Mesoamerica Meetings (Workshops and Symposium), will be held January 9-13, 2018, at the University of Texas at Austin.

Forty years ago, in 1978, UT Austin hosted the first Maya Hieroglyphic Workshop by Linda Schele, and an institution was born. Over the years the annual event grew as an open and vibrant gathering of scholars, students and others, sharing in the newest research in (mostly) Maya art, archaeology and related disciplines. 2018 brings exciting new changes, marking not only the beginning of our third k’atun, but also our new identity as the UT Mesoamerica Meetings, emphasizing the interconnectedness of all Mesoamerican cultures. To celebrate our anniversary and our new direction, we will devote our 2018 conference to a novel topic: Mesoamerican Philosophies: Animate Matter, Metaphysics, and the Natural Environment.

Ancient Mesoamerican religion and worldview hinges on a special understanding of “matter” and the metaphysical expression of the sacred. The world and what inhabited it – landscapes, buildings, objects, illnesses, even time itself — were considered animate and “living” in some sense, creating a dynamic system of interactions and relationships between people, gods, and things. These ideas found a constant expression, at different scales, in the region’s art, imagery, architecture, and ritual deposits, yet it is fair to say that these elemental notions have not been organized as a cohesive philosophy in any systematic way. At the 2018 Mesoamerica Meetings scholars and students will bring ancient Mesoamerican philosophy and religion into sharper focus, looking at how the ancient Maya, Aztecs, and other Mesoamerican cultures communicated these important ideas, and developed many notions of their own. In short, the conference will be looking at some of the most foundational but least articulated concepts of a cohesive ancient Mesoamerican worldview.

Among the questions we will be asking are: How do we refine our picture of Mesoamerican ideas as a cohesive system, a philosophy that might be placed alongside other ancient traditions worldwide? How did Mesoamerican peoples represent and interact with “living” things, spaces, materials and landscapes to express their understanding of human action in an animate world? Can we come up with a more accurate idea of “animism” in describing aspects of the Mesoamerican worldview? In what ways do such ideas have direct bearing on archaeological interpretation? These are large issues, and other related questions will no doubt arise during the conference. We see it as the beginning of a new and necessary foray into defining Mesoamerican thought as a set of philosophical traditions with key repercussions in scholarly research and cultural understanding.

For more information on the symposium and the workshops, including paper submissions, please visit the 2018 Mesoamerica Meetings webpage.

MM 2018 poster

A Universe in a Maya Lintel IV: Seasonal Gods and Cosmic Kings 3

by Stephen Houston (Brown University), James Doyle (Metropolitan Museum of Art), David Stuart (UT-Austin), and Karl Taube (UC-Riverside)

As a form of authority, sacred kingship is both ubiquitous and long-lived. It occurs most everywhere where complex societies exist, and it has endured, until its recent extinction or weakening, for thousands of years (Oakley 2006:10–11). Yet there are almost as many variants as there are examples. This is not to deny parallels or traits held in common. Typically, sacred rule fuses microcosms (structures at immediate, human scale) with macrocosms (those at vast levels beyond easy comprehension). It also mutes or disguises the vagaries of political life. To make such affairs seem smooth, logical, and predictable, there may be appeals to—or mergers with—eternal cycles, celestial phenomena, and exemplary beings of a supernatural sort. When it comes to kings, what better understanding can there be than Le Roi Soleil of France (Burke 1992), a Hellenistic ruler with radiate, solar crown (Stewart 1993:246) or Jayavarman VII of Khmer civilization, smiling out to us as the Buddha of compassion and mercy (Coe 2003:124)?

A checklist of sacred kingship runs a risk, however. It assembles a package of attributes that pulls away, if one is not careful, from what counts: the local meanings, play of personalities, variable emphases, and “shifting contingencies of history” that enliven and trouble human existence (Oakley 2006:18; see also Houston and Stuart 1996). Laxtunich Lintel 1 lodges all the features of sacred kingship—links to deities, diurnal or seasonal cycles, celestial or chthonic bodies, the architecture of cosmos itself—in a granular record of politics and hierarchy (Maya Lintel II). Specialists speak of “naturalizing” the ordering of society. Lintel 1 does so at the elite level. Supernatural beings and behaviors slot neatly over and into those of humans. But the greatest novelty is its declaration of self-reference, an illustration, seldom seen in ancient America, of royal construction taking place, and of much else besides: stone that meets sky, day confronting night, season poised against season, royal flesh made divine, and gods brought into human form by ritual impersonation.

Kings, Gods, and Magnates

The composition of Laxtunich Lintel 1 is in some respects like a quincunx, a five-part ordering of distinct elements (Figure 1). In the upper register, two seated figures engage with each other while seated on a stylized “sky-band,” a schematic rendering of the heavens as a linear band. That band sprouts a head. Simon Martin (2015:192–196, esp. figures 11, 12), has studied this “cosmic monster of the sky,” a crocodilian creature with Venus-sign in his deer ear, and, at far end, a stylized cache vessel or censer, its marking for k’in, “sun, day,” painted yellow (Maya Lintel III). Opposed to an “earth monster,” a terrestrial counterpart—which does not appear here—the croc may have been separated from its opposite at the moment of creation (Martin 2015:194–195). Not a static being, it appears to move along in majestic passage: a text on a throne at Palenque even describes it in terms of numli ta chan, numli ta kab, “it passes in the sky, it passes on the earth,” apparently across the “back,” paat, of an important Period Ending (Stuart 2003). Two Atlantean figures, said to aggregated with a set of four (4-ITZAM-TUUN-ni), support this mass. Their faces look downwards in steady concentration—this is hard work! In the middle sits an elderly being in profile. Below is a skull with two long bones passing through its orbits and out the palate. Symmetrical vegetation emerges from a cleft just beneath that god. Although subtle, the pattern is clear: there are two figures seated on the sky, two support them, and another, much smaller being hunches more-or-less in the center. Together, they form a quincunx, a common (and ancient) emblem for centrality, fire-making, and cosmic order (Taube 2009:90, 92).




Figure 1. Laxtunich Lintel 1 (photograph by James Doyle).


The gathering of figures is at once mythic and human. The most important figure is on the left, not usually a position of honor in Maya imagery (that usually occurs to upper right, Figure 2). Yet this arrangement is well-attested on lintels in the kingdom of Yaxchilan, especially at its subordinate settlements. The local lord often appears to the right, as the main figure of local interest. In seeming compensation, the overlord is depicted in such a way to mark his exalted status. On Laxtunich Lintel 2 and Mayuy Series Lintel 1 (from the Kimbell Art Museum), he sits on the left but at higher level, ensconced on a throne that, perhaps, can still be seen at Yaxchilan (see below). Mayuy Series Lintel 2 represents the overlord in more conventional position, to viewer’s right. On Laxtunich Lintel 1 the overlord’s superior status is semaphored by his frontal position, one hand on the thigh rather than on the ground—contrast this with the underling’s deferential gesture (see Figure 1). The overlord’s torso is erect rather than inclined, his handheld glyph higher than his counterpart’s. A delicate visual choreography operates here, denoting what is local yet adjusting for relative status. There is little doubt about the person in charge, but local lords discharge key, if supporting, roles in the performance.



Figure 2. Laxtunich Lintel 1, detail, Chelew Chan K’inich [Shield Jaguar IV] of Yaxchilan (photograph by James Doyle). 


The main text occupies a privileged position between the two figures (Figure 3). It reads:

A1–B1   7 Manik 10 Sip ([], March 18, AD 773, Julian Date [Martin and Skidmore 2012, for correlation used here])

A2–B2   K’AL-[la]ja ti-CHAN K’IN-AJAW-wa, k’ahlaj ti kan k’in ajaw, “the Sun Lord is raised in the sky”

A3–B4   U-BAAH[AHN?] K’IN-AJAW-wa che-le wa-CHAN [K’IN]-ni~chi K’UH-PA’-CHAN-AJAW-wa, u baah ahn? k’in ajaw cheleew chan k’inich k’uhul pa’chan ajaw, “it is the [impersonated] body/portrait of the Sun God, Cheleew Chan K’inich [Shield Jaguar IV], holy lord of the Split-Sky [Yaxchilan]”




Figure 3. Laxtunich Lintel 1, glyphs A1–B4, alternative lighting (photographs by James Doyle). 

Several things are evident in the text. On this date the Sun God is raised in the sky, a reference to the heavy lifting by subordinates underneath. The text then identifies the ruler of Yaxchilan, Cheleew Chan K’inich [Shield Jaguar IV], who impersonated that deity during this act of elevation (for impersonation, see Houston and Stuart 1996; further study, Nehammer Knub et al. 2009). Sun God impersonations occur elsewhere in the corpus of Maya texts, most notably with the owners of certain ceramic vessels (Figure 4). In holding up or using such a vase, the owners presumably channeled the identity of a resplendent, eagle-like (tzikiin) god. (Some Maya pots may have been used more selectively than thought or were at least intended for special ritual occasions.)




Figure 4. Impersonation of the resplendent, eagle-like Sun God (Huk Chapaht Tzikiin K’inich Ajaw): (A) Vase of the Eleven Gods, Naranjo, Guatemala:G1–L1 (K7750, pre-restoration images, photograph by Justin Kerr, used with permission); (B) Chama-style vase:J1–R1 (K7224, photograph by Justin Kerr, used with permission); (C) Bonampak murals, Room 1, Initial Series text:E’1–F’2 (drawing by Stephen Houston); and (D) late vase with non-Maya glyphs:D1–J1 (K6437, all photographs by Justin Kerr, with permission).


Cheleew Chan K’inich’s personal name invoked the Sun God, K’inich, so the connection may be somewhat personal. The association does not end there. His headdress has an openwork and angled, even woven, shape with, at front, the extruded head of the centipede. That creature corresponds to the rays of the sun (Boot 1999; Taube 2003). On Copan Stela A, the thirteenth ruler, 18 U Baah K’awiil, dresses as this figure. A text to the side of that image alludes to the impersonation, although further specifying that the flaming or smoking solar disk belongs to a snake—is this some typological understanding of elongated, venomous centipedes (Figure 5)?




Figure 5. Centipedes and “ribbed” headdresses with Sun God impersonation: (A) Laxtunich Lintel 1 (photograph by James Doyle); (B) Copan Stela A:B9 (drawing by Linda Schele); and (C) Copan Stela A, top front (drawing by Anne Dowd; Baudez 1994:fig. 2A).


A similar depiction is found on an unprovenanced stela glimpsed at the Palacio Canton in Mérida, Yucatan (Figure 6). The ruler’s body blazes with a K’IN sign on the upper arm, and the AJ-K’IN-AJAW incised nearby buttresses his identification with the Sun God. On the lord’s head is a jawless centipede, and his nose exhales a stylized blast of hot breath. Even his face approximates the K’IN glyph by showing the characteristic lobes of that sign. Added information must have been in the upper portion of the stela, in a fragment long since cut off by looters (natural breaks on the bottom suggest the lower section remains in situ).



Figure 6.  Ruler as Sun God with centipede headdress, stela on display, Palacio Canton, Mérida, Yucatan (photograph by David Stuart). 


A final trait deserves comment. The face of Cheleew Chan K’inich has a noteworthy touch, a pointy goatee (Figure 7). Other evidence assigns such facial hair, often yellow, to the Sun God, as can be appreciated in the Postclassic Madrid Codex (Ishihara-Brito and Taube 2012:466; also Taube 1992:50, 52).




Figure 7. Bearded Sun God, Laxtunich Lintel 1 (lower left, photograph by James Doyle); and Madrid 108B (Lee 1985:138). 


The date of Laxtunich Lintel 1 can be probed for other meanings. It lies close to a calculation, contingent on which calendar is used, of March 20, AD 773, close to the vernal or spring equinox (NASA calculation, taking latitude into account). At this point of the year day and night are roughly of the same length, a feature emphasized in the Yukateko expression, “lahcet kin yetel akab, “equally/together the sun and night” (Bolles Dictionary). Today, the vernal equinox marks the conventional division between spring and summer. For the Tzotzil Maya of Chamula, Chiapas, the separation goes deeper still. Both fall and spring equinoxes designate times of “rising” and “waning” heat, establishing a line between categorical opposites—dry season vs. rainy season, day vs. night, left hand vs. right hand, and active vs. dormant phases of agriculture (Gossen 1972:30–35, fig. 2). This line also helps configure the path of ritual circuits.

The equinox as moments when resources shift finds an echo among the Cora of Western Mexico, where the sun arrives on March 21 to awaken another god (Nicanori) so that he might “create all the shellfish and fish and prepare the birds to lay eggs”; another deity, aroused by the forceful light, begins to produce the “salt and other fruits…in the months of April, May, and June” (Mathiowitz 2011:448). At the equinoxes “the rays of the rising sun enter the … [temple] doorway and symbolically climb the stepped altar in his symbolic ascent into the sky” (Mathiowitz 461). A harvest of feathers marks this occasion as well. It was at the vernal equinox in Paquimé, Mexico, that the scarlet macaws met their end, sacrificed when their plumage was most mature (Mathiowitz 2011:666–667). Further to the north, the Tewa of New Mexico had Summer Chiefs who took charge after the vernal equinox, presiding over the “warm-weather agricultural cycle” (Mathiowitz 2011:918).

In ancient times, equinoxes had more to do with whether the sun rose due east and set due west. Such experiences have been adduced, for example, to explain equinoctial alignments in Structure 1-sub at Dzibilchaltun, Mexico (Coggins 1983:7fn3; Coggins and Drucker 1988). For our purposes, the precise conjuncture is less important than the evident need of scribes to associate such an occasion with the month day “10 Sip.” Marc Zender (personal communication, 2017) reconstructs a similar set of dates on the apparent equipment (casting pendants?) of a calendar or rainmaking priest from Comalcalco, Tabasco, Mexico (he also points out that such notations exist on molded bricks with Long Count notations). The “10 Sip” combine with a set of day names— Ik’, Manik, Eb, Kaban—that served as “year-bearer” or first-of-year dates in the Classic Maya calendar (Stuart 2004; see also Kaban in a reference to the solstice, Stuart 2015 Solstice).

According to Zender, the “10 Sip” dates at Comalcalco fall exceptionally close to the vernal equinox. To be sure, that observational reality might have been conditioned by the need to join ritually important day signs to a conventionally fixed position in the month. A longstanding affinity exists between “10 Sip” and rainmaking, as in this mention from the Yukateko Chronicle of Oxkutzcab: “…men at Mani they were, rainbringers at Chichén Itzá then, and there escaped Nahau Veeh, Napot Covoh. On 10 Zip it took place, in 12 Ahau it was, the tun on 2 Yaxkin, that it may be remembered (Thompson 1927:6–7, using a translation by William E. Gates, emphasis added; Zender kindly provided the reference). One epigraphic proposal entertains a reading of t’ohxaj for the verb on the Comalcalco pendants—could this as yet unproven decipherment bear some connection to Yukateko t’ox, “divide, distribute,” as in a year split seasonally (Davletshin and Bíró 2014:5)?

What can be understood is this: on Laxtunich Lintel 1 the image of the raised Sun God fit conceptually with the vernal equinox. The sun and, as a god, the Sun shifted to dominance in the heavens. The close congruence with Chamulan belief is, as we shall see, almost unsettling, with its shared emphasis on night and day, the seasons, and agricultural cycles.




Figure 8. Vernal (near-)equinox dates, Comalcalco Urn 26: (1) Pendant 3a, with reconstructed date by Marc Zender; (2) Pendant 4a; (3) Pendant 6a; (4) Pendant 16a, and; (5) Pendant 17a (drawings by Marc Zender, courtesy of the Proyecto Arqueológico de Comalcalco; all are Julian Dates in the Martin-Skidmore correlation). 


Seeking other clues, we now turn to the caption of the other figure in the top register (Figure 9). This text reads:

C1          u-BAAH-hi[AHN?], u baah ahn?, “it is the impersonation of…”

D1          1-?-AK’AB-AJAW, 1-?-ak’ab-ajaw, “the 1 ? Lord of Night”

C2–D2    AJ-YAX-bu-lu k’u-K’UK’, Aj Yax Bul K’uk’, name of the nobleman

E1-F1     sa-ja-la CHAK-to-ko-WAY-bi?, sajal chak tok wayib, the nobleman’s two titles




Figure 9. Laxtunich Lintel 1, glyphs C1–D1, alternative lighting (photographs by James Doyle). 


The subordinate holds a relatively common title, sajal, a term that evades full understanding despite decades of research. The title can be read as to its sound, but there is no consensus on what its constituents mean nor how they relate to noble status. The other is a less usual epithet that may refer to a magnate (Figures 10). Dmitri Beliaev (2004), Alexandre Tokovinine, and Simon Martin have done the most extensive studies of the title. In some areas, as around Holmul, it appears to enjoy great time depth, going into late periods as well. At Tikal, it served as the epithet of an important captive depicted on a large rock outcrop in the Maler causeway and on a column altar from the north side of West Plaza (Jones and Satterthwaite 1982:83). The texts of those carvings contain two dates. Perhaps they two stations of display (and pure misery for the captive), at a place to the north of Tikal, along a north-south road, and towards its very center. The prisoner seems to have been captured (baakwaj) and then, two days later, sacrificed on Dec. 11, AD 749 (Martin 2003:31–32. Another humiliating depiction tops the undated Tikal Altar 8 (Jones and Satterthwaite 1982:fig. 30). For a captive not of highest rank—he carries no Emblem glyph—the Tikal dynasty nonetheless reveled in his discomfiture and downfall. His importance continues to puzzle.



Figure 10.  Chak Tok Wayib title, highlighted, Tikal Causeway Carving (left, drawing by Simon Martin) and Tikal Column Altar 1:B2 (Jones and Satterthwaite 1982:fig. 110a).


Turning back to the lintel: what is to be made of the god impersonated by the local lord? Text-image correlations offer one lead (Figure 11). The glyphs spell out ak’ab ajaw, “lord of the night,” which must point to the ak’ab element in his panache of feathers. The other objects are more difficult to make out—the volutes resemble smoke or flame, but they also include a puzzling medial loop—yet the glyphs provide assistance here.




Figure 11. Glyph of impersonated deity and headdress element of sajal (photograph by James Doyle).


The lord’s impersonation spells out an aspect of the Maize God, perhaps read 1 Ixi’m (Zender 2014:2, fig. 1; n.b, Mayanists sometimes render ixi’m, a term for “grain corn,” as ixiim, but the common use of an internal glottal stop in Highland Mayan languages favors the former, as cued by disharmonic spellings with subfixed ma syllable [Kaufman 2003:1034–1035]). A set of substitutions in an entirely different royal name at La Corona, Guatemala, lays out the variants (Figure 12). One example (Figure 11D) “explodes” the sequence of superimposed name glyphs into a fully visible 1-IXI’M CHAK-NAHB-bi CHAN/CHAN[A’N?] (the final sign, perhaps, from Ch’orti’, a’n, “elote,” or “green ear of corn” [Hull 2016:57]).




Figure 12. Chakaw Nahb Chana’n? of La Corona, Guatemala: (A) La Corona Miscellaneous 2:A6–B1 (photographer by Irmgard Groth-Kimball); (B) Element 56:pH6 (Proyecto Arqueológico Regional La Corona); (C) Element 33:E5 (drawing by David Stuart); and (D) Site Q Panel 1/Grolier:C3–C4 (Coe 1973:pl. 3).


The abbreviated glyphs exhibit the same locks of hair and jewels as in various foreheads of the Maize God (Figure 13).




Figure 13. Maize god with hair lock and forehead jewels: (upper left) Maize god on Dumbarton Oaks carved bowl; (upper right) Maize god on chocolate pot (K1560, photograph by Justin Kerr, used with permission); (lower left) Maize god on watery journey (K1202, photograph by Justin Kerr, used with permission); (lower left) 1 Ajaw, painted text, Group G, Tikal, Guatemala (photograph by David Stuart).


But there is an alternative reading, in that 1 Ixi’m may simply communicate “one” or juun. This possibility receives support from varied spellings for the “Water Lily Serpent” impersonated by some lords and ladies (Figure 14A). A vessel from the Cuychen Cave in Belize, to give one example, uses the forehead elements for the number “one,” and in a context with tight controls for that meaning (Figure 14B; see also Tikal Stela 9:A2, where the number “two” is recorded with a circle, for “one,” plus a circle with pendant [Jones and Satterthwaite 1982:fig. 13a)]; see the comparable spelling on Tikal Stela 40:E4). Admittedly, some of the texts at La Corona (Figure 12A, 12B) may show an abbreviation of an abbreviation: a stripped-down 1 Ixi’m in which the upper part of the jewel has disappeared or been fused with the number.



Figure  14. Water serpent signs with variants of “1”: (A) El Peru Stela 34:H1–G2 (Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund 1967.29; photographer unknown); and (B) Cuychen Vase:G1–H1 (Helmke et al. 2015:fig. 15).


A related set of glyphs incorporate a rare prefix, as attached to TUUN, “stone,” signs in spellings from Tonina, Mexico (Figure 15). That prefix portrays the jewel and forelock of the Maize God, yet they also—this is crucial—refer to stones erected on the dates 1 Ajaw. Are these “Maize God” stones in some metaphoric sense or do they refer to stones elevated on “1 Ajaw,” all on a particular Period Ending in the Maya calendar?

Whatever the interpretation, it seems plausible that the impersonation of the lord with Shield Jaguar IV was as the “Maize God Lord of the Night” or, alternatively, as the “1 Lord of the Night.” Other inferences ensue. The first is that the Sun God, dominant in real life as the overlord, dominant celestially as the sun that ever stronger at this time of year, and dominant mythically as a potent deity, is opposed on Laxtunich Lintel 1 to a Lord of the Night. The latter was connected in some way to the Maize God or, perhaps, to a number associated with the god. In this text Mayuy may have prefigured Chamulan ideas (among others) by alluding to notional segments of the Maya year: one for the Sun and full dry season, another for the night and a time of growth. The mention on Sakpeten Altar 1 of the “birth” of the sun on the observed winter solstice whispers of other divisions in the Classic Maya year (Stuart 2015). Possibly it was divided into four parts, of which two, the summer solstice and September equinox, have yet to be discerned or clearly mentioned in Maya texts.

Correspondences between political hierarchies and seasonal (and even agricultural) shifts introduce other questions. Why was an overlord linked to seasonal dominance after the vernal equinox? Was this because of the obvious tie between a ruler and the most obtrusive being in the sky? Or did it relate to the timing of Classic wars and skirmishes, when battles, most led by kings, involved people who could be removed from agricultural duties (Martin 2014:Chart 18)? The sector in which Laxtunich was found likely served as the “hamper” of the kingdom, a place producing much of its food (Andrew Scherer, personal communication, 2017). The ritual arrangements on the lintel glimmer with economic ones.

We do know the sun was a preoccupation of the Yaxchilan dynasty. Its rulers expressed great interest in solar movements, especially the summer solstice, with which they aligned buildings like Structure 41 (Tate 1992:95, 240–249). Dances too were celebrated with a distinct rod that scholars call a “flapstaff,” one being depicted at La Pasadita, not far from the possible location of Laxtunich (Kamal et al. 1999). As at Dzibilchaltun, perhaps the building that housed the Laxtunich lintels accorded with the vernal equinox and its east-west alignments. Dana Lamb’s map hints at such architectural “hierophanies” or celestially motivated orientations (Maya Lintel I, see Figure 11; Aveni et al. 2003). Much depends on the placement of “north.” Lamb provides no arrow, but we presume he used a compass while thrashing through the forest. If facing east, the rooms would have received light at dawn, if west, at sunset.




Figure 15. K’al-tuun expressions with Maize God “forelock” and related Ajaw dates: (A) “New Captive,” Tonina ( 1 Ahaw 3 Pop, Associated Press photo by Moysés Zúñiga); (B) Tonina Monument 145, J1, A1 ( 1 Ajaw 3 Pop, Graham et al. 2006:76); and (C) Tonina Monument 134:A8–B8 (9.13.)5.0.0 1 Ajaw (3 Pop).

The celestial connotations of the upper register pose one other problem. There is a pairing of two objects held by Shield Jaguar IV/the Sun God and Aj Yax Bul K’uk’/ the God of the Night (Figure 16). The first is a duck-billed wind god (numbered “13” on Laxtunich Lintel 1) as held by Shield Jaguar. The second is a deer head with human footprint over the eye (also with “13”), here lifted by Aj Yax Bul K’uk’. On the Dos Pilas support at the bottom of Figure 16, the Sun God holds the deer head, and at Copan, the wind god merges with what may be a ju syllable (an onomatopoeia for an exhalation?). There is a suspicion that this pairing also relates to the seasons, including times of winds or sun, but the meaning flits away from us.




Figure 16. Opposition of Wind deity and deer with footprint in eye: Laxtunich Lintel 1 (top, photograph by James Doyle); Copan Stela 49:pC4–pC4 (2nd from top, drawing by Barbara Fash); supports for figures on the Tablet of the Slaves, Palenque (3rd from top, photographs by Linda Schele, #366, 367, Linda Schele Photograph Collection); upper right support, Structure N5-21, Dos Pilas, Guatemala (photograph Jorge Pérez de Lara, Finamore and Houston 2010:98, pl. 26). 


The Atlantean Itzam

Beneath the register with the king of Yaxchilan and lord of Laxtunich are the two Atlanteans (Figure 1). Their titles read 4-ITZAM-TUUN-ni, the “4 Itzam Stones,” indicating that there would have been two more to complement this pair (see above, Stuart 2007 Itzam reading; see also Martin 2015:205–206, fig. 2, 9). The first employed a name well-stocked with syllabic elements: mo-yo?-lo-AJAW, moyol ajaw (cf. Ch’orti’ moyor, “cinched [bag],” Hull 2016:287), as well as a relatively high title, ba-sa-ja-la, baah sajal, the “head sajal” (Figure 17). Ordinarily, that title connotes primus inter pares, “first among equals.” The noble is also an ajaw. The paradox is that the figure seated with the Sun God/Shield Jaguar IV—namely, the local lord extolled in the lintels—was merely a sajal. The Chak Tok Wayib title might have contributed a more exalted touch to his status. But this also suggests that some sajal could serve yet other sajal, perhaps at the behest of an overlord.




Figure 17. Caption by Itzam to lower left, Laxtunich Lintel 1:G1–G3, with alternative lighting (photograph by James Doyle).

The second Itzam, who wears the same water-lily dress as his companion, uses no ajaw or sajal title (Figure 18). The caption does record that he captured one CHAK-u-xi, Chak Uux, in battle (ux is a patronymic in Yucatan, but the meaning is uncertain here [Barrera Vásquez 1980:903]). In other words, he was a warrior when not doing the sweaty work of lifting the sky.




Figure 18. Caption of Itzam to lower right, Laxtunich Lintel 1:H1–H3, with alternative lighting (photograph by James Doyle).

An unprovenanced stela in a private collection (Figure 19), said to be from the “région de l’Usumacinta,” contains an identical name at 4 Ajaw 13 Keh (Sept. 12, AD 795, Julian Date, Stierlin 1998:#215). This cannot be the same person. The dates come too late. But it may have been a namesake or close relative of an enemy taken in war by the Itzam impersonator on the Laxtunich lintel. Moreover, and probably not by chance, the unprovenanced stela contains the same basal or toponymic element as the lintel. It portrays almost a vegetal seepage, split in two parts, from a frontal skull and, in the case of the stela, from what may be a stylized seed. Is the place-emblem mythic in both scenes or does it concern an actual location?




Figure 19. A shared name and toponym, Laxtunich Lintel 1 and an unknown site in the Usumacinta drainage (Stierlin 1998:#215).


The Itzam have been thoroughly researched elsewhere (Martin 2015; Stuart 2007). Elderly, wizened beings on the whole, they display markings of stone, hard, even indurated bodies, and water-lily headbands, tending also to gather in groups of fours (Figure 20). They do work for others, undertake heavy lifting, offer subservient attendance, hold up day signs as part of cycles of years, and by habit live in watery and chthonic abodes. Typically, they associate with k’an, “yellow,” the color of ripe corn, symbolic of harvest (see Figure 20, name captions).




Figure 20. Four Itzam-tuun, c. AD 700, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, #1988.1174 (photograph by Justin Kerr, used with permission).


On a stela at Jaina, Campeche, Mexico (Figure 21), a union takes place between the four stony Itzam and, as the text indicates, the stone itself: tz’a-pa-ja 4-ITZAM-TUUN-ni, tz’ahpaj 4 Itzam Tuun, “The Four Itzam Tuun are driven [into the ground],” but erected under the supervision of a historical personage. This is more than a depiction, a flat carved surface. It refers to what might be called “lithic immanence,” the proposition that spirits reside in stone while doing the work expected of them. In Classic Maya texts, only deities are recorded in this way (e.g., Houston and Stuart 1996:304, fig. 17).




Figure 21.  Jaina Stela 1, 12 Ajaw 8 Ceh (Oct. 12, AD 652, Julian Date, photograph by Eric von Euw, draftsman of inking unknown).


A theme that most closely recalls the Laxtunich Itzam is on a pot of unknown provenance and whereabouts  (the photo mosaic with incorrect joins suggests the image was taken some time ago, Figure 22). Two Itzam in an awkward, back-breaking position support a sky throne with a fierce Sun God. The deity’s headdress matches that on the Laxtunich lintel, a centipede adorns his staff, and what may be a centipede jaw issues from his mid-section to curl towards his back. (The painter seems enamored of that form, repeating it across the image.) A figure with Maize God features and a lunar crescent sits behind the Sun God on another throne. There is no help here from tortured, bleating Itzam, only an angular throne with circular adornos (see the women’s throne in Room 3 of the Bonampak murals; Miller and Brittenham 2013:folded insert). The second deity shows indeterminate gender, although the glyph above the crescent may indicate that this is a female. The pair of gods evokes ancestral roundels on the top of stelae at Yaxchilan, one for a father, the other a mother (Houston and Inomata 2009:fig. 7.12). On the pot, the cringing Itzam to the left implies some story not expressed at Laxtunich. He recoils from a fearsome creature rising in front of the Sun God’s throne.



Figure 22. Late Classic vase, unknown location and photographer. 


The final figure in the five-part arrangement is dressed as an Itzam, with the same water lily headdress as the noblemen. But the figure has by contrast a more aged, slumped look (Figure 23). The limbs have withered muscles, and, notably, a large head of animate stone merges with his body yet faces in the opposite direction. Such markings do not occur on the more youthful Itzam supporting the sky. His role differs in another respect. In his right hand he holds, not a duck-billed wind god or deer-with-human footprint, but a set of glyphs read CH’AHB-AK’AB, if with the same number 13 (the Ch’olan languages make a spelling of ch’ahb rather than ch’ab more likely; moreover, because of usage in Ch’olan, Houston prefers a meaning closer to “ayuno” or “fast” rather than “creation,” a Yukateko gloss [Kaufman and Norman 1984:118]). The meaning of this phrase is opaque—it is mentioned in accounts of creation in the Yukateko Ritual of the Bacabs (Bolles 2003:7, 83, 87, 90, 91, 153, 162, among other examples, all passages of utmost obscurity). The same combination of signs appears in offering bowls for bloodletting at Yaxchilan, but without any attached number (Figure 24).



Figure 23. Itzam and 13-Ch’ahb-Ak’ab sign (photographs by James Doyle). 



Figure 24. Comparison between CH’AB[AK’AB] on Laxtunich Lintel 1 and Yaxchilan Lintel 13 (lower left, drawing by Eric von Euw) and Lintel 14 (drawing by Ian Graham, both Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Peabody Museum, Harvard University [CMHI 3:35, 3:37]). 

The elderly Itzam is unique on the lintel by conveying a purely mythic identity. There is no evidence that he corresponds to an actual historical figure. This may be why he, alone on the lintel, has no glyphic caption. His body is curious in another way. It is the only part of the lintel to be torched, burned or daubed with some far darker material. Lamb’s photographs make it clear that this section was one of the first to be exposed—had the figure become an object of devotion by Lacandon Maya visiting the site (Maya Lintel I?  (Their “god pots” are mentioned by Lamb at various places in the region.) Or was this some earlier ritual that paid particular attention to the elderly Itzam (Maya Lintel III)?


Lifting the Sky, Lifting the Lintel 

The two Itzam disclose an intriguing detail. The text leaves the main activity quite explicit, that the Sun God is being “lifted up” (k’al) in the sky (Figure 25).



Figure 25.  Lifting the sky on Laxtunich Lintel 1, the celestial crocodile and censer highlighted in yellow (photograph by James Doyle, modified by Stephen Houston).


Several Maya verbs have a celestial or mythic referent (Houston 2012 Heavenly Bodies). The idea that “lifting” of cultural features—stelae, lintels, royal headbands—could derive from or parallel some celestial action may account for unexplained variants of the K’AL sign at Chichen Itza and other sites (Figure 26). The spelling on a lintel of the Las Monjas, Chichen Itza, refers to the raising of a carved lintel (pa-ka-ba TUUN-ni) but with a K’IN or sun glyph in the hand. Other examples, almost all from the northern part of the Maya area, display star and sky signs, shiny celts, and, in an example on the Altar de Sacrificios Vase, pointed out by Simon Martin (personal communication, 2014), a small figure lifts a polished celt above its Humpty Dumpty head. The raising of the Sun God on the lintel fits these concepts and may have existed as their mythic template or exemplar. Among the Preclassic Maya, most polished celts now lie in caches, disposed in cosmic arrangements (e.g., Aoyama et al. 2017:figs. 7, 8). But part of their existence was above-ground, to be lifted up as central instruments of ritual. Their endpoint was not the totality of their meaning. By the same token, the elevation of lintels, stelae, and pots accrued purpose and warrant in acts of celestial creation and in daily events as miraculous, yet expected, as the rising of the sun.



Figure 26. Celestial versions of K’AL verb: (A) raising of lintel carving, u-pa-ka-ba TUUN-ni, Las Monjas Lintel 4:B2–C1 (drawing by Ian Graham, but with his numbering scheme, which needs revision); (B) Xcalumkin Column 4:A2 (drawing by Ian Graham); (C) Molded-carved vessel:B1 (K4466, photograph by Justin Kerr, used with permission); and (D) Altar de Sacrificios Vase:E1 (image courtesy of George Stuart).


Another point bears mentioning. The fingers of the two standing Itzam curl around the edges of an animate stone (Figure 27). The image does not just highlight the lifting of the sky, although that must be taking place. A piece of inscribed stone is involved. The image is self-referential, hearkening back to the elevation of a stone, the lintel itself. In a unique visual, the carving depicts how the lintel came into position, yet it laminates that action with a mythic overlay. Mayuy clearly relished his innovative depiction of architectural construction. Indeed, he chose to inscribe his name and titles into the stone’s eyes on the lintel within a lintel—like Velázquez or Le Brun inserting themselves into commissioned works. Mayuy, if in name alone, peers towards viewers from the center of the scene, the color of his name glyphs the same as on bodies nearby (Maya Lintel III). That royal and divine vision can validate what it sees—that it reaches out to affect the world—finds a firm basis in Classic Maya thought (Houston et al. 2006:173–175). Mayuy has claimed a prerogative of kings and gods. His is the only presence, aside from the skull below, to address the viewer directly.



Figure 27. Close-up, Laxtunich Lintel 1, showing snout of animate stone facing downwards (photograph by James Doyle). 


The downward looking snouts provide a compelling clue for the idea that this is a lintel. The language of the inscriptions uses, as an Eastern Ch’olan language, a “causative” for positional verbs. Depending on the stem it qualifies, and the vowel of the stem, that suffix would be, -bu, as in “pak-b’u [pak-bu] ‘to place face down'” (Kaufman and Norman 1984:106). Pak itself is a term from Common Ch’olan *päk “bend/fold over…face down” (Kaufman and Norman 1984:128). Of relevance here is that, no only is pak, “face down,” well-attested as a positional verb (a face-down cacao/maize god in Figure 28A), but it functions as part of expressions for the raising or elevation of lintels (Figures 28B, 28C). The lintels illustrated here, both found in areas not far from the probable location of Laxtunich, describe themselves as, “placed-face-down stone,” pa-ka-bu-TUUN. The Laxtunich lintel thus appears on itself. Those elevating the lintel are not the overlord or the local patron. They are yet other nobles tasked with the commission.





Figure 28. Pak, “face-down,” in Maya texts: (A) pa-ka-la-ja, Dumbarton Oaks fine limestone bowl, detail, glyph at E1, Early Classic period (Martin 2012:fig. 55c, drawing by Simon Martin); (B) [‘i?]k’a-K’AL-ja u-pa ka-bu TUUN-ni-IL, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, #61_15, Dec. 31, AD 513?; and (C) k’a-K’AL-ja u-pa-ka-bu-TUUN, “Po-Panel,” area of Bonampak, Mexico, AD 521 (BAMW Photography). 


Depictions of building and construction are exceedingly rare in the Maya world. Sculpting is shown on a panel found near Palenque, a day or two’s walk from the area of Laxtunich (Stuart 1990 Emiliano Zapata)—its scene of a lord carving a stone is securely self-referential (Herring 1998). Another appears on Yaxchilan Hieroglyphic Stairway 2, Step VII (CMHI 3:160). A riser offers, to upper left, a small, abridged version of itself. The Postclassic Madrid Codex is the only source in which images of building abound: u-ta-k’a u-sa-sa, “he [the god] plasters his wall” (Figure 29, Houston 1998:358fn16), while, on other pages, with a sign of unknown value (a Postclassic PAT?, see Prager 2013), they appear to shape walls or lift up wooden lintels (Figure 30).




Figure 29. Madrid pages 14a, 15a (Lee 1985:91, 92). 



Figure 30. Madrid pages 20b, 21b (Lee 1985:94, 95).


In making such images the Maya seem a decided anomaly in Mesoamerica and more broadly in ancient America. Views of building in the sixteenth-century Florentine Codex, delightful for their fresh vignettes and vibrant action, nonetheless stuff the scenes with western buildings and inject them with western practice (Figure 31). Metal adzes, classical pillars, and pediments—the forms could come right out of Renaissance Spain or Italy, and must have graphic antecedents in images (prints?) seen by the painters.




Figure 31. Images of quarrying, stone-carving, and construction, Florentine Codex, Book X (Medicea Laurenziana Biblioteca, Florence, Book X). 


For better parallels, it behooves us to turn to ancient Egypt or the inner walls of the Bayon in Angkor Thom, Cambodia (Figures 32, 33). For his tomb, Rekhmire, an important official in the reigns of the Pharaohs Thutmose III and Amenhotep, commissioned a virtual manual of mortar preparation, carving, and building (Figure 32, Rekhmire TT100 Tomb). A more complicated activity perplexes scholars who have tried to make sense of building scenes at the Bayon (Figure 33). Pulleys and, as Houston has seen personally, drilled holes and compression weights helped to rest or affix one stone to another as the great mass of the Bayon rose in the late 12th and early 13th centuries AD. The Laxtunich lintel went them one better by taking such muscular acts, innately collaborative but not of highest prestige, only to appropriate and enlarge them. Aj Yax Bul K’uk’ sat with his king, at a time of seasonal shift, but also entered with Shield Jaguar into the guise of timeless beings. Other nobles, the mainstays of the kingdom, were shown as obliging supporters of that dispensation, raising the lintel in an echo of creation.


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Figure 32.  Rekhmire TT100, Eighteenth Dynasty, New Kingdom, ‘Thebes, Egypt (Creative Commons).


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Figure 33. Bayon relief, construction (photograph by Michael Coe, used with permission). 

Creation, curiously enough, is a good place to end: the mythic actors and setting of the Laxtunich lintel may not labor in some diffuse past. Rather, they couch their ritual work within a pan-Mesoamerican episode of creation, the lifting of stone, sky, and celestial reptiles out of watery places, perhaps out of primordial floods. The agents of that lifting are Atlanteans, duck-billed Wind Gods of unimaginable strength, as in an illustration from the Postclassic Mixtec Vienna Codex (Figure 34). Laxtunich Lintel 1 anticipates that depiction with its own account of macrocosm mixing with microcosm. Its claims are audacious, its intent self-interested: that seasonal rituals, politically inflected, arise from heroic acts of creation, and that the cosmos itself affirms human hierarchy.


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Figure 34. Vienna Codex, p. 47, the Wind God raises the watery sky (Anders et al. 1992:facsimile).


Acknowledgements. Justin Kerr gave free use of his photographs, to our lasting gratitude. Earlier versions of this essay were presented in two fora: in April 2015, by Houston, at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; and by the current set of authors at the European Mayanist Meetings, Moscow, Russia, October 2016, at the invitation of our friend, Dmitri Beliaev. Marc Zender was most helpful with sources about Comalcalco; Christian Prager, too, helped with a citation. “CMHI” is the code preferred by Ian Graham for citation of volumes in the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions.



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A Universe in a Maya Lintel III: Configuring Color 3

by James Doyle (Metropolitan Museum of Art), Stephen Houston (Brown University), Beth Edelstein (Cleveland Museum of Art), and Brunella Santarelli (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

When Teobert Maler arrived in the Usumacinta region, he marveled at the landscape, noting stark contrasts of color and texture while walking among the white limestone cliffs “crowned by towering trees,” with the “nantsin-trees [Byrsonima crassifolia] just unfolding the splendor of their yellow blossoms” (Maler 1901:41). The site of Piedras Negras, Maler observed, took its name from the “splendid sandbanks with blackish limestone rocks rising out of them” (Maler 1901:42)—a distinctive feature now known to result from quarrying for the city. The color world of black, white, yellow, and green that Maler encountered is aggressively evident in the Parque Nacional Sierra Lacandon today, where the site of Laxtunich lies undocumented scientifically, and where the sculptor Mayuy created Laxtunich Lintel 1, his magnum opus.

Color creation and its application to eighth-century Maya monuments reflected the aspirations of Maya artists “to reproduce the effects of prime colorants” in nature (Houston et al. 2009:58). Maya artists made paints, or solid inorganic or organic colored materials suspended in liquid, and lakes, in which organic dyes were combined with inert clays, such as the well-known Maya Blue from indigo. Commonly used pigments included black from carbonized materials, red from hematite, yellow ochre from goethite, and white calcium carbonate (Houston et al. 2009:61-63). Many if not all of these occur on the Laxtunich lintels (Maya Lintel II).

Though the identities of the painters, unlike the master sculptor, remain hidden to us, the rich color world of the Yaxchilan-area nobles was essential to the lintels’ role as portals. Colors had deep symbolic associations for the Classic Maya. In glyphic script, colors took on double meanings as modifiers of people and things. Colors were also tangible substances (Note 1). In material form, colors patted and pinched into cakes were luxury goods taken to the afterlife by Maya kings and queens (Houston et al. 2015:159, fig. 3.70). Not all materials with the same color were created equal. Their richness and rarity were employed sparingly to underscore the preciousness of certain images or text. For example, in the Bonampak murals, imported cinnabar only appears in the dedicatory text of the building. There it brightened and enriched the dedication, in contrast to the more common, less costly iron-based reds elsewhere in the paintings (Brittenham 2015a:35; Magaloni Kerpel 1998:75). A casual visitor would not, we suspect, have distinguished between the two kinds of pigment. But the contrast mattered to makers and patrons.

The Bonampak murals are relevant for two other reasons. They show the most elaborate use of color in the same general time and region as Laxtunich Lintel 1. More to the point, they were almost certainly created by artists affiliated with Yaxchilan. That city provided carvers (and presumably painters) to Bonampak, as well as a queen and supervisory mention in the dedicatory text of the mural building. Mayuy, in carving for a vassal of Yaxchlan, must have known these artists (Maya Lintel II). Moreover, the lintels over the doorways at Bonampak are lavishly colored (Figure 1), and their pigments resembled those used and applied on the flat walls within (see Magaloni Kerpel et al. 1996; Magaloni 1998, 2004, for pigment studies). A reasonable claim is that rules for the transformation of colorants into paints were widely held by artists in and around the royal court of Yaxchilan, on both sides of the Usumacinta river. Sumptuary codes of a similar sort probably governed access to pigments at Bonampak and Laxtunich.



Figure 1. Lintel 1, Structure 1, Bonampak (photo by James Doyle).


Bonampak Lintel 1 celebrates the victory of the local king over a captive, and color signals the setting: the bright blue background suggests this violence took place against a clear tropical sky, as is found in the captive sacrifice scene in the murals within, or perhaps on a battleground deep in the green forest. In the mural, Chooj, the prince who dominates the murals, stands out sharply against the blue sky background with his deep reddish-brown skin, yellow and black jaguar tunic, and green headdress of quetzal feathers (Miller and Brittenham 2013:figs. 172, 190). There appears to have been a guiding logic in going from a background color to adjacent tones: the painters sought contrast, a dominant blue dictating a red frame and vice-versa (see below).

Perceptive research on the painting techniques of Bonampak artists by Diana Magaloni and colleagues reveals how paints and lakes were layered over white grounds to create a fluid, naturalistic look of great subtlety. Yet the surviving pigments on the Laxtunich sculpture hint that color was used in another way. Mayuy or those who painted the lintel—it is hard to imagine much disconnection between them—did not seek the blue sky and white stuccoed facades and walls. Rather, in his first lintels, he used a red background. This configuration resembles, if in darker tint, the coloring of Room 1 at Bonampak, a scene of tributary dance under a sky band and two sets of jewels for regalia (Miller and Brittenham 2013:insert for Room 1).

There are several issues in interpreting the colors of Laxtunich Lintel 1. The main ones involve the lack of context and possible alteration or deterioration of the carving as it journeyed from the site to private collections in the 1960s (Graham 2010:429). Under ultraviolet light, the breaks and linear cuts through the stone are plainly visible as darker lines, with modern restoration seen in the large diagonal break (Figure 2). The lighter areas of a greenish fluorescence, such as in the body of Shield Jaguar IV on the upper left, may indicate a modern consolidation of delicate paint surfaces as revealed by the manual removal of calcite accretions. Those deposits grew, we believe, from centuries of water leaching before the lintel cracked and its housing collapsed. Indeed, the length of the original carving (its dimensions may be appreciated in the Lamb photos, Maya Lintel I) indicates a wide doorway and heavy weight above, as well as the lintel’s overall, inherent fragility. Building collapse might well have been sudden and catastrophic. Alternatively, the damage had taken place only a short time before Lamb’s arrival. In one note on the back of a photo he mentions the recent fall of a large tree (Maya Lintel I).



Figure 2. Ultraviolet fluorescence of surface, Laxtunich Lintel 1 (photograph by Beth Edelstein). 


Despite the deposits and damage during transport, several fields of color survive on the lintel (Figure 3). A close examination discloses intense blue-green applied to the quetzal feathers, jade jewels, and frames around the hieroglyphic texts in the upper and lower registers. Blue-green seems also to cover the border of the entire scene, mirroring the preciousness surrounding the glyphs. A darker red with purplish tinge decorates the face and bodies of the four large human characters, and a lighter red-orange covers the background and certain hieroglyphs. A yellowish orange appears in the k’in, “sun,” element of the “quadripartite badge” (perhaps a stylized censer or offering cache) protruding downward from the right side of the horizontal dividing line (Taube 1998:fig. 5).



Figure 3. Surviving color, Laxtunich Lintel 1 (drawing by Stephen Houston, photograph by James Doyle). 


To evaluate the pigments present on Laxtunich Lintel 1, qualitative, non-destructive, open-architecture x-ray fluorescence analysis was performed in situ on various areas of the stone. [Note 2] The locations of the sampling appear in Figure 4. Our team also scraped some of the pigmented areas for SEM-EDS and Raman analysis, in places corresponding to a number of the XRF analysis points.


Figure4.jpg Figure 4. Location of XRF sample points, Laxtunich Lintel 1 (photograph by Beth Edelstein).


Surface XRF analysis of the red and yellow pigments suggests that both are iron oxide pigments. One sample area of red indicated the presence of arsenic (point 1), so SEM-EDS analysis was performed to confirm that substance. However, the scraping taken from point 1 turned out to have no pigment, only stone or carbonaceous crust. The EDS results from the other scraping (taken from point 7) also denotes iron oxide, not arsenic, as the most likely identification. The source of the arsenic is unclear, though it may be present in crusts on the surface of the stone.

The blue and green pigments were examined with XRF, SEM-EDS and Raman spectroscopy. The XRF spectrum primarily showed elements in the stone itself (calcium and iron), but the EDS registered elements characteristic of a clay (silicon, aluminum and magnesium); the Raman spectra of both blue and green samples matched that of indigo (Figure 5). Together, these results signal that the blue and green pigments are Maya blue, a mixture of indigo dye and palygorskite clay. The blue area on Laxtunich Lintel 1 exhibited a small copper peak, as seen in Figure 6. SEM-EDS, however, was not able to identify copper, making it unlikely that the mineral pigment derived from this element.



Figure 5. Raman spectra of blue and green pigment samples, with reference spectrum of indigo (in gray).



Figure 6.  XRF Spectrum of blue pigment, Laxtunich Lintel 1 (analytical point 1).


The iron oxide reds and yellows, Maya blue, and likely carbon-based dark pigment of Lintel 1 are visually similar to the color scheme of Laxtunich Lintel 2, also in a private collection, especially the Maya blue on the frame around the hieroglyphs (Figure 7, center). Striking differences arise in comparison with Mayuy Series Lintel 1, which shares the blue background of the Bonampak lintel and murals (Figure 7, right). There are several reasons for this discrepancy. First, the blue background on the more courtly scene may refer to the sky, as in Bonampak, or to the preciousness of the innermost chambers of the royal court. Second, the red background potentially underscores the setting of the interaction depicted on Lintel 1, namely, the golden-red sky of the equinoctial dawn (or sunset) or an evocation of some primordial event (cf. mythic referents on the red-background “Vase of the 13 Gods” at the Los Angeles Museum of Art, M.2010.115.14 and Maya Lintel IV).



Figure 7. Shifting color schemes in Laxtunich Lintels 1, 2, and Mayuy Series Lintel 1 (photographs by James Doyle [left], courtesy of Justin Kerr [center], and the Kimbell Art Museum [right]). 


Or perhaps the red background with blue glyphs advertised that these events were taking place at Yaxchilan itself, rather than at provincial centers. Artists might have used red to reference the dense, stuccoed, and painted core of Yaxchilan; blue would have correlated with the smaller hilltop palaces at the local sajal courts. Against this interpretation is the Kimbell Lintel or Mayuy Series Lintel 1. That scene, in which Aj Chak Ma’x offers human tribute to his overlord (ti yajaw), has a blue background, yet the event probably took place at Yaxchilan (see Piedras Negras Stela 12 for a similar display; CMHI 9:61). Consistency was important, it seems. The two early Mayuy lintels came, we suspect, from the same building, suggesting that such conformity of appearance guided the makers, whatever the distinct themes in the lintels themselves (Maya Lintel II). Mayuy may even have wanted a vivid contrast between the earlier and later lintels.

The red-versus-blue background schemes in the Yaxchilan kingdom have parallels in the murals at Cacaxtla, painted several hundred kilometers away (see Brittenham and Magaloni Kerpel 2016; Brittenham 2015b). There, in the Red Temple, so-named after the background of its luxuriously painted murals, the artists highlight the blue-green preciousness of jade, quetzal feathers, maize plants, and watery abundance against a deep red background (Brittenham and Magaloni Kerpel 2016:74-81, fig. 3.23-4). The red scenes at Cacaxtla blur human and supernatural identities, while the blue background of the Battle Mural indicates “present-day” action, namely, close to the time of painting (Brittenham 2015:177). At Cacaxtla, as in the Laxtunich lintels, one color determines the juxtaposition of the other. Yet the lintels differ in one important respect by offering few divisions between the dynastic present and the supernatural. Lintel 1, a cosmic scene, and Lintel 2, a political presentation, share the same red ground (Maya Lintel II and Maya Lintel IV). Nor can we be certain of full evidence: the Laxtunich building may well have contained murals.

Contrast mattered. Mayuy took artistic license in his choice of red or blue background to amp up the contrast between the red-hued human figures, festooned with jade and textiles, and the ground field, which would otherwise have been yellowish-white stone. This seems also to be the case with the murals and lintels from the site of La Pasadita, the contemporaneous center of a sajal noble court (Figure 8). A lintel in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, likely to be from La Pasadita, carries the same color scheme of red background, blue and green jade and feather highlights, and a yellow-orange daubed on a few attributes. More than his peer at Laxtunich, the sculptor of the La Pasadita lintels, Chakalte’, mastered a more subtle, low relief technique. Yet the same rules seem to inform the post-dedication painting of these upper surfaces of doorways.



Figure 8. Comparison of paint schemes: (left) enhanced multispectral image from Fragment 1, Structure 1 murals, La Pasadita, Guatemala (now in the Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala City, Kamal et al. 1999:fig. 10); (right) La Pasadita Lintel 3 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art 1979.206.1047).


The overlord of the courts producing these three artistic schemes of sculpture and painting—at Bonampak, Laxtunich, and La Pasadita—was the same ruler, Shield Jaguar IV. Resource procurement of pigments and knowledge of recipes were probably more or less equal across his territory. Yet differential levels of skill become obvious when comparing the facture of painted lintels and murals. The careful preparation of stucco surfaces and layering of paint in murals give way to an almost clumsy, caked-on painting of the carvings, begging the question of who applied the pigment.

One can imagine the master sculptor shaping a quarried stone. The lintel would then be raised, positioned, and dedicated, possibly with subordinate nobles bearing the weight of the masterwork. (These lords either did the lifting or, more probable, given their elite status, assisted metaphorically by commissioning the construction.) The lintel thus placed, the roof completed, the building could then be completed ritually by having fire enter it for the first time (Stuart 1998). We cannot know for certain, but perhaps paint was applied in an almost ritual sequence, blue early on, in a workshop or just after carving, then red and yellow-orange paint, symbolic of the fiery dawn, at the time of dedication. The crude dark coloring over the Itzam in lower center may reveal some other application, perhaps even from a resinous torch, thrust upward at this spot alone or done later by visiting Lacandon Maya. Someone took great care, however, to reach behind the floating arm and dab Maya blue on the beaded jade necklace of the Itzam (see essay 4 in this series).

There might have been a deeper, devotional meaning to the mixing and application of bright paints. Rather than an end product—a colorful, naturalistic scene as in the murals—the painting of lintels was, perhaps, an iterative process. Multiple hands labored over many moments. The blue pigment of jade beads hanging from the deity in the lower register, hidden by its now-missing arm, indicates a careful and purposeful marking of even the smallest details. Valuable things needed valuable, materially accurate color. Could visitors have applied paint over time, in a ritual act like touching a mezuzah when entering a Jewish household? At the least, the Laxtunich lintel expresses thoughtful application of pigment, enjoining us, by its example, to understand local motivations and schemes in configuring color.

 Note 1. For a comparative study in ancient China, see Lai (2015).

Note 2. Spectra were acquired with a Bruker Artax instrument using unfiltered Rh radiation at 50 kV, 700 μA, with a 1 mm collimator in a Helium atmosphere, and with 60 seconds live-time acquisition.



Special thanks go to the Departments of Objects Conservation and Scientific Research at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for permission to disseminate the technical study of the pigments, performed by Beth Edelstein and Brunella Santarelli. Ellen How and Federico Caro also participated in the visual and macroscopic examination of the stone.



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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 Houston, 373–425. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC.

Taube, Karl. 1998. The Jade Hearth: Centrality, Rulership, and the Classic Maya Temple. In Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture, edited by Stephen Houston, 427–478. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC.




A Universe in a Maya Lintel II: Mayuy and his Masterworks 4

by Stephen Houston (Brown University), James Doyle (Metropolitan Museum of Art), David Stuart (UT-Austin), and Karl Taube (UC-Riverside)

The concept of an oeuvre, a body of works created by a single artist, presents an interpretive risk. If taken too far, it implies that makers of things and images somehow know what is to come. Earlier works bind to later efforts, later ones to antecedents, in a coherent story where beginnings anticipate endings. After all, the same artist is involved, the same mind, the same set of hands. But think of Lucien Freud, the British painter. His Girl with a Kitten (1947)—the woman, a study in stiffness, close to throttling her pet—fails to predict a later, impasto oil of Leigh Bowery (cf. Tate and Hirshhorn). Both have a certain “realism,” a commitment to figuration, but they differ markedly as well. One portrays a lover, rendered in pale tones and shown close-up within a cramped frame, each detail observed; the other is a mountain of flesh in browns, greens, and greys. Gravity wins in the sprawl of Bowery’s body. According to one theory, Francis Bacon, a close friend, had come along to liberate Freud’s brush (Smee 2016:88–90). That contact and Bacon’s wild example prompted the shift in Freud’s handling of paint.

Yet the idea of an oeuvre helps in one important respect. It compels attention to an overall accumulation of artwork—the unpredictable arc of a career—and serves to unveil nuances of time and intention. This is why Alfred Gell, an anthropologist and theorist of time, looked at the challenges of oeuvre in his classic book, Art and Agency (Gell 1998). Of course, Gell’s ambition was to generalize beyond Western art, to find commonality behind “Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Constable” and Tahitian ti’i carvings or Marquesan tattoos (Gell 1998:232). What joined these artists and their productions were the acts of copying and innovation, the relation of one work to another, and the ways in which each piece might materialize thoughts or “internal states of mind” (Gell 1998:236). Cross-ties came about—Gell’s temporal interests intruded here—because that was how people create. No artwork was (or could be) an isolate, a de novo production. Each had antecedents to admire, repeat or reject.

Gell’s terms express the subtleties of these relations. “Preparatory” pieces bear a “strong” tie to “finished work” (Gell 1998:234), as in Michelangelo’s sketches for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (e.g., British Museum). Other artworks serve a “precursory” role, with a “weak” but perceptible link to later pieces (Gell 1998:234). An artwork could even be turned back to a precursor, so as to modify and develop that inspiration (Gell 1998:234). Heavily influenced by the philosopher Edmund Husserl, Gell called this a “retention.” “Protention,” another term from Husserl, described the relation between a precursor and later works.

These notions can be graphed (Figure 1). The dots, each an artwork, are connected by arrows into a mesh that spans and defines the start and end of a career. A protention darts forward, a retention backward. Together, the dots—a particular ti’i, a sketch by Leonardo—can be assembled into a catalogue raisonné, a comprehensive, annotated listing by media or by all media (catalogue raisonné)…and a basic resource for understanding the creative intellect over time.


figure 1 Mayuy.jpg

Figure 1. Alfred Gell’s concept of an oeuvre (Gell 1998:fig. 9.4/1). 


Gell’s thoughts are stimulating, but they present plenty of problems. Copies of earlier works and sketches for future pieces are not in mutual exclusion. They may be copies and preparations, as Gell himself acknowledged (1998:238). In some cases, the fidelity to past works and rigid planning for future ones are far looser than allowed by Gell’s map of poking, unidirectional arrows. Perhaps the maker was simply sorting through a visual dilemma and how to tackle it graphically.

Yet the oddest and least persuasive aspect must be his thin arrows jabbing forward as “protentions.” These are vague premonitions that veer close to metaphysics or the mysteries of time travel. And the conceit of a single career as an internal process is made implausible when the copying is of work by others, or when one’s own pieces inspire a catena of mimics. Indeed, what, really, is “individual” innovation and creative afflatus in places that value the constraints of tradition and ritual precedent, where even signed works have multiple craftsmen or makers (Houston 2016:414–415, tables 13.4, 13.5; also Montgomery 1995; Stuart 1989)?

For the Maya evidence, which concerns us here, Gell did not go far enough: why should a system that fuses pictorial writing with text-endowed pictures not include inscriptions and calligraphy in these diagrams of influence, design, and production? Consider stemmatology, a kind of research, a minutely argued procedure, by which the genealogy of certain manuscripts achieves a semblance of order (van Reenen et al. 2004). This document led to that one; both came ultimately from another source, one not necessarily preserved to the present, and so on. For Classic Maya texts and images, there can be no doubt, for example, that those shaping Tikal Stela 22, from the reign of Yax Nuun Ahiin II, were influenced by—as “retentions”—the details and messaging of Stela 21, a carving of his father, Yik’in Chan K’awiil (Jones and Satterthwaite 1982:figs. 29, 31).

Gell did not write on the Maya, but his ideas touch on the lintels seen in situ by Dana Lamb (Maya Lintel I). The scatterplot of dots, each an “individual work of art,” suggests a dismaying, unreachable goal. Sketches (done on palm leaf or bark?) do not survive, eliminating a good part of the plot, and most graffiti that do exist seem inexpert and rapid, evoking finished works nearby, showing the incision of a low-quality original or direct observation of events in plazas below (e.g., Źrałka 2014:figs. 69–80; Trik and Kampen 1983:figs. 38, 48, 71, 72, 73). Some scholars suppose that many were even the work of children or subadults, although that intriguing proposal may be hard to prove (Hutson 2011). The complex stemmata of well-executed texts on walls at Xultun, Guatemala, can only be guessed at, in that some may have been preparations for finished books, others a fair copy of the same (Saturno et al. 2012). In Gell’s terms, which are the protentions, which the retentions?

The idea of tendencies or retentions touches on four lintels that almost certainly came from the same hand or from carvers under the supervision of one person. Two are explicitly identified as such productions: Laxtunich Lintel 1, viewed by Lamb during his adventures (Figures 2, 3), and another now in the collection of the Kimbell Art Museum (Kimbell).



Figure 2. Laxtunich Lintel 1 (photograph by James Doyle). 



Figure 3. Laxtunich Lintel 1 (drawing by David Stuart).


The signature confirms such “authorship” (Figure 4): ma-yu-yu ?-TI’ or ma-yu-yu TI’-?. The tags both follow the signs for “his carving/3D shaping,” to some epigraphers yuxul but not securely so: too many examples append lu to the initial yu, casting doubt on that reading. Mayuy is probably the same as the Ch’orti’ word for “fog,” mayuy (Hull 2016:275), attested also in K’iche’, mayuy (Kaufman 2003:478). In modern usage, the term conveys a sense of smog or contamination, possibly an emanation. Maya art applies this to other noxious vapors from the “mouth,” ti’, a word present here. Indeed, a telling comparison comes from a Late Classic vessel in which glyphs describe a smoke-exhaling feline as “Smoking Mouth” (pi-bi li/le?-ti-‘i, pibil/pibel ti’, K1250; for a vase from the same hand or workshop see Burial 128 at Altar de Sacrificios [Adams 1971:figs. 77–78]). However, the mammalian head at the end of Mayuy’s name eludes decipherment. Marked with signs for “dark/night,” ak’ab, it may be a nocturnal animal with long ear (Stone and Zender 2011:144–145), but there are insufficient clues to clinch the identification. At an impasse, we simply call him “Mayuy,” drawing on the first elements of his name. Nor is there certainty that he lacked assistants. It would be surprising if he did not have such help, someone to rough out features or undertake the tedious polishing of backgrounds. Yet the amount of time for the lintels is sufficiently long to contemplate a single designer and, in details at least, a lone carver (the lintels span some 10 years or more, see below).



Figure 4. Sculptor’s signatures of Mayuy: Laxtunich Lintel 1: I1–J1 (upper, photograph by James Doyle); Kimbell lintel (Mayuy Series, Lintel 1:J2–J3 (lower, photograph by Justin Kerr, K2823, used with permission).

As Marc Zender has shown, another component of his name spells out a place of origin: AJ-K’IN-‘a, “he of the sun-water” or “he of the warm water” (Figure 5, Zender 2002:170–176). The compelling argument is that this location, perhaps a hot spring or some sunny spot, forms part of the ancient kingdom of Piedras Negras. But this presents a real historical puzzle, in that the carver would have come from a polity detested by those indirectly responsible for the lintels (Houston 2016:409, fig. 13.11). That is, both kingdoms were hereditary enemies, and there is evidence for only a brief entente between the two (Martin and Grube 2000:127; 2008:127). Thereafter, the dynasties returned to their more usual state of mutual loathing. Thus, Mayuy did not just arrive from a different kingdom. He was a turncoat, lured away for better employment or, perhaps, taken as a captive of war. Such monuments on the frontier with Piedras Negras could represent an affront, a kind of “border rhetoric” or taunting between polities (Andrew Scherer, personal communication, 2017).



Figure 5. Muyuy’s place of origin, K’in’a, with mention of same location at Palenque: (A) Laxtunich Lintel 1:K1 (photograph by James Doyle); (B) Mayuy Series, Lintel 1:J4 (photograph by Justin Kerr, K2823, used with permission); (C) West Alfarda, Temple XXI (Zender 2002:fig. 10.7c; adjusted from Schele and Mathews 1979:#555); (D) Tablet of the Slaves, Palenque:D3l (photograph by Linda Schele, #20080 in Linda Schele Photograph Collection, Schele Photos). 


There are four lintels in total, including two without signatures. One, Laxtunich Lintel 2, was photographed by Dana Lamb near Lintel 1. It obviously pairs with that carving, appearing at some point in the same Swiss vault as its companion and with the same mounting of cross-bars (Figure 6).



Figure 6. Two views of Laxtunich Lintel 2, in situ and in Swiss storage (photograph by Dana Lamb, April 1950, and photographer unknown, image supplied by Justin Kerr). 


The others are: the Kimbell panel, equipped with a Mayuy signature in the place between the commissioning noble and his overlord, Chelew Chan K’inich or “Shield Jaguar IV” (Figure 7); and a piece known only from a grainy photograph, also in the same set of Swiss photographs (Figure 8; for the overlord’s name, see Zender et al. 2016). For reasons to be explained below, these are labeled “Mayuy Series Lintels 1 and 2.” Future work may supplant these labels, however, and situate the carvings in the palace group visited by Lamb. When that happens, with corroboration from sawn remnants, we can and will call them “Laxtunich Lintels 3 and 4.” As noted in the first essay (Maya Lintel I), the photos from Lamb demonstrate that these were lintels rather than wall panels, if considerably shaved down and cut into pieces for transport by mule or human tumpline. Laxtunich Lintels 1, 2, and Mayuy Series Lintel 2 are, in fact, so fragile that only adhesive and the cross-bars mentioned before hold them together.



Figure 7. Mayuy Series Lintel 1, Kimbell Art Museum, AP 1971.07 (Kimbell, photograph by Justin Kerr, used with permission). 


fire drilling.jpg

Figure 8.  Mayuy Series Lintel 2, fire-drilling scene (Drawing by Stephen Houston, after photograph provided by Justin Kerr).


The sequence of dates is straightforward (all are Julian Dates in the Martin-Skidmore correlation [Martin and Skidmore 2012]):

  • Feb. 19, AD 769 (Mayuy Series, Lintel 2 [] 1 Kawak 2 Wo);
  • Nov. 6, AD 772 (Laxtunich Lintel 2 [] 5 Men 3 Muwaan);
  • March 18, AD 773 (Laxtunich Lintel 1 [] 7 Manik 10 Sip);
  • Aug. 20 and 23, AD 783 (Mayuy Series, Lintel 1, Kimbell Art Museum, [] 5 Ix 7 Sak and [ 8 Kaban 10 Sak]), the latter date corresponding to the presentation of war captives on the carving.

The events are readily understood, in sequence:

  • (1) Mayuy Series Lintel 2, fire-drilling by the local sajal, “guardian of Bawayib,” here as a youth impersonating the duck-billed wind god, and under the supervision of the king of Yaxchilan, “guardian of Taj-Mo'” (Chelew Chan K’inich)—note the duck-billed figure on his forehead and as the small jewel on his back. The overlord, the figure from Yaxchilan, impersonates what may be a centipede with watery associations. The fish reveals some of that aquatic background, as does the deity name B3. A wind and water trope loom large in Maya notions of order (Stuart 2003), but perhaps the concept here involves the emanation of wind from watery caves.
  • (2) Laxtunich Lintel 2, the elevation as sajal of Aj Yax Bul K’uk’ while Chelew Chan K’inich, labeled mostly by his Emblem glyph and as the “guardian of Taj-Mo,” sits on his throne.
  • (3) Laxtunich Lintel 1, the impersonation of Aj Yax Bul K’uk’ as a maize god of night (to be discussed in the fourth essay) and Chelew Chan K’inich as the sun god.
  • (4) Mayuy Series Lintel 1, the Kimbell sculpture, in which Bawayib is said to have been captured, his captor firmly identified, Aj Sak Ma’x (AJ-SAK-ma-xi), “He, the White Spider Monkey” (from Common Mayan *maax, Kaufman 2003:561; but see Robertson et al. 2007:38, for the internal glottal)—precisely the same person who, 14 years earlier, drilled fire as a youth in the company of his overlord, Chelew Chan K’inich. In the latest date from the Mayuy series, he offers captives to that lord.

What can be said here of original context? Even after trimming, the measurements of the lintels offer some clues (see Mayer 1995:82 for dimensions of the fire-drilling lintel; the others come from the Kimbell website and measurements by the authors):

Laxtunich Lintel 1                                     Ht.  129.5 cm (left)      Width 94.5 cm (bottom)

Laxtunich Lintel 2                                     Ht.  118.1 cm                Width 94 cm

Mayuy Series Lintel 1 (Kimbell)             Ht. 115.3                       Width 88.9 cm

Mayuy Series Lintel 2 (Fire-drilling)     Ht. c. 100 cm                Width 80 cm

The Laxtunich lintels are relatively close in size, with allowances for mutilation by looters, and show an unusually deep relief (Figure 9). All carvings, including the Mayuy series, display a similar treatment of feathers, often neatly beveled away from the central rachis, and a marked sensitivity to the weight of gravity on flesh and cloth. Belly fat, for example, pushes up from cinched garments. These are likely the attributes of Mayuy’s carving, what appealed to him, in “retention” and “protention” from earlier and later works.



Figure 9. Deep relief on Laxtunich Lintel 1 (photographs by James Doyle).


There is another detail worth noting, one that relates to Mayuy’s probable origins in an enemy kingdom. Late carvings at Piedras Negras itself, not by Mayuy but by sculptors active during his lifetime, flaunt a three-dimensional virtuosity, an undercutting or gouging out that resulted in partly detached, elevated limbs yet careful (if largely invisible) details underneath. Panel 3 at Piedras Negras, dating to Mar. 25, AD 782—a little more than a year before Mayuy Series Lintel 1—has the same audacious undercutting (Figure 10). Mayuy’s place of origin may account for this daring approach to surfaces, in that he brought with him a technique or practice from his home kingdom. Perhaps, even probably, he trained in its ateliers, a Freud (or Bacon?) to his peers. There are no known instances of such undercutting from the greater kingdom of Yaxchilan. Of course, another reason for the deep relief might have been practical. The vigorous relief made the carving stand out in dim or raking light.



Figure 10. Undercutting and partial “detachment” of limbs on Laxtunich Lintel 1 and Piedras Negras Panel 3, broken-off areas highlighted (photograph on left by James Doyle, on right by the University of Pennsylvania Museum). 


Yet there are differences too. The Laxtunich set is rectilinear and taut in its overall composition and placement of figures, while the Mayuy series tends to a pronounced looseness, even drooping, of its masses. Glyphs are more casually picked out in, say, the lines within a ni syllable. To be sure, there are notable symmetries in how both present information. The Laxtunich set has one mythic scene (to be described in the fourth essay here) and one dynastic (the accession). The first concerns a mythic opposition of night and day, the second a validation for local rule. So also for the Mayuy series. There is a fire-drilling on a mythic hole or centipede, described as ma-ta-wimatawil(?)—the dry cenote mentioned by Lamb at El Tunel? (Maya Lintel I)—and a bold display of dynastic might and martial obedience when captives are presented to the overlord. Here the mythic opposition contrasts deities of wind and water/caves but still commemorates the creation of light-by-fire. In each group there may be a scene taking place at Yaxchilan. These portray the overlord on his throne, which, in the case of Laxtunich Lintel 2, is remarkably close to an actual bench, Throne 1, found at Yaxchilan in the main plaza near Structure 33 (contact sheets are on file in the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Archives, Peabody Museum, Harvard University; see also Tate 1992:fig. 122).

The Laxtunich lintels probably came from one building. They display the same overlord, the king of Yaxchilan, and the same nobleman, Aj Yax Bul K’uk’. This holds equally true for the Mayuy series, which highlights the king of Yaxchilan but now with a different nobleman, Aj Sak Ma’x. A reasonable guess is that the Mayuy series also came from one building but of later date. This would account for the differences in style between the two sets of lintels yet also fold in the operative hand and style of Mayuy. Whatever the sequence of dates, the two groups of lintels reveal events in the lives of two nobleman under the same overlord. Aj Yax Bul K’uk’ came to high office and then, at a later date, impersonated a god with his overlord. A second nobleman, Aj Sak Ma’x, drilled fire with that overlord while a young man, engaged in impersonation as well, and then presented captives as part of his obligations to Shield Jaguar IV.

There are several scenarios here, but one may account for the most variables. A solid chance exists that these lintels came from different structures at Laxtunich itself, each erected by a nobleman, one (Aj Sak Ma’x) succeeding the other (Aj Yax Bul K’uk’, Figure 11). The earlier sajal had either died or been replaced by the second, yet the second wished to show, through a retroactive scene of fire-drilling as a youth, that he was already in close relation to the overlord. The change in color scheme was systematic, the Laxtunich lintels having a red background, the Mayuy series a blue (see the third essay in this set of blogs). The internal consistency provides added support for the coherence of the two groups. Each pair of lintels required one signature only, hence the uneven dispersion across the four carvings. Doorways equipped with such tags might have had some special or central position. In this they resemble the three lintels over the doorways in Structure 1 at Bonampak. Only one, the middle, Lintel 2, has a sculptor’s signature. Presumably, that authorship was extendible to Lintels 1 and 3 (Mathews 1980:figs. 5–7).



Figure 11. Comparison between a sequence organized by date and a conjecture about placement in two buildings.


Notably, the manner in which Laxtunich Lintel 1 was sawn by looters resembles that of the Mayuy Series Lintel 1, a.k.a., the Kimbell carving (Figure 12). The Kimbell has the same vertical cut, just to the side of the ruler of Yaxchilan, and a right, medial cut across the midsection of a figure. The only difference is that, unlike the Kimbell, Laxtunich Lintel 1 already had an angled, natural break. The cuts and sawmarks hint that the same people were involved in looting the pieces from Laxtunich and from whatever site or building yielding the later Mayuy series. And, if the same people, perhaps this occurred at the same place. The extent to which the backs were shaved off can be appreciated on the Kimbell lintel (Figure 13).



Figure 12. Cuts by looters in yellow, natural break in red, Laxtunich Lintel 1 (ultraviolet photography by Metropolitan Museum of Art, lines added by Stephen Houston). 



Figure 13. Left and right sides of the Kimbell lintel, AP 1971.07, longest side 45 3/8 x 35 in. (115.3 x 88.9 cm, photographs courtesy of Jennifer Casler-Price and Shelly Threadgill, Kimbell Art Museum).

Yet this reconstruction of physical setting requires caution. Much is unknown. The Mayuy series could have derived from a site near Laxtunich but distinct from it, under separate governance by a sajal. There is hope of resolving the puzzle, however. With effort, much survey, some digging, the remaining pieces of thinning and shaping will surely be found, even the missing, triangular wedge of Laxtunich Lintel 2. Most likely it is still in place under doorway collapse.

The historical milieu of the lintels involves a figure named on many carvings at Yaxchilan and in several subordinate sites. He lived almost at the tail end of his dynasty, seemingly the last ruler to be effective and energetic (Figure 14). An attribute on the Mayuy carvings in general is that his regnal name, “Shield Jaguar [IV],” is never mentioned. He is identified solely by his personal name (Chelew Chan K’inich), his guardianship over an important captive, and his Emblem.



Figure 14. Final rulers of Yaxchilan, Mexico, with Shield Jaguar IV highlighted (Martin 2014:fig. 136). 

The paleography of his names and other glyphs can be evaluated as well (Figure 15). Mayuy (or one of his assistants) worked variably, flattening glyphs in some cases, or, in the Laxtunich Lintel 1 and parts of Lintel 2, indulging in rounded surfaces. Later glyphs (Figure 15c, d) seem to sag, slightly off-kilter, according with the looser handling of his later works. There is also evidence of consistency, a favoring of a particular variant of U, Emblems with beaded K’UH[UL] and no other appended elements, K’IN logograph within the chi hand. The largely syllabic spelling of k’inich is almost unknown at Yaxchilan itself, although it also rare to non-existent at Piedras Negras as well—this is a true idiosyncrasy of Mayuy.

Figure 15. Paleographic comparison of lintels.

A final comment can be made about the oeuvre of this singularly gifted sculptor. Intrepid in infusing delicate, even vulnerable flourishes on stone, he showed remarkable ability in devising multiple registers within a single image and in arranging complex dispositions of bodies in spatial and social hierarchies. His political landscape must have been complicated too, involving sajal, basajal (“head sajal,” on Laxtunich Lintel 1), and, within one monument, an intermediate level (a magnate rank?) of someone labeled as a Chak Tok Wayib (Figure 16, see Beliaev 2004, for discussion of this title; a possibility exists that it pertains to oracles [Beliaev 2004:127] and directions, in this case to the east, a sector associated with chak, “red” [n.b., a K’AN-to-ko-wa-WAY-bi, k’an [“south”?] tok wayib, a baah-sajal at Yaxchilan, impersonates a wind god on that site’s Hieroglyphic Stairway 2, Step X:B1; see also Yaxchilan Lintel 6:B6]). The masterworks of Mayuy may not permit Gell’s time travel or give much evidence of “protention.” But they looked back to earlier works, modified that legacy with aplomb, and, towards the end of the Classic period, flourished at the physical margins of a Maya kingdom.



Figure 16. Possible hierarchy of nobles and overlords in the kingdom of Yaxchilan.


Acknowledgements. Justin Kerr was generous as always with use of his photographs. Parts of this were presented at the European Mayanist Meetings, Moscow, Russia, October 2016, after a kind invite from Dmitri Beliaev, and, in April 2015, by Houston, at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Jennifer Casler Price and Shelly Threadgill of the Kimbell Art Museum gave generously of their time for the photographs in Figure 13.


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