New Book: The Gifted Passage by Stephen Houston Reply


The Gifted Passage: Young Men in Classic Maya Art and Text
by Stephen Houston
Yale University Press, 2018

“Deep, smart, and thoughtful, this book should be read by every scholar of Mesoamerica.”—Mary Miller, Yale University

“Lucid and engaging, with a secure grasp of the wider anthropological issues at hand, this volume is without question a significant contribution to Maya studies.”—Simon Martin, University of Pennsylvania MuseumFrom Yale University Press:

In this thought-provoking book, preeminent scholar Stephen Houston turns his attention to the crucial role of young males in Classic Maya society, drawing on evidence from art, writing, and material culture. The Gifted Passage establishes that adolescent men in Maya art were the subjects and makers of hieroglyphics, painted ceramics, and murals, in works that helped to shape and reflect masculinity in Maya civilization. The political volatility of the Classic Maya period gave male adolescents valuable status as potential heirs, and many of the most precious surviving ceramics likely celebrated their coming-of-age rituals. The ardent hope was that youths would grow into effective kings and noblemen, capable of leadership in battle and service in royal courts. Aiming to shift mainstream conceptions of the Maya, Houston argues that adolescent men were not simply present in images and texts, but central to both.

Stephen Houston is Dupee Family Professor of Social Science and Professor of Anthropology at Brown University.

Order here from Yale University Press.

A quick video look at the book from Yale University Press.


Cotton, Snow, and Distant Wonders

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

Dedicated to our dear friend, Alfonso Lacadena

We seldom think of wintry wonderlands when considering mostly tropical Mesoamerican landscapes. But parts of the Maya highlands in Guatemala sometimes see very occasional snowfall during the winter months, always exciting curiosity and wonder, if not a little consternation and concern over crops (Figure 1). Whenever snow falls and coats the ground, public media must explain the phenomena to local readers, describing its distinction from hail (see Prensa Libre 4/21/2017; also Prensa Libre 12/18/2016). Recently, the national disaster agency (CONRED) even thought it necessary to report that snow can be “associated with precipitation and low temperatures” (Boletín Informativo No. 3046). While rare and noteworthy, snow was ever-present in a few select areas of the central Mexican highlands, atop prominent volcanic peaks such as Orizaba, Popocatépetl, and others.



Figure 1. A rare snowfall in Cerro Cotzic, Ixchiguan, San Marcos, Guatemala, Jan. 25, 2013 (Creative Commons 2.0 Generic). 


For those who have never experienced snow, it might come as a challenge to describe verbally its many sensations and textures — slushy, clump-flaked, powder-dry, and so on. Then there is the messy residue as it melts, along with its endurance, over months, at altitude or to the far north. At root, to show distant wonders or to talk about them is an imaginative task, drawing on all the tools of the story-teller and the wiles of visual artists. For this, analogies or metaphors work well, especially when distances are great and the unfamiliar acutely strange.

As one example, taking us closer to the Precolumbian past, an unknown maker of woodblock prints devised the first known European image of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. Published, probably, in Augsburg, Germany, in 1522, it refers to the city of “dem konig Madotzoma…herr von grossen Venedig,” displaying the causeways or dikes of that city as arching bridges, sailboats passing underneath, and the many temples as turreted buildings (Figure 2; Newe Zeitung). Square-shoed burghers with hose stockings, flat caps, belt purses, and fur collars would have dumbfounded the Mexica Aztec they depict. But they do at least try to describe the unfamiliar. There are settlements like European ones (if walled and likened to Venice, a frequent comparison of the time, going back to Cortés and others [Kim 2006]), and people dressed in the everyday garb of Augsburg.


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Figure 2. Earliest European depiction of Tenochtitlan (Unknown 1522:5, John Carter Brown Library, Providence, RI).


The Classic Maya may have been no different. Among the texts linked to contact with the civilization of Teotihuacan, and almost surely with Teotihuacan itself, is the famous  “Marcador” of Tikal, found during excavations overseen by Juan Pedro Laporte south of the Mundo Perdido Group (Figure 3, Laporte and Fialko 1995:66–70). This object is strikingly similar to so-called “ball markers” from Teotihuacan, ranging from one depicted in the murals of Tepantitla (perhaps a goalpost for a stick game) to a carving with separable components at La Ventilla; the latter is well-garnished with yet other cultural references, to the volutes of El Tajín, Veracruz (Solís 2009:#124). The semantic layering in these images and carvings is rich and only partly understood, as there must also have been a reference to standing, banner-like shields (e.g., Taube 2009:figs. 2b, c). The Tikal find, from Group 6C-XVI, potentially bears another link to ballplay. A large raised area nearby, thought by earlier investigators to be a natural hill, is revealed by LiDAR to be eerily close in orientation and layout, if at halved-scale, to the Ciudadela at Teotihuacan (processing and interpretation by Houston and Thomas Garrison of Ithaca College). As if by cue, the Ciudadela has just been shown to contain, in an earlier phase of its existence, a large ballcourt (Gómez Chávez and Gazzola 2015).



Figure 3. Tikal Marcador, Group 6C-XVI, on display in the Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología de Guatemala (photographer unknown). 


In part, the historical links between Tikal and Teotihuacan (or its proxies) have been understood for some time (Proskouriakoff 1993:8–9; Stuart 2000; see also Martin and Grube 2000:29–31). An enigmatic personage whose name was probably Sihyaj K’ahk’, “Born from Fire” (coming from a fiery war dart to boot), “arrived” (huliiy) or “completed” a journey (tzutzyi) to Tikal on 11 Eb 15 Mac in the Maya calendar, or Jan. 16, AD 378 in the Maya-Christian correlation we favor. His presence was clearly martial, as indicated by the Marcador glyph that situates the arrival in terms of conquest, using the familiar term och ch’een, “to cave-enter”  Most likely too, Sihyaj K’ahk’ galvanized or even reorganized the political geography of much of what is now northern Guatemala. Every few years or so a new reference to him comes to light, suggesting that many more are to be found (e.g., Estrada-Belli et al. 2009; Stuart 2014; note that the Maya could also hint at later ambivalence about Teotihuacanos [Houston et al. 2016]).1

The Marcador text is relevant for another reason. In addition to the “arrival,” which highlights the first part of the inscription, the second side of the monument reaches back to two dates: (1) May 5, AD 374 [, 11 Ajaw *3 Wayeb, an unusual, perhaps dire date, presumably, as it falls in the five final days of the year], the evident accession of another figure associated with Teotihuacan, “Spearthrower [ja-tz’o?-ma] Owl” (Martin 2003:13; Stuart 2000:483); and (2) Jan. 24, AD 414 [, 12 Muluk 12 K’ank’in], the dedication of Marcador itself (Figure 4).


Fig. 4.png

Figure 4.  Tikal Marcador, E1–H9 (rubbing provided by Juan Pedro Laporte, with heightened contrast). 


In part, the Marcador remains a highly opaque text. Yet an apparent place name tied to Spearthrower Owl contains recognizable elements, including the number 5, a glyph known since the time of Eric Thompson to represent the downy texture of “cotton” (Thompson 1972:83–83), a syllabic ma (shown in its fuller form, as a prefix and suffix framing the main sign), and the well-known WITS, “hill, mountain” (Figure 5). Thus: the “5 ‘something’ Hills/Mountains,” and as locations or a single place affiliated in some way with a person tied to Teotihuacan or its proxies.


5 snow mountains

Figure 5. Place name associated with Spearthrower Owl, Tikal Marcador, E4, G6 (drawings by Linda Schele).


The one undeciphered sign is probably a representation of “cotton.” The rows of small “u”-shapes are standard in Mesoamerican art as markers for spun cotton or cotton as shown by iconographic clues assembled by Karl Taube and others (e.g., Taube 1993:657). In Maya art we also see the same “u”-shapes on cloth, as on the panel fragment from Palenque shown in Figure 6, depicting the ruler K’inich Ahkal Mo’ Nahb aiding with what might be a cotton bundle containing tribute goods (Stuart 1998:413).


PAL tribute panel

Figure 6. Panel fragment from Palenque, showing large cloth tumpline bundle with “cotton” markings (Drawing by David Stuart).

John Dienhart suggested that the hieroglyphic sign with these same u-shapes reads NOK’, “clothes, cloth” (Dienhart 1986:53). Almost epigraphers have accepted, from multiple sets of evidence, a syllabic value of no, derived, following Dienhart’s lead, from nok’, “clothes, cloth” in Common Ch’olan (Kaufman and Norman 1984:127). The decipherment makes sense. It explains expressions with antipassive suffixes such as ‘a-AK’-no-maak’-n-oom, in the area of Cancuen (Príncipe Maya Panel:E5), ‘a-k’a-no-ma, ak’-n-oom, at Palenque (Temple of the Inscriptions, West Tablet:C6) or the “shaker” title employed frequently by later rulers of Calakmul (yu-ku-no-ma, yuk-n-oom, Martin 2017).

Dienhart may have been both wrong and right: wrong because the “cotton” sign, as a logograph, was perhaps incorrectly deciphered as NOK’ (“cloth”), but right because it did correspond to a word for “cotton.” The logical candidate we propose here is tinam, read TINAM as a glyph, a term well-attested as meaning “cotton” in Common Ch’olan and all its descendant languages (Norman and Kaufman 1984:132). On the Marcador, the term explains the ma syllable—here serving as a reinforcement for TINAM. A no syllable would not account for this usage, yet there can be little doubt that, as a visual form, the glyph corresponds to that fluffy substance.

There may even be a more general protocol in place for generating signs. A Maya innovator (it is hard to see this as anything other than a singular, intentional act) first extracted a syllable no from nok’, the former no longer having any meaning. The scribe then used that sign to record a distinct if conceptually related term, one for the material itself. The motivating word had been left behind, to be replaced in logographic usage by another, loosely linked term. To our knowledge, a “fish” sign, a ka syllable, never references its motivating word, kay, a to syllable fails to deliver tok, “cloud, fog,” and so on. One of the few exceptions may be bi and BIH, “road,” a handy term for a people who liked to move in processions and on various journeys.

But why “cotton” mountains? Why “5” of them, why the tie to Teotihuacanos? And how is this an evocative, analogical description, of the unfamiliar made familiar to readers in a tropical zone?

Central Mexico, the general setting for Teotihuacan, is a far colder place than steamy Tikal, Guatemala. Peaks in visible range of Teotihuacan—at least in times prior to urban pollution—are girt with snow, some of it seasonal, some few examples perennial. A poetic analogy for someone describing this distant, fantastical land might be to reach for the familiar (cotton) to picture the radically foreign (snow). The scribe composing the Marcador text, masterfully proficient in Maya writing, knew much about Spearthrower Owl’s civilization—the text of the Marcador contains several non-Maya signs, and the overall carving exhibits many Teotihuacano elements. It may thus have been referring to a place he had not visited but could describe in terms of fluffy white “down” on high mountains, five of them in fact, perhaps Popocatépetl, Iztaccíhuatl, Orizaba, and others. (One of the authors [Stuart] is collaborating with David Carballo in a future study that will consider these specific connections in more detail.)

The analogy might have been familiar in parts of Mexico. In Oaxaca, the Codex Nuttall, a Mixtec pictorial book from the 14th century, portrays a couple between two peaks (Figure 7). They are a pair, Lady 1 Flower and Lord 1 Jaguar, who founded a particular Mixtec dynasty (Anders et al. 1992:108). Cotton marks, a spread of small “u”-shapes, cover and streak down the peaks, and a small cotton spool at the base of the mountain to the right both accentuates this conceit and employs, according to one interpretation, a Mixtec homophone, yuhua, “cotton spool” or “snow” (Anders et al. 1992:107fn5). A commentary on the Nuttall describes these as the “Montes Nevados” (the snowy mountains), and possibly as a particular location, Icpantepec Nieves in the Mixteca Baja of Oaxaca, Mexico (Anders et al. 1992:33). Snow may have been as unfamiliar to them as to the Lowland Maya of the Early Classic period, but, as on the Marcador, they invoked a metaphor that worked with wit to excite the imagination.


Nuttall 11.png

Figure 7. “Cotton-covered” mountains, possibly Icpantepec Nieves, Mixteca Baja, Codex Nuttall, p. 11, detail, British Museum ADD.MSS 39671 (© Trustees of the British Museum, Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0). 


  1. In 1983 or so, Houston saw another text referring to Sihyaj K’ahk’. It was on an exquisitely inlaid shell in the temporary keeping of Gordon Ekholm, then a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Etched lightly with glyphs, the shell displayed areas of jade and Spondylus, inserted by some clay-like adhesive into drilled areas of the surface. A scene of emergence, with a single head looking upwards through a symmetrical effusion of foliage, served as the principal image. At the time, Houston made a quick sketch of the text, including an evident statement of overlordship by Sihyaj K’ahk’. The object, considerably damaged by erosion in its hollow, has since disappeared. It may have been in the process of evaluation by Ekholm and his associate, Robert Sonin, an authenticator and former curator at the Brooklyn Museum, who came to Ekholm’s office during Houston’s visit.

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Acknowledgements  This essay has benefitted greatly from discussions with David Carballo, Karl Taube, and Marc Zender.



Anders, Ferdinand, Maarten Jansen, and Gabina A. Pérez Jiménez. 1992. Crónica Mixteca: El rey 8 Venado, Garra de Jaguar, y la la dinastía de Teozacualco-Zaachila, libro explicativo del llamado Códice Zouche-Nuttall, Ms. 39671 British Museum, Londres. Madrid/Graz/Mexico City: Sociedad Estatal Quinto Centenario/Akademische Druck-u. Verlagsanstalt/Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Aveleyra Arroyo de Anda, Luis. 1963. La Estela teotihuacana de La Ventilla. Cuadernos del Museo Nacional de Antropología I. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, México.

Beliaev, Dmitri, David Stuart, and Camilo A. Luin. 2017. Late Clasic Maya Vase with the Mention of Sihyaj K’ahk’ from the Museo VICAL, Casa Santo Domingo, Antigua Guatemala. Mexicon XXXIX(1):1–4.

Dienhart, John M. 1986. The Mayan Glyph for Cotton. Mexicon 8(3):52–56.

Estrada-Belli, Francisco, Alexandre Tokovinine, Jennifer Foley, Heather Hurst, Gene Ware, David Stuart, and Nikolai Grube. 2009. A Maya Palace at Holmul, Peten, Guatemala and the Teotihuacan ‘Entrada’: Evidence from Murals 7 and 9. Latin American Antiquity 20(1):228–259.

Gómez Chávez, Sergio, and Julie Gazzola. 2015. Una posible cancha de juego de pelota en el área de la ciudadela, Teotihuacan. Anales de Antropología 49(10):113–133.

Houston, Stephen, Simon Martin, and Karl Taube. 2016. Xenophobia and Grotesque Fun. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography Xenophobia

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

Kim, David Y. 2006. Uneasy Reflections: Images of Venice and Tenochtitlan in Benedetto Bordone’s Isolario. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 49/50:81–92.

Laporte, Juan Pedro, and Vilma Fialko. 1995. Un reencuentro con Mundo Perdido, Tikal, Guatemala. Ancient Mesoamerica 6(1):41–94.

Martin, Simon. 2003. In Line of the Founder: A View of Dynastic Politics at Tikal. In Tikal: Dynasties, Foreigners, and Affairs of State, ed. Jeremy A. Sabloff, 3–45. Santa Fe/Oxford: School of American Research Press/James Curry.

Martin, Simon. 2017. Secrets of the Painted King List: Recovering the Early History of the Snake Dynasty. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography Secrets

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

Proskouriakoff, Tatiana. 1993. Maya History. Rosemary Joyce, ed. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Solís, Felipe (ed.). 2009. Teotihuacan, Cité des Dieux. Paris: Musée du Quai Branly.

Stuart, David. 1998. ‘The Fire Enters His House’: Architecture and Ritual in Classic Maya Texts.” In Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture, ed. S. D. Houston, 373–425. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Stuart, David. 2000. ‘The Arrival of Strangers’: Teotihuacan and Tollan in Classic Maya History. In Mesoamerica’s Classic Heritage: From Teotihuacan to the Aztecs, eds. D. Carrasco, L. Jones, and S. Sessions, 465–513. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.

Stuart, David. 2014. Naachtun’s Stela 24 and the Entrada of 378. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography Naachtun’s Stela 24

Taube, Karl A. 1994. The Birth Vase: Natal Imagery in Ancient Maya Myth and Ritual. In The Maya Vase Book, Volume 4, ed. Justin Kerr650–685. New York: Kerr Associates.

Taube, Karl. 2009. La religion à Teotihuacan. In Teotihuacan, Cité des Dieux, ed. Felipe Solís, 152–159. Paris: Musée du Quai Branly.

Thompson, J. Eric S. 1972. A Commentary on the Dresden Codex: A Maya Hieroglyphic Book. Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 93. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society.

Unknown. 1522. Newe Zeittung. Von dem Lande. Das die Sponier funden haben ym 1521. Iare genant Jucatan.; Newe Zeittung vo[n] Prussla, vo[n] Kay: Ma: Hofe 18 Martze. 1522.; Newe Zceyt von des Turcken halben von Offen geschrieben. Augsburg? [John Carter Brown Library, J522 .N543z]

The 2018 Mesoamerica Meetings Reply


January 9-13, 2018

The 2018 Mesoamerica Meetings are coming soon! Please join us in Austin next month for our stimulating series of workshops and our two-day symposium, focused on “Mesoamerican Philosophies.” Registration for the Meso Meetings is open to the public and all are welcome. Presenters include Chris Beekman, Linda Brown, David Carrasco, Michale Carrasco, Andrew Finegold, Patrick Hajovsky, Chrisptophe Helmke, Lucia Henderson, Julie Hogarth, Nick Hopkins, Zack Hruby, Danny Law, Elliot Lopez-Finn, Leonardo López Luján, James Maffie, Barbara Macleod, Alexus McLeod, Osiris Sinuhe Gonzalez Romero, David Stuart, Alex Tokovinine, Karl Taube, and Marc Zender.

Workshops, Symposium Program and Registration Information


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.

Workshops, Symposium Program and Registration Information

How to Identify Real Fakes: A User’s Guide to Mayan “Codices”

by Michael Coe (Yale University) and Stephen Houston (Brown University)

Forgeries have long been a scourge to archaeology and art history alike, rearing up whenever money mixes with “excessive desire and bad judgment” (Meyer 1973:103, see also Lapatin 2000:45). According to Ascanio Condivi, even Michelangelo got into the act by passing off one of his carvings as a valuable antiquity (Holroyd 1903:21–22). Yet fakes also serve as fascinating evidence in the history of crime, especially for that special con by which the cleverness of a forger matches wits with scholars.

Fakers may win for a time—think of the “Etruscan warriors” concocted by the brothers Pio and Alfonso Riccardi and later sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (von Bothmer and Noble 1961). But mostly they lose. No one can look today at van Meegeren’s banal paintings and think, as Hermann Göring did, that Vermeer had a hand in their making (Godley 1967). Scientific techniques play a role in separating fakes from genuine pieces, along with a systematic probing of provenience, outright confessions—proudly made in some cases (Beltracchi and Kunst)—and the mere fact that every generation draws on greater knowledge. Faking becomes harder and harder, and the myth, say, that a forger knows more than specialists in Maya art and writing is scarcely credible. The wise analyst must also ask the standard gumshoe questions: who was the victim, who the perpetrator, was there any intent to deceive, was harm done as a result (Chappell and Polk 2009:3, 16)?

There are, no doubt, works that continue to puzzle. The Getty Kouros, for example, is either a fake that deeply skews our understanding of Greek art or it is a revealing anomaly that shows our “imperfect understanding of what remains, and the limits of our perspectives, preconceptions, and comprehension” (Lapatin 2000:46). And then there are the stunningly terrible fakes that do not so much represent a “crisis of criteria” (Lapatin 2000:43), a tough decision to be made between competing claims, as obvious forgeries that would fool no scholar.

Think about Maya fakes. There are many of them (Eberl and Prager 2000; Eberl and Prem 2011), some published, to our amazement, in important traveling exhibits (Gallenkamp and Johnson 1985:pls. 62, 63, 69, 72, 74). A few have needed further research. Typically, the more challenging cases are colonial, with only a few purported signs or images of indigenous nature (Hanks 1992; Jones 1992). But, under hard scrutiny, they too eventually yield their secrets. As for “Pre-Columbian books,” the tell-tale indicator is whether they exist as a pastiche, a rough assortment of glyphs or pictures. Often in nonsensical order, and mostly lifted from well-known sources, the glyphs and images tumble out in combinations that are, to expert eyes, anachronistic, stylistically inconsistent or incoherent, and contrary to recent decipherments of Maya writing.

With Maya books, of which only four intact examples remain, there is no real “crisis of criteria.” Quite simply, the fakes are glaring, at times laughable: who would be fooled by them today? In truth, few scholars ever were. The first such studies were done by Frans Blom (1935a, 1935b; 1946) and by a sprinkling of others (Brainerd 1948; Wassén 1942).

The “codices” tend to have a number of attributes, including:

(1) recognizable day and month signs, sometimes interspersed with wishful squiggles intended to simulate glyphs (Figure 1; compare with Figure 3, below);


Figure 1. Comparison of faked codex with source image in Dresden 19a. 


(2) a crudely polished leather base, with follicles clearly evident, or on what appears to be amate (fig-tree bark) or even coconut fiber (Figures 2, 3);



Figure 2. Faked leather codex and source image (K594, photograph copyright Justin Kerr, used with permission).


(3) little to no confidence of line, the “hand” being ill-practiced in calligraphy (Figure 3);



Figure 3. Unpracticed handling of paint, illegible signs and crude leather base.

(4) overbold and liberal use of polychromy (Figure 4; see also Figure 5, from the Peabody Museum at Yale University);


Figure 4. Bright polychromy: source image to right, “Pellicer Vase,” Museo Regional de Antropología Carlos Pellicer Cámara (photograph to right: Stephen Houston). 


Yale PM fake obverse.jpg

Figure 5. Garish polychromy on the Yale Peabody Museum Codex (photograph by Michael Coe); note also the copying from Dresden 56b.

(5) transparent copying from widely available sources, especially the Dresden Codex and sundry illustrations from general books.

A few of these examples will suffice. One smuggles in a poorly interpreted vulture from a page of the Dresden Codex (Figure 1). The hammock and courtly figures on the so-called “Pellicer vase” from the Museo Regional de Antropología Carlos Pellicer Cámara, Villahermosa, Tabasco, transfer neatly to another “codex” (Figure 4; vase published in Covarrubias 1957), and a Late Classic image of a mythic figure from a polychrome vase excavated at Uaxactun Guatemala finds an inept copy on yet another leather codex (Figure 6). Mixing periods–—the mural dates to the late 300s, early 400s—the faker also quoted freely from the well-published Ratinlixul Vase, excavated in 1917 by Robert Burkitt near Chamá, Guatemala, and now in the University of Pennsylvania Museum (UPM No. NA 11701, Danien 1997:38, Fig. 1).

What is abundantly evident is the sheer laziness or uninventive mentality of forgers. Sylvanus Morley’s The Ancient Maya (1946), first edition, was a particularly generous source for them, as it contained a handy list of Maya day glyphs (fig. 18), month signs (fig. 19), glyphs for time periods (fig. 22), Initial Series (fig. 25), and thorough coverage of the Maya calendar (pp. 265–295). The Ratinlixul Vase had its own line drawing too (pl. 88b). Of slightly earlier date was the useful, inexpensive, and widely available edition of Maya codices by the Villacortas in Guatemala (Villacorta and Villacorta 1933).



Figure 6. Copy of images from Uaxactun and the Ratinlixul vase on a forged leather codex (photograph to lower left, copyright Justin Kerr, used with permission).

A final example shows how blatant such copying can be (Figure 6). This codex lifts half of the center ballcourt marker from Copan Ballcourt BII (excavated by Gustav Strømsvik in the 1930s), as well as a frontal image from Palenque’s Temple of the Skull (upper left) and a smattering of full-figure glyphs from Copan Stela D (center left; see Stuart Temple of the Skull); Maudslay 1889–1902:pl. 48).



Figure 6. Fake codex and, at center, image taken from Copan Ballcourt II, center marker (drawing by John Montgomery). 

A few of these documents are in institutions (American Museum of Natural History, no. 30–9530, in a gift of c. 1901–1904, from the Duc de Loubat [Glass 1975:204]; Peabody Museum, Yale University [No. 137880]; Världskulturmuseet, Göteborg [Glass 1975:305]), but most are only known to us by way of unsolicited communications or, for one manuscript, via a glossy facsimile published in Guatemala (Benítez 2005; said to be from Chichicastenango, Guatemala, it even has a supposed radiocarbon date of “BP 200 + 28,” which, by odd arithmetic, the author pushes back to “1650 A.D.” [Benítez 2005:4–5]). Most fakes had two episodes of preparation, beyond the painting itself. Immersion in dirt or (we suspect) cow patties provided the right patina, and then a hurried cleaning gave some visibility for the dupe being invited to purchase the book.

A striking element is that many share elaborate “origin” stories. As a random selection, these concern a now-deceased relative who had traveled in Mexico/Guatemala, etc., a stray find in a Maya town in Guatemala, caves, scuba-diving or, in an example seen by one of us (Houston) in Provo, Utah, an heir wishing to donate the manuscript to a worthy public institution. A few seem to have gone through the hands of the late Pablo Bush Romero, “Mexico’s distinguished diver, self-made scholar and restless millionaire-at-large” (Sports Illustrated 1964). The presence of others of far earlier date, as in that acquired by the Duc de Loubat, show multiple hands behind their manufacture: the temptation to fake such codices clearly had deep roots (Glass 1975:305–306; for the Duc, Loubat obituary). The Yale forgery is described on the museum website as: a “Maya codex purchased in Mexico City, 1905, from an old priest around the corner from the southeast corner of the Alameda. This codex was first shown in 1887; he then declined to sell it, but in 1905, having been so ill that both his legs were amputated, and not expecting to live longer, he offered to sell the codex (to a friend?) of his in Merida who was then a druggist. This codex was examined by Dr. Alfred Tozzer of Harvard University, who considered it a reproduction, partly because the…various day signs were not in the proper Maya order” (Yale codex).

At this point, one of us (Coe) has seen over a dozen such codices. All are supremely unconvincing to the trained eye. The inept painting, ignorance of Maya coloration, slavish (yet scrambled) copying of well-known sources, anachronisms, inattention to decipherments, improvised, ad hoc “signs,” rough preparation and obvious attempts at artificial aging—all characterize these examples, without exception. It is unthinkable that any in this corpus of pictorial failure would pass muster, technical analysis or glyphic and iconographic exegesis.

To understand what is not a fake, as in the Grolier Codex (Coe et al. 2015), we are well-advised to study what is a fake. This rogues’ gallery shows that compelling deceptions of ancient Maya books are easier to claim than to create.



Benítez, Henry. 2005. Códice Chugüilá (1650 d.C.). Guatemala: Editorial Piedra Santa.

Blom, Frans. 1935a. A Checklist of Falsified Maya Codices. Maya Research 2(3):251–252.

______. 1935b. The ‘Gomesta Manuscript’, A Falsification. Maya Research 2(3):233–248.

______. 1946. Forged Maya Codex. The Masterkey 20:18.

Brainerd, George W. 1948. Another Falsified Maya Codex. The Mastery 22:17–18.

Chappell, Duncan, and Kenneth Polk. 2009. Fakers and Forgers, Deception and Dishonesty: An Exploration of the Murky World of Art Fraud. Current Issues in Criminal Justice 20 (3):393–412 (pp. 1–20, online).

Coe, Michael, Stephen Houston, Mary Miller, and Karl Taube. 2015. The Fourth Maya Codex. In Maya Archaeology 3, eds., Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore, 116–167.San Francisco,: Precolumbia Mesoweb Press.

Covarrubias, Miguel. 1957. Indian Art of Mexico and Central America. New York: Knopf.

Danien, Elin. 1997. The Ritual on the Ratinlixul Vase: Pots and Politics in Highland Guatemala. Expedition 39(3):37–48. Danien 1997

Eberl Markus, and Christian Prager. 2000. A Fake Maya BoneMexicon 22(1):5.

Eberl, Markus, and Hanns Prem. 2011. Identifying a Forged Maya Manuscript in UNESCO’s World Digital Library. Ancient Mesoamerica 22(1):155–166.

Gallenkamp, Charles, and Regina E. Johnson. 1985. Maya: Treasures of Ancient Civilization. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

Glass, John B. 1975. A Catalog of Falsified Middle American Pictorial Manuscripts. In Handbook of Middle American Indians, Volume 14: Guide to Ethnohistorical Sources, Part 3, ed. Howard F. Cline (assoc. eds., Charles Gibson and H. B. Nicholson), 297–310. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Godley, John R. 1967. Van Meegeren: A Case History. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Hanks William F. 1992. The Language of the Canek ManuscriptAncient Mesoamerica 3:269279.

Holroyd, Charles. 1903. Michael Angelo Buonarroti. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Jones, Grant D. 1992. The Canek Manuscript in Ethnohistorical PerspectiveAncient Mesoamerica 3:243268.

Lapatin, Kenneth D. S. 2000. Proof? The Case of the Getty Kouros. Source: Notes in the History of Art 20(1):43–53.

Maudslay, Alfred P. 1889–1902. Biologia Centrali-Americana, or, Contributions to the Knowledge of the Fauna and Flora of Mexico and Central America, vols. 55–9, Archaeology. London: R. H. Porter and Dulau.

Meyer, Karl E. 1973. The Plundered Past: Traffic in Art Treasures. New York: Athenaeum. 

Morley, Sylvanus G. 1946. The Ancient Maya. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Villacorta, J. Antonio C., and Carlos A. Villacorta. 1933. Códices Mayas: Dresdensis— Peresianus—Tro-Cortesianus. Guatemala: Tipografía Nacional.

Von Bothmer, Dietrich, and Joseph V. Noble. 1961. An Inquiry into the Forgery of the Etruscan Terracota Warriors in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Papers 11. New York.

Wassén, S. Henry. 1942. A Forged Maya Codex on Parchment: A Warning. Etnologiska Studier 1213:293–304.



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.


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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.

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