A Classic Maya Bailiff? 3

by Stephen Houston

Epigraphers have long puzzled over a title in Classic inscriptions. This is the ba-te’, usually spelled ba-TE’ but sometimes, as at Dos Pilas and Yaxchilan, BAAH-TE’. Historically minded readers of this blog will remember the late, great Heinrich Berlin. A person of great insight, he posited a similar reading for what we now know, thanks to Dave Stuart, to be the KALOOMTE’ title. (That title deserves far closer study, as do all the “tree” titles. Students take note!) Berlin had been intrigued by the TE’ at the end of KALOOMTE’, leading him to consider a set of words in Yukatek, including ba’te’el, “fight, war,” taken from “axe,” baat and “cacique,” batab. Knorosov, Joyce Marcus, and Chris Jones endorsed the reading or at least mentioned it in some of their publications. As with many good ideas, it had a strong run…and then died away under press of better evidence. Yet there is still the question: What are we to make of the ba-te’ and BAAH-te’ that do appear in the inscriptions? Are they related to the terms that interested Berlin?

The bate’/baahte’ is neither ubiquitous nor rare in Classic texts. One example occurs at Tonina, on Monument 145:C1, where it follows the name of K’inich Baaknal Chahk and serves as an adjective for a kind of ajaw. The ruler obviously felt that this was an important marker of royal identity. Farther afield is Chinaja St. 1, last seen in the von der Goltz collection, in Guatemala City, I believe. It records U-ba-TE’ between the names of a captive and a local ajaw. The syntax is a little opaque, as is the referent of U-ba-TE’. I can think of several options, some more likely that others: (1) the captive, X, is the “guarded one” of Y, who, in turn, served as the bate’ of Z, a local ruler; (2) the captive, X, is the bate’ of the local ruler, Y; or even (3) the guardian and bate’ expression appear in couplet form, “is captured, the guardian of X, the bate’ of Z.” The drawing of the text is adequate but perhaps insufficient to come to any firm conclusion. The panel probably had a mate—a common pattern in the Pasión region—with another captive facing right, in a sculpture placed on the opposite side of a stairway. At least it’s clear that, at Chinaja, bate’ had something to do with conflict.

In texts at Dos Pilas and other sites, the title tends to precede pitzil, “ballplayer” (Dos Pilas Hieroglyphic Stairway 4, Step V:M2-N2) or it appears with rulers in the act of ballplay (Yaxchilan Hieroglyphic Stairway 2:G3). Then there are the titles with numbered katuns. Yaxchilan Hieroglyphic Stairway 3:F1-G2 refers to 5-‘k’atun’ ba-TE’ 5-‘k’atun’ pi-tzi-la, nicely combining the two labels. This alone might tempt the incautious to entertain some link to batey, a ceremonial ballgame of Taino in parts of the Greater Antilles—not to be discounted outright, given lithic evidence of contact, but probably not so compelling either. The instances of bate’ at Chichen Itza are more opaque, appearing in the Ak’ab Tz’ib lintel and the Temple of the IV Lintels. Clearly, bate’ was an epithet at some northern sites. The usual pattern is ‘AXE-OHL’ followed by the ba-TE’, once spelled ba-TE’-‘e, as on a sculpture from the Barbachano collection. The latter leaves little doubt that the term ended in a vowel. In fact, I am hard pressed to think of many spellings in which the TE’ (T89) sign functioned syllabically, as some have proposed. The ye-TE’ with captives remains just such a puzzle. In my view, it contains three morphemes, not two.


None of this would be particularly interesting, new or revealing save for the recent appearance of a probative context. This is a spelling of the name and titles of a figure in one of the most remarkable scenes I’ve seen of Maya gore and pain-making (see above). Exquisitely painted, it displays a presentation of captives and is now in a private collection in New York City (K6674). The main text records a “spearing,” ju-la-ja, and an arrival, hu-li, probably on the same day. I saw the vessel last summer, and the owner kindly made high-quality images available to me. Over to the left is a standing figure who looms over two captives, one the worse for wear, with eyes gouged out. Both captives have jagged wounds that ooze blood. (This must have been the “spearing” mentioned above, along with the “arrival” of the duo at court.) The standing figure holds a dark wooden staff in one hand, making it hard to avoid the impression that we are looking at a custodian of captives—rather like a bailiff at court or royal servants who held staffs as badges of authority in European courts. To this day, Black Rod summons the House of Commons to the Queen’s Speech in the House of Lords; Gold Stick and Silver Stick serve in the Queen’s bodyguard. And, of course, the lone “staff” of this blog, Dave Stuart, takes his role from a term for a physical support.

It is possible that the caption in front of the wooden staff applies to the captive immediately to the right. But I doubt it. The more likely referent is our bailiff, who was called: t’u-bu a-AJAW-WINIK-ki ba-TE’, t’ub ajaw winik bate’. Admittedly, the final TE’ fails to include the small superfix that usually appears with TE’. Yet I cannot imagine what other value it could have in this setting. In fact, the sign accords nicely with the TE’ icons to be seen in objects of wood, such as the canoes depicted on bones from Tikal Burial 116, and with a clear analogue, K’UK’-NAB-TE’ (with this form), as part of a name on Panel 3 at Piedras Negras. The reading also fits with a group of titles that link ba or BAAH, “head,” with objects related to war and objects at court. Bonampak alone has people, all non-royals, called ba-to-k’a, ba took’, “head flint” (the figure slicing at captive’s hands in Room 2, in a title also at Tonina), ba-pa-ka-la, ba pakal, “head shield,” for a “warrior,” and more courtly figures who appear to be called, ba-TZ’AM?-ma, ba tz’am, “head throne.” (Incidentally, some of us have suspected that the supposed po syllable in these spellings is a logogram. Dave has considered TZ’AM as a good bet, following a reading once proposed by Marc Zender, in part because of a substitution on a molded text in the Dieseldorff collection in the National Museum in Guatemala City. I’m sure he’s right.) There is a still a chance that the spellings are more than metonyms—namely, things that stand for larger wholes, such as “sweat” for “labor.” The spellings could embed an assimilated agentive a, so that ba-to-k’a > ba [a] took’, “head person of the flint.” The only reason to doubt this view is the presence, at Bonampak, of a ba-hi, which reduces the chances of an assimilated agentive.

Houston blog figure

Piedras Negras St. 12 weighs in with the helpful ba-che-bu, ba(ah) chehb, “head quill,” first noted, I believe, by Nikolai Grube.

So, by this proposal, “head stick/wood” describes someone who wielded a stick or staff. It could have been a badge of office, an actual object for herding and abusing captives, perhaps even a role in the ballgame, either as a field position (a captain?) or as someone who played – this may be a stretch! — a stick game. These are attested in ancient America, if uncommon among the ancient Maya. Courtiers used the label, but kings too.

And, of course, bate’ had nothing to do with “axe” or related words.


  1. “…And, of course, bate’ had nothing to do with “axe” or related words…”

    Unless of course, the holder of said title is a curmudgeonly “Old Battle Axe”

  2. Dear Stephen,

    Thank you for a wonderful expose on the /ba[a]hte’/ title. I was unfamiliar with the ‘u-ba-TE’ spelling on Chinaja Stela 1 (alas, don’t have a copy of the text in my archive), a most welcome addition to the corpus as it concerns a possessed ba[a]h title (note ‘u-ba-tz’a-ma at Ek’ Balam, Mural of the 96 Glyphs: G1). In earlier research (1997-2005) I reached very similar conclusions and here I present the end note from my 2005 dissertation (Chapter 2, End note 7, p. 184) on the same title sequence (with the spellings in ah, ahaw, and sahal adjusted, /h/ > /j/, and /b’/ adjusted to /b/; between square brackets a note):

    “The bakab or ba(h)kab “first or head of the world” title is probably the best known title that opens with ba(h) “first or head” (cf. Houston and Stuart 1998; Schele 1990). The ba(h) title thus distinguishes between the one who is considered to be “head” and those who are not to be considered “head,” i.e. the others (Houston and Stuart 2001: 62). This particular title can be found written ba-ka-ba, BAH-ka-ba, and ba-ka-BAH. At present I have identified the following ba(h) titles (each preceded by T501 ba or T757 BAH), some of which are well-known while others are rare: ba(h)ajaw “first or head king” (Palenque & Piedras Negras), ba(h)[y?]al “first or head child (of mother)” (Toniná), ba(h)bak “first or head captive” (Kimbell Panel), ba(h)cheb’ “first or head(of the) quill” (Piedras Negras), ba(h)ch’ok “first or head sprout,” ba(h)ix(ik) “first or head woman,” ba(h)itz’at(?) [note: main sign not ITZ’AT] “first or head sage,” ba(h)kab “first or head (of the) earth or world,” ba(h)kelem(?) “first or head strong one” (Joljá’ Cave, Group 4 paintings), ba(h)pakal “first or head (of the) shield” (Bonampak & Chichén Itzá), ba(h)pom “first or head (of the) incense” (Bonampak & SAMA Vase), ba(h)sajal “first or head provincial leader,” ba(h)te’ “first or head (of the) tree or staff,” ba(h)tem “first or head (of the) throne” (Piedras Negras), ba(h)tok’ “first or head (of the) flint” (Bonampak & Toniná), ba(h)tun “first or head (of the) stone” (Nakbé ceramic & Mermoz Gallery Vase [& Xcalumkin), ba(h)tz’am “first or head (of the) throne” (Ek’ Balam, Mural A & C), ba(h)uxul(?) [note: xu value of T756 still uncertain] “first or head sculptor,” and ba(h)wayib “first or head (of the) dormitory” (Kimbell Panel, Laxtunich Lintel). At Chichén Itzá occurs the sequence ba-hi-CAPPED.HUMAN.HEAD [note: ba-hi spelling at Bonampak], a possible additional ba(h) title of still unknown meaning (main sign remains undeciphered, […]). Most of these ba(h) titles may be derived from generic aj “he of …” [better: “person of …]” titles, such as: aj bak (also note titles as aj hux bak, aj huk bak, and aj winik bak), aj cheb, aj kab, aj pakal, aj pom, aj te’, aj tem, aj tok’ (“sangrador” in colonial Yucatec Maya), aj tun, aj tz’am (aj pop aj tz’am title in Book of Chilam Balam of Tizimín), aj uxul(?) (attested epigraphically), and aj wayib. ”

    Recently I tentatively added to this list of ba[h] titles the title ba[h]tox “head or first thrower” (tox- “to throw, to cast”), as found on Nimli Punit Stela 15, Basal Text. Other examples of ba[h] titles may still await discovery.

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