Catherwood’s Drawing of Copan, Stela F 3

Looking recently at Frederick Catherwood’s 1839 rendering of the back of Copan’s Stela F (published in Stephens’ Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan), I was struck by the presence of three glyphs that I had never seen, now missing or damaged on the original monument. The first photograph of the stela, taken by Alfred Maudslay in 1884, shows that the glyphs were already missing over four decades after the Stephens and Catherwood visit. All modern studies of the inscription have passed over this wonderful old drawing, but it’s obviously worth a very close look.

The general gist of this inscription has long been known (Stuart 1986, Newsome 2001). The dedication date is 5 Ajaw 3 Mak, and the text refers to the placement of the stela (lakamtuun) of Waxaklajuun Ubaah K’awiil (Ruler 13) on that day. The monument also seems to have had its own proper name, probably referencing Ruler 13’s own god impersonation on that ceremonial day.

Blocks A3 and A4 are now destroyed, but just enough can be seen in Catherwood’s drawing to propose their reconstruction. A3 looks to be the preposition TI- or TU- in front of a larger, murky glyph with a numerical superfix. As we will see, the context strongly suggests it is reconstructable as TI-4-AJAW, “In (K’atun) Four Ajaw,” given the mention of “15 K’atuns” ( in the next block. A4 is half-effaced, but there is little doubt in Catherwood’s image that it is I-tz’a-[pa] or I-tz’a[(pa)-ja], for the verb i tz’ahpaj, “then it is erected…”. This makes perfect sense, given that the verb for the following dedicatory statement of the stela has been thought missing. Now we have it.

Like a number of Copan inscriptions, the Stela F text is unusual in some ways. The placement of repeating ti– and tu– propositions in front of the chronological glyphs (B1-B3) is noteworthy, after the “Initial Series Introducing Glyph” (A1) where no Initial Series exists. Reading from B1 through A4 we have:

ti Jo’ Ajaw Uxte’ Mak
ti tahnlam-il
ti Chan Ajaw
tu Jo’lajuun Winikhaab(?)
i tzahpaj…

On Five Ajaw, the Third of Mak,
At the half-diminishing
in Four Ajaw,
in the Fifteenth K’atun,
then it is erected, …

So, the dedication day 5 Ajaw 3 Mak ( is halfway into 4 Ajaw (13 Yax, not recorded). This is short-hand method of recording a Long Count date, not unlike examples known from the inscriptions of northern Yucatan. The proper name of Stela F comes in blocks B4-A6, before u k’aba’ u lakamtuun, “it is the name of his large stone” (B6, A7). Interestingly, block A5 is also much clearer in Catherwood’s drawing, showing a very clear spelling U-CHOK-ko-K’ABA’-a (u chok k’aba’, “its young name”) as part of the complex name phrase for the monument. Later, after A6, we come to an extended name phrase for the king, continuing up to A9. The text closes with some sort of descriptive phrase involving a collection of “lords” (ajawtak), possibly royal ancestors who oversaw the ritual and the king’s impersonation.

Catherwood’s drawing was made with a camera lucida under very difficult conditions, and at a point when he had no familiarity with the intricacies of Maya art and writing (Copan was the first great ruin they investigated). His careful rendering confirms what we had suspected was missing in the Stela F inscription, and so there is no great surprise in this analysis. But it’s good to see that this first great artist in Maya archaeological research still provides valuable information for modern epigraphy.


  1. As a huge fan of Frederick Catherwood, and as a Maya hobbyist, I am thrilled to see that his work continues to affect the art and science of Mayan epigraphy. I’m glad you are going back to the ‘source’ for this information and relying on Catherwood’s trained eye to extract additional meaning from the stele. I’m sure he would be happy to know his work is contributing in a tangible way.

    I am curious about a statement made in the recent NOVA program regarding the translation of the phrase “and then it happened”. How often do you see this introductory phrase on stele or elsewhere, and is there a standard glyph which represents that phrase, or are there many glyphs you’ve encountered which have that essential meaning (as so many phrases in ancient mayan seem to have)?

    Thank you for a very interesting blog!


  2. Dear John,

    The “happen” verb is uht, still found today in Ch’olan languages and in Yukatekan as uch. The hieroglyphic spelling is u-ti, which can take many visual forms, mainly since there are a great number of different u signs scribes could make use of (as described in the NOVA show). These glyphs for uht are very, very common, and often combine with records of dates, as in “it happened, 3 Ajaw 3 Mol,” and so on.

  3. Pingback: Traces of Lucidity | Illustration Concentration

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