A Game with a Throne Reply

by Stephen Houston, Department of Anthropology, Brown University

For GS on his birthday

Epigraphy is, among others things, an exercise in good hygiene. As specialists, we tidy up. Through our drawings, a complex surface reduces to light stipple, a series of edges to inked lines of variable width. The results are there for all to see, in the form of legible images that facilitate study, comparison, and reproduction.

Yet the images do not quite capture a stone. Each sculpture has its own quarry marks and irregularities; there are peck-marks or chisel lines, along with signs of careful or rough handling. Such details seldom make their way into an epigraphic drawing. Nor, with a few exceptions, do our site maps, even good ones, display sculptures as they were first found. Instead, monuments appear in orderly rows, as though still standing (e.g., Graham and von Euw 1975, 2:6, 2:7). They are in the places where they should be, or might have been when freshly placed, not as they were when discovered.

At Caracol, green to Maya fieldwork—this was in 1985—I confronted the curious afterlife of Maya texts. The carvings seemed anything but tidy. Most lay in shocking disarray, broken into pieces, some far-flung. Later, at Dos Pilas, in 1986, I resolved to record such patterning. Fortunately, at that site, most monuments were still in original position. They had not much shifted from the time of the Maya Collapse.

It soon became clear that, with few exceptions, the stelae at Dos Pilas were hacked just above the butt. Felled by blows of an axe, the sculptures, cut at the “knees,” toppled either backwards or forwards, not by the impact of tree fall, but from concerted ancient effort. There was behavioral information here, worthy of mention. Inspired, I drew the plans of all sculptures at the site, their cross-sections (where possible), even the profiles and block arrangements of hieroglyphic stairways (e.g., Houston 1993:fig. 2-8, 3-3, 3-7, 3-8, 3-9, 3-10, 3-14). My maps showed fall patterns at larger scale, especially of the stela at the site (Houston 1993:Site Map 1, Grid L5, Site Map 3, Grid P5). I was not alone in this interest. Looking at Panel 19 after its discovery in 1990, Ed Shook, a wise, old hand at Maya archaeology, observed that many blows of an axe had played across its surface.

To me, this approach represented the future of epigraphy as a field discipline. Sculptures could and should be shown by presumed initial placement or as flat, reproducible surfaces. But they were also three-dimensional things tumbling through time—pieces of transported, worked stone touched variably by nature, reverence, and malice. As rocks, they had dimension, weight, signs of quarrying, chipping, knapping, chiseling, polishing, and painting, features that could be processed and massaged statistically. Yet, from my perspective, the conversation between lithicists and epigraphers has yet to begin beyond these faltering steps. (Enterprising students take note!)

The fact is, most sculptures get moved after discovery. Yet not everyone is inclined to note their original position. A photographer may pivot or adjust the monument to the right angle for photography. Or, as at Tonina in recent decades, archaeologists appear to trundle texts off to the local museum, where provenience is known to few (and God). Find-spot is certainly not mentioned in any public display or report available to scholars. This seems more than an oversight—it is an out-and-out shame. Initial documentation is the key, as is the act of making those observations available to others.

At Piedras Negras, where I worked from 1997 to 2000, and again in 2004, sculptures have shifted many times. Their original position is usually reconstructible and shown as such on maps. But their archaeological placement, as objects left by the Maya, remains enigmatic, in key examples. Héctor Escobedo, my co-director, found that J. Alden Mason—a gifted prose stylist and indifferent excavator—had heaped at least 4 to 5 m of backfill atop Stela 18. (Héctor was looking for the axis of Structure O-13, the pyramid that backed the stela.) Despite diligent search, we continue to be only vaguely aware of the original location of Stela 40, a monument showing ancestral rites that came from the terrace in front of Structure J-3.

Figure 1. PIedras Negras, Throne 1, now in the Museo Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, Guatemala City. Photograph by Mary Dodge.

Figure 1. PIedras Negras, Throne 1, now in the Museo Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, Guatemala City (Photograph by Mary Dodge)

Throne 1, now in the Museo Nacional de Antropología y Etnología in Guatemala City, is a more fortunate case (Figure 1). Found shattered in a recessed, corbelled niche in Structure J-6 of the palace, it had been duly recovered and pieces reassembled in their current form; a few small fragments, daubed bright red, occur in storage at the University of Pennsylvania Museum (see Figure 2 for J-6 and its access stairway, as cleaned off in 1933). The throne plays an important role in Maya cultural history, its ancient destruction being taken by J. Eric Thompson as possible evidence of “superstitious fear” by later Maya or of “revolting peasants” enraged at this “symbol of their civil bondage” (Thompson 1966:108).

Figure 1. Piedras Negras, Structure J-6 and frontal stairway, 1933 (photograph courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives)

Figure 2. Piedras Negras, Structure J-6 and frontal stairway, 1933 (Courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives)

Not long ago, while looking at the image taken by Linton Satterthwaite, Jr., of the throne after its initial clearing, I realized that a more precise documentation of the Throne 1’s afterlife was possible. A fuller study would involve a closer study of patched edges on the original in Guatemala City, especially of the horizontal text on the bench itself, but the photograph taken by Satterthwaite in 1932 spells out where many of the blocks were first found. By looking at outlines and areas of exposed carving, and inserting cleaned images of those fragments, one can see how the throne was broken apart (Figures 3a and 3b). I suspect that some of the blocks had been removed unwittingly when workers cleared fill. Too late, Satterthwaite, who tended to work out of the camp, found the error.

Figure 2. Position of blocks when found, Throne 1, 1932 (photograph courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives)

Figure 3a. Position of blocks when found, Throne 1, 1932 (Courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives)

Figure 3. Identifiable blocks, with higher-resolution images inserted (photograph courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives)

Figure 3b. Identifiable blocks, with higher-resolution images inserted (Courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives)

The throne was an obvious casualty of violence, just as Thompson said. The left and right sides of the throne had been removed from the niche and placed face-up, more-or-less in correct, relative position. But the human faces that adjoined them, also face-up, had been moved in one case—that of the figure to the left—all the way behind a frontal column. The snout of the witz lay on the step of the outer doorway. Strangely, the hieroglyphic supports, although in correct relative position, were both face-up, yet with each top touching the other in opposed position. The special targets of violence, and their weakest points structurally, were the human faces and points of transition to the witz. It seems likely that the throne back had been dragged out of its niche and only then attacked. One possible culprit, as suggested by David Stuart from Lintel 10 at Yaxchilan, is the final ruler of that site, K’ihnich Tatbu Jol (Stuart 1998).

Figure 5. Interior stairway leading from area of Throne 2 to upper, western room, 1999, Operation PN34a-18 (photograph by Zachary Hruby)

Figure 4. Interior stairway leading from area of Throne 2 to upper, western room, 1999, Operation PN34a-18 (photograph by Zachary Hruby)

The area of the throne was excavated by Ernesto Arredondo and me in 1998, and the area proved to have shallow stratigraphy (Houston and Arredondo 1998:108-109): an earlier, wider building, and bedrock only about 40 cm. below the final floor of Str. J-6. A stairway, only partly preserved, led from the throne room to an elevated floor to the west—this may have allowed the ruler to approach the throne without stepping outside to public view (Figure 4). No diagnostic sherds came from the lower level, but it surely dated to the Yaxche period, from about AD 625 to 750. The visible throne room was certainly Chacalhaaz in date, c. AD 750 to 830. Indeed, Throne 1 gives us a more precise date for this building known as cha-hu-ku-NAAH, perhaps Chahuk Naah, “House of Lightning” or “House of Thunder”: its dedication, probably written as EL-NAAH, took place on the Period Ending of 9.17.15.0.0, Nov. 3, AD 785. It is likely to have been Ruler 7’s first great commission in the Acropolis, a dramatic reconfiguration of Patio 1, the space in front, as a place for reception of tribute, captives, and visitors, but never of equals.

Figure 4. Piedras Negras Throne 3, found in fill within Structure O-17, 14 cm. long, found in 1999 field season (drawing by Stephen Houston)

Figure 5. Piedras Negras Throne 3, found in fill within Structure O-17, 14 cm. long, found in 1999 field season (Drawing by Stephen Houston)

Other fragmentary thrones are known at Piedras Negras. The University of Pennsylvania found one, Throne 2, re-used in the Str. K-6a ballcourt ([9.11.10.0.0] 11 Ajaw *18 Ch’en. Aug. 21, AD 662 [Martin-Skidmore correlation]), and our project found Throne 3 (Figure 5) in the fill of Str. O-17, possibly an unfinished structure.

I believe the presence of two shattered thrones, both connected to Ruler 2, Itzam K’anahk, suggests some refurbishment of the Acropolis, where such thrones were presumably placed. Perhaps they had been destroyed during that construction and their pieces inserted into fill nearby. Throne 3 is probably earlier because of its ch’ok title. Indeed, it may be the sole remains of his very accession throne, for Ruler 2 was only 12 years of age when he succeeded to power.

Luis Romero, a Guatemalan archaeologist who worked with us on the Piedras Negras Project, has subsequently restored the J-6 stairway, finding at least one new cache in the process. When I last saw it, in 2004, the throne room looked sorry indeed, a hole punched in the back by idle looters, and the roots of a ramon tree curving in threatening arc towards the wall. The Throne Building is as forlorn as it was when left by assailants in the 9th century AD.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS I thank Eric Schnittke of the Penn Museum Archives for permission to reproduce Figures 2 and 3.

REFERENCES CITED

Graham, Ian, and Eric von Euw. 1975. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 2, Part 1: Naranjo. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Houston, Stephen D. 1993. Hieroglyphs and History at Dos Pilas: Dynastic Politics of the Classic Maya. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Houston, Stephen D., and Ernesto Arredondo Leiva. 1999. In Proyecto Arqueológico Piedras Negras, Informe Preliminar 3, Tercera Temporada, eds. Héctor Escobedo and Stephen Houston, pp. 105-118. Informe entregado al Instituto de Antropología e Historia de Guatemala.

Stuart, David. 1998. Una Guerra entre Yaxchilán y Piedras Negras? In Proyecto Arqueológico Piedras Negras, Informe Preliminar 2, Segunda Temporada, eds. Héctor Escobedo and Stephen Houston, pp. 389-392. Informe entregado al Instituto de Antropología e Historia de Guatemala.

Thompson, J. Eric S. 1966. The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization. 2nd ed. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

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