Chili Vessels 1

by David Stuart, The University of Texas at Austin

A great many inscribed Maya ceramics from the Classic period were marked according to their intended contents, with glyphic terms for various types of drinks, foods and other consumables. In this note I discuss a new reading for a glyph as “chili (powder or sauce).” I only know of two examples, but they shed a small bit of light on the use of some vessels and the culture of food and food preparation in Maya courtly life.

Figure 1. Chile sauce vessel in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Accession no. 1988.1264.

Figure 1. Chile sauce vessel in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Accession no. 1988.1264.

One vessel is now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and bears an unusual dedicatory text (Figures 1, 2).  It is labelled as a certain type of jay (ja-ya), a word that Kerry Hull and Alfonso Lacadena each deciphered some years ago as “clay vessel” (for example Mopan, jaay, “clay bowl” [Hofling 2011:207]). The full sequence of signs in reference to the object is a bit more complex, however, reading yi-chi-li ja-ya. This is then followed by a personal name for the vessel’s owner, named ? TI’-ku-yu, or ? Ti’ Kuy (“? is the mouth (or speech) of the owl”). He may have been a young lord or prince from the eastern Petén region.

MFA chili vessel text

Figure 2. Glyphs reading yi-chi-li ja-ya, y-ich-il jay, on the MFA vessel. (Note: the roll-out view of the text is only partial, omitting the final two glyphs.

At first glance it might be assumed that yi-chi-li is related to the very common and enigmatic term spelled ji-chi, found on a great many examples of the Dedicatory Formula in the section before the possessed noun. Here though it is surely different. The first indication of this the ja-ya glyph, which is noticeably unmarked for possession. Nearly all other glyphs for jay or jaay take the third-person possessive prefix u-, as in u jay, “his/her clay bowl.” Here, however, we would seem to have a base noun jay with an adjective beforehand, which in turn takes the prevocalic form (y-) of the third-person pronoun. The root of this possessed modifier is ich, followed by a –il suffix.

Throughout Ch’olan-Tzeltalan Mayan languages the word ich means “chili (chile).”  This is cognate to the Yucatec root iik, and both forms descend from the proto-Mayan form *iik (Kaufman 2003). It therefore seems reasonable to suppose that “chili” the intended meaning of the ich root in y-ichil jay, for “his chili vessel.” The form ich-il may incorporate a -Vl suffix that derives an adjective from a root noun, but it may also be a derivation to form another related noun, as in Yukatek iikil, “chili sauce.” The form of the MFA bowl suggests it could have been used for a liquid-based sauce, or it might also have been a container for powdered chile as well.

A slightly different uses of the the word ich occur in an incised text found on a sherd excavated at Calakmul (Figure 3).  Here we see a partial text in a somewhat unusual arrangement, reading down in a single column and then to the two glyphs that run outward to the right.

chili sherd. drawing

Figure 3. Drawing of glyphs on sherd excavated at Calakmul, marking its vessel as the “container for the chile of Yuknoom Ch’een, the Divine Kanul Lord” (Drawing by D. Stuart).

We can analyze the vertical portion of the text as:

yo-to-ti yi-chi yu-ku-no-ma CH’EEN-na K’UH-ka-KAN  
y-otoot y-ich Yuknoom Ch’een K’uhul Kanul Ajaw
“the container (literally ‘house’) for the chile of Yuknoom Ch’een, the divine Kanul lord.”

The word otoot is customarily translated as “house” or “dwelling” in most contexts, but when found on vessels it clearly serves as a metaphorical term for a “container”(Stuart 2005). A small flask bearing the glyphs for y-otooch may is a “tobacco snuff container,” for example. The owner’s name is familiar to many as that of Yuknoom Ch’een II, the powerful ruler of the Kaan or Kaanul dynasty who ruled from 636-686 A.D.

The sherd goes on to mention, in the two glyphs running toward the right, a phrase familiar from the MFA vessel discussed above:

i-chi-li ja-yi
ich-il jaay
“(it is) a chile (sauce?) vessel”

This seems to be an unusual reiteration of the pot’s contents, added in case the name-tag construction just beforehand wasn’t clear enough. In this instance the -il suffix on ich may simply derive the adjectival form before jaay, or alternatively we are looking at the derived noun ichil, “chili sauce,” as described above.  For now “(it is) a chili vessel” or “(it is) a chili sauce vessel” seem equally plausible readings of the two hieroglyphs.


Figure 4. Roll-out of a restored Late Classic vessel (K555) bearing a possible i-chi glyph at center of rim text. Photograph by Justin Kerr.

Another vase (K555) bears a text that may indicate chili as a possible ingredient in a cacao beverage (Figure 4). Two badly repainted glyphs on the rim of the vessel may identify its intended contents as i-chi ka-wa for ich kakaw, “chili cacao,” but this reading must remain highly tentative.

So in summary, two inscribed Classic Maya vessels can now be identified as as pots for chili, either as a powder a sauce that could be added to a wide variety of delicacies prepared in Maya royal households.  In light of the recent detection of chemical traces of chili in early ceramic vessels from Chiapa de Corzo (Gallaga Murrieta, et. al. 2013, Powis, et. al. 2013) it would be worthwhile to test the two vases described here for any similar signals of Capsicum, much in the same way chocolate and tobacco reissues have been chemically identified on other ancient ceramics (Hall, et. al., 1990; Zagorevski and Loughmiller-Newman 2012).

Note: My initial thoughts on the ich reading arose from discussions with Simon Martin, who kindly showed me an image of the Calakmul sherd back in 2008. The reading has circulated among some epigraphers for a few years now, cited in some public presentations and articles (Martin 2008, Martin 2009). Most recently it found its way into the recent publication by Gallaga Murrieta, et. al. (2013), a portion of which is also available online. This note on Maya Decipherment serves as the first overview of the epigraphic and linguistic arguments behind the decipherment.

Acknowledgements: My thanks go to Simon Martin and Guillermo Kantun for sharing images of the Calakmul sherd, a drawing of which was later published by Gallaga Murrieta, et. al. (2013:Fig. 5a). My own quick sketch of its glyphs should be considered preliminary.

References Cited:

Gallaga Murrieta, Emiliano, Terry G. Powis, Richard Lesure, Louis Grivetti, Heidi Kucera, Nilesh W. Gaikwad, Roberto López Bravo. 2013. El uso prehispánico de los chiles en Chiapas. Arqueologia Mexicana 130:74-79.

Hall, Grant D., Stanley M. Tarka Jr., W. Jeffrey Hurst, David Stuart and Richard E. W. Adams. Cacao Residues in Ancient Maya Vessels from Rio Azul, Guatemala. American Antiquity, 55(1): pp. 138-143.

Hofling, Charles Andrew. 2011. Mopan Maya-Spanish-English Dictionary. The University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Kaufman, Terrance. 2003. A Preliminary Mayan Etymological Dictionary.

Martin, Simon. 2008. Reading Calakmul: Epigraphy of the Proyecto Arqueológico de Calakmul 1994-2008. Paper presented at the VI Mesa Redonda de Palenque, November 16-21 2008, Palenque, Mexico.

___________. 2009. The Snake Kingdom: History and Politics at Calakmul and Related Courts. Presentation at the UT Maya Meetings, University of Texas at Austin, March 1, 2009.

Powys Terry G., Emiliano Gallaga Murrieta , Richard Lesure, Roberto Lopez Bravo, Louis Grivetti, Heidi Kucera, and Niles W. Gaikwad. 2013. Prehispanic Use of Chili Peppers in Chiapas, Mexico. PLoS ONE 8(11): e79013.

Stuart, David. 2005. Glyphs on Pots: Decoding Classic Maya Ceramics. Sourcebook for the 29th Maya Meetings at Texas, The University of Texas at Austin, March 11-16, 2005.

Zagorevski, D. V. and Loughmiller-Newman, J. A. 2012. The detection of nicotine in a Late Mayan period flask by gas chromatography and liquid chromatography mass spectrometry methods. Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry 26:403–411.

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