Maya Stelae and Multi-Media

by Stephen Houston, Brown University 

Most Maya stelae are slabs of quarried limestone. Others come from the volcaniclastic tuff of Copan or the slate of western Belize and the sites linked to that region. Anyone looking at Stela 9 of Calakmul, a slender, easily fractured monument of slate, must wonder how it got there intact (Ruppert and Denison 1943:101–2; see also Healy et al. 1995).

But what survives of a stela may be just a fraction of its former self.

In a chilling note, suitable for Halloween, when it was posted, David Stuart drew attention to a few, rare images of Maya stelae on pots (Stuart 2014, Sacrifice Scene). Sacrifice is afoot, literally so in the form of deities or impersonators padding or dancing about (Figure 1). In one scene a pedestaled altar supports a gutted figure in unusual pose. The victim looks out at the viewer. The call for empathy, revulsion or some other, unfathomable emotion is direct, the “fourth wall” quite broken in this case. Viewing equates to participation. The other image takes this process a bit further or in a new direction. The victim is now prone rather than supine, if still on an altar. His detached head appears on top of the stela. Blades or bone awls scourged and pierced the body before its decapitation. As in the Bonampak murals, or other images of tortured war captives, he bleeds from wounds on the thigh and perhaps the stomach (Miller and Brittenham 2013:fig. 210; see also Houston 2008, Maya Bailiff).

Stela with feitshes above

Figure 1. Maya stelae and human sacrifices (K8351 [left] and K8719 [right], photographs by Justin Kerr, © Kerr Associates). 

Other media draw our attention too. Consider the fetish-like arrangement of paper or cloth, some of it knotted or tied into bows, possibly entangled with extracted body parts. Are those entrails on top of the stela to the left? I suspect the victims were still alive for part of this agony. After all, in Europe, disembowelment and external spooling of intestines were the usual punishments for regicides. The aim was to stretch out, literally and figuratively, the horror of conscious dying (Jardine 2005; for Japanese seppuku, see Fuse 1980).

As archaeologists, we tend to overlook the perishable world. Our focus, of course, is on what lies at hand. Yet there are unusual circumstances where bits of wood or scraps of cloths survive. Or, as in these examples, certain images suggest that Maya stelae were not just blocks of stone. They could also display or incorporate perishables, things inherently ephemeral and needing periodic replacement or alternation. This may even explain why the term for Maya stelae, deciphered as lakamtuun by David Stuart, meant, among the range of possible readings, “banner-stone” (Stuart 2010, LAKAM Logogram; see also Lacadena García-Gallo 2008:36, citing Barrera Vásquez 1980:434). In such a descriptive, cloth combines with stone.

There are other well-known depictions of stelae with perishables. First is a graffito from Tikal, on the south wall of Str. 5D-43, that shows cross-hatching over its surface (Figure 2 [left]). To be sure, this may simply be a way of indicating darkness or red paint, a convention found in many times and places (e.g., Myrberg 2010) and often used to show something dark or black in Maya color-coding (Houston et al. 2009:33–35). The other, on a peccary skull excavated from Tomb I at Copan, is somewhat clearer (Figure 2 [right], see also Peccary scan). Tautly entwined ropes cross the front of the stela, leaving exposed the stone underneath. From this evidence, Stuart argued, on good grounds, that stelae or altars sometimes had such wrappings (Stuart 1996). Stone may have been visible, then covered, then uncovered again. Carvings were less about sustained legibility than intermittent exposure or, in a paradox, their “concealed presence,” an understanding that something was there but reserved from public gaze.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Graffiti recorded by Helen Trik (Kampen and Trik 1983:fig. 46b) and close-up, Peccary Skull, Peabody Number 92-49-20/C201 (photographer unknown).

Mayanists have taken this evidence to heart. The data are nothing new. Seldom mentioned, however, at least in recent memory, is a relevant carving from Ixkun, Guatemala (Figure 3). I first visited the site in 2015, accompanied by two former students, Nicholas Carter and Sarah Newman. There, on the immense Stela 1, I was astonished to see multiple holes drilled around the sides and top. “Immense” fits this stone to a T: the carving is 3.72 m high, exclusive of its buried stela-butt, and the carving wide. Sylvanus Morley noted “[a] series of holes pass through the two front edges of the shaft, four on each side, for fastening something to the front vertical edges of the monument” (Morley 1938:183). In a later visit, Ian Graham observed: “[o]n either side four cord holders have been drilled at intervals along the rear edge, passing through to the back” (Graham 1980:137). 

Ixkun stela holes_Page_1

Figure 3. Drill holes on Ixkun Stela 1 (photograph by Nicholas Carter). 

What to make of this? First, there is the obvious, that perishables were attached to Stela 1 on an intermittent basis. A one-off ceremony, an unveiling only, would not account for such carefully drilled holes. But were there only cords, as on the Peccary Skull, or full coverings to conceal the carving underneath? Attaching skulls, body parts, and sundry fetishes is a more distant possibility. The position of the holes signals a wish for even coverage of the surface by some wrapping. The location of Stela 1 across from an E-Group, a building oriented towards solar, horizon events, hints at when the stela was exposed, i.e., calendrically or by auspicious appearances of the sun. Fire-drilling and incensing also highlight parts of its text and image. Both captives take, in fact, the ch’ajoom, “incenser” epithet in the very first glyph block of their names. A gendered take on this composite, multi-media production is worth mentioning too. By all available clues, carvings of this sort were made by men. A covering of cloth probably involved the work of women.

Ixkun Stela 1 may be an anomaly. If such holes exist on other stelae, I do not know of them. But the drill holes suggest the periodic covering or lashing and unwrapping of dynastic monuments, especially for ones the size and width of the Ixkun stela. Carvings of stone were only part of these composite productions.


Barrera Vásquez, Alfredo. 1980. Diccionario Maya Cordemex: Maya-Español, Español-Maya. Ediciones Cordemex, Mérida.

Fuse, Toyomas. 1980. Suicide and Culture in Japan: A Study of Seppuku as an Institutionalized Form of Suicide. Social Psychiatry 15:57–63. Seppuku

Graham, Ian. 1980. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 2, Part 3: Ixkun, Ucanal, Ixtutz, Naranjo. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge.

Healy, Paul F., Jaime J. Awe, Gyles Iannone, and Cassandra R. Bill. 1995. Pacbitun (Belize) and Ancient Maya Use of Slate. Antiquity 69:337-348.

Houston, Stephen. A Classic Maya Bailiff? Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography Maya Bailiff.

Houston, Stephen, Claudia Brittenham, Cassandra Mesick, Alexandre Tokovinine, and Christina Warinner. 2009. Veiled Brightness: A History of Ancient Maya Color. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Jardine, Lisa. 2005. The Awful End of Prince William the Silent: The First Assassination of a Head of State with a Handgun. HarperCollins, New York.

Lacadena García-Gallo, Alfonso. 2008. El titulo Lakam: Evidencia epigráfica sobre la organización tributaria y militar interna de los reinos mayas del clásico. Mayab no. 20, pp. 23-43.

Miller, Mary, and Claudia Brittenham. 2013. The Spectacle of the Late Maya Court: Reflections on the Murals of Bonampak. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Morley, Sylvanus G. 1938. The Inscriptions of Peten, Volume II. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication 437. Washington, D.C.  

Myrberg, Nanouschka. 2010. The Colour of Money: Crusaders and coins in the Thirteenth-century Baltic Sea. In Making Sense of Things: Archaeologies of Sensory Perception, edited by Fredrik Fahlander and Anna Kjellström, pp. 83–102. Stockholm Studies in Archaeology 53. Department of Archaeological and Classical history, Stockholm University, Stockholm

Ruppert, Karl, and John H. Denison, Jr. 1943. Archaeological Reconnaissance in Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Peten. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication 543. Washington, D.C.  

Stuart, David. 1996. Kings of Stone: A Consideration of Stelae in Ancient Maya Ritual and Representation. RES, Anthropology and Aesthetics 29/30:148–171. Kings of Stone

—2014. Notes on a Sacrifice Scene. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography Sacrifice Scene.

Trik, Helen, and Michael E. Kampen. 1983. Tikal Report No. 31: The Graffiti of Tikal. University Museum Monograph 57. University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.