Recrowned Kingdoms

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

In memory of Erik Boot, explorer of ancient Maya history and culture

By wide evidence, kingly lines come to an end. The Rurikids, descended from Vikings, ruled Russia until 1598. After a period of dynastic tumult, they gave way to the Romanovs, whose own story as rulers ended, rather badly, in 1918. (The earlier tumult led to Tsar Boris Godunov…and, by good luck, to a fine play by Pushkin and an opera by Mussorgsky.) At core, kingship relies on a premise of bloodline and lineal continuity. In most cases, it also rests on claims to tangible places. There were human subjects to be sure. Hard effort by others had to underwrite all that high living. But dominion over land and settlements proved equally relevant, according a certain concrete fixity to lordship and real (or notional) control over resources. “Nobiliary particles” reflect that emphasis. German, ‘von + toponymic’ signaled the origin of a family, ‘zu + toponymic’ its current residence. Today, distant relations of the Thai monarch add na Ayudhya to their surnames, alluding to a precursor state that dissolved in 1767 under the onslaught of armies from Burma (Horn 1995). Implicit here is another verity of kingship, that royal lines fail or get driven out, to be replaced by other rulers and systems of governance, or by nothing at all.

Among the many advances in Maya epigraphy is an understanding that dramatic shifts marked certain kingdoms of the Classic period. Simon Martin (2005) has opened the disquieting possibility that the important city of Calakmul was ruled by one royal family and then shifted to another—that of the so-called “Snake” or Kaan kingdom—in the late 500s, early 600s. A perceptive idea tends to find grounding in data. As if by cue, a panel studied by David Stuart at La Corona, fixes the rooting of that dynasty in Calakmul at 12 Kan 17 Woh (April 9, AD 635 [Julian] in the Martin-Skidmore Correlation). Then, in further support, a panel has come to light at Xunantunich, Belize. It appears to situate some of these shifts in civil wars between two branches of the royal family of the Snake kingdom (Helmke and Awe 2016: 9–11). The losing relative died, perhaps by sacrifice or in battle, on 1 Kaban 5 Yaxk’in (July 4, AD 640 [Julian]).

In 2007 I presented evidence for another such shift, very much with Martin’s proposal in mind. That was at the annual Maya Meetings at Texas, in a talk of 30-minute duration that may need some fuller record of its contents. The proposal concerns the dynastic seat of Altar de Sacrificios, Guatemala, whose somewhat aberrant Emblem (the supreme royal title, other than the kaloomte’) came to notice in 1986 (Houston 1986). The epigraphy of Altar (as I shall call it from now on) is both fascinating and challenging. When studied by Gordon Willey’s project, it contained a relatively large number of inscriptions, with at least 14 carved stelae and two panels flanking a stairway, labeled ye-buyehb (“St.”4:B11). The panels fronted a presumed mortuary structure with several royal interments (Graham 1972: figs. 12, 14). [Note 1] There were also three glyphically inscribed altars and yet other sculpted panels, including a spolium or re-used block in Structure A-1 (Figure 1; Graham 1972: fig. 60).

The spolium is intriguing. It may be one of those rare texts, like the Caracol hieroglyphic stairway studied by Martin, that found its eventual home in the seat of a hostile dynasty. The final glyph is likely to be a partly eroded kaloomte’, with subfixed ma syllable, a title not otherwise known at Altar. The right side is abraded, but it probably held the TE’ sign of the kaloomte’. Above it, perhaps, is a rare ajaw, “lord,” variant in the shape of an animal head (a vulpine or opossum face?; cf. Palenque Temple of the Inscriptions, East Tablet:K11, although in that text it is almost certainly a le syllable). Was the mutilated block brought to Altar from a foreign kingdom, to be placed on its side, with implied disrespect, in a masonry wall?


Figure 1. “Sculptured Panel 9,” reused in the masonry of Str. A-1 (Graham 1972: fig. 60). 

In most cases, preservation at Altar is indifferent or poor, making the rubbings by Merle Greene Robertson, done at John Graham’s behest in 1969, somewhat unrevealing. The Altar texts needed a real “autopsy,” i.e., direct consultation with weathered stone, a tactile distinction between carving and its erosive mimics, and then, with much raking light, a set of carefully considered field drawings. At the close of the Harvard Project at Altar, at least one stela seems to have been buried to ensure its protection (A. Ledyard Smith, personal communication, 1982). My letter from Smith–I had asked for more information–is long lost. What I recall is something like a pirate map: “…walk 15 paces from the palm tree,” information of obviously limited use today in a deforested zone. A joint publication by Willey and Ledyard Smith (the latter full-time at the site, Willey being more of an intermittent visitor) mentions the burial of “smaller stelae in Group B…near Str. B-I. Their exact whereabouts are known to the proper Guatemalan authorities” (Willey and Smith 1969:36). Alas, I do not think so! [Note 2] When I visited Altar in 1988, the carvings had been subjected to seasonal burning for milpa (slash-and-burn agriculture). The situation can hardly have improved today. Google Earth shows most of Altar denuded of trees, in full pasture with evident mounds and wall-lines. The Harvard Project must have thought the site would remain remote. There was, as far as I could tell in 1988, no backfilling. Smith’s pits and slot-trenches were still open after 25 years. [Note 3]

The epigraphy of the city has interested me since the early 1980s, when I embarked on a study of glyphs in the Pasión drainage (Houston 1993). Later, Zachary Nelson (1998), then an undergrad under my supervision, prepared a useful BA thesis on the subject. For Altar, we had relied on a basic reference, John Graham’s 1972 redaction of his 1962 doctoral dissertation at Harvard. That work carried its own set of challenges. For some reason, Graham had decided not to incorporate new historical insights from Maya decipherment, although he flagged them as “notable advances” (Graham 1972: v). The oversight is puzzling. A decade had passed since his original study, with several papers in between on epigraphic breakthroughs. While at Harvard, Graham was also in sustained contact with Tatiana Proskouriakoff, principal decoder of Classic Maya history (Graham 1972: v; for a useful list of publications, see bibliography). His main influence or model appears rather to have been Linton Satterthwaite, a resolute student of Maya calendrics and astronomy who “gave [in Graham’s words] so much time and stimulation in discussions and lengthy, detailed letters” (Graham 1972: v). One can understand the diffidence about anything other than dates. The eroded texts do not lend themselves to any decisive reconstruction of royal names, much less a chronicle of local events.

But I must be clear: Graham’s treatise contains much of value. Among his observations was that, in its sculpture, Altar experienced a datable shift in materials, going at about (December 30, AD 637 AD [Julian]) from sandstone to limestone (Graham 1972: 118). The sandstone probably came from the “nearest known outcrops, about 9 km up the Pasión River; the closest limestone [being] on the river…21 km. upstream” (Smith 1972: 115). [Note 4] Such distances from quarry to dynastic seat are unusual but not unprecedented—Calakmul Stela 9, a slate monument whose stone came from Belize, is a notable example. At Altar, movement was doubtless facilitated by the downstream location of the city and by the torpid, unthreatening nature of the Pasión. The Usumacinta nearby is the river with the reputation for being, in a local description I have heard all-too-often, a “killer of men.” [Note 5]

Another observation is Graham’s isolation of three temporal blocks in the monuments of Altar (Figure 2).

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Figure 2. Blocks of dates at Altar de Sacrificios.

There is much to say about Altar epigraphy, perhaps for another occasion. What is pertinent here is the contrast between the Emblems of the city at different times. In 1986, I proposed the existence of an unusual title for rulers of the city, one that included a xib, “male,” head within a round cartouche that is indistinguishable from an element in the name glyph of the Sun God (GIII) variant at Palenque (Houston 1986: 2–3). [Note 6] The Altar Emblem is not entirely readable. It appends na and si(?) syllables, and sometimes only a si (Stela 18:C11; also Adams 1971: fig. 53a, glyph “C”). Probable spellings at El Chorro and Itzan hint at different arrangements, with a subfixed si and ni (El Chorro Hieroglyphic Stairway 1, Misc. Block 9; Itzan Stela 17:D13). Had there been a shift from vowel disharmony to synharmony in these later monuments?  For its part, Stela 18 at Altar indicates that the Emblem must have begun life as a place name and only later spread to use as an Emblem.

But this Emblem was not always employed by the local dynasty. The earliest block of dates at Altar reveals consistent use of an entirely different set of glyphs. Each contains an ajaw or “lord” sign, often with pendant la syllable that occurs with some emblems. But the main element appears to be the Yopaat avatar of Chahk, the rain god—he may be the raging form of the deity, a violent storm passing across the afternoon sky. The small, dotted volutes are also found on later versions of his name (Figure 3).

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 Figure 3. A possible earlier Emblem Glyph of Altar de Sacrificios (Graham 1972: figs. 31, 32, 35).

It may be that, in the 6th century AD, Altar went through the same process as other Classic Maya dynasties. Like Calakmul, which appears to have shifted locations in AD 635, Altar did the same only a few years before, just prior to the second block of dates in its sequence, c., April 14, AD 618 [Julian]. This shift is roughly coeval with the implanting at Dos Pilas of a branch of the Tikal dynasty (Houston 1993: 100–101). The incursion at Dos Pilas is often linked to Bajlaj Kan K’awiil, a ruler about whom we know a great deal, including his birth in AD 625. Yet Tikal’s presence may go deeper still. A vessel of Tepeu 1 date with the Tikal Emblem and the name of a “great youth” (Chak Ch’ok Keleem) was found in a cave at Dos Pilas (Houston 1993: fig. 4–6). The style of that vessel is far closer to AD 600 than to decades later. Of course, as a portable object it could always have come to the area at a later time.

Tikal may have played a similar role at Altar. In 1990 or so, I noticed that the name of the Tikal ruler, now known as “Animal Skull” (probably some variant of a turtle head), probably occurred on Stela 8 at Altar (Figure 3; Graham 1972: fig. 19, position D2-C3, shown correctly in Robertson’s rubbing, jumbled in a photo mosaic [Graham 1972: fig. 21]). As usual, the text is eroded and in desperate need of an accurate drawing. But even the titles of this lord occur in expected position, just before his name: a color prefixed to a “capped ajaw” and a set of undeciphered logographs; cf. Martin and Grube 2008:40 for the same series of glyphs on a plate form the area of Tikal. A parallel text with syllables, on a Tepeu 1 bowl in the San Diego Museum of Man, suggests that some of the signs equated to …su-mu ‘a-ku-yi). “Animal Skull,” the 22nd ruler of Tikal, was in place by the final decades of 6th century AD (Martin and Grube 2008: 40–41), a date that accords with mention of him on Stela 8 (, February 21, AD 628 [Julian]). There is a plausible suggestion that “Animal Skull” was the father of the Altar ruler who erected the stela, but I suspect the names of the parents followed. The mother’s are clear, and there is room for a father (see D5 in particular), hinting that “Animal Skull” had some other relation to the local lord. Was the Tikal ruler some sort of overlord?

Altar Stela 8 left side.png

Figure 4. Possible name of “Animal Skull” on Stela 8, left side, D2–C3, title cluster at C2 (photo by Stephen Houston, 1988).

More to the point, did this connection have anything to do with the shift in Emblem? Another text, Sculptured Panel 4, dates by style to the early years of the Late Classic period. It may provide an explanation. At pC5–pD5 is a clear Calendar Round, probably 12 Ix 17 Muwaan. Such a combination of day and month, albeit with a different number for the day, also occurs with a “star-storm” event on Dos Pilas Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 (west section, step 3, B2). I suspect the date at Altar was, Jan. 3, AD 610 (Julian), just prior to the second block of dates at Altar. (A later placement, in AD 661, would accord less well with the style of the ajaw sign.) Terrible things happened. “He of ‘Altar'” (recall: the xib head within a cartouche is a place name) had been attacked, in a phrase with a superimposed KAB sign that echoes the assaults noted on the Dos Pilas stairway. The rest of the text has legible details, but erosion makes it difficult to discern a fuller account. (Houston’s law: “if there is a crucial detail of text, necessary to larger argument, then it shall be in poor and unreadable condition.”)

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Figure 5. Sculptured Panel 4 (Graham 1972: fig. 59).

Here, then, is a story cobbled together from difficult material. There has been a shift of Emblem and dynasty but not of place name. An earlier royal line was replaced by another with an entirely new way of describing itself, now as a family with a direct purchase on land. But the newcomers must have had some illustrious lineage, for Stela 9, at (January 25, AD 633 [Julian]), refers to at least 36 rulers in line from a distant founder. As always among the Classic Maya, politics is not so much local as regional or a melange of both—Altar may have had its own bruising encounter with Tikal. Altar lies at a crucial node of interaction, close to a major confluence of rivers. Quite simply, it may not have escaped the machinations of larger powers.

The long-term pattern serves as a coda. The overall region of the lower Pasión reveals similar blocks of time, separated in Figure 6 by vertical green lines. Prior to AD 731, the river served as a conduit of amity, after that to apparent conflict (Figure 7A, B). Physical zones do not determine dynastic behavior but give it affordances, in places where kingdoms found new crowns to wear.

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Figure 6. Textual activity in the lower Pasión region (ALS = Altar de Sacrificios; AML = La Amelia; ITN = Itzan; Pato/El Chorro = PCR; RND = El Reinado, whose dynastic record has been studied by David Stuart, in personal communications).

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 screen-shot-2016-12-21-at-12-55-59-pm   (B)

Figure 7.  (A) relations prior to AD 731; (B) relations post AD 731, with blue lines indicating hostility, yellow lines amity.  Dotted line signals a boundary zone of hostility along the lower Pasión.

Postscript:  Another essay on new blocks at Xunantunich has appeared only a short time after this piece, offering further insights into the establishment of a snake dynasty at Calakmul (Helmke and Awe 2016). The find and its discussion are useful and important, but I differ somewhat in how these events are to be transcribed glyphically and what they might represent. For a future post…

Note 1. Stela 4 (in fact a panel paired with “Stela 5” on the other flank of a stairway) opens with an unusual Initial Series referring to a royal death, at The final date, some 12 months later, represents, I presume, the amount of time it took to build the structure behind the panels. That building, Structure A-1, must have been mortuary in function. It is rather surprising how many death references occur at Altar, from yet another panel on Structure A-1 (Sculptured Panels 1 and 2) to Altar 2, found in the South Plaza of the city.

Note 2. Government guards in the 1980s were, when I researched the Pasión in 1984 and 1986, under the control of a corrupt official, Gilberto Segura de la Cruz, a comisionado militar for Ríos Montt’s army and the son of Ledyard Smith’s foreman at Altar de Sacrificios and later at Ceibal. Indeed, it was Smith who gave Segura de la Cruz his start. Segura’s father, the preceding foreman, had died suddenly during fieldwork at Ceibal. As a favor to the family, Smith replaced him with Gilberto, who could not have been much more than a teenager. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, just before my arrival, sculptures were being routinely looted from the Parks and protected animals hunted as exotic meat for restaurants in the regional capital of Flores, Guatemala. I have a vivid recollection, in 1984, of Park guards summoned to do seine fishing in the Aguateca arroyo. Nearby, the comisionado‘s family lolled and picnicked. Few fish escaped that comprehensive slaughter. Of course, I was young and oblivious at the time, somewhat clueless as to what was accepted local practice and what was not. Later, members of the comisionado‘s family, including my provisioner of rice, beans, and kerosene lamps, became capos for the Sayaxche drug cartel. At least one of them was eventually gunned down in the muddy streets of the town (Sayaxche cartel).

Note 3. Jessica Munson, a former student of Takeshi Inomata’s, is starting work at Altar. I am confident that much will come from this valuable research, especially of early periods.

Note 4. Purely local building materials of mud, clay, and mussel shell characterize the earliest Preclassic construction. Altar was a city that required some sweat and medium-distance transport to achieve its eventual bulk.

Note 5. I have an appalling memory of passing, in 1995, with my good friend Héctor Escobedo, the mauled fragments of a boat carrying immigrants down the river to Mexico and beyond. All had perished. Shredded, flimsy life vests, their stuffing ripped out, littered the rocky shore below the Chicozapote falls.

Note 6. A semblant form, with headband, has been found on a shattered vessel at Cuychen Cave, Belize (Helmke et al. 2015: 26, fig. 16, fig. 18). In my judgment, that is not the same sign. The head departs too much from the standard xib.


Adams, Richard E. W. 1971. The Ceramics of Altar de Sacrificios. Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology 63(1). Cambridge, MA.

Graham, John A. 1972. The Hieroglyphic Inscriptions and Monumental Art of Altar de Sacrificios. Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology 64(2). Cambridge, MA.

Helmke, Christophe, and Jaime Awe. 2016. Death Becomes Her: An Analysis of Panel 3, Xunantunich, Belize. The PARI Journal 16(4):1 –14.

Helmke, Christophe, and Jaime Awe. 2016. Sharper than a Serpent’s Tooth: A Tale of the Snake-head Dynasty as Recounted on Xunantunich Panel 4. The PARI Journal 17(2):1–22.

Helmke, Christophe, Jaime J. Awe, Shawn G. Morton, and Gyles Iannone. 2015. The Text and Context of the Cuychen Vase, Macal Valley, Belize. In Maya Archaeology 3, edited by Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore, 8–29. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

Horn, Robert. 1995. Thai Bluebloods Must Work for a Living. Los Angeles Times (Dec. 17).

Houston, Stephen D. 1986. Problematic Emblem Glyphs: Examples from Altar de Sacrificios, El Chorro, Río Azul, and Xultun. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing 3. Center for Maya Research, Washington, DC.

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

Martin, Simon. 2005. Of Snakes and Bats: Shifting Identities at Calakmul. The PARI Journal 6(2):5-13.

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2008. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Classic Maya. 2nd ed. Thames & Hudson, London.

Nelson, Zachary. 1998. Altar de Sacrificios Revisited: A Modern Translation of Ancient Writings. BA honor’s thesis, Brigham Young University.

Smith, A. Ledyard. 1972. Excavations at Altar de Sacrificios: Architecture, Settlement, Burials, and Caches. Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology 62(2). Cambridge, MA.

Stuart, David. 2012. Notes on a New Text from La Corona. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography

Willey, Gordon R., and A. Ledyard Smith. 1969. The Ruins of Altar de Sacrificios, Department of Peten, Guatemala: An Introduction. Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology 62(1). Cambridge, MA.