“Kill All the Lawyers”

by Stephen Houston, Brown University 

…said Dick the Butcher, a miscreant in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part II, act IV, Scene II, Line 73. What Shakespeare meant and whether this was side-splitting to a late Elizabethan audience are matters best left to specialists. (My brother and brother-in-law are lawyers, so I hardly share the sentiment.) What concerns us here is the treatment of scribes, keepers of recondite knowledge and official memories, as well as the clerks, we presume, in adjudications among the Classic Maya. Since the 1980s, Mary Miller has suggested that artists served as tribute or war booty in dynasties of the time (Schele and Miller 1986:219–220; also Miller 2000, Miller and Brittenham 2013: 110, 112). This proposal found favor with Kevin Johnston, who also reported on the possible mutilation of scribal hands. Cruel mistreatment removed, not their skill, but any capacity to apply it in the future (Johnston 2001). [Note 1] Few scholarly studies make their way into a poem for The New Yorker, but this one did, and by a winner of the Pulitzer Prize (Williams 2001). The complex movements and political subordination of sculptors have grown clearer with research into such “loans” and cross-polity transfers of sculptural talent (Houston 2016a: fig. 13.11; see also Zender et al. 2016: 46–47, fig. 10). Some carvings may even have come as tribute from subordinate lords.

That phrase, “kill all the lawyers,” brings us back to the vulnerabilities of Maya kingdoms. Consider the front of Moral-La Reforma Stela 1, now on display in the Museo de Antropología “Carlos Pellicer Cámara,” Villahermosa, Tabasco (Andrews 1943: figs. 13, 27; Pavón Abreu 1945: fig. 3; also Martin 2003: 46–47). Located near the Río San Pedro Mártir, the city of Moral-La Reforma has acquired a bewildering richness of names: Reforma II, Reforma, Moral, Morales, Balancán-Morales, Acalán. By fiat of the Mexican authorities, it is now simply Moral-La Reforma. The city contains at least five stelae and an Emblem that I identified in 1983 but did not have a chance to publish. Stela 1 dates to April 9, AD 756 (Julian, 8 Ajaw 8 Zotz’), although it offers other, probably earlier dates that are impossible to reconstruct in the absence of better images. As with many Maya sites, the corpus of monuments at Moral-La Reforma is both readily accessible and in bad need of decent rendering. Drawings from the 1940s remain a basic source—not a good sign. To be sure, superb vignettes have appeared in an article by Simon Martin (2003).

Stela 1 in particular has one of the most northerly examples of a sculptor’s signature (front, just by the K’awiil scepter of the dancing ruler), as well as a complex embroidery of dates in addition to its Initial Series. I count at least four. The back of the carving displays what looks to be a capture, the victor in unusually active pose (Figure 1). His foot presses against the groin of the captive, whose mouth opens in agony. He may even howl. Certainly his head pulls back and lower lip juts up. Yet this may not be an image from battle. The closer analogy is to gladiatorial combat (Houston 2016b; Taube and Zender 2009). Both figures grasp what appear to be stone saps. One of the weapons, held aloft by the victor, will soon land on the face or glance off the raised elbow of the victim. A strip of kab or earth signs below, passing along all sides of the stela, provides a sense of firmament. On this side of the stela it would also absorb blood. Why these signs were thought necessary, as, for example, at Dos Pilas and Calakmul, is poorly understood. Did they refer to some specific setting or quality of surface? The event must have been explained by the vertical text to the far right. The text at left names the loser, a figure labeled Itzam K’anahk, a royal epithet at Piedras Negras (Martin 2003: 47). A Piedras Negras affiliation is unlikely here, however, in that the following Emblem does not match its usual form. The name does recall “Itzamkanak,” a large community some 50 km northeast of Moral-La Reforma, visited by Cortés on his way south to deal with rebels in Honduras (Scholes and Roys 1968: 110–111, map 3). Yet the connection is distant in time and involves a toponym rather than a personal name.

Figure 1.jpg

Figure 1. Moral-La Reforma Stela 1, back (photograph shared by Ian Graham, 1983; negative housed in the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project, Peabody Museum, Harvard University).

The combat covers only one surface. The main image curves around the sides. This scene is visually dominant, although, in epigraphic terms, the back carries the Initial Series anchoring all dates on the stela. Here is the nub of the argument. The main figure, whose name may be jo?-wo-KAN-K’AWIIL (Martin 2003: 47), dances between two seated figures, both captives. Each has arms bound behind the back and looks up to the person controlling their destiny (Figure 2). The differential in size is telling. It may represent their relative size, and perhaps the youth (or dwarfishness?) of the figure to the left.

Figure 2.jpg

 Figure 2. Bound captives on Moral-La Reforma Stela 1, front (Andrews 1943: fig. 26).

The truly unusual feature is that both seem to have tails. There must have been a frisson when the viewer saw, at first, human figures and then, glancing around the sides, a wholly non-human attribute. The figure to the left is eroded and thus more tentative. Curving up his back and to the sides of the monument is what may be a scorpion tail. His lips resemble, however, the duck-bill of a wind god. The far clearer example marks the individual to the right. By Maya convention, his position signals higher status. The tail is well-preserved, beginning as a Muwaan bird attached to the area of his tailbone and then looping out as a centipede, ending in its open maw.

Karl Taube has pointed out that this tail occurs on mythic monkeys, howlers or Alouatta pigra, with deep ties to the sun and, by extension, to the count of days, k’in (Taube cited in Newman et al. 2015: 89). He is the harbinger of dawn, then as now. For the Classic Maya, he also existed on a gradient of bestial-to-human, often with visual evidence of scribal skill. An especially early and well-preserved version was found in Burial 9 at El Diablo, an elevated acropolis within El Zotz, Guatemala (Figure 3a, upper; Newman et al. 2015: 88–95). Later versions may humanize him slightly, string the tail with eyeballs, and, most relevant, outfit him with scribal equipment, including books and brushes (Figure 3b). The example on the celebrated “Princeton vase” (K0511, Figure 3a, lower right) expresses, in my view, the decapitation of a humanoid version with snub nose, the muwaan head concealed; the same looping tail is strung with eyeballs. I have long suspected the trickster rabbit, writing in a book to the side, “off-image” below, was up to some mischief. Had his tricks led to the killing of the scribe? The principal executioners appears to include a duck-billed avatar of the wind god. He is the figure leaning over, axe in hand, upper body just out-of-view.

Figure 3b.jpg

Figure 3a. Examples of mythic howler-scribes, two with clear muwaan-bird heads (top, Vessel 1, Burial 9, El Diablo, c. AD 375, drawing by Kallista Angeloff, Proyecto Arqueológico El Zotz; bottom images copyright Justin Kerr, Kerr Associates). 

Figure 3.jpg

Figure 3b. Mythic howler scribe, labeled as Chak Ch’ok, “Great Youth” (photographer unknown). 

The captive on Moral-La Reforma would thus seem to be a person whose identity has been fused with a mythic scribe. That role may well have accorded with his abilities prior to capture. As suggested by Miller and Johnson, scribes could be taken in battle and, in some cases, bound, displayed, and perhaps killed. The chu-ka-ja, chuhkaj, “is grabbed,” expression above his tail (Andrews 1943: fig. 13) may refer to his actual date of capture, although the scene of possible gladiatorial activity on back muddies the story. Could these have been the two captives, forced into combat, as part of a narrative that began on the front of the stela? Or was it precisely the reverse, a bloody melee leading to the display? Adequate drawings may eventually provide an answer.

For the Classic Maya, the existence of two identities, condensed into one person, is well-attested (Houston and Stuart 1986: 297–302). This extended to captives, too, as in this example studied by Simon Martin (Miller and Martin 2004: 182). An historical figure, a lord Yax Ahk from Anaayte’, probably on the Usumacinta River, was dressed as a perpetual loser, an old god of fire and darkness (Figure 4a; his probable name, “Fiery Ear Jaguar,” may occur below, from a vessel in a private collection in Australia). In other scenes, he is crushed with stones or burned with torches held by mythic youths. Framing dynastic conflict with known beginnings, middles, and ends must have had its own sense of inevitability and, to winners, reassurance. At Moral-La Reforma, those roles may have involved human repositories of skill and knowledge, in deprivation of enemy kingdoms.

Figure 4.jpg

Figure 4a. Tonina Monument 155, c. AD 700, note smoking ear (photographer unknown). 


Figure 4b. Possible name of mythic figure, K’AHK’-chi-ki-ni BAHLAM-[la]ma YAX-‘Cord’-KAN-na, historical name on vessel, private collection, Australia.

Note 1. Visitors to Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow will hear the (probably) apocryphal story of its architect, Postnik Yakovlev, blinded by Ivan the Terrible so that nothing so beautiful would be built again. As for the argument for scribal mutilation among the Maya, I find it plausible but the elements to prove it, i.e., caches of finger bones or a scene of blood-letting from hands in Room 1 at Bonampak, a bit indecisive. It is hard to know who lost their fingers (the deposits are mute on this score) or why a person was slicing at (complete) digits in the Bonampak murals.

Acknowledgments   My thanks go to Simon Martin, Mary Miller, and Karl Taube for discussions of this monument and related images.


Andrews, E. Wyllys. 1943. The Archaeology of Southwestern Campeche. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication 546. Contribution 40. Washington, D.C.

Houston, Stephen D. 2016a. Crafting Credit: Authorship among Classic Maya Painters and Sculptors. In Making Value, Making Meaning: Techné in the Pre-Columbian World, edited by Cathy L. Costin, 391–431. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C.

Houston, Stephen D. 2016b. Gladiatrix. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography Gladiatrix

Houston, Stephen D., and David Stuart. 2006. Of Gods, Glyphs, and Kings: Divinity and Rulership among the Classic Maya. Antiquity 70: 289–312.

Johnston, Kevin. 2001. Broken Fingers: Classic Maya Capture and Polity Consolidation. Antiquity 75: 137–147.

Martin, Simon. 2003. Moral-Reforma y la contienda por el oriente de Tabasco. Arqueología Mexicana 9(61): 44-47.

Miller, Mary. 2000. Guerra y escultura maya: Un argumento en favor del tributo artístico. In La guerra entre los antiguos mayas: Memoria de la Primera Mesa Redonda de Palenque, edited by Silvia Trejo, 176–187. CONACULTA and Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico.

Miller, Mary, and Claudia Brittenham. 2013. The Spectacle of the Late Maya Court: Reflections on the Murals of Bonampak. University of Texas Press, Austin / CONACULTA, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico.

Miller, Mary, and Simon Martin. 2004. Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya. Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, San Francisco.

Newman, Sarah, Stephen Houston, Thomas Garrison, and Edwin Román. 2015. Outfitting a King. In Temple of the Night Sun: A Royal Tomb at El Diablo, Guatemala, by Stephen Houston, Sarah Newman, Edwin Román, and Thomas Garrison, 84–179. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

Pavón Abreu, Raúl. 1945. Morales, una importante ciudad arqueológica en Tabasco. Cuadernos No. 6. Gobierno del Estado de Campeche, Campeche.

Schele, Linda, and Mary E. Miller. 1986. The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth.

Scholes, France V., and Ralph L. Roys. 1968. The Maya Chontal Indians of Acalan-Tixchel: A Contribution to the History and Ethnography of the Yucatan Peninsula. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman. [first published by the Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1948]

Taube, Karl, and Marc Zender. 2009. American Gladiators: Ritual Boxing in Ancient Mesoamerica. In Blood and Beauty: Organized Violence in the Art and Archaeology of Mesoamerica and Central America, edited by Heather Orr and Rex Koontz, 161–220. Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, Los Angeles.

Williams, Charles K. 2001. War. The New Yorker Nov. 5: 80–81.

Zender, Marc, Albert Davletshin, and Dmitri Beliaev. 2016. The Syllabic Sign we and an Apologia for Delayed Decipherment. The PARI Journal 17(2): 35–56.