A Note on the Sign for TZ’IHB, “Writing, Painting” 2

by David Stuart (The University of Texas at Austin)

tz'ib glyphs

Figure 1. Spellings of tz’ihb, “writing, painting” (tz’i-bi and tz’i-ba)

Many years ago I wrote on the decipherment of the word tz’ihb, “writing, painting,” in ancient Maya texts (Stuart 1987, 1990). This usually appears in the hieroglyphs as the syllabic sequences tz’i-bi or tz’i-ba, two spellings that probably reflect slight differences in pronunciation and morphology (Figure 1). “Painting” glyphs appear in a variety of settings, including the title for scribes and painters, aj tz’ihb, as well as in glyphs that introduce artists’ signatures (“it is the painting of…”). The most common appears of the term is in the Dedicatory Formula on vessels and other painted objects, where tz’ihbaal specifies the thing’s mode of decoration (painted vs. carved).

From time to time we also find a well-known and visually transparent logogram with the likely reading TZ’IHB (Figure 2, with the -ba suffix), showing a hand daintily holding a brush or stylus (Stuart 1987:2-3). The position of the fingers replicates the distinctive “pinky up” hand gesture that served as a standard representation for artisans, including stone-carvers as well (see Stone and Zender 2011:115)(Figure 3). The logogram’s clear visual connection to the imagery of scribes or painters was recognized long ago, when the Tikal-area bowl on which it appears (K772) was first published (see Robicsek and Hales 1983:135).


Figure 2. The title Aj Tz’ihb, “Painter,” from K772. Detail of photograph by Justin Kerr.

dainty hands

Figure 3. The “dainty hands” of Maya painters and carvers. Left, detail of a scribe from an unprovenced vase; Right, detail of the Emiliano Zapata Panel, Palenque region.


Assigning the hand-with-brush sign a TZ’IHB value has always seemed very reasonable on the face of it, but it is important to note that the sign is very rare, and no confirmation of via a phonetic substitution has ever been found (of course, the -ba suffix on the title in Figure 2 is highly suggestive). I have long been struck by the rarity of the sign, which seems especially odd considering the high frequency of tz’ihb in the Dedicatory Formula.  At any rate, until now this “writing” sign, like many in Maya epigraphy, remained a reasonable yet unconfirmed hypothesis, a good example of a graphically transparent sign (Note 1).

San Bartolo TZ'IHB sign

Figure 4. A possible early example of TZ’IHB from San Bartolo, Pinturas Complex,  Xbalanque phase, ca. 300 BCE. Photograph by D. Stuart.

We can point to only a handful of examples of this probable TZ’IHB logogram  One especially important example appears in a Late Preclassic text from San Bartolo, dating to approximately 300 BCE (Figure 4). Again the context of the surrounding glyphs in unclear, making a solid reading of TZ’IHB difficult. But the similarity to later forms from the Classic period make the identification likely — note the-ever so-slightly extended pinky finger at the right of the sign (see Tedlock 2010:26-27). Of course finding a sign for “writing” or “painting” as early as 300 BCE has important implications for considering the origins of writing itself in the Maya area.

With the recent discovery of a new text at La Corona, Guatemala, we can I think confirm the long-suspected reading. Block 9 from Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 was discovered in 2012 as part of a row of inscribed stones in from of Structure 13R-10 (Ponce 2013). The block was clearly not in its original setting, having been taken by the ancient Maya from some prior monument and and re-set in HS 2 as part of a mixed assortment of sculpted stones. Block 9 records the historical date 11 Caban 10 Zotz, or (May 1, 679 CE), when a royal woman from the Kaanul dynasty (the “Snake Kingdom”) arrived at La Corona to marry the local ruler named K’inich ? Yook (Freidel and Guenter 2003, Martin 2008). The very same event was already known from another La Corona text, Panel 6, where she is described as the daughter of the great Kaanul king Yuknoom Ch’een.

tzib logogram

Figure 5. Names of a royal woman at La Corona, possibly Ix Tz’ihb Winkil. Drawings by D. Stuart.

Looking closely at her names in the two inscriptions, we see slightly different spellings (Figure 5). On HS2, shown at left, the sequence is IX-tz’i-bi-WINKIL?, perhaps for Ix Tz’ihb Winkil, “Lady Painting-Person(?)” (Note 2). This is a personal name, not a title, so I would shy away from interpreting this as some reference to the woman’s activities or court function. On Panel 6 her name appears with what looks to be a hand-like sign in place of tz’i-bi. The glyph is somewhat eroded, but a long and thin element held by the hand is just barely discernible (Figure 4b). This must be a version of our logogram reading TZ’IHB, a later variant of the sign identified on a visual basis many years ago on the bowl from the Tikal area.

This new substitution at La Corona confirms what we long suspected — that the hand-with-brush sign is the TZ’IHB logogram. And it shows us also that even when epigraphers are confident about guessing a particular reading, it is still gratifying to come across clear backing evidence for it many years later.


Note 1. Stone and Zender (2010:115) illustrate two examples of the TZ’IHB logogram, including the well-known one on on K722. Their second example shows a hand a distinctive gesture holding an inverted ocote torch, with the ‘ink’ or ‘soot’ (SIBIK) element below.  If TZ’IHB, this is an unusually elaborate version, and I wonder if it could be it a distinct sign altogether.

Note 2. The last sign in her name is T89, which I’ve recently presented as a logogram reading WINKIL, a term that refers to a class of human-like supernaturals and often used in names and titles of elite individuals (Stuart 2014). The translation of win(i)k-il is a bit challenging since it is an abstracted noun derived from winik, “person,” and “being” seems too general; “supernatural person” seems to be the sense of it. The woman’s name, Ix Tz’ihb Winkil, if that is the correct reading, may refer to a supernatural scribe patron.

References Cited

Coe, Michael D., and Justin Kerr. 1997.  The Art of the Maya Scribe. Thames and Hudson, London.

Freidel, David, and Stanley Guenter. 2003. Bearers of War and Creation. Archaeology (On-Line Features): http://archive.archaeology.org/online/features/siteq2/

Martin, Simon. 2008. Wives and Daughters on the Dallas Altar. Mesoweb: http://www.mesoweb.com/articles/martin/Wives&Daughters.pdf.

Ponce, Jocelyne. 2014. La estructura 13R-10 de La Corona: Un area de actividad de la élite maya prehispánica durante el clásico tardio y terminal. In XXVI Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueologicas en Guatemala 2013, tomo II, pp. 975-986. Asociación Tikal, Guatemala.

Robicsek, Francis and Donald M. Hales. 1981. The Maya Book of the Dead: The Ceramic Codex, The Corpus of Codex Style Ceramics from the Late Classic Period. University of Virginia Art Museum, Charlottesville.

Stone, Andrea, and Marc Zender. Reading Maya Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Maya Painting and Sculpture. Thames and Hudson, London.

Stuart, David. 1987. Ten Phonetic Syllables. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing 14. Center for Maya Research, Washington, D.C.

_______________. 1990. Hieroglyphs on Maya Vessels. The Maya Vase Book, Volume 1. Kerr Associates, New York.

______________. 2014. Four Interesting Logograms. Paper presented at the 1st Annual Maya Dictionary Meeting, Nordrhein-Westfälische Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Künste, Düsseldorf, Germany.

Tedlock, Dennis. 2010. 2000 Years of Mayan Literature. University of California Press, Berkeley.



  1. Where can one find the WINKIL decipherment article and is the ‘li’ in it working as a phonetic complement and do you have any ideas about the two-pronged element in the first example given in Figure 5? (Three questions “cleverly” disguised as one.)

  2. Hi Jorge, The article on threading e WINKIL has yet to be written — something I hope to get out this summer. As for the “li,” this emerges in the E Classic as a diagnostic feature for the affix form of the logogram. I suspect it began as a phonetic complement, but eventually it came to serve as a key distinguishing detail, so as not to confuse this sign with NAL. That two-pronged thing seems to be another common feature on many WINKIL signs.

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