If…Alabaster Could Talk

by Stephen Houston (Brown University), David Stuart (University of Texas, Austin), and Marc Zender (Tulane University)

Among the most valued objects in a Maya court must have been bowls of an almost sugary white stone. Some are opaque, especially those from the Early Classic period. Others, of Late Classic date, consist of a thin-walled, translucent travertine (Tokovinine 2012:128–129; see also Houston 2014:258; Luke 2008). The challenge of shaping such material into drinking bowls presented difficulties across Mesoamerica (Diehl and Stroh 1978; Saville 1900). For us, the obstacle is of a different sort, that of determining the precise origin(s) of this rare stone. Banding in several examples suggests crypto-crystalline deposits from caves, possibly even manufacture of bowls in one general area (Tokovinine 2012:129)—although, if that were true, inscriptions on some bowls would confirm reworking or subsequent carving by local literates (Houston 2014:259). Seasonal oscillations in water flow and accretion resulted in the bands (Kubler 1977:5 fn1), opening the possibility of direct dating and, with further study, clues to climate change (Douglas et al. 2016; Wong and Breecker 2015).

Hieroglyphs and imagery point to the use of the travertine bowls for chocolate drinks and, in one case, from the Ethnologischen Museum, Berlin, as receptacles for alcohol poured into clysters for enemas (Grube and Gaida 2006:Abb. 3.1). Fragments occur in Classic Maya palaces, as at Aguateca Structure M7-22, the so-called “House of Masks,” and on the summits of pyramids, such as Dos Pilas Str. L5-49. Whole bowls—a rarity given the delicacy of travertine and its tendency to breakage—come mostly from tombs savaged by looters (Houston 2014:249). Years ago, in the first weeks of the first season at Caracol, Belize, Houston saw, with Arlen and Diane Chase, a travertine bowl  in a looter’s tunnel behind Structure B20 (Chase and Chase 1987:fig. 15a; see also Prager and Wagner 2013). In a tearing hurry, looters cleared out Tomb 3 of that building, leaving the bowl just days if not hours before we arrived.

An inscribed travertine bowl has just flashed briefly on the internet, the image now gone, the find spot unknown. The text, on a small bowl with sharply everted rim, contains two dates, one with a Calendar Round of 8? Eb 10 Zac, perhaps corresponding to (Julian Date, August 26, AD 770), and a future event of, 11 Ahau 18 Mac (Julian Date, October 8, AD 790). In a final passage, it also records, for the first time, a term in Maya glyphs for “alabaster”:  [‘i]T’AB[yi] u-xija-yi, ‘i-t’ab-y-i u-xix-jaay (Fig. 1).


Figure 1. Glyphic passage on alabaster vessel (drawing by David Stuart). 


The passage is fully legible. The verb, based on t’ab, “rise, go up” (Stuart 1998:417), harbors an infixed ‘i particle that, in temporal terms, folds the text back to the earlier date (Houston 2012). A probable yi infix signals the intransitive, change-of-state nature of the verb as well as a conjectural marker of single-argument predicates (-i; John Robertson, personal communication, 2000). What follows is a possessive pronoun, to be expected after such a verb, then a doubled xix (cued by two dots above the xi syllable). In a separate glyph block, but clearly linked to the xix, are the syllables ja-yi, spelling a term for “thin vessel, cup,” often in reference to vessels with slightly everted rims (Hull 2016; Lacadena and Wichmann 2004:144; Martin 2012:67, figs. 16, 17). The xix must be an adjective that describes the cup.

Mayan languages offer a suite of related words for “alabaster,” including an entry, “white xix,” from the Motul Dictionary of Yucatec compiled, probably, by Antonio de Ciudad Real in the final decades of the 16th century or the beginning of the 17th (Fig. 2, Table 1). Xix accords neatly with a label for an alabaster bowl, and this is its first known attestation in glyphs. What remain to be explored are subtleties of ethnogeology. Here is a term for a milky-white, nearly glowing stone (depending on quality and direction of light), sugary to the touch, coveted by elites and royalty. Yet it might also be applied to rough, commonplace materials: pebbled, sedimentary “gravel” (gravilla, cascajo) or “round rocks” (rocas….redondeadas) redeposited from elsewhere. Some skein of thought, perhaps of stone affected by water (cave flowstone accords with that class), might bind these terms together, as shaped by an etiology of stone conceived over centuries and across languages.


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Figure 2. Dictionary entry for çac xix [sak xix], ‘alabastro’  or “white xix” (Motul Dictionary, folio 94r, John Carter Brown Library, facsim. Codex Ind 8). 


Table 1. The root Xix in Greater Lowland Mayan languages.

Colonial Yucatec        <çac xix>        alabastro                        Dicc. Motul, folio 94r

Modern Yucatec        ch’áak-xìix      stalactite                        Bricker et al. 1998:79, 259

Itzaj                             xixil tunich     cascajo de piedra            Hofling with Tesucún 1994:676

Colonial Tzeltal        <xiximton>     cascajo                            Ara 1986:417 [folio 123v]

Modern Tzeltal          xixinton          rocas y gravilla redondeadas provenientes de una                                                                                             roca conglomerática previa Polian 2017:670

                                      xixim=ton       grava, cascajo                 Kaufman & Justeson 2003:441

Colonial Tzotzil          <xixibton>     pebble                         Laughlin 1988:302

Modern Tzotzil          xixibton           river pebble                Laughlin 1975:322


Note: The title is taken from a poem by Yusef Komunyakaa about Sir Harold Acton’s pleasure palace in Florence, “Blackamoors, Villa La Pietra,” 2016, Alabaster. The opulent setting seemed to fit here.



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