An Update on CHA’, “Metate” Reply

by David Stuart (University of Texas at Austin)


In an earlier post on Maya Decipherment I proposed a reading KA’ or CHA’ for a long-elusive sign known as the “bent cauac” (at right). I suggested that it derived from the representation of a metate, or grinding stone, the word for which is *kaa’ in proto-Mayan and cha’ in all Ch’olan languages, including modern Ch’orti’. The occasional –a sign suffix found in a few examples, as shown here, seemed to offer good support for the identification, pointing to the presence of a glottal-stop after a in the logograph’s root, therefore Ca’. The widespread word for metate would certainly fit the bill.

I’ve come across another occurrence if the “bent cauac” that may offer confirmation of the reading, indirectly pointing to its precise logographic value as CHA’.  But the context is highly unusual, for the sign seems to operate as a syllabic sign, in clear substitution with chi in a familiar spelling of the title k’inich. This raises some larger epigraphic issues about how CV syllables and logograms of similar phonetic shape (CV’, in this case) may have sometimes blurred in function and usage, at least during a certain stage of Maya scribal history.


Figure 2. Name phrases from the vases, showing alternation of chi and ‘metate’ sign in the third block. (Photos: J. Kerr)

The substitution comes from two Late Classic vases in the “Ik’ style,” produced in the region around Lake Peten Itza in what is now northern Guatemala (Just 2012). The two vessels (K533 and K8889 in Justin’s Kerr’s database) were clearly painted by the same artist/scribe – an important point that we will return to later. A royal name, Yajawte’ K’inich, is written in the rim texts of each, referencing a local king who is depicted in the scenes below. His name is common throughout the corpus of Ik’ vessels (Tokovinine and Zender 2102:44-45). If we look closely at the extended name phrases themselves, we see obvious parallels (Figure 2). First we have u-baahil ahn(?) introducing a deity’s name, a version of the so-called “deity impersonation phrase” I have described before, found numerous other inscriptions (Houston and Stuart 1996). This serves to link a historical individual (named later) with a deity or supernatural with whom his/her identity is fused. Here it clearly names the solar deity Wuk Chapaht Tz’ikiin(??) K’inich (Ajaw), first identified in the 1980s in the inscriptions of Copan and other sites. The ruler’s name then follows, written as Yajawte’ K’inich, then the title “the captor of Ik’ Bul.” On K533 we find a fairly standard and recognizable form of the sun god’s name, with a K’INICH logogram followed by chi (see Just 2012:164)However, in the parallel sequence from K8333 the chi hand is replaced by our metate sign, making for a very strange combination. The bent cauac element, no matter what its value, plays no role in what is otherwise a very standard name for the sun god. There seems little choice but to analyze it here as a direct substitution for the syllable chi, where the metate element now takes on a syllabic role, presumably as cha (K’INICH-cha …weird!). The scribe of K8333 uses the conventional cha sign in spelling U-cha-nu, in the penultimate glyph of the illustrated phrase, perhaps as a way to highlight the playful nature of his earlier spelling,

If true, this phonetic function for the metate sign leads to a couple of interesting points.  First, it offers good evidence that the base value of the sign is indeed CHA’, not KA’. This makes sense given the presence of cha’ as “metate” throughout Ch’olan (*KA’ or *KAA’ seemed possibilities as more archaic forms, but less likely). Second and more broadly, it indicates a degree of playfulness on the part of a scribe who opted to steer clear of old, established spellings and introduce something completely outside of convention. Elsewhere the metate never appears syllabic cha, and I suspect its use as such here would have struck any ancient reader (like a modern epigrapher) as odd, even to the trained eye of a fellow Maya scribe of the period. In addition, the use of cha in spelling k’inich falls well outside the familiar rules of synharmony and disharmony, a set of conventions that was came to be tweaked anyway by the end of the Classic period. With K’INICH-cha we seem to have an example of individual scribal innovation, and a very playful one at that.

Crossovers between syllables and logograms occur throughout the history of the Maya script – BIH, “road,” can very often serve as bi, and CH’OH(OK), “rat,” is the basis for the syllable ch’o, and so on.  I believe that the painter of these vases used this familiar precedent to come up with his playful idea to use CHA’ as cha. In certain settings (calligraphic, less formal ones?) scribes may have felt a bit more freedom to draw upon these possibilities and display their creative skills as glyphic composers. For any courtly scribe the act of writing was an act of designing, often creatively and unexpectedly. In any event, all this highlights once again that the spellings found in Maya hieroglyphs were seldom truly “fixed,” as long as scribes conformed to the established rules of graphic variation. The example from the two Ik’ vases demonstrates how at least one ancient painter may have pushed some of these boundaries and conventions, and others no doubt did the same, in different ways. Epigraphic studies will always explore and refine the nature of scribal rules, but it would seem that, at least for some scribes, some leeway was possible in bridging the categories of logograms and syllables.


Figure 3. Two Ik’-style vases with parallel rim texts, K533 and K8889. (Photos: J. Kerr)

References Cited

Houston, Stephen D., and David Stuart. 1996. Of Gods Glyphs and Kings: Divinity and Rulership among the Classic Maya. Antiquity 70:289-312.

Just, Bryan R.. 2012. Dancing into Dreams: Maya Vase Painting of the Ik’ Kingdom. Princeton University Art Museum and Yale University Press.

Tokovinine, Alexander, and Marc Zender. 2012. Lords of Windy Water: The Royal Court of Motul de San Jose in Classic Maya Inscriptions. In Motul de San Jose: Politics, History and Economy in a Classic Maya Center, A.E. Foias and K.F. Emery, eds., pp. 30-66. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s