An Intriguing Date on the Tz’unun Panel 2

by David Stuart, The University of Texas at Austin


Figure 1. Inscribed block from Tz’unun, Belize (Photograph by Bruce Love)

The latest issue of the journal Mexicon has on its cover a photograph of a inscribed panel recently discovered at the ruins of Tz’unun, in northwestern Belize (Hanratty, et. al., 2016) (Figure 1). The new find is of particular interest because the four glyphs on the stone (part of a much longer original text) include an example of the Kaan or Kaanul emblem, k’uhul kaanul ajaw, at the upper left. As many readers know, the history of the Kaanul kingdom and its rulers is undergoing much scrutiny and revision these days, especially in the wake of several new epigraphic finds (Helmke and Awe 2016a, 2016b; Martin 2017; Stuart 2012). For this reason the discovery of any text that refers to this dynasty is of considerable interest, even a partial inscription like we see on the Tz’unun panel.

The three other glyph blocks on the Tz’unun panel record a short Distance Number of 12 days and the CR to which it leads. Mexicon‘s very brief description of the Tz’unun block states that the CR date is 7 Ahau 18 Mol (Hanratty, et. al., 2016). However, I believe it is far more likely to be 7 Chicchan 18 Mol, using a form of the day sign that represents the so-called “serpent segment.” A horizontal line clearly bisects the interior of the day sign, and the scutes of the snake’s body are just visible below. Hints of diagonal lines above conform to this form of Chicchan as well. This variant of Chicchan is common in the inscriptions at Caracol in the early seventh century, and appears from time to time in later texts.

The style and paleography on the Tz’unun panel reminds me a good deal of the Caracol Hieroglyphic Stairway (Martin 2017), while not quite as ornate. I therefore think a likely placement of the CR in the Long Count is 7 Chicchan 18 Mol, or August 7, 639 AD. Twelve days earlier is 8 Ben 6 Mol, or July 26, 639 AD. Unfortunately we have no idea what events were being recorded in this text – we are left with only the dates and the intriguing emblem title.

That said, the year 639 AD would have been an interesting one in the history of the Kaanul kingdom. As the recent finds at Xunantunich have demonstrated, a ruler named Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan was executed less than a year later in 640. And three years earlier, in 636, we have tantalizing records of a war between two rival factions of Kaanul lords, with Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kan (of Dzibanche?) defeated and Yuknoom Ch’een assuming the throne at Calakmul a short time later (Helmke and Awe 2016b; Martin 2017). My proposed revision of the date on the Tz’unun block, if correct, falls after the defeat of Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kan but before his execution. Who, then, is the Kaanul king being named at Tz’unun? We cannot say, but given the possible timing of the narrative it seems that the longer inscription might have contained elements of this fascinating political story, noting episodes we lack elsewhere. Let’s hope more of this new inscription someday comes to light.


Hanratty, Colleen, Bruce Love, Stanley Guenter and Tom Guderjan. 2016. First Evidence of the Ka’an Dynasty in Northern Belize. Mexicon XXXVIII(6):142.

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

__________________________. 2016b. Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth: A Tale of the Snake-head Dynasty as Recounted on Xunantunich Panel 4. PARI Journal 17(2):1-22.

Martin, Simon. 2017. The Caracol Hieroglyphic Stairway. Maya Decipherment, January 20, 2017.

Stuart, David. 2012. Notes on a New Inscription from La Corona. Maya Decipherment, June 30, 2012.

The Caracol Hieroglyphic Stairway

by Simon Martin, University of Pennsylvania

The summer of 2016 produced discoveries of tremendous importance for understanding the political history of the Classic Maya lowlands. While excavating Structure A9 at Xunantunich, Belize, Jaime Awe and his team unearthed two inscribed monuments of rare significance, their contents revealed in detailed textual analyses by Christophe Helmke (Helmke and Awe 2016a, 2016b). These inscriptions support and elaborate some existing proposals, while supplying entirely new twists to the story. What follows are a few thoughts inspired by these finds.

Xunantunich Panels 3 and 4 were immediately recognizable as parts of a hieroglyphic stairway first uncovered at the site of Naranjo (Maler 1908:91-93, Pls.24-28; Morley 1937-38.2:42-59; Graham 1978:107-110). There Teobert Maler uncovered 12 blocks bearing outlined medallions of text in two different formats, one of nine glyph-blocks and the other of four. The Xunantunich stones differ in their larger size and the inclusion of two of the smaller medallions apiece. That the monument had a complex history, with portions of it moved in ancient times, was already clear from the discovery a lone block at Ucanal—first designated in the Naranjo series as Step XIII and later as Ucanal Miscellaneous Stone 1 (Graham 1978:107, 110, 1980:153-154). In regard to its content, it has long been realized that the narrative focus falls on the career of the Caracol king we know as K’an II, repeating much of the information we find on his Caracol Stela 3 (Beetz and Satterthwaite 1981:12-22, Figs. 3, 4; Stone, Reents, and Coffman 1985:273-274, Table 1). In this light the stairway’s presence at Naranjo was initially explained as a “conquest monument” erected by K’an II to celebrate his subjugation of Naranjo (Schele and Freidel 1990:174, 178). But there were a number of holes in that argument, and I later suggested that the steps did not originate at Naranjo but were instead brought there from an original setting at Caracol (Martin 2000:57-58).

Xunantunich Panel 4b

Figure 1. Inscribed fragment from Caracol, Str. B5 (drawing by S. Martin, after one by N. Grube in Grube 1994:Fig.9.14a)

That idea was provoked not simply by the Caracol subject matter, but by an inscribed stone fragment excavated by Arlen and Diane Chase from rubble at the foot of Caracol Structure B5 (see Grube 1994:113, Fig.19.4a) (Figure 1). It shared the outlined border and rounded corners of the stairway medallions and, anecdotally, was carved from the same pale grey limestone that one can see when visiting the Naranjo steps stored in the British Museum. Importantly, when the drawing was sized to the scale of those blocks it proved to be a very close match (Martin 2000:Fig.12; see also Helmke and Awe 2016:Fig.3b). The hypothesis put forward was that the Caracol fragment was a discarded piece of the same monument. There is no way to be sure when the stairway was broken up and removed, but we know that Naranjo attacked Caracol in 680, forcing its king to flee, and the 168 days that the Caracol king was exiled would seem to be a good opportunity to seize such a trophy. With two further parts now found at Xunantunich, the dispersal of this dismembered monument proves to be wider still, and Helmke and Awe (2016a:4) have noted the likely significance of both Ucanal and Xunantunich as one-time allies, associates, or clients of Naranjo in the Late Classic period. In short, there may be political meaning behind the distribution.


Figure 2. Step V of the Naranjo Hieroglyphic Stairway (HS. 1) (drawing by I. Graham, from Graham 1978:108. Courtesy of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Peabody Museum, Trustees of Harvard University)

Xunantunich Panel 4 has been identified as part of the opening statement of the inscription, directly following the Long Count of, falling in 642, on Step V of the Naranjo Hieroglyphic Stairway (Helmke and Awe 2016b:9, Fig.9) (Figure 2, 3a).[1] The first medallion completes the essentials of the Period Ending and names its presiding deities, but the second pivots to describe a key political upheaval of the time, the shift of the dominant portion of the Snake dynasty from Dzibanche to Calakmul (ibid.:16) (Figure 3b). Such a transfer had been posited from converging lines of evidence pointing to a “reconstitution” of the polity at Calakmul during, or shortly before, the reign of its most important king Yuknoom Ch’een II (Martin 2005). That such an explicit statement is now forthcoming—describing first the negation and then the formation of political authority at the toponyms of Dzibanche (kaanul) and Calakmul (uxte’tuun) respectively—confirms the historicity of this event and demonstrates the significance it held for its contemporaries (Helmke and Awe 2016b:13-16; Martin and Velásquez 2016). The implications of its placement here at the very start of the narrative are startling, since it compels us to see the entire monument as a single metahistory, in which each event contributes to the greater story of the transfer.


Figure 3. Text medallions from Xunantunich Panel 4 (drawings by S. Martin after those by C. Helmke in Helmke and Awe 2016b:Fig.11)

The other find at Xunantunich, Panel 3, has contributed entirely new information (Helmke and Awe 2016a:8-10, Fig.7). Here the first medallion offers us the death-date of K’an II’s mother in 638, while the second presents a further death in 640, this time specified as ti-ye-TUUN-ni ti yehtuun, literally “at the edge of the stone.” The exact meaning of this construction continues to be debated, but there is little doubt that it is associated with an act of violence consistent with execution. The subject is named as Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan and his full k’uhul kaanul ajaw title establishes him as a previously unknown Snake monarch. As Helmke and Awe point out, this sheds immediate light on Step I from Naranjo, where the partially surviving name of this king—absent his title—has him suffering a “star war” defeat in 636 at the hands of another Snake lord, this one a lesser kaanul ajaw, I’ve previously nicknamed Yuknoom Head (see Martin and Grube 2000:106). From this we learn that the break between Dzibanche and Calakmul was a violent one, a conflict that we can essentially characterize as a civil war. Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan evidently spent four years as a captive, or on the run, before he was put to death. Crucially, Panel 3 comes at the very end of the text, its chronology advancing to the same Period Ending in 642 with which the stairway begins. This is the last action recorded on the monument and therefore constitutes its narrative closure—perfectly in line with the metahistorical purpose set out on Panel 4.

* * *

If this summarizes what the Xunantunich discoveries have told us thus far, what other implications can be seen to arise from them? With Panel 4 established as the second block in the program, I believe we can go further with this re-assembly and here I would like to offer a speculative scheme for the next four step-blocks, of which three are currently known. The first move is to suggest that the reference to the Calakmul toponym 3-TE’-TUUN-ni uxte’tuun that ends Panel 4 is part of a pair and joins the other Calakmul toponym, chi[ku]-NAHB chiiknahb, that begins Step XII from Naranjo (Figure 4a). These place-names are paired, in this order, on La Corona Element 13 (formerly Site Q Ballplayer 1) (Stuart and Houston 1994:28-29, Fig.29; also Schele and Miller 1986:257-258, Pl.101), and appear together again on Step VI—if there employed for a different purpose (see below).


Figure 4. Steps XII and XI from the Naranjo Hieroglyphic Stairway (HS.1) (drawings by I. Graham, from Graham 1978:110. Courtesy of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Peabody Museum, Trustees of Harvard University).

But this is not the only argument one can make for the sequencing of these blocks. After a “focus marker” the text on Step XII moves directly to the verb i-pi-tzi-ji ipitzij “then ball is played,” with no subject named. An unusual event to be associated with a Period Ending, this is precisely the verb that re-appears at the close of the program when Xunantunich Panel 3 refers to the upcoming mark (Helmke and Awe 2016a:7, 11, Fig.9).[2] This association is even better evidence that Step XII should be inserted at this point. Symbolic ballgames are regularly associated with monumental steps, where they were staged to celebrate success in war and the subsequent tormenting of prisoners (Miller and Houston 1987:52-63). Indeed, Step XII goes on to name the steps in question with a-ku-?-TUUN-ni u-K’ABA’-ba-a ?-tuun uk’aba’ “?-stone is the name of.” It has been appreciated for some time that this passage continues on Step XI, which begins ye-bu for yehb “the stair of” and then provides the beginning of a royal name (Figure 4b). There can be little doubt that this takes us into the extended name phrase of K’an II.


Figure 5. Steps IX and III from the Naranjo stairway (HS. 1) ([a] drawing by I. Graham, from Graham 1978:109. Courtesy of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Peabody Museum, Trustees of Harvard University; [b] drawing by S. Martin after photograph by T. Maler)

The next suggested join is less certain. Step II contains the name and emblem glyph of K’an II and would seem to be a possible fit here. However, that text goes on to list two deities which supervise the king’s actions, a construction that does not typically fit with the syntax and subject matter we have here. Instead, Step IX, which also includes the name and titles of K’an II, shares the same double-size glyphs as Step XI and, for this reason alone, is a better candidate (Figure 5a). It might have followed Step XII directly, or via one or more other now-missing steps that made for an even longer nominal sequence. Since Step IX does not include a Caracol emblem glyph or other terminal titles we must assume, lacking a suitable candidate, that the following step is missing. The next contender for a continuation of the sequence is Step III, which is dedicated to the parentage of K’an II (Martin in Grube 1994:107) (redrawn here as Figure 5b). While it could have been placed at other points in the narrative, this first reference to the king would be a typical position. The combined scheme is set out in Figure 6, below.


Figure 6. A speculative scheme for the opening sequence of the Caracol Hieroglyphic Stairway. (a) NAR HS.1, Step V; (b, c) XUN Pan. 4; (d) NAR HS.1, Step II, (e) NAR HS.1, Step XI; (f) missing; (g) NAR HS.1, Step III. (Drawings of the Naranjo HS by I. Graham, courtesy of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Peabody Museum, Trustees of Harvard University; drawings of Xunantunich panel by S. Martin, after those by C. Helmke in Helmke and Awe 2016b:Fig. 11)

From here on we must turn to the chronology of the stairway, which is one of the more important contributions of the new studies (Helmke and Awe 2016b:Table 2). We still do not know how many step-blocks were in the original composition, but the number of proven joins suggest that a good proportion are already in hand. Of the 13 steps from Naranjo and Ucanal, seven can be fixed in relative order by means of their dates and distance numbers, while four undated ones receive suggested placements in this study. This leaves only two blocks, Steps II and IV (Figure 7a, b). The closest parallel for the supervision of deities on the first of these appears on Caracol Stela 3 at C5-D5, where the same divine oversight takes place at K’an II’s accession in 618. It is not unlikely that the stairway text referred to this important event and one might posit that Step II is a surviving part of that account. If so, this is an area where two or more adjoining blocks must be missing, since we have no Distance Numbers to count to and from that point. Step IV presents a steeper challenge. The text looks very much like a truncated version of the one on Stela 3 at D10b-D14a. There a series of actions are recounted for the day in 622, including the arrival of what seems to be a god effigy of some sort and the presentation of a gift, using the ya-k’a-wa yak’aw verb seen on Step IV, where the Snake king Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’ is named as the bestower (the gift may well be the effigy itself). However, Step IV ends with a Distance Number of 14.7.10, which is too large to fit into the slowly accumulating chronology of the stairway as we currently understand it. Since Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’ acceded in 622 and died in 630 it cannot link events within his reign. Wherever this stone fits, it is an outlier of some kind, directing us to another event of unknown significance in the future or past.[3]


Figure 7. Steps II and IV of the Naranjo hieroglyphic stairway (HS.1) (Drawings by I. Graham, from Graham 1978:107-8. Courtesy of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Peabody Museum, Trustees of Harvard University)

* * *

But there is a final nagging feature of the stairway narrative that demands our attention. As we have seen, the known text discusses two characters that bear the full k’uhul kaanul ajaw title of Snake kings, Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’ (in 630) and Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan (in 636 and 640), as well as one carrying the lesser epithet of kaanul ajaw Yuknoom Head (in 631 and 636) (Figure 8a). Conspicuous by his absence is the Snake king in power when the stairway was commissioned in 642, Yuknoom Ch’een, who had assumed the throne six years earlier in April 636—an event that, according to the new chronology, the stairway completely ignores.[4] I have previously wondered if Yuknoom Head could not be some pre-accession guise for Yuknoom Ch’een since, if true, it would resolve a number of difficulties (Martin 2005:7, n.9).


Figure 8. Comparison of names of Yuknoom Head from Steps VI and I of the Naranjo hieroglyphic stairway (drawings by S. Martin after personal inspection of the originals).

To examine this question, we should begin by comparing what we know of each character. In addition to his mentions on the stairway, Yuknoom Head is twice named on Caracol Stela 3, at D20a and F4a, where he is linked to conflicts in 627 and 631. The later of the two is the great triumph also commemorated on Step VI, his conquest of Naranjo by means of a “star war.” The earlier one is a battle credited to K’an II which is done yiitij/yitaaj “with” Yuknoom Head (this phrase is syntactically scrambled so that the Caracol emblem glyph can complete the rear face text). This no doubt indicates cooperative military action between the two polities, though not necessarily as equals. Although Yuknoom Head is without title here, the reference is consistent with his lack of kingly status since Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’ was alive at this time. When Yuknoom Head battles the next k’uhul kaanul ajaw, Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan, in the “civil war” of 636 he is identified with a combination where his title ka-KAAN[AJAW] overlays his name, which can be seen only as yu[ku] at top and li below (Figure 8b). This is not a unique case, not dissimilar amalgams occur in the texts of the later Calakmul king Yuknoom Took’ K’awiil, for example on Calakmul Stela 52 at G1.[5]

Turning now to Yuknoom Ch’een, until recently we knew nothing of his career before his attack on Dos Pilas in 648 (Guenter 2003). However, one of the new La Corona panels delivers a much earlier reference, describing a ballgame he conducted at that site in February 635 (Stuart 2012). It is notable that this date falls between the two mentions of Yuknoom Head on the stairway. The ballgame occurs 54 days before a “foundation” event—a verb associated with both newly installed and restored royal authority—which appears to take place at Dzibanche (Stuart 2012; Martin and Velásquez 2016). Evidence from Calakmul establishes that Yuknoom Ch’een took the role of “founder” in its short dynastic count, clearly claiming that he was the first Snake king at that site (Martin 2005:7-8). However, on Step VI a reference to Yuknoom Head as “at Uxte’tuun, Chiik Nahb Person” appears to place him as the first Snake dynast at Calakmul (Tokovinine 2007:19-21). Yuknoom Ch’een acceded to office just 58 days after Yuknoom Head’s victory over Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan, and the two events seem connected—indeed that the second appears to be dependent on the first (see also Helmke and Awe 2016b:18).

To recap, here is a chronology of the major events falling between 630 and 640:       630     Death of Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’ (Ucanal Misc. Stone 1)

         01.04.09 +       631     Naranjo conquered by Yuknoom Head (Naranjo HS Step VI & Caracol St. 3)

         03.03.07 +       635     Ballgame of Yuknoom Ch’een  (La Corona Elements 33 & 35)

               02.14 +       635     Foundation at(?) kaanul  (La Corona Element 33)

               16.08 +       636     Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan defeated by Yuknoom Head (Naranjo HS. Step I)

               02.18 +       636     Accession of Yuknoom Ch’een  (Calculated from La Corona Altar 1)

          04.04.07 +       640     Execution of Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan  (Xunantunich Panel 3)


What are we to make of all this? Lacking a clear solution, we are left with two main scenarios:

(1) Yuknoom Head and Yuknoom Ch’een were contemporaries, perhaps siblings or a father and son. The former was established at Calakmul by at least 631 (kaanul having at some point replaced an existing dynasty there) and after the death of Tajoom Ukab K’ahk’ he fought the next king and holder of the k’uhul kaanul ajaw title Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan. He succeeds but, possibly wounded or killed, disappears at much the same moment and Yuknoom Ch’een quickly takes on the kingly mantle; or (2) The same set of events unfold but Yuknoom Head is either a pre-accession name, or simply a distinct or more elaborated moniker, for Yuknoom Ch’een. It would be the same person who establishes a base at Calakmul, attacks Naranjo, triumphs in the civil war, and assumes the full Snake title.

There are pros and cons to both positions. If the stairway seeks to encapsulate the instantiation of legitimate authority and practical power at Calakmul, how can the first true Snake king there—and the current one at that—be excluded from the narrative? Was the immense influence that Yuknoom Ch’een later displayed based on no more than his good fortune in inheriting the accomplishments of his predecessor, or was it instead grounded in spectacular successes from his early career? The strongest counter-argument is that it would be very unusual for a pre-regnal name to so closely resemble that of an eventual king. That point recedes if the form were instead an unusually complete or alternative name for Yuknoom Ch’een, since Classic Maya kings had lengthy nominal sequences and the short name ubiquitously ascribed to him can only be one part of it. Snake kings seem especially prone to having different parts of their name emphasized at different places and times (e.g. Martin and Beliaev, in press). Even so, it is patently an obstacle that no other source associates him with the form given at Caracol.

* * *

To conclude, the finds at Xunantunich provide valuable new insights into Caracol’s hieroglyphic stairway and the events it describes. It is a Period Ending monument, but one dedicated to the ritual ballgame that appropriately chimes with the martial flavor of the whole text. Beyond that, its rhetorical purpose is to assert K’an II’s support for the new Snake order, presenting its own wars against Naranjo as contributions to the decisive Calakmul triumph over that rival in 631. K’an II was a self-declared client of the kaanul dynasty, having received his royal headband in a ceremony supervised by Yuknoom Ti’ Chan in 619, the year after his initial accession (Martin 2009, 2014:184). He continued to be a dutiful subject ally in the time of Yuknoom Ti’ Chan’s successor, Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’—accounting for the positive contact with that king—but evidently took common cause with Yuknoom Head against Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan. Alex Tokovinine (pers. comm. 2016) suggests that the wars between Naranjo and Caracol arose because they backed different sides in the civil war. Here Naranjo, itself a long-time vassal to the kaanul kings, would play the loyalist and thus enemy to the aspiring power of Calakmul, whereas Caracol supported the breakaway and the stairway celebrates the success of that choice. Yet the general struggle must have begun somewhat earlier, in the time of Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’, since Caracol was at odds with Naranjo from at least 626. The data demonstrate that as early as 642 the rise of Calakmul was considered to be a significant development in the political landscape of the central lowlands, one worthy of special record. The following decades of Yuknoom Ch’een’s rule would more than bear out that judgement, as the Snake dynasty drew ever more royal houses into its orbit and came closer than any of its rivals to forming a Maya “imperium.”


My thanks go to David Stuart, Stephen Houston, and Christophe Helmke who made helpful comments in the development of this text.


[1] Theoretically, there could be an intervening Lunar Series on another block or blocks. However, the direct join between Glyph F on Naranjo HS Step VI and 18 K’ank’in on the first medallion of Xunantunich Panel 4 makes that unlikely.

[2] David Stuart (pers. comm. 2016) reminds me of a pair of monuments at Ceibal (Seibal)—Stela 5 and 7— that show a single king equipped with ballplaying gear, where the texts also associate a Period Ending with a game.

[3] Following incremental insights and corrections from Spinden and Joyce, Morley (1937-38.2:44) connected this Distance Number of 14.7.10 to the terminal mark of This would date the missing event to in 628, which has no outside corroboration but does at least have the merit of falling within the reign of Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’.

[4] It could be argued that the lack of interest shown in Yuknoom Ch’een was because K’an II had, by means of his support for the new regime, pulled away from kaanul supervision. There may be something to that, but the grandiosity of this monumental statement—which serves to glorify Calakmul—must place as much of an eye on the present and future as it does on the past.

[5] The names of Yuknoom Head and Yuknoom Took’ K’awiil share several features. Both show the yu[ku] conflation atop a human face with a dot on its cheek, together with a li suffix (Martin 2005:5, n.5). The same form appears in the name of an unrelated sculptor on Calakmul Stela 51 (Martin, Houston, and Zender 2015) and, more distantly, at Palenque where K’inich Kan Bahlam II is associated with the same name as a child (Tablet of the Foliated Cross, G4, and Tablet of the Sun, J2). Variable elements are cloth-like projections extending over the cheek, an infixed k’in sign that might signal CH’EEN (none of the examples are sufficiently well-preserved to be clear on this point), and a TOOK’ “flint” sign. Yuknoom Head’s name does not include these, but on Caracol Stela 3 at D20a we might see the presence of the arm-and-stone motif that cues the god-name YOPAAT, but that identification remains uncertain.


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Stuart, David. 2012. Notes on a New Text from La Corona. Maya Decipherment:

Stuart, David, and Stephen D. Houston. 1994. Classic Maya Place Names. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology No.33. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C.


Old Notes on /jo/ and /wo/ Reply

by David Stuart, The University of Texas at Austin


Figure 1. A late example of the jo syllable from the Dresden Codex.

Way back in 1987 Steve Houston wrote me with some important insights about a hieroglyphic sign found from time to time in the Dresden and Madrid Codices and in the monuments of the Classic period (Figure 1). Early Maya epigraphers such as Benjamin Lee Whorf and J. Eric S. Thompson had long assumed this was a  word-sign for hax, “to drill,” based on the images of fire-drilling that accompanied its appearances in the codices. Most scholars accepted this rather iffy reading until Steve’s important realization that the sign was instead a CV syllable for ho, as in the spelling ho-ch’o and ho-ch’a for hoch’, another verb root in Yucatec meaning “to drill.” (Years later this reading would be refined to jo, reflecting the key distinction made in Classic Mayan between /h/ and /j/ – a contrast that was lost historically in colonial and modern Yucatec [Grube 2004]) . In the summer of 1987, after some days exploring sites and museums in Yucatan, I struck up a correspondence with Steve about a few new and exciting patterns I had seen involving his new jo sign.  These appeared to solidify the reading beyond any doubt. Soon his thoughts on jo made their into print in the journal Antiquity, discussed within his larger article of phoneticism in Maya writing (Houston 1988).


Figure 2.  u wojool, “the glyphs of…”

Building on Steve’s ideas, I posited that the jo sign might help to explain a common hieroglyph found in the texts of the Puuc region, u-?-jo-li, evidently a possessed noun based on a root Coj (Figure 2). My notes of that time explored how an unknown sign before Steve’s jo appeared elsewhere with the possible value wo, suggesting u wojool (or as I then wrote it, u uohol), “the writing, hieroglyph of…”  This reading came to pan-out nicely, and in the texts of Yucatan and northern Campeche it appears in reference to the hieroglyphic decoration on certain architectural features such as jambs and door lintels (Maya texts can be strangely self-referential in this way).


Figure 3. Examples of the spelling ti-jo AJAW from emblem glyph titles at Dzibilchaltun, Yucatan. (a) DBC:St.19, (B) DBC: inscribed bone. (Photos by the author)

My notes also touched the possibility that jo could explain a title that appeared on Stela 19 from Dzibilchaltun, Yucatan, reading ti-jo AJAW? (Figure 3a).  This seemed to me to be an emblem glyph for the local ruler, and a Classic use of the historical name of nearby Merida, T’ho or Tiho. The idea was particularly exciting to me at the time (and still is), as it suggested a rare case of a historical place name traceable back to the Late Classic period. Later finds at Dzibilchaltun produced better examples of this emblem title, as on a beautiful bone object excavated by the INAH project directed by Ruben Maldonado (Figure 3b). We now know that this local emblem presents a more complex term incorporating another glyph, as in ?-KAAN ti-jo, a sequence that is surely related to the elaborated name of ancient Mérida known from colonial sources Ichcaansiho’. Dzibilichaltun was perhaps an early political and ritual center that was later moved to present-day Mérida, also the site of a very large ruin at the time of the conquest.

At any rate, shown below are my hasty notes from July 31, 1987 and then a letter to Steve Houston of a month later (where I also posit confirmation of the common NAL sign reading, which came into play in our collaborative work on Classic place names).  My school work took over that fall and I never got to publish on u-wojol and the glyph for the ancient name of Merida, Tiho. So here it is.

References Cited:

Grube, Nikolai. 2004. The Orthographic Distinction between Velar and Glottal Spirants in Maya Hieroglyphic Writing. In The Linguistics if Maya Writing, edited by Soren Wichmann, pp. 61-82. The University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Houston, Stephen D. 1988. The Phonetic Decipherment of Maya Glyphs. Antiquity 62:126-135.


David Stuart’s working notes on the jo (ho) and wo (uo) syllables, July 31, 1987


Letter to Steve Houston, August 30, 1987

New Book: A Dictionary of Ch’orti’ Reply

ajaxhelperA Dictionary of Ch’orti’: Mayan – Spanish – English by Kerry Hull

University of Utah Press, 2016, 480 pp.

Kerry Hull’s newly published dictionary of Ch’orti’ is the most extensive dictionary ever published of this important and threatened Mayan language. Considering the proximity of Ch’orti’ to Classic Mayan (the language of the ancient inscriptions), this is an essential resource for Maya epigraphic research.

From the publisher:

Of extant languages, Ch’orti’ Mayan is the closest to ancient the Maya hieroglyphic script, but it is a language that is decreasing in usage. In southern Guatemala where it is spoken, many children no longer learn it, as Spanish dominates most experiences. From linguistic and anthropological data gathered over many years, Kerry Hull has created the largest and most complete Ch’orti’ Mayan dictionary to date. With nearly 9,000 entries, this trilingual dictionary of Ch’orti’, Spanish, and English preserves ancient words and concepts that were vital to this culture in the past.

Each entry contains examples of Ch’orti’ sentences along with their translations. Each term is defined grammatically and linked to a grammatical index. Variations due to age and region are noted. Additionally, extensive cultural and linguistic annotations accompany many entries, providing detailed looks into Ch’orti’ daily life, mythology, flora and fauna, healing, ritual, and food. Hull worked closely with native speakers, including traditional ritual specialists, and presents that work here in a way that is easily accessible to scholars and laypersons alike.

Order here from the University of Utah press website.



New Book: Maya Archaeology 3

51psgwplh8lThe recently published issue of Maya Archaeology 3 is a goldmine of information on many recent excavations and discoveries from the world of Maya studies. Included are articles on Palenque, Río Azul, El Palmar, Ceibal, and the Cuychen Vase.

Featured as well is an important overview article on the authenticity of the Grolier Codex by Michael Coe, Stephen Houston, Mary Miller and Karl Taube. The announcement of this work received some popular press last month. It’s a must for anyone interest in Maya archaeology and epigraphy.

Precolumbia Mesoweb Press


To order go to


A detail of the Grolier Codex